London by Michael Flatt

About London

London is one of the largest cities in the world, both in population (7+ million people) and by area (600 sq. miles). It is the capital of the UK and the official language is British English. The Pound Sterling (GBP) is the official currency and the primary geographical feature is the River Thames, which runs through central London and divides the city into its northern and southern halves. North London contains the boroughs of Camden and Islington and is known for its outdoor markets, trendy clubs, the British Library, and Regent's Park. I lived in the North London city of King's Cross. South London contains the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth and is home to Tate Modern, London Eye, Imperial War Museum, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Central London is where most of London's main attractions, restaurants, nightlife, and shopping streets are located.

Getting Around

The London Underground, also known as the Tube, is the easiest and fastest way to get around London. You will want to purchase a Student Oyster Card as soon as possible and buy the monthly pass (about £67) for Zone 1. The Oyster is a prepaid travel card and is the cheapest way to pay for public transport. It also includes use of the bus system. The Tube generally runs between 5 am and midnight Monday through Saturday (reduced hours on Sunday), so if you are out late any night and want to get home you'll need to learn the bus schedules and routes. I really only used the buses at night and when coming home from Camden Market on the weekends (the Underground leaving Camden is closed on Sundays), but they are a fine alternative if you don't always want to use the Tube.

Another way of getting around the city is through the use of the black taxi cabs. They are a distinct feature of London and many tourists and business men and women use them regularly. If you want to hail a cab, just stick your arm out to signal one over. The fares are metered, with a minimum charge of about £2.20. The black taxi cabs are expensive if you are traveling alone, but if the traffic is light and you are with friends they can be a faster alternative to the Tube and buses. I think the black taxi cabs are pretty cool and you should ride in one of them at least once. If you do decide to take a cab, tipping is not recommended – just round up to the nearest pound.

Major Attractions

My favorite thing about London is that there is more to do and see than just about any other city in the world. Its major attractions include: Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, London Eye, London Zoo, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral, Imperial War Museum, Chinatown, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Abbey Road, and the iconic red double-decker buses and telephone booths seen throughout the city. Think you can visit all these places in one day? You can spend days sightseeing the city and never get bored.

Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the Queen and you can see the changing of the guard ceremony daily at 11:30 am from May to July and every other day in the winter. Before visiting London, most students are unaware that Big Ben is actually the bell inside the clock tower of the House of Parliament and not the clock tower itself. The London Eye was built in commemoration of the year 2000 and is Europe's largest Ferris wheel. It's best to go after dark because the sky is clearer and many of the buildings are illuminated.

Piccadilly Circus is a famous street intersection because of its neon advertising signs, which mimic Times Square in New York. It marks the entrance to the city's entertainment district and is close to Leicester Square, where all the big movies premiere. In my opinion, London's greatest single piece of architecture is the Tower Bridge, which many people at first sight mistakenly think is the famous London Bridge. Visit the Tower Bridge at night and you will see what I mean.

Parks

For a big city, there is a lot of green space in London. In fact, according to the "A-Z Guide to London," there are over 1,800 public parks and gardens and its green spaces make up 30% of the city! The three most popular parks are Hyde Park, Regent's Park, and St. James's Park. Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is the largest park in London and it features Serpentine Lake, a horse-riding track where horses can be rented and ridden, a statue of Peter Pan, and the famous Speaker's Corner, where every Sunday people freely express their opinions on any subject. There is one rule: no feet can be touching the ground. Wander over on a Sunday morning to hear what's being said.

Regent's Park was located within a short distance of my King's Cross residence and is home to the London Zoo, an open-air theatre, and the beautiful Queen Mary's Rose Garden. If you enjoy walking in a park away from the hustle and bustle of Central London, Regent's Park is the place to be. St. James's Park is the oldest of the Royal Parks and surrounds Buckingham Palace. It is always quiet and may be London's most elegant park. There is a lake in the middle and a great outdoor café that plays music in the warmer months.

Museums & Theatre

London's museums are some of the finest in the world. Entry to all museums is free of charge to the public. The British Museum, the world's oldest museum, contains Egyptian art, the famous Rosetta Stone, and artifacts from the Parthenon. The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has over 2,000 European paintings from c. 1250 – c. 1900, including paintings from artists Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. Tate Britain (British art from 1500 – present) and Tate Modern (international modern art) are two of the other more popular museums in London. One other museum that you might want to see is the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, which is dedicated to the life of the fictional British detective. The museum only takes a short time to visit and has a unique entrance that is easily recognized from the street.

If you enjoy theatre, London is renowned world-wide for its great theatre. Through my study abroad program, I was given free tickets to two theatrical shows. Although I know very little about theatre, it was fun to do something that I would not normally do back home. I highly suggest seeing Hamlet and the musicals Spamalot and Phantom of the Opera. To get the best deal on tickets, go to the theatre's box office and ask for student tickets. These are generally £20-£30 and they will give you the best available seats.

Markets

When the weather is nice outside, one of the most popular activities for Londoners on the weekends is to visit the wide array of outdoor markets. There are hundreds of markets in London and below are three of my favorites:

Camden Market - Located in North London, Camden Market is young and trendy. It was my favorite market because of its numerous stalls that sell everything from clothes, posters, antiques, crafts, and books to old records and vintage clothing. There is also a wide variety of different ethnic foods to eat for lunch.

Covent Garden Market - Located in the entertainment area of Covent Garden, Covent Garden Market is smaller than Camden Market but has fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers for purchase along with unique handmade crafts. You don't want to visit Covent Garden without browsing around this market.

Portobello Road Market - The largest market in London and one of the most famous in the world, Portobello Road Market is good to visit on a Saturday when its antiques section is open. The market is closed on Sunday.

Sports

The most popular sport in London is football (soccer) and the highest level of competition is the Premier League. The season runs from August until early May, which is good for a student studying abroad because you can watch a game during both the fall and spring semesters. London is home to five Premier teams: 1) Arsenal, 2) Chelsea, 3) Fulham, 4) West Ham United, and 5) Tottenham Hotspur.

I quickly became a fan of Arsenal because the team is located in North London and its home stadium (Emirates Stadium) was only a few blocks away from London Metropolitan University's North campus. Arsenal has a bitter rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur, also located in North London. Tickets for football matches are expensive and hard to find but I was able to attend one match at Emirates Stadium through a friend of a friend. While I was not a football enthusiast before going abroad, I thoroughly enjoyed watching a game in person and I spent many hours in the pubs watching weekend matches with friends.

Rugby, cricket and polo are other popular sports, with cricket being England's main summer sport. The Wimbledon tennis championship is also held every year in London in late June/early July.

Shopping & Grocery Stores

London is one of the "big four" fashion capitals of the world alongside Paris, New York and Milan. General opening hours for stores are 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, shops open later (11 am) and closer earlier (5 pm). The most popular shopping streets are Oxford Street, Regent's Street, and Bond Street. All of the big retailers, such as Harrold's and Selfridges, have stores on one of these streets in Central London. To avoid the crowds, you have to come early in the morning but even then it might be busy. Bond Street is the least crowded of the three, but also the most exclusive and expensive. There is one inexpensive store called Primark, which offers a huge selection of clothes and accessories that you might be interested in purchasing for everyday wear and/or weekend excursions.

Grocery stores tend to be open seven days a week, with reduced hours on Sundays. Tesco and Sainsbury's are the two most popular places to buy groceries. The main difference between the two stores is that Tesco is cheaper and smaller whereas Sainsbury's is larger and offers more ready-made frozen meals. There is an aisle in every Sainsbury's that has microwavable dinner foods divided into American, Italian, British, Indian, and Asian sections. While both Tesco and Sainsbury's offer similar products as American grocery stores, be prepared to have a MUCH smaller selection of choices. In America, grocery stores have an abundant supply of food and drink products whereas in London there are much less options available. Since we are spoiled in America, you might want to pack an ample supply of your favorite foods before leaving home.

Airports

London is served by five major airports but the big three are Heathrow (the largest), Gatwick, and Stansted. I flew to and from London via Heathrow and usually traveled through Stansted for trips to other countries because the cheaper airline companies used that airport. Heathrow is the world's busiest international airport and I would recommend taking the Heathrow Express to and from the airport if you are carrying a lot of luggage (it takes only 15 minutes). The Tube will take you to Heathrow as well.