Twenty-four years ago, I departed London after having spent a semester abroad. My time in London was a formative experience since it was my first time living abroad and being away from my family. My first week was spent at the college in Uxbridge, now named Brunel University, in northwestern London, which partnered with the State University of New York, College of Brockport, in upstate New York. The first week in the university dorms allowed the students to search for an apartment or flat in British vernacular and get accustomed to British culture, including the Pub Culture and eating plenty of "Fish and Chips."
Professionally, I spent my semester working as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom (officially to the Court of St. James), and the experience had a lasting impact on my career in the military today. Since that experience, I have traveled back to London for work a few times, but this year, I had the chance to bring my wife and daughter to experience the city, especially the famous Christmas lights along London's major streets.
Day 1: Walking the City and Thanksgiving Dinner
I booked a room in the Athena Hotel close to Paddington Station. Sadly, we didn't see the famous Paddington Bear as we walked through the station to use the London Tube. The first event we scheduled was a walking tour of Buckingham Palace and the surrounding area, including St. James's Palace. We met our tour guide outside the Green Park Tube Station, next to the famous Ritz Hotel, along with a small group waiting for the tour. The tour was scheduled for two hours; however, to state that the tour was fast-paced would be an understatement. Our tour guide was knowledgeable about the area's history and told entertaining stories. Our tour guide took great pleasure in explaining the history of the White Hall area, including the beheading of King Charles I and the subsequent retribution by King Charles II on those who killed his father. The one spot I was interested in seeing again was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) since I had spent time there during my internship.
In the evening, we walked around Piccadilly Circus. To those from New York City or who have visited New York City, Piccadilly Circus resembles Times Square with its bright lights, shopping areas, theaters, and restaurants. My family and I briefly walked through the SOHO district and Chinatown. Afterward, we proceeded to the Hard Rock Café to enjoy an American-style Thanksgiving Dinner. This was my second Thanksgiving in London, and for my family, it was their first. The food was delicious, especially the pumpkin pie; however, my memory from 24 years ago was that the pie served then was bright orange and missing lots of sugar. After dinner, we retired for the night.
Day 2: Stonehenge
The second day was all about going back in time several thousand years. I had organized a trip out to Stonehenge, something that had been on my bucket list. We met the tour bus at the Victoria Coach Station, which is adjacent to but not connected to the Victoria Tube and Train Station. The bus departed, and it took around two hours to get to Stonehenge, located close to Salisbury, England.
As we approached Stonehenge, you could see it from the A303 highway, which caused traffic to slow as people took pictures from their cars. Eventually, we went to the visitor center and took a shuttle bus to the site.
How do I describe seeing Stonehenge? Remarkable, unbelievable, and magnificent. How did the ancient Celtic people build such a monument? A site perfectly aligned with the stars, sun, and moon to accurately predict the astrological movement of the heavenly bodies and our seasons.
My family and I walked around and enjoyed the site, but it was windy and cold! After 2 hours at Stonehenge, we returned to the bus for our two-hour ride back to London. That night, we enjoyed our second Fish and Chips dinner at The Jugged Hare Pub close to Victoria Station. Once again, the food was delicious, and the draft beer perfectly matched.
Day 3: Madame Tussauds and Sherlock Holmes
On our third morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the Lite Bite Café Bar near our hotel and Paddington Station. My wife ordered a traditional English Breakfast, my daughter ordered the American Breakfast with pancakes, and I ordered the Eggs Benedict. I always search for a good Eggs Benedict wherever I can. The distinct difference between an English and American Breakfast is that the English Breakfast comes with baked beans and a grilled tomato and mushroom.
That afternoon, we made our way to the Baker Street Tube Station. The significance of the station for me is due to the bond I had with my father growing up, which was Sherlock Holmes. As a kid, my dad introduced me to the enigmatic detective and his partner, Dr. Watson, by watching PBS shows, theater productions, cassette tapes, and books. Therefore, whenever I visit London, I always look for the famous 21B Baker Street (no such place exists, but there is a Sherlock Holmes Museum near the Tube Station). Thankfully, a Statue of Sherlock Holmes is outside the Tube Station in his honor.
Once we arrived at Baker Street, we proceeded to the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Inside, we were greeted by American and British movie stars, including the collection of actors who have played James Bond. We also had the opportunity to meet the Royal Family, British serial killers including Jack the Ripper, and rockstars such as Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. The last half of the museum was dedicated to the Marvel and Star Wars Cinematic Universes.
After spending time in the wax museum, we ordered a Pepperoni Pizza to share at Pizza Express restaurant. As a native New Yorker, the best part was observing most of the patrons eating their pizza like me, with their pizza folded in their hands; however, a few were eating their pizza like continental Europeans with a knife and fork.
Later, I wanted to visit one of my favorite bookstores in London: Hatchards. Hatchards is close to Piccadilly Circus, dates to 1791, and is a favorite of the Royal Family. It is a perfect place to "Nerd Out" on any topic you want and walk through the multiple floors of books. I tend to gravitate toward history; however, I purchased a complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories during my previous visit. Afterward, we went inside Fortnum & Mason, a famous upscale store selling fine chocolates and other grocery items. The store was so packed with holiday shoppers that we quickly made our way outside, walked along the road, and entered the Burlington Arcade with a collection of high-end shops. We walked to the end of the Arcade and proceeded up Old Bond Street, beautifully lit with Christmas lights. The street was full of people, and tricycle carts illuminated and loudly playing Christmas songs, including Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas" song. The atmosphere was festive as people enjoyed the sights and sounds of the area. We walked up Bond Street until we made it to the Oxford Circus Tube Line and took it back to Paddington Station.
Our evening ended with a delicious steak and clam chowder dinner at Angus Steakhouse next to Paddington Station. We enjoyed that the staff were amiable and accommodating since we did not have a reservation. Angus is a chain, and we came across one of its franchise restaurants near Piccadilly Circus.
Day 4: The Tower of London and Christmas Lights Tour
The Tower of London has fascinated my wife and me since we got hooked on watching The Spanish Princess, White Queen, and White Princess on Starz and other shows about the life of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots. Twenty-four years ago, I visited to see the "Crown Jewels," including the famous "Koh-I-Noor" diamond from India placed in Queen Victoria's crown.
When we first arrived, we walked through the royal family's apartments, including the King's bedroom and the room where his throne was located. Then, we walked along the battlements, where you could take beautiful pictures of London Bridge and the White Tower. We walked through the White Tower, an armaments museum showcasing armor and weapons from the Medieval age to Britain's 18th Century Empire. Next, we visited the "Crown Jewels" to see all the items on display; however, tourists were not allowed to take photographs of the jewels. Finally, we went to see the famous prison tower where prisoners were kept, which turned out to be less impressive than the myth makes one believe.
Afterward, we returned to Victoria Station for the Christmas Light Bus Tour of London. Thankfully, we were allowed to jump on an earlier bus tour. The tour drove along some of the famous neighborhoods in London brightly decorated for Christmas. I firmly believe that London is the best-decorated city in Europe. The tour took us along Oxford Street, where you can see the famous Selfridges Department Store with its Christmas Theme window displays. The tour continued toward Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, and the London Eye (Giant Ferris Wheel) on the Thames River. The tour guide entertained the group with Christmas songs and history or celebrity trivia.
The final dinner in London was at Paramount Lebanese Kitchen. Eating dinner at Paramount was my third experience from my previous work-related trips to London. My wife and daughter fell in love with the seasoned chicken, and we enjoyed the hot tea after being out in the cold all day.
London is one of my favorite cities in the world. As a young college student, I fell in love with the city 24 years ago and continue to love it today. The city's atmosphere is excellent, with tons of history to enjoy. It is a multicultural city where you can find some of the best food from around the world. Finally, as an American from New York, London feels a lot like home, and it helps that there is no real language barrier. However, I learned from a Brit that the U.S. and the UK are two nations divided by a common language because we use words and phrases differently. The only negative I had about London and the UK is that they drive on the wrong side of the road!