travel

Christmas in London

I visited London with my husband for 4 days during Christmas weekend – December 22 to 26, 2017.

London is one of the friendliest cities we visited – perchance because it was Christmas. Walking around London felt like walking around a cliche childhood neighborhood. I felt welcomed in every pub I stepped into… Oh, and the beer was spectacular.

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Christmas tree lit in London

Airport to City Transport:

Arrival

We arrived at Stansted airport. The train was very easy to take. The ride was around one hour long and cost 17 pounds each. We disembarked at London Liverpool Street and traveled by Uber the rest of the way to our AirBnB in Shoreditch.

Departure

We departed from Luton airport. We had to catch an early morning Tuesday flight the day after Christmas – aka Boxing Day, which is also a holiday in London – so trains were shut down. Thankfully, buses were not. We took the National Express Bus from Baker Street station to Luton Airport. The ride was just under an hour long and cost 10 pounds each – you just have to make sure to order the tickets online ahead of time

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My husband taking off in a TARDIS

Neighborhood: Shoreditch

We stayed in an AirBnB in a neighborhood called Shoreditch. The neighborhood was pretty hip – I’ve been staying exclusively in hipster neighborhoods it seems. We found London to be really walk-able – we were able to walk all the way down from Shoreditch to the Thames in one evening. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay in this neighborhood again.

Other tips:
  • As an American staying in Britain, make sure you flip the on switches for each of the outlets you plan on using… or you’ll be like me and wake up with a dead phone and portable charger.
  • They have separate hot and cold water faucets so choose wisely. I used the hot until it got too hot – but by then I was already finished.
  • The toilet is in a separate room – although I was used to this already from living in France ;)… curiously, my American apartment right now is like that too.
  • The bathroom light switch will be a string hanging from the ceiling that you have to pull. No other light switches in the home will be like this.
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Other London peculiarities – outdoor urinals? Can someone explain this to me?

Pubs:

It was late evening by the time we settled into our AirBnB, but the weather was pleasant enough that we went walking outside in the slight drizzle. It’s not too cold in London during Christmastime- we encountered a lot a rain, but no snow.

We wandered by chance into a pub named Calthorpe Arms. At Calthorpe Arms, I found my new favorite beer – the Winter Warmer Ale – that I still think about to this day. I was pretty hungry when we arrived, but one beer was enough to fill me up enough to find a dinner place to walk to. In London, the beers are heftier and also higher in alcohol content than American beers.

Many London pubs have been established for centuries, and their naming is storied. At times when people were illiterate, pubs would be named with symbols or pictures. Other naming conventions are explained below in a quote from an Encyclopedia Britannica article on public houses (pubs).

“The early inns or taverns were identified by simple signs, such as lions, dolphins, or black swans. Many colourful pub names (e.g., Bag o’Nails, Goat and Compass, and Elephant and Castle) are actually corrupted forms of historical, ecclesiastical, or other proper phrases and titles (e.g., “Bacchanals,” “Great God Encompassing,” and “Infanta de Castile,” respectively). In the 18th century the word Arms was appended to many pub names, indicating that the establishment was under the protection of a particular noble family, although some heraldic signs were references to the original ownership of the land on which the inn or tavern stood.”

A fun activity is walking from pub to pub and having a beer at each one. The ambiance is very relaxed and you may see a number of cute dogs inside.

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Theater:

I usually don’t go to the theater when I travel because of the high costs, but London proved to be an exception where you can see a show for as little as five pounds! Click here to see all the cheap theater options in London – I recommend visiting and seeing a play in Shakespeare’s Globe if it’s open during your visit (summer).

The Globe is an outdoor theater with no roof – and so it was closed (no plays) during my winter visit. We instead entered the theater next to the Globe – the Sam Wanamaker Theater – and booked a show for that night.

Meow Meow, an artist previously unknown to us, was performing. We went in completely blind with no expectations. I have no regrets. Meow Meow was hilarious and had a lot of audience participation. I can’t even summarize what the show was about (variety show), but I would recommend it to adult audiences!

You have to see a show while you are in London. I have decided that should be a rule.

Also, if you see a show inside the Globe, tell me about it and I will feature your experience here!

Museums:

Geffrye Museum

Walking through the long hallway of this museum transports you through British homes  over the last few centuries. Each next room was decorated in the fashion of each next succeeding decade until the present. Sadly, I just read that the museum closed on January 7, 2018 to work on “Unlocking the Geffrye” and is set to reopen in early 2020.

British Museum

I knew the museum would be impressive as soon as I walked in the entrance (pictured below). The British museum was established in 1753 and currently has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world. I was most excited to see the Rosetta Stone, Dolly the sheep, and Egyptian mummies. I went to Egypt last summer and all I kept hearing was that “this artifact” and “that artifact” are actually stored in the British museum.  Realistically, you could visit the museum every day of your trip and see something new. And why not? Admission is free.

8/10 Highly recommend – especially if there is something you are excited to see. Keep in mind that London is rainy, coming here to seek shelter from the weather is not a bad idea.

Charles Dickens Museum

On the day of our visit, the Dickens Museum was holding a Christmas special. For the special, there was a choir that sang carols once an hour and two of the Dickens descendants were volunteering and doing readings around the house. We arrived just as the museum opened and were the first people there. Only because of this, did they allow us to buy tickets at the desk to see the museum. The tickets were double the usual price, and most of the day was already sold out. We happily bought the tickets.

The house was a rental which Dickens lived in with his family for a 2 year 9 month period. He moved in with a 3 year lease during March 1837 while he was still quite poor and moved out in December 1839 after he both his family and his wealth grew. This is his only surviving London home. The house is decorated in a fashion that is similar to how Dickens may have decorated it – but, as it was a rental, none of the items are original. The best part of the visit was being able to meet Dickens descendants, Oliver and his father. Oliver is an aspiring actor and very much enjoys his family history. They admitted that Dickens fans often approached them and knew more about the man and their family than they did themselves.

I recommend coming here only if you are a Dickens fan or if it’s the Christmas special… otherwise this may just seem like another decorated / old home.

Other Points of Interest:

Harry Potter

Having just finished one Harry Potter pilgrimage in Edinburgh, we were excited to continue the adventure in London. What’s Harry Potter in London? Well platform 9 ¾ of course! We hurried over to Kings Cross station, and found platforms 9 and 10. I walked between them – there’s 9 and there’s 10… but where’s platform 9 ¾??? I walked up to security and asked where platform 9 ¾ was… and I promise you I got the same look Harry Potter did in the movie. Well, thankfully I had better magic than Harry: Google. We Googled it and saw that the cart entering platform 9 ¾ was actually in the building next door, built into the wall outside of the Harry Potter shop – slightly less authentic and exciting. We walked over and saw a line over an hour long! The line even stretched outside of the station. That, plus the fact that it cost 10 pounds for a photo, convinced me to pass on the experience. I hope you enjoy this photo of this other girl that had more patience than I did.

I vote this attraction 0/10: Hard skip.

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Sherlock Museum

We got to the Sherlock museum and found a line out the door. The line was not too long, but knowing that Sherlock never existed made me less inclined to wait in it. Instead, we walked next door to enjoy the ambiance there. Also, We had a friend getting married in a few months who loved Sherlock and we wanted to get them a gift from the Sherlock Museum in London! The shop was really fun and had neat teapots, tobacco pipes, and magnifying glasses. We bought our friends a letter opener set for all the new mail they would be getting together :).

If you go inside, tell me about it and I will feature your experience here!

Abbey Road

After visiting the Sherlock Museum shop, we walked over to Abbey Road. When we neared the street crossing, we knew we were close due to the small group of people on either side taking turns running across and taking photos every time there was a break in the traffic. It was a really lighthearted and fun experience – though possibly frustrating to drivers frequenting the street!

This was a cool photo to take so come if you are interested in that souvenir… otherwise there is not much else here.

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Me rushing across Abbey Road before a car could get me.

Prime Meridian

We took the train from Baker Street to the Prime Meridian. The walk to the prime meridian was through a market and uphill in a park. Once you get to the top of the hill, you can see the cemented prime meridian through the fence (green arrows). But if you walk along the fence and to the right, you will see a turnstile gate on your left. Go through it to be able to access the line to take a photo with it! While you are there, make sure to walk around the hill as it offers great views of London.

Tip: When traveling from London to the prime meridian by train, you switch from the regular Tube to the DLR. At this switch, you must remember to tap your Oyster card in again at the DLR or you could get fined! You have to do this even if you already paid the maximum charge for the day – in which case you will not be charged again.

Christmas Market

Living in Europe last winter allowed us to go to many European Christmas markets. The London one felt more commercial than the others, though it was still enjoyable to walk through. There were carnival games, rides, treats, sausages, and thick thick crowds. This one in particular felt very Bavarian with Bavarian snacks, beer, and even a large blow-up Bavarian man. The set-up with the tents reminded me a little of Oktoberfest in Munich.

If this is the only Christmas market you have the opportunity to go to and you really want the experience, then I say go. Otherwise, it’s fine to skip.

My favorite Christmas market, by the way, was in Edinburgh ;).

Ride in the Front Top Seat of a Double Decker Bus

Do it. 10/10 Highly recommend.

Leadenhall market

Very pretty, but everything was closed during my visit. If you go, tell me about it and I will feature your experience here!

Foyles

A bookstore much like our Barnes & Noble, Foyles was a very enjoyable place to warm up in while reading a book in the cafe. I bought Dust by Philip Pullman.

If you like books and are seeking shelter from the rain, take a break in this several story bookstore. See what I did there? The bookstore is actually huge – if I remember correctly, there were 5 floors.

Food:

Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop

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I am from New Jersey and known as a bit of a bagel snob. We went to Beigel Bake at least 3 times due to its affordability and quality. I got smoked salmon and cream cheese each of those times. No regrets. My husband got salt beef. No regrets there either. We also visited the bagel establishment next door, Beigel Shop, an equal amount of times to figure out which one was better – we couldn’t pick a winner. They have the same menu. Do you have a winner? 10/10 Highly recommend.

Coppa – Bubble Domes

This was a cool experience and they only let us sit there for half an hour because we had no reservation. Colin ordered a fruit smoothie and I ordered a pot of tea. You can see they have liberal interpretations about what those things are.

5/10 Maybe go here if you have time – the experience was cool but not that cool.

HipChips

Chips for dinner?! We came into this small chip shop (crisp shop for the Brits) and were shockingly the only ones inside. Behind a glass we could see a pile of sweet chips and a pile of salty chips. Next to the chips was a buffet of assorted sweet dips and savory dips. We were allowed to try them before we committed to getting any of them – much like at an ice cream shop. British Christmas cuisine is much like our Thanksgiving dinner so there were special dips with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.

We ordered a mix of sweet and salty chips with beetroot and lemongrass marmalade, turkey cranberry and stuffing, eggnog whip pudding, peanut butter and jelly, passion fruit mousse, and lemon tart raspberry.

9/10 Highly recommend. As far as I’m concerned, this is really unique.

Christmas Day:

As expected, on Christmas Day everything was closed (but not our trusty Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop!!!). We stayed in bed all morning reading our books and eating cookies until we were too hungry for sweets to satisfy us any longer. Having learned from experience, we set out for Chinatown to eat!

Apparently, we were not the only ones with the idea. We stopped by the first Chinese Restaurant, Joy Luck, and saw they had raised their prices 50%. Confused and unwilling to pay a surprise surcharge, we continued on to Chinatown. Several blocks later, we were in the heart of it. Everywhere we looked, there were lines out the door! We saw the restaurants were only accepting cash and then spotted the ATM line which was so long it was snaking! Without much option, I got in line for a restaurant with a buffet and Colin joined the queue for the ATM. Our meal cost 30 pounds total.

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Having left the buffet, we were too full to even walk. We wobbled to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben (which was under scaffolding / construction), and Westminster Abbey. We joined the line for Westminster Abbey because Colin wanted to see the inside and maybe sit for a Christmas service. We kept being told by the guards that we might not get in, but we saw that people were leaving the church in a steady enough stream that we knew we’d make it. We got in without even waiting too long. We were seated in benches facing other people seated in benches. We could hear a choir singing, but they were in a different room and were displayed on television screens in the corners like football games at a bar. We left shortly and made room for the next crowd.

We were so full and desperately wanting to nap, so we headed back to our AirBnB via Uber and continued to rest. For dinner, we went to Beigel Bake for smoked salmon and salt beef bagels.

In the later evening, we were honored to be invited to a friend’s house to play games and hang out. They were playing an awesome game called “the Novel Game” where the leader of each round reads out loud a sentence in a novel and secretly writes down the following sentence. All the players then write down their best guess for the next sentence. The leader collects all the guesses and reads them out loud for the players to guess which one was the real one. Players whose sentences get chosen get one point per voter. It was hilarious.

This same friend also created a fun Harry Potter version of the Cards Against Humanity card game which we played after. It was the London Harry Potter experience we had been looking for. Maybe one day he will put it on the market 😉 10/10 Highly recommend. Get yourself a British friend.

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Concluding Thoughts:

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d assumed London would be stiff and boring. On the contrary, London turned out to be laid back and fun. I had a great time walking around from pub to pub and seeing unique decorations and installations on the street. It was also much warmer than I expected and was rather pleasant to spend all day outside walking around. The food was also opposite of the bland picture that had been in my mind previous. I loved the stews, pies, and fish and chips everywhere I went… though not kidneys – those are not for me. I would definitely go back to London and maybe visit some surrounding areas like the baths or Stonehenge… but I would also be just as happy spending time walking around the city again.

Happy travels and make sure you bring your umbrella!

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