Just a warning, a ton (compared to the usual) photos ahead.
London ended up being a great choice to kick start our trip. There was no language barrier and not much of a culture shock. The only thing to really remember is that they drive on the left. The city helps you out with "look left" or "look right" text on the ground at crosswalks, which I found to be super helpful... though at times my brain would be slow to register and I'd end up looking in both directions really quickly first.
Of all the cities that we visited, I was blown away by their public transportation system. We never had to wait for more than 2 minutes (!) for the Tube, any time, any day. Amazing. Now I completely understand foreigners' frustrations with the US subway systems.
We stayed around the Earl's Court station in Kensington, which is on the Piccadilly line. I found the area to be less tourist-y but yet still convenient to all the attractions on our to-see list. I don't recall having to transfer to other lines often (ie: Heathrow airport is on the Piccadilly line, but I believe we had to make one transfer to the train station for the Eurostar.)
I think the British Museum is probably larger and more famous, but my favorite of the entire trip was the Victoria and Albert Museum. I like how the exhibits at the V&A were unique, ie: a fashion exhibit displaying clothes from various time periods. The gift shop at the V&A was practically an exhibit by itself. We ended up spending way too much time there and had to go back another day to finish touring the rest of the museum.
We wanted to experience the British tradition of afternoon tea, so therefore decided on a late lunch at Thames Foyer, located in the Savoy Hotel. It's expensive at ~£52/person (~$90!), and easily our most expensive meal of the trip. We thought it was all-you-can-eat for every course, but in reality, it was just unlimited finger sandwiches. We all really enjoyed the "main course" of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and was all set for seconds (or in DH's case, seconds and thirds) when our waiter awkwardly told us only one serving allowed. Aww shucks. I'm far from a tea connoisseur, but I enjoyed how you could sample and sip as many flavors as you wanted. The atmosphere was nice, service was great, and we easily spent a few hours just enjoying the whole experience. We were that table of Americans taking goofy, posed photos much to the dismay of the proper British, I'm sure.
Business casual was the dress code so I had planned on wearing this exact outfit to tea. Laziness won so I only ended up wearing the dress and the ring.
Aside from the tourist attractions, we also spent quite a bit of our time shopping. Our first stop after our plane landed was actually to the Burberry flagship store (121 Regent St), lol. The multi-level store was beautiful -- my eyes couldn't stop glancing back-and-forth between the displayed items and the building's architecture. Ceilings with original moldings, a grand staircase with jumbo screens on its side, which is where they hold some (all?) of their fashion shows -- definitely work checking out even if you don't plan on making a purchase. The flagship store is actually the only place where you can see and touch sample material to customize bespoke trench coats. SIL was like a little kid in a candy store; tried on multiple items and eventually bought a gorgeous girls' cashmere coat. The SA who helped us, Gemma (shoulder-length strawberry-blonde hair) was super nice and patient (actually the one who showed us around the store and pointed out the building's history.) She didn't hesitate to pay their on-site tailors multiple visits when SIL had alteration questions. Speaking of on-site tailors, they're used to tourists passing through and are very accommodating with your travel schedule. SIL wanted the belt loops lowered on her new coat; the Burberry staff asked when we're leaving and said no problem; lo and behold, they had the job finished the next day. One thing I want to note are the prices in general. Given the current conversion rate, it may not be cheaper to purchase overseas, so just do your homework beforehand. We also didn't time our visit well because the Burberry US spring/summer sale started earlier than Burberry Europe -- actually while we were still in London!
Unfortunately I was remiss in taking food photos throughout this trip. Many of our meals didn't "look" appetizing but were actually quite tasty... or I was too hungry and devoured my meals before photos even entered my mind.
Places I enjoyed and recommend: British food at Great Queen Street (I had black pasta with cuttlefish which I thought was good. DH had pork chops, SIL had a bisque -- both were really good. I think they have a constantly changing menu though), Bang Bang chicken at Camden Market (DH described it as "the best chicken ever" and hadn't tasted anything like it in the US. The markets remind me of the night markets in Asia, so definitely worth checking out. I think Borough is more tourist-y than Camden.)
We arrived in Paris via the Eurostar (highly recommend for comfort and convenience) and stayed in the area around the Gare du Nord train station. I felt the neighborhood was a bit sketchy and wouldn't recommend for families. One time late at night, we stopped at a small grocery store (like a bodega) directly across the street from the train station, and the clerk cautioned us about pickpocketers in the area. I didn't realize until later that Paris is a well-known city for pickpocketers (thought it was just Rome and Barcelona.) SIL later told us she had nixed certain tourist attractions from our list (ie: Sacré-Cœur) due to disinterest and notoriety. Might as well have stuck a naive tourist sign on my forehead.
Of course a visit to Paris wouldn't be complete without a stop to the Eiffel Tower. We didn't go up to see views of the city because we had already seen them the night before from the top of Tour Montparnasse (tallest building.) In hindsight, it was probably not the best idea to see the city on our first night because aside from the Eiffel Tower, I couldn't tell (and didn't know) what anything was in the dark. We did catch the Eiffel Tower light show while atop the Montparnasse building, so that was cool to see.
My favorite aspect of Paris are the gorgeous gardens with the manicured trees. DH and SIL (+ many friends actually) all think the trees are prissy and overdone. I, on the other hand, love how neat and orderly they looked -- probably calms the OCD side of me, haha. One thing I didn't like was how sandy the ground was at every garden. Whenever a gust of wind blew through, I'd close my eyes and duck my head (not sure how much that really helped.) At the end of the day, our shoes (and probably other parts of us) were covered in a layer of dust.
Like in London, we also spent quite a bit of time shopping in Paris as both SIL and I had planned to buy Chanel bags. I ended up buying a black reissue at 31 rue Cambon, which was the original Chanel store and the only one that uses white boxes and shopping bags for packaging. The white boxes are unique, but they're actually separated into a lid and a base. The black boxes (updated a few years ago, I believe) are now one piece with a magnetic lid closure; they also feel sturdier than the white boxes. A lot of tourists pass through this location so the stock seemed low compared to others. SIL bought her bags at the Chanel boutique inside Galeries Lafayette (a department store), and I felt they had more seasonal styles in stock. I'd think that most (if not all) stores would have plenty of bags from the classic line though.
It started raining right after I bought my bag, so the SA put my paper shopping bag inside of a larger, brown plastic bag with briefcase-like handles. I left the store toting my oversized briefcase bag, which got some stares according to DH. Hell, if it was me, I'd be nosy too, because even the brown plastic bag looked nice. After one lady pointed to my brown bag while talking to the man she was with, DH decided it was time to stop ignoring his Spidey sense, so he reached inside his backpack and pulled out a black garbage bag. Huh? What? Who brings garbage bags with them on vacation? Apparently my MIL gave him a bag of bags (black garbage bags, Target plastic bags, sandwich bags, etc.) to bring along on this trip because you never know when they're going to come in handy! Indeed it did. Nobody gave us and our garbage bag a second glance as we walked to our next destination. We did stop briefly at a clothing boutique and one of the security guards was discreetly following us around the store, haha. I guess the garbage bag blended in with the streets of Paris but stood out like a sore thumb inside of a bright store. I found the entire afternoon highly amusing.
Food I enjoyed and recommend: macarons at Pierre Hermé (tried them at Ladurée in NYC and wasn't impressed. The Pierre Hermé versions are amazing. Expensive, but worth trying), ramen at Kintaro (flavorful and thick broth, plenty of meat by ramen standards -- the main gripe DH has with ramen so he ordered extra meat, and boy did he regret it by the end of the night), escargots (my first time trying them; a pain to pick out of the shell, but yummy with garlic and butter; wished we didn't wait until our last night in the city to try them), chocolate croissants (also wished I had eaten more.)
Au revoir, Paris!
Besides Paris, I didn't really have any preconceived notions of the cities we were about to visit. I was pleasantly surprised (in the best way possible) at how low-key and charming Venice was. As we were walking through the Venice airport, I could feel a relaxed vibe in the air, as corny as that sounds. We actually had made no prior transportation plans from the airport to our hotel. We knew there was an expensive private water taxi option and a ferry (I believe), but it was a long ride. Luckily, the tourist information desk clerk was super helpful and pointed us to a cheap option of taking a 30 min bus ride with no transfers. Our hotel was pretty close to the Piazzale Roma bus depot, so we made it there without taking too many wrong turns (streets were narrow and often not marked.)
The one tourist activity on our agenda was a gondola ride. They're usually for 40 mins and cost 80€. We were walking towards a popular area to find a gondola station when we stopped to eat mini croissant-wrapped smoked salmon sandwiches at a local pastry shop. The guy who took our order (Elvis is his English name) started chatting with SIL as DH and I devoured our mini croissants. We weren't close enough to hear their conversation, but the next thing I knew he was on the phone and SIL came over to tell us that his friend is a gondolier. There wasn't an easy way for us to meet up with his friend because he wasn't exactly nearby and we don't know what he looked like. We then saw Elvis whip off his apron, hand it over to his boss, then told him that he's going to take his break now. "We go!" he said to us, as he led us easily through the confusing Venetian streets. This could've turned out really bad... I mean, following a complete stranger towards who knows where? It wasn't the best decision on our part, but since everything turned out ok, it was quite cool to be shown parts of a city by a local.
Elvis' friend, Sebastiano was exactly how we envisioned a gondolier to be. He sang a little, steered the gondola expertly, pointed out specific landmarks along the way, and was happy to share local history. If only learning is always this fun. Much too soon, our 40 min ride was up.
One thing that was so very apparent was the passion Italians had towards their craft. I don't know if this is specific to Venice, but I just got the sense that they're all happy doing what they love, which is honing their craft. Sure you have to make money to live, but it isn't the most important thing in their lives. I'm jealous because isn't that like the holy grail in life? This is something I struggle with. To be able to find something you're passionate about and be at peace with making enough money to live comfortably. Life is more than just workworkwork, to make more moneymoneymoney. I don't know if my ramblings are making any sense as I'm translating thoughts out loud.
Street art vendors were everywhere in Venice. DH and SIL are big art fans and quite particular with what they like, so I was surprised at how often they stopped to peruse various offerings. At one particular vendor's cart, DH was taking awhile to decide on whether or not to purchase pieces. The artist told DH, "I'm proud of my art, so I'm not going to beg you to buy them. There will be people out there who will think my art is worth it." That's admirable, you know? Kind of goes back to my jumbled ramblings from the previous paragraph about Italians' passions towards their craft.
Between the three of us, we ended up buying way too much art in Venice and in Rome. I can now happily say that our home no longer has completely bare walls.
Food recommendations: gelato (from anywhere really!), Ribot (the restaurant is actually connected to our hotel, so we dined there on our first night. Who knew that simple spaghetti with clams could taste so good?! We thought (hoped?) that other restaurants would be as good, so we never did find another chance to go back.)
By the time we arrived in Rome via train, I was already a little travel weary. I wonder if this state of mind contributed to how I didn't find Rome as enjoyable as the other cities? In Rome, we stayed in the area around Termini station, which I'm now learning is the main train hub of the city. Rome is not as easy to get around in as London or Paris because the public transportation system just isn't as extensive. I think we took the subway twice and the bus once but only after we asked for the exact number of stops before getting off. Otherwise, we just walked everywhere.
The thing I will always remember about Rome are the crazy drivers. They somehow all end up in the middle of the intersection at the same time, but cars and scooters will know whose turn it is go to next, and they'd all turn in different directions. It's like a well-oiled machine actually. There was this one crazy intersection where we just stood for a few minutes watching the drivers weave in and out. No accidents. Quite amazing to witness.
I couldn't wrap my ahead around the lack of lights at most pedestrian crosswalks. It's nearly impossible to wait for traffic to clear because there are just so many cars all the time. What do people do? Just start walking and cars will stop for you. It was a bit unnerving at first because you don't want to be the first guinea pig to cross, right? Piggybacking is the way to go!
We mainly went to the Vatican to see the famous Sistine Chapel, which is part of the Vatican Museums tour (not St. Peter's Basilica -- requires a separate entrance ticket.) Of course, they make you walk through most exhibits and saved the Sistine Chapel for last. In my case, all the anticipation was for naught as I remembered whispering to DH, "Michelangelo painted more than one scene?? Where's the famous hands-almost-touching one? Oh. It's right there in dead center. Wow, that's small." You can tell from my choice of words the lack of... cultural knowledge I had, haha. I think this and the Mona Lisa have been so hyped up over time that I (wrongly) expected both to be literally larger-than-life.
Food recommendations: more gelato! I'd actually suggest checking out Old Bridge (2 huge scoops, optional whipped cream, all for 2€!), panini at La Sandwicheria (we thought it was so good, we went on two separate days. I had the smoked salmon [photo below] panini one day and the salad version the next.)
Some final thoughts to wrap things up...
- We ended up going to a McDonald's in every country. I didn't feel like any of these three countries had anything particularly unique that we can't find here in the US.
- Lack of outlets in European hotels! I don't know if we just happened to stay in older/smaller buildings, but there is usually only 1 spare outlet in every room. So I'd recommend bringing a power strip along with an adapter if you're electronics-dependent like we were.
- Coming from DC, I was used to the low skylines, so I was happy not to have to crank my neck to stare at all the beautiful European buildings. I loved the look of London's architecture but have to say I'm also a huge fan of Paris' wrought iron balconies.
- Besides a few hellos, I never did end up really speaking French nor Italian. I was that annoying American tourist that natives probably hate because I didn't even really try =/ I thought it was funny when I heard mainly English (American English at that!) at The Louvre and majority Chinese at Galeries Lafayette. Everywhere else in Paris was mostly French, as expected.
Whew. The end.
If you made it through, thanks so much for reading!