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Let Me Take You To: Londontown

June 15, 2010

Ah, London.  And if you are nervous about international traveling, this is the perfect first step, and it is truly one of the most amazing cities anywhere.  I got to study abroad there last summer and am kind of in love.  I went there when I was 10 (it was right after my class studied Ancient Egypt, and King Tut was on tour at the British Museum…I was in heaven), but this was my first time back, and more importantly, this was my first time traveling abroad without my family.  I had class in the morning and then was free to roam the city.  So it was a pretty fun summer, needless to say!

Here is the first of a series of guides about London–read on for a few sweet things to see and do in one of the world’s best cities:

What to Eat, Drink, and Be Merry with:

You have to stop at a true British pub while you’re in London and enjoy great beer, ale, cider, and the world’s yummiest drink–Pimm’s!

I’d never heard of Pimm’s before but it was everywhere.  When I first tried it and saw the cucumbers floating around in my drink, I was a little weirded out.  But it tastes SO good.  It’s a gin-based traditional English drink with cucumbers, mint leaves, and sometimes strawberries.  It’s light and not too sweet–kind of like tea and lemonade combined, spiked with gin.  At Wimbledon, the main drinks are champagne and Pimm’s, so that will tell you that it’s a must to try.

File:Cup of tea, Scotland.jpg

And then of course, a visit to London would be nothing without tea.  Teatime is a part of everyday living for many, and when you do it right and get to have all the little sandwiches, tarts, and other treats while sampling unique British teas that pack way more flavor than weak American versions, you’ll understand why! While high tea is a real treat, it is also an expensive one, so a simple fix is to go out for lunch-time tea and make believe it’s the real deal with friends.  My one complaint about teatime is that everything is so good, but the portions are so tiny!  It’s torture to only get three bites of such delicious food.

File:High tea at the Peninsula.jpg

If you are going to try only one tea while in England, I highly recommend Assam–it’s a bold black tea with a strong malty taste.  I’m not a huge tea-drinker but once I tried this kind I couldn’t get enough.

You also have to try fish and chips (chips=french fries) while you’re in London–not so much because it’s good, but because it’s tradition.  Some people love fish and chips, some aren’t so keen on it (I’m in that boat), but you still have to give it a try.  It’s deep-friend cob or flounder caked in breadcrumbs, with fries and mushy peas on the side.  Yes–they are called mushy peas.  It really wasn’t that bad, but because it was cheap and was in every pub, we ate it way too often and got so sick of it about 3 weeks in to the summer.

How To Get Around:

You can take the bus (the double-decker ones are so touristy, but still, you kind of have to ride one at least once), or taxis, but those are pricey.  The best way to travel is by tube–the underground rail system that puts each and every American subway or rail system to shame.  Why oh why can’t we have something this convenient, clean, and efficient.

You hardly need to even think it through–just follow the red bullseye signs for the Underground (another name for the tube).  They are all over, so it really couldn’t be easier.

If you don’t want to be a total city slicker (err, I guess London is a city…you know what I mean), then don’t tube it–walk!!  On a map, London looks huge and overwhelming.  But it is surprisingly small and walkable–true Londoners rarely take the tube.  You can easily walk from the South Bank of the Thames river up through the North Bank to the theater district in 15-20 minutes.  It actually will take you longer to take the tube!  I’m not just telling you this to make you not stick out so much as a tourist, or even to save you money (the tube does cost money, after all)–you should walk because it is how you see and experience EVERYTHING.  See what the tube is all about and use it as needed, but try to walk to as many places as you can.  Walk the city once, and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

If you do take the tube and happen to make your way to King’s Cross Station, don’t neglect to pay homage to J. K. Rowling and visit Platform 9 3/4.  Don’t let the lines of little kids discourage you from posing for a picture, either.  You’ll regret it if you don’t.  And the children will judge you.

Take a Walk Along the South Bank:

My absolute favorite walk was along the South Bank of the Thames, home to the Hayward Gallery, theaters, the London Eye, and countless local amusements.  The South Bank makes for a great walk and I made a point of going there almost every day.  It has a boardwalk feel and there are always street performers, art displays, and amateur groups set up along the pavement.  There is also a well-known graffiti wall  where skateboarders practice, and people are encouraged to spray-paint the cement walls.

The South Bank is especially beautiful at night when the city lights reflect in the water.  I keep a postcard of a view of the South Bank at night by my desk because I loved this part of London so much, and it reminds me of what a great time I had there.

How to Meet the Queen (ok, this didn’t happen):

London is one of the most walkable cities anywhere, so it takes no time at all to swing by Buckingham Palace, where Britain’s royal family lives.  Some people stay for the changing of the guard, but I was fine just seeing the palace and moving on to do other things.  Your choice!

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Must-See City Cathedrals (come on now, you are in London after all):

File:London St. Paul's Cathedral.jpg

Go to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is a 3oo year old cathedral that is distinctive in both religious and secular realms and exemplifies England’s unique union of church and state.

Wear good shoes, because I absolutely insist that you climb those creepily narrow/claustrophobic/ “owww my thighs, I can’t walk anymore!!” stairs and go ALL the way up to the very tippy top of the cathedral.  Why?  For bragging rights, and for a cityscape view like this.

You can also do as I did and, umm, accidentally disregard signs such as these and climb onto the scaffolding on St. Paul’s top tier.  Actually this really was an accident, but none of us regretted it!

The London Eye also gives you a breathtaking view of the city, but St. Paul’s offers a free view, so it’s a good alternative to the Eye that few people know about.  A lot of Londoners consider the Eye to be a complete eyesore that fits in poorly with its neighboring architectural gems like Westminster, but I think it’s a cool addition to the landscape–having the Eye next to Westminster merely symbolizes the blend of London’s past and present:

If you do decide to cough up the pounds to go up in the London Eye, you’ll get a view of Westminster (one of London’s greatest and most well-known treasures).  Check out this amazing view:

Westminster Abbey itself is beyond amazing, but I don’t really have to tell you to make your way to see it–it’s kind of hard to miss.  Basically anytime you get lost in the city, look for the London Eye or Big Ben, and you’re in good shape.  My class routinely got lost on purpose just so we could really learn the city (we had the tube map memorized by the end and could map out by heart almost every major street and landmark!), and we could rest assured that once we saw Westminster we would be fine.  Worked every time!

My professor somehow worked his magic and got us a special VIP tour of the inside of Westminster as well as a private meeting with a member of Parliament, and while I’m still not totally sure how he managed this, there is no harm in seeing if there are any possible guided tours you can go on as well!

Inside Westminster we saw all the royal rooms and the courtroom, and we even saw original tennis balls still wedged into the flying buttresses from when King Henry VIII played tennis in the Great Hall.  London is full of crazy history facts and factoids like this, and Westminster is just one of the many historical treasures the city boasts.

Stay tuned!  There is so much more to London, so be sure to keep an eye out for “Londontown: Pt. 2” post in the next few days, which will feature information on some of the city’s best gardens, museums, and theater (plus, how to meet some sexy British actors!)

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