Becoming a Londoner: Lessons from a Friend Living Abroad

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.

A house façade in Notting Hill. Photo by Emily Fata.

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.

The entry to London's Natural History Museum. Photo by Emily Fata.

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.

Stairwell within the Natural History Museum. Photo by Emily Fata.

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.

Inside the Tower of London. Photo by Emily Fata.

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.

A little friend we made inside of Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. Photo by Emily Fata.

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 elder