Mid-afternoon, we arrived at London’s St. Pancras railway station from Paris. Very comfortable and smooth train ride. About 2.5 hours, with 20 minutes going through the tunnel. Having never been to London before, it took us a few moments to get our bearings and figure out where we needed to go from here. Not too far. Jumped on the Circle Line and, within minutes, arrived a couple blocks from our hotel.
London’s Second Ugliest Hotel
We stayed at The Guoman Tower Hotel right next to the Tower Bridge. Great location, decent pricing, and oh, it’s been named London’s second ugliest hotel a number of times. Not really fair considering all the great architecture around here. If you are looking for a good, affordable hotel that is close to attractions and easily accessible, this is it.
Checked in, rested a bit, and then went out exploring. We crossed the Tower Bridge and walked along the south side of the Thames River, passing London’s city hall. The building has an unusual, bulbous shape. Mostly glass, the building has been referred to as “The Glass Gonad” and “The Onion”
Further down the river, we pass by the HMS Belfast, a Town-class light cruiser that was built for the Royal Navy. Built between 1936 and 1939, it is now permanently moored as a museum ship on the Thames River in London and is operated by the Imperial War Museum. Belfast saw action during the Second World War and the Korean War.
Which Bridge is Which
We stopped in at Hay’s Galleria to watch a performer and check out the shops, before continuing down to the London Bridge. Which bridge is which? People the world over get confused between The London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. The London Bridge is the more famously named bridge. Having existed in one form or another for about 2,000 years, this bridge is the oldest known crossing of the River Thames. It’s even named in a nursery rhyme. However, it is nothing spectacular to look at. The current London Bridge was constructed in 1973.
The more recognizable bridge in London is the Tower Bridge. Completed in 1894, the Tower Bridge is more recognizable. This bridge, featuring two neo-gothic towers with covered walkways suspended between them, looks older than it actually is. Many people believe this is a centuries-old bridge because it looks medieval. Many people who don’t know which bridge is which, believe this is the London Bridge.
We crossed over the London Bridge and walked back to the hotel along the north side of the River Thames. We stopped along the way to get a better look at the infamous Tower of London. The Tower is one of the world’s oldest and most famous prisons. Originally built in the late 11th century as a fortress to protect London and a royal residence, it soon become the preferred incarceration site for anyone deemed a threat to national security – even members of the royal family. Few survived the prison, though not everyone suffered terrible conditions. Scottish King John Balliol was able to bring his own servants, hunting dogs and wife with him until his release three years later.
Dinner at Zizzi’s
Back at the hotel, we had dinner at Zizzi’s Restaurant in St. Katherine’s Dock. The place looked inviting and was very busy. We decided to sit outside so were seated fairly quickly, though I found the service to be rather slow. Being outside was also a bit of a mistake as it became cool and looked like rain. And I didn’t bring a sweater. But the food was fantastic. I had Calamari and Strozzapretti Pesto Rosso, which is spicy chicken, red pesto, mascarpone & spring onions with pasta. Carole had King Prawns with Crab Cannelloni. No complaints about the food or the cost. We thought we found a unique restaurant but found out later that there are actually over 150 locations throughout the England and Ireland.
After dinner it started to get dark so I strolled around the dock and took pictures of the Tower Bridge while Carole went upstairs to rest.
No Hop-On, Hop-Off
The next morning, I rose early to take more pictures around the Tower as the sun was coming up. The streets were mostly empty. Occasionally some cyclists would whizz past. People were walking and cycling in the middle of bridge. Strange there were no cars, but I thought that maybe it was a thing early on Sunday mornings. I got some good pictures of a wedding couple taking self-portraits on the bridge, took some long-exposure shots of the bridge and cityscape, and went back to the hotel to get ready for our day of touring.
As we were only going to be in London for one day, we purchased tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour the day before. Figured it would be the best way to see the most sites given our limited time. When we got to the bus stop, there was no-one there. And no cars on the road. Just cyclists. We soon found out that many roads, actually almost all the roads the bus tour would have taken, were closed due to the Prudential RideLondon Cycling Festival taking place.
We had a map of the tour route and started walking. Surely we would meet up with a bus somewhere along the way. That wasn’t going to happen. Except for some royal castles, we did manage to see most of the sites we had planned on visiting. Later that night, back at the hotel, I found an email address for the Big Bus Tour Company and applied for a refund. Didn’t expect to get it, but after a month, it did come through, much to my surprise.
Our Own Walking Tour
Starting at the Tower of London, we walked east along Byward St. for a short while and turned onto Monument Street. At the end of the street stands The Monument to The Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire had started in a baker’s house and destroyed or damaged thousands of houses and public buildings.
Continuing along Cannon Street, bypassing the Bank of England and Royal Exchange, we headed toward St. Paul’s Cathedral admiring some of the unique buildings and architecture along the way. The current Cathedral was constructed in 1697, though the original church dedicated to Paul the Apostle dates back to AD 604. Among other historic events, this is where Prince Charles and Lady Diana we’re married. The Cathedral has stood as the tallest building in London until 1967.
Unless you are a worshipper, there is an entrance fee of €20. We walked around the grounds, stopping to watch a couple having wedding pictures taken. After a short rest on the park benches in the gardens behind the cathedral, we continued along Ludgate Hill and onto Fleet Street. We caught a glimpse of the St. Bride’s Church spire between two buildings.
We passed the Royal Courts of Justice and wondered about The Temple Bar Memorial with a dragon on top. It marks the spot where Wren's Temple Bar used to stand as the ceremonial entrance to the City of London from Westminster.
Not A Garden
Thinking we might want to see Covent Gardens, we ventured north on Kingsway off of Strand. Passing a tourist shop, we popped in to buy some postcards. Here we learned that Covent Gardens is not a “garden”, but a busy shopping area in the district of Westminster. Associated with the former fruit-and-vegetable market in the central square, it still has some cool artisan stands, but many of the shops are now global brands. If you are in the mood to shop, Covent Gardens is one of London’s best luxury shopping destinations.
We turned on Great Queen Street and back down Drury Lane and crossed Waterloo Bridge to the south side of River Thames to see the National Theatre building. Continuing south-west to Westminster Bridge, we passed The London Eye. I thought it might be fun to go up, but considering a wait time of up to 45 minutes, plus the time it takes to go around, we decided it wasn’t worth it. For those that might be interested, tickets are £30.00 per adult. It takes 30 minutes to go around and there can be up to 26 people in the capsule with you.
The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben were under construction, but you could still see the clock! I took a few pictures from the bridge and then we started our way back along the Queen’s Walk on the south side of River Thames. There were some very good buskers along the route. We stopped to watch a few.
We passed the Tate Modern Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe. We considered taking a tour of the Globe Theatre but the timing wasn’t right. We later found out that our son watched a show there for £5.00 for standing room only. A lot less expensive than the tour cost.
The Anchor Pub – Share A Pint With Shakespeare
By this time we were getting hungry. We found a great fish and chips bar / restaurant called The Anchor along the promenade. A tavern of some sort has been at this location for hundreds of years. It was a bit complicated to figure out the place. Seems to be comprised of a pub, restaurant, and fish and chips shop spread out over a number of additions and floors. You almost need a map to find the toilets. We settled in upstairs. There are no waiters per-se. You order at the bar, give them your table number, and someone comes by later and drops off the food. I ordered fish and chips with regular peas. They also serve it with mushy peas, but the server at the bar said she didn’t like mushy peas. I decided not to take a chance. Carole had Hunter’s Chicken. Both dishes were excellent.
Through a passageway we passed the Clink Prison Museum, one of England’s oldest and most notorious prisons, and then Southwark Cathedral before reaching the Tower Bridge.
Glass Floor Walkways and Victorian Engine Rooms
We managed to get back in time to catch the last Tower Bridge Tour of the day for the bridge. Well worth the senior entrance fee of £6.80. We took an elevator up to the walkways and gazed through the glass floor at the bridge and water below. There are two walkways which you can explore at your leisure These areas are very crowded. Kids will sit on the floor for the longest time not considering that other people might want a look. You can also discover the history of the bridge from the many exhibitions around. When finished, plod down the interior steps and follow a blue line to the Victorian Engine Rooms that once powered the bridge lifts. The stairs and engine rooms were the best part of the tour, in my opinion. As with most tours, the engine rooms exit into a gift shop.
Our self-guided tour took about 8 hours. A lot of walking. At the end of the day we were tired, but looking back, it was well worth it. Wish we had more time to spend here. Will have to come back. Maybe even take a bus tour!