On our most recent trip to Europe, we were fortunate enough to be able to redeem our American Airlines miles for two round trip flights to Italy. Using our miles to pay for the flights greatly reduced the cost of the trip, but we did have to jump through a few hoops to make it happen.
When using airline specific miles, travel options are becoming increasingly limited. Direct international flights are virtually impossible to find. In order for us to get to Italy, we had to stay overnight in either London, Paris, or Madrid before we could catch a flight to Florence the following morning. Previous adventures had already taken us to Paris and Madrid, so we chose to take our extended layover in London, England. We picked a flight that gave us a full 24-hour layover to ensure that we would actually have enough time to enjoy the city.
At 6:00am on April 29, 2018, we arrived at London Heathrow, groggy from lack of sleep but excited to explore a new city. We dropped our luggage off at our airport-based hotel and jumped on the Underground for the hour-long ride into the city. We got off at Hyde Park Station and made our way to Buckingham Palace.
We arrived at Buckingham just in time to witness the Changing of the Guard. Hordes of people crushed against the gates trying to get a glimpse of the guards and their colorful uniforms. Since we arrived as the ceremony was taking place, we had no hope of competing with all the selfie-sticks or getting a front row view. We battled the crowds, took a selfie of our own, and passed irritated security guards as we traversed the area in front of the palace. As luck would have it, we ended up in the perfect location for viewing the guards as they finished the ceremony and exited the compound.
Next, we headed to Westminster Abbey, a church famous for hosting royal weddings and coronations over the centuries, including the coronation of the current Queen Elizabeth II and the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A plethora of important historical figures are also entombed within its walls: King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I, and the two York princes who mysteriously disappeared from the Bloody Tower following the death of their father King Edward IV. Since our one-day layover tour occurred on a Sunday, the church was closed to tourists and we did not get to gaze upon the remarkable history within its walls.
We passed by London’s infamous red telephone booths and the double-decker buses as we headed toward the Thames River. Much to our disappointment, the clock tower of Big Ben was covered in scaffolding, which left only the face of the clock visible. Fate decided that we could not possibly get the full London experience without a dose of rainy, cold weather. As we arrived in front of Big Ben and the Parliament Building, the skies opened and unleashed a torrent of rain.
We crossed the Thames River and began to walk toward the Tower of London, our main attraction for the afternoon. As we passed beneath the London Eye, the winds picked up and the lashing rain caused one of our umbrellas to snap in half. Resigned to a cold, windy day in the city, we popped in for two hot espressos before completing our walk to the Tower.
The Tower of London, founded in 1066 AD, is a historical gem in British history. It has served several roles over the centuries, most notably as a royal palace, a prison, and place of execution during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Tower is now a museum that preserves this rich history. It is also home to the Crown Jewels, a not-to-be-missed sight displaying an impressive collection of gemstones, precious metals, and ceremonial objects steeped in history.
We ventured through the White Tower, marveling at the building’s stonework and trying to imagine the castle bedecked in the palace finery of the Elizabethan era. We plunged into the bowels of the Bloody Tower to view the instruments of torture reserved for enemies of the state. Finally, we walked over the spot on the Tower Green where executions of noble prisoners took place, including that of the infamous Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII.
All of this historical touring had worked up our appetites, so we decided to cross the Tower Bridge and find a traditional English Pub for dinner. Along the way, we whet our appetites with a cup of hot, roasted honey peanuts sold by a street vendor on Tower Bridge. The warmth and savory flavor of our appetizer was the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of touring outside in the elements.
Eventually, we did find a pub that suited our tastes and sat down for the most British of meals: beer and fish and chips.
With full bellies, we ventured back into the streets of London. Darkness was beginning to fall as we purchased two tickets for a boat ride on the Thames River, the last tourist activity of our layover tour of London. It was fascinating to imagine how the Vikings felt as they sailed up the very same river when they first arrived in the city in the 9th century. How different the city must have looked back then?
As the boat glided smoothly across the water, I reflected on our brief taste of this magnificent city. Did we see enough? Did we experience the real London? Do we want to come back?
Our Takeaway from our time in London: I concluded that what really mattered is that we’d visited the city and allowed it to make its mark on us. No, we didn’t see or experience enough of what London has to offer. Of course, we’ll have to come back. Was our layover visit worth it? Totally.
-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel