I started out small on my trip. I got to London at about 6am, and at the hotel they checked me into the only open room they had. When I walked in the door I laughed -- it was so small, and had a very shoddy view. But it was Europe and it was time to see how other people did things, right?
The hotel was across the street from Hyde Park, and I took a walk through it. I was nervous at first -- I had read so many articles about gypsies and con artists I expected one to jump from behind every tree and relieve me of my American money (I had no British pounds yet).
After a few minutes however, I calmed down. It was kind of a dreary day, but several London residents were out in the park. Hyde Park is HUGE (probably a bit like Central Park) and is full of memorials, fountains and lakes. People seemed to really like to take their dogs there, and the dogs all seemed very well behaved. No one was using a leash, and the owners were often a few dozen yards away from their dogs as their pets tore across the park, ran into other dogs, and happily sniffed everything that came by. I saw no dogs fighting, and all of them would eventually follow their owners if they got too far away.
When I got to the far side of Hyde Park I ran into some impressive buildings and monuments. I had no idea what they were, but I took pictures. It had taken me about forty minutes to cross the park at a good clip, and my feet were starting to hurt. Not knowing where to go now, I headed back across and to my hotel room.
The hotel had free breakfast, so I had some. It was a hot breakfast that included much of the normal stuff, but with a few differences. The scrambled eggs were very runny, and the bacon was very thick (it was more like slices of ham, not crispy at all). They also served baked beans and sauteed mushrooms with every breakfast, and there were several kinds of sausages and black (i.e. blood) pudding. In a "When In Rome" moment, I had some black pudding, and regretted it for several hours after. I don't think they were keeping it warm enough, and my stomach did not like this new visitor from a distant land.
The rest of that day I just wandered around the neighborhood. I was still a little intimidated by the subway, but by the end of the day I had picked up some British pounds so I could get some food.
My tour started the second day. Basically the idea was that in each city you had an introductory tour (mostly driving around in a bus, but stops at some things) and then you were on your own the rest of the time. In Paris and Rome they also offered "optional excursions" at a additional cost. In London we drove past several places, but stopped briefly at Westminster Abbey (right next to parliament, which is where Big Ben is) and at Buckingham Palace, where we saw the changing of the guard.
Later that day I went to the Tower of London (which is also near Tower Bridge). This was my first trip on "The Tube" (also referred to as the Underground, which is yet another word for subway). London's subway system is great. It's clean, and very easy to navigate. With no problem at all I made it to the Tower.
The Tower of London has a reputation for being a pretty awful place. Prisoners like Guy Fawkes and Anne Boelyn were tortured and executed on these grounds. However at the Tower they downplayed all of this. The signs pointed out very little evidence of torture and the like, and it felt pretty touristy, with interactive kiosks within eleventh century rooms. One of the creepier things were the inscriptions the prisoners carved into the walls, which were preserved with glass covering them. They also had all sorts of things in the armory, including armor of British kings. Henry VIII's armor was particularly funny. His codpiece showed he thought a lot of himself!
Later that day I also went to the place that probably excited me the most, even though it was just a tourist attraction. I went to Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station (from Harry Potter)! If you go to King's Cross train station, you turn a corner to where platforms 8-11 are. You can't actually go to the platform because it's a secure area, but to the side they have a little area that has a brick wall with a luggage cart stuck halfway in the wall with a sign above it.
My last day in London I went to Piccadilly Circus (which is really just an area for shopping) and to local museums. I also stopped at Harrod's, which is a huge department store that's really amazing. It feels like walking into another time, there's almost nothing that an American has seen back home. There are food stores and restaurants and all sorts of strange and unusual things you can buy.
Next, we headed to Paris.