There are many that will shiver at the thought of winter in Europe. I am not one of them. I rather enjoy Europe garbed in snowy glitter, especially during the holiday season. My husband and I traveled through Germany, Italy and Austria in the winter of 2009 and that magical experience left us wanting more. We visited Paris in 2011 and finally landed in London for Christmas in 2012.
I grew up in India where the British rule casts a rather permanent shadow on the country’s culture. Several glorious architectural splendors were built during the British Raj, (like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai (still referred to as VT, short for its original name Victoria Terminus), the Senate House of the University of Madras, and Victoria Memorial in Kolkata) and were inevitably inspired by the English style of architecture.
The escapades of the British royalty has kept many a conversation going in my family. My mother grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, which was also a British colony at the time, and distinctly remembers the day when she wore a yellow dress and welcomed the Queen to her primary school. And she actually got to shake hands with the Queen herself! Cambridge and Oxford universities, home to several Nobel laureates, have also been a reason for my interest in Britain. Furthermore, ever since I moved to the United States, I have fancied the idea of living in London for a few years, just to taste the difference between the two countries.
What I love about London is that there is something for everyone in this city. Whether a foodie, a history buff, a lover of art/architecture, London has lots to offer. It is a mecca of art, science, fashion, culture and architecture. Compulsive planner that I am, I made a list of key attractions prior to our trip. But once we were in London, we let chance play its cards. If you still insist on planning, buy the Frommer’s guide for London. But this article should give you just enough information to mix and match serendipity with a little bit of planning.
One of the best decisions we made was to book a full day tour of Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge with Evan Evans Tour. The all-day tour starts early in the morning from Victoria Coach terminal and heads to Windsor Castle, the official residence of Her Majesty. We had four hours to explore the main attractions at the castle including the magnificent State Apartments (all 21 of them), St George’s Chapel, the burial place of ten monarchs of England and Queen Mary’s dolls house, a miniature masterpiece.
After Windsor, the tour took us to Stonehenge. It is a bit of a drive, but a rather beautiful one. Stonehenge happens to have its own micro climate, so be prepared. You might wonder what is so puzzling about a few rocks standing in the middle of a large green field. But I suggest you stand close to these structures and the answer will be evident. I could not stop my mind from racing in all directions as I stood in front of these rocks, trying to find a reason or a purpose for their presence.
After the rather mystical stop at Stonehenge the tour proceeded to the beautiful city of Bath. Bath attracts millions of visitors every year who come from all over the world to check out the site of the original Roman Baths. The site is also home to the temple of Sulis Minerva, the Roman Goddess considered a life-giving Mother figure as well as an executor of curses wished by her devotees. You can tour the ruins and admire the plumbing infrastructure that existed ages ago.
Back in London, if you are a museum buff, please set aside at least a day to visit a few of these (there are 240 of them!). Some of the most visited museums in London are the British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum and Tate Modern. There is a lot of information about these museums on their websites, so I will spare you the details. But two things I highly recommend while you are out exploring the museums: the Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Galler offers beautiful views of the Trafalgar Square area and the British Library.
The British Library has no parallel. The most intriguing highlight of this library is the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibit, where some of the library’s most precious possessions are displayed, including a copy of Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, and manuscripts and journals of several authors including Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde.
As we exited this exhibition, we turned left and came upon the Philatelic exhibition. Chancing to look straight ahead, we saw ourselves reflected on a tall glass tower full of books. The glass tower holds over 65,000 books that formed the collection of George III. The cafe under this mammoth tower is a great place to grab a quick espresso before moving on to the next destination.
I recommend that you add the Shakespeare Globe Theatre tour to your list. The Globe Theatre is a replica of the original Globe Theatre from the Shakespearean era. There are open air plays staged here all through the year and tickets are available ahead of time.
The Tower of London is a historic landmark that must be seen. This castle was built in 1078 C.E. and has been well preserved over the years. The audio tour guide walked us through the attractions at the Tower. Some of the main attractions are the White Tower (an iconic symbol of London), an exhibition of the King’s armor over the years, the Crown Jewels—including the Kohinoor diamond, Yeoman Warder tours and Prisoner’s exhibition. The site of the Tower also offers views of Tower Bridge.
After the time spent indoors at the museums, we decided to spend a day outside enjoying the fresh air in London. We rented bikes by the hour and it provided us a great opportunity to explore London along the Thames.
We started our journey at St Paul’s Cathedral, a beautiful and iconic church that attracts a lot of visitors and locals. We climbed up to the dome of the cathedral and captured some great views of London from its observatory.
We took a detour from our path along the Thames to visit Temple Church. As we reached the Embankment Tube station, we turned right and came upon Trafalgar Square. We parked our bikes by St Martin at the Fields and enjoyed the square on foot. There are some nice restaurants in this area if you are up for lunch.
Back on the bike path, we rode along the Victoria Embankment Gardens, towards Parliament Square. It can be tricky to find bike parking in this area. We parked a little further away to avoid the crowds. Parliament Square is home to some key landmarks in London.
Westminster Abbey is located in this square, and so are the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. We took the time to explore this area. We sat in the park in the middle of the square and marveled at the architectural splendors that were built at different points of time in history.
When we got back on our bikes we decided to cross the Thames to get a perspective from the other side. It was a good call. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament lit up as the sun went down. It was spectacular. We proceeded on towards the London Eye glittering in blue, right after Westminster Bridge. The London Eye experience is much talked about but it takes a lot of time due to the long queues of people. We decided not to stop and instead continued along the river towards the Millennium Bridge. This is a steel suspension bridge that offered a beautiful view of St Paul’s Cathedral. After crossing the bridge we arrived exactly where we started from, St Paul’s Cathedral.
After a day of biking in London, it was time for some shopping. There are several mega stores in London that offer the latest in fashion. Of course, there is Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Kensington, House of Frasier, John Lewis and Selfridges on Oxford Street. Don’t miss Covent Garden. The Apple Market, East Colonnade and Jubilee Markets in Covent Garden offer unique and distinct shopping experiences. There are also some entertainment shows in the evening when the markets close down. There are a lot of restaurants in the area if one is looking for a fancy place for date night. I loved the movie Notting Hill and hence made it a point to visit Portobello Market in Notting Hill to check out the house with the blue door and the book shop that is featured in the movie. The market here is full of street vendors selling fresh produce, junk jewelry and old books. We strolled through these streets and will definitely go back there next time. For a focused shopping experience, Oxford Street is the place to go, where one can find everything under the sun. Oxford Street ends in Hyde Park, a lovely stop to rest and soak in some London charm.
London is home to some fancy boutique hotels and charming restaurants and pubs. Bar food has evolved with time and includes Indian items like chicken tikka masala on the menu. I could not have asked for more—good beer and spicy indian curry were readily available at every restaurant.
I do have a recommendation for some fabulous Indian fare. Dishoom, a fusion restaurant located in Shoreditch has a nostalgic menu. Nostalgic you might ask? Yes, this restaurant has recreated the old Bombay cafe scene with Pav Bhaji, Chilli Cheese Toast and Frankies. Delicious food and a charming ambience made this my London favorite.
London is a charming melting pot of people with diverse ethnicities, interests and vocations. To be in London was like being in a Delhi that could have been, if we had kept up with the needs of the times. The architecture, food, markets, and energy in London was much like the Indian experience, just a little different.
In London, the city of many possibilities, I experienced some amazing moments that I will cherish forever. The list is long but it includes biking in rain, getting lost, drinking beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and last but not the least, standing under Big Ben, feeling happy and content that my wish had finally come true.
Christmas in London might be a charming way to end your year. Do consider it.
Shivam Khullar is an astute business consultant, an opinionated writer, an avid reader, a creative cook, a hopeless coffee lover, a light traveler and a loving wife.