Just like the time I went to Barcelona, I had to wake up at a ridiculous hour to catch my flight. Even though the flight was at 10, we had to take a few regional trains to get to the airport in Karlsruhe-Baden. It was so early that when we got to Karlsruhe, we could see the sunrise.
Along the journey, a friend of mine forgot this iPod on the train and by the time he remembered, the train started leaving the station. He watched the train leave with his iPod and could do nothing about it. He immediately went to the Deutsche Bahn office for help. The helpful staff there immediately called the next station that it would reach so that another employee could get on the train and retrieve it. Lucky for him, they found it. He would end up picking up his iPod after we came back from London.
I ended up sleeping for the whole flight and once we arrived we had to go through customs because the United Kingdom was not part of the “Schengen Area”, which is made up of a group of countries that allow travel within the group without going through customs, as in they have no internal border controls.
It was really easy talking to the customs agent because there was no longer any language barrier like in the rest of Europe. It felt so nice speaking English again. I no longer felt bad about not being able to speak a particular country’s language. Speaking English felt so nice in fact, that I ended up having a brief chat with the customs agent about things like how I was liking Germany and what not. Unlike the customs agents I see at the border between USA and Canada, the one in London was really nice. I had initially thought that Londoners would give a really snobby vibe like the Parisians, but it didn’t seem like it so far.
After going through customs, we went to buy tickets for a bus to the city center. Unfortunately for us, the lady selling tickets refused to accept our euros (good reason for that I suppose), so we had to exchange some money at a ridiculous rate. We bought both our return ticket at the time too and for some reason the ticket lady wrote down 3:50 am for our return bus reservation (our flight was for 7 am). We looked at it and we were just so sad to see we had to wake up at a ridiculous hour yet again to make our flight. But then, we decided to stay up on our last night in London and not pay money for another night’s stay at the hostel.
The bus took us to Liverpool Street and from the looks of it, the districted seemed like an economic center. People wearing business suits going about their business filled the streets. From there, we bought our Oyster cards (kind of like the 八達通 in Hong Kong). It is a prepaid card for taking the London public transit system. One simply has to place the card on the scanner when entering and leaving the station.
We took the metro to King’s Cross and proceeded to find the hostel we booked. It turns out that the hostel used to be a courthouse, which is kind of cool. The interiors still have some of the furnishings of a courthouse and even has courtrooms that have been redecorated into hangout areas for guests. Unfortunately for us though, when we actually saw our rooms, we were less than satisfied. We got a super small room for eight people with beds arranged in two rows of four. The only way we could get in and out of our beds was to crawl from the end instead of getting on from the side. Solid walls surrounded the other sides and gave a really cramped feeling. The showers there weren’t that clean either. Regardless, that was the place that we had to stay at for the next two nights.
Imperial War Museum
Our first destination was the Imperial War Museum. The museum chronicled the British Empire’s involvement in wars since the First World War up to the present. In addition to exhibits from the two world wars, it even had exhibits on terrorism and the Iraq War. Like many museums in London, this one was financially supported by the government so entry was free. Upon seeing the building, one could already notice the 15 inch battleship cannons placed in the front – one from the HMS Ramillies and the other from HMS Roberts.
When we entered the museum, we were immediately overwhelmed by the sight of all the military vehicles in the museum’s atrium. They had everything – tanks, fighter planes, rockets, artillery cannons, submarines, etc. There was even a piece of rubble from the World Trade Center.
In addition to the exhibits about the wars that Britain fought, there were exhibits for the Holocaust as well as genocide in the modern era. In the World War I section, there was even a reconstruction of a trench. When I walked through it, I saw statues of soldiers going about their daily life at the time, like a soldier manning a machine gun or a soldier writing a letter to his parents. In the World War II section, the museum managed to get a hold on the actual bronze eagle that was once on the Reichstag in Berlin.
We stayed at the museum until its closing time at 6 and afterward, we looked for a place to eat. Just like in Rome, we looked at the Rick Steves’ European travel guide book for a recommendation.
The guide book led us to a pub in Trafalgar square. Before going to the pub, we decided to check out the place first. We didn’t spend a lot of time here because we were in a hurry to eat.
The Lord Moon of the Mall
Following the guide book, it led us here to try out London’s “pub grub”. The way the pub worked was that people had to find a table, take note of their table number and then go up to the counter to order food. The servers would then bring the food over according to the table number. I ordered sausages and mash (aka bangers and mash).
The pub itself seemed really British to me. I don’t really know how, but it just gave me that vibe. After our meal, we walked around the city for a little bit. Since Trafalgar Square was really close to the tourist parts of London, we decided to go there.
Westminster, one of the districts in London, is what people know London for. This is where the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster are all situated in.
We didn’t stay here very long since we knew we’d be back here the next day when we took the walking tour. We were all really tired too so we were all very eager to go back to the hostel to sleep.
At the beginning of the tour, everybody gathered by the Wellington Arch, a triumphal arch dedicated to Britain’s victories over Napoleon. It is also the site of London’s second smallest police station up until 1992.
Part of the arch is also used for the ventilation from the London Underground (subway) and the heat coming out from the vents sometimes causes people to believe there is a fire. Every now and then, somebody ends up calling the London Fire Brigade about it.
Throughout much of the city, war memorials can be seen almost everywhere. Some are dedicated to certain people such as Churchill or Monty, while some are dedicated to Britain’s former colonies or even to the war effort on the home front.
Buckingham Palace – Changing of the Guard
Pretty much everyday at Buckingham Palace, tourists can see the guard change at Buckingham Palace. We didn’t intend to go see this so when we arrived at Buckingham Palace, we saw a large concentration of tourists watching it. There were so many people that I couldn’t even see what was going on.
To see the guards up close, we went elsewhere where there weren’t that many tourists. In the past, people were allowed to go up to the guards and annoy them, but ever since one of the guards flipped out at a tourist, tourists are no longer allowed to go up to the guards anymore.
We tried to annoy the guards anyway though. The tour guide got everyone to shout out “penis” really loud to see if it would make the guard laugh. According to the guide, it works about 1 in 4 times. This guard didn’t laugh though.
Trafalgar Square (again)
The first time we came here, we didn’t really know the significance of the statue in the city square, but the tour guide explained it to us. The statue was of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, a British war hero involved in the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and Spanish navies. His fleet won the battle so decisively that his fleet took no losses in ships despite having a smaller fleet than his enemies. Unfortunately for him, he died during the battle. It is said that his crew put his body in a wine barrel to preserve his body so that he could have a proper burial in England. However, since his men had won such a huge victory, they ended up drinking the wine from the barrel that the admiral’s body was in, hence producing the phrase, “tapping the admiral”.
Horse Guards Parade
The next destination was the Horse Guards Parade, basically an area with an open field for horses. It wasn’t that special I suppose.
According to Rick Steves’, Westminster Abbey is one of the most magnificent churches in the English speaking world. When I read that, I figured that it might not be as good as the churches that I saw in Rome. Nonetheless, I still wanted to check out this place. It would have been nice to see the inside, but it would cost a hefty 13 pounds to enter. With such an expensive admission fee (compared to churches everywhere else which have free entry), I couldn’t bring myself to pay that. The churches in Rome are probably way nicer anyways.
Palace of Westminster and the Big Ben
Pretty much right beside the abbey was the house of parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster. Attached to this building was the Big Ben. I didn’t really get a good picture of the palace during the day though.
More Pub Grub
At the end of the tour, we went to a pub that had connections with the tour guide so we all got discounts on our meal. I ordered fish and chips, one of Britain’s specialties I suppose.
Churchill War Rooms
After eating, I went to the Churchill War Rooms Museum, while my friends went to the National Gallery. The war rooms was a museum set up such that it displayed the underground complex that the British government used during WWII. Many of the rooms had been untouched since the end of the war. In some instances, once the war ended, the staff went home and never returned to the command center.
The meeting room, map room, and many of the dormitories in the complex still had the old 40’s vibe. Paraphernalia was left untouched. Even maps showed the old names for different British colonies and still had the pin holes leftover from mapping out troop movements.
A large slab of concrete covered most of the complex to protect its occupants from bombs. Nobody knew how well the slab would protect people, but luckily, the complex was never hit. While walking around the complex, there are areas where a speaker will play the air raid siren sound. I guess that was for authenticity, which was really cool.
Now that the wave of tourists had subsided, I finally got the chance to get a good look at Buckingham Palace. It was one of those places that didn’t look amazing in architecture and was a place where one would have to go while on a trip to London. Maybe the next time I come to London, I will buy tickets to visit the inside of the palace.
The Cafe in the Crypt
For dinner, we looked at the guide book yet again to find a place. This time we were recommended a place called “The Cafe in the Crypt”. It was under a crypt of a church in Trafalgar Square. When I ordered my food, the server for some reason was really delighted by the fact that I could speak English.
Platform 9 3/4
I hadn’t known before that in the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter went to Hogwarts from King’s Cross Station, which happened to be the station that our hostel was close to. On our way back to the hostel that night, we came across the famous Platform 9 3/4. There was even a cart halfway through the wall – just like in the books.
Because the breakfast at our hostel sucked so much, we all decided to go have an English style breakfast on our last day. The breakfast came with eggs, mushrooms, bacon, tomatoes and sausages. It was really oily, but delicious.
The British Museum
According to Rick Steves, the British Museum “is the best chronicle of human civilization…ever”. With a recommendation like that, we had to go to it. After seeing it, I agree with Rick Steves. The museum had information on pretty much every continent in the world. Its most well known artifact, the Rosetta Stone was also on display. Apparently, it was the stone tablet that allowed modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In the exhibit on ancient Greece, the museum showcased a lot of sculptures from the Parthenon. I guess that would explain why I didn’t see any of those things when I went to Greece. Another really nice exhibit was the one on mechanical clocks. It displayed a lot of the different mechanisms that clocks were built out of. Being part mechanical engineer, this was of a lot of interest to me. I ended up analyzing the entire mechanism and figuring out exactly how clocks work.
The Millennium Bridge
Our next destination was the Tate Modern Art Gallery. Before going inside, I went to see the nearby attractions first. I learned of the Millennium Bridge during my engineering courses because it was an example of a badly designed bridge since it was affect by resonance. Simply put, the bridge physically wobbled as people walked on it.
Based on the original Globe Theatre, this theatre is a modern reconstruction of the old one that burned down. I didn’t know before that the original one had burned down. I thought I was seeing the original.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
During the Blitz, St Paul’s Cathedral became a national symbol of resistance. During the sustained strategic bombing of Britain during WWII, this cathedral somehow still stood. Many of Britain’s heroes are buried here, namely Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, the Duke of Wellington, and Charles Cornwallis.
Normally, it costs money to go inside as a tourist, but since it was Sunday, the church was open for church services. This allowed tourists to go in for free, but they weren’t allowed to take any pictures. As usual, I disobeyed that and took pictures anyway.
I probably could have done something similar at Westminster Abbey also, but that was on the other side of town so I didn’t bother.
Tate Modern Art Gallery
Like many museums in London, this one was also free. Looking at the different works of art here, I understood pretty much none of them without reading the description. Interpreting art just isn’t my thing I guess. Although, there was an exhibit about anti-Nazi works of art that was really interesting. One photo in particular portrayed Nazi Germany as a house of cards, while another showed a bunch of skeletons depicting what Germany will be like in the future. Another photo, although not anti-Nazi, it depicted the Japanese waking up the “sleeping giant” known as China when they invaded.
For dinner, we went to a vegetarian Indian buffet. For 7 pounds, we could eat as much as we wanted. What a good deal. That was my first time ever eating Indian food and it was really delicious. I ate about three plates before I was full. I didn’t get hungry until 3 in the morning.
At night, we went to see the Tower Bridge and the London Tower. I originally thought the London Tower was just a tower, but it turned out the tower was actually part of a giant castle.
We walked across the bridge and saw the HMS Belfast, a British cruiser docked on the side of the river. Apparently, the ship had been converted into a museum and was part of the Imperial War Museum. If I had known about it earlier, I probably would have visited this too.
Since our bus time was 3:50 am from Liverpool Street Station, we took a taxi to there to wait. We went to a nearby restaurant and stayed there for a few hours playing cards. When the bus came, we got on it and just slept. We slept some more on the plane and on the train until we got home. My original plan was to nap when I got home, but after so many naps earlier, it didn’t feel necessary anymore. It probably would have ruined my sleeping schedule too. I still felt the effects of the sleep deprivation the day after too. Either way, it was a good trip. I think I want to come back some time in the future.
More photos here