Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Backpacking Europe Part 2: London and Paris

Alright, we arrived in London from our overnight flight and we were ready to get the real party started. :) If you missed part 1, I sort of introduced our trip and included a recap of our NYC portion. You can read it here. Otherwise, here is the next part of our trip: London and Paris:
After we arrived at Heathrow, we got our backpacks and bought our Oyster Cards.

A few notes on logistics:
1. If I could change one main thing about packing, I would have used a smaller backpack so that I could carry-on the entire trip (I think mine is a 65L). That said, some of the budget airlines you have to check anyways. Be cautious of fees because they tack them on everywhere. Know the size of your bags and the restrictions for your airlines. If you have to check, then you can often save some dollars by pre-paying for your luggage.

2. I will say more about this at the end later in the post, but train travel is so much easier than air when you have luggage with you.

3. When in London, the Oyster Card is super convenient. You can select an amount to start out with (it has suggestions depending on how many days you will be there) and then always top up as needed. You can also get unused funds back at the end of your trip. I liked this method better than some other metro systems where you had individual tickets to keep up with for every single transit or transfer. We each got our own card, and it was just easy. There's kiosks at the airport, in the tube stations, and other places.

4. Google Maps is your best friend for navigation. I know of some other apps that are specialized to specific cities. But I liked having one single app that worked at every one of our destinations (plus you can use it for so may other things, like restaurants, coffee shops, other POI's, or business hours). It seems to work a little better to me than Apple Maps when traveling. It's perfect for walking, driving, public transportation, and ride shares. We often used it to compare between the modes and make our decision from there. It is also pretty close to being in real-time for metro schedules. So, be sure to update it with your exact departure time because different train lines may get you there quicker to the same destination depending on the time tables. It sounds confusing, but it will make navigation a whole lot easier.

All of the logistics can all be overwhelming, but you can't let it get you bogged down. Half of the trip we were "just winging it" and we made it just fine! So after buying our Oyster Cards, we took transit to our apartment. It was in the Whitechapel district of East London, an area that was formerly rougher and known for poverty (I think of Call the Midwife. Some think of Jack the Ripper). However, the diverse area has a lot of art galleries and trendy culture. It was perfect for us because we were 30 seconds away from the tube and only a few stops away from most of our plans.

We had a pizza lunch right beside our apartment while we were waiting to check-in, inconveniently with backpacks still in tow but we just had to deal. And after getting settled in, we were off to see Buckingham Palace!

We did a tour of the State Rooms which is only available for a limited time each summer. This is definitely something you want to book ahead of time if its available during the dates you are there. It's super touristy in case you aren't into that (I like to find a good balance), but the British monarchy fascinates me, and I enjoyed it.

Then we enjoyed coffee and tiramisu in the courtyard. 

We had a steak dinner near our apartment and called it a day. The next morning, we had early reservations at the Tower of London. I just didn't realize the significance of it and the role it played in WWII. We learned a lot about that, and of course we saw the Crown Jewels

A tip? Book your tickets for the earliest morning slot, then go straight for the jewels. We barely had any wait and by the time we exited the line was already wrapping outside.

After a quick coffee break, we walked over to the Tower Bridge

It was interesting to read about how it survived WWII intact.

The clear walkway over the bridge was pretty cool. Otherwise, there wasn't really much to it for us besides just getting more steps in. Ha so a cool experience, but not one I would necessarily repeat.

We then had lunch reservations at Duck and Waffle. Holy yum. You should have lunch there if you can.

We all got the signature "duck and waffle" with a mustard syrup and it did not disappoint. Almost everything on their menu looked delicious. 

We then took the tube to Trafalgar Square and walked to Westminster Abbey. Now, read closely, because this turned out to be a blooper turned into one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. We had timed tickets to a tour of the Abbey and literally barely missed it by minutes. It was the last tour of the day so we couldn't go in late. 

We decided we would attend the Evensong service that evening. Um, yes please. A true cultural immersive experience beats a touristy program any day. Now, it's a Church service so of course you must be dressed respectfully, and they make sure you are there to worship and not as a "tourist". So no pictures are to be taken inside and no talking (they try to enforce this, but people are annoying and either act dumb or entitled and try to anyways, I will never understand).

This is a traditional Anglican service that follows the Book of Common Prayer pattern. It has choir singing, Scripture reading, and prayer. One thing I learned was that the choir sings on your behalf. The entire audience has a program to go by, so you know when it's time for corporate reading. This theology nerd was soaking up every second of it.

It was surreal to worship the Lord in a context outside of my American bubble and in a denomination new to me. To me, that is what Heaven will be like.

It was very eye-opening and a good reminder that the Church is global, and Jesus isn't American despite what some may believe. ;) We chalked the money from the missed tour up as a donation, and I think we were all happy to have this experience. I know it was one of my very favorites.

We walked around a lot that evening, had some fish and chips, walked past the Globe Theatre, and tucked in for the night to get ready for PARIS!

If you are planning any trip, but especially one with multiple destinations, you NEED the TripIt app. You forward all of your itineraries and reservations to the platform, and it's all in one convenient and organized place. It pulls through important info like times and addresses. I really think know this trip would have been much more difficult without it. We had our apartment, flight, train, and other ticket info there. It updates in real-time and shows you where you need to be and when. The whole group can view and edit. I searched for and tried several different apps when planning for this trip, and this one was by far my favorite. 

So, day 1 in Paris...

We took the high-speed Eurostar via the Chunnel from St. Pancras in London to Paris-Nord.

OK listen, train travel is the best! We did not get the Eurail pass because it didn't make sense with our itinerary, but look into it for yourself! Their website is really good at helping you figure out what works best for you and comparing all of their plans and options. We were just too limited with not enough time, or we would have booked more trains. 

You only have to show up 20 minutes before departure (versus the recommended 2 hours for flights...makes a huge difference on early mornings), all of your luggage can stay with you and we had plenty of room for our big packs overhead, and it's more spacious and comfortable. It was perfect for a group of 4 traveling together as could book 2 and 2 facing together with a table between us. The boarding process, and really the entire experience, is much, much simpler and pleasant than flying. I could go on and on, really (and I love to fly!).

One of our Delta agents in NYC told us that once we went Eurostar, we would never go Amtrak again. I have never done the Amtrak, but the Eurostar definitely set the bar high. It was about 2.5 hours and we had a time zone change.

After we arrived at the train station, we hadn't quite nailed down the French subway system, so we took a rideshare to our apartment. 

We had lunch at Madeline (a little touristy, but good food) nearby, and this is what Landon received after thinking he ordered onion soup. Hahahaha. So we all tried them, and we all enjoyed our first French food. Then it was nap thirty.

The next morning, our first stop was a walk to La Sainte-Chapelle.

So beautiful! This Gothic cathedral was built in only 7 years. It was intended as place to house some relics that Saint Louis had acquired, such as Christ's crown of thorns. The stained glass panels depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.

We found a little café and enjoyed homemade crêpes then walked to see Notre-Dame. The whole area is still closed to the public, and you can sadly see a lot of the damage, but we still were glad to see this historical landmark even from a distance.

In the afternoon, we walked around the Louvre, had lunch at Le Recrutement, and then tried to go to the Catacombs. The line was stupid long and slow, and we got tired of waiting so we left with plans to return at a different time.

We made our way back over to the Arc de Triomphe.

We actually didn't do the terrace of it until the next day, but I placed this picture here for reference. It was the one of the many spectacular views from the top of the arc.

We ended the evening hanging out near the Tour Eiffel. We relaxed, had a picnic, and it was just lovely. We waited around until sunset and saw the tower twinkle before lighting up. 

We started the next day at the Catacombs after giving up on it the day before. Even getting there first thing, we had a pretty long wait. (This is where the Paris or Museum Pass may come in clutch. We opted out of the passes for different reasons so I can't speak for details, but the line was much shorter. So may be worth looking into, depending on the length of your time in Paris.)

I am probably not the best person to ask about this tour, because skeletons creep me out, so I went through it pretty dang fast. It's eerie and chilly, but also interesting to learn about and see. It's a one and done for me, if I ever go back to Paris. ;)

After that tour and having lunch we went to the Arc de Triomphe Terrace (pictured above). The views were incredible and changed drastically every few steps you took. We just really tried to take in all that we could of Paris.

We had coffee (of course) and then from the Arc we strolled down the most famous avenue in the world, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It is known for its luxury shops and is where the Tour de France ends. We went in a few stores and then made our way back to the 7th arrondissement where we were staying and had a sushi dinner before turning in for the night.

And just like that, we were bound for Zürich!

I loved Paris, and was so grateful to experience it, but I only thought it stole my heart. I hadn't been everywhere else on the list yet...the best was yet to come.

I feel like London and Paris are of course classics, and we hadn't been to either, so we included them in this trip which made sense. But the best experiences are off the beaten path and away from the huge cities, in my opinion. We enjoyed these several days, but we said goodbye to city life, and were all anxious for some fresh mountain air.

Next up, we have a Tour de Switzerland of sorts, as we pick up a rent car and hit the road. So stay tuned. :)

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