My first introduction to London was in the spring of 2017 as the launching point for my post-grad solo Euro trip—I spent 4 full days there but knew pretty early on I’d want to go back again.
Backpacking across Europe for over a month on a limited budget puts certain constraints on what you can do in a city, especially one as expensive as London. There were experiences that were just impractical given my budget and the amount of time/destinations left on my itinerary, like a proper afternoon tea, or really, any attractions or food that weren’t either free of very budget friendly. As someone now gainfully employed with a reasonably larger budget, I jumped at the chance to return when I found a $400 round trip flight out of SJC that also utilized the Veteran’s day holiday.
Usually with my longer trips I’ll write out what I did each day, but I was a bit too busy to write during the trip so this is really more of a recap–a highlights reel, if you will. So without further ado, here’re my highlights from the 5 days in London.
The Shard vs The Skygarden Observation Decks
I loooooove a good observation deck—I practically seek them out in every city I visit. The last time I was in London I got a great, free view at the top of the Tate Modern but I wanted to see if there was anything more.
My first night in London I went up to the top of The Shard with a friend from university who was coincidentally was in London the same time as me, so we did a fair bit of exploring together. We bought tickets on our phones for about 30GBP, or 40USD–pretty pricey for an observation deck, but I justified it because it’s the tallest building in the city and would provide a significantly different, night time viewing experience and (hopefully) some great pictures.
The view ended up being fine. The observation deck was completely enclosed with glass, and the interior lights made it difficult to get photos without strange reflections. I got a few good shots, but not nearly as many as I’d expect for $40. A lot of the prime photo real estate was taken up by people leaning against the glass, mindlessly on their phones. A good amount of the glass was smudgy with fingerprints. There wasn’t really any place to sit and enjoy the view. It felt a little bit like the Space Needle in Seattle—relatively small amount of space to walk and lounge about to enjoy the view, but without little gaps in the glass to allow for better pictures. I wouldn’t necessarily say I regretted this excursion, but it definitely didn’t live up to my expectations.
The Sky Garden
I found out about the Sky Garden observation deck a week before I left for my trip through a fellow solo traveler’s instagram stories, and made a free online reservation on the spot.
I arrived up about 15 minutes before my scheduled time because I was worried I’d get lost (I didn’t!) and went through security. A short ride later, and arrived at the top about 30 minutes after my initial arrival.
The Skygarden is an incredible space with several options for food and drink, and a copious amount of seating space to relax and enjoy the magnificent 360° view. I was impressed with the garden, walking up the stairs to the upper viewing deck felt like being immersed in a greenhouse.
Tl;dr, I greatly preferred The Skydeck to The Shard, definitely for value but also for overall views. I can imagine that if I’d visited in the evening I’d have similar viewing obstacles with reflections in the glass, but having the option to take photos over the protective glass on the eastern outdoor deck would have been a much welcomed alternative. If you’re planning on visiting London soon, make sure to secure your free reservation ahead of time!
One of my absolute favorite things to do while traveling is exploring by foot. It’s free, it’s exercise (gotta average 10 miles a day some way), and it’s one of the best ways to get to know an area.
Here’re some photos I took while wandering around one of the more posh districts, Notting Hill.
Here’re some of my favorite photos from in/around Brick Lane:
Afternoon Tea at Claridge’s
As soon as I decided I’d be going to London, I did extensive research about the best places for afternoon tea. I decided that I wanted to enjoy a classic, traditional afternoon tea–classic finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and some nice pastries. Claridge’s Afternoon Tea topped the list of nearly every ranking of classic afternoon tea, but it was quite expensive– over $90 including a 12.5% “discretionary gratuity”. Naturally I was a bit hesitant considering most of my trips are done on a quite frugal budget, but about a week before I was going to leave I realized I’d regret not doing it, so I made a booking for the last full day of my stay in London, Tuesday 11/5, at 5:15pm. 5:15 for “afternoon” tea? A bit late, yes, but I figured I’d be more of a dinner than anything else.
The day before my tea I realized I didn’t pack anything nice enough to wear to such a nice hotel known for its fanciness and regality, so I picked up a Chanel-esque skirt, some thick leggings, and a pair of pointed patent loafers at TK Maxx (not TJ Maxx, for other fellow Americans). I already had the black turtleneck and scarf, and I think it turned out pretty well. Would I have been turned away if I showed up in a blouse, black skinny jeans, and my sightseeing boots? Probably not, but I think looking the part definitely added to the overall experience.
I was seated at a cozy table with a view of the main dining room. Since I was dining alone, I was offered magazines or a newspaper to keep me occupied, which I thought was a nice touch. I opted for a newspaper and pretended to leaf through it thoughtfully for a bit before admitting to myself that I’d rather be writing in my journal.
My waiter looked a lot like a more put-together Mark Zuckerberg. He greeted me as “Miss Ulrich”, asked about my London trip, and gave a thorough explanation of the available teas. He offered the option to have each course paired with a different tea, and I gladly accepted the offer since all of the options felt a bit overwhelming.
The sandwiches were served with white peony tea, a super light, fresh tea that allowed the individual sandwich flavors to shine through.
From left to right: smoked salmon with brown shrimp horseradish on rye bread; cucumber with lemon and watercress cream on white bread; chicken salad with roasted corn on malt bread; duck egg salad with crisp shallot and mustard cress on white bread; ham with caramelized apple and cinnamon butter on onion bread. The duck egg salad was by far my favorite sandwich—I’m usually a fan of egg salad, but something about it was absolutely incredible.
After I finished the last sandwich, a different waiter asked if I’d like another plate. Of course I said yes.
The scones were paired with Claridge’s Blend, a super satisfying, full-bodied black tea. This tea ended up costing 8 pounds extra, but was extremely worth it in my opinion.
The two scones, one raisin and one plain, were served warm with clotted cream and a beautiful fruit tea jelly (stylized as gelee, but effectively, a jelly). The richness of the clotted cream paired extraordinarily with the black tea. The slight tang in the fruit jelly was an incredible addition spooned atop a thick layer of cream. I started to feel pretty full after my first scone (I blame that second plate of sandwiches), but nevertheless, I persisted.
As with the first course, a waiter came by to refill the hot water in my tea pot and pour a fresh cup of tea within seconds of me finishing the last cup. I had at least 3 cups of the Claridge’s Blend–definitely unique to any other black tea I’ve had before.
The final course, pastries, were paired with a smooth, vibrant lemongrass tea. I was a little skeptical of this pairing at first, but it cut the sweetness and richness of the pastries very nicely.
From front to back: a fruit jelly semi-orb on top of a dried fruit shortbread cup; a chocolate hazelnut eclair-thing with gold flakes; a crispy stroopwaffel-like wafer filled with vanilla creme; and a dark chocolate macaron. There was also a lemon chiffon cake off to the left, but I was absolutely stuffed by the time I finished the first 3 pastries so I took the last two to go.
The bill came out to just under 88 GBP, or $113. Suuuuuper pricey compared to what I usually do on a solo backpacking trip, but I’m very glad I did it. I had a very deep sense of satisfaction knowing that I was able to do something so nice for myself. Overall, this was an incredibly positive and indulgent experience and it set the bar very high for any future afternoon tea experiences.
No Diet Club Walking & Biking Tour
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there’s another food related activity on my highlights reel. This Best London Food Tour put on by No Diet Club via Airbnb Experiences was about $50 for four hours of snacking unhealthy foods through two food markets on the opposite sides of London.
We met our group just outside of the Southbank Centre Food Market, which comprised of two guides (both current UCL students from Spain), a small family from Ireland, a couple from Houston, TX, myself, and my friend from university. We started off our tour with some delicious french styled duck burgers from The Frenchie, some were topped with raclette and others with bleu cheese. We also had some delicious french fries (er, “chips”) that were fried in duck fat and topped with a generous serving of truffle oil mayonnaise. I had a quarter of each of the burgers and a good serving of the fries—I’d definitely go back here!
Our next stop was just a few stalls down at Street Pig BBQ. I was a bit underwhelmed by this stop since BBQ is super accessible in the US. The potato salad and carrot slaw was nice, but I could’ve skipped this.
Our next stop was right around the corner—fresh fruit skewers covered in melted Belgian chocolate from Choco Fruit. It was nice to have a bit of sugar to balance out the salty, fatty food we’d just eaten, but again, something pretty accessible in the US.
We then rented Santander Bikes and caravanned north. This may have been the best part of the tour for me—there’s absolutely no way I would’ve biked through the heavily trafficked, bikelane-less streets of London by myself. Our journey was briefly halted by a moderately sized protest raising visibility for the injustices in Ukraine. Being with a group of people and having such high visibility helped give me peace of mind. It took about 45 minutes to get from the South Centre Food Market to Camden Market.
We had burgers topped with fresh eggs from Yolk Breaker and some mac and cheese from The Mac Factory, but the real star of the show was halloumi fries from Oli Babas. I’d heard about halloumi fries in many a food blog and instagram story and had been waiting to try them for some time now—deep fried hard, salty cheese topped with yogurt, honey, pomegranate seeds, and mint. Super tasty, something I haven’t ever seen in the US.
Our tour of Camden Market ended with some dessert at Chin Chin Labs. We shared several different desserts—a warm chocolate chip cookie topped with tonka ice cream, a brownie with ice cream, and a spiced molasses cookie filled with a perfect sphere of pumpkin spice ice cream. There was a spice in the pumpkin spice ice cream I was unfamiliar with and kind of reminded me of soap.
From Camden Market, we walked to Hook where we sat down, shared some fish and chips, and learned a bit more about each other before heading our separate ways.
Was this experience something I could’ve done on my own? Yes and no. Anybody can walk through a food market and get food from the stalls with heavier social media presences, but not everybody can sample as wide of a variety of food. Having other people there to split all the items made it super easy to try a bit of everything (and sometimes more than a bit if it didn’t really take with the rest of the group). Our guides were super friendly and made an active effort to learn about each individual’s lives which I thought was a very unique, personable touch. As a solo traveler, having options available like this is super helpful to be able to try more foods.