London Eye Alternatives: Tower Bridge and ‘The Monument’

If you have ever visited (or have considered visiting) London, you have likely heard of the London Eye. If you haven’t heard of it, imagine a well-funded science project including a 27-story bicycle wheel with a line longer and more aggravating than LA freeway traffic. Or just look at the picture below.

London Eye

London Eye on a cloudy day 

It is beautiful to see the view of London from the top but the cost of £19.20 (about $30 US dollars – or a dollar a minute) may be too much for some.  Thankfully there are a number of alternatives that give you a similar experience with fewer tour groups.

Enter: The Monument to the Great Fire of London

The Monument to the Great Fire of London 1666

The Monument to the Great Fire of London 1666

“The Monument” is the tallest free-standing column in the world.  This was enough of a draw for me and the gorgeous 360° view of the city was simply a bonus.

Buyer beware: there is no elevator. You will need to walk up the series of 311 stairs pictured below. It’s not so bad.  There are periodic windows along the way which make the trip slightly more interesting than the stairwell experience of your friends’ Manhattan walk-up apartment.

The Monument, Stairs

Molly climbing ‘The Monument’ stairs

When you do make it you should expect to see views similar to those pictures below.

** London skyline spoiler alert**

View from The Monument, "Walkie Talkie Building" under construction

View from The Monument, “Walkie Talkie Building” under construction

The Shard, third tallest building in Europe

The Shard, third tallest building in Europe

Monument view of Tower Bridge

Monument view of Tower Bridge

Overall, The Monument is a unique experience which many tourists seem to be blissfully unaware of.  It only costs a few dollars (Adults £3; Student £2) and you can take your time and quietly enjoy the view.  We went early in the morning and there were only between 2 and 6 other patrons at the top while we were there.  Upon our exit there was a small line beginning to form.

Our next stop was the iconic and much-ballyhooed Tower Bridge Exhibition.

Tower Bridge, London

Tower Bridge, London

The Tower Bridge Exhibition includes a couple of interesting videos on its construction.  The exhibit also highlights the evolution of bridge construction techniques over time and has information on famous bridges from around the globe.  If structural engineering and bridge history don’t interest you, perhaps the scenery will.

** Another London skyline spoiler alert**

Western view from Tower Bridge, London

Western view from Tower Bridge, London

Another view up the river, Tower of London in foreground

Another view up the river, Tower of London in foreground

While notably more crowded than The Monument, the Tower Bridge was a lovely stop for beautiful views directly over the River Thames. At only £8.00 for regular admission it is a real bargain, since you can stay for as long as you like. As an added bonus, your admission grants you access to the engine rooms to the draw bridge.

Tower Bridge engine room

Tower Bridge engine room

Is the view of the city from either The Monument or the Tower Bridge better than the London Eye? You aren’t as high up and you are substantially farther East, but you still have an excellent vantage point.  Are the lines and price much better? Absolutely.  At either location you can ask about getting a ‘joint ticket’ which will allow you to visit both sights for a discount. It is well worth it to package both sites together.  They are within a short walk of one another and will take you directly past The Tower of London as you go from one to another.  Make sure you check out All Hallows by the Tower on your way. This is the oldest church in the City of London and has a a historic crypt and a number of historical artifacts. Admission is free and you might even get to hear the organ being played.

2013 Pricing Information for Tower Bridge and The Monument

The Monument and Tower Bridge joint tickets: Adults £9; Students £6.20

Monument Only: Adults £3; Student £2

Tower Bridge Only: Adults £8.00, Students £5.60  

Picture of the Day: Stairs from within the Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge stairs remind me of an MC Escher painting

The Tower Bridge stairs remind me of an MC Escher painting

The Big London Vegan Food Post, #2

When we last left you all we had just experienced the wonder that is Westminster Abbey for free (by accident!). But food consumption continued to happen all around the date of our breaking and entering. We have pretty much limited ourselves to one meal out a day in order to protect the budget. Somehow this still means that we have a trillion places to post about from our time in London so this is part 2 of 3 of the London food posts.

Diwana Bhel Poori House - Thali

Diwana Bhel Poori House – Thali

Diwana Bhel Poori House - Dosa

Diwana Bhel Poori House – Dosa

The day after Amico Bio we had lunch at one of London’s many vegetarian Indian restaurants, Diwana Bhel Poori House. Unfortunately because of our super-busy day we missed the window for the lunch buffet so we had to order off of the menu. The prices were still good. The two meals above cost us a grand total of $23.15. The only problem with this meal was that a few hours later Dan’s stomach started to hurt. I felt fine. I fixed the problem by feeding him pepto-bismol (brought from NYC in pill form) and waiting a few hours. All better.

From lunch (but before Dan’s stomach started hurting) we hopped on the tube and headed down to Brixton where Ms. Cupcake lives.

Ms. Cupcake

Ms. Cupcake

Ms. Cupcake store interior

Ms. Cupcake store interior

What an adorable storefront. We chose 4 cupcakes to take home (we were still full from lunch). I think somehow the picture of the 4 cupcakes we took home got lost, but use your imagination. We took home a banoffee (banana toffee), a chocolate split (chocolate cake with vanilla frosting), a Ferrero Rocher (exactly what its name is in cupcake form), and a strawberry-coconut. I was partial to the banoffee and strawberry-coconut, Dan loved the chocolate split, and (don’t hate us!) neither of us was very interested in the famous Ferrero Rocher cupcake. I’m not a huge chocolate person, and Dan just didn’t really like it. But Ms. Cupcake has a mouthwatering array of cupcake flavors on her website, so maybe we are just bad at choosing flavors? It is possible.

The day of the Westminster Abbey adventure we went to lunch at Tibits. Tibits is delicious. A full buffet of vegetarian goodness with everything clearly labeled.

Tibits food boat!

Tibits food boat!

Tibits - buffet including dessert

Tibits – buffet including dessert. Molly’s plate

Tibits - buffet deliciousness

Tibits – buffet deliciousness. Dan’s plate

Tibits was one of our favorite meals in London. It is in an exceptionally fancy and touristy neighborhood and the price of the meal reflected that. I think this may have been our most expensive meal in London! But it was really good. And it was the only time I got to eat sticky toffee pudding while we were in London. I’d say that it was worth it, but if you are on a tight budget definitely go at lunch (cheaper per kg) and be careful with how much you pile on that plate.

The last place I will talk about in this post is the only place we went to more than once while we were in London. And it isn’t even a vegetarian restaurant. And we happened upon it entirely accidentally. It is Scoop.

Scoop

Scoop

Scoop is a gelato store. But Scoop is special. They label all of their gelatos and sorbets with the possible allergens that they contain. So dairy and eggs are marked on all of the items that they are in. And the dairy and egg-free sorbets are vegan! There are a bunch of vegan options and they were pretty much universally delicious.

Scoop - chocolate, melon, and strawberry

Scoop – chocolate, melon, and strawberry

Scoop - chocolate, passionfruit, and melon

Scoop – chocolate, passionfruit, and melon

We also asked if their cones were vegan and we got the okay on the cones, so we indulged. Those two giant cones didn’t come cheap – 4 gbp for 3 flavors (about $6) – but they were delicious. The first time we went to Scoop it was a freak 94 degree day in London. There is probably nothing better than ice cream on a hot day and this fit the bill perfectly. And Dan gets to keep a little bit of Scoop with him throughout the rest of the journey as he dripped a bit of the chocolate flavor on his sneaker and the stain won’t come out! I guess this is one food memory that we will have with us for a while.

Come back soon for the final London food installment!

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!