Editor’s Note – The following is an excellent guest post from Amie Taylor – a young lady who fell hopelessly under the spell of London. Thanks, Amie!
Hi, I’m Amie, and I’m an Anglophile.
I proudly admit this fact, and it’s evident to just about anyone who meets me. I have Mind the Gap magnets and a full colour London calendar on my desk at work. I’m trying to stop using the letter Z in the spelling of words. My home is dotted with Union Jack décor and Beatles memorabilia. My TiVo is backlogged with episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, The Graham Norton Show, Downton Abbey, and Gavin and Stacey, and I shriek during Tottenham Hotspur football games like a crazy person. Nevertheless, how my fascination with English culture initially began is slightly more embarrassing.
When I was a little girl growing up in Arizona, my friends and I were fascinated with a cult film called Grease 2. We knew the entire thing by heart (including the soundtrack) and we would watch it repeatedly during the lazy days of summer. It was in this film that I first laid eyes on a handsome English actor by the name of Maxwell Caulfield. He had classic good looks, wore sweaters (or jumpers, if you please), and had eyes you could lose yourself in for days. And as if those physical attributes weren’t enough to fuel my adolescent crush, then I heard him speak. My ears immediately perked up when I heard that soft, lilting accent roll off his tongue, as he delivered his cheesy dialogue opposite a very young Michelle Pfeiffer. I remember thinking to my 6-year-old self as I watched him on the screen, “I want to go where people talk like that all the time.” And thus began my love affair with all things English.
I didn’t have the opportunity to visit England for the first time until 2009. I was in London for 4 days as part of a 2-week trip to Europe with a good friend of mine. It was during this trip, on a bus to Luton Airport at a god-awful hour of the morning to catch a flight to Amsterdam, that I wiped away my tears and vowed silently to visit my second favourite country each year—for at least a week—until I eventually moved there.
And I’m keeping my promise. I recently returned from a solo 10-day trip to The Big Smoke. My love for England grew exponentially on my holiday, and I continue to be enchanted by the small island with the very big heart. I learned a great deal about the country I love so much, and I also picked up a few tips along the way about how to successfully travel and enjoy yourself in London as a single girl. So here they are, in no particular order.
1. I offer this first tip as a chronic over packer myself: Pack light, and use a well-made piece of luggage that either has shoulder straps or rollers. I promise you’ll thank me when you don’t have to haul your overly heavy bags up and down a ridiculous number of stairs in various Tube stations. As far as what to pack, it’s all about the layers because the weather in London can change on a dime. One minute the sun is peeking out, and the next there’s an ominous cloud cover and a torrential downpour. Use your trip as an excuse to buy a classy, warm coat, a pretty scarf or two, a compact umbrella, and a cute, comfy pair of rain boots. You’ll use these items well and often.
2. Upon arrival at Heathrow, do yourself a solid. Buy a round trip ticket on the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station. Yes, it’s more expensive than taking the Tube to get to Central London, but infinitely easier not to get lost, especially if you’re a first-time visitor. It will also save you some serious time and a huge headache. That alone makes it worth it in my book.
3. Get an Oyster Card and a Tube map. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can get one before you leave online by visiting the Transport for London website, or you can get one when you arrive at Heathrow, Paddington Station, or at any Tube station. It will save you TONS on travel during your stay, and it can be used on The Underground, as well as on buses. Check the TFL website to determine what type of Oyster card best fits your travel needs. Small Tube maps are available for free at any Tube station. Carrying one with you when you travel can be a lifesaver, especially if there’s an unexpected Tube line closure.
4. Always carry at least 40 pence with you at all times for the ladies’ room. Yes, in many public places, you will have to pay to use the loo. The price will vary from 20 pence to 40 pence (the most common price you’ll see in London is 30 pence), but it’s a smart idea to be prepared. Nothing is worse than having to use the facilities and not having any change on you. Note: you can use the loo for free in most pubs, restaurants, and museums, unless otherwise indicated.
5. Pret A Manger is your friend. This popular sandwich chain throughout London has free Wi-Fi, as well as yummy, cheap, on-the-go food and drink. Of course, you should experience some traditional English fare whilst you’re there. But sometimes it’s nice to just grab something and go, when you don’t have the time or the money for a more formal dining experience. Other chain restaurants I recommend in the city include Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK), Giraffe, Pizza Express, The West Cornwall Pasty Company, and Masala Zone. You can also find ready-to-eat options at supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer (M&S) Simply Food, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. If it’s a caffeine fix you’re craving, Costa Coffee and Caffé Nero are both great, and each have multiple locations in the London area.
6. Stay away from any attraction with the word “Road” or “Market” in it on a Saturday. As in Portobello Road, Abbey Road, Borough Market, or Camden Market, to name just a few. I highly recommend visiting these attractions—just not on the weekends. I also suggest avoiding the London Eye, Covent Garden, Harrod’s, and Piccadilly Circus on the weekends as well. These places are an absolute madhouse, especially on Saturdays, and unless you’re a fan of wading through crowds, I wouldn’t advise it. Wait and visit during the week when it’s less hectic. A good guide book can advise you what days and times to avoid these major attractions in more detail. My favourite (and the one I used on my trip) is Rick Steves’ Guide to England.
7. Most museums and parks in London are free, so visit them! The museums do ask for a small donation to help keep them free for everyone, so it’s considered good manners to donate a pound or two when you visit. Some of my favourites include the Tate Modern, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), The National Gallery, The Museum of London, and The National Portrait Gallery. As far as parks go, I highly recommend Green Park, Richmond Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, St. James’s Park, and Hampstead Heath. Note: There’s a small coffee stand at the overground station at Hampstead Heath that makes the best chai latte I’ve ever had in my life. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a walk on one of the many beautiful footpaths.
8. Take in a show (or two) using the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. If you’re not familiar with the genius that is TKTS, let me fill you in. You can score half-price theatre or musical tickets to just about any show in The West End on the day of the performance, and sometimes a day or two before. You just have to be flexible with your times. I was able to score a front row, centre seat to see an evening performance of The Country Girl at the Apollo Theatre for half the price of the ticket’s street value. And don’t be fooled by some of the other ticket brokers in the Leicester Square area; purchase your tickets from TKTS only. You could be getting scammed otherwise.
9. London is a hub of live music, so soak it up! Being a capital city, London is the place for up-and-coming musicians, as well as more established acts. You might not be able to get tickets to see an act like Kings of Leon at the O2 Arena during your visit, but you can see lots of performers for less than £10, or even for free. Some venues to check out include The Regal Room (above The Distillers Pub) in Hammersmith, The Bedford in Balham, and The Monarch in Camden. If you do a little Internet research beforehand for what’s on during your holiday dates, you and your ears will be pleasantly surprised and entertained.
10. Take a day trip or visit another country. There are several options for day trips to other cities in England from the London area. I chose to take a day trip to Brighton during my holiday, and had a lovely time. From the train ride there, where I saw some of the most gorgeous English countryside, to a walk along Brighton Pier and the surrounding rocky beaches, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had in Blighty. Additional options for day trips from London include Bath, Windsor, Oxford, and Dover, amongst others. You can also take a trip to France and many other European countries for less than you’d think. Once again, do a tad of research before your trip, and you’ll surely reap the benefits.
11. There is truth to the rumor that Englishmen are shy. I’ve experienced and witnessed this firsthand, and I’ve also confirmed it with a few of them as well. Don’t take it personally if you aren’t approached or given a chat-up line during your time there. Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Stiles have also experienced this in London Town, so you’re in good company. British men tend to be more reserved than American men when it comes to flirting and dating, and they also tend to travel in packs. But one thing is consistent with men of both nationalities, no matter which side of The Pond you’re on: If there’s an important sporting event on the telly, don’t attempt to strike up a serious conversation with one of them. As He’s Just Not That Into You taught us, don’t waste the pretty.
12. Use basic common sense when it comes to safety. Obviously, it’s not a smart idea to walk down a poorly lit street in a sketchy neighborhood alone after dark, no matter where you are in the world. And as charming as England is, London is still a capital city and has its fair share of crime. Just be smart, not neurotic, about your personal safety when out and about and you’ll do just fine. I was out by myself in the city constantly, during the day as well as in the evenings, and I never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe. In fact, I’d venture to say that I felt safer travelling alone in London than I did in New York City. Just use your head and always be aware of your surroundings, whether using a cashpoint machine, riding the Tube, or walking in one of the Royal Parks.
13. Be mindful of the language and cultural barrier. Newsflash: People speak English in England. But if you’ve ever seen an English film or television show, then you know there are some words that don’t have the same meaning in England that they have in America. Case in point: A male English friend of mine once met up with an American friend of his in a pub. His friend exclaimed very loudly above the hullabaloo, “It’s good to see you! I love your red suspenders!” The pub suddenly silenced. My English friend replied in a timourous voice, “Thanks, but did you have to tell everyone?” It turns out that, to a Brit, the word suspenders means garters—or more particularly—a garter belt. What Americans call suspenders, the English call braces. Another example: the word fag actually refers to a cigarette in England, and isn’t considered a derogatory term. I highly recommend perusing an English slang/colloquialism dictionary before your trip (there are several available online for free, including one here on Anglotopia), just to get familiar with some of the words and phrases you might hear during your holiday.
Another thing to remember is how Americans can be perceived overseas. Always be mindful of how loud you’re speaking and how frequently, whilst in public places. One of the biggest differences I noticed in London came when I was riding the Tube. Compared to the chatter and noise level I observed on the subway in New York, the London Underground is practically a library. You won’t really observe the Brits being overly loud or obnoxious (whilst sober, anyway). Just be sure to conduct yourself accordingly. You’re always representing your country when travelling, whether you’re aware of it or not.
Do any of the other ladies out there have any London travel tips?