London became my second home in 2016 when my better half had to relocate for work, and I decided to stay back in New York City because of “career-building.”
You know, that thing we used to do before COVID.
As if taking the relationship long-distance wasn’t stressful enough, this was happening during the Brexit years and the advent of Donald Trump in politics.
So my first cultural lesson in “Britishness” was internalizing that ubiquitous WW2 motto: “Keep calm and carry on.”
That period turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the consecutive long-weekend trips across the pond ignited a passion for discovering and eventually travel blogging.
I’d drag my bag to work every Thursday of every long weekend. In the afternoon, I would head to JFK or Newark to fly to the other side of the ocean, only to return home that Monday.
Talk about jet lag on top of an emotional roller coaster.
I’d explored famous sights near the neighborhoods we’d stayed at: Marylebone, Notting Hill, Fitzrovia.
I was so afraid to get lost because of how new and intimidating everything seemed, especially Londoners’ custom of driving and walking on the left side of the road.
And, unlike most of Manhattan, which was laid out as a grid, making it easier for first-time visitors to find their way around, London’s urban planning seemed random.
However, the highly efficient public transportation system, the London Underground or “tube,” along with its iconic double-decker fleet of red buses, optimized traveling from one famous sight of the city to another.
And so that’s how I got to know Oxford, Regent & Carnaby streets. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Square, Trafalgar & Parliament Square (where Elizabeth Tower, a.k.a. Big Ben is). The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Tower and London bridges, etc.
As much as these sights may seem, it’s just scratching the surface. Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch, Hyde and St. James’ parks, Shoreditch, Primrose Hill, I got to also experience these and many more Instagrammable places in subsequent trips.
But I also seemed to stick to the city, afraid to explore the unknown, risking getting lost.
That’s the thing about comfort zones.
It took me seven years, but I finally made it beyond London, and I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner!
Something I highly recommend to even first-time visitors: set an entire day aside and book one of those famous London Day Trips. They’re worth every single penny.
But do it well in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute as they’ll book up: an excuse to keep postponing it and go to another familiar city place instead.
I used Evan Evans Tours (shoutout to Karina and Simon!), but if you Google “London Day Trips,” you’ll find an abundance of tours by multiple companies with different itineraries and price points to “suit your fancy,” as the British say.
My tour was £27, not including the entrance fees to a couple of the attractions (about £25-30 each), food, souvenirs and tips! It takes the whole day’s price up to around £140.
The itinerary was as follows: meet at Victoria Coach Station at 8:00 AM, first stop at Windsor Castle, then Stonehenge and finally a walking tour of the town of Oxford.
You’ll especially love the last one if you’re a “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” fan.
They’ll put you back in Central London at around 6:30-7:00 PM, just in time for pub hour!
As our guide said, people leisurely spend the entire day at each of these places, and by booking the tour, we had decided to see three of them in one day, so time and efficiency were of the essence.
It took about 75 minutes to get from Victoria Coach Station to Windsor Castle, and we had about two hours to roam around the grounds. Capture all your content here as they don’t allow photography inside.
Highlights: the grand Royal Apartments and Queen Mary’s collection of miniatures and dollhouses (complete with working elevators and tiny bottles of Dom Perignon!).
Suppose you’re one of those persons who need to take their time reading every description at museums. In that case, this tour is probably not for you and you’re better off going independently by train.
I’m not kidding. The coach won’t wait even 5 minutes for you. Pretend it’s a cruise ship.
Another helpful tip was to buy a cold sandwich (never hot food or “something smelly like Mc Donald’s”) to eat at the coach during the trip to the next destination instead of wasting precious time sitting at a local cafe or restaurant.
Stop 2, Stonehenge was an hour and a half from Windsor Castle. As our guide, and later my partner, said: It used to be a place along the road where people stopped, checked out the “rocks,” and moved on.
Now, however, was a world-class exhibition, complete with a fancy visitor center designed by Australian architect Denton Corker Marshall, from where shuttle buses take you to a prudent distance from the actual monument.
Another 120 minutes to capture media, rush through the shop and cafeteria, and meet our guides at the coach park to proceed to our final destination: Oxford.
If you feel like you’re in a movie, it’s because this place has been the location for many films and TV programs, including “Harry Potter,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Theory of Everything.”
And aside from being the location of these and many other works of fiction and literature, it’s been the place of education for artists like Dame Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”) and “The Lord of the Rings” author J. R. R. Tolkien.
Perhaps this is another place to take time and explore at one’s own pace. It was already around three o clock by the time we arrived, and all stores, libraries, and museums close at 5 PM.
Nonetheless, highlights include the Martyr’s Memorial, University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Christ Church College, Bodleian Library and—the one I would personally like to visit and spend some time in—The History of Science Museum, where they treasure Albert Einstein’s blackboards.
One last thing: Oxford students and townspeople have hated each other since at least 1167. But there’s only one thing they seem to agree on: their disdain for tourists. So proceed with caution.