After wheels-up at JFK Airport, we spent the next 7 hours en route to London’s Heathrow Airport. During the flight, I was able to capture some shots of the sun rising ahead of us (I can’t sleep on planes), as well as Ireland & Wales. Although you can’t tell from the pictures, Ireland actually looked much greener than other countries from the air!
3,442 miles later, it was time to go through Customs and get our first European passport stamps. The Customs agent at the UK border was super nice and complimented me on my unique name and my accent. At first, I was going ask “What accent?”, but then I remembered that we were the foreigners!
Since we packed all of our items in carry-on duffel bags, we didn’t have to wait for our luggage to go through baggage claim, so this allowed us to get our bearings. As we took our cell phones off of Airplane Mode, we truly learned to love our MetroPCS phones… and it wouldn’t be the first time on the trip.
As I looked down at my phone, I noticed a notification for “WiFi Calling” being enabled. I had never received this notification before, so I decided to try it out by calling my parents… AND IT WORKED! If you have a phone or cell phone provider that offers WiFi Calling (such as T-Mobile or MetroPCS), you will be able to make a call from anywhere in the world, as long as you are connected to WiFi. This can also come in handy if you are in a remote location or building with poor cell phone reception, as long as you’re connected to the WiFi.
After catching up with my parents and almost crying tears of joy that I could hear their voices from 5 time zones away, it was time to find our way to the hotel. Even though we both have Google Maps on our phones, we didn’t download the area in order to save the memory for photos. Instead, we used a website call Rome2Rio. Before we left NYC, we both took screen grabs of the directions from Heathrow Airport to the Barbican Train Station to our hotel. Not only did the website provide us with multiple routes, but it also provided the costs for the modes of transportation (train, taxi, shuttle, town car, etc.), which Google Maps doesn’t offer. It became a valuable accessory to our trip over the next 5 days.
Once we navigated the tubes (subway) and remembered to walk on the opposite side of the road, we arrived at our hotel, the Thistle City Barbican. Although it is very unassuming on the outside, the hotel is very chic and state-of-the-art on the inside. Among the marble-adorned lobby, we met some of the nicest staff we’ve ever encountered on our travels. With their name tags displaying their country of origins and the languages they speak, the check-in staff made sure we were able to locate all of the amenities (swimming pool, sauna, spa, steam room and computer room).
To check-in to the hotel, we presented the concierge with our travel documents from Gate 1 Travel, as well as our Groupon voucher. After they confirmed our reservation, they directed us to the room, which was in Building 1 of the hotel. The view from our room felt as though we were staying at an apartment on the outskirts of London… and we LOVED it! With the hotel being about a 5-10 minute walk from Barbican Station, we had time to relax in the room before exploring the city. For us, this consisted of Joel falling asleep for 6 hours (noon – 6:00pm) while I watch British television. Once he finally woke up, we ‘hate watched’ “The Wizard of Oz” for 30 minutes (what if Glenda wasn’t a Good Witch?) and jumped back on the tube. Destination: The London Eye.
After exiting our first double-decker bus at Waterloo Station, we arrived at the London Eye Ferris wheel (now called the Coca-Cola London Eye). Originally, we planned to take a trip on the London Eye while photographing the skyline at sunset, but between the 1 hour wait to purchase tickets, the 2 hour wait to ride and the $32 per person tickets, we decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead, we grabbed 2 hot chocolates at the attached restaurant and took some pictures along the Thames River.
Once we finished our hot chocolates, we continued our trek through city toward Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower) and the Houses of Parliament. While walking past Big Ben, we experienced an actual English phone booth and had our first, authentic cuppa (cup of tea). That cup of chai tea was the best cup of tea I ever had in my life.. and it came from the smallest convenience store!
Even though I wanted to hang around and drink more tea, Joel insisted we continue walking down the road. Although we didn’t have a map with us, there were clearly marked signs pointing towards the popular landmarks. The next stop on our walk: Buckingham Palace.
Not many people know this, but Joel is related to the House of Garrard, the longest serving jewelry house in the world and the Crown Jeweler of the United Kingdom, charged with the upkeep of the British Crown Jewels for over 164 years. One of their most famous pieces is the Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara, worn by Queen Mary, Her Majesty The Queen, the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton). A replica of the tiara is also worn on Netflix’s The Crown. Their work is beautiful and timeless.
While at the gates of Buckingham Palace, we noticed that the flag was aloft, meaning Her Majesty was in residence at the time. The gilding on the gates were exquisitely ornate and framed the palace beautifully. Although tours were not available during our visit, we were still in awe of the history before us. We also climbed on the fountain of Queen Victoria (whom looked a look like Brent Spiner aka Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”)!
After exploring a bit of history, we continued our walk past the Admiralty Arch (which previously served as the official residence of the First Sea Lord, including the Earl of Mountbatten) and The Sherlock Holmes Pub en route to Trafalgar Square. Once we arrived at Trafalgar Square, we had an appetite, so we grabbed dinner at Garfunkel’s Restaurant… and it was delicious! Honestly, I think I’ve had my favorite meals in London, and the best was yet to come the following morning.
During our dinner at Garfunkel’s, we started off with 2 large cups of hot chocolate (we are creatures of habit) and I devoured a couple orders of olives. For our main course, we deviated from our usual fare and ordered something new for us: homemade fish pie. We thought we wouldn’t like it, but it was SO GOOD! Made from flaked salmon with cod and prawns in a dill & bechamel sauce and topped with mashed potatoes, this English classic definitely satisfied our palate! The other addition to our dinner that topped off the evening: Jamiroquai was playing over the speakers!
An hour or so later, after we allowed our food to digest for a bit, it was time to make our way back to Waterloo station and our hotel. Along the way, we crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge (also called the Hungerford Bridge and the Charing Cross Bridge). While on the bridge, we met a local who we later found out was originally from Poland. (Side note: I’ve never met a mean Polish person). The gentleman approached us to ask if we had a cigarette lighter and Joel replied that we did, except it was parked in New York. Without missing a beat, the Polish gentleman replied “Yeah, I don’t think I feel like waiting that long, but I’ll wait if you want me to.” We were so caught off guard that we spent the next 15 minutes walking and talking about a variety of topics: our accents, American politics (a popular topic for people in London) and city life versus suburban life. The next thing we knew, it was time to board our train back to Barbican.
Once we arrived back at the hotel, we were both so exhausted that we didn’t have the energy to meet our local friends at a jazz club, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t receive some entertainment. As we made our way past the piano bar within the Thistle City Barbican, we saw a patron passed out in the lobby. I don’t know what her night consisted of, but it seemed like it was a lot more eventful than ours!