Getting around London with a challenge
Okay, so this time I have a very specific mission. A friend of mine came to Europe but he only stopped over London for just one day and a half (and it was his first time in London!). How exciting it was, and yet I knew it was for sure not enough time to fully experience what this historical and cultural world city has to offer (I mean… serioulsy, not even a tiny fraction). Anyway, considering that it would not be his last London trip in his lifetime, my mission was to give him a taste of London; So, I took this cahllenge and I made sure he had a great time, had a nice meal, and possibly dropped by some of the landmarks (definitely not all), in other words, a mini “London in a Nutshell” experience.
I think by now, I am pretty clear to myself that hiring a bicycle is an economical and eco-friendly way to explore an European city. I could make multiple stops in a short distance, move freely without concerns about traffic and parking. Some of my other biking trips include Paris (my Velib challenge in Paris), Amsterdam (oh, biking through the tulip fields in Keukenhof), Copenhagen (huh! covering the major museums in this bike-friendly city), and many more European cities.
London, same as any other in Europe, has an extensive self-service and bike hire network – the Santander Cycles is a popular system of which not only visitors but also locals would use. To make sure my dear friend could make the most out of his day, we spent a day with a bicycle along the River Thames, moved around the allies and streets, and made it to 5 checkpoints in London that I think, are the essentials of London. The result? A pad on my shoulder for a job well-done and challenge accomplished (Good Job)!
Hire a Santander Cycle in London
The main sponsor of Santander Cycles is, obviosuly, the Santander Group. The group is the 16th largest banking institution in the world. The bike hire system now is not only limited to London metro area but also Swansea, Milton Keynes, Brunel University, and Manchester in the United Kingdom.
While the original scheme was launched as early as 2000, Santander joined in March 2015, and its popularity has been growing since then. The bike hire is also nicknamed “Boris Bikes”, as Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London when the scheme began.
Today, Santander Cycles has over 750 stations set up in London, and it has a ridership of over 10 million in 2019, making it one of the most frequently used bike rental systems in the world.
Pay and go
Santander Cycles is another pay-and-go bike hire system that covers mainly London. Download an app or visit their website where you could basically obtain all the information you need about the bike hire, from costs, location, and travel tips. There “experience London blog” covers local activities in London that could be a little bit unusual to typical first-time visitors.
The cost of hiring a bike is £2 for unlimited journeys (but a total of30 minutes time) within a 24-hour period. Additional 30 minutes cost another £2. “Time” means the second you plug the bike into the parking dock and the bike is safely secured. To rent a bike, simply download the smartphone app and go to any docking station terminal with a bank card. Then touch the screen and follow the instructions to get started. No pre-registration or booking is required; just look for anywhere with a bike, unplug it from the dock, and then you are good to go.
Riding a bike in London
It was generally easy to navigate the city and to use the system. Parking was a little bit less “competitive” than what I experienced in Paris (maybe it was because I was there on a really hot day when the heat waves come at over 35 Degree Celcius), but there were enough empty docks for parking.
One thing that makes riding a bike more challenging in London is that the traffic in the city (especially the key areas like Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus, Knightsbridge) is quite hectic, and having double-decker buses roaring on the side doesn’t make it any less thrilling. Besides, locals like riding bikes (students, housewives, or even bankers in a suit), and so they can go really fast as they are extremely familiarized with their route.
Compared to the day that I had in Paris, my bike ride in London was more “advanced” and you may need a little skills and experience.
Checkpoint 1: Hyde Park
Planning a trip for somebody else is not about me, me, me; It’s about what the audience wants to see and to make sure their needs are met. Bearing that in mind, my idea was to make it less hectic than what I used to do myself, inlcude a little bit of everything. My itinerary covers a museum that my friend could have a taste of the art and history, a fine dining expereince, and an overview of all the city classics.
The night before we went to see Les Misérables at the Queen’s theater, had some local Chinese food at Leicester Square, and walked through the Piccadilly Circus.
The next morning, we began our day at Paddington, where we were staying, and luckily, it was yet another hot day in summer and the temperature jumped up to 34 degrees! I was inspired by some cycling tours for the route. In fact, I took reference from the map of “Thames Cultural Cycling Tour” and then customized :P. I got the map online from a bicycle rental company and it has 50 ‘points of interest on a 5-hour cycling tour starting from Gabriel’s Wharf in the West End to Greenwich.
Hyde Park is for sure one of the most important urban parks in London and there is no better place to start the day trip here. If you look forward t plan and do something in the park, check out Urban Parks in the World That Is best for a Weekend Picnic, I shared more information about what to see and do there.
Checkpoint 2: Victoria and Albert Museum
The cultural route covers a lot of famous places like the Tate Modern, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, City Hall, HMS Belfast, Global Wharf, Greenwich, and Canary Wharf… basically, bikers could complete the route in a few hours if they just briefly stop at each spot but that was not my intention. Seeing some of these places could take a long time and it’s easily become a 4-5 day thing. First, we took our bicycle and then when went through the West Carriage Drive in Hyde Park, and took a stop at our first “checkpoint” of the day, V&A.
As it’s the first time my friend visiting London and I would like to make sure he had (and he wanted to) experience with at least one of London’s art museums. British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Modern… to name a few! Another amazing thing about London’s museums is that many of them are free. I remembered that I spent a lot of time in the British Museum back in the days and it could be a bit overwhelming and crowded; Same for the National Gallery (and I put it as one of my favorite in the world!). Tate Modern, I love, but I thought it is not as “classic” as other fellow museums for a “first-timer”… anyway, I reckoned that V&A would be a better choice for my friend as he only had like an hour or so for this gallery. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t get any easier for him because V&A was huge. As much as I want to see Alexander McQueen’s exhibition again (and without surprise, there was a long queue), I went back to the 50 galleries and re-visited some of the most amazing artworks in history.
Victoria and Albert Museum is a prestigious museum of decorative arts and design with a collection of over 4.5 million pieces of art in different genres and times. Visitors may find paintings of Raphael, textiles and jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, and silver from Europe, North America, and Asia. The museum owns the largest collection of Renaissance items in the world outside of Italy as well.
I love the Cast Courts – as it’s an educational gallery with replicas of many important artworks in the world including Michelangelo’s David. I was certainly not expecting to see so many massive pieces, like a façade, a column, a pulpit or a doorway from different cathedrals all around the world all put together in one place.
South Kensington – Knightsbridge
After a museum tour then it was time for some exercise and photo-taking. We went along Brompton Road (passed the Harrod’s) with a lot of double-decker buses and made a turn at Knightsbridge, and then we were at the Wellington Arch at the corner of Hyde Park, and then we are in walking distance from Buckingham Palace and the West-minster.
Either way, just stop by any point of interest as you move along and I can assure you there are plenty.
Checkpoint 3: Our Luncheon at Sketch
While London has a rich history and culture, the city also has an exciting culinary scene. Up next, it’s time for lunch! We headed to Sketch in Mayfair, a Michelin-starred restaurant that not only caters to your tongue with great food and drinks but also feasts your EYEs with art. We had a nice lunch and enjoyed a celebration that my friends prepared for me – yet I felt the main course of my visit was actually the amazing rooms in the restaurant.
The restaurant features five different areas: namely the Gallery, the Parlour, the Glade, the Lecture room & Library, and the East Bar and Pods, and each has its own theme and unique décor, serving meals, drinks, and music at different times of the day. The Lecture Room & Library, the place where we had lunch, is a sophisticated, exclusive, and luxurious dining room serving lunch and dinner. The brass mirrors on the wall gave me a retro-vibe and it contrasts very well with the innovative dishes. We headed to the Gallery, which is quite a popular room in Sketch, which is a modern, sweet, and all pink European Gastro-Brasserie for afternoon tea. Ladies like to gather in this room and chit-chat, and the wall is filled with witty scribbles and pictures. The Parlour is a classic lounge for breakfast and evening cocktails. Finally, the Glade is my favorite. It is a colorful woodland bar that was fully painted with an enchanted fairy-tale forest, created by artists Carolyn Quartermaine. The dark green looks mysterious and artistic, I love the color tone and the design was simply breathtaking.
Each of these rooms is Instagram-worthy, but don’t forget to take one more before you leave. Visit their bathroom, the futuristic capsules will surely get your follower’s eyeballs.
Checkpoint 4: Westminster, the abbey, and the cathedral
It was such a hot day and luckily it didn’t feel so bad riding a bicycle. The next thing I know we were at the Westminster Abbey and just in time for its daily service! The majority of London’s most well-known buildings are here in Westminster, it’s impossible to enter and visit all of them in a day, but it’s possible to admire them on foot from Westminster Abbey, to London Eye, walking across the Westminster Bridge; because a trip to London wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Big Ben and Parliament. Let’s not forget the London Eye!
Moving on from Westminster to the East, one thing that you may not know is that the Westminster Cathedral is a completely different-looking building from the Westminster abbey! Some visitors may not even know a cathedral exists, some may mix up with Westminster Abbey, assuming that the two were actually the same building. Either way, Westminster Cathedral is not far from the parliament cluster, if you are interested, drop by and check it out; the cathedral is an important religious site in England and is was built in 1895, designed by John Francis in extravagant Byzantine style.
Checkpoint 5: City of London, the Tower Bridge, and the City Hall
Before we headed back to Oxford Circus to pick up my mother, we had one more “checkpoint” to go. YES – the Tower Bridge, baby. We continued our journey on the Victoria Embankment along the River Thames and then made our way to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Sadly by that time, the church was already closed but we could still admire the architecture up close. Then we stopped at the Tower of London in about 20 minutes and we took our friend strolling through the Tower Bridge to the City Hall and that’s pretty much the end of my little “bicycle tour” of the day. The Potters Fields Park near the City Hall is a great place for the locals to chill out and relax, especially during sunset, I just like how the light hit the bridge. So, it was time for us to go back to Oxford street – and we saw HMS Belfast and Hay’s Galleria on the way to the Tube station. (Of course, didn’t expect to ride a bicycle from Tower Bridge to oxford circus and it would probably be very difficult to navigate a bicycle in the crowded Oxford street anyway.)
Because – I had to bring my friend to do some last-minute souvenir shopping and so we pick up mom for a quick dinner of salt beef (but it was famous, though) at the Brass Rail in Selfridges, and mission accomplished!