Angela and I recently returned from our first international transoceanic trip together. While we’ve previously traveled internationally, it has always been within the Americas, with trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. We’ve previously flown across the ocean (to Hawaii twice), but that’s a domestic trip, so this one was something entirely different.
This was also the single longest vacation we’ve ever gone on and capped off the most travel-filled year we’ve ever had. For us, this was a huge new experience that we were excited to tackle.
We were leaving in the afternoon on a Sunday and, naturally, I expected to play flag football in the morning if possible. My games were scheduled at 9AM and 10AM so I geared up to play just like I do every week. Angela and I were excitedly talking about our trip on the way to the game and we were so happy before I started playing. I mean, look at these faces:
At the end of the first game, the opposing quarterback brought his hand down hard into my forehead, splitting my eyebrow open and causing me to bleed spectacularly. I thought we had won the game (as we forced a failed conversion in overtime), but while I dealt with my bleeding head they threw a penalty flag on me – I’m still a little upset.
Anyways, I tidied myself up and ended up needing five stitches:
We eventually made it home with just enough time to shower, dress, and get picked up by our delightfully helpful friends, Melody and Justin. They took us to the airport and we checked in before heading to the Centurion lounge. We grabbed some dinner in the lounge (delicious, to be sure) before heading to our gate.
We arrived just as priority boarding finished and, because we were flying Premium Economy, we walked right up to the gate and on to the plane.
The Flight – Las Vegas to London Gatwick
We booked our flight using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles transferred over from Chase. Because we weren’t too much cash out of pocket, we decided to book in the aforementioned Premium Economy. It was an interesting experience. Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic is definitely not business or first class, but it is the most comfortable I’ve ever been while flying. My seat was wide enough that I never got bumped by someone in the aisle (a chronic problem on planes because of my wide shoulders). The leg room was more than adequate and I was comfortable throughout.
Meal service was excellent and Angela enjoyed two mini-bottles of wine on the trip out:
The total flight time was a tad under ten hours. From a combination of excitement and a pathological inability to sleep on an airplane, neither Angela nor I got any meaningful amount of rest even though I saw many others within the Premium Economy cabin snoozing.
Even with the lack of sleep we definitely enjoyed our flight and arrived in London ready to get into the city and to our hotel:
Transit to London and the First Night
After clearing customs at London-Gatwick, we headed to the train station located near the South Terminal and boarded the Gatwick Express. We hoisted our baggage aboard and prepared for the trip to Victoria Station. It was, quite thankfully, very straightforward and we arrived at the train station after about 40 minutes.
From the station we took a taxi to our hotel. This taxi ride was the moment I realized that the street markings in London mostly seemed to be guidelines rather than rules. The transit through the city via car was absolutely nuts to the point that I had no desire to look out the window.
We arrived at the DoubleTree Hotel London Westminster, our home for the week, and discussed what we were going to do now that we were finally in the city.
As an aside, the aforementioned hotel was very nice for us. It was definitely a business hotel, but it had room for us to store all our clothes, a comfortable bed, and decent room service. The location was close to many transit options and we never felt trapped by where we were staying. The included breakfast buffet was quite good if the weird scrambled eggs are avoided.
We both sat down for a moment to rest and immediately fell into a nap that lasted a few hours. That put a bit of a damper on what we felt we could experience the first night, so we decided to just take a walk around the nearby area and head to Hyde Park, where a winter celebration was going on.
The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was pleasant but kitschy. It wasn’t anything different than what you’d experience in the United States with a local city fair. However, we did manage to capture a cute winter selfie:
After walking back from Hyde Park, we decided to grab dinner at the hotel restaurant. Angela had fish and chips, which she said were delicious. I ordered a steak and it was here I realized that the British apparently don’t believe in seasoning. I do not think there was anything on my steak – not even salt and pepper. It was cooked well enough, though, and I was happy to finish the day with a nice piece of meat.
Tower of London, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, and The Globe
Our first full day in London was an extremely busy one. Of course, it started with a selfie of us wearing sweaters (something we don’t often do in Las Vegas):
Our first destination was the Tower of London. We enjoyed a tour led by a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) and then were able to wander around and explore the exhibits at the location by ourselves.
Personally, I found the history of the tower to be extremely fascinating. The evolution from stronghold to residence to prison to museum was amazing to hear. To be within the walls of a place with so much history was a little surreal.
Also, the crown jewels were extremely beautiful.
Next up on the list was a short walk to Tower Bridge for the Tower Bridge Exhibition. I love beautiful architecture and, to me, Tower Bridge is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. I loved it:
We took a journey to the walkway above the main Tower Bridge roadway and enjoyed the views of the city from there. My favorite part was the transparent parts of the walkway with ceiling mounted mirrors as we were able to capture a pretty great picture:
Because I loved it so much, here’s another picture showing off a true beauty (and the bridge, too):
We strolled through a quaint Christmas market on the way to the HMS Belfast, a retired light cruiser that acts as a floating museum. Visiting the HMS Belfast was reminiscent of many other ship tours that we’ve done, including the USS Midway. Angela really took charge on the ship:
We walked to London Bridge next and enjoyed the London Bridge Experience, a haunted house type activity that plays into the history of London and London Bridge, in particular. I led the way through the haunted house and was extremely entertained as everyone behind me was startled out of their skin every 45 seconds. Unfortunately, I have no pictures or video of this.
The last stop on our first full day was the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. We enjoyed the museum exhibition attached to the reconstruction and the tour given by our guide. I particularly enjoyed the description of the reconstruction techniques used – including the rebuilding of the thatch roof.
After our tour of the theatre, we decided to try the the Swan, the resaurant attached to the Globe. Angela and I both ate a savory pie and they were absolutely delicious:
Daytripping – Leeds Castle, Cliffs of Dover, Canterbury Cathedral, and a Ferry Ride
Our second full day took us out of London on a tour that we booked through Golden Tours. While we were happy with the destinations on the trip, the guide left a lot to be desired in terms of helpfulness and organization. First up on the itinerary was Leeds Castle, but not until after we took our morning selfie:
Leeds Castle was interesting. Originally built as a stronghold in the medieval period, it turned into a preferred royal residence, passed through the hands of various nobility, and then was purchased by a rich socialite in the 1900s. It is kept in the state it was last used in, that of a private residence for someone who hosted a lot of parties.
The exterior shows quite clearly that this is not just another home:
The interior was almost overwhelming in its opulence. For example, the last owner’s bathroom was completely covered in marble from floor to ceiling:
The main library had thousands of books – a literary man’s dream:
It was certainly impressive but it really just felt like a rich old person’s house on the inside. It reminded us a lot of the Anderson House from Washington DC which is similarly maintained in the style of the last person to live there. I did get one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip at Leeds Castle – check out this stunner (and don’t mind the duck)!
After the castle, we headed to the cliffs of Dover for a quick photo opportunity. The bus was parked, we were given enough time to walk to take a picture, and then we took off again. Even with the small amount of time allowed, Angela was able to grab a few great pictures of the cliffs, including several of an extremely old Roman lighthouse and old church on top of the cliffs.
We next headed to Canterbury to visit the cathedral made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer. While there was major restoration work being done on the exterior, the Gothic architecture could still be plainly seen:
The interior was equally stunning, with the trademark Gothic style really coming through in the vaulted ceiling:
If you’ve ever heard the question “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” then you’re surely familiar with Canterbury Cathedral as it was the scene of Thomas Becket’s murder. Fun fact, that phrase reentered societal consciousness just this year as it was quoted by James Comey during congressional testimony.
The cathedral featured some stunning works in stained glass:
Finally, Angela captured me doing my best Secrets of the Dead impression:
The day ended with a trip to Greenwich where we walked past the Naval Observatory and boarded a transit ferry down the Thames. There wasn’t a ton of excitement around this last part, but we did grab a photo of the Palace of Westminster’s Christmas regalia:
All of the Walking and Climbing
Our third day in London was full of lots and lots and lots of walking – the perfect way to explore any new city! We started off the day with a selfie, as usual:
Our first stop was St. Paul’s with the intent of exploring the church. Unfortunately there was a memorial service happening and we were unable to enter, but we did manage to admire the architecture from the exterior:
After getting over some mild disappointment, we headed to the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which rewarded us with amazing views of the city after a dizzying climb up a seemingly endless spiral staircase.
After taking in the beautiful sites, we headed a few blocks away to the London Mithraeum, a restored Roman temple underneath the Bloomberg Europe headquarters. This was something that I just happened to stumble upon a reference to somewhere so we put it on our list of sights to see. I’m extremely glad we did as it was extremely interesting.
The temple is restored underground close to where it was 2,000 years ago so you have to head downstairs to enter:
The restoration includes light, fog, and sound effects to try to mimic the ceremonies that would have taken place there:
Next up on our walking tour of London was Trafalgar Square and the Nelson column. There wasn’t much to do here but snap some pictures and soak up the sight of so many monuments in one place, so that’s exactly what we did:
After 20 minutes with the camera up, we headed to the only remaining house in the world where Benjamin Franklin lived. As a huge Franklin fan, I was extremely excited that Angela was able to find this for us.
After a historical reenactment tour at the former home of The First American, we headed off to Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful inside and out, but unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside so you’ll have to make do with the exterior:
We rounded out our day with a stop by Buckingham Palace because it was on the way back to the hotel and we wanted to grab some pictures:
Plundered (or Preserved Treasures) and Afternoon Tea
We reserved a whole day for The British Museum and I’m extremely glad that we did because there was so much to see. We were both extremely excited to see the treasures preserved (some would say plundered) from ancient civilizations. Of course, we had to start the day off with a selfie – I saved my special UK sweater for our day at the museum.
The exterior of the museum reminds me a lot of the Field Museum in Chicago with the columns and classical facade:
There were so many treasures in the British Museum (and you can see most of them online with pictures much better staged than ours) but I want to share some of my favorites. I found this commemorative carving of female gladiators who earned their freedom through their performance to be extremely interesting. I did not realize that women were allowed to fight in the arena and this piece of art disabused me of that perspective:
I took entirely too many pictures of busts of Roman emperors, but I found this paired set of the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous to be extremely interesting. Last year I read a biography of Hadrian that talked extensively about the relationship between these two and it was illuminating to see the manner in which they were portrayed:
I did not realize that Cleopatra’s mummy was actually at this museum, so that was a somewhat exciting surprise as Cleopatra is such an interesting historical figure:
Angela was particularly partial to the large mosaics (from various cultures and eras) that were reassembled throughout the institution. Here were two of our favorite:
One of the most important pieces of archaeology in history is located at the entrance to the Egyptian wing. I’m talking, of course, about the Rosetta Stone. To see such an important piece of human knowledge in person made me quite emotional:
Of all the Egyptian statues, I particularly enjoyed this set of Sekhmet statues that Angela was kind enough to pose in front of:
The British Museum has a gigantic collection of items from The Parthenon in Greece. The story of how those items got into the collection is somewhat controversial, in my opinion – they were technically taken from their original location with a permit, but the permit was granted by administrators from the Ottoman Empire (given that the Parthenon was located within it) and not ethnic Greeks. Like a lot of the museum’s collection, the items are amazing pieces of history, but I felt a certain unease about their presence so far away from their original location and the circumstances under which they were acquired.
All that being said, the statuary was amazing:
One of my last favorite highlights from the museum’s collection was a Maori from Easter Island. We watched a documentary about these last year so it was great to see one in person and really be able to appreciate the artistry and scale:
We also enjoyed our first afternoon tea experience at the British Museum’s restaurant. The food was great, but the service was absolutely awful. I gestured to our waitress repeatedly for over an hour and she refused to come give us our bill. It was so frustrating.
The Shard and some Beautiful Views
Our final full day in London was relaxing compared to all the previous ones. Of course, we started with our daily selfie:
After that we visited a main shopping center in London, Covent Garden Market. It was very commercial, obviously, but because of Christmas there were plenty of delightful holiday decorations that we both really enjoyed.
After purchasing the special London scent at Diptyque (highly recommended), we were off to the Shard to get some great views of the city. I was quite enamored by the vista even if it was a little overcast and rainy:
After the soaring heights, we were back to Earth and back to our hotel for a delightful afternoon tea experience. One thing I wish I knew before we went is just how much I would enjoy these sittings in the middle of the afternoon:
The Train to Paris and a Beautiful First Night
We took the Eurostar direct from London to Paris city center and it was extremely easy. We taxied from our hotel in London direct to the terminal, checked in, and then patiently waited to board our coach. With assigned seats and large luggage racks there was nothing to worry about. I had booked us a hotel transfer direct from Paris Gare du Nord to our hotel – he was late but exceedingly nice when he eventually showed up.
Sidenote: I think in the future I’ll just eschew booking private car transfers because we have had exceptionally bad luck (including our last day when we headed back to London). My thinking has always been that the extra expense is worth it if there is a little less hassle, but everytime it ends up being more hassle than I find value in what I paid.
We grabbed a quick shot of both of us at the train station (showcasing my mildly stressed out, in the middle of travel face):
Then another one as soon as we got to our hotel in Paris, Hotel Le Cinq Codet. It was a beautiful hotel in a great location and I highly recommend it to anyone considering a trip to Paris. Look how happy we were at arrival:
After getting our bearings, we headed out into the cold Paris night and saw some amazing sights. On the way to the Arc de Triomphe we found ourselves standing by a bridge with a beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower in the background. We couldn’t resist grabbing some pictures:
Eventually we made it to the Arc de Triomphe and it was even grander than I had imagined it would be. At the end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, it was quite the sight. After a few shots of the exterior we headed in and up:
The views from the top were amazing:
After that, it was back to our hotel, but not before crossing over the Pont Alexandre III bridge, famously featured in the animated movie Anastasia, an Angela favorite:
Our 7th Anniversary – The Louvre and Eiffel Tower
Our first full day in Paris started with the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had at Angelina Paris. I am not exaggerating when I say that if you like chocolate, you must stop here and indulge in the creamy deliciousness that they serve. It is rich and thick without being overly sweet and I will make it a priority to go back the next time we are in Paris.
Of course, we had to take our first Paris morning selfie while we waited:
As we strolled up to the Louvre, we were greeted with a fantastic view of the famous glass pyramid over the heads of the (not-too-large) crowd:
After passing into the museum proper, we started our lengthy tour of all the art contained therein. There’s so much to see, so I’m only going to mention some of our favorite highlights. First, the Code of Hammurabi, as much a piece of history as it is of art:
Next, we walked through restored / preserved state apartments of Napoleon III to get a feel for exactly how royalty lived. Some of the finishes contained within were simply amazing:
Angela posed, quite successfully, with a very nice statue:
We saw a complete and well-preserved sphinx:
I loved this cool eagle relief that were a common theme of the architecture:
Angela captured this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo after pushing through the throng:
Several statues by Michaelangelo were next on our list:
Again, Angela fought the raucous crowd to get a great shot of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, located in a busy stairwell:
We saw several Leonardo da Vinci paintings which, even to my untrained eyes, were self-evident masterpieces. Unfortunately, there was no way to get good pictures due to reflections on the glass covering the canvas. We, of course, also saw the Mona Lisa but did not wait in the packed line to get close to it.
My personal favorite artwork from our visit is what we saw next – the mammoth scale and detail in Liberty Leading the People and Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804 brought my heart joy and took my breath away momentarily. The artists’ work on these two pieces in particular was stunning and really something to behold. It is hard to imagine the scale until you’re looking at them in person:
We finished up our visit with a look at the French Crown Jewels, located in the Galerie d’Apollon, an absolutely stunning space:
After a somewhat early dinner at a local cafe, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to go up to the top. Here’s a view from our walk up to it through a small park:
The whole structure was amazing. Here’s a look at the bottom from directly underneath it:
We waited in line for close to 45 minutes before we got to head to the top, but it was worth every minute of waiting and every euro we spent. The views were incredible:
It was absolutely freezing at the top, but we stuck it out to get some special pictures for our anniversary – I couldn’t imagine a different way I would have wanted to spend the night:
We booked a Versailles tour through Viator that we were very pleased with. We were picked up at our hotel by an extremely friendly driver and escorted around Versailles by a knowledgeable and fun guide.
Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles it was like there was a cloud hanging three feet off the ground, so we didn’t get a grand view from the palace’s courtyard or experience the gardens in any meaningful way. That being said, we did enjoy the royal surroundings.
As with every other day, we started this one with a quick selfie:
And then another one in the courtyard that shows just how foggy it was:
The estate was visually overwhelming in many ways, so I think the best way to describe it is through pictures of some of our favorite parts:
The following nondescript desk is important because it is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of the World War I – some would say the document signed here led to World War II, although I’m currently reading a book that disputes this commonly held opinion in some ways.
This painting depicts the Battle of Yorktown, which led fairly directly to an American victory in the Revolutionary War – nice to see the American-French relationship depicted in such an important place:
I also captured a picture of this super cutie I found by the gates:
We arrived back at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon and decided to rest most of the evening after enjoying a delicious dinner.
Musée de l’Armée
We spent almost an entire day in the French military museum located at Les Invalides and it was well worth. After grabbing some breakfast and our obligatory selfie, we decided to head out. The building is stunning to walk up to:
Interestingly, the location houses the largest single collection of artillery pieces (at least that is the claim) so there are cannons and bombards everywhere. I snapped a few inside the courtyard as we walked into it:
The museum is enormous and plays host to a veritable treasure trove of medieval, renaissance, and later arms and armor. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the collection (that weren’t ruined by the glare from display cases):
The location also plays host to a set of tombs, including Emperor Napoleon I’s:
If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend the audio tour as it makes the experience much more informative. Again, after a full day of walking and reading we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest.
Art, Art, and More Art
After gorging on militarism the previous day, we decided to return to a purer subject – art. We visited the Musee Rodin and the Musee d’Orsay and both were wonderful! Rodin is one of Angela’s favorite artists, so it was a real treat to see so much of his amazing work. Again, we took so many pictures but I’ll try to pick out some memorable / notable ones:
After admiring Rodin’s amazing sculptures, it was off to a less specialized, but no less amazing, art museum. On the way there we got to walk down through this quaint Parisian neighborhood, which I quite enjoyed:
Again, here are some of our favorite works (and I think you’ll recognize quite a few):
A Day of Bread and Cheese and Back to London
Our last full day in Paris we decided to relax and unwind given that we’d been on our feet touring two different international cities almost non-stop for multiple weeks. We woke up and headed to the local fromagerie (cheese shop) and boulangerie (bakery) to pick up some essentials for the day and hung out in our hotel room reading, talking, and recapping our trip. It was a great way to finish up our stay in Paris (and it helped that our hotel room was extremely conducive to relaxing like this).
Our last morning in Paris was beautiful and we decided to take full advantage of our final few hours by taking a brisk walk to the Champ de Mars where we snapped quite a few shots of us in front of the Eiffel Tower:
After taking those shots, it was back to London for our direct flight home to Las Vegas the next day. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do this again. I’d rather position myself in the US to a major city on the west coast then worry about flying from a specific place in Europe. We took a taxi to the train station in Paris, took the Eurostar to London, had to find our driver (who was late and kind of a dick), drive to Gatwick and get dropped off at the Courtyard Marriott at Gatwick, and then wake up early the next day to catch a (paid) shuttle to our terminal. I would not do that again, period.
Our trip was wonderful and we can’t wait to go back to Paris, hopefully during the spring when the gardens are blooming and it is a tad bit warmer. If you’ve never been, there is so much to do!