Photo: Doug Wheller
London is objectively one of the coolest cities on the planet. It’s one of those rare places — like New York, Paris, and Tokyo — to which every world traveler worth his or her salt should go. That said, there are a lot of ways to fuck up a trip to London, and a lot of travelers fall prey to them. Here’s how to ruin your trip to the best city in the world.
Mistake British reserve for unfriendliness.
This is the most common charge I hear leveled against Londoners, and it’s also the most baffling. It tends to come from Americans, who are used to friendliness being packaged in a more outgoing, bubbly kind of way. And that’s not how the English look at the world — they tend to be a little more wry, a little more ironic, and a little less open with their emotions.
Americans often mistake this for unfriendliness or rudeness, and that’s just not right. The English are really cool, friendly people when you get to know them, and if you start off thinking you’re being snubbed or insulted, you’re going to sour your interactions for the rest of your trip.
Whine about the weather.
It rains in London. Bring an umbrella. Suck it up.
Complain about the food.
London has pretty poor culinary reputation in American popular culture, and, while it’s not a Paris, New York, or Tokyo, this is mostly undeserved. There’s some delicious food in London — try the Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern food on Brick Lane, or the literally perfect MEATLiquor, which serves exactly what its name promises — but the fact is, while in London, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in pubs. English pub culture is the best, but pub food isn’t good anywhere, so your mushy shepherd’s pie is hardly a surprise.
Be a teetotaler.
Look, there are lots of great places to be sober. London isn’t one of them. It has one of the best drinking cultures on the planet, and you should absolutely partake. Pub culture is my personal favorite — sitting in a nook and drinking low-alcohol beer for hours at a time while talking with friends is about as good as it gets for me. But the bar, club, and music scenes in London are incredible too.
Pub-wise, you can go pretty much anywhere in the city. If you can, avoid Wetherspoon pubs, as they’re franchised and are basically the same no matter where you are. Which isn’t to say they’re bad, just that you should try as many as you can, and get some variety in there. You won’t have any trouble finding them.
As for the charge about the beer being warm, don’t be a dick — cask ales are delicious, and unlike American brews like Coors Light, British beers don’t advertise their temperatures as the key selling point. (You have no control over the temperature, Coors! Stop pretending you do!) There are still cold light beers on tap in most pubs — order those instead.
For bars and nightlife, I prefer the Shoreditch neighborhood in East London, but there are cool spots in Soho and Brixton as well. There are places virtually everwhere in the city, but — especially if you’re an American like myself — remember to not dress like a complete fucking slob. This is London — you should never wear shorts (ever), and when you go out, don’t wear sneakers or t-shirts.
Don’t read up on your history before you go.
London is such a treat for readers and history fanatics that it’s baffling to me that there are people who go without learning about the city ahead of time. It has existed as a city for 2,000 years (with some settlements apparently well before that), so virtually every neighborhood, pub, and street corner has had something significant happen in it. My neighborhood, Spitalfields, was where Jack the Ripper hung out and, you know, murdered prostitutes. A friend of mine living in Bloomsbury was right next door to the Senate Building, which is what George Orwell based the “Ministry of Truth” building on in Nineteen Eighty-Four. My girlfriend lived a block down from 221B Baker Street — the nonexistent home of Sherlock Holmes.
You obviously can’t read everything about London before going, but at least read some Wikipedia articles about the neighborhoods you’re planning on visiting, and if possible, some works of fiction where London plays a central role: From Hell for the comic book or crime fans, virtually any Dickens for the literary types, or Neverwhere for the Neil Gaiman/modern fantasy readers.
Be afraid of being a tourist.
As in any major city, the residents have a love/hate relationship with tourists, and a lot of travelers are very uncomfortable with being identified and treated as a tourist. But London has so many great tourist attractions that this is a good way to ruin the trip. Get your picture taken in front of Big Ben, take a guided tour on top of a double-decker bus, visit the Tate Modern. This isn’t the time to be a snob — enjoy the city. Just be courteous to the people around you.
As a tourist, one of the best places to be in London is at a football game. English football fans make American football fans look tame, and the songs they’re constantly singing make the game so much more fun than pretty much any other sporting match.
Limit yourself to one area.
London has always been a bit of a balkanized city — residents tend to prefer the North Bank or the South Bank, the East End or the West End. That makes each neighborhood and area relatively distinct, which in turn makes the city a huge treat for travelers. Don’t just stick to Central London. You can’t afford it anyway, and there’s too much else to see. Go everywhere you can. You can pick the London you’re going to fall in love with.