Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Pauper's Guide to London

Visiting London has always been on my bucket list. So as our plane landed and I looked out over the city, I felt... bored and worn out. It was the last few days of our 2-month, non-stop Europe trip and I was ready to go home!

Boredom turned to impatience in the border control line at the airport. We watched the never-ending queue of EU citizens breeze through, while a dozen of us non-EU citizens stood in line for 30 minutes. :/

Finally, a cheery, middle-aged woman checked my passport and, upon noticing my ginger locks, inquired about any potential Irish ancestry (affirmative). She told me that I have beautiful hair and that I should never mess with it! So sweet. That helped improve my grumpy mood!

We successfully navigated London's light rail and underground systems and arrived at our extremely basic and slightly dilapidated hostel... where we would be sharing a room of bunk beds with 8 strangers. That's what you have to deal with when you're young(er) and poor! (We were also saving money for our wedding and honeymoon, so there's that.)

Dinner was green curry chicken and rice at a nearby Thai restaurant. It wasn't the worst meal we would have in this town.

Keeping with the miserly theme, we picked up some snacks at Sainsbury's supermarket to save money on future meals. Disaster struck (literally) as I stepped one foot outside the store and a stroller slammed into my leg, hard. (Yep, it left a huge bruise.) The woman didn't look where she was going, yet treated me like I endangered her child. Come on, London, we are not getting off to a great start here!

The gates into Hyde Park were closed by that time, so we walked on the sidewalk beside it.

Back in the hostel room, a couple of rowdy Italians made their presence known. Thank goodness for earplugs!

The next morning, we discovered that the free breakfast offered by the hostel was laughable. First of all, it wasn't even served in the hostel; we had to walk a few blocks to the basement of a random restaurant! The extent of the food was: white sandwich bread, butter, jam, and cereal. End of list. But beggars can't be choosers, right?

Royal Albert concert hall.

After the obligatory coffee fix at Starbucks, we took a long walk through Hyde Park.

Peter Pan.
Prince Albert Memorial.

Serpentine bridge.

We were looking forward to our traditional fish & chips lunch! But it was underwhelming. So back to walking for us. Buckingham Palace was first up.

Buckingham Palace gates.
Then a quick visit to Big Ben.

Giant Luke.
Normal me.

And of course, Westminster Abbey.

And across Westminster Bridge.

London Eye.

Palace of Westminster / Houses of Parliament.

Our feet didn't get quite enough abuse yet, so we continued walking! 

Horse guard
Trafalgar Square.

Wellington Arch, with bonus helicopter!

We visited the National Gallery, an art museum with free entry.

There weren't any signs that prohibited photography, but a museum employee reprimanded us for taking non-flash pictures. You can see how much that affected our behavior:

"Winter Landscape" by Caspar David Friedrich.

"A Wheatfield, with Cypresses" by Vincent van Gogh.

We eventually got kicked out of the museum (because it was closing, not due to our law-breaking antics). 

Quintessentially British phone booths.
Now with WiFi!  

Walking back to the hostel, there was a guy roller skiing on the sidewalk. Yes, that's exactly what it sounds like: he was holding ski poles and and his skis had wheels. Pretty bizarre! Apparently, that's how some skiers practice during the off-season.

Our night ended a bit early because the 6+ miles of walking had really exhausted us. Aren't you glad that this long blog post is done?
HAHA, just kidding! That was only the first day!

Day 2 in London started with a visit to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road Market. Luke wasn't too keen on going, but he was a good sport about it. :)


Once you get through the overpriced hipster nonsense like antique typewriters and wooden iPhone covers, there are some cute finds!

Since my dream of eating a Belgian waffle in Belgium didn't pan out, I settled for a place called Wafflemeister on Portobello Road. It was delicious!

Check out this bathroom in the middle of the sidewalk:

Next up was a trip to the British Museum, another free-entry venue.

The Rosetta Stone!

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice that the sky was bland and overcast thus far. But for one brief moment, there was a glimpse of blue sky!

Doth mine eyes deceive me?

Much to our delight, we stumbled upon a restaurant called El Mexicana, which seemed similar to Chipotle. The guys working there were from Mexico, so they understood the importance of spicy food. That chicken burrito was the best thing we ate in this city!

Onward, to the Tower of London.

Complete with lion statues to protect it.

We will haunt your dreams.

At sunset, we walked over to the Tower Bridge. 
[Luke:  Our arrival turned out to be perfectly timed.  We got to the bridge just at sunset.  While the sky certainly didn't provide much of a sunset, the dim light of dusk led to a couple great pictures.  The best part was when the bridge raised up to let a ship through.  This was both interesting to watch and enabled us to capture one of my favorite travel pictures we've ever taken.  You can see it at the very bottom of this post.  I love the details, the colors and how it perfectly froze a really cool moment.]


Now, for the highlight of the city (for me): Platform 9-3/4 at King's Cross Station!! I've been a fan of the Harry Potter books since high school, so there was no way I could miss this.

I know, you're jealous of my neon star tights!
It's a Hogwarts thing; you wouldn't understand.

This is where the magic happens!

That night, we had our worst meal of the trip: minced meat skewers at a Mediterranean restaurant. We were absolutely sick of eating Subway sandwiches by the end of this trip, but it seemed to be the only way to have a decent, cheap meal without wasting time researching and traveling all over town. I'm not a fan of paying $15 pp for food that doesn't taste good or fill me up.

Looks can be deceiving.

Finally, our last day in the English capital!

It started raining as we strolled down Kensington High Street. We ducked into Harrod's, the famous and expensive department store.

Ready for Christmas in early October.

There was time for one last walk through Hyde Park.


So the horses know when to cross the street:


Finally, we had to visit Sherlock Holmes while we were in the neighborhood!


That night, we crammed ourselves into an uncomfortable and full minivan for a 1.5-hour ride to Stansted Airport. Dublin, the final stop on our absurd trip, was waiting for us.

To summarize, London on a budget:
  • Stay in a 10+ bed hostel room, with no frills or privacy (don't forget an eye mask and ear plugs!).
  • Only eat at Subway or McDonald's (choose the healthiest options).
  • Supplement with snacks purchased from grocery stores.
  • Walk as much as you can. When your feet are screaming, walk some more.
  • Plan logical routes to reduce walking time and cost of public transportation.
  • Visit free events and venues, and don't buy anything unless you can't live without it.
  • Sit on a bench in Hyde Park and people-watch!