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Visiting London: A Personal Guide

So, yesterday Peter left for London, where he'll be for the next two weeks. As he's not visited before, he asked for recommendations on where he should go and what he should see.

Well, sure. Why not ask me to talk about one of my favorite things ever? :)

Below is an edited version of the e-mail I sent him earlier this morning. I meant to mail him before he left town, but the below took that long to write...!

Okay, first thing you're going to want to do is buy yourself a Mini A-Z. It only costs a few pounds, it has all the streets for Zones 1 & 2 in it, and it's small enough to fit in your pocket. I bought mine a week or two after I got to London, and carried it with me EVERY SINGLE DAY. It's indispensable; I can't stress that enough. (You can find one pretty easily; if you need to ask for it, remember that they pronounce the "Z" as "Zed" instead of "Zee".) And this e-mail will assume that you have one. :)

Once you have that and an Oyster Card, you'll be able to travel around London as easily as you like. Don't be afraid to wander and get lost; not only will you have the A-Z, but all bus stops have maps on them as well. If you don't have a rigorous schedule you have to keep to, it's really fun to set off for an intended destination, but not really planning your route beforehand. If I wanted to go east, I'd get on a bus going east ... and then if the bus turned north instead, I'd get off and hop on another one. It was a fun way to travel. (But again, requires that you're pretty easygoing about your schedule.)

If you are someone that wants to plan his travels pretty rigorously, on the other hand, the TFL's Journey Planner is pretty handy.

Also, especially when you're in Central London, there will usually be signposts pointing out the nearby attractions, so take notice of those.


There's a lot that's touristy in Central London (as you'd expect), but there's a lot that's really fun too. Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, and Covent Garden are all pretty close to each other, with Oxford Circus not far off; exploring from one of these to the next to the next gives you a pretty good feel for the energy of Central. Often high-powered, but very fun, with lots to see and browse.

Also very close to this area is Forbidden Planet (179 Shaftesbury Ave), which you HAVE to visit. It's the largest comic store I think I've ever seen, with not just comics but rooms full of games, toys, books, DVDs, and so much more. The sheer scale of the place is jaw-dropping.

You'll also want to check out the South Bank, a collection of great sites on the (duh) south bank of the Thames. Take the tube to Westminster (off the Circle / District / Northern lines), then cross Westminster Bridge to the east. If you immediately take a left after getting to the opposite bank, you will pass, in short order: The London Aquarium, The London Eye (pretty cool for an enormously high view, if a bit pricey), Jubilee Gardens, the Royal Festival Hall, and the National Film Theatre (check their website to see if there's anything playing that you want to catch; in addition to regular showings of new & old acclaimed movies, they also have special events that are well worth attending). After you pass Blackfriars Bridge and have come upon Millennium Bridge, you will be in front of (behind?) the Tate Modern - and just past that is Shakespeare's Globe. The Globe's theatre season is over, this late in the year, but you can still get a tour.

And something you should not miss is Brick Lane. As the home of the city's sizable Bangladeshi population, situated in the heart of the East End, the area has a compelling style unique to the city. Find your way to the Aldgate East tube stop (off the District and Hammersmith/City lines), then walk east a couple blocks until you hit Brick Lane, and head north. On Sundays the Brick Lane Market operates from 8am to 2pm; this would be your best time to visit, if you can, as the abundance and variety of items being sold in open-air market stalls all along the lane are fantastic. (And Rough Trade is a great music shop just off the lane - check here to see where it's at.)

Finally, if you have a day free, this is a fantastic day trip to Greenwich that my landlord suggested while I was living there, and I highly recommend it:

Take the tube to the Tower of London. Take a tour, if you like. From there, take the Docklands Light Rail (called the DLR) - don't worry, it also takes Oyster Card - to the financial district of Canary Wharf, located on the Isle of Dogs. Then head south, on foot or bus - I walked, and so found myself happy to stumble upon Mudchute Farm, with loads of animals you can view and visit - until you reach the Island Gardens on the north bank of the Thames.

At this point you can take an underground walkway that actually goes underneath the Thames itself (!), and when you emerge you'll find yourself in Greenwich. Follow the signposts to Greenwich Park, and you should soon come upon a rather huge hill. Climbing the hill will take you to the Royal Observatory, which has one of the most amazing views of London that you will ever see. In fact, this is the scene that you saw on my desktop the other night: Looking north from the top of the hill, towards the National Maritime Museum and Queen's House at the bottom, with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf further past, and London City visible far off to the northwest.


Unbelievably, THIS VERY WEEKEND is the London Expo 2009, a mini-convention of comics, sci-fi, anime, games, and everything else a genre geek might dig. It may not be anywhere as big as other conventions you've been to - but it's a London con! Go check it out! :) (I'd been living there for less than two months when I attended as a volunteer; ended up taking care of the cast of The 4400.) You'll need to take the DLR again (it's a treat to sit at the very front, if you can), and get off at the Custom House stop. And follow the crowd.

If you're free on the evening of 10/28 (W) or 10/29 (Th), you should try to go to one of these:
I went on a couple of "Tours of Haunted London" put on by these folk, and they were fantastic; not hokey in the least, and incredibly fascinating stories. If Chris Roberts is there flogging the latest issues of One Eye Grey, could you pick up issues #5-7 for me? :)

Finally, if you've not picked up a copy of TimeOut London upon arrival, do so. (New issue on the stands every Thursday.) You can also visit their website, of course. In either case, make sure to check out the music listings to see if anybody you're a fan of is playing in town while you're there. I went to MANY live shows while living overseas, and is to me one of the other highlights of the London experience.


If you ever see waffles being sold, BUY ONE. (My favorite is the waffle cart behind the Finsbury Park tube stop, but there are vendors all over.) They offer to put various things on top (ice cream, chocolate syrup, fruit, etc), but it's really best to just take it plain. Trust me: They're not like the waffles you're used to; these are SWEET, with a sugary coating, and are to DIE for.

I miss my waffle cart! :D

Pasties and sausage rolls are also foodstuffs that are maybe not the healthiest for you, but are absolutely delicious. Ubiquitous franchises are Greggs, and the West Cornwall Pasty Company. Take a look at their logos if you want to keep an eye out.

I love a scotch egg to bits; you might find one in a random off-license (ie, convenience store). Also while in an off-license, pick up a can of Old Jamaica Ginger Beer for approx 50p. Not alcoholic; it's like ginger ale, except the ginger is so strong it will BURN YOUR DAMN THROAT OFF. (In a good way.)

I know everybody knocks British Food as horrible, bland, and flavorless. I say all those people ARE FREAKIN' NUTS!

And ... I think that's all I've got for now. If you've got questions about any of these, let me know!

Take a billion pictures and have a great time. :)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 23rd, 2009 11:55 pm (UTC)
that was a very thorough study of London! I think because I grew up in the UK it all seems a little more ordinary. I enjoyed taking lewis there, but i can never think of much fun stuff that's not touristy. it's all just good stuff I forget about when i'm not there... or homesick.

just as an aside: an Off-License (or offy) is technically a Liquor store, not a convenience store. they often sell soem snack type items aswell, because well y'know when you've had a few drinksyou get hungry for the crisps and pot noodles :P
Oct. 24th, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)
Yeah, I paused for a second when describing an offy ... but then realized that there might be a regional difference in terminology: In the US, most convenience stores also sell (a lot of) liquor, but something we would specifically call a liquor store generally sells nothing but.

So I described it in American terms rather than risk confusing the poor boy further. :)
Oct. 25th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
Also that is a very thorough guide. I think it is maybe easier to find those exciting/fun/quirky/ off the beaten track things when you're a tourist who's done them before. For the local, they are just something they do or somewhere they go anyway.

I am trying to compile a guide to Chicago and the surrounding area for all my out of towners coming to our wedding. so far mostly it is good places to eat and some regular tourist info.
Oct. 28th, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC)
You may not be surprised to find that as thorough as it is, there's also a lot I didn't mention, or had to edit out to keep at a (somewhat) manageable size. For instance, I mentioned the view from Greenwich Hill as fantastic. I forced myself to leave out the views from the London Monument (have to climb 311 stairs) and Ally Pally (so far north it's off the Mini A-Z). Etc. :)

Regarding Chicago, I'm firmly of the opinion that no visit should ever be considered complete without a trip to Too Much Light. Everyone who hasn't seen it needs to. Everyone who has seen it needs to see it again.

Edited at 2009-10-28 10:17 pm (UTC)
Nov. 4th, 2009 07:15 am (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree about too much light. ALWAYS a good show.
Oct. 26th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
Oh my, I was just in London and reading this made me realize just how much I MISS IT! I've never had the waffles, but I do love me a pasty or sausage roll. Also, one should mention shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, and burgers with melted Stilton.

English cuisine rocks my world. Unfortunately, on my last trip, most of my meals were with co-workers, and they went to trendy or non-traditional restaurants. I prefer English pubs, preferably not too touristy. Cask conditioned ales are wonderful, tool. You can spread brown onion gravy on a paving brick, and I'd eat it.

I'm also very glad I visited Abney Park Cemetery. One can take the rail to Stoke Newington, or, if you like a lot of exercise, take the tube to Manor House and walk. I need to post pics of the cemetery from the trip.
Oct. 28th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
I lived off the Manor House tube stop! :)

YES! I also salivate for Cumberland sausage (SO much tastier than the sausages over here), and onion gravy is gorgeous. "Bangers and mash" sounds like plain ol' sausage and potatoes ... till you try it.

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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