I honestly wasn't sure how I was going to like London based off feedback from friends and co-workers who had been there before. The response was all over the place. A couple people loved it, many were neutral, and some didn't like it. The other city we were visiting on this trip was Barcelona which on the other hand had an overwhelming "OH MY GOD YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE IT" reaction. I ended up loving London! It's huge city that remains friendly and laid back while maintaining a steady pace. We were lucky to have friends who live there and were able to explore beyond the guidebook attractions. Every casual traveler knows the highlights of London: Big Ben, The Eye, Parliament, Tower Bridge etc... which are all beautiful and completely worth seeing. When I travel I always enjoy taking note of the different quirks that each city has to offer. Here are some of unique notes on London:
- Watch out for the pigeons!!!
I'm a New Yorker, I am very familiar with our dirty, ugly sidewalk pets and generally don't enjoy their company. But I have to hand it to the New York birds, they usually give us plenty of room when they fly over our head. Their London counterparts on the other hand will happily graze the scalp of any passerby, possibly as a statement to say "screw you for making me fly out of your way". I constantly found myself challenging the much braver pigeon to a game of chicken. Maybe they're just lazy and don't want to work too hard or maybe they enjoy the excitement of a near collision. Whatever the reason is, I will never take the New York pigeon for granted again.
- Locals don't know street names
A common stereotype about men is that we don't like to ask for directions. I on the other hand enjoy asking for directions, it gives me an excuse to approach a local and the information that they share could prove to be extremely worthwhile. So whenever we were lost in the somewhat confusing streets of London we would ask away. There was only one problem. Nobody else in the city knew where we were going either! Our first night after 8 hours of traveling, standing outside of massive Victoria Station we started pestering strangers about where nearby Belgrave Road was, with no luck. We eventually walked in the right direction and realized we were only a block away. On our last night we got off at the confusing Bank street station in East London and once again were determined to ask anyone walking by for assistance. A few I don't knows - some rushed and some patient, but thankfully a knowledgeable police officer pointed us in the right direction. Police officers actually seemed to be the best people to ask. I asked a cop in a snazzy BMW 5 series where Lisle street was. He had no idea, but helped out by typing it into his high tech GPS system, that did the trick!
- If you're hungry late at night ... go to sleep!
It was our first night in London and we were starving! It was just after 10PM. Ok, let's explore the neighborhood, there has to be a nearby pub open, I thought out loud. Thankfully there was an open pub a few streets down, only problem was their kitchen was closed! We looked at each other in surprise, it was a Friday night for crying out loud. It was the same story at the next few pubs we strolled into. What the hell! We walked over to the area next to the theatre, and our stomach's prayers were answered, as there was a restaurant filled with people eating! We asked the incredibly nice Spanish waitress why this was the only place open at the hour. "We're only open because of the theater next door, this is London!" We explained that we were from New York and that this felt odd. Sunday night after a failed attempt to get into club that required a passport (must have been some new foreign country) we once again found ourselves hungry. The only place open was McDonald's - and damn the place was popping! I swore off Micky D's two years ago but had to give in and chowed down on nuggets. Not a proud moment.
- Look Left! Look Right!
The big white letters at each street corner spelling out either LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT with arrows pointing direction are lifesavers! I'm a fast walker and a pro at navigating Manhattan crosswalks. It's so natural to look the correct way and boldly cross. One simple difference in London, all traffic drives on the left. It seems like something easy to get accustomed to but it really isn't. I'm sure we weren't the first people to realize this, and the city decided to do something about it. I wonder how many mowed down tourists it took to get these implemented, but I'm happy that they are a permanent part of the bustling streets.
- Londoners love New Yorkers!
I'm a big fan of accents. I think they're incredibly interesting and often times I wonder how they became established. British accents are one of my favorites along with Australian. I was amazed by how many Londoners loved my New York accent and the fact that I lived in the city. Some people's eyes lit up and gave me a huge smile upon hearing this news. "Oh my god, I've never been to New York City" a young lady at the counter of a diner said. "I always here about the beautiful buildings, all of my friends love it" she continued. She wasn't the only one, many people that we met across London expressed their love for New York. I wonder how people would react if they said they were from LA or Boston. Would they get the same positive reaction from being from the states? Or is it purely a New York obsession? My vote is for the latter.
- The food is good in London
A few people warned me about the food in London, claiming that it was nothing special. An English guy in a Queens ice cream shop even told me to bring my own food. I enjoyed the food scene in London. It was diverse and had all the options to satisfy any eater. Again, we had the luxury of having local friends who took us to some of their favorite spots, so we cheated a little. One highlight was an Indian restaurant called Masala Zone. They have a few locations across the city, but we chose the location in the heart of Covent Garden. Their specialty was the Grand Thali, where customers choose their curry with multiple side dishes including potatoes, lentils, rice, veggies and sauces. We added a fantastic naan with almonds, soaking it in sauce as a delicious end to the meal. The pub scene is great for food and they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. The "traditional English breakfast" was particularly enjoyable and only cost around 5 pounds. It consisted of fried eggs, big slabs of bacon (unlike thinner American style), sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans and if you're lucky black pudding in the center.
London is a great city, and has the quirkiness, unique flaws and misconceptions that any other city in the world has. There is still so much more to explore and discover, but keep these things in mind once you visit for the first time. I'm sure you will find your own unique London!