I just found out that one of my most favorite people ever is moving to London, and I couldn’t be more excited. Firstly, because that means an exponentially greater chance of meeting up with Annie again, and secondly, because with every new visit since my first excursion back in 2010 London is quickly – and quite unexpectedly – becoming one of my favorite cities. Now, I am obviously faaaaaar from an expert on the place, but I have gotten to explore it a bit over the years, and I can’t think of a better reason to share my discoveries and personal favorites now!
5 BEST THINGS ABOUT LONDON
- London is huuuuge. If you wanted to cross the Greater London area by walking along the Thames River, it would take you over 15 hours, non-stop. There are over 250 museums, 150 theaters, 40 universities, 5,500 restaurants and 7 THOUSAND pubs, 150 garden squares, 400 public artworks in the City of Westminster ALONE, 30 haunted houses, 25 weekend markets, 9 palaces and a real-to-God Queen. Just think of all you can do!
- London is delightfully GREEN. There are 8 large, designated parklands within Greater London, but that’s just the beginning. Seemingly around every corner there’s a quaint little garden with perfect hedges and lush foliage canopy. Plane trees line the streets. Walls are covered in ivy. Flower pots guard the doors. And thanks to London’s mild climate, quite a bit of the vegetation stays evergreen even in the dead of winter. (For more London wilderness: http://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/to-zone-3-and-beyond#.kpv2qp6VM )
- London is rarely mentioned as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and I don’t know why. From the stately homes of Knightsbridge to the pastel townhouses in Notting Hill, from the Gothic mood of Westminster to the regal airs of St. James – the city boasts absolutely stunning architecture throughout.
- Food! First of all, I delight in the mind-blowing culinary diversity (paralleled perhaps only by the NYC) brought about by 8.5 million people of 270 nationalities, because as I’ve written about before, Moscow still has ways to go in that department. Second, contrary to the popular belief, you don’t have to go “ethnic” to have good food in London. Yorkshire pudding and a fish & mash pie at the V&A are some of my favorite things on earth, and ubiquity of avocado toast (with feta!) will make you think you’re in Brooklyn.
- London’s drinking scene is all about those pubs – grabbing a pint and just chilling with the crowd (or the barkeep). My trick is ordering half-pints – this way I get to try everything on tap and still stand on my own two feet. I can’t think of a better way to end (or spend?) a day.
5 BEST PLACES IN LONDON
- Do you fancy a walk somewhere you can come face to face with a giant stag and half a dozen of his bros, while bright green parakeets fly over your head? Then head to Richmond Park, which is wild and mysterious and teeming with deer, unlike any other city park I’ve been to, anywhere.
- Victoria and Albert Museum of Decorative Arts (V&A) and the National Portrait Gallery tie for my favorite London museum. The first one is simply full of pretty things (and has the most gorgeous mosaics-clad café that serves the best fish & mash pie); the second is a fascinating retrospective of the very British history through some very familiar faces, from Henry VIII to Princess Diana.
- Adjacent Mayfair and SoHo neighborhoods deliver the goods during the Christmas season, and not just in terms of truly epic shopping. The twinkly garlands that hover over the streets like chandeliers set a high bar for holiday whimsy. I have a suspicion that Moscow’s New Year’s 2016 lights bonanza was inspired specifically by this part of England’s capital.
- Hampstead is a town within a town. It’s a little quiet, a little posh yet relaxed, residential but with a bustling center of shops, salons and eateries. It also boasts about 500 bakeries per resident, each one seducing you as you pass by in the morning.
- Thames River is essential to London’s identity. Walking its banks is always one of my favorite, most relaxing pastimes in the city. Watching the boats and bridges disappear into the milky fog is a transporting experience. And taking in iconic views of the Houses of Parliament and the Tower Bridge in person never get old.
5 TIPS ON DOING LONDON
- Buy an Oyster Card. I’ve read this tip in every guidebook and on every blog, and yet the stubborn/inept traveler that I am, it took me 3 visits to London before I got one – a fancied-up, pre-paid transport pass. Don’t even think about any other kind public transport ticket option. Just DON’T. I don’t fully understand the convoluted non-Oyster fare system, I just know that Oyster saves you a lot of money (and stress). Don’t question the 5-pound deposit fee, trust me. Get the Oyster Card at the first Underground station that you see and travel London stress-free.
- Take the bus. I am in loooooove with London buses. They are so cool and so fast, and (at least in my experience) run on time, and if you grab a seat on the top level toward the front, it’s a proper sightseeing experience. London is huge, and to see even any sizable chunk of it takes ages. So skip the tube, enter your start point and destination on Google Maps, select the all-bus option, screenshot the itinerary for reference, and be well on your way!
- Late night eater? Stock up on food and drink, because getting dinner past 9:45 pm and a beverage past 11 pm is a real pain in the ass. Most areas are properly asleep as soon as the last call rings out, and you’d even be hard-pressed to find a 24-hour convenience store. That is totally unacceptable for a Moscovite-New Yorker, particularly one who gets hungry around 1 am, which is why I always grab some cheese, sausage, fruit and drinks to keep in my hotel as soon as I get into town.
- Discover London neighborhood by neighborhood. Perhaps more than any other European city I’ve been to (and it’s not a short list), London feels like a beautiful patchwork quilt of distinct small towns: serious Westminster, important St. James, posh Knightsbridge, punk Camden, genteel Hampstead, funky Notting Hill, regal Kensington, functional City, hipster Shoreditch, artsy South Bank, and so forth. They are all different in appearance, social fabric and energy. Take the time to tune into each one.
- Drink cask ale that needs to be pumped, not poured, like a draft; it’s good and a “proper” beer, and not as heavy as you might think. It’s ok to have Yorkshire pudding without the roast – the fluffy pastry is the best part. Fish and chips are overrated, but whitebait is the best bar snack. You probably won’t find good coffee (it’s the water).
5 TO FOLLOW ON LONDON
- A Lady In London is by far my favorite travel blog about exploring London (Annie, I think it’s totally your jam in terms of content and aesthetic), and where I stock up on ideas before my visits. Let the Lady be your guide to London’s best riverside pubs, Saturday markets, secret gardens and so much more.
- Londonist Out Loud podcast isn’t light fare aimed tourists or even casual London full-timers, but a much deeper look into the fabric of the city from the people who seem to know its every cobblestone. Learn about the life of black Londoners in the 18th century or join the discussion on how to save London’s pubs from falling victim to urban development.
- Breakfast London directs you to the best places in each neighborhood to get your morning nosh on. It also has the most delicious Instragram account – SERIOUSLY.
- Secret London is a no-nonsense, short-and-sweet primer on the city’s notable architecture, gastropubs, wildlife, trivia and many other expected and unexpected bits. My favorite section is the neighborhood walks: it tells you where to pop in, what to look out for and where to grab a pint after.
- Can you really track everything that’s going on in London at any given moment? Ian Visits certainly tries. If you’re in London and needs ideas for what to do NOW, or don’t want to miss out on the hippest happenings, this is your guide.
WELCOME TO LONDON, ANNIE & JUSTIN!
Europe (and I) missed you so!