London, 10 years later
Remarkably similar...except I learned how to fill in my brows.
Of course as with most love affairs, they come to an end. In the years since I've graduated college, I've lost touch with the friends that I made studying abroad, moved cities multiple times, dated new people and and met my now boyfriend. But I never returned to my first love, London, until now.
My family tends to travel over the holidays (see Mexico 2016 and Mexico 2018) but wanted to go somewhere different this year. Since my parents have never been to London, we decided to go to London over Christmas. I had stopped thinking about London in such a loving way quite some years back, but was definitely looking forward to reacquainting myself with my once favorite city.
My parents and I left from DC on the red-eye and hit the ground running at 6 am. We stayed in the grittier East End of London, an "up and coming" part of London where all the dockworkers and laborers used to live but now is like the funkier Brooklyn (or maybe Queens?) of London. Ideally I would have wanted to stay in the West End, close to the royal parks and palaces and Baker Street, where I used to live in 2009, but nothing was available in our price range. While our apartment was charming and served our family well, it was about 20-30 minutes further than the action than I would have liked. We took an hour-long Uber to our apartment but then crashed after staying up all night on the flight. We woke up around 11 AM and headed to the Tower of London, which I had visited 10 years ago at night during the fabled Ceremony of the Keys.
Honestly, seeing the Tower of London, a famous prison and stronghold for many a English monarch (and the sight of multiple beheadings including that of Anne Boleyn) was much better during the daytime where we enjoyed these unobstructed views of the Tower Bridge.
Looking a little rough after a red eye flight
After we explored the Tower, we walked across Tower Bridge and explored the South bank Christmas market and got a mediocre samosa (I was so excited to have Indian food I got it from the first stand I encountered). We then ubered back to meet up with JJ, who was flying in from SF. If I was traveling by myself or with other friends, I would have made a greater effort to take public transportation, but my dad has bad knee arthritis so he couldn't walk very far without exacerbating his knee pain. So we took the easy way out and just ubered everywhere. Honestly it was very convenient and cost about the same as taking public transportation for a family of four. We had a pretty bland dinner that night at a local bar where we tried their Sunday roast. Unfortunately, it cemented the idea that traditional English food is not what people visit London for.
The next morning, after a mini-struggle trying to figure out how to use the stove, we headed out to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. While I had seen it before in 2009, I had a feeling my dad would enjoy it and my mom would enjoy getting pictures of the palace. We missed the main changing of the guard but did catch some of the guards marching back to the palace around 11:25 (Rick Steves has the exact breakdown of what happens at what time point!).
First London selfie
After the show, we walked up a few blocks to catch the bus to Hyde Park, stumbling upon a beautiful Edwardian street
Loving dad's new wide angle iPhone 11
We took a double decker bus (only 1.5 pounds per ride) to Hyde Park and strolled down a few more blocks to walk past the Natural History Museum (with its very insta-famous ice skating rink) and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
We did a quick tour of the V&A museum but honestly it was too big for us to meaningfully see. We then had to book it back to the Royal Albert Hall for a matinee Christmas concert. We didn't even have time to stop for lunch so we grabbed some really hard baguettes from Le Pain Quotidien that we wolfed down on the way to the concert. My family still won't let me hear the end of that one (I love hard bread but they couldn't handle it) But once we arrived, it was all worth it!
We literally gasped as we walked into the theater it was so grand.
Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall was such a treat and put us in the perfect holiday mood. We listened to the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, sang along to classic Christmas carols and even participated in a rousing rendition of the 12 days of Christmas!
It was one of the concerts that I literally didn't want to end. After we left, we walked out in a holiday daze and headed to nearby Harrods, the famous British department store.
For dinner, we ubered about an hour in London traffic to a Thai chain called Busaba, that JJ called her most favorite Thai restaurant after trying it on a trip to London five years ago. She had dreams about this pad thai! While it wasn't as good as her dreams, it still hit the spot and was a solid Thai spot. We were so hungry (from the hard sandwiches) that we actually added a few more dishes to our order and then ordered dessert!
The next morning, we Ubered back to near Regent's Street (fancy shopping street) for our second big event of the week, Festive High Tea at The English Tea Room in Brown's hotel!
The fancy Regent's Street--we were around the corner from Tiffany and Chanel
And so began the photo frenzy. You can see our fake smiles for our parents above. My mom especially is obsessed with taking photos for her WeChat. We joked that my parents were the teenagers this trip! Especially since me and my sister basically planned the trip and they didn't have to do anything other than to tag along.
Then came the sweet pastries! My favorite was definitely the still warm scones with clotted cream and jam. I wish I saved my whole stomach for the scones but by then I was mostly full and couldn't finish the other pastries.
By the time we finished, it was already almost 3 o'clock, which is when it started getting dark in London. We were already beside the major shopping area so we strolled along Oxford Street and Bond street, where they have the most magnificent and festive Christmas lights.
We stopped by Chinatown for some taiwanese chicken and then continued on Covent Garden.
Our faces when our parents act like teenagers
My dad has a hate-relationship with Indian food. We always try to expand his palate at home, but he rarely wants to eat anything other than Chinese food when we go out. Since London is known for their Indian food (chicken tikka masala is London's signature dish), we forced him to eat Indian food once in London. And honestly, he liked it! We got pretty standard dishes like chicken tikka masala, biryani, aloo gobi, curry vegetables, so there was nothing to dislike. A solid Christmas eve meal.
That night, we came home and started the Bodyguard on Netflix. For those who haven't watched it, it's a thrilling cop drama that takes place in London. It came out earlier in the year so I already watched it but it was my parents' first time. My dad became so addicted he stayed up til 2 am binging the entire series (6 episodes). Unfortunately I called it quits around midnight but then stayed up til 2 am anyway unable to sleep from jetlag!
My attempt at English breakfast, though I forgot the eggs!
The next morning, we all woke up late, around 11 am after being unable to sleep. All public transportation, including all tubes and buses, was halted for the day and basically all stores including grocery stores were closed, so we had stocked up on food beforehand to prepare. We decided to take a walk around a local park in Bethnal green but got bored, so we decided to call an Uber to join the action around Westminster. Little did we know that's what every other tourist in London decided to do too!
Big Ben and Westminster palaces were under renovation until 2021 :( It was sad how this changed the entire skyline of London.
We popped into one of the only remaining pubs that was open, Witherspoons, a British chain. We got the steak and ale pie for a snack which was actually pretty good for British food. And a few pints of course. It was so busy we had to fight for seats.
Nearby Trafalgar square and the Norwegian pine that is a gift from Norway for Britain's help during WWII. Believe it or not this picture was taken only around 5 pm, it got dark so early!
We then headed home to make our stockpiled groceries...a hodgepodge of leftover Indian, pizza, salad, and drugstore wine, haha. Merry Christmas!
Our Christmas movie: the Jumanji remake with the Rock.
The next morning, we headed out to Oxford. We took the tube for the first time (it reopened on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas) to Marble Arch, and then an hour long bus ride to the famous university town. I stopped at Oxford on my way to Scotland when I was living in London, but never got a chance to walk around or explore the village, and so we definitely wanted to visit this time around.
When we arrived, it was drizzling slightly but it only added to the atmosphere. I was instantly struck by the beauty of the City of a Thousand Spires and felt transported back 1000 years to when it was founded (in the 13th century). I thought of so many famous books and movies that took place here--fresh in my mind were His Dark Materials (currently on HBO) one of my favorite series as a child and a Discovery of Witches, a vampire-witch show on Showtime that I watched recently.
The famous Radcliffe camera (library)
The tragic thing was that since it was still Boxing day, most of the buildings were closed to the public (in fact I think the whole university was closed even for students and staff). We found out that along with the rest of the country, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing day were national holidays and so most of the national landmarks were closed. We had no choice but to peer in longingly through the metal gates of each college and only imagine what they looked at on the inside. We still walked around, did some shopping in the souvenir shops and ate a picnic lunch.
Finally the sun came out!
Even though it stopped raining, it was still wet and cold so we ducked into one of the only cafes that was open, an old time bakery that's been open since the 1920s. We ordered a vegan cake, coffee, and afternoon tea which was only around 8 pounds for two servings of tea with two huge scones. Not bad considering we paid 75 pounds a person two days earlier!
We did another loop around the small village and stopped outside of the tiny pub that Matthew and his vampire friends drank in in A Discovery of Witches. Of course, it was closed.
The afternoon view from Radcliffe camera
A beautiful sunset...at 4 pm.
Then we took the bus back to London and were craving soup so made for Ippudo Ramen. I know it's a famous ramen spot in NYC and Japan (they recently opened a branch in SF) but I thought it was overrated. It was really oily. I liked Ichiran (the one served in individual booths) in Tokyo much better.
Because everything was closed for three days in the middle of our vacation, we really had to prioritize what we wanted to see. We didn't get to see a lot of famous sights like the National Gallery, Tate Britain or Tate Modern, St. Paul's cathedral or any of the palaces (sadly Buckingham Palace is closed in the in winter when the Queen is in residency) but Parliament was open. I quickly snatched up tickets to visit Parliament on our last day.
Unfortunately much of Parliament was under repair (and will be until 2021) but we were still able to get a great glimpse of the inside including the great hall where numerous monarchs and presidents have given speeches. We weren't allowed to take pictures in either the House of Lords or House of Commons, but they were very ornate and grand.
We didn't get a chance to go inside Westminster Abbey but the outside was nice
For lunch, we popped into The Albert for some pints and fish and chips
Our last stop that afternoon was the British Museum, a sprawling 5 level museum with some of the world's most famous treasures like the Rosetta Stone and the original mummies (best seen in the Mummy Returns movie!).
The Egyptian wing was absolutely swarming with people though, so much so that you could barely move. Hence our pained faces.
The British Museum ended up being an exhausting experience so of course we had to stop by another pub to regain some energy. We ended up at the George Inn, an authentic 17th century inn and pub (one of the oldest surviving in the city) close to our dinner spot.
The restaurant did have some great 360 degree views of London but we weren't seated close to a window, so we were out of luck. The food was pretty good but the music was loud and the lights were dark, so we felt like we were eating in a club. It was a little too cool for us! We probably would have been satisfied by some down to earth Asian food, but gotta let my parents enjoy some of that good life once in a while.
Our trip to London flew by in the blink of an eye. I think because so many sights were closed and we visited over Christmas, our vacation felt especially fast. Before we knew it it was time to pack up and return home to our separate coasts.
Our Airbnb was such a cute 2 bedroom flat in the East End. The owners decorated it impeccably and filled it with knick knacks from their travels and stacked floor to ceiling with books. I always wish I could decorate my apartment like this but then I always balk at buying so many trinkets, but I think I just need to bite the bullet. The flat had its quirks like the puzzling stove and the lack of microwave, but we were glad to have a kitchen to add to a cozy stay. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking to stay in the East End.
All in all, this trip to London felt completely different than my study abroad experience ten years ago. We stayed on a whole other side of the city and so were exposed to different sights and sounds every day. We ubered almost everywhere and hardly took public transportation or walked too much due to my dad's knee. This trip was definitely just touching on the touristy highlights of London, so I'm glad I was able to have the experience of living in London previously. Although I missed so many things about living in London, it did really feel like a lifetime ago. Nonetheless I'm glad my parents were able to finally visit London and get to enjoy some quality family time with them again.