A Bookworm in Bloomsbury: My London Adventure

This January, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a Gustavus J-Term travel course in London, England. Titled “Arts and Performance in London,” this class brought me right into the heart of the city -- giving me the chance to not only experience its diverse, colorful modern arts scene, but delve into its rich literary and artistic history. My adventures took me all over the bustling city, to galleries and museums, food markets and theatre performances. As a proud English major, lover of British Victorian literature, artist, poet, and history buff, I can hardly express just how exciting, eye-opening, and enriching this was for me. Put a bookworm in Bloomsbury and she’s bound to have amazing adventures! Here are a handful of some of my favorite sights, scenes, and experiences from my month in London.  

 

  1. Russell Square and Bloomsbury Square

Staying in the neighborhood of Bloomsbury meant that we were just minutes away from these two beautiful garden squares, both of which we walked through nearly every day. Charming and picturesque, the squares give the city a nice dose of green with their tall trees, shrubbery, and lush grass. The area also has a great deal of literary history -- members of the famous Bloomsbury Group, including the author Virginia Woolf, once frequented these gardens!

  

Left: Russell Square. Right: Walking through Bloomsbury Square Gardens

 

2.     Coffee Shops and Bakeries!

One of my great loves in life is coffee, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that the streets of London are peppered with adorable, cozy little independent coffee shops. We went to a number of these during our stay in the city, enjoying quality coffee and amazing pastries, croissants, and cakes!

 

Coffee and an almond croissant at Dillon’s Coffee, a cute little coffee chop tucked into Waterstones Bookstore in Bloomsbury

Coffee in the adorable Victorian atmosphere of Syrup of Soot in Bloomsbury

Our group’s favorite bakery/coffee shop was Gails’s Bakery Bloomsbury, which serves up creative sweets, homemade bread, breakfast, and excellent coffee. Left: a traditional English scone with clotted cream and marmalade. Right: a pistachio lemon rose cake and coffee. Bottom: the amazing pastry and bread display

 

3. Afternoon Tea

Although I’m a coffee girl through and through, I love the British tradition of afternoon tea. During our time in London, we went out for a spot of tea several times -- and every time it was perfectly charming. A pot of earl grey, finger sandwiches, scones with jam, and mini pastries really do fill in that gap between lunch and dinner!

Earl grey tea at Cafe Babka in Bloomsbury, served in the cutest little teapot

 

4.   The Charles Dickens Museum

Although London is home to many impressive museums, one of my favorites was actually the much smaller Charles Dickens Museum. Not only am I an English major and a huge fan of Victorian literature, but Dickens also happens to be one of my favorite authors! That said, I found this quaint museum absolutely fascinating. Located at 48 Doughty Street, the house is furnished and arranged in its original Victorian style, housing a number of interesting artifacts like novel manuscripts, letters, clothing, and even the desk where Dickens wrote some of his greatest works. There are also several special exhibits, interactive activities, and replica rooms throughout the house, complete with a lovely little cafe and Victorian garden. All in all, it’s the perfect place for any avid Dickens fan!

Left: Outside of the Dickens house. Right: a recreation of how the Dickens family would have entertained guests for dinner. Bottom: the lovely little garden at the back of the house.  

5. Borough Market

Some of the best food I had during my trip came from Borough Market, London’s oldest food market. Bustling, exciting, and colorful, this huge market offers unique and eclectic bites, including authentic global cuisine, local produce, and amazing sweets and treats! There are traders selling all kinds of goods, and most of them will offer generous free samples -- during my two visits to the market, I had the chance to taste olive oil, bread, British sausage, honey, cheese, and even homemade nut butter. I especially loved the filled doughnuts from London’s famous Bread Ahead bakery -- their caramel sea salt honeycomb is officially the best doughnut I’ve ever had in my life. For quality food and adventurous options, Borough is definitely the place to go!

Left: Amazing doughnuts from Bread Ahead Bakery. The caramel sea salt honeycomb (top left corner) is to die for. Middle: The famous chorizo roll from Brindisa -- warm chorizo with red peppers and arugula. Right: One of the many lunch combinations from the Ethiopian Flavors stall: chicken with stewed lentils and cabbage and carrots. Warm and spicy, this was the perfect lunch for a chilly day at the market!  

6. The Bookstores!

The streets of London are truly a book lover’s paradise -- picture bookstore after bookstore, all with lovely Victorian storefronts, rows of ceiling-to-floor bookshelves, velvety staircases, and stacks of hard-to-find editions of classic novels. It’s like living in a library, which is quite honestly the dream. One of the bookshops that impressed me the most was Hatchard’s, London’s oldest bookstore. Not only does the shop have a charming Victorian atmosphere and several floors, but I was amazed at the sheer variety of titles I was able to find. I could’ve spent hours just sitting in that store, reading poetry and admiring the British Harry Potter cover art.

Left: Hatchard’s Inside Waterstone’s Bookstore in Bloomsbury Left and right: Hatchard’s in Piccadilly -- the oldest bookstore in London and a booklover’s heaven  

7. Hadestown at the National Theatre

While our class saw a number of amazing, cutting-edge theatre and dance performances in London, my favorite would have to be Hadestown at the National Theatre. Coming to Broadway soon, this folksy musical retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, adding new twists to classical characters and incorporating New Orleans/folk-style music in a beautifully unique way. Romantic, soulful, and tragic, this musical touched my heart and moved me to tears -- and it has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard.

Located on London’s Southbank, the National Theatre is a beautiful space for the performing arts. Here’s a picture of the amazingly detailed set of Hadestown, complete with a rotating stage.  

 

8. Stratford-Upon-Avon

Okay, so this isn’t in London, but it’s far too lovely not to include in my list! Spending the day in Startford-Upon-Avon, a beautiful little town in the English countryside, was one of the very best things we did during our trip. Not only was I excited to see Shakespeare’s birthplace and learn more about his life, but I was really struck by how tranquil, quaint, and idyllic the entire town felt. With its old-fashioned storefronts, peaceful riverbanks, swans, and historic church, it was honestly exactly like the English country towns I’ve read about in novels. I felt like I was walking through the setting of a Jane Austen romance or Thomas Hardy pastoral! It was definitely a nice break from the busy, smoggy city -- in fact, you could even smell the difference in the air. Never have I encountered air so clean, clear, and sweet, and never will I forget it.

 

Top: Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Bottom: The River Avon at sunset. To the right you can see the steeple of Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.

Left: the quaint streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon

 

I could go on and on talking about my adventures, but I’ll just say that London was everything I dreamed it would be and more. I sincerely hope I have the chance to return someday -- to waltz through the museums, to read in the coffee shops, to go to tea, to breathe that beautiful country air. Until then, my wonderful London adventures will always hold a special place in my memory, and the city a special place in my heart.