birthday weekend in london!

I've had a penchant for London and all things British ever since Will and Kate married, and over the years, I've come to consider it the world's greatest city.  So this past May (ahem, just shy of six months ago) when we decided to create a three-day weekend for ourselves over my birthday, London was my first, and pretty much only, choice.  Danny and I met each other at the airport on a Thursday after school, and after flying to Gatwick and taking the bus into the city and then walking through the rain to our Airbnb, we finally made it. 

D - Since we've been together I can't remember one of Shannon's birthdays that hasn't been at least mildly disappointing in some way. That's like seven years of bad birthdays folks! Because of this sad statistic, I told invited Shannon to plan her own 26th, knowing that no one knows what she loves better than herself. Boy, am I glad I did!

Friday morning (my birthday!), the ground was still wet, but despite rain being predicted for the whole of the weekend, we'd seen the last of it, much to our relief.  


We began our morning with breakfast at Granger & Co. at the recommendation of blogger Aspiring Kennedy, who lives in London and considers the place one of her very favorites in the city.  Between the two of us, we shared the ricotta pancakes, an acai bowl, and a muffin, and I have to say: we set the bar high for the rest of the day (okay, the rest of life - everything was so good!).  


We have seen most of London's top sights at least once, and this time I really wanted to eat delicious food, walk through the parks, and check out pretty streets.  I read lists with titles like "Prettiest Streets in London -  Seven You Have to Explore" and "10 Pretty Streets in West London You Should Definitely Visit" and spent the weeks leading up to our trip mapping them all out and deciding which ones would make the cut based on time and location.  


The first place we stopped at that was a specific stop on my list was St. Luke's Mews.  We visited so many mews throughout our three days in London, you'd think I'd be able to tell you just what a mews is, but...I really can't.  In fact, if you were sitting next to me on the couch right now, I'd probably say exactly this, "Um, a mews is like a street that cars can't drive on, and while I don't think it's a rule, it seems like the houses generally happen to be really pretty on most mewses.  So...basically all I know is that it's a street."  Turns out the actual definition is pretty far off from mine.  A mews is "a row or street of houses or flats that have been converted from stables or built to look like former stables" (thanks, Google!).  There you have it.  The definition, accompanied!


One of the most colorful streets in London has to be Lancaster Road.  Not only are many of the homes colorful, but lots are brightly colored, especially stark against the frequently-gray London skies.


Without any other firm plans for the day aside from lunch and dinner, we walked down streets that struck our fancy, taking detours if we saw someone with a cute dog or if we noticed an intriguing looking store or restaurant we wanted to peek into.  


Around the time we made it to Kensington Gardens, the clouds began to clear as we took a quick walk around some of the park and stopped by the (exterior of the) palace, as has become a tradition for us on trips to London. 


Instead of lunch, we had afternoon tea at The Orangery, which, if I could get away with it, is something I wouldn't mind doing on a very regular basis.  Tea, sandwiches, scones and cake served on a crisp tablecloth...yes please, yes please!

Unfortunately, our experience wasn't the best.  The food was fine, but our service was just okay, and when we followed up during and afterwards, we didn't really feel like the situation got resolved.  That being said, it all kind of left a bad taste in our mouths, and I don't think we would return (just looking at the photos of the scones is making me seriously question how much I would stand by that if given the chance at this moment though...).


After our lunch/afternoon tea, we got back on the mews circuit: Queen's Gate Mews, Atherstone Mews, Kynance Mews, Dove Mews, Princes Gate Mews, Ennismore Gardens Mews, and any others that we may have bumped into along the way to Hyde Park (it really was a circuit since we were coming from the park and ended up back in it).  


We couldn't have asked for better weather as we waited for a free bench to sit and read for a little while.  After checking the weather just about everyday for the two weeks leading up to the trip and seeing nonstop rain predicted, every dry moment - at the risk of sounding cheesy! - really felt like the best birthday gift.


We went with another Aspiring Kennedy recommendation for dinner, Franco Manca pizza, because who doesn't love pizza anytime, but especially on their birthday!  It was another stellar meal, which we followed up with dessert from Maitre Choux, a patisserie known for their eclairs.  I went for the salted caramel, which we split because five pounds for an eclair feels like robbery, even if it's your birthday.  


I think at this point Danny was about ready to turn in for the day, but since we still had at least an hour of daylight left, and we were in London after all, I wasn't too eager to let the fun end yet.  Our Airbnb wasn't too far from a part of Little Venice/Regent's Canal, so instead of heading in when we got to our place, we just kept on walking and stayed out till it got dark.  


We had one primary thing to do on Saturday, and that was to explore the London Transport Museum.  Aside from that, I had plans for our meals and maybe a few other little stops here and there, but it was all pretty loose.  Breakfast was a first priority, but our walk there led us through a pretty mews and also along a good portion of Oxford Street - London at it's best, really.


Veggie Pret, an off-shoot of Pret a Manger (a coffee and sandwich shop based in the UK) that serves only vegetarian and vegan items is a relatively new place and I was eager to check it out for a quick breakfast - we ate our chia pudding and muffin outside on the curb as prices are generally cheaper in the UK to take food away than to eat in the restaurant.  


We made a quick stop in Neal's Yard, a hidden courtyard in between buildings in Covent Garden.  I'd seen plenty of pictures of the area in my years of following London Instagrammers and since we were in the neighborhood, I couldn't resist seeing just what it was all about...and I'm okay telling you that although the internet may tell you that it's a top London sight and make it look colorful and pretty...there's really not much to see or do unless you're going to visit one of the businesses located in Neal's Yard.  


Almost literally just around the corner from Neal's Yard is Fabrique, a tiny little Swedish bakery that's easy to miss when walking around busy Covent Garden, but definitely worth a stop while in the area.  Their cinnamon rolls are unique (and tasty!), plus pretty, which is always a bonus.

D - Around this point, we saw a couple of theaters in the city.  One was the theater doing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which is sold old probably forever) and the other was a theater doing the newish Aladdin musical.  The tickets were cheap and we would both love to see a musical in either New York or London, but we decided to wait for a production that we're both dying to see, rather than one we just sort of stumbled upon.


We cannot quit these transport-type museums - I find them so interesting, especially when they're particularly well done like the London Transport Museum is.  We arrived mid-morning, left after a few hours for lunch and then came back until we'd seen every last thing.  Many tickets to museums in the UK allow you to visit them again (and again, for as many times as you'd like) within a year from the date of purchase, so although we'll likely not go back to the London Transport Museum within a year from this past May, this special method of ticketing did allow us to leave for lunch and then return at our leisure, which was quite nice.  


Speaking of lunch, we ate at Sagar, an Indian restaurant about a minute away from the museum.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm just going to go ahead and say that we highly recommend everything and everywhere we ate on this trip unless I specifically mention otherwise (ahem, afternoon tea at The Orangery and overpriced eclairs at Maitre Choux).  But lunch was really good, and we followed it up with a banoffee pie (WE DID NOT KNOW WHAT THIS WAS UNTIL RIGHT BEFORE OUR TRIP WHEN OUR DEAR BRITISH FRIENDS URGED US TO TRY ONE.  LET ME JUST SAY IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN MY BIRTHDAY DESSERT) from Peyton & Byrne and if I had had any doubts in my love for England (which I didn't, but, you know), they would have dissolved at this time.

D - For some reason (i.e. I had some bad curry experiences while in Bangladesh) we actually thought we didn't like Indian food for a long time.  Man, were we ever wrong!  It's (generally) healthy, it's flavorful, it's vegetarian friendly, and it's consistently really good.  If you for some reason think you don't like Indian food, give it another go!  If you don't like spicy food (like us) you can always ask for them to make it mild.  Don't wait for a long time like we did and miss out on good food you could be eating now (I have not been paid by the Council of Indian Cuisine, this is an independent message).


...and back to the museum we went!


For all that we've seen and done in London and the surrounding area, somehow we've never made it to the National Gallery.  However, admission is always free, and it's the fourth most-visited museum in the world with art on display from the 1200s to 1900.  We arrived not long before closing, so we saw as much as we could in the time that we had, but sometimes it seems like that's the best way to see museums anyways - with a deadline, forcing you to move quickly and not linger too long.  


For me, a trip to London doesn't feel complete without a walk by Big Ben and along the River Thames.  We made a little loop and then headed in the direction of St. James Park and Buckingham Palace - two more London icons that I love getting to see each time we visit - we've now been once in each season, and have appreciated the festive cheer (and chill!) of December, the flowers and green of spring and summer, and the colors of fall.  


This trip was basically ridiculous in terms of food.  We ate healthy at times, but also, as you've seen time and time again, we certainly indulged.  Cronuts, the famous croissant-doughnut pastries, were invented by Dominique Ansel, who has bakeries in just a few cities around the world: New York (the original), London, Tokyo, and as of two days ago, Los Angeles.  Haven't tried one yet?  You should (the one we had was amazing!), but be prepared to pay for it - they're $6 in LA!


We wrapped up our last full day with a walk around Hyde Park and headed back to our Airbnb - this area of London (like so many others!) just can't be beat.  


On our last day we woke up to more blue skies and beautiful weather as we walked to The Mae Deli, where we enjoyed chia pudding with toppings like peanut butter, bananas, granola, and nuts.  The deli is owned by cookbook and blog author Ella Woodward who also writes the blog Deliciously Ella, and, from what I can tell, posts whole-foods, plant-based recipes there.


After breakfast we walked to and all around Regent's Park as well as up to Primrose Hill, which offers views over all of London.  It was our first time to really walk around Regent's Park and the surrounding area, and it was the perfect day for it - everyone and their dog was out and the people watching was just as entertaining as our surroundings.

D - On our way to the park we stopped by the Sherlock Holmes museum.  We'd previously read online that the gift shop is just as good as, if not better than, the actual museum, so we just poked around there for a bit.  This was a lot of fun for me as a big fan of Sherlock Holmes.  I first started reading the books in 8th grade in the detention room and over the course of the year the detention monitor and I really bonded over our mutual interest in the character (I got a lot of detentions that year - so many in fact that I was barred from attending the 8th grade picnic).  Thanks in part to this very strong start, this was probably my favorite day of our trip (although they were all wonderful).


Many of the homes and neighborhoods surrounding Regent's Park were worth checking out too.  Our ultimate goal was to make it to Chalcot Square, but on the way we passed plenty of other fine homes as well...

D - Shannon forgot to mention that we also saw a couple other cool things around the area, like a sweet outdoor market with live music and incredible street food on offer, and many cute dogs signing up for a dog show later in the day (we would've stayed and watched if it wasn't our last day).


Mexican food in Madrid is really...lacking.  In fact, the best we've had here is from our own kitchen (and I mean, we're really just average chefs, at best).  So it was a priority of mine to eat Mexican food in London at some point during the weekend, and it did prove challenging as I was mapping out everything and realized we just couldn't do and see and eat everything in three days.  Camden Market came to our rescue with Club Mexicana's burritos, which we ate while sitting along the canal.  We last went to Camden Market on our first trip to London, and the food stall area of the market has been seriously upgraded - we could have spent weeks eating and enjoying all of the goodness that is offered there, but instead we headed off of the canal a bit to Blues Kitchen for our final indulgence of the trip - Oreo doughnuts with salted caramel dipping sauce.  Now I know they may not look like much in the picture, but that's no one's fault but our own - they were truly fantastic, and honestly probably the best dessert of the trip.  So, so good.

D - Now this was probably my favorite part of the trip.  Camden Market is incredible.  Just imagine like 100 street food stalls, each of which sells some of the best food that you'll ever taste in your entire life.  That's Camden Market.  I think if I were planning another trip for us in London I would just base us as close to the market as possible so we could just eat all our meals there...


After a final walk along Regent's Canal and then back to our Airbnb for our bags, we took the bus back to the airport, and we were back in Madrid for bedtime.  


Living in Madrid means that we're far from some things and people, like certain conveniences and people that we love, but we're also close to other things like places we've never visited and friends that have become really dear.  London is only a short plane ride away, and with a bit of planning and saving (okay, a good bit of both, if I'm honest), this birthday trip became a reality, and a truly sweet memory - I needed no other gift this year.  Looking through these photos, I am amazed at all we saw, did, and experienced, and I'm so thankful.  London!  Until next time!  :)