Christmas Carols & Middle Eastern Music on Oxford Street

The melting pot doesn’t end in London, though.

“Immigrants have been coming here for over a thousand years,” said our guide, Debbie. The self-professed “London girl” also warned us that we’d all be foreigners in Kent, England, our destination 44 miles southeast of London.

We started in the historic Leeds Castle, owned by monarchs and lords from the 13th through the 19th centuries and purchased and restored by American heiress Lady Olive Baillie in the 1920s.

Leeds Castle, Kent, England

After she died in 1974, Lady Baillie left the property to a foundation created to preserve it for posterity. The building, grounds and personal effects are evidence of a time when American industrialists and cash-strapped European nobility were a match made in heaven. 

Lady Baillie’s Apartments

Up next, Debbie and our lovely coach’s driver, Joan, took us to the historic White Cliffs of Dover. The white chalk natural monuments are as much a homecoming sight for those sailing back to England today as once they were for “Dunkirk” survivors amid WWII.

White Cliffs of Dover

For the third and final leg of our day trip, we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Canterbury. Syrian, Thai and Mexican food trucks—and even a Bolivian guy selling Andes-themed Christmas sweaters—lined the street market leading up to the medieval Canterbury Cathedral Gate.

Canterbury Cathedral Gate

The breathtaking Canterbury Cathedral, also known as “England in Stone,” has witnessed the country’s history for centuries. Magna Carta negotiations, royal weddings and funerals, WWII bombings and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket are some of the momentous events that happened within its walls. 

Canterbury Cathedral

Back in London, holiday angels flew over locals and visitors from all walks of life at the tune of Christmas carols and Middle Eastern music played by stores and the ubiquitous pedicabs from Oxford Street to Spitalfields Market.

Spitalfields Market.

The deliciously-looking Brazilian Bolinhos de Bacalhau, Napolitan pizzettas and other international delicatessen tempted me as I walked through the market and towards Brick Lane, the district famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi curry houses. 

Brick Lane, East London

London will treat you to the world’s flavors on one corner and its grand heritage on the next. Holborn Bars, a Victorian red terracotta building in Camden, stands on the site of a former Inn where Charles Dickens lived and worked.

Holborn Bars

Built by the Knights Templar, Temple Church is another national treasure. The official house worship of the Inner and Middle Temples, two of London’s four ancient legal colleges, holds the tombs of prominent jurists, knights and priceless works of art like the Blitz-surviving 12th-century Victorian tiles. 

Temple Church

The railings of another historic church, Holy Sepulchre London, preserve London’s First Drinking Fountain. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association built it in 1859 to end the cholera outbreaks that had plagued the city until then.

London’s First Drinking Fountain

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of those underrated London treasures. The former Lincoln Inn Fields, home of the famous Neo-classical architect, remains untouched since the Victorian days, and it’s renowned for its sepulchral chamber with the Egyptian sarcophagus. 

Sir John Soane’s Museum

While Central London’s Christmas decorations are a must, it’s worth taking the trek to Christmas at Kew, where talented artists combined the botanical beauty with neon lights and holiday music to achieve spectacular, immersive experiences like The Palm House and The Cathedral.

Christmas at Kew

Last but not least, visiting Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter was genuinely magical, as was witnessing how the phenomenon based on J. K. Rowling’s famous books keeps bringing together people of all nationalities, races and generations.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter

Happy Christmas, England!

America, This Is London Calling

The dismantling of women’s rights feels even more surreal from across the pond.

The BBC anchorperson reported that the United States Supreme Court had ended the constitutional right to abortion, leaving the door open to reverse access to contraception and marriage equality.

Punch to the gut.


I went to Hyde Park to walk it out.

The bright summer day felt bittersweet.

BST Hyde Park

They were setting the stage for British Summer Time Hyde Park (BST Hyde Park) that, between June 24th and July 10th, would feature the likes of The Rolling Stones, Eagle and Adele as headliners.

I felt that, at the time, a more apt corner of the park was the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, designed by Kathryn Gustafson and Neil Porter and inaugurated in 2004.

The beautiful and sizeable Cornish granite oval stream surrounds a lush grassy field. It is accessible to and popular with children as the designers intended to pay tribute to Lady D.

Water flows from the highest point of the fountain in two directions, cascading, swirling and bubbling before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom, representing two sides of Diana’s life: “happiness and turmoil.”

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain

London is all about its parks. That’s why defying the public transportation strike, I decided to go beyond the central part of the city and headed out to Parliament Hill Fields.

All it takes it’s a 45-minute double-decker bus ride to feel like one’s in the country side.

The stunning grassy public space, one of the highest points in London, from where the Houses of Parliament are visible on a clear day, embraces ancient woodlands, playgrounds and a training track.

The site is also home to a remnant of Victorian times: the iconic Hampstead Heath Ponds—London’s early water supply, and sex-segregated swimming ponds, which opened in the late 1890s and continue to serve the community today.

Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond

Ever the WW2 nerd, I needed to get my fix by visiting the Churchill War Rooms, the historic underground complex that housed the British government’s command center during the Second World War from August 1939-45.

Highlights: The Map Room, where British Army, Royal Navy and Air Force officers produced daily intelligence for the King, Prime Minister and the military Chiefs of Staff. And The Cabinet Room, from where Churchill famously declared: “This is the room from which I’ll direct the war.”

Churchill War Rooms

Another crucial rooms were the Transatlantic Telephone Room, from where Churchill spoke securely with US President Roosevelt. And Churchill’s office bedroom included portable BBC broadcasting equipment from where the prime minister made four wartime broadcasts.

we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved.

Winston Churchill
Churchill’s Transatlantic Telephone Room

One of my favorite things about London is that it’s the next best thing to a time machine. And so, from the mid-20th century, I transported myself back to the 1000s by visiting Westminster Abbey.

The place of coronation, marriage and burial for monarchs, and where prime ministers, poets, writers and military leaders are buried or memorialized, also houses the historic King Edward’s Coronation Chair, the Chapter House and the stunningly beautiful Medieval Wall Paintings.

Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey

From a young fisherman having a vision of St. Peter to Benedictines worshipping on the current site to monarchs establishing it as a Royal Church, Westminster Abbey has a rich history.

My favorite part is the Poets’ Corner, inaugurated in 1400 with the burial of The Father of English Poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1740, William Shakespeare was commemorated with a memorial that reads “buried at Stratford-on-Avon.”

Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey

Other famous artists buried or memorialized at the Abbey include Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Lewis Caroll, Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot.

This town’s breadth and depth of culture encompass not only a multitude of eras but also genres, as demonstrated by The Cartoon Museum—a hidden gem in the Fitzrovia neighborhood of Central London.

The Cartoon Museum, London

With a political satire-oriented permanent collection exhibiting original works from the 1700s on, I was in heaven. Some of the most important historical events, including “recent ones” as WW2, the Watergate scandal and Brexit, have been brilliantly immortalized by the most legendary British cartoonists.

The museum runs events and has books on the history of cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels available for research upon appointment.

The Cartoon Museum, London

It also holds temporary exhibitions, one of which, “Love Stories,” includes previously untold LGBTQ+ narratives commemorating Pride Month. I’m in love. It’s my new favorite London museum.

The Wallace Collection is another hidden gem in the heart of Marylebone. The former townhouse of the Seymour family, Marquesses of Hertford, it’s named after Sir Richard Wallace, who—along with his descendants—built the extensive collection in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

The Wallace Collection, London

The collection features Old Master paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velásquez and many more, as well as pictures, miniatures, decorative arts, arms and armor and furniture.

Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow bequeathed it to the nation. The collection opened to permanent public view in 1900, and admission remains free. 

“The Laughing Cavalier” by Frans Hals, The Wallace Collection

I contemplate an imminent return to my country and wonder whether, after leaving the United States, I would be coming back to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” dystopian Republic of Gilead.

And, once again, these somber thoughts contrasted with my bright surroundings: a picture-perfect day at Regents’ Parks’ Queen Mary’s Garden.

Queen Mary’s Garden, London

The gardens, contiguous to the Japanese Garden Island with its waterfall, a couple of bridges and statues, it’s famous for their 12,000 roses and are beautifully arranged circularly.

I saw the BT Tower perfectly framed by the flowers. The icon, which serves as orientation in the city, gave me some perspective about the situation that looms across the pond: my fellow Americans, do not keep calm and carry on!

BT Tower, London


How I Got Out of My London Comfort Zone

I don’t know why it took so long to book one of those London Day Trips, but I’m glad I finally did.

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.”

In one of my first trips to London in the summer of 2016

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.

Regent Street between Oxford and Piccadilly Circus: one of Central London’s most iconic spots

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.

Covent Garden: a popular market to spend an afternoon shopping, eating and watching street performers

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.

Windsor Castle: just one of the gorgeous experiences that await once one decides to leave one’s London bubble

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.

No ticket for the walking tour of Oxford. Windsor and Stonehenge were about £27 each

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.

Like The Statue of Liberty and Monalisa, Stonehenge felt smaller in real life

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.

History of Science Museum at Oxford

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. 

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