Updated: May 13, 2020
Visiting one of my best friends in England, I've shared the highlights of London. Thanks to viewing the city through the perspective of a friend living abroad, I was able to see things that I would not have otherwise known to visit, try restaurants I'd never have known about, and appreciate London in an unprecedented way.
I arrived in England with unmatched excitement. As the wheels of the plane touched the tarmac of London’s Heathrow Airport, I quickly turned my cell phone on. I needed to text one of my closest friends that I had finally arrived.
Kat had left our home city of Toronto nearly a year before, trading the plethora of high rises dotting the downtown skyline, the overt politeness of Canadians, and the simple familiarity of being on your own soil in exchange for life in ‘The Big Smoke.’ Though the prospect sounded incredibly exciting to me when she first told me about it, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loneliness; after all, who wants one of their very best friends to leave the country for the foreseeable future?
Once the move actually happened, I began planning a trip of my own to London, a city that I had always wanted to see firsthand. Of course, what made it much more thrilling was the fact that I had my very own tour guide to take me to some of the most amazing spots in the city, places that a guidebook would never make a note of. Because of Kat, in addition to seeing this world-famous city as the tourist that I was, I was also able to see it through the eyes of a local.
When I exited the airport, I made my way directly to the London Underground, also known as the ‘Tube’ (or, in Canadian lingo, the subway). I had planned my route with the help of an online map, anxiously boarding the train and hoping that it would be taking me in the right direction. After what seemed like eons on two trains and a city bus, I finally reached my final stop within the Borough of Islington.
Once I finally barrelled through the front door of Kat’s flat to hug the friend I hadn’t seen in months, I washed up quickly, changed my clothes, and we headed out the door to immediately begin exploring. We started by meandering along Regent’s Canal, and I couldn’t help but admire the houseboats lining the stone walls on either side of the water.
These boats were used for both leisure and residential purposes, with some Londoners living inside of them permanently. You can’t help but imagine what your own life would be like while floating towards the River Thames in your very own houseboat. After all, it would be much more affordable than buying (or even renting) an apartment either in London or Toronto.
Once we exited the valley-like pathway along the canal, the remainder of that first day was spent exploring parts of Islington. We popped in and out of pubs while snacking on appetizers, drinking gin and tonics, and catching up on each other’s lives. It’s one thing to talk over text or even on FaceTime, but quite another to enjoy someone’s company face-to-face in the real world.
We decided to end the evening at Kat’s favourite ramen restaurant, a short walk from her flat. As we ate, we laid out a plan of the places I wanted to visit, sprinkled with her own ‘must-see’ suggestions as a local. We planned the next week around these ideas, taking into account the tourist attractions, off-the-beaten-path views, and the eateries that we needed to try out along the way.
On the morning of our first full day together, we had brunch at the nearby Bread & Butter Café, located in Haggerston. After a mouth-watering meal of halloumi and spinach on toasted sourdough (topped with mushrooms, avocado, vegan sausage, and a poached egg), I sipped at my cup of English Breakfast tea while fantasizing about what the day had in store for us. The café was close to the tube, which we then took to South Kensington to visit the Natural History Museum.
This architecturally beautiful branch of the British Museum was built to better manage the mass numbers of artifacts coming into England from abroad, due to the nation’s unfortunate colonial expansion. As its name suggests, the museum specializes in life and earth science specimens, housing around an impressive eighty million items within its five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology.
Upon walking into the (free!) museum’s massive lobby, Hintze Hall, a skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling immediately commanded my attention. From this central point, we began our journey through the museum, able to travel in whichever direction we wanted to explore the many galleries. We spent the better part of three hours exploring each exhibit, taking pictures and reading signage as we became familiar with the museum’s treasures.
By the time we had perused every gallery, our stomachs were beginning to growl. We returned home towards Islington, stopping in Hackney to wander Broadway Market for something to eat. We decided to pick a spot at random, walking into an Old-World Italian restaurant based solely on its retro décor and street view café-style outdoor patio. If it hadn’t been for Kat telling me that Broadway Market was a location that I would love to see firsthand, I would have never decided to go there myself. After all, this area had never appeared in my searches of things to do in London.
The next day was dedicated to a place that had appeared on my searches, however. In fact, it was a place I had been dreaming about visiting since I was a little girl. The stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tower of London is a spot crucial to England’s rich and colourful history. It sits strategically on the River Thames and is the most complete example of an eleventh-century fortress palace still remaining in Europe. From the prison towers, charming row homes that are still standing today, and the awe-inspiring Crown Jewels housed within its walls, there is something here for every history buff.
We each paid our admission and entered through the front gate to begin exploring at our own pace. I was instantly enraptured by the beautiful architecture surrounding me, my heart aflutter as I took in this lovely site with a past equally magnificent and horrifying. My favourite manifestation of these years of evolving façades and structures was easily the emergence of the Tudor style, an architectural style developed in England between 1485 and 1558. As I wandered through the site’s various buildings, I found myself reliving little moments in history that we will never be able to recreate; you can nonetheless attempt to experience them in the imaginations of your mind, while seeing such historical relics firsthand.
After wrapping up our visit at the Tower of London, we walked along the Thames to look out at London Bridge (which we didn’t pay to climb up), then exited back to the street to take a peek inside a church that I had spotted earlier.
All Hallows by the Tower had caught my eye, thanks to its distinctive blue sign, proclaiming that it was “founded [in] 675 AD. The oldest church in the city.” As an undeniable sucker for history, we entered the quiet space to look around. The upper level is lovely in itself, thanks to the decorated pulpit and stained glass windows. Still, the basement offers a chance to run your hands along stone walls laid well over a millennia ago.
The dreamy mix of finding beauty in the dark and historical, incited by my morning at Tower Hill, left me with a desire to see even more. Thus, when we happened to walk past Bunhill Fields Burial Ground on our way back home, a 1.6 hectare (4 acre) cemetery-turned-public-garden, we stopped to walk through it. Little did I know, this was the final resting place of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake, which I discovered as I read faded tombstone inscriptions and a large sign resting at the centre of the cemetery.
The discovery of Bunhill Fields was just a little reminder of why it’s so essential for me to explore cities by foot, taking advantage of these happenstances whenever possible. Of course, the cemetery was also the perfect opportunity for me to pause a moment to take in the tranquillity that London has to offer. Feeding the friendly squirrels and smiling at passersby proved that even a busy city such as this can be peaceful at times.
Flash forward to the following day, when we shifted gears to live a more rambunctious Londoner’s life while drinking gin and tonics on the street (yes, you can drink alcohol while out and about in London!), waltzing about Covent Garden while waiting for our reservation at Mr. Fogg’s Gin Parlour’s ‘G & Tea’ experience.
When we finally entered the parlour, we took our seats and began sampling yet another gin and tonic. Once everyone had arrived and the experience officially began, our host brought us back in time to the Dawn of the Gin Age, pulling us slowly forward through the eras to the modern-day whilst giving us a chance to taste the evolution of the spirit’s flavour throughout time. This was done in little glasses placed at our table, as well as sampling the juniper berry itself (which, I learned, actually has no shared properties with a true berry).
When we eventually selected our gin-infused tea, served in the loveliest teapots, we sipped out of fancy china cups like true bourgeoisie socialites. Meanwhile, we nibbled on a selection of homemade and authentically Victorian sweet and savoury delicacies, including delicious finger sandwiches and an array of small but richly flavoured desserts. From the tea to the food, everything tasted so wonderful!
From here, we decided to keep to the day’s undeniable theme — gin — and walked over to a pub Kat had promised would sweep me off of my feet. The Princess Louise is a traditional Victorian pub in central London, with an interior to match. She explained to me that the sectioned areas lining the bar were intended for those who were once a part of the city’s elite, separated from the larger common area towards the front of the bar that served the working class. Naturally, after having just finished afternoon tea, I felt that we should sit between the etched glass panels to enjoy our cocktails. At the same time, we chatted about the thrilling afternoon we had just had.
This was followed by a walk to the mahogany-panelled Ship Tavern, a sixteenth-century pub in the district of Holborn. Here, a live band was playing music while elderly couples danced their way across the floor of the bar. Tables and chairs were tucked away to the side to make room for the merrymaking, and Kat and I leaned against a nearby wall to take it in. By the end of it all, there was no doubt in my mind that putting pub selections in a local’s hands was the way to go, particularly a local who knew me so well.
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of adventure. We spent brunch at the JW Marriott Grosvenor House’s Park Room, a gorgeous spot for high tea in Mayfair. While Kat ate off of the regular menu, they effortlessly catered to my herbivorous diet by omitting any meat from my plate. From delectable sandwiches with onion and sweet pepper chutney; to Devonshire clotted cream accompanied with rose petal, rhubarb and ginger, raspberry, and blackcurrant British preserves to spread atop both plain and raisin buttermilk scones; to an assortment of tantalizing afternoon pastries including kaffir lime and ginger éclairs and lavender cakes... Needless to say, this was heaven on earth.
We followed this by taking a walk through Hyde Park in our pretty white dresses, making our way towards Kensington Palace to appreciate its gardens, including the Sunken Gardens that Diana, Princess of Wales, so loved. Not far from here was also The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, which we went to see.
Exploring the expansive British Museum, with free admission, was also checked off of my list. As you wander through the halls of the museum, you have the opportunity to see the entire world through a historical lens. These are found in the various galleries, based on areas of our world throughout their history: Africa, the Americas, Mesopotamia and Egypt, ancient Rome and Greece, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
In an overwhelming amount of excitement at having so much world history in my grasp, we found ourselves spinning around the Great Court upon entering the museum from the outdoor security check, unable to decide where to begin. Wandering through the many levels of the museum was an adventure in itself. The detail in so many of these pieces makes them works of art, something that should undoubtedly be preserved for the admiration of generations to come.
The next day led us to Shakespeare’s Globe, a pilgrimage of sorts I made in honour of the playwright who wrote my favourite play, Hamlet. Shakespeare’s performances and their take-home messages defy the tests of time, making them a crucial part not only of England’s unique history, but arguably the general world’s history, too (at least, the English-speaking world). For this very reason, the Globe Theatre is a must-see while in London.
It’s a short visit here if you are not seeing a live performance, and so we ventured to the district of Knightsbridge to see the (yet again, free) Victoria and Albert Museum. With a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects within its walls, the Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, as well as of sculpture. It’s a natural assumption that I completely fell in love with this place, including its lovely little 1773 painting of Marie Antoinette by François-Hubert Drouais
Unsurprisingly, this museum came at the recommendation of Kat. As she suspected, I spent the most time admiring these specific items while visiting, taking in the incredibly detailed textiles, the hand-stitching of ornately extravagant garments (particularly the robes à la française, or sack-back gowns, that I love, but also dresses emerging from the Edwardian period), and the richly dyed fabrics and threads used to pull it all together. As with any time that I can see such clothing up-close, I was in utter awe. So much so, that I found it difficult to eventually leave the museum and return home.
Bright and early the following morning, we finally found ourselves in Notting Hill, enjoying the colourful building façades, antique stalls, and little cafés lining the network of streets. I couldn’t help but picture myself living in one of these lovely homes, the exterior painted lilac, or azure, or the colour of warm sunshine.
When we later found ourselves in Hampstead Heath, a vast and ancient London heath, my dreams of London living shifted there. The Victorian splendour of the area captured my heart. The architecture, the roads, and the romantic Highgate Cemetery all contributed to this. The latter was a spot we traversed for a couple of hours, taking in both the east and west cemeteries with our £4.00 admission fee.
Here, you can find the graves of George Eliot (where you can leave a pen in honour of her legacy as an author), Douglas Adams, Karl Marx, and 53,000 others. It’s such a serenely stunning place to walk through, with green sunlight filtering through the canopy of leaves outstretched above your head.
Nearby, you can climb to the top of Parliament Hill, and from the viewpoint, you can see a stunning panorama of the city. It was a place I had never even heard of before arriving in London; however, Kat’s intimate knowledge of what the city had to offer allowed me the opportunity to also admire this view.
As this was my last day in the city, we decided to stay out much later than we typically had throughout the week. After our last dinner together for the trip, we ventured to Buckingham Palace; after all, no trip to London is complete without seeing the Queen’s ‘humble abode.’ At 11.00 pm, we stood in front of the palace’s large gates taking selfies. As silly as it may sound, it was the perfect way to end the perfect holiday.
Though the city of London is no doubt a wonderful place to visit exclusively through the eyes of a tourist, exploring the less frequented places of this English hub made it feel all the more special to me. Having one of my best friends showing me this popular destination from her own perspective, shaped by her personal experiences and explorations, helped make it as amazing as it was. I wouldn’t have had my first trip to London play out any other way.
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* This article was featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 3, Issue 1
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