When planning my backpacking trip, I always thought of London as a gateway city, the natural stopping point before entering the EU. I looked forward to visiting, but not with the level of enthusiasm I felt about… well, pretty much anywhere else on my trip. (Mostly I wanted to go to visit the Harry Potter studios, which I DID successfully do, and I can confirm that this alone was worth the trip to London.) I think I romanticize exoticism when I travel, and in my perceived idea of London, it wasn’t foreign “enough.” I pictured a huge international city that would feel indistinguishable in a lot of ways to other big international cities. I didn’t allot much time for the city. When I ventured downtown from my hostel on my first full day in London, I left the metro station, walked down a street, and saw a Foot Locker, a Five Guys, a Burger King, and a TJ Max next to each other. I thought to myself, well here I am in any city in North America.
I’ve thought a lot on this trip about the ways our expectations and preconceived notions impact our actual experience of a place. Do we love the places we expect to love and care less for the places we assumed we wouldn’t? Or do we dislike places that don’t meet our expectations and love the places that surprise us? How do we consume enough information about cities to know we want to visit them but not so much that our expectation can’t live up to them?
On that first day, I wandered until I found a pretty café in Covent Garden where I sat with a perfect almond croissant for a weirdly long time. The week before it had been over 100 degrees in London, but that day felt pleasant. My head hurt from lack of sleep, and I had already decided that London would be a place of errands instead of exploration. I decided I would restock my toiletries and supplies I’d run out of while I was there since it was the last country I’d be in where I could read the labels easily. I’d buy the new insoles I needed for my shoes. I’d do laundry. I’d get snacks at Whole Foods for my long bus ride. I’d basically treat London like a North American city of familiar things I wanted. But of course, this was naïve. Pharmacies had tiny stocks of some familiar brands but mostly unfamiliar ones and none of what I wanted. The metro was not as intuitive as I’d assumed it would be, and I spent a long time lingering in the station trying to read the maps on the wall. Whole Foods had herbs growing in refrigerators. I’d underestimated London and created a version of it in my head that was convenient for me (and a horribly unfair downgrade).
As it turns out, that first moment I emerged from the underground was at the Piccadilly Circus stop. I would certainly not want a person to judge New York City by emerging into Times Square. The problem with cities like New York and London is that being a tourist often shows you the very worst bits of a city, and it takes so much longer to uncover the reasons to love them.
I summoned the energy somehow, and during my two days in the city, I went to the Borough Market for lunch and found the most magical food hall I could imagine with food from around the world. I visited the British Museum without even really knowing what it was, and it turned out to be an absolute dream of a place filled with all the history that thrills me most. (However, I somehow missed the fact that the Rosetta Stone was there. I only found out hours later when James asked me if I’d seen it, and I immediately went back a second time to find it.) I went to Camden Market and found a very different area of town than I’d seen yet. I went to the Tower of London and saw the ravens and crown jewels. Basically, I spent 2 days seeing like .5% of the city and recognizing that it would take me a month to even see enough to have a real opinion.
On my last day in the UK, I went on a day trip to Oxford. It was everything I hoped that England would be—history, literature, gargoyles. I loved it immediately and could have spent days there. In Oxford, I had exactly one cup of tea and a single scone, so I feel like I had the true British Experience after all.
Things not to miss in London:
- Ride a public bus on the top deck. You can see so much more of the city riding buses than if you only take the metro.
- Find a raven at the Tower of London and sit uncomfortably close to him
- Eat all the things at Borough Market.
- Visit the British Museum and don’t miss the Rosetta Stone like I did.
- Take a daytrip to Oxford and tour Kings College.
- Feast on Indian food.
- Obviously take the Harry Potter studio tour, even if you have to pay double the price like I did.