This is mostly a London destination guide rather than all of England. The only other place we’ll highlight is Cambridge which you can feel free to skip ahead to.
Alexis and I lived in London for four months from December 2013 to May 2014. It was a bit of rash, last-minute decision that is debatable in terms of wise decisions, but it was a fun experience nonetheless. The craziest part was that our London stint happened during the four months prior to our wedding.
We got to London on New Years Eve 2013, lived there for four months while planning a wedding in Hawaii, moved back to Hawaii at the beginning of May, got married on May 30, 2014, and moved to Thailand a few days later.
What made this all even harder is that London is crazy expensive. Everything is priced basically the same as in the US, but because the British Pound is stronger than the US Dollar, everything ended up being like 70% more expensive. Because of that, our experiences and advice for London are basically all going to be free activities, because that’s all we could afford.
- Get a Waitrose membership card (they give them out for free on the spot) which gets you one free coffee a day. Our flatmate was the proud holder of not one, not two, but three Waitrose cards which allowed him three free coffees a day.
- Another coffee tip: getting your Starbucks coffee to stay allows you free refills. Alexis and I would just get one coffee and split it and keep refilling it as many times as we wanted.
- For big grocery orders, shop online at Waitrose and have them deliver your groceries to your doorstep. For smaller purchases, Sainsbury’s is cheaper.
- Book a short-term flat on Airbnb when you arrive to allow yourself time to apartment hunt. We put a deposit down on a flat while we were still living in DC, which was comforting in certain ways, but we would not recommend this route. Not only is being physically present so much easier when apartment hunting, you won’t run the risk of having unexpected surprises like we had (namely two additional flatmates).
- Download the app, The Cloud, which will automatically connect you to a ton of free wifi spots around the city.
Surprising things about London as an American:
- Hardly anyone is British. Walking around the streets of London, you’re much more likely to hear a language other than English.
- The dogs are extremely well behaved. Most are not even on leashes and don’t seem to notice humans at all. It baffled my mind so much that I wrote a whole post about it.
Everyone says how awful the weather is in London and how it rains all the time. This is not true. For as many rainy days there were beautiful, sun-filled days, and we were there through the dead of winter. For the entire four months it also never once got colder than 30ºF. Winter usually stayed between 40-50ºF, and by early spring, it was consistently in the 50s to low 60s.
- How old it is. There are buildings in London older than the United States. I guess I knew that before living there, but I never really thought about until then.
- How small apartments are. Alexis and I have both traveled around Europe before, so we knew to expect this, but even still, it was a bit surprising. We didn’t even have a living room in our flat, and that was a common theme in a lot of places we looked at.
- How expensive it is (discussed above).
- Running is exclusively done in parks, not on the sidewalks. For the entire first week in London, we saw two, maybe three runners. In fact, we had a running joke (pun intended) that it’s more socially acceptable in London to urinate on the sidewalk than it is to run on it. This arose, as you might expect, from seeing multiple people within a few days performing this unhygienic act.
- Razor scooters and roller blades are still in. These modes of transportation from a bygone era in America are still going strong in London. Sit in Hyde Park for 30 minutes and I guarantee 45 of the 50 kids you’ll see will be kicking along on scooters. The ratio of adults on roller blades isn’t quite as high, but there’s still more than I’ve seen in America in the last decade.
London is a crazy city. We enjoyed our time there, but the overall lesson we took away from those four months is that we are not big city people. The city wore on us — the constant noise, the crowded sidewalks — it just never stops.
In spite of that realization (which, by the way, is a very good thing about travel. Experiences, good or bad, teach you about yourself and the future you want to create), we don’t regret moving there. Keep reading for some of our favourite — yeah, I said favourite — activities.
Click on the “Our Favorite (Free) Places” box.
A: The British Museum is my favorite museum in the world. There’s so much cool stuff in there like the Rosetta Stone, Easter Island Moai, and mummies. It’s so cool. The ethics behind how all of that ended up in British control is a debate I’m unqualified to talk about.
B: Unlike the multiple small-ish parks in DC, London has two main parks: Hyde and Regents. Like NYC’s Central Park, people flock to Hyde and Regents as the only green spaces in the sea of city. Hyde Park is beautiful. It was our “hometown” park. Besides the wide-open green spaces and perfectly placed trees, the park is also home to a beautiful lake and Kensington Palace where William and Kate live. We walked the park and people-watched a few times every week. It’s also a perfect place for a run.
C: The Natural History Museum in London isn’t as great as the Smithsonian’s in DC, but it’s still really cool. The coolest part for me was the building itself. The cathedral-esqe design and feel, complete with brick archways and vast halls, give the museum a very cool vibe.
D: Saint Paul’s Cathedral is huge. And beautiful. And just… very impressive.
E: Connected to Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill is a beautiful spot for a picnic and taking in sweeping views of London. It was right here, in fact, where Alexis and I decided to stay in Thailand after our honeymoon. Stop at the grocery store for some crackers, cheese, grapes, and wine, and head on up for a lovely afternoon.
Click on the “Markets” box.
A: Located under a bridge that the tube crosses over, Borough Market is lively and energetic. Its location lends itself well to making this the final stop on a long day of exploring the south bank of the River Thames.
B: Portobello Market is the antiques market. Not very much food here, but you find all kind of souvenirs, knick-knacks, and antiques.
C: Camden Market is actually three separate markets, but they’re all right next to each other, so it’s essentially just one. This is probably the most popular market in London, and for good reason. There’s everything here — food, clothes, books, music, and this super weird cyborg shop.
D: Brick Lane is definitely the most alternative of the markets. The biggest draw here is the massive food court where you can find any kind of food from Mexican to Middle Eastern to Indian to Thai to German to Caribbean — you name it and they probably have it. The other big draw is the underground record shop. More than any other market, the main constituency here is hipsters. We’re no hipsters, but there’s definitely something very cool about this market.
Food & Drink
Click on the “Food & Drink” box.
A: We hardly ate out in London, but when we did, we probably frequented the Champion more than any other eatery. Amazing fish and chips, good beer selection, and an always fun and lively atmosphere.
B: The Churchill Arms is really cool. It’s a wildly entertaining mix of contradictions. The outside of the building gives it a complete garden feel, step inside however and you’ll be greeted with all sorts of rusty antiques covering the walls and hanging from the ceiling. A lot of it memorabilia from the pub’s namesake. What kind of food do you expect to eat in flowery, Winston Churchill decorated pub in London with Irish flags on the outside? Thai food, of course.
C: We first learned about The George Inn after a street-performing Shakespeare group led the admiring crowd there after a free performance just outside Shakespeare’s Globe. Like I mentioned in the Surprising Facts section above, this place is old. The atmosphere and history is why we liked coming here.
D: Daylesford is a quant little organic cafe. There’s also a cute shop and bakery where you can buy their artisan cheeses and breads and organic meat. All of it comes from their own farm and creamery. When Alexis’ Mom and Step-Dad came to visit, they raved about this place and said it was the best breakfast they’ve ever had.
Our last piece of advice for Food & Drink: Beware of Taylor Walker pubs. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them, it’s just that they trick you every single time into thinking it’s some unique London pub, but they’re not. It’s a chain of pubs that all have the same menu. The food and drinks are fine, there’s just nothing special about it like you’re hoping for when you walk in. It’s like constantly walking into a McDonalds cleverly disguised as a fancy burger joint. To spot them, just look for their logo on the menu posted outside the restaurant.
Like DC, public transportation in London consists of busses and the tube. We didn’t ride the bus too often because it was a little tricky to figure out. The tube was also so convenient and consistent that it made it too easy to never take the time to figure the bus out.
The tube in London is awesome. Most trains come every two or three minutes so you’re never waiting around long. I thought the metro in DC was reliable, but the tube blows it out of the water. It’s expensive though. You pay depending on the zone of your origin and destination. For example, going from zone 1 to zone 3 will cost more than zone 1 to zone 2. You can download a tube map here which shows the zone each stop is located in. I believe rides starting and ending within zone 1 were £2.20, or about $3.70.
To ride the bus or tube, you need an Oyster card. The easiest way to get one is to buy it in Heathow when you arrive. You’ll pay £10, five for the card itself and £5 of preloaded fare. When you leave England, you can sell the Oyster card back at Heathow at get your £5 refunded. You can reload money online, but I always just used the machines at the underground stations.
What further confirmed that we’re not big-city people was our love of Cambridge, a primarily college town, which was much smaller than London.
We highly recommend booking a punting tour. We booked ours at the tourism office upon arrival, but there were tons of university guys asking us if we wanted to go punting every five minutes. You’ll be in a gondola-type boat and your guide uses a long poll to propel the boat up and down the river by pushing off the bottom of the river.
Our guide primarily talked about the history of the colleges that comprise Cambridge University. I did not know before the tour that Cambridge University isn’t really anything. It’s just a name given to the group of colleges that are all separate entities. Meaning, no one applies to be a student at Cambridge University, they apply to be a student at King’s College (pictured above), or Queens’ College, or Trinity College. A big part of the history our guide talked about was the fierce competition the colleges have had between each other since their inception.
Fun fact: Alexis is a former student of Queens’ College. She’s a smart cookie, that one.
While we were there, we also ate at Don Pasquale, an Italian restaurant that was very good, and The Eagle Cambridge, your classic English pub. Before the punting tour, we grabbed drinks and ice cream at The Mill. We would recommend all those places.
To get to Cambridge from London, we took one of the many trains that leave every day from King’s Cross. The journey takes about an hour and ticket prices range anywhere from £10 to £40 each way.