Posts Tagged ‘London’

Getting Out of London City Center: Oxford, Eltham and Chiselhurst

Oxford


Oxford

On our London trip, one of our goals was to actually spend time OUT of the city since we hardly ventured out when we were living there because we were so busy, and Evan wasn’t able to go with me to Oxford, Cambridge or Brighton. Our first day trip was to Oxford. We hopped on the Oxford Tube at Notting Hill Gate and less than two hours later, we were standing in the middle of Oxford’s High Street.


eBoy LA poster; photo from eBoy site

We started by going into the church right in the center of town and climbing up to a lookout point where we were able to see the whole city. Then we wandered by the Radcliffe Camera and the library, and stopped in at the Blackwell’s art and poster shop, where we bought a great poster of LA by eBoy. It had all sorts of LA landmarks, zombies, SWAT teams and more done up in a fun, colorful old-school arcade game style. The shop also had plenty of other cool posters, cards and books.


Christ Church College Quad

Then we went to visit Christ Church College, walked around town some more, and got gooey, warm and delicious cookies from Ben’s Cookies in the covered market. We also saw a whole, headless deer hanging from the wall. It was more than a little disturbing. There was also a goat in a similar position. We did, however, see some live deer in Magdalen College’s field, and had a nice walk around its pretty grounds, which are right on the river. It was too cold and rainy for punting, though.

Eltham Palace

My friend Janet invited us out to her neck of the woods — Bexleyheath — to see some of its sights, so we met her at the Eltham train station about 30 minutes outside of London, and went to visit Eltham Palace. The place is an Art Deco palace-turned war command center-turned historic site, built on the same spot as one of Henry VIII’s childhood home. It was rainy, so we didn’t get to tour the grounds and gardens much, but we did go through the many living rooms, bedrooms and funny exhibits on the family’s pet lemur, including not one, but two stuffed lemur dolls. We took along the free audio guides, but they proved excessively verbose. Though the segments would start off well and had plenty of interesting information, each room’s story seemed to last for ages. Thankfully, there were signs we could read, instead. I just wish the weather had been better and we could have had a picnic.

Chiselhurst Caves


Me with my oil lantern in the Chiselhurst Caves

After our morning in Eltham, Janet brought us over to the Chiselhurst Caves, man-made caves in a hill that were started 4,000 years ago by the druids, then continued by the Romans and the Saxons. The caves were used to house 15,000 people during the WWII air raids, and they currently host frequent role-playing events, though in a separate section from the main tour. Stil, you can’t help but notice the LARPers dressed in everything from caveman to wizard costumes as you pull up to the small visitor’s center.

We paid for a tour, and descended into the caves with a big group of people and a guide. We grabbed lanterns, since most of the caves don’t have lighting, and started our tour through the cold stone walkways. We passed by the church, the stage, lots of spots for triple-decker bunk beds, a druid altar, a well and a hospital. The guide told us about what life in the caves was like during the war, its mining history and its quite honestly creepy ghost stories. They also took us by a “cave monster” on our way out!


Chiselhurst Cave Monster

It was great to see a part of London we’d never experienced and get to some tourist sites that we’d never read about in our guidebooks — and that some Londoners don’t even know about. Thanks, Janet!

A Perfect Day in London: Art, Music and History

westminster abbey, London
Westminster Abbey

Our first whole day in London, Evan and I decided to do some touristy things we hadn’t gotten around to when we were living there. We started with a trip to Westminster Abbey. We were a bit turned off at the £12 entry fee to go into a church, but my parents had strongly recommended it, so we went ahead. Thankfully, that entry fee includes an audio guide that gives a great tour of the church. You can move from item to item on the tour without always stopping to punch in numbers, its segments are short and to the point, and there are extra info segments you can listen to if you want. It also has a full-color screen with titles and pictures of the things you’re seeing, and even a few videos about areas of the church that are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. We were seriously impressed with the attention to detail, timing and the flow of the tour that was put into the place, which really helped us enjoy walking among the tombs of kings, queens and notable artistic and scientific figures.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

Next we headed over to Trafalgar Square, where we noticed that St. Martin in the Fields was FINALLY free of scaffolding — we’d never seen it like that. We stopped in to check it out, and were surprised to find a concert rehearsal in progress. We sat down and listened to the small orchestra of about 15 musicians practice Mozart’s Requiem for a concert that evening. It sounded great, if a bit echoey in the mostly empty church, and we stayed for about 30 minutes. The free concert was a wonderful surprise.

Salvator Rosa, self portrait, from the National Gallery, London
Salvator Rosa, self portrait, from the National Gallery, London

Since we were already in Trafalgar Square, we decided to check out the National Gallery since Evan had never been and I’d only been on a rushed walk-through on the tail-end of my parents’ visit. They were holding an education program with artists leading drawing classes, and they were handing out pencils and paper at the information desk, so I grabbed one and went on a search for something to draw — next to a nice comfy couch for Evan to sit on. I didn’t join one of the bigger groups, but settled on Salvator Rosa’s self portrait, in which he looks like a pirate (though he was actually dressed like a scholar according to the information card). I would have worked on the drawing a bit longer, but the fire alarm went off, and we were evacuated.

Since the evacuation occurred right at closing time, we just headed up into Soho where we were meeting friends and grabbed drinks at the very cute new Las Iguanas on Dean Street before going to Gopal for an Indian dinner. We also made it to the last Tuttle Club at the Coach and Horses on Greek Street that morning, had a quick lunch at the yummy Just Falafs, which has a menu as punny as you would imagine, and warmed up with a hot chocolate break at Pret — they really have the most delicious hot chocolate.

Check out our photos in Evan’s Facebook album.

A Short Jaunt Back to London

Since Evan and I left London, I’ve wanted to go back. Luckily, we had tickets waiting for us (the last leg of the around-the-world trip plus our original return tickets). We thought we’d be using them over Thanksgiving, but since we’re still unemployed, we decided to move up the date and head out the first week of October.

We left what felt like summer in LA for what felt like winter in London — it was cold, rainy and windy. Thank goodness we remembered to bring our winter coats, though we should have brought hats, gloves and scarves, too. Still, despite the London chill, we were thrilled to be back in our temporary hometown and see all the friends we’d made.

We took the Heathrow Express into town, since we were staying right by Paddington Station, and started a new London adventure, where we mixed going to the sights we’d skipped over the first time around with catching up with our new friends and former co-workers. We even managed to sneak away to Barcelona for a few days to visit Bernat.

We’re back in LA now, but I’ll write more about our trip soon. Unfortunately, we didn’t take too many photos because it was so dreary out. But I may need to add on to my Top London Travel Tips guide with some of the cool things we did, like listen to an open orchestral rehearsal at St. Martin in the Fields and take a tour of the Chiselhurst Caves.

Oh, and check it out: Evan and I are front and center in the Tuttle Club photo on Tech Crunch UK since we went to the Social Media Cafe’s last meeting at the Coach and Horses. I wish I could be there now to check out their new meeting space at the ICA.

Check out our photos in Evan’s Facebook album.

Top London Travel Tips

I lived in London for six months and I now miss it dearly. The city is filled with wonderful people, fantastic sites and some of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It can be an expensive trip, but by using public transport, taking advantage of all the free tourist attractions and eating at some of the great and healthy quick-service restaurants, can keep costs low so you can splurge on a few nice dinners and trips to some of the pricier sights like the Tower of London. Now let me be your tour guide…

Transport

If you plan on using the tube or buses — and your should — buy an Oyster Card. It’ll save you a ton of money by reducing the standard £4 tube fare to about £1.50 within the center of the city; the bus fare is reduced from £3 to 90 pence. You can pick up the blue-on-blue RFID-embedded cards from most train stations and even some convenience stores. To plan your trips, use the fantastic TfL website, which will give you detailed bus, tube and walking routes anywhere you’d like to go.

From the airport, you can take the Piccadilly Line right into town in about 45 minutes’ time for £4 and if you’re staying somewhere near tourist attractions, like Mayfair, Soho or Holborn, chances are it’ll take you nearly to your doorstep. Compare that to a cab at £65 and up, or to the Heathrow Express at about £15 — and that only takes you to Paddington station, so you’ll likely need to hop on at least one more train or bus to get where you’re going. Just beware that a lot of stations have a good deal of stairs to negotiate, so make sure you can lug your own luggage.

What to See

London boasts a huge list of attractions, but these are some of my favorites in no particular order…

  • National Portrait Gallery interesting and well-organized collection that’ll give you a great overview of British history. It sounds like it could be boring, but if you have a choice between this and the National Gallery (both in Trafalgar square) definitely do the portraits. Also, except for special exhibits, the museum is free, as are all national museums.


St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge

  • Tate Modern fantastic collection of modern art in a very cool riverside setting. From here, you can also walk across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral


Parliament and the London Eye

  • Westminster and around – spend a day doing the classic London sights by checking out Buckingham Palace and St. James Park, then the Horse Guard’s Parade, Parliament and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which is sort of like a mini parade and rather hard to see happens at 11 am. They also do a ceremony at the Horse Guards Parade at that time, where you’ll probably get a better view — and the Horse Guards where much more interesting uniforms. Parliament and Westminster Abbey are best seen on weekdays — they both have very limited or no weekend hours (I never actually made it inside either one, though my parents did). Also don’t miss a trip on the London Eye — the giant observation wheel.
  • Soho/Covent Garden shows – the theater in London is fantastic and quite inexpensive if you call same-day (you can get prime seats for £30-£60 on weekdays). Avenue Q was my favorite show I saw when I was there — it was absolutely hilarious, though it may be a bit inappropriate if you’re traveling with kids or thinking of going with your parents.


Springtime in Hyde Park

  • Hyde Park or Regent’s Park these two parks are the biggest in central London. They’re great places to take a rowboat or paddle boat out on their little lakes, have a picnic or just take a stroll. Parks to Brits are like beaches to Californians — everyone hangs out in them on sunny days. If you’re looking for an even bigger park excursion and don’t mind heading out of central London and paying an admission fee, head over to Kew Gardens to see its Victorian glass houses, themed gardens and new treetop walkway.
  • Highgate Cemetery and Hampstead Heath take the tour of the old part of the cemetery to learn about some of London’s quirky Victorian-age history that doesn’t involve the kings and queens, then take a stroll to the heath and climb up the rather small Parliament Hill, where you’ll see lots of people flying kites.


A Tower of London Beefeater

  • Tower of London go on the most hilariously campy tour in London by letting a Beefeater guide you around this historic castle. You’ll get to marvel at the crown jewels, hear about beheadings and see a great view of Tower Bridge.
  • Borough Market – go on a Friday to beat the weekend crowds to check out this foodie extravaganza south of the river. It’s also right near Southwark Cathedral and Sir Francis Drake’s pirate ship, and not too far a walk or bus ride from the Tate Modern and the Globe Theater.


Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory

  • Greenwichif you’re into science, make a trip out to Greenwich to go straddle the prime meridian. There’s a small museum right at the prime meridian and there’s also a maritime museum, which is interesting, but a bit kid-focused. There’s also a pretty park and a footbridge under the Thames. It’s a bit out of the way, but a pretty good half-day excursion.
  • Shopping – walking around places like Carnaby Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street can keep you very busy, and there are some ridiculously big department stores like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, and Selfridges (among others) are great for food, shopping and even sightseeing. Try the fancy afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, or mavel at the Egyptian-themed ridiculousness of Harrods.

What to Eat

London is an amazing place to eat. Some of my top recommendations…

  • Make sure to go to a pub, of course! Actually, go to several. They’re everywhere and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and range from gorgeous, old-fashioned wood-and-crystal establishments to dingy, bare-bones watering holes. If you want some pub grub, go for lunch, not dinner, as they get very crowded and rowdy and are filled with more post-work drinkers than diners.


The papaya salad at Amaya

  • Try some gourmet Indian. My favorites were Red Fort in Soho on Dean St. and Amaya in Belgravia. Both serve incredibly creative, beautiful and delicious dishes. You’ll get better deals if you go at lunch. Tamarind in Mayfair is also good, though the fare isn’t as fancy and the setting isn’t as nice, and Imli on Wardour St. in Soho offers tasty tapas-style Indian food at pretty reasonable costs.
  • Try the innovative fast food. For lunch and snacks, there are a ton of quick-service places that offer lots of healthy and often organic options like Pret a Manger, Eat, Benugo and Leon.
  • If you want great burgers, try out Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It’s a chain, so there are quite a few. There’s one on Frith Street in Soho.
  • For the city’s best coffee, go to Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho or Monmouth Coffee near Borough Market. There are tons of chain coffee places around, including many Starbucks, though if I was going for a chain, I’d usually choose Nero or Costa.
  • For good pizza, try Delfino’s in Mayfair


Chocolates at a Melt tasting class

  • Indulge your sweet tooth. London has incredible chocolate shops. Two of my favorites were Melt in Notting Hill and William Curley in Mayfair.

Trip-Planning Resources

  • Check out restaurants and attractions at review sites like Qype, Tipped, and Trusted Places.
  • Check out pubs at Fancyapint?
  • Know how to get where you’re going via tube and bus at the TfL website.
  • Get the heads-up on news and events on Londonist.
  • Get train schedules for heading beyond London at the National Rail site (note: it doesn’t accept foreign credit cards).

Beyond London

If you can’t find enough sights to occupy yourself in London or you just want a break from the city, you can easily take some day trips by train or bus to Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds Castle in Kent, Eltham Palace, the Chiselhurst Caves or Bath. All are well worth visiting.

Do you have anything you’d add to this guide? What are your favorite london sights? Let me know in the comments below!

Weekly Reading and the 2-Week Countdown

Wow, my calendar is scaring me. We only have two weeks left in London, yet there is still so much to do. I’ve been very busy with a big web project, doing more community management work on Workology — where I’ve been meeting some great freelancers and entrepreneurs — and still trying to do some writing, though I don’t have much to show on the writing front this week other than a host of discussions on Workology. I did manage to finally get on to Londonist today and wrote up a rather bizarre case of tax fraud: Barrister Caught in Faux Jet Engine Foible.”

The other excitement this week is that Evan and I bought backpacks for our trip–some good-sized internal-frame packs with lots of buckles, drawstrings and bungees. I didn’t realize how intensive shopping for a backpack would be. When we were looking at bags there were definitely quite a few that we had trouble getting into right away, which was a bit disconcerting, though maybe that’s good for safety purposes. We still need to get some new shoes, clothes and some other essentials.

Also, we’ve settled on Turkey as our replacement destination for India (side note: Evan got an email back from the India visa people who said we should be able to get a visa here… hmm…). We don’t have our Turkey tickets sorted yet, but we’re very excited to check it out and even have a friend to go visit.

Weekly Reading and a Dose of Wicked

This past week has been quite a lot of fun. On Saturday night we went to see Wicked, which was quite a lot of fun, especially since the audience got really into it — there were girls there in green face paint and a lot of the crowd gave a standing ovation at the end. It was really interesting to see how they turned the book into the musical, though I read it quite a few years ago and don’t remember everything, so there were still a few surprises. The ending was also different from what I remembered. The show also had some great effects, including a huge dragon puppet over the stage and lots of flying/floating.

Today I had a nice morning at Tuttle Club/Social Media Cafe, where I got to catch up with some of the usual crowd as well as meet some new people. I only wish I had been been able to get there earlier or stay a bit later. I hadn’t been in a few weeks, and I really missed it. I hope I get to make it the next few weeks before we leave town.

My Londonist posts for the week:

I’m also still doing lots of work over at Workology, so if you consider yourself a Workologist — someone who works freelance or has their own business — please come join the discussion. The site is growing quickly and there are a lot of new conversations and job opportunities on the site.

A Day of Frustrating Visa Troubles

For our big summer trip, the only visa we need to get in advance is the one for India. And as luck would have it, the High Commission in London has just in the past week changed their system to an outsourced company to help alleviate the long lines and disorder that would typically accompany a visa-purveying trip.

Evan and I got our papers all ready over the weekend. We had our photos, our passports, our references and our supporting documents. We were short a paper clip, so I stopped by the Hilton on my way to the bus stop and asked at the front desk — they were happy to hand one over (thank you very much!). I got to the visa office just minutes after it opened at 8:30 and stood in a short line outside in the morning drizzle. When I got inside, I was instructed to take a number, then go wait. It was no different than being at the DMV.

I had a book with me — thank goodness, since I waited an hour and a half — and when I got up to the counter, I was told that I could get my tourist visa but Evan couldn’t. Now Evan certainly doesn’t have any reason to be denied a simple tourist visa, so what could be the problem? He doesn’t have a UK visa. Since our stay here is less than 6 months, he only has a work permit, which is good through July 4, 2008. I got a visa because it was the easiest way for me to go.

Now why should this matter? I’m not quite sure. We’re both here legally, we’re not returning to the UK after our trip and we’ll be leaving the country before Evan’s visa expires. But apparently his non-visa status strips him of his right to getting a visa to a foreign country he would otherwise be allowed to travel to.

It’s not like we have anywhere else to get the visa. The U.S. India visa site tells us we need to apply for a visa wherever we currently are — we shouldn’t be shipping passports overseas. The agent’s suggestion: Get our visas from Cairo. And while spending part of our short stay in Egypt in a visa queue sounds ever so appealing, we’re not guaranteed we’ll get it there, either. It will take at least 3-4 business days to process, which would be cutting it awfully close when we only have a week in the city.

Fittingly, when Evan emailed the Cairo High Commission, they told him it would probably be easier to apply in the UK, so we’re just being sent around in circles.

So now we’re debating whether to keep our itinerary and try to get visas from Cairo or to change our plans and head to Cyprus, Turkey, Israel or some other location instead. Maybe this is our sign that we shouldn’t be heading to Mumbai during monsoon season.