As I mentioned in my Paris blog, one of the great benefits of our time as expats in Dublin was the ability to easily travel to other places in Europe. We took a few trips to the UK during that time, and one of my favorites was our 2016 London Christmastime City Break.
After our very short flight we took advantage of the easy and convenient Heathrow express into the city. We stayed in the Westminster area, which I loved. It’s a beautiful area and convenient to everything you need. We stayed at a great little boutique hotel, The Belgrave. Arriving in Westminster, I was first struck by how posh everything was. Clean, wide streets lined with beautiful town homes, everything sparkling and immaculate in the dull winter sunshine.
“The greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling the streets of London”Virginia Woolf
The hotel was in one of those town homes, and shared the posh vibe with the street outside. Full of mod furniture and subdued house music, it seemed much too cool for us. Once we had our first morning meal in the crowded and bustling breakfast room, surrounded by other schlubby tourists just like us, I felt much more at home.
Shopping til we’re dropping
I love Christmas, mainly because I love Christmas decorations. So the first thing we had to do was hit all of the London shopping meccas. My husband likes the shopping part of it and I love the displays, so for us it’s the perfect couples activity. We walked down to Victoria station and I was surprised by the cavernous space. It’s a beautiful train station and with all of the shopping inside it’s a destination itself. We boarded the tube to our first stop, Oxford street.
As we stepped out onto Oxford street, the first feeling I had was of being transported into a consumerist Christmas wonderland. There were decorations everywhere! They were overhead, across the street, hanging from every street pole and of course in every shop window. I was in window-shopping heaven. As we strolled the street looking at the window displays, I imagined myself a Londoner with the privilege to frequent these shops as much as I liked. The streets were massively crowded of course, it being the last weekend before Christmas. So we swam our way upstream as best we could, and the slow pace allowed us ample time to admire all of the fantastic displays. There were even animatronics, with adorable critters scampering around a very jolly Santa.
The only store we actually entered was Selfridges, perhaps because of the famous name or perhaps because I was lured in by the aforementioned animatronic critters. The entrance we chose dropped us into the jewelry section, and I immediately felt that I was going to be singled out and unmasked as an imposter who didn’t belong. Of course nothing like that happened, the salespeople being too busy with people actually buying things to waste time with us.
From Oxford street we strolled down Bond street, which if possible was even more intimidatingly posh. We wandered into a few men’s shops to browse among clothes that I couldn’t afford and would never wear even if I could afford them. Content with our time there, feet sore and arms empty, we went back to our hotel for some well deserved downtime.
Our final shopping excursion was to Covent Gardens. Compared to Oxford and Bond streets, this to me felt like the real London. And with all of the Christmas decorations it felt like a Dickensian London, at that. I loved strolling through all of the little shops that were selling arts, crafts, antiques and bric-a-brac.
Christmas at Hogwarts!
The only thing I love more than Christmas is Harry Potter. Yep, I’m a huge fan. I was able to snag a couple of advance tickets to the Warner Bros Harry Potter studio tour. They sell out quickly, so if you have your heart set on including this in your London trip you need to book your tour well in advance.
The tour is amazing. We took the train from London and were picked up at the station by a studio tour bus, easy peasy. Once you arrive, the magic begins at once with a 20+ foot Christmas tree in the lobby and the flying Ford Anglia swooping down at you. While in line to get in, guests are entertained by displays from the movie, including the cupboard under the stairs. Once in, you’re standing in what looks like a theatre, facing a large facade of the Hogwarts entrance. After a brief introduction, the large double doors opened and we were transported into the Great Hall; it felt like stepping into the real Hogwarts.
Once inside, you’re on your own to tour the exhibits. We spent hours admiring the sets including the Potions room, Dumbledore’s study and the Gryffindor common room. I loved climbing aboard the Hogwarts Express and grabbing a butterbeer at the cafe. Diagon Alley is a highlight, as is the scale model of Hogwarts exterior covered with Christmas snow.
Adulting among modern art
After I’d indulged my inner child completely with Christmas and Harry Potter, it was time for something more serious. Our final tourist activity was to see the Tate Modern. We’d been to London before and had seen all the big sights and museums on previous trips. The Tate was one we had missed so we wanted to make sure to include it this time. I loved it, as much for the architecture of the building itself as for the art inside. The museum is housed in a converted power station and the architects did a marvelous job of keeping the character of the building intact.
Except for several connections through Heathrow, we haven’t been back to London since this trip. Looking back, I am so thankful for the time we spent living in Europe and the travel opportunities that provided. London is a marvelous city and I can’t wait to visit again.