Millennium Bridge from St. Peters
The sky never changed color all day. I woke in London, in a second floor, Airbnb, walk-up facing a busy street where the light hardly shifted between the glow from street lights or sun. The sky stayed that indeterminate gray – it could’ve been dawn or dusk – but I was on a quest to find fun places to visit in London. After mapping out a few ideal scenarios for the day, I needed to figure out how to get around. I had buses, trains and lots of walking ahead of me. Taking careful notes and carrying a phone battery back up so I wouldn’t get stranded, I stepped into the winter chill.
First task – Purchase an Oyster card
The night before I had passed a shop advertising Oyster Cards. The woman behind the counter wore a hijab and in an assured British accent told me the ins and outs of the card. Being there one day only with the Oyster card gave me freedom to take the Underground and buses without digging in my purse for change (not accepted on buses) or tallying up more credit card fees. The card is simple to use – you swipe it when you get on a bus, once you’re at the turnstile into the Underground and then at the end of the journey to get out. It kept me moving in sync with the crowds around me. (*See below for tips about what to do with the card when you’re ready to leave London.)
About using London buses
- Drivers are helpful.
- Count stops between you and the destination.
- Don’t be afraid to explore.
- Sit upstairs on the double deckers’ to get the best vantage point.
- If you’re pressed for time, avoid taking buses in the central city during lunchtime on weekdays – the streets are clogged and the Underground works much more efficiently. You miss street views however.
The entrance to Leadenhall Market
I would never have visited Leadenhall Market if I’d been on the Underground. After arriving the day before at Gatwick airport, managing my way to Tower Bridge stop and onto the bus to Shoreditch, I spied Leadenhall Market from my seat. Mental note – check that out before leaving and it was a major find of the trip.
In the morning I returned to the same bus line (149 if you’re interested) and waited until we passed the Market. I got off at the next stop and walked back to explore. The building with it’s flourishes, bright golds and reds, was an anachronism in the midst of the modern city. Shops lined the passage way. Turns out quite a few movies have been filmed on the premises, the first Harry Potter included. I slowly strolled through and then was astounded by the uber-steam-punk, industrial design of the Lloyd’s tower building behind it.
Two views of Lloyd’s of London
What contrast! It was such a pleasure watching suits and skirts speed up to top floors in glass elevators. Around the corner was my first glimpse of the London Needle too. That again was a study in contrasts – its belly bending into the wind in brash, symmetrical lines. There were construction crews all over the neighborhood. Who knows what other architectural wonders are in the making?
Frances and friend, Shoe Shine Girls in Leadenhall Market
Back to Leadenhall I went and onto my next stop, I thought. At a corner of the hall, two young women sat astride shoe polishing boxes. Two women! I had to find out more and met Frances with her partner, both actresses with a day gig. Frances took to my boots with gusto. They soon looked better than when I’d purchased them at a consignment shop! Glad to support the arts!
Great Fire of London Monument
Great Fire of London Monument
I was looking for the Underground when I spotted the golden topped tower, standing round, slender and solitary in the midst of the area’s chunky, square buildings. The base is a block embellished with sayings in Latin and English, with statuary carved on one face and inside a long, winding staircase to climb to a viewing platform. I waited a few minutes for the privilege and then left, impatient with only so many hours to explore. There was no telling when the crowd upstairs would descend, no matter what the vendor said.
Millennium Bridge from the river bank
Into the Underground I went with the goal of visiting the Millennium Bridge and St. Peters Cathedral. The bridge was simple enough to find after I exited the station. Go towards the water, I told myself, and sure enough soon signs pointed the way. It is a very popular destination and my first real crowd experience of the day.
Sweeping, metal wings lift it over the Thames in a long gliding line. I would’ve liked to see a curve in the passage to complete the snake like reflection but perhaps the architects rejected that as too expensive.
The wings are something though – in matte aluminum rods and fittings, they lift and support. I walked out with hundreds of students on holiday and tourists like myself. Selfies were taken, family Christmas card shots made with the Tower Bridge in the background. Only wish I’d walked to the end and into the Tate museum instead of up to St. Peters. But the dome drew me on and I was standing in the official City of London in moments.
In the St. Paul’s Cathedral Garden
St. Peters Cathedral – Sort of
The Cathedral is imposing. As I ascended the steps I imagined Julie Andrews singing ‘Feed the Birds’ in My Fair Lady but inside the church doors all was not inviting. If you were there to attend a service there was no charge. If you wanted to gawk it was nearly $20 per adult and then no pictures were allowed. I don’t mind making a donation but decided an interior Cathedral shot wasn’t necessary.
In Neal’s Yard
Neal’s Yard is one of the fun places to visit in London
Out I went to find the Underground to Neal’s Yard in Coventry Garden. Emerging from the station I found the roads full and sidewalks clogged. This is winter in London- where is everyone going, I thought? Herds of school kids giggled past. I never saw an empty coffee shop. Through a combination of GPS and excellent maps posted at various points, I found the elusive Neal’s Park.
Stepping through a shadowy passage, I entered a brightly painted, tiny square skirted with trendy shops, dotted with benches and flowering pots. A neat network of hanging lights hung over the center. I parked on a bench and watched, listened and then checked my phone. If I were interested in shopping perhaps it would’ve been more compelling but aside from taking a few pictures, having a full tummy already, and not wanting to shop, there wasn’t much to keep me there.
Next task was walking to the British Museum. A very cool looking young man with bleached, short cropped hair passed me in Neal’s Yard. I saw him again, standing on the street smoking (a lot of people do that here,) looking every bit the artsy hipster. Still I found myself asking him, ‘ Is it possible that I’m on Monmouth Street and not lost?’ The question amused him and he melted into a kind stranger, offered me assurance that I had found it and pointed me in the right direction. It was a sweet and unexpected exchange – one of those encounters you miss if you’re not traveling alone.
The British Museum Gate
I walked on, twisting through streets and ended up on a small street with a Museum-this and a Museum-that kind of shop or tavern. One sign claimed that Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin had lived nearby and at the end there was an imposing structure – the British Museum. It’s free to the public which meant crowds were pouring in and out. School groups squatted to eat lunch on the stairs outside, others wandered through galleries with forms to fill out, clutches of them filled stairwell steps writing and talking.
Inside the British Museum
The central courtyard is a beauty to behold. An umbrella like grid opens above you as you enter the naturally lit atrium. The ceiling is an enormous net of glass and metal over a central restaurant that I wish I’d mounted the sweeping staircase to see.
No, I opted for the Egyptian galleries. I marveled at the Assyrian friezes. I studied Greek vases. I even napped briefly on a bench in front of several sculptures looted from Crete. Before a guard could rouse me, I woke thinking it was time for coffee. The Gallery Cafe was close enough to smell the java brewing. An energetic and earnest tall, young blonde with, I believe, an Italian accent, took orders and payments. It was all delicious.
In the British Museum cafe
I’ve always loved the refuge of museum cafes. There are interesting conversations to overhear, interesting characters and always good food. Alone, but not, in the way cafes can be, I felt comforted and revived for the next part of the journey, returning to Shoreditch. The goal was to get close via the Underground with space to walk for awhile. Thank goodness for GPS. When I emerged into an Indian neighborhood, no one could tell me where Shoreditch was! A taxi driver apologized that he couldn’t help with a slight Indian shake of his head. It was his first day on the job! But figure it out I did and walked on.
One shop in Spitlefield
The neighborhood shifted and soon I was on Brick Street. Cool shops, international restaurants smaller than my single, hotel room, and a half dozen vintage clothing places filled the streets. Then there were murals. I would see one, cross the street to study it and turn back to find another from that new angle!
Mural in the heart of Shoreditch
Shoreditch artists at work
Admittedly it was all a bit rough in a non-gentrified way but I never felt at risk even as the light faded. It was a wonderful walk and finding myself thirsty at Happy Hour in a metropolis dotted with bars, I felt it was time to take courage and walk into one.
A miniscule sampling of the Shoreditch murals.
One tavern called to me, the Market Garden, surely it would add to my fun places to visit. First there was the name on a span over a street but no doorway. I turned a corner to find the entrance, strolled up to the tiny bar and asked the barmaid what was on tap. As we were talking an older woman shouted from the other side of the bar, in a separate room entirely. She turned out to be the proprietor and motioned for me to step back out on the street then into the other side. All a bit odd, but I was game.
Sonya Esquilant, owner of the Tavern
Inside was a larger space. After helping me, Sonya Esquilant chose a bitters, “A lady’s drink,” the owner said, “Let me show you where to sit.” She dragged a chair noisily to a short bench. It was next to a brick mantle over an anemic electric fire. The chair was for ‘Your drink,’ she said but the seat was tilted. As soon as she turned back to her other clients, I placed the glass on the steadier bench beside me and before long was chatting with a mother and daughter sitting at the next table.
My glass empty, it was time for dinner and that wasn’t an option in the tavern, so out into the cold I returned. Back in the Shoreditch neighborhood there were pop up restaurants and galleries. Before long I was commiserating about the Brazilian economy with a couple running an open restaurant in a street arcade. The meal came back to the apartment with me. Popping open a bottle of Ginger Beer, I settled next to the window to savor my last meal in London. I needed to get some work done before the light shifted to dawn and I made my way to the airport. It was a remarkable day, full of fun places to visit in London.
Shoreditch popup couple
If you go:
- Oyster Card – Pick up at stations and various shops. *Refund on unused portion and deposit in the airport terminals. More here
- Leadenhall Market – A historic marketplace featured in many movies. More here
- Monument to the Great Fire of London – The tragedy that ravaged acres of the city is memorialized with a tower offering great views of the city. More here.
- British Museum – Free entrance and open daily More about the British Museum
- Millennium Bridge – Spans the Thames, walking bridge More about the bridge
- Shoreditch – A distinctive neighborhood full of art, trendy and new diversions More here.
- Neal’s Yard – Close to several Underground stops. More here
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