In July 2012, Paul and I rented an apartment in Paris for a month. It was quite possibly the best thing we’ve ever done. It was an absolutely thrilling experience to drop ourselves into a city in a country an ocean away from our own, to communicate in a language we didn’t speak, and to live a lifestyle so culturally different from the American way. We are changed because of Paris and our view on life and the way it should be lived has been transformed. Paris is like a stamp on our identities now. It has shaped who we are and how we see the world, opened our eyes to how other people live, and made us overwhelmingly aware of the value of slowing it down a bit.
In July 2013, we packed up our two-door black Jeep Wrangler and drove across the United States of America, from New Jersey to Oregon and back. This, in comparison to Paris, was exhausting, expensive, and entirely not our idea of a relaxing vacation. It was work, hard work, and although we don’t regret the trip, we don’t ever care to do it again. There was reward in it, for sure, and we have some amazing stories to tell, but it wasn’t Paris. It just couldn’t match up.
So here we are in July 2014, and no, we didn’t go away for a month this time. Although we have the months of July and August to bask in whatever we wish (sort of), we felt it important to spend part of our summer vacation here with family and friends, something we’ve been unable to focus on while away for months at a time. Therefore, we took a 12 day vacation to London and Paris, with four days in London and eight days in our favorite little city by the Seine.
This post is completely devoted to all things London, our little discoveries and our suggestions. While our stay in London wasn’t at all lengthy, it was a great starting off point for future visits. Hopefully, some of our experiences will provide our readers with a basic idea, or guide, in getting to and around London, and most importantly, eating well while doing so.
How To Get There
We’ve flown to/from London on both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic and have been very pleased with both. This was our first time flying Virgin Atlantic, and I must say, they’ve got that extra something we just love. I don’t think it is entirely due to the “Feel Good” pack they give you at your seat, complete with toothbrush, eye mask, pen, lip balm, ear plugs, and socks. There is something more about this airline that just makes you feel a little bit better. The purple lighting? The excellent flight attendant service? Sir Richard Branson? The fact that they got us from Point A to Point B without any delays or catastrophes? I’d say all of these good things add up to a great airline. Plus you can join their Virgin Flying Club and earn miles towards future flights as well as earn rewards through their partners, one of which is the Starwood Preferred Guest program, which we so happen to adore.
We flew straight into Heathrow and took the Heathrow Express Shuttle Service straight to our hotel. Not the best experience considering we reserved it for 9am pick-up and when our flight got in considerably early, 7:30 or so, we still had to wait until 9 for a driver to arrive. Note to Heathrow Express: Don’t tell your customers to call if your flight gets in early, just to tell them they have to wait until their scheduled pick-up time. We learned quickly that the best mode of transportation in and out of Heathrow is the Underground. We took it to get back to Heathrow for our flight home and it was an easier and considerably cheaper option. The only reason we didn’t take the Underground when we arrived in Heathrow was because our hotel advised us that the safest ways to get in to the city were by taxi or shuttle bus. Forget that, just take the Underground. We took it a couple of times during our stay, once late at night, and both times I felt considerably safe.
As I mentioned earlier, we are big fans of the Starwood Preferred Guest program and, since we are Gold members, we are always trying to accumulate our stays in hopes of attaining the coveted Platinum status. Last year we came so close, only 7 stays away! Then the calendar year bumped us back to where we started, and we are now pretty well convinced that unless we get jobs traveling the world and living out of hotel rooms, we are destined to be Lifetime Gold Members. That’s okay, though. Gold has many, many perks.
Seeing as Starwood has hotels all over the world, I thought it might be lovely to get an official Starwood stay out of our time in London. We settled on the Le Meridien Piccadilly, in yes, Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London. Times Square gives me the shakes by the way and the last thing I’d ever want to do is put my head down anywhere close to an M&M World. So why would I opt for a hotel in the same utterly Disneyfied, TGIFridayed, believe it or not there was a Ripleys, part of London? Well, now, that’s a funny story.
I thought I was getting this amazing deal when my eyes landed on a sale on the Le Meridien Piccadilly website. Seeing as I couldn’t find anything in London even close to affordable, I snagged a 3 night stay and then realized, after Paul’s reaction to the credit card bill, that I didn’t convert the pounds to dollars like I thought I did. To this day, I swear I used the conversion feature on the website, but unfortunately, that $215 dollar a night stay I thought I was getting turned out to be 215 pounds, which is equivalent to $363 per night. I usually don’t make these kinds of really dumb mistakes, but we all have our moments and this was one of mine. Luckily, Paul took it well, but I’m sure I’m destined for the “Are you sure it’s dollars?” question for many, many years to come.
The Le Meridien Piccadilly was a very lovely hotel and the rooms were somewhat larger than the typical European hotel room. We were happy with our accommodations, but unfortunately, we seemed to be the only Americans that were content with the hotel’s services. Almost each and every time we passed the front desk there was somebody complaining to a manager about something that wasn’t to their satisfaction. I was sad to see the way some customers spoke to the staff and found their tone towards employees of the hotel to be downright rude and abusive. I even heard one woman proclaim she just “wasn’t going to pay” for the food she had in the hotel restaurant. Her behavior was so disgusting I thought she might stomp her foot and have a temper tantrum if she didn’t get her way. I just don’t quite understand the sense of entitlement so many people carry, and to be honest, it really bothers me. There are certainly better and more polite ways to communicate to others, even if you are dissatisfied with their services.
While I was very happy with Le Meridien, I would not recommend staying in Piccadilly Circus, unless you love all that crowded craziness. In fact, originally we wanted to stay at the Lime Tree, a small boutique hotel in Belgravia, a residential district of London . We contacted them well in advance to make a reservation and they were completely booked. Perhaps the next time we visit London we can score a room at this cozy little establishment. The Belgravia area seems more our speed. Check it out here: http://www.limetreehotel.co.uk
London is incredibly expensive. While prices are comparable to New York City, keep in mind, the dollar and the pound are not equivalent in value. Right now as I am typing this, 1 US Dollar is equal to 0.59 British Pound Sterling. So when you purchase two tickets to ride the London Eye, this great big amazing Ferris wheel with incredible views, it may seem like 29.50 pounds a ticket is not that bad. But when you convert that price per ticket to dollars and multiply it by two, you are looking at shelling out $99.60 to ride a Ferris wheel. While that may seem completely insane (and it is), you absolutely have to, and I emphasize, have to take a ride on the London Eye. It is not your ordinary Ferris wheel. You ride in an air-conditioned capsule with a bunch of people you don’t know. Of course you can have your own private capsule, but remember, that’s going to cost you a lot more pounds, which is going to break your bank in dollars. Forget that and ride with some strangers! You can walk around or sit and see magnificent views of Parliament and Big Ben. You rotate at a very slow speed so don’t worry that you spent almost $100 to go around one time. In my opinion, it is worth every penny and something you can’t miss when visiting London.
Paul and I walked and walked around the city of London and took in some pretty great sights along the way. Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, Speaker’s Corner, Covent Garden, and many more. We kind of saw the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace considering we had a viewing space right up against the gates, but once the dashing red suited soldiers with fuzzy hats came marching in, so did the crowds. I highly recommend you don’t stand anywhere near the royal gates of the palace unless, of course, you like having your personal bubble of commoner space completely invaded. I much prefer to keep my commoner bubble free of any intruders.
Let’s talk Fat Tire Bike Tours. Do you think it is absolutely crazy to ride a bicycle around London? Of course it is! So what did we do? Hopped on some beach cruisers and pedaled our way over the Tower Bridge, along the crowded paths beside the Thames, through the eerily quiet financial heart of downtown London, and into Leadenhall Market. For you Harry Potter fans, Leadenhall Market is Diagon Alley, where Harry buys his wand, among other essentials required by the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Since we’ve taken several bike tours through Paris, we thought an evening bike tour of London was just what we needed, not only to learn about the city and see some sights, but also to enjoy a warm evening bicycling through a new place. Unfortunately, biking in London in the evening is quite a challenge. It is absolutely nothing like bicycling through Paris and it is nerve-wracking at times, especially when trying to steer your bike through large numbers of people. Luckily, at the end of the tour, you abandon your cruiser for a couple of pints at a 400 year old pub. Trust me, you will need these to settle your nerves.
I must say we were a little disappointed with Fat Tire London. The tour guides were wonderful, but the “office” is nothing like Fat Tire Paris. We had to meet at a subway station and walk as a group to a lonely garage in a rather unpleasant location to pick up bikes. In Paris, you meet at the Eiffel Tower and pick up your bikes at a shop, complete with bathrooms, t-shirts, water, and other items. There is something just a bit more welcoming about the Paris shop in comparison to the remotely situated London garage. We just didn’t feel safe returning our bikes to this barren location at 10:00 at night and walking the streets of London alone and in the dark. The tour guides were completely willing to walk anyone back to the Underground station who felt unsafe doing so on their own, but we opted to walk back to the Underground station with a group of people who were on the tour with us. Safety in numbers right?
Either way, Fat Tire is a great concept, and believe it or not, a company started by a guy from Texas. You can Fat Tire it around Paris, London, Berlin, and Barcelona, but we hear Paris is the best. Of course, this gives us all the more reason to travel to Berlin and Barcelona to check it out for ourselves.
Food, glorious food! Unfortunately, London seems to carry around this reputation of culinary blandness, which I totally don’t understand seeing as there are a great many wonderful chefs that come out of London and some fantastic tasting food. Hopefully, London has outgrown this age old reputation, with cuisine influenced by people from all over the world. With only three days in London, it was hard for us to experience all of London’s great restaurants, but we did find three places that really hit the spot.
Dishoom. Oh Dishoom how we love thee. Dishoom is a Bombay Cafe in Convent Garden serving up the most delicious Indian food I’ve ever had the opportunity to indulge in. The food is truly fantastic and the naan is heavenly. Paul and I ate at Dishoom three times during our three-day stay! Our first day in London we went for lunch and fell in love with the menu. We shared a hearty bowl of rajma-chawal (spicy kidney beans served over basmati rice) and a piping hot serving of the house black dal. Of course, we scooped all of this up with the soft and delicious handmade classic naan. We couldn’t resist returning for breakfast and having their famous bacon naan roll, which was too good for words. Of course, we couldn’t leave London without having a final dinner at Dishoom. Paul, my husband who likes to stick to what he loves ordered up the rajma-chawal again, while I fawned over a bowl of mattar paneer, the best vegetable curry I’ve ever had the pleasure of scooping up with my naan. The tofu was nothing like any tofu I’ve ever had in my life. My best advice: go to London, go straight to Dishoom. If you aren’t staying near Covent Garden, they’ve got another location in Shoreditch. Just go.
Of course, you can’t go to London and not eat fish and chips. Well, I guess you could, but that would be silly. For our 4th anniversary dinner, we considered going somewhere really fancy and expensive, and then we thought, nah, who needs that when you’ve got fish and chips just down the street? So, in an effort not to walk very far and not spend all of our precious pounds in one spot, we hit up FishWorks, a rather cute little restaurant just halfway around the corner from our hotel. Now, I’m sure all the fish and chip experts of London are thinking there are better fish and chips elsewhere, but honestly, Fish Works was good. The fish was huge and battered just right and the chips were just the right crunch. We sat right near the open windows along the street and had a rather romantic dinner with a great bottle of wine and a side of mushy peas. Mushy peas are exactly that, mushy, and just not my thing, but I tried them at least. Unlike Paul who just didn’t even go there.
Our third little gem in London was a charming little place called Bill’s. We later found out there is more than one Bill’s, actually there are several locations, all around London and beyond. Bill’s is one of those places you just feel good about walking in to, with chutney and other jarred and bottled goods for purchase along the walls, and inviting wooden tables and chairs just tempting you to sit down and have good conversation and a great meal. At Bill’s, Paul and I took the opportunity to order the traditional English breakfast, another English concept you just have to try while traveling in London. Paul went the more traditional route and got the full on eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, mushrooms, and tomato extravaganza, while I took a less artery clogging route and opted for the Bill’s vegetarian breakfast, complete with poached eggs, guacamole, toast, hummus, mushrooms, basil, and toast. I often leave my vegan lifestyle at home while I’m taste testing all the incredible things the world has to offer, but I still like to take the healthier route whenever possible. That isn’t to say I didn’t taste the bacon and sausage on Paul’s plate. I enjoyed it of course. Every bite.
I started this post by saying we spent four days in London and we did. Upon our return from Paris, we spent quite a bit of time at the Sheraton Skyline Heathrow Hotel, as our flight didn’t depart until a day later. I usually don’t take the time to give any love to airport hotels on the blog, but I must say, the Sheraton Skyline Heathrow is a fantastic hotel! Complete with a pool in a covered atrium, a pool bar, several restaurants, and a Starbucks, you won’t be disappointed with your stay. In fact, Paul and I always say, if you want a good meal at a hotel, go find a Sheraton. They never disappoint, and we’ve stayed at A LOT of Sheratons!
Stay tuned for my next post, our detailed guide to the city of Paris. Until then, cheerio!
Le Meridien Piccadilly-http://www.lemeridienpiccadilly.co.uk
Lime Tree Hotel-http://www.limetreehotel.co.uk
Sheraton Skyline Heathrow-http://www.sheratonskyline.com
Fat Tire Bike Tours-http://london.fattirebiketours.com