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.

The Top 5 London Stops for Bibliophiles to Swoon Over

This post has been languishing in my drafts for far too long, so voilà! (Perfectionism-induced procrastination, begone!) England is a marvelous place for varied reasons, but, as an English Literature major, I must conclude that its rich literary history ranks among its finest, most distinguished qualities. In this post, I will share a selection of some delightful London bookshops that I discovered whilst studying abroad in May!

Persephone Books

In absolute seriousness, as soon as I walked in the door of Persephone Books, glanced at the aesthetically appealing shelves brimming with female authors, and heard a jazz vinyl softly playing in the background, I wanted to march up to the kind, aproned woman (Phoebe, as I later learned) and beg her to let me reside there. I had wanted to visit this bookstore for years and still was not fully prepared for the wonder that is Persephone Books; you simply must go and experience the magic for yourself. Persephone Books is run by only a handful of inspiring women who operate the bookstore and the publishing company (hence the incredibly beautiful robin egg blue covers in their store). Also, the workers stop for tea and cake every day at precisely 4 o’clock. Are you charmed yet?

Word on the Water

This bookstore is located in the Regent’s Canal area of London, which is quite beautiful! My friend and I picked up a book apiece here and then meandered down the canal, sat on the grassy steps, and ate a small snack in the sunshine! I found this “bookbarge” (as it is affectionately known) immensely soothing; as you peruse their literary selection, the boat slowly rocks back and forth. There are books everywhere — both inside and out! The novels here were varied between current New York Times bestsellers as well as classics, non-fiction as well as colorful children’s books and YA dystopian thrillers. The books all seemed to be fairly-priced and, with your purchase, you are supporting the two older men that run the thriving business within the 1920s Dutch barge, one educated at Oxford and the other an English Literature major! (Maybe I’m a tad biased, but that’s still neat.)

Charing Cross Rd. & Cecil Court

Charing Cross Rd. is located near Trafalgar Square and is an avenue renowned for its host of secondhand bookstores. Just a few of the more notable ones include Any Amount of Books, Quinto Books, and Henry Pordes Books. My friends and I didn’t discover any particularly spectacular finds on our visit, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves anyway! Cecil Court is a side street branching off of Charing Cross Rd. that contains shops specializing in antiquarian books, such as Marchpane or Goldsboro Books.

Southbank Centre Book Market

This gem was a completely unexpected find! On our way to a showing of Translations (based on the novel by Brian Friel and featuring Colin Morgan) at the National Theatre, I suddenly glanced to my left and skidded to an abrupt stop, jaw agape. The scene looked like a snapshot of Paris, of bouquinistes by the Seine. Obviously, I fell in love instantly. Greatly bereaved, my friends had to drag me away from the bounty as we needed to enter the theatre on time for the production. Hopefully you will have better luck and possess sufficient time to browse the emerald stalls brimming with bargain books! This book market is novelly tucked away underneath Waterloo Bridge on the Queen’s Walk, open every day, rain or shine, until 7:00 pm! All was not bleak for me on that fateful day, however, as The National Theatre’s gift shop had a host of Macbeth items that I then proceeded to gush over.

Daunt Books (Marylebone)

Architecturally, this was, without a doubt, one of the most stunning bookstores I have ever seen, rivaled only by Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. I felt like I’d been transported back in time: back to when the Marylebone location of Daunt Books first opened in 1912 as the first custom-built bookshop in the world. The Edwardian premises have been remarkably well-preserved and, intriguingly, the books in Daunt are arranged principally by country, regardless of the nature of the book — fiction or non-fiction, biography, history, or novel. Daunt Books is truly a treat! However, I will say that their selection is not as captivating as its stained glass and soaring gallery ceilings; I would equate it to the Brits’ Waterstones or our Barnes & Noble. (This is definitely not the place to venture to if you enjoy scrounging for antique, used treasures.)