When I told people before my trip to Greece that I chose a flight with a 9 hour layover in London so I could run around and explore, most of them thought I was crazy. The rarely surfacing pessimist in me agreed. What if I wasn’t allowed out of the airport since I had checked a bag? Maybe I would get out of the airport, but get lost and miss my flight to Athens. I was sure something was going to go wrong. Things that scare me hadn’t always been the type that I dove straight into, but with my new commitment to traveling solo, I knew I was going to be uncomfortable once in a while. What I didn’t realize was just how magnified the over-analytical part of my brain would become. "You’re going to get mugged. You’re going to lose your passport. You’re going to accidentally turn on data roaming and get a $5,000 phone bill.. Blah blah."
I landed in London around 12:30pm on Tuesday. I wanted to be back at the airport by 8:15pm for my 10:00 flight. I had already checked in, so I didn’t have to be there 2 hours early, but I wanted to leave time for unexpected trip-ups... If you don't know me yet, you'll soon find out that I'm incredibly clumsy and have a tendency to do less planning than is probably appropriate. I like to tell myself that it's an endearing quality, or at the very least makes for a good story later. I'm definitely not the poster child for things going smoothly. I had been told the line at customs was going to be a total bitch, and it was true. I didn’t get out of the airport until just after 2pm. As a total newb when it comes to London I was so grateful that right before the plane landed, while I was frantically googling "Things to do on a long layover in London," using the notoriously choppy airplane wifi, my friend Brad messaged me with a mock itinerary for me to attempt to follow.
The trains into the city leave right from the airport, so it wasn’t hard to find my way to the station. I bought a ticket for the tube (after asking three different people which ticket machine I was supposed to use… thank God I was in a country where people spoke English!) I took the Piccadilly line to Piccadilly Circle. Map in hand, I found my way over to St. James’ Park. My sister told me before I left that the one thing she wanted me to do in London was to get a hot tea and take a picture of it, and since it was cool and windy that day I was happy to oblige. Buckingham Palace was on the opposite end, and if I wanted to get there and everywhere else I had on my list in the limited time I had, I needed to make haste. I hurried down the path, dodging kamikaze pigeons the entire way. I swear, these birds were on a mission to hit me in the face. While I did spill tea on myself a couple times trying to get away, nothing was going to slow me down.
At the end of the park I arrived at Buckingham Palace. I would have loved to stay and take hundreds of pictures or try to do something silly to make the guards smile, but my goal was to do as many things as I could before I had to get back to the airport. I had to remind myself that someday I could come back to London and really explore.
I took a few snapshots of the palace and made sure to pause to take in the moment. It’s weird trying to imagine what a feeling is going to be like before you are actually feeling it. The way I felt in front of that palace is not what I had expected at all. I thought I would be so in awe and feel so out of place. But the air in London felt similar to the air in New York City to me and I felt an odd sense of home. It was beautiful.
I headed back towards where I started, on a different path for scenery’s sake, and started the search for Big Ben. This part of town also wasn’t what I had pictured at all, but it was gorgeous. It was a windy, cloudy day which I found out later is fairly typical in London. (No, I didn’t look at the weather before I left home… Because if I didn’t go out and make all of these rookie mistakes, how would I be able to warn YOU not to make them? So yeah, check the weather.)
I chilled with Big Ben for a few minutes and then I walked over to Westminster Pier. I walked across the bridge toward the London eye. There was a man playing a bagpipe and people darting back and forth across the sidewalk; tourists trying to take in the view, and locals trying to avoid being trampled by them. I turned around when I got to the other side of the bridge and had an amazing view of the river and Big Ben and the part of London I had explored so far.
I crossed back over the bridge, found my way to the tube again and debated getting on it. I stopped and looked at my map decided that I had time to walk up to Covent Garden which was one of the places my friend told me to visit. I got a little lost on my way there, but I have no issues with asking for directions. Everyone was super helpful and pointed me towards my destination (after letting me know I was holding the map upside down.) The only problem was, when I got to where I thought I was going, I couldn’t find the garden anywhere. I was sure this is where it was on the map. I walked in a few circles and then looked at another map that was posted on the street. Oops. Covent Garden isn’t a garden at all. It’s a shopping plaza. I’m a moron.
I took a few minutes to explore there, and then walked all the way back down to the Piccadilly Circle tube stop (Only because the other station I had planned on using was temporarily closed.) I took the Bakerloo line up to Paddington where I was supposed to meet Brad at 6pm. Not having phone service makes life feel a lot more difficult (but not surprisingly, a lot more real.) I stood outside Upper Crust in the Paddington station and waited for a few minutes hoping I was in the right place. My friend walked up soon after. He took me to a pub called The Abbey and we had a beer there and caught up. It’s another odd feeling seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar city. We left the pub and took a walk where he showed me the canals that run through that area. Gorgeous little houseboats lined the canal on both sides. I wanted to move into one.
I hopped back on the train around 7:30 and headed towards Heathrow. Since it was a layover and I didn’t have to check in and print my boarding pass, I was actually at the airport insanely early for my flight. Better safe than sorry in this case I presume. I called my sister, charged my phone, got a snack and waited. I was ready to head to Athens and then on to Santorini. I had seen so much of London in less than one day. I still can't believe everything went so perfectly!! I need to go back so I can actually breathe the city in and get to know the vibe, rather than running around like a squirrel who had too many pixy stix, but I think for just over 5 hours of actual time in the city, I did pretty damn well.
I highly recommend a long layover in London. :)