As I sit here reflecting on our first day in London, one question keeps popping into my mind-why on Earth did it take me so long to get back here? My first visit to London was too long ago to admit, but let’s say more than one decade was involved. At the time I was 18, just graduated high school and starting a 3-week European adventure with my best friend and her family. I remember thinking, “well this is nice but it’s just like home. Look there is Pizza Hut and KFC! I thought I was in Europe!” After a few days we moved on to Paris and Italy and I finally felt like I was somewhere new and cool and exotic.
Flash forward to the present, I now have a teenage daughter who loves the Royals and a 10 year old son who likes history so London seemed like the perfect fit, but I admit I was more excited about returning to Paris, my all-time absolute favorite city, during the second half of the trip. Boy was I wrong not being more enthusiastic about this city.
Yes, it reminds me of the US in many ways. But every time I think that, London throws a curveball. The language is obviously the same but different: lift and lorries; chips are crisps but fries are chips. It’s the perfect segue into travelling to Europe or anywhere abroad.
While London’s historical significance cannot be downplayed, the city is modern and growing. Everywhere you look, there is building going on. From the top of the London Eye, I counted 14 cranes on the horizon. The population is diverse and expanding (some reports shows 35% of Londoners are foreign born) and most Londoners are embracing this diversity. One block alone housed Indian, falafel, Italian, burger and sandwich shops, along with the traditional English pub and even a Chipotle.
Yes, Royal London is everywhere for the tourist. Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London are all worth seeing, but there is a new modern Royal, arguably started by Diana and carried on through her sons and their families that make the idea seem less antiquated. The Diana Memorial Fountain near Kensington Palace, where she lived and William and Kate still live, was designed to be splashed in and walked around. It’s full of families splashing, young and old alike. Kensington Palace displays some of Queen Victoria’s jewels, but the gift shop also prominently features the cookbook that Megan Markle spearheaded to benefit the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
The Tower of London highlights the Crown Jewels, but even a 10-year-old is impressed by the 1000 year history, which includes the beheading of Henry VII’s wives and an impressive display of Medival weapons and torture devices. The tour led by the Beefeater describing Henry VII’s wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived) captures everyone’s interest.
And for those whom the history doesn’t impress, Harry Potter is everywhere in walking tours, studio visits and on stage. A high-speed boat ride down the Thames is pretty cool too.
A few days in London only brushes the surface. A week is easily doable and leaves time for a more relaxed visit, but any time that can be spared is well worth the flight. That’s it for today..done and dusted!
Those who know me understand I am, well, a bit “Type A” to put it mildly. Relaxing stresses me out. This character trait is what drew me to European travel in the first place: new places to go; things to experience! Forget the beach, I want action! My past trips have been planned to the day, spreadsheets and all. (Due credit to Uncle Don here – he was the king of the vacation spreadsheet.) This trip was no different. That is until the weather and my travelling companion Mom chimed in.
The thought of springtime in Paris was wonderful. Visions of the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens in full bloom danced in my head. We envisioned a day trip to Giverny with Monet’s gardens awash in sunshine. Tickets were booked and the weather was checked – cold and rainy. What?! That was clearly NOT on the spreadsheet! Gardens in grey skies and pouring rain were not nearly as alluring. Nonetheless, the rain did not deter us from seeing Notre Dame and wandering through the Ile de la Cité on our first afternoon. But when we walked by the café across the street from Notre Dame, instead of walking right by, we went in and sat down. Yes, it pained me to pay double to have our drink at a table instead of at the bar standing up but, hey, the view was great. Not only that, but it wasn’t just tourists in there. It turns out Parisians like a view with their coffee, too. Sure enough, after 15 minutes, I was antsy and ready to move on to the next destination, but then my mom gave me the “I’m not leaving yet, so you’d better just calm down” look. And so we sat, just enjoying Paris, watching it bustle for nearly an hour. It was lovely.
One of my favorite places in Paris is the little park behind Notre Dame. I found myself there one afternoon while Mom was chilling in the apartment. While people-watching with my Coke Lite in hand, I noticed a man with a banjo standing in the little gazebo. Next, up walks a man with a stand-up bass and another carrying a guitar case. Dismissing the trio at first, and with my attention otherwise distracted, I soon hear singing – a full fledged sing-a-long broke out, complete with sheet music for singers. Next thing you know, about 40 people are standing around singing French folk tunes. It was so … Parisian, and something I would have never seen if I had been beholden to my spreadsheet.
We had planned on taking a day trip to London during this trip. A plan that seemed like a great idea at the time. We booked our Eurostar tickets- only 2 hours on the train, the chance to get a taste of London, why not? Well, as our trip progressed, the weather outlook for London looked progressively worse, ending up at 45 degrees and rain for the day of our visit. At this point, Mom throws down the gauntlet as only Moms are allowed to do: She’s not going to London to freeze and get wet. How can I argue with that? Had she not said that, honestly, we would have been in London, wet and cold, because well, this was The Plan! Instead of rain in London, we enjoyed a bright, sunny day in Versailles, seeing the chateau in all its over-the-top splendor. Good call Mom.
The moral of the story is not to go on your trip with no plans, reservations or idea of what you want to see. Instead, it is to have those plans, but let your trip mold those plans. Some of my best memories of this trip are that day in Versailles, the Notre Dame sing-a-long and watching the little boys sailing boats in the Luxembourg Gardens where we took a break one day. Slow down, don’t just take in the sights but really see your destination, you won’t regret it. P.S. We went back to that café across from Notre Dame again. I highly recommend the Nutella crepe accompanied by a nice glass of rosé from Provence!
Our family suffered a few blows in the last year losing several loved ones over a short time period. This circumstance made us particularly sensitive to the fact that none of us are going to be around forever. With this in mind, my mom and I decided that there was no time like the present for her first trip to Europe, with me as her personal travel guide. I picked Paris as the destination. To me, there is no more quintessentially European city. Since I was leading the way, it didn’t hurt that I’d been to Paris several times in the past and could speak passable tourist-French.
In the past, my trips to Paris had been with my husband or friends. These past trips were busy, if not frenetic, seeing as many of the sites as possible in the short time we had. I loved the city; the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. I took pride in the fact that we would take the Metro everywhere.
This trip was different. Mom is beyond the point in her life where she wanted to be dragged through Paris checking off the site on a list and moving on to the next. She wanted to “experience” Paris. This experience did not include her trudging up and down the Metro steps, especially given the less than cooperative Paris weather, which was cold and rainy during our late May visit. (I believe her exact words were “the Metro is hideous” after a particularly harrowing trip up and down several flights of stairs and jumping over a small lake at the bottom of the St. Michel stop’s steps.) The question then became, what now? Taxis were prohibitively expensive to rely on for the entire trip; walking long distances was out of the question this trip with mom’s new hip; and city buses required a lot of transfers that, quite frankly, I didn’t feel like navigating. As we came up from the tunnel to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysee, there it was- big, red, double-decked and, most importantly, dry and warm.
Karmic message received: the hop on, hop off two day bus pass was purchased and off we went. To my surprise, I was a convert. We took the Les Cars Rouge tour, which is included as part of a Paris Museum Pass. (If you don’t have the Paris Pass, buy your tickets online for a discount.) There are also several other similar tours. These busses circle the city stopping at the Eiffel Tower (both on the Seine and the Champs de Mars end), the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay, Grand Palais, Trocadero (for an awesome view of the Eiffel Tower) and the Opera. It offered a respite from the rainy weather, and was incredibly convenient to our apartment, just a block from Notre Dame. Did I mention that the Opera stop is also across the street from the unbelievable three-building Galleries Lafayette department store? The downside definitely was that it was by no means a fast way to traverse the city as it often was stuck in traffic, and the prerecorded tourcommentary wasn’t all that informative. But it was warm and dry and a good way to see the “highlights” if you were not in a hurry to get anywhere, and offered an alternative to the Metro if youwant to see the city while travelling from place to place. (As a side note, my kids thought the earbuds provided for the tour narration were a cool “souvenir” from mom’s and grandma’s trip. Who would have thought!?)
What was becoming of me? A bus tour? What next, a guided tour? Paying double for my drink by sitting at a café? Quelle horreur! Stay turned to http://www.favoriteplacetravel.com for part 2 of our Paris adventure to find out. (Spoiler alert: We did both, and loved it!) To book your trip, contact your travel agent at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call Stacey at 404.409.4174, or Susan at 708.479.4693.
“You’re nuts!” “That’s crazy!” “No, you’re not!” These were many of the reactions we got when we told people that we were going to Europe and taking our 20 month old daughter. (And those were just the reactions from my mother.) My friends who also had small children thought we were crazy for other reasons, most specifically taking a 20 month old on an eight hour oversees flight to Paris and then a 5 hour connection to Sicily. I must admit I had my own doubts. Our daughter wasn’t yet potty-trained so we had diapers to deal with. Would we be able to find everything we needed for her? How would she do on this flight? Would she sleep? Would we sleep? What would she eat? Despite these doubts, the pros outweighed the cons-the biggest pro being she still flew for free. So we bit the bullet, booked our tickets and never looked back. With hindsight being 20/20, it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hard, and we never regretted the trip for a minute.
Having been to Europe a few times already, my husband and I had seen the sights of Paris, but we’d never seen them through the eyes of a toddler. Yes, we’d seen Notre Dame, but we never chased the pigeons in front of Notre Dame while flinging a stuffed dog that traveled with us, and on every trip before and since. Never before had I noticed how kid-friendly Paris was- parks everywhere, Merry-Go-Rounds, puppet shows and sailing boats abound. And the people were fantastic-forget the stereotypes of rude, reserved Parisians. Give them a toddler with curly red hair and they were baby-talking, cheek-squeezing mush balls. Free sweets, “cuts” in line, and smiles were everywhere (and anyone who’s ever been to Paris knows how stingy Parisians are with smiles.) Sleep was sparing, but that was nothing new from being at home so why not not sleep in Paris?
After gaining our sea legs in Paris, we moved on to visit relatives in Sicily. The Italians, as expected, love kids. Squeals of “bella bambina”, “bellisima”, and more free sweets marked our way through Taoromina, Caltigirone, Palermo, Agrigento and Siracusa. Did we see every tourist site on our list? No, but did we have the ultimate ice breaker to meet and interact with Sicilians? Absolutely. In our prior trips, we never felt like we really interacted with the locals. Now, we had no choice- we needed diapers, wipes, and snacks, just like every other parent out there. Thankfully, the locals were more than happy to help.
I’d be lying to say it was easy, but we had the trip of our lives and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As for our daughter, no, she can’t remember the trip, but whenever I see her looking at the photos, or asking to go back so “she can remember this time”, I just smile.
London has had a good few years…a royal wedding, the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics, and now a new baby in the Royal Family. The city has never looked better. The best part is prices on hotels have dropped dramatically, yet the splendor still exists. Even without the recent celebrations, London stands on it own as one of the world’s top destinations. The royal sites, theater, shopping, museums sell themselves to the city loving traveler out there. Many of the city’s top spots have done double duty for the Olympics, so London can appeal to the sports lover in your group too.
Lovely Hyde Park, worth a visit at any time for Diana’s Garden and the Speaker’s Corner, served as the triathlon grounds. Beach volleyball was played at the unlikely Horse Guards Parade at 10 Downing Street. That’s right – right next door to the Prime Minister’s house. Of course, Wimbledon not only hosted its famed tennis tournament earlier in the year, but also served as the home for tennis for the Games. It’s still worth a visit for tennis buffs when not hosting the tournament as it serves as home to the club’s museum which includes a tour “guided” by John McEnroe.
London definitely doesn’t dwell in the past and is constantly moving forward. Let your travel agent at Favorite Place Travel plan your trip to show you the past, present and future of the world-class city of London and all it has to offer.
Contact Stacey at firstname.lastname@example.org, 404.409.4174 or Susan at email@example.com, 708.479.4693.
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