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A First Timer's Guide to London: Where to Visit, Eat, Sleep, and Shop

A First Timer's Guide to London: Where to Visit, Eat, Sleep, and Shop | CosmosMariners.com

Of all of the cities that I've visited, London remains my absolute favorite. Why? It's a combination of the deeply layered history, the vibrant and distinct neighborhoods, and the dozens of iconic sites. I've had the chance to visit five times over the last 13 years, and I find something new to discover--and love--about the city every time I go.

London was the first city I visited on our first European trip. It was my home away from home during my study abroad program in college. It was where I realized the depth of my British literature obsession...which would ultimately lead me to get my graduate degree in English.

Yes, the weather can be moody (to put it nicely) and you'll never be fully dressed without an umbrella in your bag, but if you can look past that, London can be one of the most phenomenal trips of your life.

In this article, I'm going to share what you need to know for your first trip to London. It's by no means a comprehensive list of things to see or do in the city, as that would be nearly impossible on just one trip (or even 10!). What I've offered below should give you an overlook into this fascinating place and, hopefully, whet your appetite to come back and explore even more deeply.

How Studying Abroad Changed My Life

How Studying Abroad Changed My Life | CosmosMariners.com


In early June 2005, I clutched my passport in my sweaty hand and waved goodbye to my parents and my sister in the Atlanta airport. I wanted to cry because I was terrified, but I was even more worried about putting on a brave face for my family. I'd thought about this moment for months, and I didn't want to spoil it by sobbing into the shirt of a TSA agent. Plus, I'd juggled four part-time jobs over the preceding year to afford the tuition and room and board, and I wanted to at least pretend I was getting my money's worth.

I was almost 20 and embarking on what would be become one of the most pivotal moments in my life: studying abroad in London for a summer through the IES London program.

At the time, leaving my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend (who'd eventually become my husband many years later) to explore one of the world's greatest cities seemed like a great way to spend a summer.

It seemed like a great way to get some of those once-in-a-lifetime college experiences--you know, those that you keep rehashing for years to come.

It seemed like a great way to cram a few more credit hours into my already packed college schedule. (And yes, this was a particular goal of mine, as I was--at the time--heading to law school in a few years and wanted to create the most stellar academic C.V. possible).

Yet, if I'd known at the moment of sheer terror and excitement what I know now about my study abroad experience, I would have plowed over everyone waiting in that TSA line in the hopes of starting it sooner. (To my parents--don't worry, I still would have missed you the same amount!)

It was only 6 weeks, but it changed everything.

With my roommate Nicole in front of the Abbey Road Studios
I learned that people are the same, even halfway across the world. Before living in London, I'd been on many, many trips with my parents, several of which were outside the country. But, since I'd never been completely on my own before, I'd never fully realized how much people are alike even when culture and distance divides us.

I had bus drivers kindly help me find my stop when I was confused (which was pretty much every time I took the bus for the first two weeks).

I had Tube workers patiently (oh, so patiently) help me figure out how much was on my Oyster card. Again. (This was back in the dark ages when no one had a smartphone to check these things.)

At the bookstore, at the grocery store, at the open air markets, I would bumble my way through things. I was just one person in this big city, and it would've been so easy to push me to the side or be annoyed with me. But, 99% of the time, I was met with friendliness and patience, something for which I will always be grateful.

Brighton Pier on a day trip. Don't laugh at the pink sunglasses--they were really popular in London that year!


I learned that it was okay be alone sometimes. In a city of 11 million people, it's easy to get lost in the faceless crowds of residents, commuters, and visitors in London on any given day. You could be anyone--or no one. While I made some great friends through the program, I enjoyed taking my school books to a nearby park to read alone, or sit on the Tube with a hundred other nameless people all going our own ways. Up until that point in my life, I'd always felt that I needed someone with me--my parents, my sister, my boyfriend, my friends. But I didn't. I managed just fine on my own.

Stonehenge (not the time I got to go into the circle!). And again, more bad sunglasses. Apparently, this was the summer of poor eyewear choices.

I learned what it was like to fall completely in love with another culture. That summer was the time when I realized what it meant to be an Anglophile.

I studied Shakespeare's plays before taking my position with all of the other groundlings to see a performance of Macbeth in the Globe.

I poured over new foods with strange names in the grocery store: Hob Nobs ("nobbly oaty bits"), digestives (which are nowhere near as disgusting as they sound), mustard mayonnaise (a strange concoction of condiments that tastes neither like mayo or mustard or the combo of the two), and spotted dick (which is TOTALLY not what you're thinking of, you perv. It's a type of canned pudding. Duh.).

I learned the variances in British accents, and, by the end of the session, could more or less tell you from where a person hailed in the British Isles.

I was obsessed with the minutiae of Britain and all of the big stuff and everything in between. And, nearly ten years later, I'm still going strong.


I learned that, even in the face of great loss, what people want most is each other. I happened to be on a bus on the way to a field trip in Trafalgar Square when the news began to break about the 7/7/2005 terrorist bombings. A Tube car and a double decker bus had been hit and over 50 people died that day: cell phone communication was impossible for hours, planes were grounded, and there was so much confusion everywhere. London as a whole reeled from the news in the hours after the attacks, but in the days afterwards, I saw how strong London was.

That week was supposed to be a joyous one--London had just found out that it had won the 2012 Olympics bid, and there was a huge celebration planned in Trafalgar Square to official announce the good news. Instead, that celebration was converted into a public rally to remember those who'd died and to call for peace. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the globe, people who, for that one day, were united in our desire to be one with London.

The night that my friends and I stood in line to get the newest Harry Potter book fresh off the press. I had to put down a 5 pound retainer and then wait in line at midnight to get the book, that bag, and that sweet raincoat!

I learned that it's more important to follow your heart than your pocketbook. As I mentioned earlier, I was still planning on going to law school at this point in my academic career.

And go to law school I did...for a year. I was so miserable by my second semester that I dropped out, the first time in my life that I'd actually failed something. When I tell you that I loved school, I'm telling the truth. I. LOVED. IT. I'd never not been good at school before, and I was floundering in law school.

I didn't like school anymore. I stopped going to classes. I stopped doing my homework. I stopped enjoying the thing that, heretofore, had been the reason I got up in the morning.

So, I took some time off after law school, got a job at a little stationery shop, and thought. And thought. And thought.

All that I could remember for those months was how happy I'd been back in undergrad, taking classes, writing and researching for my English major. I keep coming back to one class in particular: Modern British Novels. It was taught by Julie Charalambides, who, aside from having one of the coolest names ever, was one of the greatest teachers I'd ever had. We read seven novels that summer--I can still tell you the titles of all seven--and I poured over every single one. 

I thought about those novels while I worked long hours in that stationery shop. I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. And then, one day, it dawned on me: I'd go to grad school to study more of those modern British novels. 

Two years later, I walked across the stage at the University of South Carolina to get my M.A. in (you guessed it!) British literature. And not just any British literature--modern British literature. It took five years after I came home from London to learn that final lesson.

But that's what a study abroad session does: it sneaks up on you in the best way possible, and before you know it, you see life completely differently.

In the Cotswolds


Did you study abroad? If so, where did you go?

Note: if you're interested in a London summer study abroad program, I cannot recommend IES enough. I'm not getting paid in any way to say that--I just loved my time there that much.

3 Hidden Experiences in and around London

3 Hidden Experiences in and around London | CosmosMariners.com


London is, in my opinion, one of the greatest cities in the world. As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." One of the wonderful things about London is that there's always something new to see or do, another restaurant to try, another alleyway to explore.

There's this great novel by Geoff Nicholson, Bleeding London, in which one of the characters tries (and fails) to walk every street in the A to Zed. No matter how long you've lived there or how many times you've visited, London still has mysteries to discover. 

During my time in London (a decade-long love affair that includes four glorious trips and a study abroad stint), I've tried to crack some of the city's secrets. If you've seen the usual sites--Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and the like--here are three experiences that will help you deepen your understanding of London and the surrounding area

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com

1) The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. 

Pretty much everyone in the world recognizes the Tower of London; it has, after all, been around since William the Conqueror's early reign almost a millennium ago. Most people don't know about the ceremony that takes place each night as a symbolic way to secure the property. Tickets are free, but since a very small number of people are allowed each night, you'll need to book way in advance. 

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com
Yes, I was THAT close to Stonehenge!

2) Getting up close and personal at Stonehenge. 
The first time I visited, I was disappointed. The regular visitor path keeps you from getting too close to the stones, and there wasn't much context for the site other than what you learned on the audio guide. 

However, on a more recent trip, I went on a sunset tour of the property with one of the archeologists studying Stonehenge, and whoa, what a difference the guide makes. We drove around the entire property (which is much larger than you'd think), looked at the burial grounds located across the roadway from the main site, and then got to see the stones up close (really close: I could have touched them if I hadn't been worried about toppling something over!) 

Multiple outlets offer similar expeditions, and they don't come cheap--but if you're interested in learning more about this UK landmark, it's money well spent.

Hidden Experiences in and Around London | CosmosMariners.com
Hello, all of you sad souls that stood out in the rain for three hours. I, too, know what it's like to be on the other side of the gate.

3) Changing of the Guard from behind the gates of Buckingham Palace. 

If you've ever been to London, chances are you've squeezed into the giant crowd that forms each morning to watch the Queen's guard. I had the chance to see the ceremony from a unique perspective: from inside the gates! 

While I had to stand off to one side up against the building, I had an unparalleled vantage viewpoint for the ceremony--when the Irish Guard (with their mascot, the Irish greyhound) came by, I could almost reach out and pet the dog. (N.B.: not a great idea.) This is, unfortunately, one of those events where you have to know somebody that knows somebody (as was the case when I visited--one of my travel companions knew of someone who knew Prince Philip's secretary), but I supposed you could just write the royal secretaries and beg. The worst they can do is say no!

Would you be interested in doing any of these? What lesser known attractions or experiences have you done in London?

The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from London to Edinburgh in (Cramped) Style

The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from Edinburgh to London in (Cramped) Style | CosmosMariners.com

When traveling between London and Edinburgh (two of the UK's best cities in my opinion!), you have a couple of transportation options: driving and flying are popular choices, but you could always go the hitchhiking or running options. I would not recommend the latter two, as the chances that you would be found in a ditch are fairly high on both.

And then there's my favorite option: the train.

I know it's incredibly old fashioned to say this, but there's just something so romantic about traveling by train. I could be a countess in hiding or a very fashionable (but discreet!) spy. The possibilities are endless.

When Landon and I did our UK Extravaganza trip, we flew in and out of London, and then took trains to and from Edinburgh for the Scotland portion of our trip. On the way up, we drowsily took the standard express train, of which I remember very little since I was operating on about an hour of sleep.

On the way back, however, we decided to go in style and take the Caledonian Sleeper. It leaves every night but Saturdays from Waverley Station in Edinburgh and stops in London Euston. (There are also several other sleeper train routes including Aberdeen to London Euston and Glasgow to London Euston.)

We got to Waverley around 9:30 p.m. and proceeded to do the following at the train station: read, gossip about the other people around us, glare at people who looked as if they wanted to steal our luggage, and drink wine from a plastic cup that we bought from the convenience store. I know--we're so classy we can't stand it.

The beverage of choice in train stations
By the time 11 p.m. rolled around, Landon and I were standing on the platform outside of the sleeper train, ready to jump in our pjs and go to bed in our luxurious twin berth room.

The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from Edinburgh to London in (Cramped) Style | CosmosMariners.com

We showed our tickets, hauled ourselves down the minuscule hallway and found our room.

I know that train rooms aren't going to be spacious, but ours was so teeny tiny as to be Hobbit-sized. Landon and I took turns sitting on the top bunk while the other used the sink for tooth brushing and face washing. There wasn't an in room bathroom--just the sink--so be prepared to put on your slippers and use the bathrooms at either end of your train car.

The Caledonian Sleeper: Getting from Edinburgh to London in (Cramped) Style | CosmosMariners.com

Overall, the beds weren't too bad for twin bunks on a train. They certainly weren't down comforters and Egyptian cotton sheets, but we were there for the experience and not the luxury accommodations. The thing that I couldn't get used to was the train moving: I'd fall asleep and then wake up with the foot of my bed about six inches higher than the head when we'd go around a corner. That was a strange feeling!

In the morning, a porter comes around and knocks on all of the doors. You put an order in the night before for coffee or tea, so there's a hot beverage and several packets of shortbread waiting on you upon waking. Sounds like a good morning to me.

What to know when you're booking:

  • There are three types of accommodations: single berth, twin berth, and seated sleeper. Single gets you your very own room, while twin is what Landon and I stayed in. I'd highly avoid the seated sleeper (even though it comes with the cheapest price) until you've got insomnia and really, really want to see what Scotland looks like at 3 in the morning. 
  • There's a first class single berth ticket if you're feeing fancy. It combines a train/sleeper ticket with an Underground pass. 
  • Book ahead. The further out you can book, the better deals you get (see below). 
  • Bargain berths will be your new best friend. I tend to plan so far out that I'm currently working on my 60th birthday party. While this is not always the healthiest (or most normal) option, sometimes I get lucky in my strange ways. Watch this ScotRail site like a hawk: there will often be double perth sleepers for 20 or 30 pounds. Compared to the normal rate of 125 pounds, those are some pretty sweet savings. By booking several months out, Landon and I got a hotel room/train ticket/ breakfast for about half the cost of a cheapo normal night's stay.
  • Make sure there's a bed icon by the price when you book. Otherwise, you just bought yourself a five hour journey sitting straight up.
We had a blast on the train ride, and taking a sleeper train was a highlight of our trip. It wasn't the perfect overnight accommodation, but it was a lot of fun!

Do you like traveling by train? Have you ever taken an overnight train journey?

The Ultimate Guide of Things to See and Do in London




As I've mentioned just a few times a million times here on the blog, I'm in love with London. My first trip was in 2003 where I fell head over heels for the city, and I headed back for a study abroad session while in college. My love runs so deep that I devoted two years of my life to studying the post-World War II novels set in London as a part of my master's thesis. 

It stands to reason, then, that I'm the first to sing the city's praises. And that's pretty easy to do because London has SO much to see and do. Here's my ultimate list for the things to do in and around London.

10 Great Books to Read If You Love London

10 Great Books to Read if You Love London | CosmosMariners.com

Anglophile. Bibliophile.

I've come by those titles honestly, as I received two degrees in Literature, taught English at the college level, studied abroad in London, and completed my M.A. thesis on post-World War II British novels. I know you're dying to hear more about my thesis (ha!), but we'll have to table that discussion for another post.

Sometimes I really, really miss London. But, most of the time, I can't just get on a plane and make my way to merry ol' England for a few days. Instead, I do what I do best and bury my nose in a book. These ten reads make me long for the winding alleyways, layered history, and warm pubs of my favorite city.

Greenwich

Folks, we've reached the end of the line. I've said (nearly) all I could say about my England 2012 trip with my home school students. It's been a fun way to revisit this gargantuan marathon of a trip, and I promise that I'll do better about posting about my future travels in a more timely manner. :)

We did three things in Greenwich. If you're planning a day there, let me advise you: do NOT do all three of these things in one day. You will hate yourself because you will be super rushed. Spread them out over two days. 

With that being said, onward into the Greenwich day recap!

Guildhall


With only two posts left on my England 2012 trip recap, I feel like I'm deep into territory that most tourists don't even consider. Like Andy from The Office said, "No hits. Deep tracks only!" 



I didn't mean to do it, but I kind of ended with a couple of deep tracks. They're still awesome, so you can rollerskate to your heart's content...or not. 

Getting back to Guildhall. 

Lloyd's of London: More Than I Ever Wanted to Know about Insurance

On my England 2012 trip, I ended up in Lloyd's of London with four kids. 

As anyone with any experience with children can probably guess, there was a fair bit of whining and multiple rounds of "When are we leaving?" (In their defense, we were getting ready to leave for our private tour of Stonehenge, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.)

They were also more interested in riding the elevators than learning about insurance or trade risks. I can't blame them, as those elevators were pretty darn cool. 

Lloyd's of London

Hampton Court Palace

There aren't too many places in the world that better show how self-centered (and absolutely insane) Henry VII was than Hampton Court Palace. This gorgeous place was first owned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was basically Henry's right hand guy...until Wolsey failed miserably at getting an annulment from the Pope for Henry's marriage to his first wife, Catherine.

Of course, Henry being the crazy person that he was, stripped Wolsey of all of his power and hauled him to London on treason charges. Thankfully, Wolsey died on the way to London of natural causes and never had to publicly face the wrath of Henry. 

Naturally, during this debacle, Henry decides that he really like his (former) friend's house, so, hey, why not take it? (I'm sure that's what runs through all of our minds in a similar situation.)

London Library

Does anyone else love the smell of old books?

When we were little, my sister and I used to go to the library. It was a super small one since our town only had a couple of thousand people. Those poor books didn't get out much. 

My sister used to rummage through the children's section and smell her way to the good books (at least, according to her). She didn't care when it was made or who wrote it as long as it had the right smell. 

So much for judging a book by its cover. Clearly, whoever came up with that adage never smelled an old book.

Stratford-upon-Avon

Or, how all of my Literature dreams came true

When I traveled to London and the surrounding area in June 2012, I knew there were many things in store for a literature-loving kid like me. 

After all, I was the English/Language Arts teacher for the kids who were on the trip with me. 

When the mom and dad of the homeschool program asked me for my input on the trip, I immediately suggested a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon (and a trip to the Harry Potter Studios, but that's a post for tomorrow. Literally. I'm posting about it tomorrow!). 

Throughout the school year preceding the trip, I'd focused heavily on Shakespeare's influence on later works. We even had "Little Shakes," my stuffed William Shakespeare doll that I got from the Unemployed Philosophers' Guild. (It comes highly recommended as a teaching tool for those of you who are teachers or who homeschool.)

Now, Little Shakes was returning to his homeland. And I was making it happen!

Cambridge

Cambridge University | CosmosMariners.com

Are y'all as excited as I am about my upcoming trip? If you missed the announcement, check it out here! I'll have most posts on the planning as I get a little closer, so definitely come back...

Where were we in our London travels before I interrupted to bring you news of my upcoming travels?

Ah, yes. 

We'd just visited Stonehenge at sunset and then rested against Buckingham Palace as we watched the Changing of the Guard

What's next on our jam-packed itinerary?

We're headed out of London to a town called Cambridge that's home to a little institute of higher learning called Cambridge University. You may have heard of it.

Buckingham Palace: Changing of the Guard

As I mentioned in Friday's post, I'm revisiting a trip that I took to London and the surrounding area back when I was teaching in a homeschool program. 

Better late than never, right?! (Plus, the majority of these sites have looked the same for hundreds of years. I really doubt they've changed that significantly since the summer of 2012.)

Let's kick off the week with a behind-the-gates review of the Changing of the Guard. 

Yup, that's right. 

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal

Stonehenge: Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com

Back when I was working at a homeschool program here in Charleston, I had the opportunity to head to London for three weeks with four of my students, their parents, and my fellow teacher. One of the places that we were visiting was Stonehenge, something I wasn't super excited about since I'd been twice before and had disliked just anti-climatic visiting this world-famous site was.

However, this visit surprised me and completely changed my thoughts on Stonehenge. For how that happened--and how I managed to get really up close and personal with the inner stone circle, read on!

In the program, I taught these four kids (all siblings) English/ Language Arts; that entire school year, we'd worked towards mastering some of the most important classic British literature within my capacity as a full-time English tutor. I was so excited to share one of my favorite places in the world with these children whom I'd grown incredibly close to over the course of the school year. 

A few caveats about this trip:
  • While I helped plan some of the trip, most of the tours and logistics were finalized by the parents. Until myself, they are far from budget travelers and spared no expense on this trip. It was fun to see one of my favorite places (London) from a five star travelers' perspective!
  • Whenever possible, I haven't included pictures of the kids because they aren't my kids. Just trust me when I say that I usually had four pairs of little hands clinging me to 90% of the time. 
  • I tried to take decent pictures, but between teaching on the go and supervising four kids under the age of 11, my camera work is definitely sub par. Forgive me.
As I mentioned, I'd been to Stonehenge before this trip, having visited with my roommate while I was studying abroad in London. We did the usual tourist version of Stonehenge as we walked around the stones at a distance while wearing our audio tour earphones:

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com
Hey, look! It's college Natalie at Stonehenge! (Don't worry--both my personal style and sunglasses have been replaced since this photo was taken.)

This visit, though, was different. 

The family decided to book a private tour with one of the archaeologists that works the site; he and a colleague drove us around the Stonehenge site in 4-wheeled-drive vehicle, giving commentary and theories as we got to different spots. 

The Stonehenge site is actually much larger than most people realize. If you're inside the tourist area (where the stones are), look back over the road to the higher ground. Where that ground peaks and has tree cover, there are several grassy burial grounds that archaeologists believe are linked to the rest of the site.

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com
You can't see it, but the stones of Stonehenge are just beyond the dip in the field. 

Our tour took place at dusk, and it wasn't hard to imagine people gathering around this important site thousands of years ago. 

After visiting the burial site, we headed back into the vehicles and drove over to the more recognized part of the Stonehenge site. 

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com
DO YOU SEE HOW CLOSE I AM!?!?

There, the guide let us right up next to the rocks, where we were treated to fun facts and theories about the cutting and moving of the rocks.

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com

We even saw a carving that the guide said was basically ancient graffiti--something that you'd never be able to see from where the normal tour takes you!

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com
I am touching Stonehenge. STONEHENGE, people! (But only with the tip of my finger very, very lightly. I don't want to be the cause of one of them falling down.)
As the sun set, there was a mysterious, almost creepy feeling that hung in the air. We were standing in the middle of the Stonehenge circle, and we watched the sun go down between these massive, ancient pillars. For once, the kids I was traveling with were quiet, seemingly aware of what a unique moment we were experiencing. 

Taking a private tour isn't anything that I'd ever considered because I'm the queen of budget travel, but the experience was definitely one that I will always remember. If you're looking for a cool way to experience one of the world's most recognized landmarks (and you're willing to shell out some cash), I'd highly recommend the sunset tour of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge: Getting Up Close and Personal | CosmosMariners.com

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Have you visited Stonehenge yet? What did you think? What's one travel experience that you're glad you splurged on?
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My Harry Potter Obsession

My sister and I were shopping last night at Kohl's and found this:
{buy here}
We had a quick debate on whether it was dorky or awesome. Awesome won out, and now I have a new sweatshirt (which I'm wearing right now. I'm totally one of those people who can't wait to wear her new clothes).

I don't care if I'm waaay closer to 30 than I am 20. I love all things Harry Potter. I remember reading the first book when I was in eighth grade. One of the kids I was babysitting had left his copy out on the kitchen counter, and I was bored after he'd gone to bed, so I picked it up and read almost the entire thing by the time his parents came home. Fifteen years later, I'm still in love (mostly with the books, though the movies are pretty great, too).

When I studied abroad in London my junior year in college, the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) came out. My roommate Nicole, my suitemate Randi, and I all prepaid for copies of the book (we had to put 12 pounds down--SO EXPENSIVE). Being the true HP fans that we were, we had to go to the midnight release party at our local Waterstone's. People were dressed up in costumes, the Waterstone's employees were handing out candy, and there were balloons everywhere. It was basically Halloween, but better. We even got free Waterstone's ponchos! (It wasn't raining or anything--I just think the bookstore employees were raiding the supply closet for things to give out.) The three of us wore our ponchos the rest of the night, and we got our books before anyone in America (thank you, time difference).
Back at our residence hall. Clearly, the participants of IES London 2005 were the coolest people, EVER.
Fast forward a few years. I heard that Universal Studios Orlando was going to open a Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure. My sister and I started making plans to go for our semi-annual sisters' trip (see part 1 and part 2 of our trip).

It. Was. Worth. Every. Penny.

The attention to detail all over the park was incredible. My brain was telling me that I was in central Florida, but my eyes were telling me that I was in a snowy wizarding village.

All aboard the Hogwarts Express!
There were tricks and treats in Zonko's (which shared a space with Honeyduke's). I didn't get any tricks, but I did get a Sugar Quill and a Chocolate Cauldron. Accio candy!
Then, last year, I had the opportunity to travel to London with the family that I worked for as a tutor. We stayed for three weeks and went all over the place (it was totally exhausting, but we saw a TON of stuff). I helped plan the trip with the parents, and one of my suggestions for a fun day for the kids was the recently opened Harry Potter Studios in Leavesden, which is right outside of London. The actual sets, props, and costumes were on display--there are interactive green screens to play with, and there are a ton of short films and demonstrations about the behind-the-scenes stuff.

We're here! I think I was as excited as my students (ages 11, 9, 7 and 5) were. No shame.

The Great Hall.
In Diagon Alley. I'm wearing the Gryffindor shirt I bought at Harry Potter World (Universal Studios).
In front of the model of Hogwarts. I thought that was one of the most interesting bits I learned on the tour. There isn't a full sized Hogwarts, only this little version (and by "little," I mean a 14 foot tall model--size is relative, I guess). The exterior shots were filmed on this tiny model, and then the actors were CGI'ed into it. Movie magic!

Studying Abroad: London

Every summer, my parents would take my sister on a road trip somewhere. Sometimes the trip was purely for fun--Disney World or Universal Studios--and sometimes it was for educational purposes. We learned about the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We saw Ernest Hemingway look-a-likes at the Hemingway Festival in Key West, Florida. We read Anne of Green Gables as we learned about Lucy Maud Montgomery in Prince Edward Island, Canada. By the time I was 14, we had traveled every inch of I-95 on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

I adored these trips, and I looked forward to wherever the road took us during those hot summer months.

But I didn't truly fall in love with a place until I went on my graduation trip in 2003. For my high school present, my parents wanted to give me memories rather than a car. They set the budget and the time constraints, and I got to pick the place. I had adored my high school British Lit class, so (with Chaucer and Donne fresh on my mind) I decided England was the place to go.

We had a phenomenal time. I can remember getting off of the plane and looking at the green, green grass growing around Gatwick Airport. In March! It was freezing and the plants were as lush as they are in Charleston in June. We learned a lot on that trip--why are there so many different coins in the British currency??--and I loved going off to college with that extra special trip under my belt.

After a near disastrous freshman year (I didn't adjust well to the whole roommate situation), I wanted to go to a different college. I begged and begged my parents to let me go to St. Andrews in Scotland, but they were firm against it. So, I campaigned for the next best thing: a summer abroad in London. They said okay to this, but said I had to pay for it if I wanted to go. Three months in London was worth any amount of working, so I buckled down my sophomore year, got a tutoring job and a job as a resident assistant and started saving my pennies.

In early June 2005, I drove with my parents to the Atlanta airport, met up with my friend Nicole (and London roommate) and we headed into the unknown that was studying abroad. While I was excited and curious about what the next three months would bring, I was also terrified. I'd never been that far away from my parents. If I got sick or hurt, I would have to deal with it on my own--they couldn't just hop in a car and come get me. Though I'd been away at college for two years, studying abroad made me grow up more than any other one aspect of my young adulthood. It was seriously me against the world for the first time ever.

I went through a study abroad company called IES, and they were everything I wanted and more. While they had home stays available, I decided I wanted to live in their high rise apartment on King's Road in Chelsea because I would get to be around more people my own age. I am so glad I decided on this option. While the apartment complex was mostly for IES students, it was also open as a hostel to foreign students. I met so many people from all over the world. My roommate and I would get together with the other girls on the hall and cook dinner with the two girls from Brazil who lived next to us. London is a multicultural city, and I was so happy to have a tiny microcosm of that in my own home!

While I was in London, I took two classes twice a week: Modern British Literature and Shakespeare. It was amazing learning about Shakespeare just a mile from his Globe Theatre and about Virginia Woolf two blocks from where she lived. Of all of the English classes I have ever taken (and that's saying a lot since I have an undergrad and grad degree in English Lit), these were two of my favorites. My teacher for Modern British Literature opened my eyes to a whole slew of authors I hadn't ever heard of in the U.S.: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain M. Banks, Peter Ackroyd, Sarah White, and Michael Faber. I loved these books so much that, four years later, I went back to school to get my graduate degree in 21st century British Literature. Funny how the world works, huh? My classes were long--four hours each--but I had them back to back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes during our lunch break, I would wander down to the British Museum, which was just down Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury from our school.

Bloomsbury Square where I would eat my lunch sometime
My school building is the one at the corner
And then on my five day weekends, I would study and go exploring. Sometimes I would go with my friends, sometimes I would go by myself. I can remember going shopping for long pants (it was so cold and I hadn't brought anything but shorts!) at the H&M in Oxford Circus. I'd never seen an H&M before and it was love at first sight. I can also remember one very chilly afternoon that I spent in Windsor--I ordered a cup of tea and a scone with strawberry jam and sat in this warm, crowded tea house on the high street people watching. That was one of my favorite afternoons of the entire trip.


I could talk for DAYS about the things I experienced:
  • visiting the Cotswolds
  • trying marzipan for the first time
  • discovering digestives
  • getting sick away from home
  • the 7/7 terrorist bombings
  • the Tower of London
  • Brooke Shields in Chicago
  • Johnny Depp at the premiere of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Brittany Murphy filming on the streets of Chelsea
...but all of that talking still won't express how much those three months changed my life.

Travel is even more ingrained into my soul now, but London will always have a special place in my heart. 

In Brighton on the pier with some candy floss
Guess who went to the midnight release of Harry Potter 6?
In front of A.A. Milne's house (he wrote the Pooh Bear books)
With my friend Randi at the Portobello Road Market
Freezing (in JULY) in front of the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Note the super gloomy, standard London weather.
Because what else are you supposed to do at Abbey Road?
In front of the Abbey Road Studios
Chelsea townhouses that I passed every day on my walk to the Tube for school
And most importantly, if you've got your heart set on visiting a place, near or far, make going there a priority. Fancy cars break down, houses need repairing and jewelry tarnishes, but memories you make with the people you love in the places that inspire you last forever. Happy Travels!

For other blog posts I've written about London and traveling:

Wanderlust Revisited


We've been back from Scotland for over two weeks now: the jet lag is gone, the bags are unpacked and all of the trip laundry has been done.

There has been some minor readjustment after our trip (though, I must admit, that is ongoing--I found myself thinking about turning right into the wrong lane earlier today. Thanks a lot, UK reversed traffic lanes), but most of that is under control.

One thing has surprised me as we rejoined the working world this week. And it was something that I never thought was possible for me.

I was happy--truly happy--to be home in my little house with my puppy (who I missed an enormous amount while we were gone).

My parents took me abroad for the first time when I was 17. I got to choose where I wanted to go for my high school graduation, so we spent ten days in London, Wales and southwestern England. I was absolutely drunk with wanderlust after that trip; all the way through college, I wanted to go backpacking across Europe. I wanted to run away and go to school at Oxford, Cambridge, or St. Andrews. I wanted to take the Chunnel to Paris on the weekends, spend the summer on the Amalfi Coast, experience a real German Oktoberfest in Bavaria.

I dreamed about leaving South Carolina, my family and my tiny college town. Though I was (and still am) very close to my family, I wanted to do something completely self-indulgent for once.

And then, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I had the most perfect opportunity ever: I was invited to study abroad in London for three months. I was terrified, but ecstatic. My parents--only half-joking--told me that I absolutely, definitely must come home at the end of the program. I think they were secretly terrified that I was take off and become a Euro-hippie with a guitar and a travel backpack for the remainder of my twenties.

In a lot of ways, that summer helped me to grow up. But when I returned home in August, I realized that the trip had only increased my desire to live abroad.

I went to France that same year for my sister's high school graduation present. I came home and immediately wanted to go back to Europe. Instead, I tried to enjoy life the best I could in my college town of Clemson, SC (population: super tiny).

Many years went by. Law school came....and went. I transferred into an English literature graduate program, and specialized in (what else!?) British literature. I further focused my studies on modern London and the books written about it. I, being a penniless grad student, would read book after book about London--a place I desperately wanted to go back to, but couldn't get to--and just cry. Something ached in my soul during those years.

During the same time, I was (not coincidentally) going through a horrible break-up when my fiance and I decided to call off our wedding. I think I saw living abroad as a way to escape all of the pain and fear about the future. But living elsewhere costs money, and any grad student will tell you that money is something far and few between.

This month, six years after my study abroad experience, and almost nine years since I first went to England, I got to go on the trip that I had dreamed about, cried over, fastidiously planned for years: two weeks in Scotland and England.

It was everything I wanted and more. I got to go with the absolute love of my life, Landon. I showed him all of my old haunts in London (which he'd heard about, but not seen, since he knew me when I studied abroad in college), and we both experienced new things in Scotland.

But, for the first time ever, something was different. When I got back to our little house, that familiar tugging at my heart, that constant wanderlust I've had, wasn't there.

So, what's changed? you may wonder. Don't get me wrong--I still love to travel. I always will.

There's something challenging, scary and completely rewarding about immersing yourself in a different culture.

But now I will travel for my own enjoyment and not as a way to escape myself and the things going on in my life. I've finally learned that no matter how far or how fast you run, the issues in your life will always catch up.

Ultimately, traveling should be about experiencing the world, not running from what's bothering you.

Being nomadic still appeals to me, but right now, it's just not feasible. We both have jobs (teaching and banking) that aren't super flexible, and we've got a mortgage and a dog to worry about. Sure, those things can be worked around, but now's not the time for us to up and leave everything permanently. It's much more feasible for us to take trips when our schedules (and our bank accounts) allow.

For the first time in my life, I am happy to be exactly where I am and exactly who I am. And I only had to go halfway around the world to figure that out.

Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2005
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2011

Why do you travel? Have you ever had the desire to live a nomadic life?