It had been my 30th birthday and 2 of my friends were about to reach that same milestone. When we were younger, we used to go on vacation together, but that was 10 years ago (not counting the trip to San Francisco and New York one of them was also on.) Our girlfriends got together and booked all 6 of us a weekend to London. She knows me so well! I had been to London a few times as a kid, but that was a really long time ago and I had been eager to go back for a while now. It's Western Europe's largest city. The most visited city of the world, in fact.
Another friend of mine, also an avid traveller & photographer, had lived in London for a few years and helped plan the weekend. But a weekend, that is not nearly enough time to see it all. Not even close. So we mostly ended up doing the usual tourist attractions, and we didn't even have enough time for all of those.
I'm not a morning person at all, but leaving for travel is surprisingly easy! We left home early in the morning and drove to Calais to take our car under the channel on a Eurotunnel train. It takes about 35 minutes to reach Folkestone. London is about an hour away from here (or a little more, once you get stuck in London's traffic.) We parked our car and checked into our hotel, conveniently located near the South Bank of the Thames in central London. We wouldn't need - or even want to use - the car for the rest of the weekend: our feet and the Tube's 11 lines would be perfect for getting us around London.
First destination: the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where the 2012 Summer Olympics were held.
On the park's grounds: the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the London Stadium (now West Ham United FC's home), the London Aquatics Centre and a cycling, hockey and tennis center.
And a lot of green, making it a great place to escape the busy city.
But we had only just arrived - we didn't need to escape the crowds yet.
What I really wanted was to get to the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit and see the London skyline from up high, then take the 178 m (484 ft)
Unfortunately, tickets for The Slide were sold out, and most of us didn't really feel like paying and waiting in line just to get to the viewing platform.
On the way back to the Tube we'd walk through the Westfield Stratford City mall, where we'd found plenty of lunch opportunities.
But it was too early for lunch, so back to central London!
Because our girlfriends has put this together, we figured we ought to do something for them and we headed to Regent Street & Oxford Street, London's main shopping streets. To be fair, we didn't only come here for the girls: I too like walking around crowded streets, especially when they're lined with old buildings this nice! After getting a delicious burger, a lot of window shopping and not buying anything, we headed south on Regent Street to arrive at Piccadilly Circus, London's Times Square. We got some rest at a nearby park until we headed to the South Bank of the Thames again for dinner. It had been a long day by then, so we walked along the South Bank back to the hotel. Tomorrow would be another long day and we wouldn't be able to sleep in.
We had an early appointment at the London Dungeon, an interactive
museum/haunted house that lets you relive some of London's most scary historical events, with characters like Guy Fawkes, Jack the Ripper & Sweeney Todd.
Right next to the London Dungeon is the London Eye, one of the world's biggest ferry wheels (135 m or 443 ft.)
But the line was long and our time was limited…
We crossed the bridge to find lunch (another great burger) on the other side of the Thames, then headed to Trafalgar Square.
While it is still true that the sun never sets on the British Empire, it is no longer the empire it once was - the largest global empire ever. But it was for a pretty damn long time, and London was its capital, and home to the British monarchy.
From Trafalgar Square, the royal grounds are only a stone's throw away, past the Admiralty Arch, where the road leading up to Buckingham Palace starts. But we took a left, to the former main residence of the monarchy: the Palace of Whitehall. Most of it burned down a few hundred years ago, though - all that's left is the Banqueting House. On the other side of the street, aptly named Whitehall, is the Horse Guards Parade. Downing Street 10, the UK Prime Minister's residency, is just around the corner. Most of British civil service is in this neighborhood, actually.
We'd stroll around St. James's Park for awhile until we arrived at Buckingham Palace, just in time to see the Changing of the Guard… had we arrived an hour earlier. Seeing how disappointed we were to have missed it, the Queen invited us for a nice cup of tea, but we had to decline: we probably wouldn't have made the last Eurotunnel train in time, and we all had to work tomorrow. So we started walking back, past Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben, across the Westminster Bridge and along the South Bank, back to the hotel.
We didn't get to spend nearly enough time at the places we've been to, and there's plenty more we would've liked to visit, like the Tower of London (with the Crown Jewels), Tower Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral, The Shard & Gherkin. And I didn't end up getting a "London from above" view, but that's alright. Next time!