Thanks to a work trip, Anya and I had an unexpected chance to visit London in March 2011. I’d been there several times before and was happy for an excuse to go back.
When Americans visit European capitals, we expect to see monuments, palaces, and cathedrals. In that respect, London is easily one of the best. Some of these places will invoke nostalgia even in the first time visitor. We’ve all seen Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from across the Thames so many times via TV & movies that you feel like you’ve been there before – even if you haven’t.
Great museums are also a staple of a trip across the Atlantic, and London delivers in this category also. All the city’s museums are free, which allows for quick, low-commitment visits (and none of the “queues” that plague Continental museums). First-timers will probably want to visit the National Gallery, the British Museum, and Tate Modern, which are amongst the top such institutions in the world (try to avoid weekends; free also means crowded). This time we wanted something new, so we visited the Natural History Museum with its spectacular entrance hall, and the unexpectedly awesome Victoria & Albert Museum. If you want something arty but have grown weary of painting & sculpture, or if you’re a designer (of any kind) looking for inspiration, definitely hit up the V&A.
Having experienced the London nightclub scene on past visits, this time I wanted to relax at some “authentic” British pubs. This is where my naivet???é??? started shining through. In Seattle, nearly all the bars I visit are independently owned & operated, and serve beer almost exclusively from Northwest microbreweries. London’s pubs, as it turns out, couldn’t be more different.
Yes, they still have their welcoming atmosphere and individual decor – thankfully. But the beer and food selections seem to be utterly standardized across them all. Worst of all, aside from a few mediocre cask-conditioned ales, they serve almost no beer from Britain. I like Guinness, Carlsberg, and Czech beers as much as anyone else, but I was hoping for something a little more local.
I’ve since learned that the vast majority of pubs in England are run by just a handful of large chains, hence the standardization. However, just like coffee shops in the States, independent pubs do exist in London if you know where to look. Next time I’ll be sure to do my research beforehand.
Chain pubs aside, we did have a great time in London. Yes, the transport situation is a bit of a mess, but they’re working to improve it. Once you tire of the beaten tourist path – which took us about a day – there are lots of great neighborhoods for strolling (try Chelsea, Mayfair, South Kensington, or Bayswater/Notting Hill). The parks are a big asset too. And good food of all kinds is readily available with just a bit of research.
As far as big cities go, I’d rate London solidly above average. In a city this huge (it’s population is far and away the largest in Western Europe, and the most diverse in the world) you can have almost whatever kind of trip you want. I guess that’s what makes it so popular (of the world’s cities, only Paris gets more visitors) and appealing to many different styles of traveller.