How to save about $50 at Westminster Abbey

Now, this happened to Dan and I totally by accident today, and I’m not advocating cheating religious institutions out of their entry fee, but if you are a poor budget traveler like Dan and I are this can now happen to you on purpose!

Westminster Abbey - North Entrance

Westminster Abbey – North Entrance

Dan and I weren’t planning on visiting Westminster Abbey because it costs 18 GBP (or about $27) per person. We walked by today on our way to the House of Parliament. The plan was to go get a tour of the House of Parliament instead of Westminster Abbey (It is slightly cheaper, and more towards our interests). The East Entrance of the Abbey is where people line up to pay the big bucks and get into the Abbey. Dan and I walked past that madhouse, but as we went around the corner we spied the North Entrance. Anyone can attend church services at the Abbey for free. So at the North Entrance I spoke with a guard and Dan and I made a plan to go back to the Abbey for Evensong tomorrow night. (For some reason that I do not understand, Wednesday is the only weeknight that they have a spoken evening service instead of a sung one. We wanted to hear the choir if we could.)

We headed into a little court to the west of the North Entrance. Woops, dead end. But a beautiful dead end so we wandered around a bit. Then a church employee came over and handed us a flier. Do we have perfect timing or what? Today was one of the 6 Wednesday where Westminster Abbey’s College Garden hosts free Brass on the Grass concerts. And what time did it happen to be but 5 minutes before the start of the concert. So we headed toward the secret side entrance that the employee waved us toward and tell the guard that we are going the the concert. At this point I had every intention of going to that concert. Really people! But once we were inside we realized that we had full access to the Abbey! Well, not really as they don’t let you into the Abbey itself without tickets and the area we were in was post-Abbey (but still inside the complex. Sorry, it’s complicated…). But apparently once people were out of the Abbey itself and just walking the grounds, they were leaving their tickets everywhere. So Dan and I scooped up a couple and headed in.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

A ceiling in one of the chapels

A ceiling in one of the chapels

We may not have had the hand-held audio-guides that the people who actually paid to get in had, but most of Westminster Abbey is pretty self explanatory. Plus there is just so much to look at, I don’t feel like a guide is necessary. Some of our favorite highlights were the tombs of former kings and queens dating back as far as 1000 years ago, the Poet’s Corner, and the oldest door in Britain (also from about 1000 years ago).

Stained glass

Stained glass

We spent an hour or so walking around Westminster Abbey. I simply assumed that the brass concert would be over at that point. But Dan and I decided to go see anyway. Our luck continued as the Tilbury Brass Band had a few pieces left to perform. We walked in to the College Garden while they were playing the John Williams Jurassic Park theme song. Really funny and awesome.

An interior garden

Overall, I have to say that Westminster Abbey is amazing. Awesome enough to pay some money to see. But not over $50. Even if we hadn’t been able to see the Abbey and were just able to go to the Brass on the Grass concert, it would have been a lovely and special afternoon. Our little escapade into the Abbey, though, was awesome and I recommend trying it yourself if you ever get the chance. They have a donation jar near the Abbey entrance where you can assuage your guilt at having cheated to get into a house of god. Have fun!

The Big London Vegan Food Post, #1

While walking the streets of London I came across some postings with ‘flats’ for rent. I curiously stopped to read and came to the conclusion that the cost of living in London compared favorably to living in New York City. I was subsequently horrified when Molly pointed out to me that rent in London is posted at a weekly rate as opposed to monthly.

I kept my calm and carried on – thankful that we were spending our money on vegan food instead.

After shoving our way through an unspeakably busy West End and SOHO districts (the London one), we approached The Coach and Horses vegetarian pub with a sense of caution. Would it too be overrun with tour buses, tour guides and *gasp* tourists?

The Coach and Horses Vegetarian Pub, London

The Coach and Horses Vegetarian Pub, London

Spoiler Alert: No! Just lots of locals looking for some good food/drink and a way to escape probing questions on how to find the British National Gallery. For a Sunday lunch in a central tourist district it had a quiet and pleasant atmosphere. While trying to blend in with the Locals, a certain dish caught my eye on the menu. Tofush and chips.

Vegan Fish and Chips, The Coach and Horses, London

Tofush and Chips, The Coach and Horses, London

From what Molly and I can tell, this is perhaps the only such option available in London. The actual ‘fish’ was in fact tofu rolled in nori, battered and beautifully deep fried.  The avocado tarter sauce was the perfect compliment. The deep fryer clearly had its A-game going on and also produced some excellent chips (read: fries). Those green things are English peas which will easily surprise you if you are used to other less-stellar pea products.  Our second dish was a little more vegetable-friendly – one of the highly touted ‘SUNDAY ROAST’ options as the sign outside read.

Vegan lentil-stuffed 'Sunday Roast' at The Coach and Horses, London

Vegan lentil-stuffed ‘Sunday Roast’ at The Coach and Horses, London

This stuffed eggplant roast included lentils, tomato, spices and (presumably) eggplant roasted together.  It was served a little dry but the ample gravy on the plate corrected this. The vegan fish and chips were the real star here and will be receiving my vote for food MVP in London barring some unforeseen future discovery.

Next up on our tour was the Vegan Cross store – home to the Secret Society of Vegans.  

Vegan Cross, Secret Society of Vegans, London

Vegan Cross, Secret Society of Vegans, London

Below is a picture of what we found inside.

Interior of Vegan Cross, Secret Society of Vegans, London

Interior of Vegan Cross, Secret Society of Vegans, London

That is about half of the actual store seen here and the majority of the food-related items. The remainder of the store was devoted to vegan apparel and books. For a quick sandwich (made at the back of the store) or some vegan candy or food products it is ideal. The store seems best situated to serve the local vegan population by virtue of its meeting space downstairs.  As Molly pointed out, Ryan Gosling did make an appearance on the door frame!

Hey girl, you are the vegan cupcake who took over my world. Ryan Gosling.

Hey girl, you are the vegan cupcake who took over my world. Ryan Gosling.

Hidden Jewel: I suppose if I said ‘Twinings Tea’ and ‘Hidden Jewel’ to you together you might be a little confused.  The ubiquitous Twinings Tea can be found just about everywhere.  A quick stop in the Twinings Tea original location was quite pleasant and informative. Did you know that you are likely drinking a weaker ‘export’ varieties and not the stronger blends distributed in the UK?

Twinings Tea original location, London

Twinings Tea original location, London

I have been known to enjoy a cup of tea from time to time but I was blown away by these ‘real’ blends.  Our tea expert was incredibly knowledgeable and quite friendly (and, oddly, from Boston).  I highly recommend stopping in to the Twinings original location if you find yourself strolling along the River Thames.

We had made plans to meet up with a friend who also happened to be in London at the same time as us. We tried out some vegan sweets at Cookies and Scream vegan and gluten-free bakery located at the Camden Market.

Cookies and Scream vegan bakery, London

Cookies and Scream vegan bakery, London

The hours listed online indicated that it was open until 6PM each day.  When we ordered shortly after 5:15PM it seemed that some of the options (namely, coffee and milkshakes) were unavailable as those machines had already been cleaned out.  The entire store was closed-up by 5:50PM.  The cookies and brownies we had were all very tasty, particularly for gluten-free baked goods.  If you go, just make sure you make it there early! Camden market had lots of other vegan options as well. There was Ha-Ha Veggie Bar, a falafel stand, Chaboba a bubble tea stand, and right across the canal, inSpiral Lounge. inSpiral Lounge had some delicious looking food, but we were too stuffed to get any real food at that point. We just had a few drinks, which we consumed sitting along the canal. It was great.

We had high expectations for Amico Bio – a vegetarian Italian restaurant in London. Our friend who is in London now, too, had already eaten there and loved it. She gave us great recommendations!  We visited the location in Barbican, but there is also a second restaurant in Holborn.  The food was universally great – so much so that I am posting five pictures.

Amico Bio, Vegetarian Italian restaurant, London

Amico Bio, vegetarian Italian restaurant, London

Brushetta, Amico Bio, Vegetarian Italian restaurant, London

Brushetta, Amico Bio, vegetarian Italian restaurant, London

Cous cous, cabbage and apricot salad, Amico Bio Vegetarian restaurant, London

Cous cous, cabbage and apricot salad, Amico Bio vegetarian restaurant, London

Tortiglioni with tomato, olives and capers, Amico Bio vegetarian restaurant, London

Tortiglioni with tomato, olives and capers, Amico Bio vegetarian restaurant, London

Gnocchi with tomato sauce and vegan mozzarella, Amico Bio vegetarian restaurant, London

Gnocchi with tomato sauce and vegan mozzarella, Amico Bio vegetarian restaurant, London

If you are craving some great Italian food – Amico Bio will not disappoint.  Deep flavors and a beautiful setting across from Saint Bartholomew – a church constructed in 1123. From a value standpoint, they have a lunch special where you receive an appetizer, entree and dessert for only 10 pounds.  It is quite a deal and lets you really explore the menu. The standard menu offers additional options and are priced to move (most in the 7-8 pound range). The restaurant is vegetarian and the many vegan options are clearly marked.

London is exceedingly vegetarian and vegan friendly. Supermarkets even label all products as such directly on packaging. Even the fowl in London are friendly! A particularly trusting pigeon landed directly next to Molly as we crossed the beautiful Millennium Bridge leaving the Tate Modern.

Molly with friendly pigeon, Millennium Bridge, London

Molly with friendly pigeon, Millennium Bridge, London

More food updates to come as our time in London is not yet over. Cheers!

London Calling

Flying into London - look for the London Eye!

Flying into London – look for the London Eye!

Cheerio from London! (That’s what they say here, right??) The pictures above and below were taken on our decent into Heathrow. I may have broken a million airplane rules, but the light was just too awesome and the skies were just too clear to not snap some pictures!

Flying into London - the London Bridge in the setting sun

Flying into London – the London Bridge in the setting sun

So, after a good night’s sleep, we went check out this big city. I have never been to the UK before, but Dan spent a brief 2 days in London about 4 years ago. He actually didn’t love during his brief stay but as a big city girl I set out to change that.

Pro tip: I have been using an app on my phone that has been essential to our enjoyment since we arrived in London. I brought my iPhone 4s on this trip but it does not have access to cell service. However, when there is wifi I can easily check everything I need. The beauty of this app is that it doesn’t require wifi (as long as you “preload” it with the cities you will need when you have wifi) and it has kept me and Dan from looking like wayward tourists everywhere we go. It is the Trip Advisor app. They have walking tours, restaurants, attractions, and more all loaded onto an offline app. This morning, before we left for the day, I added all the vegan and vegetarian restaurants to the map (I looked them up on Happy Cow) so now I can figure out where we are on the map and see all the places to eat nearby!

So the first thing we decided to do today was “follow” a Trip Advisor walking tour and veer off wherever we felt like it. We took the underground to St. James’s Park and started walking. We accidentally got there when the changing of the guard was taking place. Woops! So we took it as an opportunity to take some pictures and then scurry away from the crowds into the park. We walked along the awesome pond in the park and, holy crap you guys, the pond is full of waterfowl and their babies!

BABY SWANS!!

BABY SWANS!!

This is only one picture of the cuteness, but it is the only one you are getting as the upload speed where we are staying is equivalent to dial-up and it takes about 5 minutes to add each of these pictures. So, I love you guys 7 pictures worth. Think about that.

After we watched animals being adorable for about 30 minutes we decided to walk to food. I had heard good things about Mildred’s from many a vegan (including one Soy Bean). I heard that it was a lovely place to get a tasty vegan meal, so Dan and I were headed there for our first real meal in London. On the way we ended up in the West End. We were planning on seeing a show while in London, but in the cheapest seats so as not to blow our daily (or more likely, weekly) budget. The Book of Mormon is playing in London and we could see the theater from where we were so we decided to stop by and see what their cheap seat options were like. Well, do we have good luck or what? We got over to the theater and realized that they are in the middle of doing their lottery (their cheap seat option, as it turns out, is a lottery for the seats in the front row for 20 GBP a piece). Dan and I dropped in our names 10 minutes before the draw and stuck around to see if our luck was still with us.

Guess who won the Book of Mormon lottery?

Guess who won the Book of Mormon lottery?

Indeed it was, so our afternoon plans were all set. 2 hours until showtime, we made a beeline to Mildred’s, which is conveniently only a few blocks away from the West End.

Mildred's

Mildred’s

We were seated almost immediately in a dining area very reminiscent to New York City. As many tables as possible crammed into a small space. But the space was bright and clean and smelled good, so we were happy. Mildred’s is not a vegan restaurant, but the vegan options were plentiful. Our selections can be seen below.

mixed mushroom, porcini and ale pie served with fries and mushy peas

mixed mushroom, porcini and ale pie served with fries and mushy peas

burrito filled with spicy black turtle beans, corn, red pepper and green tomatillo rice,  topped with spicy sauce served with iceberg, guacamole and pico de gallo

burrito filled with spicy black turtle beans, corn, red pepper and green tomatillo rice, topped with spicy sauce served with iceberg, guacamole and pico de gallo

I really liked the mushroom pie and Dan really liked the burrito (though not the “spicy sauce”, which wasn’t really spicy but had some flavor in it Dan wasn’t really into. Cilantro, maybe?), so we mostly stuck to our own dishes. The chips were well fried and appreciated by all, and the mushy peas were the surprise hit of the day. They were like green mashed potatoes. Delish. Also, surprising, those two entrees left us stuffed. So, for a complete meal we spent around $35 total. Not too bad. Though I did wish I had had room for dessert, even though it was better for the budget that I didn’t!

Eating vegan in Reykjavik, Iceland

Bread and coffee - the lifeblood of jet lagged people

Bread and coffee – the lifeblood of jet lagged people

So, I know we have another half day left in Reykjavik tomorrow, but I thought it was high time to get the word out about Reykjavik. It’s pretty vegan-friendly, people. Since it is a small city, it is easy to keep track of where the veggie restaurants are and intentionally go to those places, but we kept being surprised while walking by random places with vegan options. We will highlight the things we ate and saw in this post.

Sheese is freaking good vegan cheese

I love looking through foreign grocery stores. So many local, accidentally vegan products to find! What I didn’t expect was to find my favorite vegan cheese (made in Europe) in Iceland! I’ve ordered this before in the states from VeganEssentials, but they stopped importing it a few years ago. I’m looking forward to eating lots while we are in Europe. It was moderately priced, too. Similar to what I would pay for vegan cheese in the US, between $4 and $5 dollars.

Where we found the Sheese. This grocery is on Skólavörðustígur, a main pedestrian artery.

After walking Skólavörðustígur, it was time for lunch. Graenn Kostur (“The Green Choice”) is a vegetarian restaurant with a few vegan options that change daily.

Graenn Kostur - vegetarian restaurant

Graenn Kostur – vegetarian restaurant

Our delicious meal of baked eggplant filled with a rice pilaf and covered in sauce.

This was enough for both Dan and me for lunch. It cost 1800 Icelandic Krona, or just under $15. We sat outside, they had free wifi, and a firm grasp on what vegan means. It was perfect.

Then we continued walking down the main tourist drag. At Bankastræti 7, is Hostelling International’s “Loft” location in Reykjavik (can you believe that they have 33 hostels in Iceland?!?). We wouldn’t have even noticed, except the sign below was sitting outside on the street:

Sign outside of Hostelling International

Sign outside of Hostelling International. A vegan wrap and a vegan butternut soup!

Hostelling International Reykjavik – Loft

We didn’t eat there, as we had just eaten, but it was such a nice surprise to see.

The big discount grocery store in Iceland is called BÓNUS. We went in on our first afternoon in Reykjavik to buy supplies to cook dinner. If you want to travel on a budget, cooking for yourself is a big key. We have only been purchasing, maximum, one meal a day. This makes sticking to our budget easy as pie.

Vegan hazelnut – white chocolate duo spread.

I would have killed for this spread, but alas, 4 days in Reykjavik is not long enough to eat the whole thing (without getting very sick), and we aren’t checking any bags on our next flight. So that is a sad Molly.

Dinner and a malt beverage

Dinner and a malt beverage

But the meal above cost about $2.50 per person, per meal, and we each got 3 dinners out of it. It was a half kilo of pasta, potatoes, chickpeas, mushrooms, spinach, and a jar of tomato sauce. Filling, healthy, tasty, and cheap! And that malt drink? That is most certainly Dan’s. That brand has existed for 100 years and is brewed right in Reykjavik. We saw the brewery. Also, we learned something interesting. Real adult beverages (pretty much anything with an alcohol percentage over 3%) can only be sold in state-owned liquor stores or bars in Iceland. Try as we might to find a liquor store, we could not. So Dan never got to taste anything other than Iceland-made light beers. Womp womp.

C is for Cookie

C is for Cookie

Happy Cow made mention of a coffee spot with vegan cake, and between Dan’s insane jet lag and my constant need for vegan cake, we thought we would stop by. Unfortunately for us, we got there at 6:10pm, and C is for Cookie closes at 6. Woops! But it did look like a very adorable coffee shop, in a super cute neighborhood on the top of a small hill.

Today, we were walking around the port area of Reykjavik and I spied an ice cream place with a cute sign.

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Can you find the word vegan?

Can you find the word vegan?

They had two flavors marked with the (v), so we ordered a scoop of each! I double checked with someone working there, and the cones are not vegan, so we had the sorbet in a cup.

Pineapple on top and strawberry/raspberry on the bottom

This was super tasty on a warm and sunny Reykjavik day. It was sorbet, not ice cream, but it was super smooth and creamy and I highly recommend it.

Then we continued our walk and we spied 2 veggie-friendly places on our way to our lunch spot.

Health food store, Heilsuhusid, on Laugavegur the main pedestrian drag.

Gló Restaurant. A healthy restaurant chain with vegan and raw options

After walking for hours and taking in Reykjavik on another beautiful day (have we been lucky or what?), we finally made it to our lunch destination, the vegetarian restaurant Gardurinn, or Ecstasy’s Heart Garden in English.

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Also located right downtown, this restaurant has a set menu each day, one soup and one main. Not all of the food is vegan, so the day before we made a point to go by the restaurant and look over the menu for the week to check on the vegan-ness of the options for the rest of our stay. As it turns out, the entire rest of the week is vegan.

Carrot loaf with rice and a salad

Portuguese white cabbage soup with bread and hummus

We got a small soup and small entree combo for 1750 Icelandic Krona, or about $14.50. They were super tasty. The carrot loaf was made up of veggies, nuts and rice, with a tomato topping. This was a delicious, affordable, and well balanced meal.

a “snickers” for dessert

The same might not be able to be said about dessert – this raw dessert cost us about $4.50 – but it was worth it.

Then we went to a museum and walked some more. I had seen on signs all around the city advertising ice cream bars and cones a packaged cone called “Rice”. I had been searching for it to see if it was perhaps rice milk based and possibly vegan, when after 3 days of searching I finally found it in the oldest part of town in a grocery store. The best we could decipher, it was vegan. I even asked a checkout guy to help, but there is no Icelandic on the label! He read the Swedish the best he could (it had been a few years for him since he last spoke it, but all Icelanders learn a Scandinavian language in school), and everything he said indicated to me that the “Rice” cones were dairy-free, soy-free, and vegan. So Dan and I each had to have one! Can you sense my excitement?

Vegan ice cream cones. Happy day!

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They were as sweet as can be, and about $5 a piece, but totally worth it.

So, in conclusion, being vegan in Reykjavik is totally doable. There is tofu in the discount grocery store, veggie restaurants serving up delectable vegan meals, and ice cream cones in the corner market. If only it wasn’t dark and cold 8 months out of the year! But, seriously, do not let concerns about eating vegan keep you from seeing all that Iceland has to offer. With a little preparation and planning it is easy to eat vegan and stick to a budget in Reykjavik.

Iceland: The Golden Circle

Molly and I wasted no time diving into Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside after a very uncomfortable and sleepless flight on Iceland Air.  We booked our tour through iCHighland and set out in a 16 passenger van (filled only by Molly, myself and three other Americans) on the highly recommended ‘Golden Circle’ tour.  iCHighland offers tours for around 10 USD cheaper than its competitors and other tours we encountered filled entire charter buses. Contrary to my initial misconceptions of the ‘Golden Circle Tour’ being a Chinese food entree, it is in fact a guided tour of some of Iceland’s most beautiful sights within a few hours’ drive from Reykjavik.

One of the many highlights of the tour was a stop at Golden Falls (if you are working on your Icelandic – ‘Gullfoss’).

Golden Falls – Gullfoss

With an average flow rate of 140 cubic meters per second (which from the looks of it, is a lot) it is an impressive sight to behold.  Such power churned up a chilly mist that helped to cool off an uncharacteristically hot and sunny 70 degree day.  The falls are made all the more impressive by the abundance of mountains that surround the site, containing immense glacier formations.

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Golden Circle – Glaciers

If glaciers don’t float your boat, perhaps geysers launching boiling water into unpredictable winds will do the trick.  The famed and reliable Strokkur geyser (which erupts regularly every 4-8 minutes) was a sight to behold and bephotoed.  I can confirm that the small dots at the bottom of this photo are in fact people.

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Golden Circle, Strokkur Geyser – Who put all of these sights so close together??

Departing the geysers, we ventured to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir.  I Þlan to incorÞorate more ‘Þ’ characters into future Þosts. (If you are playing at home, the ‘Þ’ is actually pronounced ‘th’.)  I now understand why UNESCO made this worthy selection.

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Golden Circle – Þingvellir

In addition to being the sight of the first parliament in the history of man, Þingvellir is the home to naturally filtered glacier water with a clarity and cleanliness that would embarrass your kitchen sink.

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Golden Circle – Þingvellir (Yes, our feet are submerged in this photo)

Clean water and a monumental achievements of the human race are both great things.  However, continental plates are much bigger and it just so happens that the split between the Eurasian plate and North American plate run right through the middle of Þingvellir, and are moving apart at a rate of 2 cm per year.

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Golden Circle – Þingvellir (Eurasian and North American plate divide)

In closing, Iceland and its sights are built to last.  Mountains, continental plates, and great plains with hardly a tree in sight.  On our tour we visited a half dozen other sights along the way and each would easily be a  ‘crown jewel’ of tourism if located in most any other city or town worldwide.  The fact that so many of these sights exist so close together is astonishing.  The Golden Circle tour is a must if you find yourself in Iceland, even if it is at the top of your daily budget.

Stay tuned for tomorrow when Molly will break down some of the best vegan food options in Reykjavik!

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Golden Circle – Molly with Alaskan Lupine flowers that grow all over the countryside