Where does one start an art-themed tour of Europe? Rebecca and I chose London. This was my second visit to this cosmopolitan city, and I was excited to introduce all of my favorite places to my sister and check out quite a few highlights that I missed on the last trip. London (and the UK in general) is closer to the US geographically, culturally, and historically than any other country in Europe, so it makes a great jumping-off place to further exploration of Europe!
Day 1: Trafalgar Square & the National Gallery
We arrived in London around noon and, after getting through passport control and purchasing Oyster cards, we took the London Underground to our hotel. I got a bit turned around when we got off at Goodge Street station, but eventually we made it to the Ridgemount Hotel, which is the same bed and breakfast where I stayed the last time I was in London. Our room was on the top floor, so we lugged our suitcases up and then took a few moments to let it sink in that we’d made it and were ready to begin our tour of Europe!
We took a bus (double decker, of course) to Trafalgar Square so we could spend some time at the National Gallery, our first art museum of the trip. We took full advantage of our hour and a half, seeing so many great works of art! Leonardo DaVinci’s “Madonna on the Rocks” is one of the highlights, and I loved seeing large-scale paintings by Veronese and many atmospheric paintings by H.M.W. Turner that I would call “pre-Impressionist”. One rather unique painting we saw is called “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger. It is of two young men and their collection of interesting worldly goods, and at the bottom of the painting is what at first looks like what might be a piece of driftwood. But if you stand to the right of the painting, almost horizontal with it, you can see that it’s really a skull. It was definitely a cool painting to see in person and one which provides much food for thought!
The National Gallery also has a large collection of Impressionist and Pre-Impressionist paintings which I saw the last time I visited, but unfortunately that whole section was under restoration. They did have a few of the collection out, including “Sunflowers” and several others by Vincent Van Gogh, “Les Grandes Baigneuses” by Paul Cezanne, and a Gauguin. Next to this display was the “Rembrandt & Rubens” exhibition where we were able to see several interesting paintings and sketches before they closed the museum at 5:45pm.
After the National Gallery, we didn’t spend too much time in Trafalgar Square since it was raining. We decided to hop back on a bus and head to Leicester Square, where we could explore some options for dinner. We ended up going with Bella Italia, a pizza chain where I ate several times on my last trip to Europe with my friend Mickey. I had a margherita pizza for old time’s sake, and then we stopped by an art supply store before taking the bus back to our hotel.
We checked the weather and rearranged our London itinerary a bit so that we could have good weather for seeing the gardens at Hampton Court. Then we got a good night’s rest so that we would be ready for a full day of exploring the next day!
This was one of the first times that I have revisited a city or country I had been to before, which was a really fun experience. Right away I remembered more about it than I expected and appreciated reexperiencing the UK and the way things are just a bit different than they are back home. After the first day I was excited to continue acting as guide to Rebecca through the rest of our time in London!
Day 2: Hampton Court, Chinatown, & Les Miserables
We started our first full day in London with a hearty English breakfast. The breakfast had been one of the main reasons that I had chosen this hotel again, and I was happy to see that nothing had changed. Every day there was bacon, eggs, fresh orange juice, toast (on a toast rack!), delicious hot chocolate, and a three-day rotation of sausage, beans or a tomato for a side.
Then we went to the Waterloo station, where we took a train to Hampton Court. This is probably still my favorite palace that I have visited, and it was really fun to explore more of it than I was able to last time! We bought a joint Historic Royal Palaces pass and then made a beeline out to the gardens. We were lucky enough to have the fountain and the formal gardens to ourselves for a few minutes before the rest of the tourists caught up. 🙂 Then we checked out the privy garden and the nearby hedge tunnel and world’s largest grapevine before heading back into the palace.
There we saw the main courts–Fountain Court, Base Court and Clock Court–as well as the Mantegna murals before heading into the royal apartments. We started with King William III’s, which included throne rooms, the King’s Staircase, royal bedchambers, and one with quite the armory display! Then it was onto King Henry VIII’s apartments, which included the chapel and a replica of his crown. There are also an abundance of tacky King Henry VIII souvenirs, such as Christmas ornaments of him and all of his wives!
We had our first afternoon tea of the trip in one of the courtyards of Hampton Court, and it was quite delicious. Afterward we had a quick nap in the Members Only room (which we had access to since we purchased the Historic Royal Palaces pass), which was quite fun! It was beginning to rain but we did see the Tudor gardens and the chapel from the lower level before we left to take the train back into London.
We took a quick break at our hotel before heading back out, this time to London’s West End. We started with dinner in Chinatown–we had dim sum, and later, at a different place, bubble tea. Then we went to the Queen’s Theatre, where we had tickets to see Les Miserables! The show was absolutely amazing. The theatre was gorgeous and the rotating set design was pretty cool. This was the first stage production of the musical I had seen, and it was interesting to see how the songs were cut and rearranged in the 2012 movie version. All of the singers were very talented, and we found that we connected much more with the story and characters here than we did with the movie version, even getting teary-eyed at a few parts! It was really a great experience and highly recommended if you’re in London!
After the theatre we had a little mishap. As we were walking through Leicester Square, my purse strap suddenly broke loose from the bag, and in the tube station Rebecca’s broke as well. This seemed like a bit too much of a coincidence and so we wondered if someone had been trying to bag-slash or pickpocket us. There were no actual cuts on either bag and neither of us felt anything, but we were probably lucky that nothing was taken!
Back at the hotel, we asked about a sewing kit, since there was some hope of repairing mine. They didn’t have one handy but told us that there was a cobbler nearby. In the lobby we met Anne and Wendy, two English ladies who were “leaving their husbands behind” to go down to London for shopping and West End shows, as they do every year. They were really nice, recommending some shows and museums and, when they found out about our ‘handbag’ dilemma, giving Rebecca one! They said they were planning to give it to charity anyway (not that we are charity of course, they said 😉 ) and it really helped us out to have that for the rest of the trip!
Day 3: Wallace Collection, Kensington Palace, & the British Museum
After our English breakfast, we started day three in London with a trip to the Wallace Collection. This is a free museum in London which is housed in a gorgeous mansion… I hadn’t visited it last trip and I was very impressed and glad we went this time!
They have, of course, lots of wonderful furniture, chandeliers, jewel-toned wallpapers, and other decorative objects, as well as an abundance of art! Almost every wall of each room is covered, salon-style, with wonderful paintings. Their collection includes many Rococo, Dutch and Orientalist works, as well as Renaissance artifacts. There is also a whole room of paintings by Canaletto, and several rooms full of armor (including a couple of complete sets of horse armor) from around the world. One thing I thought was a bit funny was to see a large number of Jan Weenix paintings of dead game rabbits–there were seven in the large gallery, two in the room next to it, and probably a few more throughout the collection! Fun fact: if the picture of the large gallery looks familiar to you, it might be because a room in the palace of the movie Frozen was based on it.
Afterward we walked over to Daunt Books Marylebone. I’d seen a picture of the store online and wanted to go, so when I found out it was close by we went for it. It is a wonderful bookstore. Large and pretty, complete with stained glass windows and dark wood railings. A large section of the store is organized by country, so you can find guidebooks, language books, nonfiction, novels and maps from a country or region all in one place, which I thought was pretty cool! We bought a few books and were happy we made the little detour.
Our next stop was Kensington Palace. This was another place I had not been before, and to be honest, it was a little disappointing. The palace itself and grounds aren’t as impressive as Hampton Court, and the exhibition on Queen Victoria was closed when we were there. You can walk through the palace but there really isn’t much to see. So many of the rooms were almost empty! Then at the end was an exhibition that had outfits worn by Princess Di. Given the option I probably would have skipped it as soon as I saw the line for it, but they kind of made you go through it to exit the palace. The exhibition itself could have used some work–there wasn’t a very good ‘flow’ to it so people were kind of jostling against each other to see things. They probably wouldn’t have needed to restrict how many people went in at a time so much if the exhibit had been designed better. Anyway, I was glad that I went because I can now definitely recommend that Hampton Court is a more-fun choice while in London!
We had tea at the Orangery after our visit to Kensington Palace. Actually we tried to go to the Orangery there first, but they were full and did not take same-day reservations, so we had to come back later. Luckily when we came back (about an hour and a half later) we were able to get in. This definitely isn’t the cheapest place to have afternoon tea in London–and it probably isn’t the ‘best’ either–but it may be the most popular/touristy. Anyway it was a fun, elegant experience, even if it was a bit pricey. We may have to start eating finger sandwiches back home…
Since we were kind of in the area already, we decided to make a brief visit to the Natural History Museum. My main reason for stopping by this free museum was to see the architecture, which is almost as cool as its artifacts. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we were able to see some dinosaurs, the life-size blue whale, and the dodo bird models. We also saw an Audubon print of the now-extinct Carolina parakeets, which I have a print of in my house that Rebecca gave to me, so that was pretty fun!
Next we went to Westminster Abbey, trying to make it in time for the 5pm Evensong service. We got there just in time, but unfortunately it turned out that it was actually the one day all year that they were performing at a different church entirely! I didn’t check if it would be happening or not when we rearranged our schedule due to weather because I thought it really was everyday at Westminster Abbey. It was alright, though, because we got to see the outside of the abbey and Big Ben! Then we went back to the hotel for a quick break before going to the British Museum.
We went to the British Museum last because it was Friday and therefore open until 8:30pm. The line wasn’t long at all so we got in pretty quickly, and I took Rebecca to the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian artifacts first, which was my favorite section the last time. Then we went through the Assyrian section, seeing all three sets of winged human-headed bulls and the famous Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs. We breezed through the Greek and Roman sections (partially because some of it was closed already and partially because I had just been to Greece last fall) and then saw the Moai and some of the African artifacts. Then we headed upstairs to see Chinese and Korean pottery and Japanese sculpture. At that point they were closing down the museum so we had to exit, but we managed to go out through the Egyptian section so we could see a few mummies. 🙂
For dinner we tried an Indian place called Malabar Junction, which was close to the British Museum. English food isn’t much to write home about and Rebecca wanted to try as many new things as she could while we were in Europe, so we thought Indian food would be a good choice. We had paneer tikka as our starter and I had paneer makhanwala (which I had not had before) for my entree. Everything we had was delicious! Then we walked back to our hotel for the night, managing to help some young Spanish women who were looking for their hotel along the way.
Day 4: Tower of London, V&A Museum, & the Tate Modern
Our last full day in London started with a visit to the Tower of London. For me it was fun to go back and see it again. We started with a walk along all the ramparts and through most of the towers before they got busy, then did the tour, guided by a Yeoman Warder. It actually was a different tour than the last time I was there. Some of the stories were the same of course, but I heard some new ones too. We also went into the chapel, which I don’t remember doing the last time, so that was interesting too. Then we went through the Crown Jewels exhibit–which was a good call, because once we got out there was a HUGE wait to go in! I also bought myself a string of pearls at the gift shop after–perhaps I was inspired by all of the lovely Crown Jewels! 😉 We went through the White Tower next, which is the oldest part of the castle (dating to 1066AD and built by William the Conqueror). Inside there are exhibits displaying armor and weaponry. Finally, we finished by seeing the prisoner graffiti in Beauchamp Tower.
Next we dropped off my purse to be fixed at the cobbler near our hotel. We didn’t have much of a lunch – just a muffin and an elderflower soda at a cafe near the cobbler’s. Then we got back on the Tube and went to the V&A Museum.
I had never been there before, so I had no idea how big it was! The collection is so vast and varied that I think you could truly find something to interest anyone there. We started by seeing the Cast Court, where there are replicas of many of the most famous sculptures in the world, which was pretty amazing to see! Then we went to see Tippoo’s Tiger, a very interesting automaton of a tiger mauling an officer of the East India Company. It was created for a sultan of an Indian kingdom in the eighteenth century, and is certainly one of the more unique things I’ve seen in a museum! Afterward we split up so that we could each see the things that most interested us. I went to see the beautiful architecture of the cafe, then up a really cool staircase to the silver galleries. I also saw a lot of interesting paintings, including some by Degas and Turner, and the famous “The Day Dream” by Rosetti. The Jewellery Gallery was also amazing, although you could not take pictures inside it. With the last of my time I peeked into the National Art Library and checked out a huge Leighton mural before rejoining Rebecca at the main entrance. When we compared what we had seen, we realized that we had both seen totally different things, and that there was still much of the museum that neither of us had made it to!
Afterward we went back to the cobbler and picked up my purse. They did an awesome job fixing it (and quickly too) for only £13 so I was pretty happy! If it hadn’t been a leather purse I would have just bought a sewing kit and fixed it myself, but I was really happy I brought it in.
Then we decided to do a quick revisit to the British Museum since we were in the neighborhood (and because a lot of it was closed off the night before). Unfortunately the line was very long so by the time we got in we had to hurry, plus we had to use the restroom which took even more time! We did manage to see the Room of Enlightenment with its touchable Rosetta Stone and some of the Americas rooms, including the famous (and more sparkly than you would expect) double-headed turquoise mosaic serpent by the Aztecs! We also went through more of the Egypt section and got to see more mummies and interesting artifacts.
Next we tried to make it to Westminster Abbey in time for the Evensong service (since we had missed it the day before) but we were too late. We did get a few pictures of Big Ben with a bluer sky though, so that was something. By this point our feet were pretty sore from all of the running around of the past few days, and we were wondering what to do next. Since the Tate Modern was on the itinerary for the evening, we decided to head over to that vicinity of London, where we would be able to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, and the Globe Theatre before going to the museum. We also had Turkish food for dinner there at a place called Tas Pide–we did the ‘Yaz’ menu, so we basically got to try a bunch of dips and sauces with pita, and it was a really fun experience.
Then we headed into the Tate Modern, which luckily for us is open late on Fridays and Saturdays. I really loved their Start Gallery, which has some of their most famous pieces and introduces you to modern art and eases you into the appreciation of it gently. Other parts I enjoyed were seeing Picasso’s “Weeping Woman”, the Mark Rothko room (with a nearby Monet waterlily painting as a compare/contrast exercise), a room of Dali, Magritte and other Surrealist works, and an installation piece called the Tower of Babel (this was made up of a bunch of radios all playing different channels).
There was also a series of photographs that was really cool–they were all sort of “behind the scenes” or “secret” things that the average person wouldn’t normally be able to see. The series was called “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” by Taryn Simon. Of course, being a modern art museum, there were also some pieces (especially some of the installations) that were just weird and even off-putting, but overall it was a pretty decent modern art museum for someone (like me) who is not super well-versed in the subject.
Finally, after the museum closed we sat out on a bench for a while, looking at some of the high-end glass-walled apartments near the Tate Modern. We were pretty tired at that point, but eventually managed to get ourselves up, walk back across the Millennium Bridge (enjoying the way the city’s night lights were being reflected in the Thames along the way), and make it back to the Blackfriars Tube station and onto our hotel.
We had a great four days in London–we were able to see so much art and so many museums, as well as three different castles/palaces and some of the more touristy sights too. If our schedule had allowed, I would have liked to have one more day in London so that we could have slowed down the pace a little and maybe seen a couple of things we missed, but it was not to be. Anyway we were excited to be able to take things a little bit slower in Paris and Amsterdam. At this point in the trip, we were ready to sleep in the next day and then head onto Paris, an even more art-centric city!