Did I ever mention that I’m a bit of a rewards points junkie? I accumulate points every chance I can, hoarding them specifically for long haul travel every few years. And here we are, leaving the single digit Sydney winter morning temperatures behind, stepping into an unusual stretch of glorious twenty eight degree blue sky days in central London. “A heat wave” the UK press was calling it.
I hadn’t been to London for some years, and previous trips had been work related. I’d forgotten what the crowds are like. People think Sydney is getting crowded, we have nothing on these throngs. A friend I caught up with who had moved here from Sydney nine months earlier said that the crowds and congestion was one of the most difficult things to get used to.
With such lovely days we mostly walked rather than doing the underground, clocking up some 65km in four days. We saw, we shopped, we ate. But if you’re like The Marito and I, and need to start your day with a coffee, be prepared for some sticker shock. Coffee pricing was a bit of an anomaly. Our morning flat white was typically £4.50 (almost $9 Australian). Whereas you could get a pastry at Selfridges for £2, a takeaway sandwich at Marks and Spencer for as little at £1.30, a tasty ham and cheese baguette for £3.30 or two eggs on toast at a café for £6.50.
Sights and things to do
One of the wonderful things about London is all the free museums, with a voluntary donation. Only special exhibitions require a paid ticket. I was really looking forward to the Tate Modern (there is also the Tate Britain) and with just cause. Walking around and seeing Dali, Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky and the like was a real privilege. We all loved it.
As is often the case with modern art, it can be controversial and prone to a few WTF moments. The Marito saw a white triangle hanging on the wall and thought it looked like something our builder had cut out at the reno site. And the smear of plaster looked courtesy of our gyprocker. A display on the floor of what looked like a series of poo perhaps was – when I read the description it said it was a reflection of “organic matter”.
It’s a fabulous art museum, don’t miss it.
The British Museum
This was hands down one of the most impressive history museums I have ever been to. Again, free entry. I had organised a “treasure hunt” through THAT Muse (Treasure Hunt At The Museum). The lovely Daisy met us at the entry and gave us a great museum overview and introduction, and then gave us the treasure hunt we had selected and the rules. It was really good fun finding the pieces on our hunt – we paired up in twos, and if there is another family on the hunt at the same time you can compete with them. It was an entertaining way to see the museum. They also do hunts at the V&A and the Louvre.
It’s sad that the iconic FAO Schwartz in New York closed down. Hamleys is the London version and great entertainment – multiple floors of fun, live product demos and cool displays. They have a lot of their own unique branded products as well as major brands. One of the Small People walked away with a giant BB8, who we hauled with us on the rest of our trip. He’s now safely esconced in Australia.
We had a wander through the expansive Kensington Gardens, amused that many Brits not coping with the “heat wave” were lying in the park on towels with half their gear off. You pass all the cottages where the various royals and staff live before getting to Kensington Palace, where you can buy tickets to see a few rooms. On the day we were there it was Princess Diana’s birthday, and people had started putting flowers and tributes.
Changing of the guard
It is one to tick off in London but it does move rather slowly and if you haven’t read up on how it works you have no idea what’s going on. We went up to the Victoria Monument to see it, which gave us freedom to move around and see the various troupes coming from various directions. I would have loved to have done a Buckingham Palace tour but it is only open for certain weeks of the year.
And here’s London’s nicest (camera shy) policeman – so incredibly polite, and also patient with the hoards of people that were asking him for directions.
What a wonderful market! There’s a great variety of bread, pastries, fruit, meals to go, and lots of taste testing on offer. You could definitely come for breakfast our lunch. Some days of the week are only a “half market” so do try and catch the full market if you can.
I was really keen to go to Westminster Abbey, but the line was enormous. If there is a “skip the line” ticket option, go that route. We also wandered over to Big Ben but that was scaffolded for work, and Trafalgar Square was largely closed off too. We had also planned a wander to Covent Garden but ran out of time.
The food halls
All the big department stores have food halls, usually in the basement or ground floor, where you can buy groceries but also sandwiches, salads, rotisserie items and ready meals. At the more “everyday” end is Marks and Spencer which we popped into quite a bit at lunch. The Small People, going through a teenage growth spurt, currently have hollow legs. They have almost reverted to newborn status, needing feeding every 2-3 hours, and we would regularly stop in for food on our walkabouts.
The next level up is Selfridges, who’s bakery and chocolate halls are impressive.
But the Harrods food hall is another level entirely, with luxe and incredible displays. At the caviar bar, where not a single seat was free, a quick menu scan showed prices starting at £44 and going up to £790.
Oxford Street is a huge shopping strip, a good few kilometres on both sides to occupy you, same with Regent Street. You can also veer off into bits like Molton Lane which has some nice stores. There are all the big name brands you’d expect as well as some great British brands I’m partial to. Shops are generally open from 10am and close at 9pm, except for Sundays where it is more like 12pm to 6pm.
Duck and Waffle
If you can’t be bothered queuing up for the London Eye, Duck and Waffle on level 40 of the Heron Tower in Bishopgate gives some sweeping views of London. Open 24/7 there is a pretty cool bar and a sit down restaurant, which we tried for breakfast. I had their signature duck & waffle dish and the confit of duck was delicious and indulgent. The Small People’s eggs were very good too, and they said that their first taste of “British sausage” hit the mark. It is a pricey breakfast with the view but also something different. Service was good.
45 Jermyn St
Next to Fortnum and Mason, I loved the interiors of this stylish bar and bistro and think it would be a fun dinner venue. The breakfast, while tasty, was very small and a bit frugal. My wild mushroom omelette was delicious, but came with no toast, and the small people got one small slice of bread each with their scrambled and fried eggs.
A stone’s throw from the British Museum, where we were headed that morning, Dalloway Terrace which I had heard good things about seemed like the ideal venue. We had a mixed bag experience. Service was all over the place and rather hopeless, but it was probably the best coffee we had. My shakshuka was incredibly delicious and I want to try and replicate it, but the Big Breakfast that the Small People ordered was dry and extremely unappealing, and not really that big for £16.
Daisy Green is run by Aussies, as the Bondi Breakfast on the menu gives away. Daisy has a few siblings in other parts of London including Scarlett, Timmy and Darcey . It was a tasty and generous breakfast with some good creativity, we all really enjoyed it and certainly would have come back if it wasn’t our last day. We also had our first coffee under £4. Friendly staff.
Unintentionally, we seemed to end up in the Soho area every night for dinner. I looked up various places before our trip and saw where I wanted to go, and they all just happened to be in the same area. Like New York’s Soho, there are plenty of choices clustered together.
I knew we’d be having plenty of pasta in Italy but I’d heard great things about Pastaio. And Steve Parle’s silky handmade strands certainly delivered, with a lovely simplicity that any nonna would approve of. There are also some great prosecco slushies, and my lemon one was very refreshing. It’s in a really fun laneway area, joining Kingly Lane where people were spilled onto sidewalks with a beer and lots of other venues to choose from. There are no bookings here.
Rosa’s Thai, Soho
A relatively cheap and cheerful Thai chain, there are a handful of Rosa’s across parts of London. The marinated pork skewers and the stir fried egglant dish were particularly delicious.
This modern Chinese diner with a splash of blue rather than traditional red ticked a lot of boxes. Truly excellent service and really tasty food. We loved every dish.
They also have a very pretty pastry counter which you can eat in or takeaway.
I had to try and Ottolenghi restaurant while I was in London, and booked NOPI sometime in advance since it was a weekend. Loved the fit out of this place with all the brass, and checkout the “hall of mirrors” style bathrooms. The food was delicious, I would love to get my hands on that eggplant recipe which The Marito and I particularly liked. And the twice cooked roast chicken. The only dish we didn’t enjoy was the chickpeas, as the spice overpowered and drowned the ingredients.
I had a whole bunch of Hyatt points (refer paragraph 1) from years of staying at Hyatt hotels for work and cashed them in for a few nights at Hyatt Regency The Churchill (otherwise this place is pretty pricey). Fantastic location, a stone’s throw from Selfridges and the Oxford St shopping strip, and the Marble Arch tube station around the corner. Decent sized rooms for central London but tiny bathrooms, if one of us was in there it was already crowded.
Thanks for having us London! A few shots from around town. Next up, Puglia.