Unexpected London Gems

Cream Tea (ft. The Delaunay & The Wallace Collection)

You may have heard ravings about the British phenomenon of afternoon tea. Well, allow me to set the record straight: cream tea includes scones, clotted cream, jam, and practically bottomless tea of your choice… and it’s way cheaper. Fellow penniless college students, lend me your ears. Afternoon tea at a trendy (and admittedly swoonworthy) place like sketch can be upwards of £59 per person while cream tea at The Delaunay (an elegant café in the theater district) was only £9.50 and still allowed my friends and I to feel like pampered, sophisticated Brits. (There was a gluten-free option available for the pastries as well, at no extra charge!) Cream tea is also offered at The Wallace Collection, in their stunning pink courtyard, for an even cheaper rate: £6.50 per person! Sip wisely and affordably, my friends.

 

Hidden Art Gallery in Harrods

I was, personally, extraordinarily reluctant to go to Harrods — the famous British luxury shopping emporium, boasting more than a 1.1 million square feet of space, 7 floors, and 330 different departments. To give you even more perspective, it houses 23 different restaurants and a massive gift shop… for the store itself. To some, this may sound like a dream come true; as for myself, a gal who doesn’t even enjoy venturing into an average-sized mall, it was a bit of a stimulus-overload plush nightmare. I ended up wandering away from my group into the book department, then a giant room full of expensive pens in display cases, and then, finally, I stumbled upon it: an art gallery. I stepped close to the bedecked marble walls, squinting in disbelief at the works on display. Some were, as expected, pieces for sale by contemporary artists… others were priceless artworks by Picasso and Chagall. Only in Harrods.

 

Ladurée at Covent Garden

The evening was growing late; my friends and I had just exited a West End show. Someone broached the topic of dessert, which was well-received by all. We were far too energized and full of life to return back to our rooms in the quiet borough of Highbury & Islington. Ice cream? Meh. Noncommittal muttering ensued as we began to wander the darkened avenues. “I know a place.” I volunteered with a smile, leading our small posse to Ladurée, just before it was about to close. I swear, macarons have never tasted better than they did that night — though I firmly believe that Ladurée macarons always taste like clouds and everything lovely in the world. I fell in love with Ladurée in Paris, and their London macarons did not disappoint; I probably went there 3x total during my month in London. Note: My only piece of cautionary advice is to avoid the nearby Covent Garden Tube stop if possible. It’s always incredibly packed and is essentially a claustrophobic person’s *cough* me *cough* worst fear. Crowds are funneled into two lifts to access the trains below, or, you can take dizzying flights of stairs down (or, far worse, up) that are there in case of an emergency. Basically, it’s the last place you would want to be in the event of a catastrophe… and it’s not even pleasant in the absence of one. Still, if you find yourself there in the Covent Garden Tube station rush, feeling hopeless, think of the Ladurée macarons nearby; that will give you the strength you need.

 

The West End: Stage Door & Day Tickets

Since I was enrolled in Musical Theater Survey whilst in London, I had the privilege of being fully immersed in the London arts scene, seeing a total of 10 remarkable performances, including The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Lion King, Wicked, Matilda, Translations, Swan Lake, and As You Like It. However, you don’t have to be a member of an arts-oriented study abroad program to afford tickets to these shows! The arts are far more accessible in the UK than in the US! TKTS in Leicester Square became our best friend, offering inexpensive day-of tickets for the hottest shows. We were able to get decent seats at Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera — my two favorite musicals — for around £20 per show! Popular West End productions also offer “day tickets” (though only for matinee performances), which require some dedicated queuing at the respective show’s box office to obtain. Some lotteries are available for shows such as Hamilton. There is one theatrical experience that is absolutely free but has the potential to produce some priceless memories: stage door. After any show, you can quietly queue at that theatre’s stage door, where many cast members will exit. If they are willing, the actors or actresses may take photos with you or autograph your program! If they are (understandably) exhausted from their recent three hour stint on stage, they may pass you by. The key to proper stage door etiquette is respecting this decision: these are human beings leaving work and they deserve their space. Sometimes, inevitably, you will wait without reward, but, other times, if you’re lucky, Christine Daaé (Kelly Mathieson) will take a selfie with you and your hyperventilating friends and Raoul (Jeremy Taylor) will smile at you and say, “Cheers!”

 

£Yard Tickets at The Globe Theatre

Remember how I said the arts are far more accessible in the UK than the US? Well, imagine watching a production of one of the Bard’s renowned plays in the actual Globe Theatre for only £5. Yes, it’s possible. You can enjoy excellent productions put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company just as the groundlings once did in Elizabethan times —  standing. You will not have a seat to call your own, nor will you be sheltered from the elements, but you will be far closer to the stage and the actors are guaranteed to cheekily interact with you throughout the show. Plan ahead, pick an (albeit rare) sunny day, and, with a £5 note in hand, advance “once more unto the breach, dear friends.” (Henry V, anyone?)

 

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Platform 9 ¾

So, admittedly, this stop in particular was not unexpected; I had actually been anticipating it for years, ever since reading J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series. Located inside King’s Cross Station (across the street from the King’s Cross Tube station), this delightful photo opportunity is free and definitely worth the inevitable wait in a queue! Kind attendants in Hogwarts garb supply a wand and a scarf for the house of your choice (er, I mean, the Sorting Hat’s choice).

 

Twinings Tea Museum

I feel as if I am about to utter tea heresy, but I did not fall in love with Twinings during my stint abroad. It seemed to me rather mediocre at best. Still, that did not prevent me from enjoying their tea shop/museum hybrid location at 216 Strand — the oldest tea shop in London. They offer free tea-tasting of select flavors in the back and even have a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria on display, celebrating Twinings as the personal supplier of tea for her distinguished household (and every British monarch since).

 

LSO Rehearsals in The Barbican Centre

These “LSO Create” open rehearsals take place on weekdays from 10:00 am-1:00 pm and are absolutely free, though you must reserve a spot in advance. It is truly an incredible way to experience the breathtaking caliber of a London Symphony Orchestra performance, and be able to come and go at your leisure, without paying a large sum. If you’re up for an adventure, there are interesting hidden courtyards in the upper levels of The Barbican Centre to explore!

 

Borough Market

Borough Market is a delightful hodgepodge of culinary sights and smells. Vendors sell truffles, fresh meats, produce, cheeses, wines — everything under the sun. My personal favorite stall is a small, cheery place called From Field and Flower. They sell various types of delectable honey from all over Europe and allow visitors to sample their wares, ranging from mild and sweet to pungent, strong honey. I purchased their lavender honey and have cherished every last drop; it’s the best honey I’ve ever had! If you visit Borough Market, make sure you visit the airy, minimalistic Monmouth Coffee across the way as well!

 

Sherlock “The Reichenbach Fall” Building

You may recognize the building on the right from Season 2, Episode 3 of BBC’s Sherlock. No spoilers here, but, if you’ve seen the show, you definitely know what gut-wrenching scene this rather indiscriminate building is featured in. I am forever thankful that my sharp-eyed friend pointed it out to me as we walked by, departing from an Art Survey class at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The game is afoot!

 

The Great Gatsby at Gatsby’s Drugstore

This was one of the best theatrical experiences I have ever been a part of and certainly ranks among the best nights of my life! If you will be in London between now and September 30th, you must go to this show! It is so professionally done, upbeat and tragic in turns, and just a dose of genuinely riotous fun. For those of you who know me well, you know that The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels. That was certainly a contributing factor to my thorough enjoyment of the evening, but you really don’t need to be a Fitzgerald fan to immerse yourself in some 1920s thematic mayhem. The story came alive in ways I never dreamed possible: secret rooms, Prohibition booze, a group lesson on how to dance the Charleston, a rousing piano solo. The actors were astonishing, thoughtfully portraying the characters as winsome and yet so broken. The entire warehouse-like building is customized precisely for this show, and the production is truly a refined masterpiece — as Gatsby would have enjoyed, a leap into the past.

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