The very first Saturday in England, we went up to London for the entire day to get our bearings, catch a play, and, of course, because it was calling. (Get it?)
We traveled by train via King’s Cross (!!). Make sure to ask for a group rate (4 or more) with same day return when buying your train ticket, rather than buying 2 one-way tickets. Be sure to bundle your underground pass too for the best price!
After you get your train ticket, check for the express train (you might have to ask a clerk). You might have to wait 15 minutes for the express to London, but it’s worth it since a train that makes 10+ stops could actually arrive later.
Once you figure out which train is the express, keep a sharp eye on the boards because the platform won’t be posted until about 5-10 minutes before the train arrives. Then you’ll have to rush over to whichever platform it pulls into. This is especially important if you’re returning on a late train (or the last train of the night, like we did).
We started out at the British Library since it was within walking distance of King’s Cross. It’s free too, as are most British museums (what’s up America?), so we really couldn’t pass it up!
I saw the Magna Carter exhibit, Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I’s letters, drafts of Angela Carter’s, George Eliot’s (Mary Anne Evans), Jane Austen’s, and many more’s work.
I even heard Virginia Woolf and James Joyce read through a very cool archive with headphones. I even heard the Beatles introduce themselves and play live.
I saw tiny, gold-gilded prayer books that might’ve been owned by Ann Boleyn (who allegedly first met Henry VIII at Rochford Hall).
I saw Lewis Carroll’s handwriting and illustrations in Alice in Wonderland on the archive computer.
I saw countless other treasures: Hebrew bibles, Islamic and Buddhist scrolls with stunning illuminations, early printed copies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems.
Unfortunately, no photography was allowed, but it’s all still so vivid in my mind and I plan to never miss it when I go to London from now on.
After that, we hopped on the tube to Embankment on Thames (see tube tips above) and grabbed a bite at a pub while we waited for our Harry Potter walking tour guide to arrive.
The tour took us to Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, and other places that inspired Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley, and Hogsmeade, plus plenty of Ministry for Magic spots.
It was only about 10 pounds a head and a really fun way to see the city! We booked here and they have plenty of other themed tours, like Shakespeare & Dickens or Jack the Ripper.
After the tour ended, we walked the Strand until it turned into Fleet Street to find the Cheshire Cheese–Charles Dickens’ favorite haunt.
It was too crowded but we got to go in and all the way down to the subterranean dining area.
Instead we went across the way to the Boar’sHead Bar in The Tipperary pub (the oldest Irish pub in London!). The building itself was amazing–super narrow with flights of very steep stairs.
I had ham & chicken pie with carrots, peas, and mash. It was absolutely delicious and fresh.
Hannah and I shared a pot of coffee. You never think about how individualized everything is in America (little sugar packets, little creamers, etc.) until you leave.
After dinner, we walked across Blackfriars Bridge to the Globe to see Much Ado About Nothing.
We got back on the tube at Blackfriars station to King’s Cross.
We took photos at the platform 9 & ¾ trolley while we waited for them to post the platform number for the train to Cambridge. Since it was 23:30, the around-the-corner line had dissipated.
We had to rush when they posted the platform, but at least we didn’t have to run full tilt because my feet were toast after the full day of walking.
When we got back into Cambridge Station, we had issues queuing for a cab. There seemed to be no line and no one was taking the cabs, but people yelled at you if you tried. The British are very serious about their queues.
When we did get a cab, we ended up tipping too much. We all tried to tip £2 or so, but our professor took at least half of it back because the cabbie got all wide-eyed like he was weirded out by the American “big spenders.” Generally, tipping is not a huge cultural norm because the citizens don’t have to supplement their income with tips. So around 5% is appropriate, as opposed to 15-20%.