This was our last day in London and my last full day in the UK after two months. It was a really amazing experience to work and live abroad for a summer and I’m really grateful for this opportunity.
We spent our last day on a tour scoping out more Harry Potter spots and going walking around the shopping districts before everything closed at 6.
The Harry Potter walking tour we took went to a lot of major tourist places that were significant to the films as well as some more hidden areas around the city. In addition to the landmarks that the Death Eaters destroy, we saw 2 different entrances to both the Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley which were used in various movies. This picture is where the telephone booth was located and the toilets are somewhere in the City of London near Leadenhall Market.
The tour ended up at King’s Cross Station that has a fake Platform 9 3/4 for people to take pictures with. The queue was about 45 min long but I did eventually get to take my picture running into the wall. There were two little girls who brought their own stuffed animals to take with them to Hogwarts and they were so cute! There’s also a Harry Potter store nearby the wall with the cart that sells slightly different stuff than the store at the studio tour.
After attempting to go to Hogwarts, we headed down to Oxford Street to get some shopping in before we left. We went to Selfridge’s that looked nothing like the PBS show about the department store as well as Hamleys which is a giant toy store located along Regent Street. The store was packed with families looking for toys and the aisles were full of employees demonstrating toys. I wish I knew about this place earlier!
For the last dinner we headed back to South Kensington and had pasta at a restaurant called Loves by the museums. Each table had a tablet to order your meal from and it even allowed you to choose between al dente and soft pasta. It wasn’t exactly British but it was a good way to finish off my two months in the UK!
I’m a huge Harry Potter fan so one of the things I knew I needed to do was to visit the Harry Potter studio tour in Leavesden. It was definitely worth it and pretty much exceeded all of my expectations! We changed our date about a month before so we got an evening ticket but we ended up staying almost till closing. Since we went so late, we visited some of the museums in the South Kensington area, went to the Borough Market, and walked across the famous Abbey Road.
After museum hopping we went to the Borough Market for lunch. It was really really crowded but the food was worth it. I had a halloumi veggie burger as well that was pretty tasty. I had been wanting to buy one of these for a while because they looked so cool and I discovered that it’s pretty much a puff of crunchy sugar. Not too sure what else I was expecting.
Abbey Road is located a few blocks from the exit to St. John’s Wood. The street crossing was crowded with tourists like us trying to take pictures walking across the street as cars angrily honked at everyone trying to cross. It was probably the only spot that we visited that hadn’t really been capitalized on by companies looking to make money and it was refreshing and fun to visit. The studios are located across the street and are covered in Beatles themed graffiti. The signs that say “Abbey Road” are kind of hard to find. I’m guessing it’s because so many people have tried to steal them. If you look high up (like almost to the second story) on the surrounding buildings you’ll be sure to spot one.
The Harry Potter studio tour was probably the highlight of my entire trip! If you go be sure to book months in advance especially for weekends because they sell out fast! It was really nice that they controlled the amount of people they let in so there weren’t suffocating crowds everywhere. The first part of the tour takes you through some sets, props, and costumes used in the making of the movies and the second part leads you through the creature shop and right down the real Diagon Alley! It was really impressive to see everything up close and in real life. A lot of things that looked computer generated were actually real like the door to the Chamber of Secrets and the door to Bellatrix’s Gringotts vault.
The last surprise is the real Hogwarts itself! They used a model for all the external shots so there’s a giant room that houses the entire school! It was really cool to see it in person and it was extremely breathtaking and beautiful. Pictures really don’t do it justice. You need to come see it for yourself.
On Friday we took a day trip out west to see a few famous landmarks outside of London. We visited Winsdor Castle, the Roman Baths, and Stonehenge with a tour. These places were pretty far apart so most of the day was spent riding in a bus.
We started off the morning at Windsor Castle which was about a 45 minute drive outside of London. Because it’s the residence of the queen, the only areas open are the estate rooms, doll house, painting gallery, and the church. The rooms were ornately decorated like how you’d expect a castle to be but apparently it was originally built more for defense than for luxury living. We didn’t have much time here so we just saw the estate rooms and left.
After we drove about two hours to Bath. The city was really lovely and I kind of regretted not going by myself earlier since it’s not too far from Oxford. All the buildings are historic and crafted out of limestone (I think) so the entire town has this sort of ancient feel to it. We spent all our time at the Roman Baths Museum and it was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. The audio guide also had an additional Bill Bryson commentary track which I listened to instead of the regular one. Over the past few weeks, he has become one of my favorite authors and I’m currently trying to read through most of his books. If you visit be sure to try the water at the end!
Our last stop before heading back to London was the mysterious Stonehenge. It was pretty interesting to see it in person and up close because it really makes you wonder why and how it was built. The historians think it’s part of some type of burial ground but it must’ve taken some kind of massive effort to complete it. This place was also really nice because of the fact that it wasn’t suffocatingly swarming with people. The open areas surrounding it made Stonehenge a really nice place to visit.
I went back to Oxford to show my parents around town and visit the Mini factory. I finally got to go to some of the places that I hadn’t been to yet too. We started off at ChristChurch College, climbed up to the cupola at the Sheldonian, and visited New College. After we went to the Mini Factory for a tour of their production facilities and had dinner at Eagle and Child.
Due to all the graduations and ceremonies going on during the weekends I never had the chance to visit the Sheldonian Theater. It was smaller inside than what I pictured but the view from the cupola was fantastic. It was pretty much a 360 degree view of spires topping all of the campus buildings.
After visiting some of the campus buildings, we took the bus down to the Oxford industrial park to the BMW Mini Factory. They had a showroom of various artistic takes on the car and the best one was this “Pet Mini” covered in cow fur. There was even an Olympics car and the car from Austin Powers. The factory was pretty neat and it was completely automated. There were robotic arms everywhere so it kind of looked like the rise of the machines or something.
One of the places I had always wanted to go to but never did was this pub that was the favorite hang out of famous authors such as JR Tolkein and CS Lewis. The inside was pretty narrow and dark but full of history. All of the furniture looked like it was from a hundred years ago and the books and pictures lining the walls were antiques. It was probably the first pub I had been to that seemed like what I envisioned a pub to look like. The cider and veggie burger were delicious as well!
We continued our journey around London starting at Westminster Abbey then took a ferry to the lovely maritime town of Greenwich. From there, we took the rail to the Beatles store on Baker Street and continued on to the West End to see the Book of Mormon!
Westminster Abbey was probably the largest church I’ve ever seen and by far the most historic. It took me a little while to realize that the abbey is basically a giant crypt for England’s most illustrious people. There are effigies of deceased nobility everywhere and hundreds of stones on the ground that note the people buried underneath them. It was really weird to think that we were just walking over the graves of some of the greatest people in British history including Darwin. I’m not a huge fan of creepy things so I admittedly went through as fast as I could.
After leaving the Abbey we took a ferry from Westminster Pier that stopped off at the Tower of London and Greenwich. Since we had already been to the Tower of London, we decided to take the boat all the way to the home of the Prime Meridian. Along the way, the captain made jokes and pointed out places of interest along the side of the river such as Ian McKellen’s house, some super expensive hotels, and a pub called the Mayflower which was actually the place from where the pilgrims set off to come to America. After landing in Greenwich, we were greeted by the Cutty Sark which was an old tea ship that used to sail around the world.
The Old Royal Naval Academy in Greenwich has a beautiful painted hall and is free to enter. There are mirrors located along the center of the room that allow you to look up without straining your neck. There’s also papers with descriptions of who everyone is on the ceiling and on the far wall. I think the hall and the neighboring chapel are actually part of the University of Greenwich. After, we went to the covered market, got some really good teri salmon, and picnicked on the school grounds.
We then took the tube up to Baker Street where there’s a Beatles shop as well as the Sherlock Holmes Museum. There was a super long line of middle schoolers in colorful jackets leading up to the museum so we didn’t have the chance go to in. After, we went to the West End which is the theater district to see The Book of Mormon. I think this was honestly the best and most ridiculous musical I’ve ever seen and it’s totally worth seeing. The theater was packed on a Wednesday evening and for good reason.
On the second day we took an open top bus tour, saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, went on a walking tour of spots made famous by various rock musicians around London, and visited Kensington Palace.
The open top bus tour took us to pretty much every major site around the city. We saw everything from Trafalgar Square to Tower Bridge. The whole tour took about 2 hours but it can vary depending on traffic. This would be really good if you only have a few days to visit London.
We got to Buckingham Palace about 15 min before the changing of the guard started and the place was already super packed. The area to actually see the changing of the guard was completely full and the only available viewing spots were alongside the road leading up to the palace. Apparently it’s really popular in the summer because that’s the only time the full ceremony takes place with the band and the horses and everything. We could hear them playing “Thriller” inside the palace gates but it was way too crowded to go up and watch.
A lot of sites related to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are hidden away in London Alleyways. The studio used to record “Hey Jude” is actually not Abbey Road but one in Soho. This mural is called “The Spirit of Soho” and if you come on the hour you can see Karl Marx drinking a can of Coca Cola.
Our last stop was Kensington Palace which is now the home of Will and Kate. Unfortunately you can only see the older parts of the Palace though. I left pretty confused about who was related to who and what the royal lineage was. There were so many different parts of the palace attributed to so many different queens and kings.
Quickly my five weeks have come to an end and it’s time to move on to more adventures. I used the past few days to see and do all the things I’ve been putting off for the past few weeks (sadly we never got to go punting).
Started off the morning with a flat white at Quarter Horse and learned that espresso drinks in England are comparable to the size of a double shot glass. We paid a final trip to the East Oxford Farmer’s market behind Tesco and headed down to the Magic Cafe on Magdalen Road. I had my first English style breakfast and was absolutely stuffed after.
After saying goodbye to my friends, I attempted to gain free access to all the colleges I could after being inspired by our tour at Cambridge. I think the most impressive one was Magdalen with its beautiful chapel that housed not only these super cool statues but several monochrome/sepia stained glass windows, a statue of someone lying in a coffin, and a giant painting of the Last Supper hanging on the wall.
Insider’s tip to Oxford is that it’s best to visit on a weekday if you come in the summer. A lot of the colleges close their grounds to visitors because of weddings on the weekend. Not even university staff are allowed in.
After many weeks of staring from the outside in at this beautiful lawn of grass, I finally got to enjoy the one lawn that people are allowed to walk on in front of Trinity college. It was as glorious as an experience as I thought it would be. I had to really restrain myself from rolling around on the green carpet because I didn’t want to cause a scene…
This is the view down High Street in front of Magdalen College at sunset. I’ve really had a nice time in this beautiful city but it’s goodbye for now and on to more adventures!
On Tuesday we had the opportunity to go visit our intern counterparts at Cambridge and we got the chance to learn more about what they’re working on. We also had a lovely tour from one of the staff there who was very well informed about Cambridge.
We started off by going through a bunch of the colleges. I honestly don’t remember the names of them but they all had these beautiful lawns that I really wanted to run across. There were keep off the grass signs everywhere (I think more so than Oxford) to preserve the beautiful checkerboard of grass that was the centerpiece of every quad.
This was undoubtably the most beautiful building we visited on our tour. The King’s College Chapel was seriously impressive and beautiful! Luckily we got free entrance into all the colleges courtesy of the Cambridge sustainability staff. We visited a few other colleges as well but this was by far my favorite. It really inspired me to attempt to go college hopping at Oxford (I’ve only been to the ones that were Harry Potter sets) but alas they’re almost always closed or holding some sort of wedding when I’m not at work.
In the back of the colleges is the famous River Cam where everyone goes punting down. Apparently students try to climb over the bridges and jump back down on their punt while they go down the river. There were a bunch of students ferrying around tourists and a bunch of people punting their own boats and trying not to fall in. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to go punting at Cambridge but I still want to try it out before I leave Oxford!
I think the thing I’ve found the most amazing about my travels in the UK and in Paris is seeing the tiny pictures that were in my 9th grade history textbook come to life. Just a few years ago, those places seemed like things out of a book that I’d never get to visit. Versailles was amazing even though we didn’t have enough time to go inside and Montmartre was wonderful too. I just wish I had more time there to soak it all in.