Last weekend I went to London for work and let’s just say the trip started less than fortunate. After two months of lolling in the South African sun, I am broke, and London seemed like a great idea to introduce myself for some freelance gigs. Wanting to get there as quickly as possible for some meetings which would hopefully turn into such gigs, I picked one of the worst weeks to go to London: Fashion Week. With that it seemed the city was crowded and overflowing with fashionistas, established and aspiring, and nobody cared that I was coming to town. Luckily my friend Serena did care and offered to host me in her first ever London flat (an expensive rarity), even buying a guest duvet and sheets for me.
Having only been to London twice, once for a day and once for work, I was ridiculously excited to explore the city and decided to add an extra day. That was, at least, the plan, because before I knew it I had booked my return ticket for Saturday instead of Sunday morning. When you fly with airlines like Easy Jet luggage and mistakes are never a good idea, because they will cost you dearly. After having waited too long to book in the first place, my ticket price was already up by quite a bit, I decided I was too broke to change it. Luckily I also decided that it was worth a call and I managed to get the one truly wonderful Easy Jet lady on the phone who agreed to change my flight without charging me for it. This is not the rule, but rather a lovely exception! Still when in doubt, always call and try to speak to a human being instead of crying over a website.
Afterwards, I learned that in order to get from Gatwick to town you have to buy a ticket for the Gatwick Express Train, an additional £30 expense I hadn’t budgeted for. Read this post for some real tips on how to travel London on a Budget and take my story into consideration when you decide on an airport, you can get to town from Heathrow with the regular tube which will be a lot cheaper. First lesson learned. Oh well… here are some other things I learned while in London.
Over & Under
Get an Oyster Card for all busses, the overground, and the underground. You can recharge it as needed on all stations. The genius is that you don’t have to decide beforehand if you need single rides or a daily pass, once you have reached the price of a daily pass with your rides, you won’t get charged more for the rest of the day.
It’s raining, man!
The cliche of a rainy London is, unfortunately, true. Take an umbrella and don’t be surprised if your day starts like this:
…and ends with this view:
London is huuuuuge. So much bigger than I thought and than I remembered. I felt tiny and have since renamed it Big Apple II. And while I usually like to walk as much as possible, I found it pretty impossible to cover the city even with my giant New York stride. The tube and bus system though is really awesome. However, it still takes a long time to get places because – see my comment before – London is huuuuuge!
Mushy Peas & Co
British food is somewhat notorious, but luckily everything in London is yummy. So yummy that my foodie brother created a Michelin-approved list for me where I should eat. I ignored that list because while he added the comment not too expensive, I didn’t quite trust his idea of not too expensive. Also, I had already found the two places I really wanted to eat at: Taqueria and Ametsa with Arzak Instruction. They both came highly recommended by my favorite Londoner and spirit animal, The Londoner, and as I was craving fish tacos I couldn’t resist adding a little Mexican spice to my day. Apparently I was also craving fried oysters, chorizo quesadilla, and Mexican hot chocolate, something I didn’t know until I arrived and ordered everything. Rosie hadn’t promised too much when she called the tacos better than in Mexico or California, because they were absolutely amazing.
While I am usually a bit wary when it comes to hotel restaurants, I made an exception for Ametsa, because I found the name more than a little intriguing and again, it came recommended. It does help that the Halkin Hotel is a grand building and you feel fancy just passing by. We did more than pass by because there is nothing better or more decadent than a tasting menu and daytime drinking than doing just that on a rainy Saturday in London. Ametsa’s menu offers ‘New Basque Cuisine’ which gives distinct Spanish touch: you drink cava, not champagne, and my favorite waiter had the cutest little lisp to his Spanish accent – choritho anyone? – something that makes my knees go weak.
My friend asked for a pescetarian version of the menu and she was promptly accommodated. When she got a tuna with cinnamon smoke instead of beef fillet, I was more than a little jealous. With our seabass came a celery illusion which even convinced me, a celery hater of note, to bite into a ‘celery’ stick.
Let’s just say that it was a really yummy illusion. Luckily we not only had dessert, but also a pre-dessert which was amazing, and some petit fours that were so good I asked my Spanish favorite if he thought it possible to find me some more (not that I could technically eat another bite). All in all, the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon in London and convince me that lunch might be my new preferred meal of the day!
In the evening, we were still full from lunch and it was still raining, so a couch would have been just fine for me. However, my friend wasn’t having any of my excuses and decided that I had to, at least, see the inside of a real British pub. I was not disappointed, London pubs are really like you see them in the movies. We went to The Adam & Eve and I wasn’t quite sure if it was just really authentic or a hipster creation (I think the little tonic bottles that came with my G&T gave it away). There was a pool table, a real fireplace, and a crowd that looked so perfectly mismatched you would assume a casting director was at work – a group in soccer jerseys, Margot from the Royal Tenenbaums, and the cast from Trainspotting. If you go to London, you have to go to a pub! Order fries too, even if you are not hungry, they are just really good and go well with those uber cool tonic bottles.
In London, it is always tea time. I drank more tea than wine and I didn’t even mind. Drinking tea will make you feel immediately more British, you may even start t sport a tiny accent. Why anybody would put milk in their tea though is still beyond me.
Something I didn’t know before is that Londoners are incredibly friendly. Maybe it is due the best humor in the world, but Londoners are really fun to be around. Nobody is rude, nobody is pushing or shoving you, everybody smiles and is super helpful if you need assistance. In a city with more rain than shine and expensive everything that came as a pleasant surprise. Smiles are free and the locals ain’t stingy with them!
It’s London, Baby!
I loved playing tourist in London. You know how I stand on the tourist versus traveler debate and here I cared even less, I was basically Joey from Friends. But how can you not get excited about red telephone booths (the city is planning to refurbish them!), Big Ben, and places called The Shakespeare? Mind you, I got lucky and had a couch to crash on but if you need accommodation here are some great hostels in London which won’t break the bank.
I skipped my favorite, The Tower, this time as tickets are ridiculously expensive, but my inner history nerd was appeased by history all around me and a meeting at Somerset House. If you go to London for work, try to have a meeting there – what a place! That and, of course, a lot of trips on red double-decker buses where I would sit on the top right in front watching London go by. Honestly, sometimes there is nothing better than not feeling at home in a place and appreciating the fact that you are a visitor – even the London rain felt new and exciting.
P.S. I also learned that London is called the Old Smoke, because it was heated with smokey coals until the middle of the 20th century. In addition to that it was often covered in typical London fog, resulting in heavy smog giving it that less than flattering nick name.
Have you been to London? What do you love, hate or have learned about the city?