As I was sitting in the Salzburg airport about to board a plane to England I was in a zone. I could hardly interact with anyone properly. There was a lot on my mind. Something about the city of London that I was admittedly scared of. I hadn’t felt as scared about travel at that moment as I had since I was driving to the Kansas City airport about ready to board a plane out of the United States for the first time ever.
I was nervous to return to an English speaking country. Would it be harder for me to communicate in my own language being away from native speakers for so long? However, it was honestly a comfortable feeling knowing that I would be able to read signs and maps and everything in between – a hardship you don’t anticipate until you’re facing it.
Rough Start in London
The beginning of my experiences in London started off rough. I had some suspicions that I would have some difficulties entering into the United Kingdom. I knew that my 90 days in Europe were technically expired.
Turns out, I was questioned at customs for 45 minutes before being detained inside Stansted Airport of London. I knew right from the get-go that I was speaking to the strictest border patrol officer in the airport because of the rate at which she was letting people enter compared to other officers.
Just by chance, I was called to her line with an expired visa and I knew there was going to be some delay. I remained calm even after they took my passport from me for further background checks. Luckily, after about four hours, I was finally allowed to enter only because I had already booked my flight home to the States in a week’s time.
However, spending some time in their airport “playpen” for detainees with a couple of old men who could only argue their case in broken English was quite interesting. Read more about my experience as a detainee here.
Typical London Tourist
After I made it to the hostel and was able to drop off my luggage, I made the long trip to Central London on one of London’s infamous double-decker red buses. At first, I thought it was cool; I climbed the stairs of the bus and found myself a front row, open-windowed seat to easily see all of the views.
As the bus strolled through the outskirts of downtown London, I was wide-eyed and fully tuned into the atmosphere. However, quickly reminded that it was still public transportation when most of the London locals around me were catching a snooze on the bus as we stopped every quarter of a mile or so and soon it became frustrating as all public transport is.
Reading a book by its cover
Once I made it to the center, I was shocked by the atmosphere of the city. I was completely wrong about the feel that London carried. I assumed there would be a lot of buzz on the streets – which there was. A lot of noise, busy sidewalks, advertisements everywhere (or least it seemed since I had been out of America for so long at this point), and tourists taking pictures around every corner. However, what I did not expect was the overall happiness of the Londoners.
It seems in every big city, the locals are in a rush to get home, the tourists are in a rush to their next attraction, but London didn’t carry this vibe. Maybe it was because it was a beautiful Friday evening in the springtime that brought smiles to peoples’ faces as they casually strolled through city parks in their business suits and those with cameras around their necks stopped for a quick game of table tennis on the tables conveniently situated in the middle of the parks. Who knows what it was, but as I sat in Trafalgar Square staring at the famous bronze lions with the sound of the fountains behind me and listening to a sweet young girl, Esther Turner, busk with her guitar and a rather large gathering in front of her, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the city.
That night back at my hostel, No. 8 Seven Sisters in North London, there was quite a crowd in the lobby which doubled as a bar.
If you don’t like the busy, party atmosphere where you are sleeping, then I would refrain from staying here. They have music on pretty loud late into the night – especially when you’re trying to wake up early. Though at only £8 per night, it was the best deal in the city. Even if it was an hour’s bus ride to City Center. Not only that but the bathrooms are clean, the dorm rooms are spacious, and there is a fully-stocked kitchen upstairs with markets across the street.
Other Must-See’s. . .
The next day I boarded another double-decker red bus and headed towards London Center again. The ride from North London is quite entertaining. I was able to learn a lot about the city’s layout each time. Tottenham Court became one of my favorite streets to drive through. The only stores in Tottenham were music stores and record stores. A music junky’s paradise!
Another one of my favorite areas in London is the Cambridge Circus. A beautiful community of red-bricked buildings which I consider a must-see. If you’re looking for good travel books to read during your endeavors, look no further than Leicester Square which has a plethora of bookshops in the area.
I must admit, after the first night in London, the atmosphere changed. The city became more cliché. The old-time black taxis, the double-decker red buses, the red payphone booths, the crowded streets and old-time Broadway feel, the protesters, activists, and street performers vying for your attention, a taste of every cuisine from around the world – London started to gain back that big city feel I was anticipating all along.
In my personal opinion, London feels more similar to the big cities in the U.S. than it does to any city I have visited in Europe. Even the amount of national flags that they flew in the air more closely resembled America.
West Minster and Parliament Square are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
I took a free walking tour of London by SANDEMAN. The tour was informative, but due to a number of people on the tour and on the streets, it wasn’t as personable as some other city walking tours I’ve taken in the past. Nonetheless, it’s still worth your time. I ended up doing two tours from SANDEMAN; the “alternative” tour as well.
As for some quick prices. . .
- Broadway shows – tickets are “half theatre price” in London Center for around £22 per ticket.
- In comparison, a Chipotle Burrito costs about $8.75 in London.
- A student-priced movie ticket at Vue Theatre in Leicester Square costs about $16
- A buffet in China Town costs less than $9 at multiple spots
- Oyster Bus Card – 5 British Pounds but it’s refundable after use at any train station. It’s about $2 every time you enter a bus but free after your third ride. Quite expensive, but thus is London. The bus is the cheapest way to get around, however, because the Tube is more expensive.
- $3 for a cheap coffee in Pret A Manger which is London’s Starbucks
I was there for the Queen’s 90th birthday which called for an extra long and extravagant changing of the Buckingham Palace’s guards ceremony which was a treat I was unaware of until I found myself at the right place at the right time. Afterward, I took a snooze in front of the Palace and found it hard to believe I was napping in the Queen’s front yard.
From Buckingham Palace, I decided to make the walk to Tower Bridge which ended up being much further than anticipated. The walk took me right along the River Thames. That led me past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the London Bridge – neither of which I was expecting to see.
Tower Bridge ended up being my favorite place in London. The bridge is surrounded by a unique architectural scene. I don’t think the drastic contrast of old and modern architecture can be illustrated better anywhere else in the world than the area near the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. The mix of castles and glass structures within the same viewfinder scope of a camera is incredible!
On the way the station to catch my ride to Edinburgh, I stopped at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub. My tour guide earlier in the day was adamant about stopping in. Upon entering, a group was just exiting and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as one of them drunkenly proclaimed, “Bloody hell, it’s still daylight out!”. . . it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I guess the bartender was doing something right that day.
Upon many other observations that would take up far too much of your time reading (as if this post hasn’t already), this was my first taste of London.
Quickly, here are some other things you should check out while you’re there:
- London Eye – It’s impossible to miss this enormous riverside Ferris wheel. However, I was perfectly fine saving money by not riding it.
- Westminster Abbey – You can avoid the admission cost by attending a free daily service.
- Big Ben – you know, Big Ben? That iconic British clocktower? Don’t worry, you won’t miss it.
- Palace of Westminster – it’s right next to Big Ben, but was under construction while I was in London.
- Kensington Palace – current home of the Prince.
- Hyde Park – London’s version of “Central Park”
- Piccadilly Circus – round about plus public space that is always buzzing, especially at night.
Among so many other unforgettable and beautiful sights, this is London. It’s hectic. It’s hard to budget. But it’s London. It’s a European must.