The first time I visited London, England was during a European tour with my grandparents when I was just 16 years old. And London was the start and finish points of that 3-week “visit everywhere” tour. As a teen, the city felt huge and chaotic and fun but also a little scary. During my first trip back last month, it was still chaotic and fun – but also a lot more navigational as an adult!
Here are my top 5 highlights of a whirlwind return visit that made me smile every day:
1. The Incredible Buildings and All That History
I always like to start with a hop-on/hop-off tour in a new place just to get acclimated. Sitting on top of a 2-story bus as it wound its way through the streets of London, I was thrilled to see so many important, historical buildings “in the flesh,” so to speak. My favorites included:
I had had a quick drive-by glance at these 3 stately buildings on my earlier visit as a youngster. But it was wonderful this time to get out and walk around and really look them over. One quick note: be sure to order tickets online if you’d like to go inside Westminster Abbey. This is the one thing I wanted to do but couldn’t because a long line stretched all the way to the side street.
It was also wonderful to again see the Tower of London, which was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1078.
I toured its many inside areas during my earlier trip and loved it. The Yeoman Warders or “Beefeaters” (tower guards), the monarchs’ suits of armor, and especially the Crown Jewels, showing majestic crowns, scepters, and rings, made quite an impression. Do NOT skip seeing this on your own trip!
2. London Bridges
Twelve different bridges cross over the River Thames, but the most popular is the multicolor Tower Bridge. There are actual towers on either end, with the North West Tower housing a fascinating exhibit on the bridge’s history.
3. That Famous Wheel
For a really different view of the city, don’t forget to grab a ride on the iconic London Eye — a giant Ferris Wheel that soars over the cityscape.
Each egg-shaped car’s glass enclosures offer stunning views as the ride makes one complete rotation.
And because it moves soooo slow, it isn’t scary for any age. (As a hard-core daredevil, I just wished it went a little faster!)
By the way, I ordered my tickets beforehand but still had to wait in a huge line at the entry point. Learn from my mistake and make sure you also order “front of line” passes. It’ll easily save you an hour or more of waiting time.
4. Fun for Harry Potter Fans
Yep, I’m not ashamed to admit to being a HUGE Harry Potter fan. And it’s no secret that author J.K. Rowling took inspiration from locales all around London.
There are several walking tours that showcase locations from the Harry Potter books and films. But because I was short on time, I took out by myself one evening in search of what has always been my favorite spot in the books – Platform 9 3/4. This is the magical portal that allows Hogwarts students to run straight through the wall and into the wizarding area where the Hogwarts Express awaits to take them to school.
News reports say that Rowling’s parents actually met at the King’s Cross train station, so the location has always held an important place in her heart.
Once I got to King’s Cross, I asked various workers along the way for directions to Platform 9 3/4. Each one broke into a huge smile and pointed me towards the famous spot. Wow, people still really love Mr. Potter!
The station folks were very smart and have placed a luggage cart half in and half out of the wall under a sign for the platform. However, if you want your picture with the cart, it will cost you. Still, if you’re up for standing in the long line, the people collecting the money really do make it worthwhile. They hand over glasses and a wand and will wrap you in a Hogwarts scarf that they then hold up as if it’s caught by the wind!
5. The Food
When I wrote about a recent trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, I admitted to not loving the food there. So, I was a little apprehensive about what I would find in London. But I needn’t have worried! I’m a huge seafood fan and there were all types of wonderfully tasty, fresh fish dishes everywhere I went – including this Peterhead cod over a wild garlic and broccoli puree with crispy polenta rolls (like fried grits!) in a tangy caper sauce. YUM!!
A Few “Lowlights”
It’s a really expensive town, and even many of the top-dollar hotels have very small rooms (another thing in common with NYC!)
Traffic is another problem, with cars and taxi cabs usually slowed to little more than a crawl. But I quickly fell in love with the Tube, London’s very efficient underground transport system. In fact, most evenings I would jump on the Tube just to try a far-flung restaurant or check out a specific attraction. The various routes are laid out really well and the price for an all-day or all-week pass isn’t bad at all. I know I certainly got my money’s worth crisscrossing all over the city!
Final Verdict: Two Thumbs Up
Overall, I really enjoyed seeing London again as an adult. It’s such a vibrant and colorful locale with tons of different options to see and do. In fact, I have a pretty big list of things to check out the next time I’m there. Hopefully it won’t take me so many years to go back!