I don't know if either of us were particularly looking forward to our London trip. Cameron very much was ready to be home instead of meeting his British coworkers, I wasn't particularly keen on entertaining myself in another city while Cameron worked every day, and neither of us wanted to spend another week in a hotel. Cameron even considered canceling the trip but since we had paid for my flight (not covered by Remitly) I didn't want to waste the money. Plus, spending a week entertaining myself in Krakow wouldn't be much better than doing the same in London.
I was feeling exceptionally more optimistic about the trip after a 12-hour snooze in our own bed and some 2:30am breakfast crepes, however I was still dreading the logistics of traveling. It wasn't a long wait for a Lyft and the Krakow airport is small and easy to navigate, but no matter how nice an airport is you don't want to be frequenting it twice in 24 hours. Our tickets were with Ryanair, a European discount airline known to be relatively bare-bones. One of Cameron's coworkers had advised only using Ryanair for trips that are less than two hours. Despite the garish blue and yellow seat covers and uniforms, the flight was just fine. They don't serve you complimentary beverages, but since we had our own water bottles and since the flight was only 2.5 hours it wasn't a bother.
Even with ample sleep, navigating from the Stansted Airport to our Air B&B in Camden was tiring. Google Maps recommended a combination of above-ground train, underground, and bus but we traded the bus ride for a mile-long walk since we were too early to check into our apartment. I've never liked big cities, and I was very prepared to dislike London. Our mile walk with suitcases in tow did nothing to promote the city–the area near the train station had a lot of loud construction and litter on the streets. There was some interesting architecture, but for the most part the buildings were the same gray as the sky.
We stopped for breakfast around the halfway point. The sign said cafe, and inside was an oder-at-the-counter joint with six tables. The menu, which was neatly written on a large blackboard above the register, was surprisingly diverse, but Cameron and I both elected versions of a traditional English breakfast. Toast, eggs, and beans were staples on both our our plates but Cameron's sausage was replaced with hash browns and grilled tomatoes for my vegetarian meal. And of course black tea was offered. It was tasty enough, but the flavors are about as exciting as the visual: essentially just shades of brown.
Luckily, by the time we were finishing breakfast our Air B&B host texted us to let us know we could check in. We had a very small one-bedroom flat directly above an Italian restaurant, which was run by our same host. I expected we would simply drop off our bags and then try and fill our afternoon with a touristy activity, but Cameron was feeling a little off (motion sickness? a bad breakfast sausage?) and it was surprisingly easy for me to take a nap to the background of Ru Paul's Drag Race (available on Netflix, but only in Europe it seems. I have 11 seasons to get through so I'm trying to power through!). Cameron woke me up around 15:30 and said that his friend, Andi, was going to be at the apartment in about ten minutes–a little bit longer warning next time, please, Cameron!
Andi and Cameron were neighbors and ski buddies every winter in Apex, British Columbia. Although I had never met Andi, I had a pretty good sense of her and her family from the stories that Cameron and his family told. She seemed to think similarly about me, and I got the sense that we could be good friends if we ever lived in the same country at the same time. She had a quick walk to our flat since she lives and goes to vet school just a few blocks down the street. Having lived there for two years but coming from a similar background to us, she was a perfect tour guide! She took us up Camden's high street, through the plaza of street food, down the canal trail, and up to Primrose Hill for a great view of the London skyline. We finished up the evening at a pub where I tried my first halloumi burger (halloumi is a semi-hard sheep cheese that is a very popular vegetarian option in Britain, it seems).
Per Andi's recommendations, I looked up a list of London's free offerings and found a list of 101 recommendations, sorted into categories like museums, parks, view, with kids, etc. Cameron was still feeling a little off the next day, but he agreed to walk to the Wellcome Collection, which was described as having "a bunch of marvellously weird objects" and was only 20 minutes away. The exhibits were a true delight, and made me start to appreciate this big city. After lunch in the museum's restaurant, I was amped for more. The Grant Museum of Zoology was just a few streets away and promised a continuation of the same brand of weird scientific displays, but Cameron was ready for a rest.
After a few more hours of Drag Race I was antsy; I didn't want to waste away our mini-vacation on a couch in a poorly-refinished flat. I wasn't able to talk Cameron into leaving the house again, but I set off on my own back down the busy streets of Camden. My first stop was to try a bubble waffle. I was disappointed that the bubbles aren't filled with anything, but still, sweet dough slathered with Nutella and chunks of candy bar is pretty tasty. I retraced the previous day's tracks and went back to the street food stalls. In an attempt to find a soup-like food that Cameron might find palpable, I ended up at a place called "Ladle" but before I could order I had to take a picture of the stall attendant with two tourist girls he was trying to hit on–erg. I would have left but I was already committed. I also stopped at "Baba G's" since I recognized the name from Million Pound Menu where I got a saag and paneer burger.
The next morning, Monday, Cameron had to be at the Remitly office at 9:45. I left my suitcase with him at the office, but then was tasked with finding something to do all day since we weren't going to check into the hotel until that evening. I set off to Hyde Park, since it was only a few blocks away, and started to walk around before I remembered to consult my handy list of free London attractions. I decided on the Natural History Museum, which was about half an hour away and mostly through the park. The entrance hall was noisy and crowded with school groups which put me off a little bit at first. However, as I began to explore I learned there were seemingly endless hallways and exhibits to explore. It wasn't until the end of the day that I realized this was a place I had been to before when visiting as a kid. It took me seven hours to see everything (or at least I think I saw everything) and in order to do that I had to rush through the second half of the day. Overall it was spectacular!
Now that I had realized that the free museums of London were quality, I needed to prioritize my visits. I spent Tuesday morning reviewing the online list I had found and created a sub-list of places that were within a one-hour walk. That still left over 30 potential to-dos so I started visiting 1-3 each day.
Since my morning was a little lazy and then spread into a long lunch with Cameron and his coworkers, I didn't go to any museums. Instead, I did a 3.5 mile run through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. I passed by a number of monuments, statues, and historical attractions, most of which I can't name, but I know I saw the Peter Pan Statue, Kensington Palace, the Italian Gardens, and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. I debated going into the Serpentine Gallery, but decided against it since I was wearing my gym clothes. I later learned that it was an art gallery named after the pond that divides Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens and not the reptile observatory I was hoping for. That night, Cameron and I went to a very small but cheery Christmas market at South Bank and walked under the London Eye. On our walk back to the hotel we passed by Buckingham Palace and through St. James Park, so I decided I could check off those spots from the list.
Stop One was the British Museum, the highlight of which was the Rosetta Stone. The historical artifacts and art were grouped by region and time. I knew I had a lot of places on my list for the day, so I didn't give every room it's due, but I was mildly amused by the Pacific Northwest Native American exhibit; my old work still follows me! Stop Two was the Leicester Square Christmas Market, which was rated as #1 in London even though it was smaller than the South Bank one. On my way to the National Gallery, I walked through Chinatown and then happened upon another (even smaller) Christmas market above Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery felt very grandiose, and deservedly so since they housed a number of Van Goghs, Monets, and Rembrandts, among other famous artists. The National Portrait Gallery (museum three of the day) also had plenty of well-known works but I was more keen on finding the absurd and comedic pieces by the time I made it there. My walk home took me through Piccadilly Circus (a misleading name, if you ask me). Once Cameron was off of work, we went to a nearby Indian restaurant and then walked to the Victoria Palace Theater to see Hamilton. The show was great and I highly recommend going if it ever plays near you!
Cameron had his holiday party that evening so I knew I would be on my own from 9:30 until 22:00 so I looked for a museum-dense region to walk to. Based on a recommendation, I headed out to the Saatchi Gallery but disappointingly found the line to be excessively long due to a new ticketed King Tutankhamun exhibit. I wasn't willing to wait in a 30 minute line so I backtracked and went to the Victoria and Albert Museum where I entertained myself looking for funny faces, rabbit-themed art, and admiring the royal jewels on display. The Science Museum was close by, so that's where I went for my afternoon. The "Who Am I?" exhibit conjured up more childhood memories and was by far my favorite part of the museum. As a treat to myself, I walked through the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, which had just opened that day. It was a huge fairgrounds set up in the park with full-sized rides, a Bavarian village, a Christmas Market (the biggest by far of the ones I'd seen), a big top circus tent, and tons of food stalls. I enjoyed a fire-roasted salmon sandwich, two glasses of glühwein, and a ride on an arm-like upside-down spinning thing that Cameron would never accompany me on.
Since it was the last day, I went a little further to the Tate Modern. Maybe I was worn out from too many museums, or maybe I just don't like modern art that much, but outside of a few pieces and exhibits nothing held my interest for too long. The 10th floor observation deck did have great views of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Shard, the London Tower Bridge, and Shakespeare's Globe Theater. I had expected to spend the whole day there, but ended up moving on after lunch. I wanted to check out the Barbican Conservatory but once I got there I learned it was only open to the public on Sundays, so I continued on to the Museum of London. It was a very cool meander through from the Stone Age into modern London, including a display on the Clash and the 60-foot touches from the 2012 Olympic Games. For dinner we went to Zedel in Piccadilly Circus and enjoyed a very tasty French meal with fancy cocktails. Had we planned it out better we could have tried to get tickets for their cabaret show, but alas...
Overall, London won me over. There are still plenty of places that I didn't make it to (both free and paid) and it is nice to be in an English-speaking country. I know I'll be back again in July, and Cameron's work will likely take him there semi-regularly if I want to tag along for more work visits. For now though, I am happy to start settling back into whatever my Polish normal is.
A graph of a human at the Wellcome Collection.
Wellcome Collection's display of toys that promote diversity.
The canal in Camden surrounded by food stands.
The Natural History Museum.
Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton inside the Natural History Museum.
South Bank Christmas market with Cameron.
Nighttime at Buckingham Palace.
The British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone inside the British Museum.
The National Gallery.
My ride of choice at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.
St. Paul's Cathedral.
Some Salvador Dali found at the Tate Modern.
From the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony- found at the London Museum.