Disclaimer – I am by no means an expert. I have read lots of books and lots of articles online, watched lots of YouTube channels and follow lots of Instagram pages. This is what I’ve garnered from that research. There are many different takes on many different aspects of the ancient ways. This is mine. I am just sharing what I do.
Imbolc is the first of the four seasonal fire festivals (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain) of the ancient Celtic people of Great Britain. It was first referenced thousands of years ago and has been referenced many times in ancient Irish literature. Some of the megalithic monuments still found in the UK align with the sunrise for Imbolc and Samhain. This festival is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The festival is the celebration of the beginning of spring and the lambing season.
After a long winter when the stored meat and vegetables were all but gone, the sheep, being pregnant would have milk. It was important to the farmers that the lambs be born first before the calves because the lambs could survive on the sparse vegetation. It was not only a time to celebrate for the milk but the first signs of the sun returning. The festival paid close attention to the weather as well. They believed the Cailleach, a divine old woman associated with the weather, gathered her firewood for the remaining winter. If the weather is cloudy the winter will soon be over so she doesn’t need to gather wood and stayed inside. If the weather is sunny she is out gathering more wood for the longer winter. The same folklore was told about her associated animal the badger. This custom was brought over with immigrants and adapted to the American groundhog.
It’s not clear what exactly Imbolc means but most assume it’s from the old Irish Imbolc meaning in the belly.
Brigid was a triple goddess and a member of the Tuatha De’ Danann and the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres. She is the goddess of the hearth and smith craft, poetry, medicine, arts, livestock, sacred wells, serpents, fertility, the light half of the year and early spring.
Plants and Herbs | Pine – longevity and good fortune Cedar – healing, cleansing, protection and strength Cinnamon – protectin, abundance, healint and attraction Cloves – banishing evil, clarity, protectin, love and money Bay – prophectic dreaming, wards off negative energy and psychic ability
Foods | that would have been available in early spring, dairy from the sheep, lamb, seeds stored from the fall harvest, foods that had been dried to preserve it, and vegetables that could be grown in early spring or could be stored all winter. Dairy – milk, butter, cream, fresh cheeses Lamb Seeds Dried Foods – dried fruits, oatmeal, soda bread Onions Potatoes – colcannon
Brigid dolls were made from corn husks and people made beds for Brigid hoping she would stop and rest at their house on her journey. As the goddess of the hearth families would smooth over the ashes in the hearth and look in the morning to see if there were symbols or signs that Brigid had visited.
Brigid’s crosses are rushes woven into a four-armed cross and hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brigid and for protection against fire, lighting, illness and evil spirits. They are usually left until the next Imbolc. Here’s a link to a YouTube channel on how to make one. It was a little tricky but once you get started it goes pretty quickly. I used sheaf’s of wheat that I got from a craft store. But next time I’m going to try to gather something naturally. I think pine needles would work. Here’s a picture of the one I made last year. It was pretty small.
Ideas for meals | scones or soda bread with dried fruits, colcannon, root vegetables, seeds added to baked goods or salads, and anything made with milk like ricotta cheese, yogurt, whipped cream, or butter.
Ideas for crafts | making candles, or fresh churned butter, bird feeders made from oranges, peanut butter and bird seed
Ideas for celebrating | enjoy a bonfire or light a bunch of candles, throw coins in a local pond or fountain, spring cleaning, set goals and intentions for the year
To be sure to have intention with what I was doing I lit a candle in a bowl of flowers as a nod to a body of water and cleansed the kitchen with incense.
I made a salad with roasted beets, oranges, sheep’s milk feta cheese, spring peas, green onion, and avocado. I wanted to bake fresh bread but baking bread is not my thing. The kneading the waiting. Yeah not my thing. So I took a tube of Pillsbury French bread, cut it lengthwise into 3 and braided it. Oiled a sheet pan with olive oil then the dough and sprinkled it with coarse salt and pepper. Baked according to the package. I made fresh herb butter to go with it.
That morning I made myself a cup of Earl Gray tea my daughter-in-law brought me from Scotland with honey, lit a candle I had made with lavender and daisies from my yard and enjoyed the tea from my porch. It just took a few minutes to make that morning a little special.
I brought the little bouquet and a candle to the office to remind me what day it was and to help focus on the season.
For the upcoming new year I bundled rosemary for purification and protection, thyme for healing, cinnamon stick for success, and orange for divination, happiness and love. We wrote our hopes for the new year on a little piece of paper and tucked it into the bundle then burned them in the new year fire. It smelled lovely.
I didn’t realize you could make a candle just using oil. Any oil. We made Yule candles with jars filled with evergreens, berries, pinecones, and mushrooms we gathered in the woods. Added some citrus slices. I took the tip off of a lemon and slipped a little piece of cotton wick into a slit in the lemon. Filled the jar with olive oil because that’s what was on hand. The wick’s crackled nicely because of the moisture from the lemons. I’ve also seen people just fill an orange peel with oil to burn. I’m a little afraid that would tip over easily and make a mess. But it looks pretty and smells great.
For New Years Eve I took 12 gold candles and placed them on 12 coins for good luck for the next 12 months. At midnight our granddaughter blew out each of the candles one at a time. Once again I had rosemary, thyme, cinnamon and orange. I found this custom by reading through all the customs from different countries. I picked the one that resonated with me.
For a little bonus here’s the info for a New Year’s Spell Jar from @LosilleWitch on Instagram. They have lots of posts with spell jars and rituals for the holidays.
In my attempt to put intention into everything holiday instead of just going through the motions of baking all day. I chose to put on a pot (it’s a cauldron – I love them and have quite a few) with oranges (love, happiness and creativity), cloves (to ward against negative energy) and cinnamon (healing, love, protection). I lit a candle I made and put on my iTunes holiday playlist. Now that the scene is set, lets get baking.
I love to use the same cookie dough base and change it up. I have a really good chocolate chip dough that I started using when I was a kid baking with my Memaw, Pat Moyer. Her recipe was the recipe on the Nestle chocolate chip bag. I’ve tweaked it over the years. You’ll notice I use coarse kosher salt. I think it makes a huge difference. You actually taste a hint of the salt with each bite. I don’t even have regular table salt in the house. I use the coarse salt for everything.
My Basic Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 stick of butter flavored Crisco (1 cup) 1 cup brown sugar – packed 1/2 cup white sugar 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla (or 2) 1/2 bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
Preheat the oven to 375 and line a cookie sheet with a silpat
In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer cream the Crisco and the sugars until smooth
Add in the eggs and vanilla
In a separate bowl combine the flour, salt and baking soda
Slowly add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture until well combined
Stir in the chocolate chips
Put spoonfuls of dough on the sheet, 12 per sheet
Bake 12 minutes at 375. They should be lightly golden brown.
Let cool at least a minute then move to a rack to cool completely.
My Basic Shortbread Cookie Recipe
3 sticks unsalted butter; room temperature 1 cup granulated sugar 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 3 1/2 cups flour 1/4 teaspoon salt
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Preheat over to 350 and line a cookie sheet with a silpat
Cream butter and sugar until combined and add vanilla
Combine the flour and salt then add to the butter and sugar mixture
Mix until it forms a ball; turn out onto a floured surface and roll into a log
Wrap the log into piece of parchment paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes
Slice pieces of dough and place 12 on the cookie sheet
Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 until lightly golden on just the edges
Ginger Molasses Cookie Recipe
3/4 stick of butter flavored Crisco 1 cup sugar 1 egg 1/4 cup molasses 2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 teaspoon course salt 1/4 cup course raw sugar
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
Preheat oven to 375 and line a cookie sheet with a silpat or parchment paper
Cream the Crisco and the sugar
Add the egg and molasses; beat until well blended
Combine the flour, baking soda, all the spices and the salt
Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and mix until blended
Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper and form into a disk
Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour
Roll dough into balls and then into the coarse raw sugar and place on prepared sheet
Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes
Let cool before removing from the pan
Now for the Tweaking
I almost always add 2 tablespoons of instant coffee to my chocolate chip cookies. For the shortbread cookies I almost always add something on top, sprinkles that can be baked or coarse sugar to give them texture.
For the cookies this time here’s what I did.
Starting at the bottom of the plate with the green, white and red nonpareil cookies –
Brown Sugar Shortbread with holiday nonpareils | subbed the white sugar for packed brown sugar and added the nonpareils before baking.
Ginger Molasses Cookies | used white coarse decorating sugar to roll them in instead of raw just to give them a little extra sparkle.
Coffee Chocolate Chip Cookies | added the 2 teaspoons of instant coffee to the flour mixture.
Figgy Pudding Bars | Every year I try to figure out a way to make fruitcake (our version of figgy pudding) something enjoyable. I’ve tried adding citrus, dried fruits and nuts to pound cake. It was ok. And tried adding the same to shortbread cookies but it was too much in the somewhat dry cookie. This year I converted my chocolate chip cookie to a bar. I like this version the best so far. Same chocolate chip cookie recipe, replaced chocolate chips with orange zest and orange extract, dried chopped figs, cherries, apricots, and golden raisins, and chopped pistachios. Spread in a pan lined with parchment and bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes.
Some of the photos I am posting are from other members of the travel group. I unfortunately didn’t not keep track of who took each photo. I apologize for not giving due credit.
It all began with a post from travel expert Eric Hansen who has a YouTube channel Backpacking TV and you can follow him on Instagram @EpicTrails365. He was approached by TrovaTrip to host a trip to Iceland and he invited his followers to join him. We signed up right away.
Great hosts, great group of people to travel with and our guide Bara was amazing. She adapted to our group and adjusted the itinerary to our level of activity perfectly. I highly recommend a tour guide. The sites are fairly far apart and it really helped to have someone who knew exactly where to take us. She even threw in some special extras.
The places we went to were definitely where the tourist go but it’s not like other places we’ve visited. Even at the most crowded waterfall it was still a very reasonable number of people. There were the occasional Instagram posters who were trampling areas they weren’t supposed to be in but mostly it was like minded people who absolutely were in awe of the landscape. The trip there was pretty easy. From NYC it was just 6 hours. The airport was small and easy to navigate.
Weather – I am not a person who likes the cold. A couple of days into a visit to any location with snow and I’m over it. We visited Iceland in September. The highs during the days were in the 50s. According to Bara we had unusually amazing weather. I think it drizzled the first day we were there and the rest of the days it was sunny and blue skies. We packed lots of layers and rain gear. One day I wore my long underwear but the rest of the time standard long pants, long sleeve shirt, sweater, heavy jacket, and hiking boots were fine. No gloves, scarves, or hats required. But again, we had unusual weather and everyone says to expect the weather to be all over the place so pack appropriately.
Because this was a package everything was included – where we stayed, where we ate for main meals and the sites we visited.
We flew into Reykjavík and stayed just one night before we were off on our bus. We didn’t really have a chance to explore that first day. Several of the people in our group stayed a week longer. If you are doing a group thing and plan to stay a few extra days I recommend staying after the group part is over. That way you have a better lay of the land and can go back to the things you want to further explore. Our only stop in Reykjavík that first day was Skal a bar around the corner from our hotel. The food was amazing. Fresh and interesting.
Salt Baked Beets with walnuts and homemade mascarpone; Roasted sunchokes with smoked creme fraiche, hazelnuts, apple and brown butter; Smoked arctic char with sour cream, cucumber and herbs. The drinks were the special that day and I can’t remember what they were but they were delicious.
We stayed that first night and the last 2 nights at Hotel Klettur it was nice, clean and comfortable. Great location. One thing that took us a while to figure out, you had to put the room key in a slot near the door to turn the lights on. It was a very ingenious way to conserve energy and make sure people turned out the lights when they left the room. Most hotels had this. Most of the architecture in Reykjavik was newer and basic. Built for the weather. I’m sure there are historic sites, museums etc but we didn’t get to see them because we didn’t stay longer. I regret not staying. Just a couple of extra days would have been enough to really see the city.
Day One | Canyons, Geysers & Hot Springs
Our first site was Thingvellir National Park. Waterfalls, canyons, and historic sites. Game of Thrones filmed several scenes in the canyons. Click here for other filming locations in Iceland. As you can see, it wasn’t super crowded. There are other people there but it was really easy to snap photos without people in the shot. It was also easy to stray off from the group to see other parts of the park. No one was over by the church and the cemetery (my favorite part 🙂
Next stop was Geysir Hot Springs. This was one of the touristy places. Lots of people trudging along not really taking in the view. I would still recommend stopping here but it wasn’t may favorite. The springs were hot, really hot. In the first photo you can see bubbling, that’s boiling water. They had signs everywhere not to touch the water it was scolding hot. The geysers were just feet away and there was just a small rope around it. It was pretty exciting when they went off.
The next stop was massive Gullfoss Waterfall. It’s really hard to tell just how massive this was. If you look closely you can see the people walking along the path in the first photo. We needed raingear to protect us from the spray. In the third photo you can see how the path leads to the top of the waterfall. The view was beautiful.
At the geyser park there was a nice gift shop, restrooms and a restaurant with good food. Most of the food, even at the tourist spots were good. Nothing crazy, just freshly made burgers, soup, sandwiches etc.
Following the geyser we stopped at a hot springs, Secret Lagoon Hot Springs it was not a fancy one but I don’t think it would have mattered. It just wasn’t my thing. I’m not a hot tub person, really not even a water person. You change in a locker room and they want you to shower in a group shower before you put on your swimsuit. Which I can tell you did not happen. I felt awkward enough changing in front of the group I was with. After strategically working with my towel I managed to get changed, showered with my suit on. Then jumped in. Yep it was warm water. You just stand around with everyone in a warm pool of water. The springs are off to the side and they build a natural wall of stones to divide it and create a little stream as it runs down the stream it cools off enough for the pool. So if you aren’t sure if it’s worth doing or not. There are no surprises, it’s exactly as pictured where ever you go. A warm pool of water. The changing facilities might be a little more private but in the end you are just standing around in a warm pool.
Our first night on the road we stayed at a farm just outside of Hvolsvöllur – Hotel Fljotshlid It was beautifully natural. We saw a glimpse of the northern lights. It was simple, dorm style accommodations and a nice meal. The view was spectacular though.
Day Two | More Waterfalls, Sneaker Waves & Pizza
On our way to Skogafoss Waterfall we stopped at a farm that was at the foot of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The visitor board explained how the farm continued even after the volcano erupted. Which was something that we saw a lot along the way. Traveling on the road around the perimeter of the island you have mountains and volcanos in the center with glaciers in-between them filling up the valleys. You can see how the landscape has changed depending on if the glacier has receded or if there was lava from an eruption.
Next stop was Skogafoss Waterfall there’s a fairly steep climb to the top, stairs most of the way but only a rail or rope in certain places. Once you are at the top it’s pretty flat. You can continue to hike along the path and eventually end up on the other side of the mountain. Camping is allowed most places but they are having to make changes to those rules because farm and home owners had tourists camping on their property without asking and then asking to use their bathrooms or kitchens. So if you do want to camp, be sure to look into the rules before you go.
Next stop was Reynisfjara Beach, as we drove there, our guide cautioned us several times to be sure to stay away from the water’s edge. The waves are very erratic. They have warnings for sneaker waves. If you search for Reynisfjara Beach sneaker waves you’ll see videos. The beach has beautiful black sand, the most interesting cave with natural columns and several rocky islands just off the coast. There was also a little restaurant, Black Beach Restaurant. Again, everything was fresh and well made and the restrooms were nice. Even at the tourist spots or parks the facilities were really nice.
On our way to Fjadrargliufur Canyon we stopped at a little village called Vik and had pizza at Black Crust Pizza. They make their dough with volcanic ash and serve some of the pizzas with red pepper jelly. I will never eat pizza without jelly again. Imagine a cracker, with cheese, prosciutto and jam. That’s what it was like. Delicious. After beer and pizza, our guide asked us to walk down to the water and collect a stone for our next stop.
Along our road to our last stop for the day, Fjadrargljufur Canyon, where the road Hrifunesvegur meets Sudurlandsvegur there’s a little rest stop. People started building cairns there. We each added our stones to build our own little cairn and leave our mark in Iceland. I absolutely loved this.
Last stop for the day was Fjadrargljufur Canyon, easy hike to the top then flat from there. If you prefer not to hike up you can drive a little further down the street from the main entrance to a second parking lot. Then walk over to the look out area. There is a path further along the canyon from there but we stopped at the overlook. The path is far from the edge and has a little rope to keep you off the flowers. The look out area has a metal railing so you can get closer to the edge if you want to. See the sheep in the last photo. Sheep just run wild wherever they want to go. At the end of the season all the farmers go and collect their sheep and bring them in for the winter. It’s a big deal there. We found sheep in the craziest places.
Bara had a surprise for us and we made an unscheduled stop. At a little town called Kirkjubæjarstofa there was a folktale about 2 nuns from 1186 you can visit the website to read more about the area. We parked in the parking lot of Kjarr Restaurant next to the Klausturhof Guesthouse. There’s a path just across the street from the parking lot with a picnic table. It’s pretty hard to see. Beautiful little creek with amazing old trees and rocks around the water’s edge. There’s a little stone step path that you climb through the woods to get to the top. You could see for miles. The hike down was just as steep but if I can do it almost anyone can. A suggestion of walking sticks for next time was well noted.
Wow what a day! We hit the ground running on this trip and never stopped. We made it to our next hotel, the nicest of them all and the best food. Foss Hotel Glacier Lagoon. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. We had a delicious meal for dinner then they have a breakfast buffet. Most of the hotel’s had the breakfast buffet but this one was definitely elevated. More warm dishes and offerings. We stayed here 2 nights.
Day Three | Boat Rides, Diamonds & Ice Caves
Next day we were off to a boat ride in Glacier Lagoon and visiting Diamond Beach. The boat ride takes you around a lagoon next to a glacier that is slowly receding. As parts of the glacier break off the icebergs float into the lagoon they slowly float down the river to the ocean. As they reach the ocean they get washed up on shore of the black sand beach. The guides on the boat ride were outstanding. So happy to be there and happy to show us around. There was a little stand with necessities and quick food. I kept hearing about the Icelandic hot dog with crispy onions so I gave it a try. The hot dog is served with raw white onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. It was a good hot dog. I’m not sure I’d wait in line for an hour for one (in Reykjavik there’s a famous food truck with them an people do in fact wait that long) but it was good while we waited for the next leg of our trip. There were also bathrooms and several food trucks there. The boat tour company was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours.
After the boat ride and a snack we drove across the street to the Diamond Beach. Where the icebergs wash up on the black sand beach. I couldn’t take enough photos. (the first photo is from someone else on the trip. Not sure who.)
Next we drove about 30 min to go off road over what looked like Mars terrain to a glacier. We boarded a truck with giant wheels (if you have back problems you wouldn’t be able to ride in this vehicle. It just hauled ass over every rock there and you bounced all over the place). The “road” was over the ground that was left after the glacier receded. There’s no vegetation yet just dirt and rocks of all sizes. Once you arrive we hiked another 15-20 minutes to the edge of the glacier. Donned spikes for our shoes and hiked up the glacier. There were some interesting holes to look down but aside from being able to say I hiked on a glacier it was just a giant slope of dirty ice. Now the cave underneath, that’s a completely different story. The opening was very large you just walked in. The ceiling is ice so it looks like you are under a river. There’s a river flowing through it. As you walk further back into the cave it gets smaller for a short time and we had to duck down as we walked. That was just for a minute then it opens back up, turns a corner and ends. But it was so beautiful. If you look closely in the cave photos most have people in them. That will give you the scale and help you see what’s up and what’s down.
Another amazing day, finished with probably the best meal we had on the trip. Dinner at Foss Hotel.
Day Four | Hiking, Hot Springs & the Backside of Waterfalls
On the road again, to Vatnajökull National Park this was a big hike up over the mountain. At the end we had the best fish and chips from a food truck at the visitors center/camp area.
Once again our guide surprised us with a little side trip to Kvernufoss waterfall. We were virtually the only group there visiting these falls. Moss covered boulders along a winding river in a canyon that takes you to a hidden waterfall. That you can walk behind. It was dreamy.
Our last stop for the day was Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This one had the most tourists. Tourist, the annoying kind that are rude and throw cigarette butts on the ground. It was ok. Kvernufoss gave us the behind the waterfall experience without the nasty people and the walk to the waterfall was much nicer. Seljalandsfoss you need rain gear. You walk up to the waterfall around behind it and back out. There’s a fairly steady stream of people walking through and you will get wet from the spray and the mist. The location had restrooms and gift shops. There was a food trailer with quick snacks and coffee. Mostly packaged items.
On our way back to Reykjavik we stopped at Reykjadalur Hot Springs. This was an easy 2 mile hike from the parking lot to a hot spring. They did have places you could change but they weren’t private. It was a platform with a divider but you were divided from each other not everyone else. Again, not a water person so I just opted to put my feet in. In the parking lot was a really cute visitors center. Nice bathrooms (they were pretty nice everywhere we went) and a restaurant that made waffles that were delicious.
Back to Reykjavik
Back in Reykjavik we decided to hit some of the restaurants I had seen online before our trip. The first 3 photos are from Sandholt Bakery. We stopped here the first day we arrived and grabbed a coffee. I wanted to go back to have lunch but we got there just after they stopped serving meals. Their bakery and desserts were yummy anyway. The next 2 photos are Braud & Co a bakery, also end of the day so they only had a few things left but also yum. Next 3 photos are from Cafe Loki. I knew it would be touristy, it’s right across from the Leif Erikkson Monument downtown. They serve traditional Icelandic food. From the YouTube channels it looked pretty basic. The item that got my attention was the ryebread ice cream. I have no way to describe this. It doesn’t taste like rye bread or like ice cream. It’s not overly sweet, its also not creamy. It’s not the most delicious thing I’ve eaten but it wasn’t bad either. Definitely worth trying though. We didn’t have to get a table, I just ordered at the counter. The last photo is from Joe & The Juice which was in the airport. They made smoothies, pressed sandwiches and coffee. If I’m ever there again, I will definitely pick up a sandwich when I land and again when I leave. As with most of the restaurants in Iceland, fresh made farm to table food.
To Wrap it Up
So glad we made this trip. As I said, I highly recommend a tour guide. She understood what we wanted and customized the trip to fit our preferences. There were lots of campers and camp sites as well. If you want to travel without a guide try visiting some of the YouTube channels for Iceland. I really liked Iceland with a View she has an entire channel devoted to Iceland. Her point of view is unique as well because she’s an American living in Iceland. I also liked the post from The Ryan’s Travel – What do Icelander’s Eat.
Packing – whatever they tell you to pack, pack. Normally the weather is all over the place. We were there in early September. We had t-shirt days and days with long johns. We were lucky and had warm sunny days but that isn’t usual. So come prepared. Most of the YouTube channels have packing tips.
We didn’t really need cash. We used our credit card just about everywhere. I grabbed $100 in Icelandic Krona at the airport when we arrived and ended up only using it as a tip for our guide at the end. I know usually they say don’t exchange money at the airport they charge a higher fee. But with a group I didn’t want to have to make the group stop so I could exchange the money and I didn’t want to have to search for a place to exchange the money in town. It was worth the extra fee to get it over with.
The airport is nice, easy to get around and had great restaurants and friendly staff. The gift shop actually had the nicest t-shirts I saw on the whole trip. Gifts were a little hard to get. It was either tourist junk made elsewhere or hand made items that were hundreds of dollars. And living in the south a $300 wool sweater doesn’t really make sense.
As active as this trip was is was so relaxing. This was the first group/tour guide trip I’ve been on. It was a great way to travel. I’m not sure it would work everywhere. It worked in Iceland because even the touristy places are beautiful. It’s not like normal vacation places. It would be hard to miss the “good spots”. It also helped we had such a great group to travel with.
I loved England! I love the history and that the palaces are still being used after 500 years or more later. That you walk up to Stonehenge the same way the people who created it did in the same field is was created in. That you can walk around a village where they filmed Harry Potter and it’s a real village that looks exactly like it did in the movie. Lovely people and we were lucky to have nice weather (take note of the incredibly blue skies in a lot of the photos) and I’m assuming things have changed because our food was outstanding. We only saw the area around London | London – Winchester – Bath – Cambridge but we will definitely be back. I’m looking forward to the south end with the cliffs and beaches, the north end with York, Scotland and Ireland.
We flew into Gatwick. It’s further out than Heathrow but you’re going to want to take the train in either way and the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station was 30 min. It’s smaller and it was cheaper and a direct flight from Orlando. Don’t rent a car in London you need a special permit and its too crazy. We used the Big Bus Tours to see the sights and Uber to get to restaurants etc. You can walk pretty easily too. Didn’t use the subway so I can’t help there. You don’t need a special driver’s license or a Visa for the UK either. (I think the Visa situation is changing so check with the USA.Gov website for Visa and other traveling questions)
We didn’t really need cash but as with any trip, wait until you get to the country and use your ATM card to withdraw what you’ll need for a couple of days. That way you don’t have to guess how much cash you’ll need and you won’t be carrying around a bunch of cash that can get stolen. Just get it when you need it just like at home. Watch your purse, don’t wear a backpack with important stuff in it use it for sweaters and umbrellas, keep important items in your front pocket and pull your purse around in front of you and cover it with your arm. There are lots of places like bridges where people are crowded together they would have your stuff in 2 seconds and you’d never even realize. We didn’t have any problems but we followed those rules as well. Also, anyone trying to distract you – holding up a map and asking where something is (who actually uses maps today) or they say they found a ring and ask you if it’s yours. We had both these attempts in France it really happens, just be aware and walk away they are distracting you so their friend can pick pocket you.
There are tons of good areas to stay in. We stayed at the Marriott County Hall. It was right on the Thames River at the foot of the Westminster Bridge across from Parliament. Mayfair was super fancy and probably really expensive to stay there. Nottinghill was quiet and really pretty. Now that I’ve been there I’m not sure there’s a central location to stay. There’s so much to do and it’s spread out all over. So I would say just find a hotel you like in your price range and make sure it’s near one of the bus tour routes. Also, there are a lot of rules about where cars can stop so when you’re using Uber it helps to pay attention to where you are having them pick you up or drop you off. Our hotel had a circular drive so they could pull in off the road. That helped a lot. Keep that in mind if you are going to use Uber from your hotel.
Ok so here’s the trip…
We stayed at the Marriott County Hall, it was pricey but beautiful and we did the club level which was nice. Breakfast in the morning then appetizers and drinks in the evening. They had bottled drinks and light snacks all day too. Service was great, rooms were beautiful, location was convenient and there was a Starbucks around the corner. Yes a Starbucks, judge all you want but I love Starbucks.
I recommend tours. There are some things you are going to want to do that our touristy. Booking a tour with a guide makes it so much easier. City Wonders for Europe is great. Of all the tours we’ve taken there was only one guide we really didn’t like. By booking a tour you have your tickets in advance so you avoid the long lines of people waiting to get tickets, most of the time the tour is early before the crowds get there, you have a guide to explain everything to you. It makes a huge difference. They know where they are going and have the transportation worked out. All the tours we take are 10-12 people. They can last all day or half a day. In London we did a combo tour – The Tower of London – boat ride down the Thames – St. James Palace and the changing of the guards – Buckingham Palace – then train ride to Windsor Castle and Eaton. We also took the Big Bus and used the London Pass. The bus is hop on hop off for 1 day so start early (unless you buy multiple day passes) and the London Pass gets you into almost every museum and sight you would want to see. I was a great way to get around the city too. One of the stops was directly in front of our hotel.
The British Museum
You walk in and boom, there’s the actual Rosetta Stone. Beautiful Museum and free. The line wasn’t too long to get in, they check everyone’s bag otherwise you would probably walk right in. There’s a cute cafe at the very top in the center but there’s so much to see you could definitely spend half a day here.
This really tiny place was even harder to find than Egg Break. You go into an alley that they’ve kind of turned into a shoppping area with shops that front the alley. But we found it.
St James Palace and Buckingham Palace
Windsor Castle and Eaton
Windsor Castle is in Windsor which is an hour train ride from Waterloo Station in London. It’s a really cute little town, completely overrun with tourist. There were a few cute shops and places to eat but it was crazy. Inside the castle is actually less crazy. Most of the castles you can’t take pictures inside so that’s why there are so few photos. Across the river from Windsor was Eaton where Eaton College is. I highly recommend seeing Windsor then heading to Eaton to eat it was much nicer.
Thanks to our well traveled friend Ryan we visited Farm Girl in Nottinghill. This fresh mostly vegetarian restaurant tucked away in an alley. The owners dogs were hanging out in the loft area. It was most definitely that neighborhood’s BakeChop. We felt immediately at home.
Portobello Road in London’s Nottinghill area is a nice shopping area with both permanent shops and vendors in tents along the street. Some of the shops have local items but most of the vendors are just what you’d expect, trinkets and well, crap. A little further down on Portobello Road turn right onto Westbourne Grove. Its a quiet little street with local shopping and about 3 blocks down is Granger and Co. delicious fresh food also inspired by the same Australian farm fresh trend of Farm Girl.
A restaurant in the Battersea area of London. I searched all over for specific pottery to bring home. I kept seeing it in the restaurants. Simple rustic and something made in England. Finally I got a lead that the place that made the pieces was in the Battersea area. Found it and when we got there, they were closed for vacation. Damnit. So we didn’t waste the Uber trip we decided to have dinner at the place next door. Really lucky it was delicious.
There are so many landmarks in London it’s crazy. Building after building, neighborhood after neighborhood. Here are just a few. King’s Crossing Station (yes, I am a Harry Potter nerd) St Pancras Station and Waterloo.
London Portrait Gallery, a street with carriage doors still intact, Scotland Yard and the garden where Whitehall Palace (Henry VIII) once stood.
If the movie Alice in Wonderland was a restaurant this place would be it. They had overlays playing on the walls in the reception area and the bar which made it feel surreal. Everything was just different. I’ve been to lots and lots of afternoon teas in lots of different places. This was just a little different. It’s hard to explain. Maybe the photos of the restroom with the egg shaped stalls will give you an idea. Click the link for the website, you’ll see. The food was delicious, the service was perfect. We asked what was either the owner or the manager to take photos of us and not only was he happy to he took several in a bunch of different spots. Great way to end our trip. (We came back to London after visiting the other cities and we had tea the last day).
In London we used buses and Uber and trains. Outside of London we drove. It was tricky with the whole driving on the left side deal but with both of us looking before we turned it worked ok. Only one close call. No special license. We took the train to the Hertz at the Heathrow Airport and rented the car there and drove to Winchester. All of the drives I mapped on Google Maps and used the avoid highways filter. It kept us off the major highways and on nice scenic roads. They were all easy to drive and wide enough for 2 cars. Only in cities like Bath were there tight places that we had to move over for oncoming traffic to pass. Otherwise no problem and the scenery was beautiful. Rolling hills, forests, meadows, farms. Just beautiful.
Winchester was about 2 hours from Heathrow Airport. It’s this amazing little ancient town where King Alfred the Great ruled the Anglo-Saxon’s and Wessex in the late 800s. But the Romans were there before that and pre-historic Gauls before that. The cathedral there was built in the late 600s and later enlarged by Alfred. There’s a college and ruins of 2 castles and the great hall that holds the round table that King Henry VIII claimed was from Camelot. This tiny little town is very easy to walk. We parked at our Bed and Breakfast and didn’t use the car again until we left. The roads and walking trails are quiet and scenic. Especially the path past the ruins of Wolvesey Castle and the Bishops Palace along the river.
Beautifully completely restored stable. Not only was the entire place perfectly appointed she was a perfect host. Located in the middle of town. We happen to be in England the year they have a 2 month long drought and heat wave. She didn’t have A/C (the only place in our travels that didn’t) but it didn’t matter. We were only in the room in the evening and morning and with the windows open it was completely comfortable. In fact I had a light cover over me. I would absolutely recommend her place.
Cute little cafe upstairs right downtown. It was about 4 blocks from Hannah’s. Great food and service. We split a fresh salad and a brownie and shared the Cream Tea for 2.
The Cathedral, Wolvesey Castle Ruins and the Bishop’s Palace, and Winchester Castle Great Room
The Cathedral is over 1300 years old. The cemetary in the front yard is so old that it’s used as a park. The ruins of Wolvesey Castle date from the Saxon period and the palace for the Bishop that was built in 1110 from the still standing chapel of Wolvesey Castle. It’s just incredible that these things are still there. And being used. No one decided to tear it down and build a Marriott (little local jab there). Winchester Castle was built in the late 1100s. You can see some of the castle’s ruins. The only remaining part of the castle is the Great Hall where Henry VIII hung the round table.
Winchester College and the Walking Path
As you walk past the Cathedral you pass homes and gardens and what’s left of the gates from the walled Roman City. After passing the Winchester College and the Wolvesey Castle ruins and Bishops Palace across the street from you come to the walking path between the outside of the old wall and the stream. I must have taken 100 photos. Here’s just a few. Because, really who wants to look at 100 photos of someone else’s trip.