It’s crazy to think that just last week I was wandering around London, and now I’m back home in a weird space between awake and asleep- jet lag has been rough! My friend Valerie and I signed up for the EF College Break London and Paris trip on a whim. I have traveled with this company before and it’s really the way to go if you don’t have the time (or the money) to plan a trip yourself. You pay a relatively low cost and EF  books all of the hotels, most activities, like museum visits and bus tours, and provides money for transportation-even metro cards!  With EF you travel with a large group of people, usually around 30, which definitely has its pros and cons. It’s great to meet new people, but a group that big can also slow you down, which isn’t great when you’re trying to see so much in so little time. Valerie and I went back and forth between hanging out with the group and exploring on our own – it was really the perfect balance!

Day 1: Operation Stay Awake

We arrived in London bright and early…but check in wasn’t until 2PM, so we had to keep ourselves awake and occupied until then. While eating at a coffee shop near the hotel with a few of the other early arrivals, Operation Stay Awake was born. One girl suggested that we should all go to Covent Garden, a semi-outdoor market in the center of London (<– a “pro” to group travel, Valerie and I would have never thought of this place on our own!). We all agreed and then somehow made our way to the tube station, despite being half asleep.

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Covent Garden was a lot of fun and something I hadn’t seen on my last trip to London. We each bought a few souvenirs, and then found some place to eat real food – at an English pub of course! Later, we checked in to the hotel, met everyone else in the group at a Welcome Mixer in the lobby (food and drinks paid for by EF!), and then went for a bit of sightseeing with the group director. Operation Stay Awake was a success!

Day 2: Shopping and Side Streets

In the morning we went on a sightseeing tour of London with the group. The tour guide was really entertaining and very knowledgeable. The tour ended at Buckingham Palace, where we got to watch the changing of the guards – very cool.

Before the tour and on the tour, people kept suggesting that Valerie and I go to Harrod’s. I didn’t understand this. I kept thinking, it’s a department store how cool can it be? However, with all of the suggestions, we decided it was time to check it out, and upon walking in we immediately understood why it was so much more than just a department store. It really can’t be put into words, so all I will say is: if you’re ever in London go to Harrod’s.

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Besides Harrod’s and going to King’s Cross Station, one of my favorite parts of the day was all of the walking we did. A bus tour is great for getting an idea about where to go and seeing everything at once, but absolutely nothing beats just walking around a city. It’s so much fun to walk through side streets and find yourself in places you have never planned on going, or even knew of.

Day 3: Off to the Country! 

Valerie and I have both been to London before, so although there was still tons of stuff we could see and do in the center of London, we wanted to do something different this time. We had signed up for the excursion to Oxford that EF College Break offered, but it was cancelled a few days before the trip, so we decided to go on our own. After sleeping in just a bit (much-needed!) we took a train from London to Oxford, which only takes about 54 minutes! Oxford is one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. It’s a quiet town filled with beautiful architecture, cobblestone streets, and bikes at every corner – it is exactly what I picture when someone mentions England. I couldn’t believe that people actually went to school there,  it just didn’t seem real!

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Day 4: Goodbye, London! Bonjour, Paris!  

Valerie and I both have not-so-fond memories of Paris, but we wanted to give the city of lights a second try. Unfortunately, the bus ride to the hotel from the Gare du Nord train station almost solidified our first impression (the area around the train station is not somewhere you would want to find yourself at night). Thankfully, the rest of our stay in Paris would prove that it’s not so bad after all.

Before I get into the day itself, I want to mention where we stayed. In London we stayed at a hotel, which seemed to be mostly filled with people on business trips, but in Paris, we stayed at a hostel. For most people the word “hostel” might bring up an idea of someplace dirty and maybe even unsafe, but this place was anything but. It was the first hostel I have ever stayed at and it really made for an entirely different experience (in a good way). Rather than being surrounded by middle age men and women in business attire, we were now surrounded by people our own age, here for the same purpose that we were – to have fun in a new city. Not only was the hostel clean and safe (security right at the door), but it also had its own club, cafe, and rooftop bar! It was so much fun, and very convenient! If you’re ever looking into a trip abroad and need somewhere nice, but inexpensive, definitely look into Generator Hostels.

On our first day in Paris we took a cruise along the Siene. It’s my second time doing this, and in my opinion it is the best way to see the Eiffel Tower. After the cruise we went out to dinner with a few of the girls and then went up to the hostel’s rooftop bar!

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Day 5: Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame

Today was filled with tourist destinations! We started the day off with a group trip to the Eiffel Tower, but we couldn’t get close to it as it was being blocked off due to a suspicious package. Despite feeling a bit shaken from all of the commotion at the tower, we made our way to the Louvre. Museums are my second favorite place to be (bookstores are first); I love the quiet and the feeling of being surrounded by knowledge and history. Before walking around, we had a bite to eat at Starbucks. I know it’s silly that it’s a chain “restaurant”, but Starbucks abroad is so different – I had pancakes with my coffee! We took in the peacefulness of the Louvre (note: it’s the opposite of peaceful if you make your way towards Mona Lisa), attempted to read the labels next to the art pieces (they’re all in French), and took a lot of pictures!

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After the Louvre, we went on a bus tour of Paris, and again the tour guide was amazing! We were able to see so much in a short amount of time and even got to stop at a small cafe for an espresso! The bus tour dropped us off right near Notre Dame so we were able to check another must-see destination off of our list before heading back to the hostel! Once we were back we went out to eat at a nearby restaurant. Paris was filled with going out to eat- I loved it!

Day 6: Act Like a Local 

We started the day by heading to Shakespeare and Company bookstore, a must on my list (remember bookstores are my number one favorite place)! It was great to get away from the city for a bit and wander around the bookstore. I ended up buying a book about Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors. Then we found a cafe and had lunch while sitting facing the street (Parisians often do this so that they can talk about the people who pass by). It was a beautiful day and the lunch was delicious!

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At around three we went to the outskirts of Paris to meet up with Valerie’s cousin, Gina, who has lived in Paris for the past eleven years. She took us to several different restaurants around the canal, one of which looked like a house, but was actually a bar (we walked upstairs and people were having a drink in a bathtub!). We then went to pick up Gina’s daughter from the nearby daycare. It was really interesting to see a Parisian daycare! We walked in and all of the kids were sitting quietly, eating a piece of baguette (can’t make this up). Then we all headed back to Gina’s apartment and had our own baguette with cheese and radishes with butter (so French!).  It was so, so nice to see things in a new perspective (a local one) and to just sit and talk with Valerie and Gina over good food in a home setting!

The last event of any EF trip is always a farewell dinner, and ours happened to be at Montmartre, another place we really wanted to see! We met the group at the restaurant, had a delicious meal, and then walked the 270 steps to Basilica de Sacre-Coeur (after meal workout?). The steps were worth it, because the view was amazing! Definitely put it on your list of things to go and see if you are ever in Paris!

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Overall the whole trip was unforgettable! It was my second time in both places, but a completely different experience. Despite all of the fun Valerie and I had, it was really nice to come home. I have been feeling sort of disheartened with the state America is in right now, but going away really put things into perspective. Every place has its own set of problems, the grass isn’t greener on the other side. There may be a lot that needs to be fixed, but I’m still proud to say that America is my home.

 

Note: The EF College Break trip is actually called “London and Paris in 8 Days“, however the two extra days were complete travel days due to the time difference.

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