It’s rush hour on a Monday and the tube is packed. I’m heading back to Oxford Square Station to grab my bags from a friend’s office before heading to Heathrow. The transportation authority promises larger elevators that conserve energy. But for now, the masses collect in front of old lifts waiting to leave. I opt for the stairs. There is a warning sign saying it’s the equivalent of 15 stories and one ought to just wait for the elevators. Like many here, I am impatient and in a hurry for whatever reason. I attempt to climb with several other breathless individuals to the detriment of my thighs. For a brief moment, the handful of us that make the climb connect on our shared pain. For a brief moment, I feel like one of them.
London is a busy city. The tube map alone is confounding to a first-time visitor. It is an interwoven system of stations that makes the New York Subway look sparse in comparison. That the London Underground can function so effectively with such a massive user base is a testament to systems design; the Oyster card (a pass used for all modes of transportation that features a daily cap on fares) works so well it makes me wonder why San Francisco’s Clipper system works so awkwardly.
And there’s so much to see. Nestled among the gray (oh, so gray) buildings, the historic edifices, and the modern lofts and offices of stunning architectural design are the landmarks so often portrayed in film. But they seem closer in the movies, and I end up walking a respectable amount, racking up steps on my Fitbit and no doubt annoying my friends who are accustomed to coming in at the top of our leaderboard. But if English history has taught us anything, it’s that nobody stays king or queen forever.
From the mythological Tower Bridge to the revered British Museum, the number of worthy attractions is dizzying. This is a city where the open-top buses might be worth considering, as there’s so much to discover. For those traveling solo with little money (join my club; there will be pie), it will come as a relief to learn that many of the museums, including the British Museum and the wonderful Tate Modern, are free. Check them out on a weekday morning right when they open and it’s like you’ve got them all to yourself. And pro-tip: there’s free Wi-Fi at the British Museum.
Farther from the Thames are interesting neighborhoods like Shoreditch in East London, near which one can find Old Spitalfields Market, a historic enclosed clothing and crafts market surrounded by unique eateries (including a branch of Poppies Fish and Chips, though I frequented the other nearby location not far from the curry houses of Brick Lane). And, far west of Shoreditch and north of the British Museum, there’s Camden Town, a “hip” area many told me to visit, one with a ramshackle row of odd stores at one end of the spectrum and elegant restaurants down the other.
Whomever says that there is no good food in England clearly hasn’t visited a local market. Take, for example, the Broadway Market near London Fields in Hackney. The amount of artisan food, coffee and produce offered at relatively low prices is impressive. Add to that a vinyl tent blasting Bowie next to the raw organic milk truck and any crunchy San Franciscan elitist would blush behind his hipster beard.
And when the week ends and the sun goes down, the formerly busy frequent the pubs not just inside but around it, and one wonders how anyone can get an order in pintwise. As many have mentioned, the English are drinkers, so a hearty after-work pub party is something worth waiting for. And I can drink to that too.
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