One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London.

Baker St/Marylebone

Perhaps unsurprisingly visiting 221b Baker Street was one of the first things I did in 2005 when exploring London. I was so impressed that the inside of Holmes and Watson’s flat was exactly as I expected! If you find yourself near Baker street these days, I would still recommend a stop at the museum. While some also enjoy Madame Tussaud’s (wax museum of celebrities), which is also nearby, I think the Baker St/Marylebone part of London is underexplored by visitors.

Marylebone has some stunning architecture as well as some good shopping and some dead-end streets. I like starting from St. Christopher’s Place near Oxford Street and Selfridge’s and going north towards Regent’s Park. You can stop off at cafes, stores, a pint at several pubs, or plan to have a lovely meal at restaurants like the Golden Hind (great fish). If you are in the mood for art, there is the Wallace Collection, which is worth a stop even if it weren’t free admission–they also serve afternoon tea in their atrium. The neighborhood also boosts the Royal Academy of Music; check out what might be playing when you are visiting. We saw a fantastic musical theatre performance there.

But especially if the weather is good, nothing beats an afternoon in Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. Particularly in the summer, Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens are beautiful. I would also recommend trying to see a play at the Open Air Theatre if you can (May-Sept).

There is also Marylebone train station which is a great way to get to Bicester Village for outlet shopping or to visit Oxford.

 

 

 

Soho

Of course if you wander around Marylebone back towards Regent St and Oxford St you could end up in Soho. Known for its eclectic mix, Soho of course is where you will find Liberty’s, an eclectic version of a department store–from its Tutor Style exterior you might not expect such variety inside so pop in for a surprise! Shopping is a major draw for this area as well as cute surprises like Soho’s Secret Tea Room–as an inverse of American Prohibition, you walk through a pub to get to the tea room. Soho shines at night with live entertainment from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and theatres like Queen’s theatre to catch current musicals to the famous Windmill (for those who want something very…risque or as someone said ‘It’s moved on from what was in “Mrs. Henderson Presents”). Of course you will go through Leicester Square (which I mentioned here) as you walk towards Covent Garden.

 

 

 

Covent Garden

Covent Garden is not a garden as I first thought but another fun neighborhood in London filled with interesting shops. What was an apple market in the 1830s is now bustling with street performers, which I have enjoyed watching despite very cold weather! The area is still mainly for shopping. In addition to strong UK brands (Hotel Chocolat -be sure to get a cup of cocoa, Links of London) and international brands like Dior, there are still some locally owned shops such as Segar and Snuff a wine and cigar shop.

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Kay Pharr (c)

“That’s about as useful as taking coal to Newcastle” the saying (first recorded in 1538) goes regarding the city that became a coal monopoly in this region of northern England after a royal act in 1530. Newcastle upon Tyne is no longer a capital for coal but unlike some former industrial giants in England, this city has done a great job of reinvesting itself and is now known for its university, digital industry, and fun downtown. With their Geordie accents, Newcastle inhabitants love cheering on Newcastle United in a football match at a local pub. You could join them or explore the city’s Chinatown.

With its sister city Gateshead across the Tyne River, one of the things I enjoy about Newcastle/Gateshead is all the connecting bridges across the river, including the arch Tyne Bridge. The Newcastle Castle and the Newcastle Cathedral (St. Nicholas) are at the entrance of Newcastle from Tyne Bridge and worth a visit to explore the town’s history from the Middle Ages. My visits to Newcastle have been relatively short, so we have mostly explored Grainger Town, the historic heart of the city with its fantastic cocktail options of the Botanist, the Alchemist (some of them bubble!), and George’s for a good G&T.

Although Newcastle has a lot to offer, it is also a great starting point for several other regional day-trips. It is of course a bit north of Durham with its famous cathedral, which can be seen from the train heading north but is worth a stop to explore. Durham Cathedral’s construction began in 1093 CE and became a World Heritage Site in 1986. The cathedral has been impressive in its ability to blend modern artwork into a building with a millennium of history.  If you love looking at the stars, consider a (very late) night enjoying the dark skies at Kielder Observatory. If you are a big walker, you could follow the 84 mile walking path of Hadrian’s Wall though I cannot say I’ve done this. A faster option is to drive the hour or so to Hadrian’s Wall from Newcastle, which is still on my to do list.

Kay Pharr (c)

I also strongly recommend a visit to Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland (the Percys) and a filming location of the early Harry Potter movies and the end of Downton Abbey. It is closed in the winter and reopens at the end of March. On our July visit, we particularly enjoyed the beautiful gardens and a guided tour of the poison garden, which, behind lock and key, houses a collection of famously sinister plants as well as some seemingly innocuous ones like rhubarb and Lords & Ladies.

On the train ride back south, be sure to look out for the Angel of the North statue!

 

Kay Pharr (c)

It feels a bit crazy to say that my British husband had never been to Stonehenge before friends came to visit earlier this year and wanted to go. I had been back in 2005 and was pleased to discover that is worth going again ‘for the first time’ because they have moved the car park so that it is no longer next to the stones (though of course you can still see the nearby road but it’s not that big of a deal).

I don’t tend to promote tour groups, but I cannot recommend Archaeologist Guided Tours enough. You have a small group (max 16 people) and a real archaeologist as a tour guide which not only means no aliens or Druids (they are way later than the stone creation), but you hear thinks like ‘we had thought X but a paper that came out five weeks ago has changed our thinking to…’ which is just really cool. The trip took a the full day (12 hours including travel time) starting with Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, where the builders of Stonehenge lived. We visited at the Fall Equinox so there were a lot of (New Age) campers staying around there. Then we went to Stonehenge itself–while the day was cold and very rainy off and on, we really enjoyed the tour and learning so much about the place. We then drove to Bath and enjoyed a two hour break to see the city; we decided on a quick lunch on the beautiful Pulteney Bridge and then a tour of the Roman Baths. (I love Bath and think it deserves its own weekend but even this whirlwind was great.)

Kay Pharr (c)

The afternoon included three final stops to piece ancient Britain together: Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, and Avebury. While at the long barrow, we found ourselves in a surprise hail storm after going inside the barrow interior (where New Age believers had left mementos). I had also been to Avebury back in 2005, and I really like it even if many people find it less exciting than Stonehenge. While Avebury’s circle of stones is bigger, it does not impress many people because they aren’t placed on top of one another. Having thoroughly explored, we didn’t have much time in the pub at Avebury, so when we were dropped off at the Natural History Museum back in London, we had a fabulous supper at Thai Square. It was a fabulous day out!

The first time I saw St. Ives was while watching the most recent version of ‘Sleeping Murder’, which was filmed there. The first time I saw it in person was when my mother-in-law decided we needed a girls weekend over the bank holiday because the ‘boys’ were busy. Located along the Celtic Sea in northern Cornwall, St. Ives is known for being a bit mysterious or at least being often shrouded in clouds while neighboring towns have sunny days. While it was traditionally a fishing village, it is now primarily a seaside resort town. Without a doubt, it has a unique atmosphere some of which melds perfectly with its artsy culture. Bernard Leach (the Father of British Studio Pottery) and Shōji Hamada set up Leach pottery there in 1920, and now you can find amazing pottery sold in dozens of shops around town. More artists moved to St. Ives in the late 1920s, and by the 1940s there was a strong artist colony that included Barbara Hepworth the sculptor (she did the sculpture on the side of John Lewis in Oxford Street–surprise fact) and Naum Gabo.

Kay Pharr (c)

Much of this work can now be seen at the Tate St. Ives, which has finally begun permanently displaying work from the area. The museum itself is built into the cliff and so has a stunning view of the sea and a really fun and unique design. We also enjoyed going to see the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden though we meandered many small and narrow streets to find it–which is half the fun. The garden was particularly beautiful in the sunshine.

Naturally we had to try the local St. Ives gin at their bar/restaurant, which was delicious–the gin and the food. We also had another delicious meal at Alba. I will say this–clouds or no clouds–there are wonderful shops and restaurants and many, many ice cream shops throughout St. Ives. We also enjoyed taking the train the whole way for the stunning countryside (though you can get off at St. Erth and get a quick cab into St. Ives to save yourself a long climb up from St. Ives station).

(c) Kay Pharr

Oxford is just an hour by train from London (using Marylebone or Paddington stations and arriving at Oxford station, which is a quick and pleasant walk to the High Street). At the Oxford train station you will find a tourist information desk that can help you with any questions you might have about what to do. The other option is to take the X90 or Oxford Tube buses, which will drop you off at the High Street.

That said, here are some ideas:

If it’s a nice day out, you can explore the many parks and meadows around Oxford like Christ Church Meadows, South Parks, University Parks and Port Meadow.

(c) Kay Pharr

A walk down Broad, Cornmarket, and High Streets will give you a good sense of the university’s many colleges and local shops and will allow you to see a lot of the highlights like the Bodleian Library with its famous Radcliffe Camera (the building most people think of as the Bodleian). This may be a good time to explain that the University of Oxford is made up of over 30 different colleges. Prospective students actually apply to a particular college not Oxford as a whole. Names of colleges you may walk past include Christ Church, University College, Queens, Magdalen, Keble, and Brasenose to name just a few. Colleges are where students live and eat and take their tutorials though some classes (like science labs) are conducted within the separate departments. So for example, you might have your French or Philosophy class within your college but take your Organic Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry with students from other colleges.

To continue to explore the town of Oxford, you can pop into the Oxford Covered Market. The Pitts Rivers Museums is good for a taste of archaeology and natural history. You can stop off at the Botanical Gardens, another UK first when it began. You might find it worthwhile to stop into Britain’s first museum the Ashmolean. Have a pint at the Eagle and the Child, a favorite of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

Oxford has been the focus of several famous movies and TV series so you can look at the town through the lens of Harry Potter, Midsommer Murders or Inspector Morse.

(c) Kay Pharr

Of course there is much more to Oxfordshire than just seeing the university town. If you are staying a second day or want something a bit different, you can take the stagecoach bus from the Oxford train station or Gloucester Green bus station to Blenheim Palace (Gates), which has some lovely gardens as well as a stunning palace.

We were a bit nervous about exploring Japan on our own since we didn’t have the necessary language skills, but this trip was really incredible and we absolutely recommend it. Therefore, I’m starting off the post with a few tips. i also recognize I cannot do any of these places justice through words alone so please use the hyperlinks to find out more about the places we visited.

  1. Get a JR rail pass and see the country! This is a great deal financially, and the trains are just really nice.
  2. IC Cards–Credit cards are not widely accepted, but an IC card can be used for public transport in multiple cities, at vending machines and convenience stores. Do bring cash, which you can put on your IC card.
  3. Pocket Wifi-if your phone plan is expensive, consider renting a pocket Wifi. Having apps that can translate Japanese or help you navigate streets (most don’t have signs) is key to getting around easily.
  4. Do try a Japanese ryokan. It was a great way to try traditional meals and stay in a traditional Japanese hotel with tatami mats and often with onsen baths (which are single sex unless stated as reservable or private).

We spent a little time in Toyko on our first day exploring the Imperial Palace Gardens and the famous Shibuya area (like Time Square in NYC). We were particularly impressed with the prices of ‘perfect’ fruit–perfectly shaped, very tasty, and unblemished. Along the way, we wandered by some of the Love Motels. On our way to a fantastic restaurant with a preset menu where we ate amazing delicacies like tuna jaw–tastes like spareribs–and the best miso soup and sashimi. They had incredible cherry blossom gelato too.

We traveled the next day to Hiroshima to try the local okonomiyaki and to see Hiroshima Castle, the Peace Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome, and the Memorial Museum. It was a sobering afternoon of recognizing the damage and destruction that can be done by a single object even decades later. We traveled to Kyoto in time to check into our AirBnB.

Our two days in Kyoto were incredible. On our way to a temple, we walked past Nintendo headquarters. The Fushimi Inari Taisha is a lovely Shinto temple but what is most amazing are the continuous series of gates erected by companies from the base to the top of the mountain, hoping to curry favor with the god of rice/wealth–Inari. We did not have the 2-3 hours it takes to reach the top of the mountain, but it was a fantastic walk nevertheless particularly in the atmospheric mist of early morning drizzle. We headed over to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove where we continued to be rained on and so skipped the Monkey Park Iwatayama. However, the weather cleared up by the time we arrived at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion (Zen). What a spectacular sight against the blue sky! We ended our first day at a Tea Ceremony. On our second day, we planned to go to the Kiyomizudera, but public transport options led us first to the Otani Hambyo. We then walked through the impressive Otani Cemetery with over 15,000 tombstones. Each tombstone is for an extended family, not a single person. This path led to the pure water Buddhist temple, we’d been so excited to see. The Kiyomizudera has a stunning view of the nearby mountains and has been a temple for over 1200 years. The more traditional path back down into Kyoto is a hilly street filled with tourist shops (with cheaper prices than at Fushimi Inari Taisha). Our last stop before heading back to Yokohama was the Nijo Castle with its nightingale room–the floorboards are slightly loose with the nails ‘tuned’ so that stepping on the floor sounds like a nightingale or more than one if you’re in a crowd. Absolute magic!

We had a wonderful day of hiking up Mount Takao on what turned out to be national sports day where everyone goes outside for physical activity so despite the overcast weather (and no view of Mt. Fuji) we had a lot of company at the summit. It was cool to stop at shrines by walking a different way down the mountain.

The next morning we were off to Nagano to explore the Buddhist Zenkoji Temple (which has treated men and women equally for centuries) and to enjoy staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan. We were glad to have followed our friend’s advice to just spend the afternoon relaxing in the room and enjoying the onsen before a traditional supper. The next day we did the somewhat complicated travel to Yudanaka and then a bus to Snow Monkey Park. Although there were no snow monkeys to see (too early in the season, best in winter), we did enjoy being in an outdoor hot springs ourselves as a last bit of luxury before flying home!

One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London. These can take longer if you really enjoy museums or browsing as you stroll.

Strolling into the City Morning

City of London DragonStart your morning off on the South Bank (exiting from Waterloo station), which gives you a lovely view of the the north side of the river. You should be able to spot the clock on the Savoy Hotel, which it turns out has a bigger clock-face than Big Ben. Walk across Waterloo Bridge and as you’re almost finished look down on the Victoria Embankment to spy Cleopatra’s Needle on your left. Once over the bridge, head right to Somerset House, where you might stop for coffee or some lovely artwork. Return to the Strand and keep heading right into more Imperial history as you pass India House, Bush House–which housed the BBC during WWII–and Australia House. Then you will see the Royal Courts of Justice and to your right you might just make out Twinings the oldest tea shop in London. It’s worth popping in to see what you can sample in the back. As you continue east you will see a Dragon of the City of London.

The City of London is an unusual title since it sounds like it means the whole metropolis of London, but it actually only refers to one of the 33 boroughs now called London. This Square Mile (sometimes simply the City) is now mostly the financial district of London but is noticeable from the dragon statues guarding it (one in each of the cardinal directions along the main roads) and its Lord Mayor of London (not by the way the same as the Mayor of London).

Properly into the City, you might decide to stop for lunch at the Old Bank of England. If it’s a weekday (closed on weekends besides Sunday services) you may want to check out Temple Church created by the Knights Templar with an exhibit (in 2018) on its connection to the Magna Carter. Though depending on the time, it might not be too early for a half pint at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1666 and may be one of London’s most famous pubs.

Embankment Evening

If it’s a Tuesday and you love tours, consider returning to Somerset House for an Old Palace Tour. If its not a Tuesday (closed that day), you could wander west back along the Strand passing the Savoy and turning down Craven St to the Benjamin Franklin House for a tour (last one is at 4:15 PM). Afterwards you can wander along the Embankment to Gordon’s Wine Bar, which has wonderful patio space in good weather and atmospheric vaulted cellar space indoors. Also indoors you will find British newspaper memorabilia covering the walls from throughout the 20th Century. It’s a fun place to end a day of touring. You might even notice you’re near Whitehall.

More City, Edge of Barbican Afternoon

Of course you can instead continue along Fleet St/Ludgate Hill until you reach St. Paul’s Cathedral for a quick peak inside, tour, evensong or lovely apple crisp in the Crypt cafe. (Note due to evensong, sightseeing tickets that take you up to the Whispering Galleries end at 4:30 PM.) Unless you got held up at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, you likely have time to wander up to the Museum of London with its free unique and sometimes quirky exhibits about this city. Nearby you can also see remains of the original Roman wall around London. On your way towards Bank station you can stop off at Guildhall, London’s old town hall and the city’s only surviving secular medieval building. If it’s before 4:30, you are likely to be able to go inside as well to see an original Magna Carter or some art in the galleries.

An Afternoon Exploring Bank/Monument

If you still want more walking after your morning stroll, you can continue from Temple church on Fleet St passed St. Paul’s (stop in if you want).* Wander along Cheapside and stop at St. Mary le Bow church because in that courtyard you will find a statue of Captain John Smith. As you near Bank station you can see Mansion House, where the Lord Mayor of London lives and works and the Bank of England (free museum during the week, last admission 4:30 PM). Next to the Bank you can see the London Troops War Memorial. Walk down King William Street to reach the Monument to the Great Fire of London (1666) (climb all the way up and see London in a new way, last admission 5:30 PM). Also nearby is St. Dunstan in the East’s church garden, which has an interesting view of the Shard on the opposite bank through the church’s ruins. At this point your feet are unlikely to thank you if you keep going east to see the Tower of London lit up at night, so the good news is that many Tube lines connect at the Monument and Bank stations.

 

*It is only fair to say that you can save your feet by taking the Circle/District lines from Temple to Mansion House or Monument.