I’ll say it right now: my time in London was way too short. Sandwiched between a week in Paris and a quick jaunt to Rome, London was my first experience with backpacking and a welcome break from struggling through my limited foreign language vocabulary.
Getting there alone was an adventure — to save money on travel and hotel for an extra night, we opted for a 10-hour overnight bus ride from Paris, which involved the bus itself boarding a boat and us being paraded through customs in Calais.
We arrived without much of a plan and flew by the seat of our pants for the next two days. After fueling up on some English breakfast at a greasy joint near Kings Cross station, our first order of business was to find the nearest Wifi spot to book a hotel for the night (thank God for Starbucks!) My friend Jusan had been to London a few times, and Alex and I were more than happy to follow his lead, as he took us on an epic walking tour through London, guided mostly by memory and the occasional glance at Google Maps.
As we explored one neighborhood after the other, I couldn’t help making comparisons to New York — from what we saw during the two days, London felt like New York City’s cooler, more mature sister with a distinct European flair.
London by Foot
Our journey through London began at the beautiful Buckingham Palace. Maybe it was because we had just seen the Louvre and Versailles or maybe it was because we were still trying to wake up, but this didn’t have much of an impact for me. We snapped some obligatory photos and planned to come back the next day for the changing of the guards, but it completely slipped our minds. (Next time, perhaps!)
From there, we walked briefly along the Mall and cut through St. James Park, where we were greeted by swans, ducks and a variety of waterfowl begging for food. This was the first of many pleasant surprises, but honestly, London’s parks impressed me more than any historical monument.
Since I’d heard so many stories of the city being grey and rainy most of the time (which it is, by the way) I never expected it to be quite so … lush. In mid-September the grounds were the epitome of spring with ponds full of wildlife and still-green trees everywhere —vaguely reminiscent of its earlier days when King James I updated what was once mainly farmland to a small exotic paradise, featuring camels, crocodiles and even an elephant.
Our next stop was Westminster Abbey, where we stood gawking for a while at the Big Ben, gleaming against the blue-gray sky as if challenging my previous nonchalance. It was bigger and more stately than I’d imagined, and I enjoyed looking up and seeing it’s winking face even long after we’d crossed the Thames.
We followed the river past the London Eye and along the South Bank and by now, I was really loving London. From the used book stalls where we lingered for too long picking out treasures for our bookshelf to the graffiti-covered walls and colorful curiosities everywhere, this area might have been one of my favorite parts of London. It reminded me of Williamsburg mixed with Soho.
The city only got better as we continued our tour across Millennium Bridge, London Bridge and Tower Bridge, which took us through pop-up music performances and buzzing street fairs. Near London Bridge, we wandered onto Clink Street, a narrow, twisty street with outdoor restaurants, a haunted house and the most amazing smells wafting from a crowded street market.
ABOVE| Standing on Millenium Bridge. BELOW| Photos from Tower Bridge.
Far from the land of stuffy, primness one might imagine, the London we encountered was so vibrant and energetic that we could have kept exploring for hours, if not for our aching legs.
After a bit more walking, we finally relented and headed for the train back to out hotel. Of course, the comparisons to New York City didn’t stop as we took our first ride on the Tube. Chaotic and overwhelming enough to rival Grand Central Station or Times Square at rush hour, purchasing our tickets, tapping in and making it to the train in itself required laser focus among impatient people who had no time for fumbling tourists (whoops! Sounds familiar..) But every time I take the train in another city, I wonder why New York can’t get their act together. The Tube felt much more high-tech and efficient, from the pleasant voice telling you to “Mind the Gap” to the barriers that block the platform from approaching trains.
A Redenvous and Food
Later that evening, we met up with one of my old friends from the UK who I hadn’t seen in about 12 years (and crossed off a bucket list item while I was it!). As with all my best friends, it felt like we had never been apart. With him in tow, our crew of four guys and a girl continued our tour by indulging Alex’s craving for fish and chips and a “real London pub.”
We had fish and chips at some random place near Trafalgar Square that was so average I can’t even remember the name. Thank goodness Matt, my UK friend, managed to negotiate a group rate for us.
Our search for a traditional pub was much easier though, as London has one of the coolest bar scenes I’ve come across in a while.With their distinctive floral arrangements and hanging plants adorning the windows, bars there seem twice as fun. I have a list of classic cocktail bars to visit on my next trip, but honestly walking into almost any bar is an experience. The first place we went had a cool back alley where drinkers could spill out into the evening air and at another, we sipped our ales on comfortable couches in what looked like an old oak-lined study.
Being the foodie that I am, I thought I might have to leave London without having anything truly fantastic — that is until the next day, when we had brunch at Aubaine in Mayfair, set among posh boutiques and the occasional Lamborghini parked on the street.
I tell you — you can take me out of New York, but if there’s brunch, trust me, I’ll find it. In contrast to the budget meals we’d been having thus far, this was right up my alley. I had a slight variation on an English breakfast and tried a Pimm’s Cup for the first time, determined to honor British traditions despite eating in a French restaurant.
Our Final Hours
After brunch, we headed over to Harrods and fantasized about having the kind of life where $30,000 watches and personal stylists were commonplace. Since I’m not a big spender, I contented myself with checking out their intriguing supply of imported fruit, meats and caviar, all at Harrods prices, of course!
Being so smitten with London’s green spaces, we took advantage of our proximity to Hyde Park, where I had another freakout moment at the spacious green lawns, vibrant flowers everywhere and ponds where you could feed swans!! Man, what a class act!
At my insistence, we rented bikes and rode through the city in what was one of my most adventurous experiences of the year. Competing for space on the London streets with buses, cars and pedestrians was exhilarating but so scary. Still it was a great way to get around and so much better than the Citibikes here in New York. For one, there were actually bikes available and two, they were affordable — £2 gets you access for 24 hours and each 30-minute ride is free, compared to $12 for a day pass in NYC.
ABOVE | Feeling triumphant after my somewhat exhausting ride through London!
Alex and I have not stopped talking about London ever since. London for him is what Paris always was for me, and I’m afraid I’ve become slightly obsessed as well. I always want to argue that we don’t truly know London, that we’ve only seen the highlights, and maybe we shouldn’t form too many opinions just yet. But I feel like this was the best approach for such a short trip. It felt much more real than if we had spent our time queuing for museums and monuments. And now, I’m sold on this style of serendipitous travel, which is what this over-planner needs!
FOR MORE ADVENTURES | Read my Paris travel diary.
WATCH | My London vlog on YouTube.