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London underground with birds

English call it “Tube” but for the birds and the rest of the world it’s still an underground

This is not the cozy, ivy-ladened cottage land of your English literature course. London is where everyone is “with it” and trying to figure out what the next “it” is on top of that. Think Manhattan on speed. Color, lights, lots of cultural pyrotechnics, a hodgepodge battle of the traditional with every freaky thing you can imagine, and you need to be prepared to jump in and let your senses be boggled. It’s heavy on culture—the museums are free and the theater is dirt cheap, SO TAKE ADVANTAGE!

Oh! And if you’re going to get anywhere in London, you’re going to take the tube (the subway) so get a map as soon as you arrive and get to know it.

Staying in London is like living a warped bohemian dream.

House in London

Some historic neighborhoods look very chic and pretty

Something about it make you feel so incredibly hip. The only real problem with it is that the streets make no sense. One night we walked around in circles for a good hour. Even when we asked for directions, the locals seemed to have no idea what they were talking about. I must say though, Londoners are quite polite, especially if you happen to be an attractive teenage girl. The boys there pounce on the chance to take a girl out and show them around.

Bring an umbrella. When it says a cloudy day, it’s going to rain. When they say it’s a sunny day, it’s going to sprinkle.
Stella on her first day in London

Soho! Was I dreaming last night? Lights, lights, all lights! Tall buildings with pink windows, purple cars, restaurants with multicolored velvet seats, slanted mirrors, porn houses with flaming red signs down small, crooked roads! It went on and on. My head whirls— color, lights, people— and yet it’s only Thursday (our first night!) What would Saturday be like?
Florica on her first night in London

WHERE YOU SHOULD GO:

THE NATIONAL GALLERY
For a couple of centuries England was top dog on the International scene (the “colonies,” the “empire,” and the sun which “never” set on it) and so it was able to steal a ton of art from around the world to bring home. Much of it is at your disposal at this magnificent and eclectic museum. Plan to spend a few hours just wandering.

THE TATE MODERN
England’s answer to the Museum of Modern Art… and what an answer it was. Just the sight of this impressive building has made the people at MOMA run out and buy themselves a new one. Not to mention the collection. All your favorite modern artists and a good deal of those of whom you’ve never even heard. Take time to see their Duchamps collection; they’ve got several great pieces, and beware Rebecca Horn’s falling piano.

The Tate was really, really big, and that was nice because it gave you and opportunity to truly see everything… even if just walking from one exhibit to another tires you out.
Isaiah while still recovering from jet lag

I think that tired a lot of the students out, because by the time we got through the Morandi show everyone had just about passed out, and I was the only one who made it to the Arte Povera exhibition.
Tyson who clearly drank his coffee that morning

THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Another bonanza of the spoils of the British Empire. How much loot can one empire grab? Greek sculptures? Take a left as you enter. Egyptian mummies? Right upstairs. You name it, they took it and put it on display for you. But don’t be too hard on them. If they had not preserved any of this stuff, it might not exist at all. Incidentally, just seeing the building itself is worth the visit. It was recently renovated and the results are astounding. Just ask our students:

The greatest part is the architecture— the new part they added on is this huge beautiful glass dome—the way they put it together… it’s really impressive!
Tyson likes domes

WHERE TO EAT:

WAGAMAMA (several locations in and around London)
Udon (Japanese noodles in broth) and lots of it. It’s served cafeteria style, and there is always a line which is how you know it’s good. The line moves fairly quickly though, and it’s not too expensive so give it a try.

THE RESTARAUNT @ THE BRITISH MUSEUM (atop the library)
Very good food, but even better atmosphere. You’re up near the top of the new glass dome which all our students loved so much. Not very cheap, but not very expensive. Splurge a little.

ANY INDIAN RESTARAUNT
They’re all good. (Well, probably not, but we didn’t try enough of them to tell you which are the best. But seriously, it’s hard to go wrong.) Are you near Kensington?—try MEMORIES OF INDIA.

And do lunch in NEALS YARD
Look around. It shouldn’t be hard to find a place.

WHERE YOU WANT TO GO:

One of the centers of real London is off Neal Street in COVENT GARDEN…. all the pubs spill out into the streets at 5pm and you’ll see an obelisk… that’s the real hub… all the hip joints are around, wander and choose one that is full of happy folks.

THE NATIONAL THEATER
Where it’s all happening. Hang out next door at the National Film Theater’s outdoor cafe, and get student seats at the last minute to any of the National’s fare. It’s usually terrific, especially the small theater.

THE OLD GLOBE
Yes, you stand. Two hours standing in the pit really isn’t as bad as it sounds, especially if the play is good (which it often is). Besides, it costs next to nothing and you can smirk at all the tourists who paid extra to sit in the benches. You can look around for celebrities if that’s your thing. We saw two in one evening. (“Yes, Isaiah, that is Helen Mirren. No I don’t think she’s making eyes at you.”)

Oh, and take a RAIN COAT if it looks like you might need it. Wait! What are we saying ‘if’?

If you see an evening performance, go first to the PUB down the river for a bite to eat (about two blocks walk toward the National Theater). It’s genuine English food… the kind they warn you about, but really it’s not as deadly as you’ve been told. After the performance wander along the river. It’s—ahem—”smashing”.

Eye of London and Themes ferry

Eye of London wheel near Themes ferry

There’s also a bunch of TOURIST STUFF (but do you REALLY want to?)
Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s, the Tower of London, and you can ride the ferris wheel (the “Eye of London”) if you must, but don’t blame us if the natives scowl at you.

Photo credits, Creative Commons from top:

London by dChris

London Ferris Wheel by JohnGoode

This story was brought up to us by the San Francisco Art and Film for teenagers

Comments on: "A travelers guide to London" (2)

  1. Thanks for this post! 🙂 it’s very helpful guide if you’re in London for the first time.

  2. Ronald summarizes London so well! I can’t wait to go there and follow his suggestions!

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