I went on my first UK trip and it took me a week to recover from the trip as it was exhausting. We tried to cover a lot in a single trip and that resulted in all of us getting extremely tired. This was our first actual trip to a foreign country and it required a lot of planning from our side before the trip since we were traveling with a toddler. Even with our exhaustive planning, a lot of things did not go as planned. I was still able to cover most of the must see places that I had on my list.
It was Harry Potter which made me want to visit London and UK, so all the Harry Potter related places were on my must see places list. I visited the Harry Potter Studios tour, which was the whole reason for making this trip in the first place. There was a video presentation on making of the movie, after which the door to Great Hall (the exact set from the movie) opened. I literally had tears in my eyes, as I felt like stepping into Hogwarts myself. How much more authentic can the experience get? I cannot remember the last time I had tears in my eyes due to happiness (not even when my son was born). I have been a Harry Potter fan for almost half of my life and nothing can match the happiness I felt after seeing the real sets from the movie based on the books which impacted me the most in my life. We saw Dumbledore’s office, Snape’s potion class, Harry’s dormitory, Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley, Privet Drive, Knight bus, Hogwarts Express, Hogwarts castle used in all the eight movies, along with props, wigs, wands. You name something from the movie and it was there. It was amazing. If you are a Harry Potter fan, you must not miss this tour.
I was happy to see the red telephone boxes everywhere (Ministry of Magic entrance). I also saw the Platform 9-3/4 Harry Potter shop at King’s Cross station and took a train to Scotland from that station. I realized how much Hogwarts Express was inspired from these trains to Scotland like the trolley witch, who is definitely inspired from the men and women who brings trolleys of food on these trains in the first class. We were served food and drinks multiple times (for free) on our journey to Scotland. We got a glimpse into the English countryside with farms and farm houses outside our window. I loved this train journey a lot.
Scotland was even more beautiful. The old buildings in Edinburgh, the majestic castles, medieval era buildings, armory, the old town vibe, friendly people all around, Bagpiper music, cold weather, beautiful highlands… I did not want to leave that country. It was the best part of the whole trip and to think that I did not have Scotland on my plan earlier! I got to visit the cafe where JKR wrote the Harry Potter books. I am definitely going to visit Scotland again in my life someday.
Other than these, what delighted me the most were my visits to some bookshops. I visited Foyles, Waterstones Piccadilly and Hatchards. 6 floors full of books! For a book lover like me, it was like browsing through shelves in Heaven. So many beautiful editions of books that I can never find in US. Every topic had so many books that I did not have time to browse through all the shelves. I could spend an entire day in one such bookstore. I resisted myself since I already had lot of luggage to carry with me. I chose small, thin books over bulky ones. Why don’t we have such bookstores in US?!
I was also impressed with the Crown Jewels at Tower of London. British ruled almost entire world so no wonder they have an impressive collection of jewels. I was shocked to see the amount of gold and gems they own. I wanted to catch a glimpse at Kohinoor diamond and I saw it on a crown there.
I also loved visiting Westminster Abbey, which was beautiful inside. The medieval age architecture was amazing to look at, but unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs. After hearing about Mary, Queen of Scots in my Scotland tour, I was interested in her tomb, which lay right next to her arch nemesis’ (Elizabeth I). We were pleasantly surprised to see Stephen Hawking’s tomb next to tombs of some great scientists like Isaac Newton, Herschel, Kelvin etc. Poet’s corner was also interesting with tombs of all the well known writers.
We made a quick trip to Royal Observatory at Greenwich where the prime meridian exists (longitude 0). Hubby and I loved this place as we are fascinated with science. We got to see the clocks which were invented to solve the longitude problem.
We visited the Natural History Museum after hearing my aunt rave about it, but I found it pretty disappointing. After visiting these museums in US (especially the one in New York), I felt the London museum was overhyped for no reason. US ones are definitely better. Harrods (famous store) wasn’t that great either. Most of the brands in that shop can be found in US malls and it looked like everything was overpriced for no reason.
Sherlock Holmes museum was an interesting place for his fans. They have converted an old Victorian house into a museum with wax statues of characters from his books, along with Holmes’ and Watson’s rooms as described in the books. We also had the afternoon high tea at couple of tea shops in London. After reading about scones and tea in Enid Blyton’s books, it was great to experience them first hand.
Other than these places, we saw the usual touristy places, which I just saw so that I could tick them off on the list. Stonehenge was good. A trip to Oxford University reminded me of all the great men who studied or taught there. We even saw the place where J R R Tolkien would sit and smoke in the evenings. Windsor Castle and Buckingham palace with changing of guards are definitely great to visit and must see for anyone visiting London. We also visited few other touristy places like Piccadilly Circus, Westminster, Tower Bridge etc. Big Ben was undergoing some major repair work.
Public transport rocks. Subway trains (called tube) and black taxis were extremely useful for commute. I wish we could travel this easily in US. We tried Uber cabs couple of times since we could not find black taxis and did not like them at all. Thanks to Anna for helping me figure out the public transport in London and for her help in planning the trip. Also, thanks to SG for all the help he gave.
People in UK are famous for being snobbish. We did encounter some snobs during our train journey. But few strangers did strike a conversation with us. Like the school teacher we met at Greenwich who was extremely friendly. Looks like people in London like small kids. Many people were attracted to our toddler and spoke to him nicely. People even volunteered to help us few times in London, when we were struggling with stroller, bags and a cranky toddler.
Overall, I had a positive experience and it’s not as bad as people make it sound. I did have some difficulty in understanding the British accent. Local people also had trouble understanding my US accent. The other issue we had was finding stores other than cafes or grocery stores. I had no idea there were that many coffee shops in London. I always thought people drank only tea there. But I did not like the bitter coffee from Starbucks in London. We did face mild racist comments in couple of places, but generally it was fine. UK is not very wheelchair/stroller friendly, especially tube stations. Most places have steps but not ramps or elevators, unlike US.
I loved this trip and now want to visit other countries in Europe sometime. Next on my bucket list is Italy and France. Let’s see when I will be able to visit them.