Thanks to my awesome new job, I was able to travel to London in September.
I work for the largest travel tech company in the world, on the analytics team for their business travel platform. I’m the only person on my team who works in Chicago. The rest of my team is mostly based in Seattle, London, Paris, or New Dehli. This isn’t abnormal at my company – with offices in over 70 locations, it’s normal to work with teammates located in other cities or countries. As such, most of our meetings and collaboration are done over video conferencing. However, it’s nice when we do have the opportunity to meet in person. Which was the goal of this London trip.
The days I actually needed to be in London for meetings were Tuesday – Thursday, but since I’ve never been to London (or Europe), I opted to fly in a few days early to do some sight-seeing. Plus if I need to take an 8-hour flight, I’d like to spend more than a few days before returning. I left Chicago on a direct flight on Friday night around 6:30pm, had my first airplane meal in almost 30 years, tried to sleep, woke up in time for the morning “snack” on the plane, and landed in London around 8:30am (which was 2:30am in Chicago). Getting through the border patrol in Heathrow was relatively quick and easy. I made my way to the Tube, bought a pass loaded with £20, and hopped on the train.
For the first few days of my trip, I was staying in a hotel in the Fitzrovia neighborhood of London. It was about an hour on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow, and then a short walk to the Regency House Hotel, which was more of an inn, but part of an adorable long block of rowhouses that were all hotels (inns). It had a cute garden in the back with a cart for tea or coffee and biscuits (aka shortbread cookies).
I arrived at my hotel around 10am or so, but my room wasn’t ready yet. I was able to leave my bags there, relax in the garden and use the Wifi for a bit, took screenshots of directions (since I don’t have cell service outside of the US), and set off to find breakfast, wandering in the general direction of a couple of promising places. However, I was sleep-deprived, starving, and feeling a bit emotional over being in a brand new country (continent) all by myself. The promising breakfast places were small and had a wait for a table, and I felt awkward being alone while everyone around me appeared to be enjoying brunch with friends, and also while the food all sounded good in theory, nothing was appetizing to me at the moment. (Did I want breakfast? Lunch? Sweet? Savory?) I ended up at a Le Pain de Quotidien, yes, we have those in Chicago, but I needed something vaguely familiar and not too crowded.
I felt better after eating, and still had time to kill before officially checking into my hotel, so I walked over to the British Museum. I unknowingly went in the back entrance, which had no line. The museum is free but I made a donation and grabbed a brochure that had an itinerary for a “quick visit” that could be done in an hour, which is about how much time I had to kill before my room would be ready (and I could take a nap). The highlights for me were the Rosetta Stone and fragments from the Parthenon. I exited the museum through the front entrance, where there was a long line of people waiting to get in. So, pro-tip, look for the back entrance.
Finally, it was 2pm and my room was ready. It was on the top floor and in my exhausted state, it felt like we walked up to the 7th floor (actually it was the 4th but with a slipt level staircase, it felt much higher). My room was small but clean and had what I needed – a comfortable bed, a private bathroom with a shower, and a way to make coffee in my room (an electric tea kettle and instant coffee, but I’m not picky and I also ended up never making coffee in my room anyway).
I think I took a quick shower and went to sleep without setting an alarm. I woke up around 5pm, and before my thoughts could linger again on being all alone in a new country, I decided to buy a ticket for a show that evening. Wicked was showing that night at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, and I’ve never seen it, so I bought a ticket online, got dressed, consulted the Transit app for directions, and headed toward the theater. I grabbed dinner at a food hall across the street from the theatre (Market Hall Victoria). I got a Ruben, my favorite, but with salt beef instead of the usual corned beef. Wicked was great, I cried, and the actress playing Elphaba was spectacular. After the show, I made my way back to my hotel via the tube and went to bed.
After a solid night’s sleep, I felt like a new woman ready to explore this new-to-me-place. My hotel stay came with free breakfast, and since the dining room was quite small, I had to pick my seating time in advice (I went with 9:30am pretending like maybe that would give me enough time to go for a run and shower, but really it gave me time to sleep in). I opted for the English breakfast (of course), and then set out for my main sight-seeing goal, the Churchill War Rooms.
Last year, I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, so it would be interesting to get some more history from another perspective. The War Rooms were Churchill’s hidden bunker for plotting strategy with other British leaders during WWII, and it was mostly left intact when the war ended, and eventually turned into a museum. I got there around 10:30am (30 minutes after they opened), and only had to wait for a few minutes before being able to go in. I spent about 90 minutes going through the museum (there is an audio tour), and I really enjoyed it. Because this location is just one part of the larger Imperial War Museum, it was very focused on Churchill and the War Rooms, and not an overall WWII museum. If I return to London, visiting the other museum locations is at the top of my list.
After finishing at the War Rooms, exited and saw a much longer line waiting to get in (so go early if you do). I was near a lot of other sights, so I wandered around, passing by Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, walking through St James Park to Buckingham Palace, and then back toward Trafalgar Square, at which point I was hungry and stopped for lunch at Duck & Waffle Local (per a friend’s recommendation, and it was delicious).
My next stop was the National Gallery, which also had free admission. (I think I donated £20 anywhere that had free admission.) I spent about 2 hours there and was able to walk through all of the galleries – there was a lot of Medieval and Renaissance-era religious (Christian) art, which I really love. By then it was about 5:30, so I headed back to my hotel. I wanted Indian food for dinner since it’s supposed to be great in London. I thought about going to Dishoom, which is quite popular and was recommended by multiple people, but I was too hungry for a 20-minute tube ride and then waiting who knows how long for a table. There was a place near my hotel with good reviews – Palms of Goa – so I walked there and was able to get a table outside with no wait. I ended up ordering the vegetarian thali, which is like a sampler platter of entrees. It was delicious, but I was also thankful that the Indian food I normally get in Chicago is just as good.
My last solo day. I woke up, had another English breakfast at my hotel, packed my bags and took the tube to my next hotel. My company’s London office is in the Islington neighborhood, and we were all booked at the Hilton nearby. I was able to drop off my bags at the hotel, and then head to my second priority for sight-seeing, the Tower of London. As luck would have it, Erin had a layover in London that day and was also planning to visit the Tower of London as well, so we were texting to try to coordinate meeting up. (Thankfully the Tower of London has free Wifi, LOL.)
Arriving at the Tower of London, I got some Monty Python and the Holy Grail vibes. What can I say, I’m an American. We don’t have thousand-year-old structures in our country, so movies are our main frame of reference for this type of thing. Once inside, I followed the signs to walk through the outside wall, which had numerous rooms to stop in for some history. It took me about 90 minutes to get through that part, then another 90 minutes to go through the other structures – the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula (where Anne Boleyn and others are buried), the Crown Jewels (including the crown from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation), the White Tower (which functions as a historic armoury).
Afterward, I was pretty hungry and went to the Wagamama nearby, a fast-casual Japanese chain, and got a big bowl of ramen before heading back to my hotel. After showering and relaxing for a bit, it was time to figure out dinner. I checked Google Maps and headed in the direction of a bunch of dinner options without a plan other than consulting the menus and picking whatever sounded good – my per diem finally kicked in so this meal would be expensed. I ended up at La Farola Cafe, a small tapas place that was doing a prie fixe menu that evening. It was a great choice.
Tuesday – Thursday
Finally, the actual reason I was in London. Work. Our hotel had a free breakfast buffet – with crumpets! I don’t know why these are so much better to me than English muffins, probably because I haven’t eaten then as much. Anyway, for the next three days from 9-5, we were in the office with co-workers, doing a mix of activities to get know each other, learn each other’s personality styles and how to work together, some fun team-building exercises, knowledge sharing, and planning.
Most of us went out to dinner together as a group all three nights. The first night we went for happy hour at Brewhouse and then wandered to a nearby bar, The Three Johns, and ended up getting flatbread-style pizzas. I didn’t expect to eat any pizza while in London, but it was quite good. The second night we went for Indian food at Masala Zone, and since we had quite a few in our group who currently live in or were raised in India, we let them order for everyone, and everything was great. On our last day, we had lunch at Bill’s. Our evening started with a company happy hour on the roof deck at the office and then our group wandered around looking for a good dinner option that could accommodate a large group, ending up at Royal Thai Restaurant.
Thankfully my flight home wasn’t too early, so I could get a good night’s sleep, although I was worried that would make it hard to sleep on the plane. I grabbed breakfast at the hotel, saw a few co-workers and said goodbye, and then took the tube back to Heathrow. I knew I’d be changing trains at King’s Cross and thought about looking for Platform 9 3/4, but I didn’t have enough time. Heathrow is huge, and while I got through bag check and security pretty quickly, it took me about 15 minutes to get to my gate, and I arrived as they were starting boarding. For whatever reason, the flight home was more difficult for me than the flight there, even though this time I had an empty seat next to me. I think the pressure of the plane was really starting to get to me. I got to experience Terminal 5 at O’Hare for the first time ever. It’s huge, LOL. It felt like forever to get from my gate just to border control. That line wasn’t too long, but I was feeling so out of it and I knew I still had a long way to get home. Baggage claim. Customs (luckily also a short line). And because the tram is under repairs at O’Hare, wait for a shuttle to get to Terminal 2, and then walk to the Blue Line. I think it took 2 hours from the time my plane landed until I made it to the Blue Line platform.
Overall, I had a great trip to London and appreciate that my job allows me these kinds of opportunities. I would love to go back to London because there is so much I didn’t get to see or do – have a proper English tea, see more of the Imperial War Museum, visit Stonehenge, visit a quaint town like Bath, not to mention other museums and palaces and restaurants.