Returning to (and Redeeming) London

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My recent week in London was yet another exercise in how travel is contextual. The places that resonate with us on our travels tend to only partially have anything to do with the actual place itself. Instead, the places we cite as being our favourites tend to be more related to the people we are with, our headspace at the time, what we are doing, and why we are there.

A couple of years ago, I spent some time in England; house-sitting in Hampshire, visiting Winchester and Avebury, staying in York, and checking out Whitby were my main activities. And of course, with London being the hub that it is, it’s a little difficult to get in and out of England without at least passing through London.

This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

London – Before

Every time I’ve visited prior to 2012, I’ve been passing through. Even in spending a couple of days there, I was still enroute to somewhere else, such that London was never the actual destination of choice; it was merely on the way to somewhere else.

As such, my mind was always elsewhere, and London didn’t do much for me. I thought the tube was expensive (it is), the streets were crowded (they are), and I was dismayed at the incongruity of architecture – the city appeared to me to be a jumbled mass of buildings thrown up through the centuries with little attention to aesthetics.

I was nonchalant at best in my feelings about the place.

Central London

London – 2012

In spending a week with a local friend (London being the destination unto itself), I had a chance to see the city with different eyes.

Even in a short week, I felt the energy and buzz of the city, got used to the layout and transportation, and covered a fair bit of territory.

And as such, I came to a much more favourable attitude towards London.

The Professional Hobo (Nora Dunn) in a big green chair

Yes, the tube is still expensive.

Paying for the tube (which is “London-speak” for train or subway) on a ride-for-ride basis is murder. An 8 day pass is better, paying for itself if you use public transportation three or more times in a day. And given the intricacy of the tube system and prevalence of iconic red double-decker buses (check out the video below to see for yourself), you’d be cheating yourself not to take advantage of it.

For locals, I understand that weekly and monthly passes are a better deal yet.

But it still ain’t cheap. A friend of mine moved here years ago as a young adult to immerse herself in the thriving music scene. However after a couple of years, she realized she was working to live (the tube is just one example of how London is an expensive place to live), and had no time or money remaining to do the things she actually moved to London to do.

(I wonder how many people live in London to do little more than make ends meet).

The Big Eye on the Thames

Yes, it’s crowded.

At just about any time of day or night, the main drags of London are crowded. There is a general crush of people wherever you go – people from such a diverse range of cultures speaking so many different languages that you might be hard-pressed to identify what country you’re in if you were blindfolded and dropped in the middle of the city with no bearings.

I enjoyed the general buzz of the city, and the multi-cultural feel that reminds me of my home town of Toronto. At the same time, I occasionally felt a little bit panicky with all the people; any sort of mishap causing a mass hysteria would be tragic. I don’t normally like to think on those terms, but hey – crap happens, and London is far from impervious to mishaps. So I found the mass of energy from all the people around me to be a little bit overwhelming. I still like cities – but not generally to live in.

eyeing The Eye

Yes, the architecture is jumbled.

This is where I experienced the biggest change in attitude. When I was in York visiting a friend a few years ago, I admired how seamless the architecture is, how aesthetically pleasing it is, and how the history has been so well preserved. (Something I found to be in contrast to London).

My York friend wasn’t quite as obliging. He commented how even new buildings are built to conform to the old style of architecture despite certain impracticalities; a somewhat randomly-selected era that has been frozen in time and replicated with no regard to cultural or practical evolution.

graffiti park
Olympic additions to the graffiti park

With this observation in mind, I approached London with fresh eyes this visit. Although I still found the older buildings more aesthetically pleasing than the modern structures, and although I sometimes thought the juxtaposition of buildings from various decades and centuries was a tad jarring, I now respect London’s ability to grow and evolve with the times. London strikes a balance between preserving the old and moving forward with the new.

London is a world-class city.

You can’t walk the streets of London and not feel its influence and power. This city has attracted 12 million residents from all over the world; there’s a reason for it.

Being accustomed to influential North American metropolises like New York and Toronto, I found that by contrast, London manages to marry a much longer and richer history with modernity. And even in comparison to other large European cities I’ve visited, London has more of a modern edge while retaining its history.

And, it’s green.

There’s beautiful parkland interspersed throughout the city, so you never have to go too far to reach some greenery. This also makes for excellent bicycle transportation through the city.

Trees that are hundreds of years old line many of the avenues in older neighbourhoods too; a natural tribute to London’s history and preservation of nature.

Princess Diana memorial

 As a park-related aside, I enjoyed visiting the Princess Diana memorial….a circular fountain that flows in two directions. Although it’s incredibly simple there’s also beauty in the simplicity, and intricacy in the texture and shape if you take the time to examine it. Kids (and adults) all play in the fountain, walking/wading around it.

Wanna see for yourself?

Here’s a 50 second time lapsed tour (via double-decker bus) through the centre of London. Notice the prevalence of buses, and the general hub of activity on this average day at a non-peak time. This city moves!

Click here to see the video on YouTube.

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21 thoughts on “Returning to (and Redeeming) London”

  1. I’ve observed lately how most people who say that London is kinda “meh” are Canadians (including us). Is it because we are bitter that we still have to pay taxes to the Queen? I think maybe… 🙂

    We were there for three weeks and came away unimpressed. Perhaps a different perspective there would change our mind on it, but I’d prefer to just keep moving on to somewhere new. London had it’s chance with me…

  2. London is damn expensive, but my wife and I love it. It is the primary hub for Europe so our visits there are generally stopovers, but we do love the city.

    There is an amazing theater district, as well as museums and art galleries. Areas like Camden town are rich with restaurants, bars, cafes and live music. There is just such an energy in the city. Not to mention the fact that it is English speaking so we can browse around in bookstores and actually understand the musicals.

    It would be tough to live there because of the costs, but we always look forward to visiting.

  3. @Dalene – I hadn’t thought of the tax thing as an underlying reason to dislike London – Ha ha! I read your “Meh” post on London, and that’s certainly how I initially felt about the place. You got some great pictures though!

    @John – Yes! The theatre! As a former professional actor/singer/dancer, musical theatre is a vice of mine around the world – and indeed, it’s nice to see shows in English.

  4. I wasn’t too fond about London. I added it to my itinerary last year when I’ve been to Europe, to use it as a stepping stone to visit Stonehenge. It’s an impressive city, yes… but perhaps it’s the overly presence of the monarchy (yes, I’m from Quebec)… but it wouldn’t make my top list of cities I’ve visited. Overall, my judgement was an average city, greatly overrated, but required to visit in my opinion, just based on the history.

  5. Ha. All those things are true about London. Glad you had a better experience this time around. The parks in London are awesome.

  6. @Sylvain – Yes, the history makes it worthy of a visit, but London is ultimately just another city. I’m not a big city person to begin with, so it takes something extraordinary about a city to really enthral me.

    @Stephen – I’m glad you concur! Sounds like you’ve got some experience there.

  7. I love and hate London – but living there for four years will do that to you. I agree that it’s a world-class city but the weather sometimes just really gets to you, especially in winter. The Tube is a pain but its better than nothing, and there’s heaps of green space but you can’t enjoy it for half the year. Interesting post.

  8. @Simon – I think most of us have love/hate relationships with the big cities we live in! Cities – by their very nature – are an amalgamation of so many elements that we rarely like everything about them.
    I didn’t address the weather factor – but yes, that is another prevailing reason why I’d be hard-pressed to call London “home” for any length of time. (Then again I’m on a permanent mission to avoid winter, so I’m not the most open-minded to cold weather!).
    Thanks for your comment.

  9. Aw you’re going to make me homesick! Glad you got sunny time down the South bank. It’s the place that most makes me love the city on a summer’s day.

    No to the ‘meh’! There’s so much to see and do – all the world class museums and galleries (free, too), an outstanding live music scene, brilliant pub food, more history than you can take in. I love the lack of structure and that I can still get lost in areas I know really well.

    Not everywhere is insanely expensive, but I suppose it’s like most big cities and you’ll struggle to find them as a visitor. That’s why I was happy I got to visit NYC and stay with a local, to get at the ‘real’ city. I think London’s the same, tough to scratch the surface.

    What I love about it (the cultural diversity, the heavy sense of history, the messiness) are all the things that made me struggle when I started working there. Like most of us Brits it can be standoffish to begin with, but it’s well worth the perseverance. Glad you got to revisit 🙂

  10. @Katy – I think you tapped into one of the core issues for travelers: how do you find the inexpensive (and cool) areas of large cities? But you also solved the issue: make sure you’re in the hands of a local who knows the city!
    I saw many of the galleries and museums the last time I was in London, and admittedly (despite me not being a “museum/gallery person”), I quite enjoyed it.

  11. I will be visiting London (as the actual destination) at the end of this week, and it has been a dream of mine to go there for many many years. Loved this post!

  12. I can’t believe London ever let you down to begin with!!!

    I just moved away after living there for 4 years, and I will never be able to shake my complete adoration for the place. Of course, I love crowds, rain, and I’m willing to put up with über-expensive public transport… ^_^

    I hope your last visit really did change your mind on London; it’s one of the greatest places in the world if you look past everything touristy and get to know it!

    • Hi Ian,
      To be honest, I’m still somewhat ambivalent about London! What is it about the place that really catches your heart?

  13. Over the years I’ve been to the UK and to London several times for extended and short periods of time and I absolutely loved it then and sill love now…your question to Ian resonated with me and the answer in my case is…The English people captured my heart and I fell in love with the place.

    • Nice! Indeed I found many English to be very hospitable, and there’s no getting around the fact that London is a world class city!

  14. I really believe that London is the kind of city that has two sides to it; the side that most visitors see, which is slightly drab and overcrowded, and the side that locals get to see, which is a vibrant European capital that offers a different kind of lifestyle than most of the continent.

    Whether it’s getting a curry on Brick Lane, strolling through the Heath in the Spring, or drinking bubble tea in Soho, London has a lot more to offer than most people realize. You just need to be willing to search a bit. What London lacks in outgoingness, its makes up for in thousands of hidden gems that are well worth seeking out.

    Even I discover new things every time I go out with my friends, and that’s what I love about London. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you never run out of new things to do, places to see, or people to meet.

    One of my main hobbies is gushing about London, so forgive me if I sounds like an ad for London tourism 😛

    But I really think London is more than just a place to tick off on your travels. It’s a British city full of thousands of microcosms from around the world that are incredibly fun to explore. Just don’t get caught in the middle of a riot. Or a Tube strike. Or a crowd of football fans.

    I hope you visit London again soon!!!

    • Hi Ian,
      Much of what you love about London is similar to what I love about my home town of Toronto – so much to see and do, a massively intercultural environment, and food galore!
      And maybe because London is similar to Toronto, that’s why I don’t hold those (otherwise awesome!) qualities in particular reverence.
      But there’s no getting around it; you make London sound pretty cool! 😉

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