In a way, London is everything you expect: a sprawling, diverse city jammed with a powerful history and a culture that is at once familiar and intriguingly foreign. It feels European, yet it’s distinctly unique. It is like nowhere else in the world.
London is the backdrop of so many movies and art that sometimes it feels like there’s not much to discover here, that you’re merely stumbling upon places you already know. Oh, there’s the River Thames with the London Eye… and there, Buckingham Palace looks just like in The Crown.
But every time I thought I knew what to expect, London turned it on its head — in the good way. The places I couldn’t wait to see weren’t nearly as exciting as those I stumbled upon. As I meandered through both the familiar and foreign parts during my two weeks of history and holidays in London, the city constantly kept exciting me. And that is the definition of a true adventure.
Two Weeks of History & Holidays in London
Holidays in London
London was this year’s answer to my holiday problem. That is, how to exchange the holidays for a solo trip somewhere exciting. I’m not sure why I waited so long to visit London, but after dozens of people couldn’t believe I hadn’t been to such an amazing city, I finally took the leap to explore it.
And Christmas in London is even more magical. The entire city gets decked out in holiday spirit: streets lined with lights, entire buildings draped in decorations, and Christmas trees everywhere. Even though I’m an anti-holiday Grinch, it was spectacular.
The only downside to being in London for Christmas is that most things close down from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day (that’s December 26 for us Americans). That forced me to get creative with my plans. Since Windsor Castle was one of the few attractions open on Christmas Eve, I took a day trip to Windsor and Bath. On Christmas, with the Tube not running, I walked all the way to Westminster Abbey (an hour on completely empty streets!) for the afternoon church service. I’m the least religious person in the world, yet the Abbey choir brought me to tears.
London Expectations Falling Down
Over the course of 12 days I hit all of London’s famous can’t-miss icons: the Tower of London, London Bridge, and Big Ben at Parliament (which is disappointingly covered in scaffolding until 2021). But the city constantly kept me on my toes. I couldn’t wait to see Buckingham Palace but it was a letdown compared to Windsor Castle. Everyone sent me to Harrod’s for shopping, but I preferred the shops in Marylebone over Harrod’s nightmare crowds.
I couldn’t wait to see the opera at The Royal Opera House, one of the 5 best opera houses in the world, but was far more impressed with Royal Albert Hall. Although when two opera singers came on stage fully naked, that was definitely a shock!
Both the drinks and the service at the best bar in the world (The American at the Savoy) were easily surpassed by local beers at pubs older than the United States. And classic British food like meat pies and fish and chips were far better than the two-Michelin starred restaurant where I spent New Year’s Eve. (And don’t even get me started on the ramen!)
Friends, Old & New
At the end of the day, my favorite part of London was stumbling upon hundred-year-old pubs with quirky names full of locals. As a solo traveler, I knew being in the United Kingdom would be easier than when I went to Switzerland, Prague, or Vienna alone because of the lack of language barrier, but I was shocked that it was so easy to make friends.
One night, I wasn’t even on my second beer at a pub when I complimented the bartender’s Christmas sweater and was quickly corrected that it was a “jumper.” Soon a bunch of us strangers were goofing off together, sharing the differences between British and American English. (For the record: jumper = sweater, trousers = pants, pants = boxers, queuing is the verb of standing in line, and wanker = the funniest insult ever.)
A few days later I had dinner with an English friend I met years ago in Vegas who happened to be in town for the holidays. And when a fellow whisky lover on twitter offered to personally show me around London’s best whisky bars, I realized just how friendly British people are! (Thanks Paul and Jason for showing me around!)
Don’t get me wrong. The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Windsor Castle were highlights of my trip. But walking all the way to Westminster on empty streets on Christmas, driving through the beautiful countryside to Windsor, and munching on fresh uni at Borough Market before going to the Tower were what made those days so memorable.
So yes, London was everything I expected. But it was also much, much more. It was a wonderful adventure through history, it was a celebration of Christmas and New Years, it was meeting new friends and having new experiences, and, most of all, it was two weeks I won’t forget.
Over the next few weeks I’ll share details about my holiday trip to London: a day trip to Windsor & Bath, What to Eat in England, Where to Drink Whisky in London, and more.