My parents don’t like giving me material things or money as graduation gifts; instead, they give me a few weeks or months off to travel, and it’s no different now that I’ve graduated with a Master’s degree!
This trip came about due to perfect timing. A couple of months before my graduation, my sister received news that she got accepted for a PhD program in London, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to travel to the UK. After all, my mom and I had to help her with shopping and moving in until she completely settles into her student accommodation… and when classes start, we could do whatever we wanted.
But because we were so busy thinking about the things she needed, we weren’t able to plan much for this trip. We weren’t even able to research about the must-visit spots! All we had for our UK trip was a UK visa, a 3-Day London Pass, and a BritRail Pass… and the rest was just pure YOLO!
This is going to be a bit long, so you can skip ahead to specific days if you want:
Day 1: Arrival
I got sick a day before my flight, so the whole flight experience was terrible. Stuffy nose + pressure = P A I N. My ears hurt so much the whole time and I could not pop them because my cold was so bad that swallowing felt icky. By the time we landed at Heathrow, I was already practically deaf.
My sister was busy with school stuff in the morning so my dad’s cousin came to pick my mom and I up from the airport. She has lived in the UK for more than 10 years so I no longer remember her – this was my first time to meet her and her family. I usually feel awkward around my dad’s relatives, but this family was super nice and accommodating so I never felt any awkwardness at all. It was also my first time to meet her son, Christian. I’m not so used to talking to people who are younger than me, but I eased up to him soon enough.
After dropping us off at my sister’s dormitory, we got her stuff sorted and can I just say, her student accommodation is teeny-tiny. I mean, my dorm room back in Taiwan wasn’t very large too, but her place is just too cramped for my taste.
As soon as we finished unpacking my sister’s things, my dad’s cousin picked us up again for lunch at Nando’s, near my sister’s campus. I think spicy food helped with my cold; I felt my airways and ears clear up a little bit after that meal XD We didn’t do much after lunch though because it was already afternoon and we still had to sort out my sister’s room. But once we were done, we had the whole day to relax. After all, we just came from a long and exhausting flight!
Days 2 and 3: Squeezing in some sightseeing
We allocated two days to help my sister with whatever more she needed. But with her erratic class schedule, we found ourselves waiting for her for a few hours at a time, so we decided to use this time to explore some of what London has to offer!
For the first day, we decided to use some of our free time to claim our London Passes near Leicester Square. It’s a really nice area with lots to see and do! I really enjoyed strolling around the area and taking in the sights; even people-watching was fun because the surrounding area was just so vibrant!
Oh and I also saw a Lego Store, and my inner kid just freaked out! I looooove Lego so much, so you can just imagine how excited I was to look through all the stuff they had on sale!
And for the second day, we had the opportunity to explore The British Museum for a bit since it’s just near my sister’s campus!
Our sightseeing escapades were cut short though since we had to rush back to meet my sister in school. It was alright I guess; I still wasn’t fully recovered from my cold anyway so I didn’t feel that I was up for so much walking and exploring for the first few days. I got more sleep than usual during these days, so I didn’t feel sluggish anymore by Day 4.
Day 4: Strolling around London
For our first full day of sightseeing, we activated our London Passes and availed of the hop-on-hop-off bus tour that came with it. I always see buses like this in Taipei but I never really had the chance to get on them. They have guides on board so I think it’s a pretty convenient way to learn more about the city, and listening to the descriptions helped me decide which places I wanted to explore! On this day, I also realized that it was my first time to really see London in its full glory – and I loved what I saw!
First thing on our checklist for the day was to visit Tower of London, because I love historical buildings and fortresses (and my mom loves learning about anything related to Henry VIII)! I find it really cool that places like this are so well-preserved, and I definitely enjoyed all the exhibits – my favorite ones were the Medieval Palace and Prison exhibits!
We spent so much time at the Tower of London, much more than my mom would have liked1. Well, that’s what happens when I get engrossed in reading all the exhibit descriptions!
While flipping through the London Pass guide we also realized that we were allowed entry into Buckingham Palace‘s state apartments, and that this day was the last day! We came in a hurry to see it, but we were a few minutes late and we failed to catch the exhibit. Too bad, so we just snapped some photos and went for a walk at the nearby Green Park. Sometimes people find it funny that I’m so fascinated with parks, but they should understand that we don’t have these where I live!
My sister called us inviting us for dinner, so we met up near her place and looked for a nearby pub to dine in. It was funny because there were signs outside the pub that said: “Home Fans Only” and the like. We didn’t know what those signs meant so we didn’t go in at first. Turns out that there was a football match going on that night, and the pubs were supporting different teams XD Oh well, it was a nice experiencing an authentic pub night in London complete with a great football game! Definitely the perfect way to end our day!
Day 5: Kensington Palace, London Bridge Experience, HMS Belfast, West End theatre experience
My mom is a huge fan of anything related to the royals, so she was pretty excited when she learned that our London Pass included a visit to Kensington Palace. Plus points for her when she found out that there was an exhibit about Princess Diana’s clothes inside! Well, as for me, my favorite part was the King’s State Apartment and The Crown Jewels exhibit.
Besides the interior, which was stunning, The Round Pond and the gardens outside the palace were amazing too. Everything looked so serene! This has got to be one of my favorite sights so far.
We left Kensington Palace and Hyde Park in the afternoon and headed to HMS Belfast, a British warship converted to a museum. As a former Naval ROTC cadet, I was very excited to explore the ship and experience what navy life must have been like for servicemen during World War II.
Finally, we walked for a few minutes and arrived at the London Bridge Experience. It’s a shame that we weren’t allowed to take photos or videos inside since it was an interactive attraction, but gosh. What can I say? It was pretty nerve-wracking but super unique because the attraction doesn’t just present the usual history lesson about London, it presents the city’s dark history2! Too bad my mom is super scared of zombies and ghosts and all that, so we skipped the second part of the London Bridge Experience. She literally had to drag me away from the group so that we could leave as quickly as possible!
Oh well, we headed straight to London’s West End to watch Kinky Boots, which we got last-minute tickets for. I’m so glad we chose to watch Kinky Boots, it was such a heartwarming and enjoyable show. I’d definitely love to see it again! Hmm, Broadway? *wink*
Day 6: Windsor Castle and Harry Potter Studio Tour
That morning, we realized that our London Pass also came with free train rides to and from Windsor… and free entrance to Windsor Castle! So, why not? We had a few hours to spare before our Harry Potter Studio Tour anyway!
Windsor Castle was lovely! Only a small portion was open for tourists since it’s still a fully operational castle and people still actually live here, but that’s okay. I enjoyed looking around the castle grounds and seeing the state apartments anyway!
After snapping photos and finishing the whole audio guide (much to my mother’s chagrin), we hopped on a train going back to London, then went to Watford Junction, where a shuttle bus for the studio tour guests was waiting.
I swear I went mental at the sight of the Harry Potter sign on the bus and outside the building! It’s really happening! And when we got inside, I couldn’t contain my excitement when I saw the walls covered with footsteps ala-Marauder’s Map style! Everything’s so extra already… and we haven’t even entered the main exhibit rooms yet!
I love how the exhibits still look so magical even in real life. These things are just some of the stuff that will greet you once you enter the exhibits:
Of course I wanted to feel like a legit Hogwarts student, so I went to Diagon Alley…
went through Platform 9 3/4…
hopped on the Hogwarts Express…
and even had butterbeer at Hogsmeade!
Even though we spent quite a lot of time in the studio tour, I still felt that it wasn’t enough. I tried all the activities and read through everything, and before I knew it the tour was closing for the day. 🙁 Take me back!
And there you have it for the first part of my UK travel! I hope you enjoyed reading and looking at the photos as much as I enjoyed exploring the country! Stay tuned for part 2!