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9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling to London

London Insider Guides
by Matt Hershberger Nov 29, 2017

For one glorious year, I lived in student housing right near Liverpool Street in London. The city remains my favorite of all time: it could win on pubs alone, but I loved the architecture, the history, the culture, and even the weather.

There are a few things, though, that I wish I’d known when I first got there. Things that would have saved me time and money and headache, and which would have allowed me to get even more out of my experience there. Here are a few:

1. The best market is Borough Market.

I spent my first few months in London going to every market I could. There are a ton of them, and they range from the touristy (Spitalfields, Camden), to the not-so-touristy (Petticoat Lane), to the posh (Portobello) to the uber-posh (Greenwich). They are all worth going to. But Borough Market is the best, and the most deserving of your repeat business. The reason is that the food at Borough Market is insanely good, and, for a market that’s literally under railroad tracks, it’s surprisingly beautiful. It also fits nicely into our perfect one-day walking tour of London.

2. There is never a good reason to take a cab.

The Underground is really easy to navigate, and if it’s late, you can just take the busses. They’re hard to navigate sometimes, and it can be a pain if you’re going from, say, Brockley to Liverpool Street Station while drunk at five in the morning and have to transfer twice, but they are a tenth as expensive as cabs, and the top of a double-decker is actually a pretty great way to watch the sunrise over the London skyline.

3. You don’t have to pay for (most) museums.

The Tower of London is, admittedly, worth visiting, but it’s expensive, and it is packed with tourists. Cool as it is to see the Crown Jewels, it doesn’t really hold a candle to seeing the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum for free. And if it’s regal finery you’re looking for, you can always just go to the Victoria & Albert, which is a) free, and b) right next to the Science Museum (also free) and the Natural History Museum (also free).

4. The food is really good as long as you branch out from pub fare.

I came to England with the preconception that British food was terrible. And, if I were to stick with what most people think of as British food, I would’ve been right. Microwaved fry-ups at the pub, mushy potatoes and peas next to a dried-out sausage, soggy fish and chips: none of these are particularly appetizing to anyone who isn’t extremely hungover.

But that’s not really what British food is these days. That’s what British food was during the Second World War — you know, when pasty, mass-produced food was being rationed out between bombings.

London is actually a really great food city, if you get away from the half-assed pub fry-ups (and to be fair, bar food in the United States is not the best either) and towards the restaurants, markets, and gastropubs. To this day, one of the best burgers I’ve had is at Meatliquor near Oxford Street. Tayyab’s in Whitechapel serves amazing Punjabi food. Borough Market is a foodie playland. And Nando’s? How has the US made it this long without going through a peri-peri craze?

The only thing that remains true about the old stereotypes of British cuisine is that you cannot get a good slice of pizza there. And honestly, there’s enough good food you don’t need to.

5. “It’s five o’clock somewhere” is not a thing here.

Very early on in my time in London I would be invited to the pubs for lunch, and I would balk at going. I’d think, “Isn’t it a bit early to start drinking?”

Then I started noticing how, on nice days, the sills around the outside edges of every pub in London were filled with businessmen having a pint on their lunch break. I noticed how the pubs on my campus at LSE were filled pretty much whenever they were open. The British, it turns out, have a more lax attitude than we do about what constitutes excessive alcohol consumption. As the British comedian Jack Whitehall puts it, “Four glasses of wine with dinner in America: you’re an alcoholic. Four glasses of wine with dinner in Britain: you’re the designated driver.”

The cask ales at pubs are generally lower in alcohol content, and the British style of drinking has more of an all-day quality to it. This isn’t to say they aren’t also pros when it comes to going on benders, it’s just to say that they’re willing to start earlier than we are. While you’re there, just enjoy it. It’s a great way to meet people, and it’s really, really fun.

6. Go to a football game, even if you don’t give a crap about football.

The songs they sing alone make the experience worth it. It is not like any sporting event I’ve gone to in the US. And seeing soccer players up close may actually give you some appreciation for the huge amount of athleticism and skill you need to play the beautiful game.

7. The Eye is not worth it.

It’s really expensive, the line is long, and you can see most of what you want to see from street level. If you want a bird’s eye view of the city, try Greenwich Park or Primrose Hill. They’re free and you can have a picnic.

8. Get out of the city center.

Everyone wants to see Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Westminster, and Buckingham Palace. These are all worthy spots to visit, but if you want to get a feel for London, you have to go out to the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s kinda like New York — the real culture is in places where people other than millionaires can afford to live.

I’m partial to East London myself: Shoreditch has a great bar scene, the street art around Brick Lane is amazing, and Hackney has some really cool parks, but Brixton, Hampstead, and Bermondsey are all worth visiting, too.

9. One of the best things about London is how easy it is to leave London.

I love London to death, but I wish I’d known earlier just how many cool things are within a short train ride of London. Brighton, a truly beautiful seaside town, is only an hour away by train. Cute, extremely British towns like Windsor and Henley-on-Thames are a short train ride away. Even doing a quick overnight in Edinburgh is extremely doable (though, to be honest, you’ll want to spend more than a day there). The UK is much easier to travel around than the United States, and, if I could do it all over again, I would’ve skipped spending another day on the South Bank of the Thames, and would’ve gone out and explored more of the country.

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