(spoiler alert: I didn’t find neither Ben or Idris or even Tom, but I did find London, the one I didn’t expect to see)
Yes, I am, like everyone and their mom (esp.their mom!), a fan of eloquent, attractive, and British thespians Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba, and Tom Hiddleston. I might have tried desperately to look for an opportunity to see them perform live in London, but trust that it is not the main reason why I wanted to visit London. It actually has never been high on my list of places to go, and if not for the fact that some really good friends are living there, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s…too mainstream of a city, too White – that was the image I had in mind for London, which turned out to be naive and just plain wrong. I was pleasantly surprised by what London has to offer, and from being indifferent now am willing to live there! I’m writing this series of posts with the hope that first-timers to London like I was can gain some helpful tips about how to travel and experience London not completely like a tourist, and without feeling overwhelmed.
- Skip the guidebook; Google topic-specific sites
Guidebooks on London are very, very detailed, which is helpful and at the same time not. It’s funny that a country-wide guidebook, like the ones I got for Korea and Taiwan, was easier to navigate than a guidebook for a single city (obviously, the levels of detail are different between a country and a city guidebook, but I do think the richness of London makes it that much harder to choose among the million things to do.) If you have only less than a week in London, I would say skip the guidebook. There’s everything for everyone, so don’t even try to find “things to do”. I am a museum go-er, and yet only made it to one museum during my 5 days there. Also, the subway system is very convenient in terms of frequency of trains and distance covered, but because of the many stops, it still takes a while to get to places, even places you can bike to more quickly (but don’t bike in London! Not in the central areas at least. The buses are merciless!) Within any given area/neighborhood, there will be at least a few interesting things to do and see, so plan your day in one area. I know this seems like basic travel knowledge, but being the ambitious person that I am, I thought I could cover at least two areas in a day (but we were also walking and taking the bus a lot instead of taking the subway or cab), and that didn’t always work out so well. London is definitely more like Tokyo in that sense, and New York if you count Brooklyn and Queens and Flushing (and not just around Manhattan), rather than Boston or Kyoto.
The most popular advice I received for London is to “just walk around”. That is at once the dumbest and truest advice. Like I said above, there’s no getting around London’s crowds, traffic, and trains with many stops, so best to just walk a lot. BUT, “just walk around” will make you miss really interesting places, like Camden Lock market, that is quite a train ride away, or the Brick Lane neighborhood and Banglatown, which is right next to the (old and historic looking but actually boring) banks-area, but not apparent and not listed on many tour lists, so again, I would say look up a neighborhood with places you want to go to, THEN walk around. Walk with a purpose!
Since there are so many things to do and see, how do you narrow it down?
I actually looked up food places (bakeries, restaurants, food stalls, markets) that I’d like to visit, then looked up famous sights to stop by around there, which is obviously backwards from what many people do. Either way, I think it’s helpful to just look up a list of places within your favorite topics (“best museums”, “best parks”, etc.), then see which place has the most of other things surrounding it, and then pick that neighborhood for that day. I’m not gung-ho on seeing famous sights, so if there’s a long line at a famous place, I’d rather skip than wait to see it, and go to a back-up option nearby. The goal is to see as much of the streets as possible, hit up the really good food places, and maybe spot a few famous sights. This is why the guidebook’s organization by specific neighborhoods actually didn’t help much, because that means I would have to read everything on the neighborhood to pick where I want to go. My approach, while bottom-up rather than top-down, works well if you don’t have much time to explore each and every neighborhood there is.
Next up: 2. To tour or not to tour? + Street art London! (and other tips to slightly stray off the beaten and probably pee-smelling path of London travels)