Back from London a few weeks ago, but a piece of my heart still lingers there.
This is the land where Shakespeare wrote plays, where ambitious kings and scandalous queens ruled, where the gentleman’s clothing the ‘suit’ was invented, where the famous forgotten glare down at you from stone horses all across the city, where the river Thames holds secrets of love and revenge, adventure and misfortune, hidden in full view.
While exploring the touristy bits of London was important to a backpacker like me on a budget, experiencing the city like a Londoner is where the real thrill lies.
- Avoid the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus and choose to walkacross Central London. Explore Leicester square, Westminster, Oxford Street on foot. You will not only enjoy real feel of the place, but also venture into shops and corners, you would have otherwise missed. I spent my evenings strolling down the Thames, people watching, reveling in the spirit and culture of a place so vibrant and welcoming of all. London’s cosmopolitan variety extends to its cuisines, restaurants, bars, theatres and markets.
- While cycling through Hyde park or strolling through Kensington Gardens where Peter Pan comes from is fun, the green carpet of Hampstead Heath is where I rolled free spirited, in the grass without a single care in the world. Not on any tourist map, Hampstead Heath is a huge grassland amidst ponds, making for a free yet perfect picnic spot and a doggie paradise. Pack some wine, cheese, fruits and set yourself up for a cheap and cheerful fun day in the outdoors with your family, friends and pet.
- Days were spent exploring the markets and the street food scene that London has to offer. London’s markets make great yet affordable shopping destinations with several good bargains selling everything from flowers and food to art and antiques and foods from across the world.
- Camden is a thriving market area. Open through the year it hosts shops selling vintage jewelry, artwork and gifting items, music records and a variety of food stalls.
- Borough market stacked with gourmet food, is a paradise for fruits, meats and cheese.
- Portobello, my favorite has been a market since the 1800s and is famous for its antiques, posters, breads and cheese. After feasting on the market, wander through neighboring Notting Hill and let the magic of the movie wash over you as you chance upon the bookstore.
- Watching a play in one of the many theatres across London is a fun experience and if you keep your eyes open, chances are you would stump upon a free rendition somewhere nearby. Busking happens all across London’s busy streets. Enjoy the music and if you’ve up to it, step in and shake a leg just like I did to the Spanish guitar, one happy high night at Tottenham Court Road.
- London’s tubes are one of the world’s best public transport systems and with the oyster card making it affordable, it’s easy to explore the quitter neighborhoods in and around London. While many visitors stay within the confines of Central London, choose to go beyond for a day or two into lesser visited neighborhoods where you will chance upon delicious yet cheaper versions of the local food and a real taste of what London has to offer.
Enjoying London often quoted as one of the most expensive cities in the world does not mean breaking the bank. Feast on local street food, picnic in one of the many gardens, and stroll down the Thames by night. The river runs like dark silk through the heart of the city, and the bridges dance with light. There are corners of silence in the revelry of the West End and Soho, and in the inky shadows, foxes patrol Hyde Park.
London does, though, have a wicked and dry sense of humor. It is clever, literate and dramatic. It is private and aloof, a sophisticated temptress, but surprisingly sentimental.
As my plane took off from Heathrow and London started to get tinier in the distance, I felt the tug and pull of a city I hope to call my own someday.