It wasn't until I felt my ears popping as my flight from LAX departed that I truly allowed myself to believe I was going to London.
My goal on this trip was to truly do what I wanted to do, not only what I was 'supposed' to do while visiting London - though I’ll admit there was a lot of overlap between those two. Having never traveled internationally alone before, and knowing the 7 a.m. wake-up call, guided tour-filled days that were coming when I met up with my family in Italy, I knew I had to strike a balance between making the most of my four days in London and actually acting like this was a vacation. As the pressure of planning and researching grew before my trip, it was easy to forget that it was, after all, supposed to be a restful and exciting break from making calendar invites for other people for 10 hours a day. I'd have to try hard to... not try too hard.
I spent most of the afternoon post-arrival re-acclimating to a way of life that most people probably haven’t experienced since 2003 - navigating without a cell phone. I could only text or use GPS where there was Wifi, which for the most part put me at the mercy of signs, screens, and strangers for directions. Not impossible, but I grabbed for my phone a few times before realizing its Euro-uselessness. I gained some pounds (£!) and took the Underground to the Hoburn stop a few blocks from my hotel.
My boyfriend had offered to book my hotel as an early birthday present- a gesture I was too cheap and impressed by to pass up. Like everything he does, it was thoroughly and thoughtfully researched; a centrally located hotel with big, clean rooms. It was the perfect place to spend a few days, and it even had free snacks - he knows my priorities so well.
I had fish and chips for dinner at a traditional, tiny “chippie” recommended by an English coworker, and spent the walk back wondering at the huge crowds outside every single pub. The bars are tiny, so everyone just takes their pints outside and stands in the sidewalk, no ropes, tables, or patios to denote pub from public. It was one of the little things I loved learning about the city by finally seeing it in person.
My first full day was dedicated to the one attraction for which I'd bought a ticket in advance - the Warner Brothers. Harry Potter Studio Tour. I know it's painfully nerdy - but it was also absolutely worth it. I took a train out of the city to Watford Junction before boarding a shuttle to the tour, which is located on a functioning movie studio lot. #spoileralert: I won't #spoil anything, but as someone who's ingested virtually all Harry Potter media produced since 1997, there was a shocking amount of new information and things to see. Throughout the tour, I couldn't help but think how miserable my boyfriend and most of my family and friends would have been had they tagged along, and how grateful I was to enjoy it at my own pace, without having to explain anything ("No, they're in different houses but they obviously all go to the same school, MOM"). I was truly in my element, among my people, who were diverse in age, race, and nationality. After the tour ended, I headed back into the city and capped the day off with a meal at a proper, sit-down Chinese food restaurant, of which there were numerous great options in my hotel's neighborhood - again, really can't be overstated, my boyfriend knows what I like and is amazing.
I spent my birthday alone... in London! That sentence is a roller coaster, but the day was all highs. I visited St. Paul's cathedral, the Tate Modern Museum, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and walked across the Millennium Bridge before making it to the Savoy for afternoon high tea. I walked several miles and the initially warm, clear day had left me sunburned and sweating profusely, but the Savoy seated and served me a wonderful tea service anyway, and after my tea the hostess kindly and pointedly showed me where their washroom was. Everything sounds better in an English accent, even being asked to, please, “be less gross.” That night I saw Matilda in the West End, a sublime end to my 26th birthday.
My final day was a lazy Sunday walking around the western part of the city, through Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the National Portrait Gallery, St. James Park, and past Buckingham Palace. I made it to Harrods only to find the massive department store closed early in the afternoon on Sundays, but used their Wifi to find a restaurant called Burgers & Lobsters where I enjoyed a massive meal of just that. My eating may sound like a lot on this trip, but let me say - it was even worse! I was munching on Cadbury chocolate, crisps, pastries, lattes, all the time. I really went for it - that's what vacation is for.
My solo trip ended Monday morning the moment I made eye contact with my sister Helen in Rome's Fiumicino airport - for the next week I was with my three sisters, mom, her cousin and his wife for a whirlwind week touring Rome and Florence while eating a truly shocking amount of gelato, pasta, pizza, and wine. It was a week that proved that wherever you are with family feels like home.
Rome was incredible, but I love that I did a lot during my days in London- so much that it's tiring to remember it all, but at the time it didn't feel like a lot. I wandered around London at my own (brisk walking) pace, enjoying the feeling of being in the city I'd read and thought so much about. I've endured a lot of humble bragging from people who have been able to travel a lot in their 20s, and this felt like a brief glimpse into the life of someone with enough time, money, and freedom to visit countless different countries. It was empowering and exhilarating; a massive undertaking crossed off my Bucket List. I can't say it was a trip of a lifetime, though, because I know I'll be back - and whoever I'm with had better like to snack.