The world has changed immensely since I took a trip overseas more than a decade ago. My personal world has changed as well. Last time I traveled across “The Pond,” I didn’t have children. Also, my cell phone was the size of a brief case, and maps were things that I folded and unfolded rather than tap and click.
This spring I learned that my husband would be speaking at a scientific conference in London, and I was determined to join him. Why not? Free flight, free room—there was nothing to lose. After the euphoria dissipated, however, I began to feel a bit hesitant. I would be navigating the city for five days on my own. There were so many things to see and do. How would I narrow down all the choices?
Of course, this is our job as librarians every day. Taking the mountain of information that is out there, and discovering the best trail for navigating to the top. Still, the thought of refining my London sightings to a few gems seemed daunting. Certainly, eBooks and apps awaited my fingertips, but my request wasn’t easy. I wanted to find those touristy interests that suited my personality. Where to turn?
My first choice might seem surprising. I turned to Facebook. In a sense, this was like asking my best friend what she would do while visiting London—except I was asking 1000 friends. The response was a bit overwhelming, but it made me aware of the options that existed. I realized, with just five days in the city, I had to select one or two museums to visit. I also realized there were places that I wouldn’t waste my time on. After all I couldn’t cram everything into one trip.
Once I had an idea about the places I wanted to see, I turned to the library. Call me middle-aged and old-fashioned, but I prefer having at least one book and one map in hand. Sure, apps can be helpful when the “global services” were working, but there’s no guarantee. I wanted something handy and non-wireless in my backpack. Turns out the tried and true map saved the day many times on my trip.
We have an abundance of tour guides at our library. It’s worth a trip in to see all we have to offer on travel. From Scotland to Spain, Costa Rica to Russia, the world awaits. I perused many titles on London. We have over 12 on the famous city alone. A few of my favorites were the following:
Top 10 London by DK Eyewitness Travel. This book is a handy size with a pull-out map and guide. It functions in a topical manner, highlighting churches, museums, pubs, etc.
Insight Guides: London by APA Publications. The nice thing about this resource is the topics are divided by main areas of interest (ex: West London, Southward and the South Bank, Knighsbridge, Kensigton and Notting Hill). I was able to find the area I was staying in and all the local sights nearby. Chock full of information, this guide felt a bit too heavy to toss in my pack.
London’s 25 Best: What to See, Where to Go, What to Do by Fodor’s. This is also a handy size and includes a map. I like books that narrow things down to the essentials, and this one did a good job with that. The summary page of the top 25 things to do was useful. Ironically, I ended up visiting just four of the suggested Must-Sees.
And my favorite book that I brought with me was London 2013 by Rick Steves. This is a “personal tour guide in your pocket.” It includes self-guided walks and extremely helpful tidbits. From here, I learned about purchasing the Oyster card, which is similar to our Charlie card in Boston. With this, I was able to navigate the Tube and the turnstiles easily to all my destination points. I also took a double-decker bus tour thanks to Steves. This was the best deal around. I hopped on one of the last buses at 3 pm, but the passes were good for 24 hours. The next day (with my same ticket) I took two walking tours—The Royal London Walk and The Harry Potter Film Location Tour, thanks to Phil Harris and The Big Bus Tours. This was worth its weight in gold, and bonus, I saw Prince Charles in his Royal cab thanks to Phil’s fabulous tour guide instincts.
There were some books that I didn’t consider, but they might interest others. Walking Haunted London by Richard Jones, Secret London by Andrew Duncan and Take the Kids London by Joseph Fullman (did not touch that one!!).
Believe it or not, the best advice I received was from a friend. She recommended “being open to the element of surprise.” For the hesitant traveler this seemed risky, but it worked beautifully. At a café in Kensington, a woman sitting next to me leaned over to tell me some of her favorite places. Her spontaneous review was invaluable. The taxi driver on the way in from Heathrow was fabulous as well. London happens to be a city chock full of friendly people. Anytime I had a question, I received a helpful reply.
As it turned out, my favorite things in London were a bit of a surprise to me. While preparation is a wonderful thing, so is the element of surprise. Remaining open to where the wind takes you or fog, in the case of London, proved to be the best advice of all.
And, just in case you’re wondering. . .
My Five Favorite Things Were:
- The Big Bus Tours (eng.bigbustours.com) and my tour guide, Phil . . . the bus provided a fabulous overview of the city and their guides offer a variety of walking tours.
- The British Library…thanks to a librarian friend of mine, I ventured into the library near King’s Cross station and I was amazed by what a found. Not only is the library gorgeous, but the Map Room contains original documents, including the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s Persuasian (with her edits) and original sketches and notes from Leonardo di Vinci.
- High Tea at St Pancras Station . . . I wanted to experience High Tea with clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches, but I didn’t want to pay a fortune, or have to dress in high heels.
- Westminster Abbey…not cheap to tour, but worth it all for the Poet’s Corner alone. This was the one place that I knew I wanted to discover after reading about it in the tour books, and it was the first sight that I headed to after landing. As it was right before Easter, I was able to attend a five o’clock service.
- The Tower of London . . . the tour guide did a great job and kept me on the edge of my seat with all the tower’s intrigue and mystery. I kept my eyes peeled for the ghost of poor Anne Boyleyn. Maybe you’ll catch sight of her when you go!