The Tower of London and high tea, round two

One of the places I knew we needed to visit when planning our trip was the Tower of London, primarily because I had heard the Crown Jewels were a can’t miss.

The Crown Jewels exhibit features pieces that are still used today by the queen including spectacular crowns, some of which incorporate some of the largest diamonds in the world.

The exhibit was really interesting (unfortunately no photos were allowed) but we actually had more fun traipsing around the grounds of the Tower, a historic castle founded in 1066 that has played an important role in the history of England.

The grounds of the Tower of London.
The grounds of the Tower of London.

Some of the facts we learned:

  • The Queen’s House at the Tower of London had running water and a flushing toilet from as early as 1687.
  • The day before the Earl of Nithsdale was scheduled to be executed he escaped by dressing up in his wife’s clothes and walking out of the Tower unnoticed.
  • King Henry III had a polar bear that was tied to a long rope so it could go fishing in the Thames.
  • Uncaged monkeys lived in a room where visitors could walk among them. The room was shut down after a monkey attacked a boy. I guess seagulls aren’t the only creatures attacking in these parts.

There was also a creepy hologram at the Royal Mint that fascinated my daughters.

Creepy hologram.
Creepy hologram.

After spending a few hours at the Tower, we couldn’t resist another round of high tea. This time we headed to the Chesterfield Mayfair, which is currently offering a Willy Wonka-themed tea that’s a treat for all ages, especially for those who have seen or are planning to see the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The Willy Wonka experience, set in the hotel’s enclosed patio featuring white and green decor and lush plant life, started with miniature bottles of fizzy soda, complete with striped straws, and activity packs and little stuffed bears for the kids. Next came milkshakes for them and tea for me, followed by a huge assortment of treats. Their plates included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Wonka chocolate bars, scones, a cupcake and a golden egg. My tower included a selection of five finger sandwiches, two types of scones and a variety of Wonka-themed sweets such as a blueberry macaroon and a chocolate eclair.

Willy Wonka-themed tea at London's Chesterfield Mayfair hotel.
Willy Wonka-themed tea at London’s Chesterfield Mayfair hotel.

It wasn’t cheap, but it was the sweetest way I can think of to slow down and take a break during a busy afternoon.

Animal attacks and a beachside getaway from London

If you visit Brighton, beware of seagulls.

We traveled to this beach town, with its turquoise waves and rocky, skipping-stone shore, for an overnight getaway from London earlier this week.

View from the Brighton Pier.
View from the Brighton Pier.

As we strolled down Brighton Pier — think Galveston’s Pleasure Pier for comparison — we purchased Mr. Whippy ice creams, the creamy soft serve you find everywhere here. It’s best and most frequently enjoyed with a piece of Cadbury Flake chocolate.

“This is the perfect moment,” I thought as I dipped the Flake into the cool ice cream and took a bite, pop tunes blaring on the boardwalk and the sun setting into the water below. Then a seagull attacked my face.

Like flew into me, stole the mouthwatering Flake (the best part!) from my lips, paused to dip it into my ice cream and then flew away, leaving only a puff of shattered cone crumbs in its wake. It was like I had stumbled into some bad, Cadbury-sponsored Alfred Hitchcock short.

Everyone on the pier who witnessed the flailing (and expletives) was naturally concerned, expressing it by doubling over with laughter, tears running down their cheeks. Until they realized I was bleeding. That damn seagull cut my lip.

Seeing that I was distraught, a sweet couple pushing a stroller offered me a wet wipe. And that’s when I decided I had to move on with my life. After all, could you really fault that seagull for its love of the Flake? They are delicious.

Brighton, which is located about an hour from London on the train, was the perfect place for a two-day break. We spent most of our time along the beach, searching for shells as locals grilled seafood purchased from nearby markets.

Buy fresh seafood, then grill it on the beach.
Buy fresh seafood, then grill it on the beach.

The scene along the shore was vibrant yet mellow; we saw everything from pick-up basketball games to a singer belting out “Move On Up” to couples sharing carafes of cocktails at picnic tables.

Skateboarders enjoy ice cream along the beach in Brighton.
Skateboarders enjoy ice cream along the beach in Brighton.

In addition to the beach and the pier, which has a nice variety of arcade and carnival games, Brighton has several attractions worth visiting. The Royal Pavilion, for example, served as the seaside palace of the Prince Regent. After a transformation in the early 1820s, it became considered one of the most exotic buildings in the British Isles.

There is also some excellent shopping in Brighton. We loved Waterstones, a local chain bookstore with floor upon floor of great offerings. When I purchased the book of the month, an interesting read with a “Sliding Doors”-style premise, it came with a free espresso drink.

We also enjoyed the art sprinkled throughout town, including a giant doughnut-shaped beachside sculpture called “Afloat.”

This beachside sculpture is called "Afloat."
This beachside sculpture is called “Afloat.”

We had points with Hilton, so we used those to book a night at the Hilton Brighton Metropole, which was perfectly situated across from the beach and within easy walking distance from the train. For a quick and easy escape from London, I highly recommend Brighton. Just watch out for seagulls.

The meaning of time in Greenwich

You’ve probably heard of Greenwich Mean Time. But if you’re like me, you might not have known its exact definition. When we decided to head to Greenwich, located in South London and suggested by reader Lory, for the day, I figured it was time (get it?) to brush up on my GMT knowledge.

Basically, Greenwich Mean Time is the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. It was once the international time standard, although it has been replaced for the most part by Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is said to be more precise.

At the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, you can view the red Time Ball, one of the world’s earliest time pieces; the UK’s largest refracting telescope; and, most importantly, you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the world, longitude zero. (Surely you’ve seen pictures taken of people here, smiling happily with one leg on the eastern hemisphere and one leg on the western.)

Of course, we spent so much time in town at the sprawling Greenwich Market, a fantastic mix of arts and crafts and food vendors and shops, and other attractions such as the Cutty Sark, a famous tea clipper ship that is stunning to see in person, that by the time we arrived at the Royal Observatory, it was closed.

Warning: You may get talked into buying a $25 headband when visiting Greenwich Market.
Warning: You may get talked into buying a $25 headband when visiting Greenwich Market.

The irony of being late to the home of time does not escape me.

Still, we were able to view the Shepherd 24-hour Gate Clock, one of the earliest electrically driven public clocks, which was installed in 1852.

The Shepherd 24-hour Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory.
The Shepherd 24-hour Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory.

And the view alone from the top of the hill where the Royal Observatory is located makes it worth the trip.

View of London from the Royal Observatory.
View of London from the Royal Observatory.

Build in some time after visiting the observatory to wander Greenwich Park, which is also a great place to spend an afternoon and includes a playground with some of the coolest features we’ve seen.

Seesaw, Greenwich Park style.
Seesaw, Greenwich Park style.

I’m still upset we didn’t get a picture of ourselves on two hemispheres, so we’ll definitely be returning. And this time, we’ll be on time.

An Austinite walks into a music festival in the United Kingdom

When I realized that our trip to London was going to coincide with last weekend’s Isle of Wight Festival, I knew immediately that it needed to be part of our itinerary.

I had already hoped to visit the Isle of Wight because I had heard it was an idyllic seaside getaway and also because it has a rich musical history. Bob Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” and other songs that ended up on the album “Self Portrait” on the Isle of Wight, and the Beatles referenced renting a cottage there in “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It is also the setting for many books and movies.

The festival began with a series of festivals between 1968 and 1970, considered by some to be Europe’s answer to Woodstock. In 1970, a five-day lineup included one of the last performances by Jimi Hendrix and was said to have drawn 600,000 people to the 100,000-resident island. The festival was revived in 2002 as an annual event and has hosted a range of performers including the Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Jay-Z and Blondie.

This year’s lineup included Fleetwood Mac, Blur, the Black Keys, the Prodigy, Pharrell Williams, Paolo Nutini and Counting Crows, which just happen to be my favorite band. Most people who attend the festival camp, either in their own tents or camper vans or in adorable multicolored teepees, yurts and cottages that you can rent as part of your festival experience.

Because I was traveling with my two young daughters, 6 and 3 — kids are free at the festival and welcome; like ACL, there’s even a dedicated area with fun activities for them — we planned to just go for one day, despite several people warning us against it. Three hours into what would become our six-hour odyssey to the Isle of Wight, I understood why. In theory, it should take two hours to get there from London, but because the trip involves taking a train to a bus to a ferry to a bus to the festival, there’s a lot of waiting around. The final shuttle bus alone took an hour to get us from the ferry to the festival gates, only a few miles away, because of traffic and rain.

The crowd at the Isle of Wight.
The crowd at the Isle of Wight.

No matter. We arrived just before Counting Crows took the stage for a compact but satisfying set that included a mix of big hits like “Mr. Jones,” “Long December,” “Rain King” and “Round Here” and newer tunes like “Palisades Park” and “Scarecrow.”

Adam Duritz on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival.

I’ve seen this band live a million times, but it was the first time for my daughters, who vacillated between being dutifully enthralled by their first live Counting Crows performance and chasing the copious bubbles blowing through the crowd from ever-churning bubble machines.

Kids are welcome at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Kids are welcome at the Isle of Wight Festival.

Here are some other observations from the fest:

TURNOUT: The sprawling grounds felt pretty packed with approximately 60,000 visitors. In comparison, ACL draws around 70,000 daily.

FOOD: The food truck scene here was almost as impressive as Austin’s. Trucks were located throughout the grounds, serving a mix of international fare that included fish and chips, crepes, curries, sushi, hot dogs and Domino’s Pizza. As you’d expect, and also similar to Austin festivals, the line for beer was the longest.

Food trucks offered a variety of fare.
Food trucks offered a variety of fare.

ATTRACTIONS: Carnival rides surrounded the festival, creating a rainbow-lit backdrop for the main acts. There were numerous smaller stages for other performers as well as arts and crafts vendors and carnival games throughout the grounds.

This SuperBowl ride included featured both the Cowboys and the Texans.
This ride, called Super Bowl, featured both the Cowboys and the Texans.

ATTIRE: Much like our Austin festivals, we saw it all in terms of fashion, from frat boys in skin-tight Ninja Turtle costumes to 20-somethings channeling Woodstock with flowers in their hair to a man in a full-body turkey costume. The most popular accessory? Galoshes, because, as I was told, it always rains. And it did. About 20 minutes after You Me At Six took the stage, an inescapable downpour started. First we tried to find cover, and then we had no choice but to just embrace it, splashing in puddles as the band continued to play. (Side note: I’m not sure you’ve experienced your low as a mother until you’ve squashed into a Porta Potti with your two small children in the pouring rain and actually encouraged them to take their time so that you can feel dry for a few minutes.)

Because mud.
Because mud.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I can’t believe we didn’t camp so we could stay for Fleetwood Mac. My girls can’t believe we missed Pharrell. Granted, it was not the best planning we could have done. But it was still worth every second we were there. If you’re considering a summer visit to the London area, I highly recommend timing it with this festival. Learn more about the it at and view photos and videos from this year’s event on Instagram, #IOW2015.

The Republic of Texas in London

I am standing in the middle of London looking at the Republic of Texas.

Near No. 4 St. James Street at Pickering Place, there’s a plaque marking the building where the Texas embassy once stood. It reads, “Texas Legation: In this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842-1846.”

This building that housed the Republic of Texas embassy still stands in London.
This building that housed the Republic of Texas embassy still stands in London.

Reader Ann suggested a stop by this marker, and it was well worth it. From what I’ve been able to find online, popular wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd served as landlords to the Texas Legation in the 1840s. The plaque was installed in 1963 by the Anglo-Texan Society. There’s a bunch more great information about it on this blog.

Here’s another view of the plaque. You can see it’s small, but still really cool to visit as a Texan. (I’m also told there used to be a popular authentic Tex-Mex restaurant called the Texas Embassy Cantina in London, but it has closed.)

Note: Kids may not find this site as interesting as their parents.
Note: Kids may not find this site as interesting as their parents.

There’s also a spectacular hat shop located next to the plaque called Lock & Co. Hatters. Stroll through and imagine yourself preparing for the wedding of a London celebrity.


We followed up our trip to the hat company with a stop at Harrods, which was recommended by reader Whit. I knew Harrods would be impressive, of course, but I was completely floored by the size and scope of this legendary department store. Every label, every color, every variation of anything I’ve ever wanted to buy was inside that store.

And the food. Restaurants, markets, ice cream shops. It was amazing.

There’s even a dedicated Disney Cafe, where you can stop in for lunch, dinner or high tea. I recommend the high tea, because it’s less expensive than a full meal and kids still get cute Mickey or Minnie Mouse ears to keep. Here are the treats served as part of our tea.

Even Disney gets in on the high tea action in London.
Even Disney gets in on the high tea action in London.

One final place we visited that’s worth a mention was Wahaca, which serves “Mexican market food.” Obviously I’m always wary of Mexican and Tex-Mex places overseas, but we were pleasantly surprised by food and drinks here. The quesadillas with jalapenos and habanero chillies were on point, as was the chicken tinga burrito. I highly recommend it if you need a Mexican food fix while traveling London.

From Harry Potter to Willy Wonka in London

One of the things that topped our list when visiting London was making a trek to “The Making of Harry Potter” Warner Bros. Studio Tour, which is actually about an hour outside of the city in Leavesden.

Outside of the tour.
Entering “The Making of Harry Potter.”

The movies were filmed here for over a decade, and tour visitors are able to explore two soundstages and a backlot that feature original sets, animatronic creatures and special effects.

People were EXCITED.

No need to hide your excitement here.
No need to hide your excitement here.

Just stepping into the famous Great Hall was a magical experience.

The Great Hall.
The Great Hall.

The tour is mostly self-guided, took us about two hours to complete and was filled with fun facts about the movies. For example, the floating candles in the Great Hall in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” were originally suspended by wires that were to be removed in post-production. But during the first few days of filming, they kept burning through the wire and falling onto the tables, so the producers cut the wires and created them using digital effects instead.

Other highlights for me included seeing the boys’ dormitory, Harry’s costumes and Dumbledore’s office, where the hundreds of books on the shelves are actually British phonebooks covered in leather.

Dumbledore's office.
Dumbledore’s office.

And of course we couldn’t miss a walk through the authentic Hogwarts Express, used during the more than 10 years of filming.

All aboard!
All aboard!

Visitors to the tour can also sample authentic Butterbeer, which was surprisingly delicious.


Even though the studio was kind of a trek from London, including multiple trains and a shuttle bus, it was really fun to see fans come from all over the world to learn the backstory of the movies.

Later that night, we also got a chance to check out the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” musical, which is now playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a stunning space that has also been called one of the world’s most haunted theaters.

Photos weren’t allowed, but we really enjoyed the show, which managed to make an imaginary chocolate world seem tangible.

TEXAS TIE: Since our visit to Madame Tussauds, our 3-year-old has been going up to strangers, pointing in their faces and asking if they’re real. It can get awkward. But another memorable experience from our visit to the museum was getting to go behind the scenes with Beyonce. In addition to featuring the ultra-famous Texan in its lineup, the museum also uses her to explain its figure-building process using videos, molds and other actual artifacts from when her figure was created. It was fun to see a Texas girl featured so prominently at the popular museum.

I’ll be blogging about our adventures daily here as well as updating on Instagram and Twitter, @kristinfinan. Next on the agenda is finding a great spot for Indian food. Have restaurant suggestions? Let me know at

‘Celeb’ sightings, great views and a visit to Whole Foods in London

You might be jealous to learn that so far during our trip to London we’ve spotted Julia Roberts, Robert Pattinson and even Beyonce — all made of wax, of course, at Madame Tussauds London.

Wax Beyonce in “Single Ladies” mode.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this museum, but my daughters were excited to check out the new Star Wars exhibit, so we got tickets. I was impressed by the range of celebrities featured, including everyone from politicians to sports figures to ogres like Shrek. There was even a ride that featured figures from London’s history and a 4D movie about superheroes. We were entertained for well over two hours. And the Star Wars exhibit didn’t disappoint.

An indifferent Princess Leia at Madame Tussauds London.
An indifferent Princess Leia at Madame Tussauds London.

After the museum, we boarded one of the ubiquitous hop-on hop-off bus tours for a ride around the city. We were really looking forward to this, but due to a variety of events including blustery winds, traffic snarls and my youngest daughter’s bladder, our trip was short lived. (If you’ve ever been trapped on a bus with a 3-year-old who decides she suddenly and urgently needs to go to the bathroom, you understand this particular category of hell.)

The nearest place we could exit the bus was the London Bridge stop, where we beelined for a Starbucks, not only because we knew we would find a bathroom there but because, well, sometimes you just want to go to Starbucks. I know visiting Starbucks in a foreign country isn’t a very travel-writery thing to do, but sometimes a 15-minute pitstop somewhere with dependable WiFi, white chocolate mochas and chocolate chunk brownies can really improve an afternoon.

As we were walking back to the subway we noticed we were right next to the Shard, a 95-story skyscraper that’s the tallest building in the European Union. I had read that it had spectacular views, so I asked an employee how much it cost to access the viewing platform. It was about $45 per person, he said, then he offered a tip — go up to the Aqua Shard restaurant/bar to enjoy the view without paying for anything other than a cocktail or a tea. (Don’t wear tennis shoes, though — they’re not allowed.) Here’s the view from there.

The view from London’s Aqua Shard.

TEXAS TIE: We also came across a Whole Foods and couldn’t resist the urge to take a look around. Readers Alice and Caroline had both suggested this, and I loved the idea. I’ve been visiting Whole Foods since I was a child growing up in Austin, so it was fun to take a spin around the store in another country. For the most part, it looked the same. I wasn’t able to do a full inventory, but I did spot a number of Texas products on the shelves:



There was also this cookbook, although I haven’t confirmed that the author is indeed a Tex-pert:


The top floor of the Whole Foods was filled with restaurants, including a Mexican restaurant called Cocina Mexicana that promised “cilantro rice, the American favourite” as well as tostadas, burritos and quesadillas. Sadly, there were no breakfast tacos on the menu.


We ended the day at the Coca-Cola London Eye, one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the world. While the vibe was certainly different from the High Roller in Las Vegas, where I rode in a cart that included an open bar, the views were incredible.

View from the Coca-Cola London Eye.
View from the Coca-Cola London Eye.

A local even pointed out that we could see a group of horses getting trained for the Queen’s Birthday Parade this weekend. It was a breathtaking, educational experience and a fantastic new view of London.

Our room with a view.

I’ll have more daily blog posts during the trip and will also be updating on Instagram and Twitter at @kristinfinan. Have suggestions of things we should do in London and Paris or places where we can find Texas ties? Let me know at

London: High tea and things for free

Hello from across the pond!

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to write in with suggestions of things I should do during my upcoming trip to London and Paris. I received dozens of wonderful ideas that I plan to implement during my visit, the majority of which will be spent in London.

I arrived yesterday with my daughters, 6 and 3, and had my first full day out and about today. I planned to spend the morning at Kensington Gardens, but, in a total tourist move, got off at the South Kensington stop thinking it must be the right one. It was not.

It was, however, the stop for the Natural History Museum — which, I would learn, is free! — and several other big-name attractions.

TEXAS TIE: While at the Natural History Museum, I met this Glyptodon, which is an extinct giant relative of the armadillo.


They weren’t able to roll up into a ball like our state’s beloved(?) critter, but they could tuck their armored heads down into their shells to protect themselves from predators. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough — they died out about 10,000 years ago. (I’m going to try to feature something I find in London each day that has a tie to Texas – stay tuned for more.)

We also stopped by the Sensational Butterflies exhibit hosted by the museum (there is an admission fee for this, but it was worth it) through September. As we walked through the door, the steamy temperatures instantly reminded us of Texas summers as butterflies with wings as colorful as stained-glass windows flitted by.


The exhibit is great for all ages and includes a variety of fun facts about all stages of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. For example, did you know that while humans have 640-850 muscles in their bodies, caterpillars have about 4,000?

Eventually we did make our way to Kensington Gardens (it’s the High Street Kensington stop on the Underground, if you’re wondering), which readers Sara and Tori had recommended for its sprawling, beautiful grounds. And it, too, is free! Note: There is a charge for tours of the inside of Kensington Palace. We were immediately enchanted by its rich history, which includes being the birthplace of Queen Victoria, and charming features including a glittering duck pond and a carousel. The grounds have even been featured in movies including “Finding Neverland” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.”


Our stop there included a long stint for the girls at the Diana Memorial Playground, which was built in honor of the late princess and includes everything from a giant pirate ship to a miniature sandy beach to teepees where you can hide and play. Our friend Amy recommended it and I’m so glad she did. It is one of the most immersive playgrounds I’ve visited and a fitting testament to the child-loving princess.


We wrapped up our day with high tea at the adjacent Orangery, which was built in the early 1700s and used by Queen Anne for entertaining. Today, it’s a wonderful place to take in tea while admiring emerald-green bushes manicured in the shape of giant light bulbs.

A word about high tea: Where has this been all my life? Taking an hour or more of the day to snack on tiny sandwiches and miniature puddings while sipping hot tea (or champagne) in a beautiful setting? Sign me up. Sure, the clanking of stirring spoons on fine china made by my daughters could have been omitted, but we didn’t break anything, so I consider it a win.


I’m definitely looking forward to testing out other high teas over the course of our visit.

So far, we’ve found London to be inviting and friendly – people have gone out of their way to offer us advice, assistance and even their seats on the Underground. My 3-year-old has become so fond of the escalators we’ve been riding to get on the train that she’s repeatedly called them her “best friend.” I don’t know what that says about our social life in Austin, but it is yet another interesting connection to this new city.

I’ll be updating about our adventures daily on this blog as well as on Instagram and Twitter at @kristinfinan. I’ve also got a list of suggestions everyone has sent in and I’m looking forward to to crossing off as many as I can. Have more? Feel free to email me at