Londontown

Believe it or not, this world traveler had never been to London until now. We came to rectify this situation and to visit friends. Also so we could see if I loved it so much that we would decide to move here (probably not since my phobia of large crowds is growing, but it’s a pretty impressive city).

While everyone swears that it never rains like it was when we arrived, well, it was raining like it was (vigorously, for hours straight). And I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the weather pattern in Europe: if you need to walk from public transportation to your place of resting, with luggage in tow, it will rain. And then if you want to walk long distances, or go for a hike, it will rain. This seems to be the case throughout the UK at least. But don’t worry about us. Despite the rain, we made it to London and used the opportunity to spend some good QT with old mates. (Also, I have like zero pictures except for when it is not raining, hence the near zero photos I have of spending QT with old mates.)

One reason London is awesome is that a lot of awesome people live here. Among them, our friend Billy, who graciously let us stay with him at his apartment that he had barely even moved into yet. And I mean barely, he still had no WiFi, nor hot water for the first few days! Luckily we are used to not showering (see: our entire six month backpacking trip through Asia). And one of the best parts of staying there was its location: Chelsea. What a beautiful area. On the walk from his flat to the nearest tube station, you pass these stunning city mansions that I would just die to live in. And I quickly learned that London is similar to Los Angeles in that it kind of feels like a massive collection of suburb-ish neighborhoods. Surely there’s at least one that’ll tickle your fancy.

High on the list of awesome people now living in London: my oldest friend, Kaitlin, and her super Irish (and super awesome) husband-to-be. We spent lots of time reminiscing and partying like it was ’99. Because I actually did spend New Years Eve of Y2K with Kaitlin, though we spent that sober and most likely playing dress-up in her basement because we were just that cool at age 13. Anyhow, our rendezvouses were a perfect excuse to check out another, less touristy neighborhood in London: Chiswick. We visited her flat to love on her adorable fluffball of a cat, Holden, and walk the Chiswick high street. This ‘hood was much more my speed, and I imagine if I did live in London I’d opt for something with this calmer, less crowded, somewhat residential feel.

The hostess with the mostest, she also took us on a walking tour to Kensington Palace, Hyde Park and the surrounding area.

During our days on our own in Londontown we got out and did lots of walking around some of the city’s other more touristy bits. The scene at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is insanely crowded, and since large crowds tend to give me the heebie-jeebies, we took our snap-snaps and headed on. Pushing our way through the masses of tourists (I know, I know, I’m one of them, but still, they are, and I am, annoying), to see Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the fancy schmance ‘hood of Mayfair.

One of the highlights of our visit to London was high tea. As you may or may not know, I practically live and breathe for scones, and clotted cream is the peanut butter to my jelly, the butter to my cup, the knick to my knackered. I did a bit of research on hotels to visit for this uber-English tradition, and decided to go with the Athanaeum for two major reasons. First, they do not have a crazy dress code (I’m realizing more and more that I am good at packing for extended trips to Asia, not so much fancy Europe… but don’t worry I’ve been shopping to correct that. Stay tuned for (gasp!) an outfit change in the upcoming posts, including what may or may not be a red leather jacket I purchased at an Amsterdam flea market), and more important, they offer what is called the “Gentleman’s Tea,” so there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Kaitlin and I of course opted for the classic crustless finger sandwiches and cakes alongside our scones and champagne, while Alan got to savor his with a suet pastry crusted miniature beef steak and British Ale Pie, wild boar sausage roll, homemade seasonal terrine, chili cheese straws with decadent ‘Welsh Rarebit’ dipping sauce, warm wookey hole cave-aged mature cheddar and crispy bacon scones, hot and sticky mini toffee pudding, a wedge of whisky fruit cake, homemade whisky chocolate truffles, and a dram of Scotch whisky (but of course). The leisurely experience certainly doesn’t come in under budget, but it’s a boatload of food, which is essentially unlimited and of course worth it in my opinion (I think Alan’s also). We rolled out of there satiated and then some.

To walk off our “tea” (I’m embarrassed to say that we barely touched the tea!), we wandered over to Buckingham Palace, through Wellington Arch and Knightsbridge and into Harrod’s for a stroll. While we didn’t purchase anything due to aforementioned tea feast, that place is pretty amazing (if a bit hectic and pricey). I’d love to head back there one day for picnic supplies (and maybe a designer purse).

On another afternoon (where we got some sun for a change!), we walked along the South Bank of the Thames River. This area was fun and lively, filled with shops, restaurants, pubs, the occasional historical site and the coup de gras: Borough Market. This might be our favorite thing in London (surprise, surprise, it involves food!). I actually had to convince Alan to go here. When I told him it was a fresh foods and prepared foods market, his response was “we’ve seen a million of those.” (I know this is so out of character for Alan, so, in full disclosure, he was fighting a cold.) Ah, but we’ve seen a million markets because we love markets! And this was no exception. Yummy samples, fresh fruits and veggies, and tasty prepared foods. Win win, win.

And of course, we walked across the London Tower Bridge, stopping to take selfies in front of it. An obligatory act.

Another area we adored is Shoreditch. While we’re probably not hipster enough to live here, it was much fun to walk around and admire the street art. As you can probably guess, this part of town has a much younger, hipper (hipster) vibe, with loads of bars, graffiti, and even a food truck courtyard. The highlight involved… wait for it…food! No, but really, it was also the experience. Next time you’re in London, take a stroll round Shoreditch and then head over to Brick Lane for some bomb and cheap Bangladeshi/Indian food dinner. But don’t walk into the first restaurant you pass, walk up and down the street and let yourself be reminded of the crazy world that is India as you are accosted by men hawking their menus to you and offering you a deal should you choose their establishment for your Indian fix.

You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of many touristy things done here, most notably visiting any of the many (mostly free!) world renowned museums. Well, we weren’t feeling very arty or history-y. And to top it off, Alan (the make things happen-er of the pair) was sick most of our time here. And when you travel non-stop for a year plus, you give yourself permission to skip some of the “unskippable” things sometimes. We need reasons to come back, right?!

Last, but not least, of our reunions in London was an evening with Marie, Alan’s (well, really more Kenny’s) former French au pair, who now lives in London. We met up at the Science Museum for what they call “lates,” which is basically an event where regular activities like the zoo, or the science museum, turn into bars and interactive exhibits for the night. (Surely this counts as visiting a museum even if it’s not art or cultural!) It was great to meet Marie, and it’s hard to go wrong with a silent disco.

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived at King’s Cross on a train from Edinburgh. It took ~4.5 hours and cost £65 each. London is huge, and getting around could involve anything from walking, to multiple buses and trains or even boats. If you plan on using public transport more than once or twice, invest in an Oyster Card. It costs £5, which in theory you can get back, and then you top up and the rides cost way less than paying single fares each time.

We departed on an easyJet flight to Amsterdam from Stansted airport. London has several airports, and none that you’re likely to use is particularly convenient. Stansted involved a taxi ride to Victoria Coach Station followed by a two-hour bus ride (cost £21.50 for two tickets with fees). There is also an express train from Liverpool Station. The point is, do your research on all your options including where apparently cheap airline flights leave from and how the extra time and cost of getting there impacts the analysis vs. other flights or trains etc.

Accommodation: We stayed with Billy in Chelsea, a quieter area with many nice bars and restaurants and a wealthy clientele. Most visitors will want to stay some place a little more central. I am far from an expert, but here is my quick take: Knightsbridge is more central, loaded with wealthy Arabs and their super-cars. Mayfair is posh and maybe a little boring, but pretty central. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus etc. are more crowded, in parts very touristy, but also the most central. We liked the South Bank walk (from the Royal Festival Hall to Tower Bridge) and perhaps you could stay there. If you like more of a hipster vibe, consider Shoreditch (there is an Ace Hotel there).

Food and Drinks: High tea at The Athenaeum was a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Jenni chose this place in part because it offers a gentleman’s tea, which includes lots of savory dishes with beef or bacon and a dram of whisky (the whisky selection at this hotel is legit). It is also pretty much all you can eat and does not have a strict dress code.

Dinner at Aqua Nueva with Kait and Sean was great, and there is a lovely patio for drinks with views. Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a chain, but quite good. Same for Carluccio’s. We had drinks at Babylon at the Kensington Roof Gardens, and I think maybe there is some part that wasn’t open for our visit and this part may have flamingoes?

A meal at one of Brick Lane’s several Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants is an experience. Prepare to be harassed by hawkers offering specials and discounts. Many are not so well-reviewed, but we chose Sheba and it was delicious. And London-cheap at £31 for three people.

Activities: London is home to several world-class attractions and museums, many of which are free and virtually none of which we visited. Two friends told me the Churchill War Rooms is their favorite. Two others picked the Victoria and Albert. I won’t try to list them all here. Several people said the Tower of London is a great experience. London is also known for somewhat reasonably priced theater.

I read good reviews and a friend recommended London Walks tours.

August 25-30, 2014 (Monday-Saturday)

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