Out There: A Special Return to London

London, the exciting, multi-cultural metropolis capital of the United Kingdom, is as fantastic a destination as it is historic.

This city blends the old and the new – preserving the footprint of it’s impact in the buildings and sites around you, while maintaining the same spirit of achievement and progress that made it once the undisputed capital of the world.

The Waterloo district from atop St. Paul’s Cathedral.

My name is Zach Duhamel. I am the Associate Marketing Specialist in Travel here at AAA Northeast. I am responsible for creating webpages and contributing to the Travel Resource Center, where you are probably viewing this very blog post.

I recently returned to London this fall and was reminded of why it is such a great place for visitors. Here is the story of my trip and some tips for your next jounrey.

Tell us a little about yourself! What are your hobbies, interests, and anything else you would like us to know about yourself?:

I love travel, cooking, photography, outdoor adventures, and music. Oh, and on my own time, I run my own New England travel website. I love to tell people about travel and I want to encourage as many people as possible to make their travel dreams come true.

What is your background in travel? How much experience do you have? What sorts of places have you been to? What kinds of trips – cruises, guided tours, self-guided etc.

I am a fairly experienced traveler. I have been to 10 countries in both North America and Europe. Most of my travel experience came during studying abroad in France in the fall of 2016. I spent about 4 months with an amazing host family, was out exploring the rest of Europe on most weekend, and even reconnected with the Portuguese side of my family!

What type of traveler are you? Are you an adventure seeker or do you prefer to travel for relaxation? Are you a backpacker or theme park and resort-goer? Think about your past travel experiences, preferences, and habits.

My travel style? Usually, I opt for solo trips, backpacking, and one-bag traveling. I love staying in hostels, meeting new people and other travelers from the world over.

Solo traveling means I get to see and do exactly what I want to and don’t have to miss seeing anything that friends or family may not want to – it is a lot less stressful and freeing, believe it or not, especially when you consider the money and time investment that goes into your trip.

I travel because I want to learn about the history of each place I visit and experience the culture – especially the food!

Tell us about London! Why did you visit London? What did you see and do there?

While this wasn’t my first time in London, and the UK, it was a very special trip! It was my first time meeting my girlfriend, Phoebe, in person! She lives not far from London in the UK, so we decided to make may first trip back to Europe in years a very special one!

Phoebe and I enjoying a nightime ride atop the London Eye.

London is truly a world-class destination and honestly, probably the greatest city in the world. It is a city of many cultures and nationalities, of which are blended and integrated in ways that no other city I have been to has.

There is simply an endless number of things to do and never enough time to do it all!

What makes London so different is the seamless blend of cultures, polite and friendly British sensibilities, and metropolitan lifestyle of a huge city, despite never feeling gigantic like NYC or Boston can.

During our trip, we had visited so much, that we had forgotten what we had done just a day or so beforehand, and still had a long list of sites to see!

If you are interested in history, culture, even food, then London is the place for you to visit. Museums like the National Gallery and Tate Modern have free admission, and the experience of visiting the Tower of London immerse you in hundreds of years of the lives of royals, right where they lived.

There’s no shortage of great, open air markets for incredible bites to eat, like Borough Market, where you can have a Michelin star Hainainese chicken rice meal without needing to sit down – perfect for busy travelers on the go!

Fresh fruits and produce at the Borough Market.

Hainanese chicken rice served at Mei Mei, Borough Market.

Christmas starts earlier in Europe, so my early November trip had us visiting Christmas markets and enjoying early Christmas activities, like ice skating at the Natural History Museum and Christmas Markets.

A an early season scence from the Southbank Centre Winter Market.

London’s tourist attractions are often unparalleled – but what if you are looking to do something that’s a bit more unique? Phoebe discovered the Backyard Cinema, which gave us a movie-going experience totally unlike any other!

Not only do they have several excellent bars and restaurants on the premises (of which you should carve significant time before your movie to enjoy), but each theater is heavily themed, with interactive sets reminiscent of Disney World magic. Imagine bringing your childhood movie-night blanket fort to life – that’s the best way to describe this place!

With so much to do around every corner, London totally surrounds you in adventure!

One of the pubs inside the Backyard Cinema, where you can enjoy pizzas and local beers.

Before getting to our seats, (in giant beanbags seats, no less), we walked through medieval potion shops, pulled the legendary sword from the stone, trekked through a hidden ice cave and rainfall behind a fireplace, and enjoyed a musical and dance number performed by actors in full medieval garb.

If you want an experience that you are sure no one else can replicate in your home country, than this is the place!

The exterior of the “theater”, dressed as a medieval potion shop at Christmastime, which would be screening our film.

Compared to other trips you have been on, what would you say made this one different?

As I said before, I usually go on solo trips and this was the first time I met my girlfriend. What made this experience in London different was that I knew the person I was making such incredible memories with someone who will continue to have such a big part of my life after the trip. In contrast to meeting a traveler for a few days, that this was just the beginning instead of the end. That, and all the romance in between, of course! Travel gives the both of us special experiences that a lot of relationships don’t get to have.

Phoebe and I on the River Thames with The Shard in the background.

As well, it had been a long time since I had been to Europe, did so many travel-related activities, and just enjoyed being out and about again in a lively city like London. It was fantastic rediscovering the energy and spirit of travel that I love so much.

Visiting London is always an amazing time. What makes London so different is the seamless blend of cultures, polite and friendly British sensibilities, and metropolitan lifestyle of a huge city, despite never feeling gigantic like NYC or Boston can. With so much to do around every corner, London totally surrounds you in adventure!

How was your experience traveling during COVID?

With the measures taken by my airline, lodging, and attractions I visited, I always felt safe regarding COVID.

However, traveling with so many ever-changing entry requirements and restrictions made me unsure at times.

And, with all of said rules, vaccination and testing requirements, flight delays, return home tests, on top of the already hectic burden of planning a trip and traveling, and so on and so forth, do you know what I wish I had?

An accountable, reliable point of contact that could not only answer all of my questions, but make sure I was prepared and could ensure that I was able to make such an important trip happen.

Most of my trips have been entirely self-planned, but this made me really understand the value of using a trustworthy travel agent like a AAA Travel advisor. Had I booked this trip with one, I always would have someone to turn to with questions about restrictions or if something went wrong!

This was the first time I would be meeting Phoebe, my first big trip after the pandemic, and my first international flight and return to Europe in almost five years, so making sure everything went right was not just important, but a hassle.

I definetly have a greater appreciation for our Travel advisors now and I will be sure to use one the next time I take a trip like this.

What was your favorite part of your trip? What was your least favorite?

I will get in a lot of trouble if I don’t say it was finally being able to meet Phoebe and spend time with her in person….but other than that, I think it was sharing and rediscovering my love of travel and immersing myself in such an exciting place!

My least favorite…. Had to be the hand soap. For some reason, we only encountered crappy, non-sudsy hand soap wherever we went! Hopefully, that gives you an idea of just how wonderful London is if that is all we had to complain about!

What surprised you the most?

“Chips” for breakfast. Yes, the English serve and eat straight up French fries, complete with salt and vinegar, for breakfast. I must say that the English also make surprisingly excellent fries, and they are even better with mushy peas served on top – which I also tried for the first time and loved!

Travel gives us a lot of opportunity to learn about the world, ourselves, and anything in between. What was one thing you learned on this trip?

This time in London, I learned of a newfound appreciation for the friendly, warm, and polite culture the British have. Even though London is a tourist hot spot, everyone we encountered was abundantly friendly, helpful, and so glad to see and host travelers again.

In fact, I recall one gentleman on the London Tower Bridge who was giving us advice for things to see and do, letting us know what was open that day, and his excitement doing so! It’s that kind of kindness that is of no short supply in the UK.

London Tower Bridge at sunset.

What was thing you wish you did differently?

I wish I booked with a AAA Travel advisor! That, and I wish we had more time at Harrod’s, the most ridiculously high-class department store imaginable.

The exterior of famous department store, Harrod’s.

What was your favorite food, meal, dining experience, etc.?

That is going to be an impossible thing to answer because every thing I ate in London was incredible, despite the stereotype of English cuisine.

I think there is something to be said about simple meals cooked well, as they usually, so I am still thinking about the perfectly crispy fried egg, English rasher bacon, and chips I had for my first breakfast – at a tiny café just next to Kings Cross station, no less!

Share some advice to future travelers:

Anyone who is interested in travel should just go out and do. Find the place, find a hostel, find a free tour, make friends. It’s that simple. A lot of the time, especially when it comes to people in my age range, the biggest obstacle people have to travel is themselves, whether is some sort of lack of self identity as a traveler, not thinking there is an affordable way to do it, or the daunting process of planning it. A AAA Travel advisor will help you overcome all of this of course, but the most important thing is to remain steadfast in your dreams, committed to yourself, and do.