She made the first move.
Like a true modern woman of the digital age, she confidently introduced herself via Twitter.
“How are you spending your first night back in London?” she came right out and asked.
Mind you, I had no idea who this person was; curious, I made a quick investigation of her profile and two aspects jumped out: 1) her stunning profile picture, and 2) that we shared several followers and followings. Intrigued by, yet suspicious of the former, I was mollified to a sufficient degree by the latter.
So, I messaged her back.
We traded replies for several minutes before agreeing to meet up in a safe, public place in the heart of central London – Covent Garden.
Six hours later (and after considerable trepidation that I was setting myself up for disaster), I found myself sitting across from a woman who was even more beautiful in person than in pictures. Not only was she gorgeous, Denise was also intelligent and fascinating.
We had loads in common, as we found out while spending the next several hours sitting, walking, talking, drinking, laughing, listening, and exploring the multidimensional, multisensory, indoor-outdoor marketplace that is Covent Garden.
No, it’s not a garden at all, in the conventional sense, as I was to discover. This wasn’t my first time in England’s capital city, as Denise astutely made allusion in her initial tweet. I’d been once before, though not to Covent Garden. So, in addition to enjoying the company of a lovely young woman, I had the enviable opportunity to experience an entirely new London attraction.
On both of my visits there, I only had a few days to spend. Which meant I quickly had to prioritize my must-do list and make efficient use of my limited time. My pocket guide books, complete with city street and subway maps, were a big help. If you’re planning a brief journey across the pond – a long weekend, perhaps – here’s my advice on how to make the most of it:
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London has no shortage of charming neighborhoods, including the increasingly de rigueur Marylebone in the northwest and Notting Hill (of Hollywood film fame). One that packs in all of the city’s charms in a carry-on sized area is Mayfair, between the Marble Arch (to the north) and Hyde Park Corner (to the south), with Hyde Park on the west side of Park Lane and Regent Street roughly providing the eastern border. There are lots of hotels here, both historic/upscale and newer, more affordable options, and you have convenient Tube (aka Underground, London’s subway system) stops at both Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner, at the southern end of Park Lane. I’d suggest booking a room in this area, then heading for the nearest Tube station to pick up a convenient one- or two-day pass. For a minimal cost (about £8-10), these give you unlimited rides on the Underground trains (and some ground level buses) for the duration of the pass. And you’ll need to take full advantage of the Tube if you’re going to see as much of London as possible in so short a time!
London’s Underground runs just like any other subway system, with various lines labeled in different names and colors, going in both inbound and outbound directions, and intersecting at various points so you can hop off and connect with another line if need be. Your first stop should be at Westminster, where Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are located. It’s the most iconic vista in London, so, why not see it first! As you exit the Tube station and emerge on the street level, make sure to look up… because you’ll find yourself directly underneath the massive clock tower where Big Ben (the enormous bell that gongs every hour) resides. For a different perspective of the tower (like the one above), go across the street to the steps on the Victoria Embankment, at the near end of Westminster Bridge.
At this point, you have a couple of options. Either you can walk behind the Parliament building to visit Westminster Abbey, which I highly recommend doing first… and the earlier, the better to avoid what can become lengthy tourist lines. Tours generally start at 9:30 a.m. Or, if you decide to come back later in the day for this, the crowds should have thinned considerably and there’s a charming evensong service at 5 p.m.
Your second option is to cross Westminster Bridge and climb aboard the London Eye, which usually opens at 10 a.m. The giant Ferris wheel isn’t like those tiny, rickety things you see at amusement parks here in the U.S. This one has enormous, enclosed pods that can hold about a dozen people. It’s very safe (it’s so slow, you don’t even realize you’re moving), and you can walk around the pod to maximize your 360-degree views of the city. The ride takes 30 minutes to go all the way around, but how long you’ll have to wait in line probably depends on how early you get there.
Whether you’ve gone to the Abbey or the Eye first, your next move should be to walk north, up Whitehall, toward Trafalgar Square. Whitehall begins directly opposite Big Ben (one block over from Victoria Embankment) and is the main street where all of Great Britain’s government buildings are located – including 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence (which will be on your left as you walk up Whitehall). There are also several good British pubs on this street which might make the perfect rest stop for lunch or dinner later on.
Trafalgar is London’s main public gathering place, as well as home to the famous lion statues and monument to Horatio Lord Nelson. The National Gallery, England’s great art museum, serves as backdrop, and the world-renowned classical music institution, The Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, borders Trafalgar on the right. If you mount the steps of the National Gallery and look back down Whitehall, you’ll have a calendar-worthy photo op of both Trafalgar Square and Big Ben (like this one). If you’re an art lover, spend at least a little time inside the National Gallery.
From Trafalgar, you can either walk or jump on the Tube (Charing Cross is the nearest stop) to Covent Garden, where you’ll be able to while away the rest of your day shopping and/or eating. If you’re still feeling adventurous in the evening, hop back on the Tube from Covent Garden and go two stops west to Piccadilly Circus, London’s answer to Times Square.
On your second day, start off a little slower. Enjoy a delicious breakfast at Richoux (one of four in the city) on South Audley near your Mayfair hotel. Afterward (or before, if you prefer), take a morning stroll through Hyde Park, stopping first at the Animals in War memorial (pictured) located on the grassy median of Park Lane. If you happen to be in London on a Sunday afternoon, go to the northeast corner of Hyde Park, near Marble Arch, which is known as Speakers Corner. Anyone – even YOU – can get up on a soapbox there and speak his or her mind to whatever large or small crowd happens to be around.
Here again, you have an option. If you want to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, get there before 11 a.m., when the ceremony begins. From Hyde Park Corner, head east on Constitution Hill toward the Queen Victoria Memorial, which is right outside the palace’s front gates.
You should certainly see Buckingham Palace at some point in the day, but if the Changing of the Guard isn’t high on your list, head further east instead to the Tower of London and accompanying Tower Bridge, via the Tube (stopping at Tower Hill). This bridge is probably the second-most photographed London landmark, behind Big Ben, and often mistaken for London Bridge, which is one bridge over and far less aesthetically appealing. But start with a tour of the tower itself (tip: buy your ticket at the gift shop inside Tower Hill Tube stop to avoid the long line at the tower). Later, you can walk across the bridge to get great photos of it and the tower from the south bank of the River Thames.
Head back to the Tower Hill Underground and go westbound to St. Paul’s on the Central (Red) Line. This historic cathedral, with its giant dome, somehow survived the German “Blitz” bombings in World War II (and is featured in the closing shot of George C. Scott’s 1984 film version of “A Christmas Carol”). It was also the site of many royal weddings over the years.
After St. Paul’s, walk south toward the river and cross Millennium Bridge. Turn around for a spectacular view of the St. Paul’s dome lined up perfectly as the focal point of far end of the bridge. Once on the south bank, you’ll find Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (a replica of the original). If you’re lucky, maybe there’ll be a performance and you can buy a ticket. If not, go in for a tour anyway.
At the end of day two, head back to Mayfair for a dinner of fine “pub grub” at The Audley, a lively public house (where the term “pub” originates) on South Audley. The ground floor is a jam-packed bar scene, while the lesser-known, but even better restaurant upstairs offers limited, intimate seating and outstanding food in a cozy, surprisingly quiet atmosphere.
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Okay, now, I know what you’ve been wondering this whole time… How did a beautiful, brainy babe like Denise just randomly pick me out of an online hat to ask out on a date?
I was just as eager to find out, so, I asked her flat out. Apparently, she’d seen a tweet I sent out that morning, which had been re-tweeted by one of our mutual followers. She liked what she read and clicked on my profile, which she said – with an adorably demure smile – she found “interesting.”
The feeling was certainly mutual. A mix of Danish and Spanish parents, her father was a diplomat and, it turned out, she attended college just 10 minutes from my house. Each of us had to travel literally across an ocean to meet one another, when we’d virtually been neighbors the past four years and never even realized it.
An environment in which encounters like that can happen – spontaneous, serendipitous, and short-lived though they might be – makes London one of my favorites in all the world… and always makes me wish I could stay longer than a couple of days.