San Francisco International Airport We arrived at SFO three hours before our flight to allow time for security check. The security was strict. Our carry-on items were checked the second time at the gate before boarding. Our BA flight departed SFO around 5:20 p.m. It was delayed for 30 minutes because two passengers did not get on the plane and their luggage had to be off loaded. The air got really stuffy inside the plane since they couldn't turn the AC on full blast until take off.
London Heathrow Airport We arrived at London Heathrow Airport at 11:00 a.m. The flight was on-time, but it was a long flight and I hardly slept. I expected LHR to be an old airport, but to my surprise, it was very old. The customs hall looked 70s-ish. While I was in line, I overheard someone getting yelled at by a custom official, "Why did you come back now and not earlier?". That was freaky. Then I thought, I'm only visiting, they shouldn't give me a hard time and they didn't. We went to get our luggage and they were super heavy (why did we bring so much stuff!?!?)
Update: THE NEW TERMINALS ARE FANTASTIC.
Underground Experience To save some $$$$, we decided to take the Underground to the hotel instead of the Heathrow Express. Maybe it was a bad idea because it took us over an hour (the Express would take only 15 minutes but would cost 3.5 times more) and we went up and down a lot of stairs with our luggage. We didn't know there would be so many stairs!!! I guess people looked at us and thought, oh tourists! Fortunately, a couple saw us and helped us to carry the luggage up the stairs. Wherever they are now, THANK YOU. We got to Paddington Station around 1-ish and walked over to the hotel that was 2 blocks away.
Arriving at St. David's Hotels By the time we got to the hotel (it's more of a B&B), we were sooooo exhausted. And guess what, more stairs up to the hotel reception!?! But thank god, the hotel staff saw us trying to drag our stuff up, they immediately came out to help. We received a warm welcome and checked in, finally.
Taking it Easy on the First Day Since we were so tired, we decided to stay put in the area. We just walked around and stopped by Tesco to stock up some water and snacks. Tesco is our Safeway equivalent, and we immediately knew this would be the store we would go often during our trip. Tesco is less expensive than Marks & Spencers so that's a plus. As for dinner, we went for Italian as recommended by the hotel. The restaurant was only a block away. We ordered a pasta and a pizza. Food was good and we both thought that the dishes here were less buttery/creamy than those in the States.
Paddington Station After a big breakfast at the hotel, we wondered off in the Paddington Station for a little bit. We checked out stores like Boots, Marks & Spencers Simply Food, Sainsbury, WHSmith and Monsoon just to see what sells in London. The station is a major train station in London and also connects to the Underground. We went into a Starbucks just to see if they offered the same drinks as in the States and to no surprise the menu was the same. There was a Krispy Kreme but it was very expensive -- 12.95 pounds for 2 dozens. Then we hopped on the Tube and headed to Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace It was still very early when we got to Buckingham Palace and so there wasn't too many people. To our disappointment, there was no Changing of Guards today. In the month of August, the Changing of Guards takes place every other day and we just happen to miss it. The front of the Palace looked smaller than I expected it to be but it was still grand. We took a bunch of pictures outside the Palace and then headed off to the inside to check out the State Rooms. After passing security check point, we started our 2 hours long audio tour. Again, some of the State Rooms were smaller than expected, but the decors in each room were well put. The most common decors were paintings, scupltures, clocks, and vases. I liked the State Ballroom the best because it was the biggest room of all and was just spectacular! There were some seatings set up at the State Ballroom where you could watch a short video about the room and also rest your legs. There was a special exhibition in the Palace to mark the celebration of the Queen's 80th birthday -- Dress for the Occasion -- this was a display of dresses worn by the Queen from the 1940s to current. After the tour we checked out the gift shop and we were ready for our next place of interest.
Westminster Abbey The outside of the Westminster Abbey was very old looking and yellowish in color. It was very different than what was shown on pictures/websites, which was a rather white building. But anyhow, the structure is an architectural gem. Before we entered the Abbey, we went into the St. Margaret Church just outside. The Church was consecrated in 1523 and it is still in regular use for worship. Then we started another 2+ hours long tour inside the Abbey. The Abbey was consecrated in Decemeber 28, 1065 and was rebuilt in the 13th century. This church is still a burial place of kings and queens, royalties, scientists, knights, basically anyone of importance to Britain. Over 3,000 people are buried inside. The Abbey has been the venue for almost every Coronation since 1066, and we saw the Coronation Chair that was used since the 1300s! We kind of got this creepy feeling walking inside the Abbey because tombs were surronding us. We don't know how many tombs we "stepped" on today. Regardless, this is a must-see in London. I highly recommend it.
Big Ben & Houses of Parliment We didn't have a chance to go the Houses of Parliment today but we took some pictures from far away. Hopefully we will get to return to the area later.
Today we finally got to experience the real urban London. In the morning we moved out of St. David's and moved into Holiday Inn Regents Park. We took the cab and it was a roomy cab, so different than the ones in the States. The Holiday Inn was luxurious compared to the B&B and we didn't know we missed "luxury" until we saw our room. I guess we missed the bath tub becasue we were so tired from all the walking.
After checking-in, we probed around the area and then took a ride to King's Cross Station. We just wanted to go there to see the location of the dramatic event that unfolded over a year ago. We got off at the King's Cross St. Pancras tube station and then walked over to the King's Cross national rail station We walked around in the station for a little while and found that the stores inside were similar to the ones in Paddington. A fun fact: The King's Cross station was featured in the Harry Potter movies and it was where Harry boarded the Hogwarts Express.
We then headed to Chinatown for some dim sum for lunch. Dim sum was good and it was our first
Chinese meal in four days. After lunch we walked around Leicester Square, Empire Theatre (Chinese Theatre equivalent), Piccadilly Circus, and then headed to Trafalgar Square. When we got to Trafalgar Square there was some kind of show going on and the place was packed.
After the show ended at Trafalgar Square, we still had some time to check out the National Gallery. Many of the paintings in the gallery are world famous. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough knowledge about paintings to appreciate what were in front of my eyes. The only painting I recognized was "Virgin of the Rocks" by Leonardo DaVinci.
After a long day of exploring the urban life of London, we concluded our day at The Crooked Surgeon, a pub near Leicester Square. The pub was offering two dishes for 7.95 pounds, which was an excellent deal! Beer and food.... yum....
Another fresh new day in London, we headed to the Tower of London, one of the most famous palaces in the world. The Tower is listed as one of the World's Heritage Sites. We took the Circle Line and got off at Tower Hill. Once we stepped outside the station, there it was-- Tower of London. The Tower is surrounded by modern buildings. The old and the new are integrated at this location -- 1 year old buildings vs. 1000 years old castle.
I have to say this palace is my favorite place so far. We started off with an one-hour tour guided by a beefeater aka Yeoman Warder. The beefeater gave us a history and interesting facts about the Tower. One thing I thought was fairly interesting was why ravens were inside the Tower. Back in the days there was a legend, and it went like this, "6 ravens must be kept inside the Tower at all times or else the Kingdom will fall." And so today, there are 8 ravens inside the Tower at all times, yeah, 8, just in case. After the guided tour we basically were on our own. If I remembered correctly, there are 20 towers in total. The major ones are Middle Tower (the entrance), Bell Tower (where Queen I was imprisoned), Bloody Tower (where two princes were murdered), White Tower (where the Royal Armouries were stored), BeauchampTower (where the prisoners were locked), and St. Thomas Tower (where the King use to live). The Tower is also where the Crown Jewels are stored. The jewels in the museum were soooooo spectacular that we had to look at it twice. And I ended up purchasing the souvenir book on the Crown Jewels! I just wanted to look at it again and again. =)
The White Tower is our favorite part in the Tower because it is a huge museum of amouries and their history. The White Tower was the original Tower of London built by William the Conqueror around 1080. We saw the original armours wore by Kings and a large collection of weapons. I guess we didn't realize how big the place was and we spent so much time in there. By the time we got out of White Tower, we had to rush to other towers that we haven't seen.
When you visit the Tower of London, you have to see the Beauchamp Tower because it will give you chills. The tower was used to lock up prisoners and the walls within are full of carvings by the prisoners. The carvings on the walls were quite scary when you think about it. Those were carved by real people back in hundreds of years ago and they were locked here day and night, contemplating their future or what not.
Next to the Tower is the Tower Bridge. The Bridge is certainly a symbolic figure of London to the rest of the world. Since our schedule was so tie so we didn't have a chance to walk on it. The view of the Tower Bridge is one of the best views we have seen in London. The Tower of London gave us glimpses of Medieval times in England and we were totally thrilled!!! We LOVE the Tower and totally recommend it to other people who plan to visit London. I think you can skip Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace if you only have a day or two in London, and visit the Tower instead.
Royal Observatory Greenwich On my way to Greenwich, I had to transfer at Canary Wharf (Canary Wharf has a decent shopping center and I wish I had more time to check it out). Cutty Sark was the sation I was supposed to get off, but I didn't know and got off at Greenwich. The walk from the Greenwich station to the Observatory was quite nice. I got to see a little bit of this beautiful small town.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich is the home of the Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. There I was at the Prime Meridian, an imaginary line running north-south through Greenwich, I had one foot on the eastern hemisphere and the other one on the western hemisphere. It was such a thrill to be at the center of world time and space!!!
The observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II. Since then, many royal astronomers have been appointed at the observatory to study the measurement of time. Back in the days, each town, city, or country had its own way of measuring time, making it difficult for people to tell time when they traveled to one place to another. It wasn't until the late 19th century that an international time standard was established when the Greenwich Meridian was chosen to be the Prime Meridian of the world, home of Longitude 0º.
National Maritime Museum Down the hill of the Observatory was the National Maritime Museum (actually, the Royal Observatory is part of the NMM). Adjacent to the museum was the Queen's House. Since I still had some time before heading back to London, I strolled inside the NMM for a little while. Items relating to sea exploration and astronomy were displayed in the museum. There were also interactive activities for young children. The place certain would make a nice day out for the family.
At last, I went to see the legendary British Museum!!! The place was huge and you couldn't possibly see everything inside in just one day. This 253 years old museum was set up by regions or themes -- Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greek, Ancient Far East, Medieval Europe, Asia, Americas, and so forth. I picked up an audio tour showing the highligts of the museum and begin my "world adventure".
I started out looking at the Ancient Egyptian section, and what I saw there were amazing. There were sculptures from ancient Egypt that stood from 5 feet to 25 feet tall. The collection was enormous. Then I saw the most important and treasured sculpture in the Museum: the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1766 by soldiers in Napoleon’s invading army at the town of Rashid (Rosetta). The stone was the key to deciphering many mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics. Other Egyptian artifacts were displayed in the BM, including mummies. My favorite mummies were actually the cat mummies.
The BM basically took me around the ancient world in just 6 hours -- Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, South America –- I felt like I was traveling on a time machine. I skipped a lot of things when I walked through the BM. I really needed more time to enjoy what were in front of my eyes. The BM is a must-see when visiting London and you won't be disappointed.