A Proper Visit to London

Exploring the lanes in Brighton upon my arrival in the UK.

It’s amazing that the entire year I spent in Spain, I only travelled to London once, and it was just a quick weekend visit of 24 hours. When I left Spain, I vowed to return to London and truly enjoy all the city has to offer. Last week, the opportunity presented itself: I had some time off from work and found a flight with Air Transat for just $620. Three days later I was boarding a plane to the Royal City.

My friend Alan, who is currently studying Pharmacy at the University of Brighton graciously offered me a place to stay, and so it was Brighton, on the southern coast of England, that was my first stop. I quickly discovered how easy to use and efficient the rail service in the UK is. Gatwick Airport is very well-connected to the rest of the country with frequent train service to both London and Brighton.

Travel Tips: I would highly recommend taking the train over other modes of transport because of its reliability, frequency, and price. In fact, if you plan your trips in advance and book online, you can benefit from incredible discounted fares. I traveled twice on the London-Brighton route for just £5 ($8) each way by booking just a few days in advance, whereas a regular ticket can cost as much as £20 ($32) each way. Discounted travel passes for local bus services at the origin and destination cities can also be added to your train ticket, and http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk offers 2-for-1 specials to practically every London attraction if you travel by train.Visit nationalrail.co.uk for online bookings!
Enjoying the beaches of Brighton!

I spent the better part of my first day exploring The City of  Brighton. Overall, it really exceeded my expectations, and was glad I visited. Brighton is a coastal town, and has a long pebble beach spanning the city shore. One of the main attractions is the Brighton Pier: a classic amusement park built on a giant platform over the sea. Another oddity is the Royal Pavilion, due to its unusual architecture, which to me, resembles a futuristic lunar base conceived at some point in the 1950s.

Brighton is also well-known for its seafood, which is great if you’re craving a good fish & chips. The more you travel, the more you will develop a sixth sense, which enables you to recognize good, local restaurants and bars and avoid pricey and inferior tourist traps. It also never hurts to ask a local for a recommendation, and they’re usually more than happy to offer a suggestion. When asking for a good seafood restaurant a number of people suggested one called “The Regency”, which is located on the seafront road about where the ruins of the old Brighton Pier stand. We ordered Fish & Chips and were extremely satisfied. The restaurant also offers a great variety of seafood options including swordfish and shellfish.

The next day, we headed off to London, which still today remains the culturally rich and industrially advanced city it has always been. On our first day, we saw the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and explored the districts of Westminster, Soho, and Covent Garden. While rather touristic, Soho and Covent Garden remain a great place to eat and drink if you’re in central London. Whether you fancy pub grub, Indian, Chinese, Italian, or British cuisine, you’ll find it here. The main reason this area is so popular for dining and drinking can be attributed to the vast number of theaters in these regions. One disappointment is that many London pubs are now being bought and managed by a number of chains. While each pub retains its character, the menus are the same at almost every pub! Despite this change, however, the quality of pub food has certainly not diminished, and is far superior than any pub you will encounter in North America.

The parliament buildings at Westminster.

We capped the night off with a ride on the London Eye, which is rather pricey (£18.60 per person, although we used a 2-for-1 coupon along with our rail ticket). In general, most London attractions are quite expensive, and the London Eye is no exception. Is it worth it? Well, if you have to do it once, the Eye will give you a stellar view of London which can only be matched by mounting St. Paul’s dome. The Eye, however, does offer you the best view of Westminster, which is equally stunning during the day as it is at night. If you can time your visit to coincide with sunset, you’ll be able to see a remarkable transformation as the city lights up; it is also the most romantic time to take a ride, if you don’t mind the other 20 people who you’re sharing a “pod” with.

The next day, we had a great breakfast at “Flat White”, a cozy little café in Soho on Berwick St. They serve a good cup of coffee and pastries as well as poached eggs. We then took a Thames river cruise from Westminster all the way to Greenwich. It was a worthwhile experience, and the tour guide pointed out many points of interest that I would certainly not have picked up on by myself. The river cruise also offers you a chance to see the transformation of London’s docklands from one of the worlds largest industrial hubs to a chique residential area. Many of the river-front accommodations now sell for millions of pounds. You’ll also get to see Canary Wharf, which is to London as “La Defense” is to Paris or “Pudong” is to Shanghai: essentially a newer second downtown area with many high-rise buildings inhabited by the world’s largest international corporations. Once you arrive in Greenwich, you can visit the Royal Naval Museum and the Royal Observatory. I didn’t actually venture into either of these attractions, but instead visited the Prime Meridian, which is marked just outside the observatory.

Rushing to catch a train to Hogwarts at Kings Cross Station.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Tower of London, which is full of history and intrigue. Serving as the royal monarchy’s stronghold and refuge time and time again, it is practically a walled city with a number of towers where a great number of traitors lost their heads, heirs to the throne mysteriously disappeared, and the Queen keeps a nice collection of jewels and crowns. For dinner, we headed to Finsbury Park to meet up with my cousin Robert. On the way, we stopped at King’s Cross Station to try to find Platform 9 and 3/4. After a bit of searching, I managed to find it, and even tried my luck at taking a sprint towards the wall whilst pushing a trolley!Just outside of central London, Finsbury Park is a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are a number of good restaurants in this area, most notably a Turkish restaurant called Gokyuzu, which is where we dined, and where I can say I had the best Turkish food of my life. I was also told by my cousin that this restaurant is on par with the best restaurants in Istanbul (as he has been there and can attest to this).

To start off the next day on a good note, I headed to the Nespresso Boutique in Knightsbridge for my customary purchase of coffee (which is roughly half the price in Europe than it is in Canada) and to enjoy a complimentary espresso. I then went for breakfast in Convent Garden at Monmouth Coffee, now my favourite café in London! The coffee is amazing, and there are bowls of ground cane sugar on each table which give it a rich nutty flavour that is not as sweet as traditional white sugar. After visiting the incredibly large flagship Apple Store in Convent Garden I took a stroll through Hyde Park and visited the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I continued on to Paddington Station where I boarded a train bound for Windsor Castle. I’ve visited a few castles in Europe, and Windsor was quite impressive! On a good day, you can tour both St. George’s Chapel, where you can see the banners of the Garter Knights (a tradition dating back to Sir Arthur and the knights of the round table), as well as the State Rooms, where your jaw will drop a little further with each successive room that you visit. What makes the castle all the more interesting is the fact that it is still in active use by the royal family, and houses approximately 150 staff in service to the Queen.

A view of the Occupy London protests, like many of its kind all around the world.

On my final day in London, I had breakfast in Islington, a rather nice area of the city that is a little off the beaten-track. We found a cool place for breakfast called “The Breakfast Club”, which serves great coffee, a delicious “Full Monty” fry-up, and fresh orange juice by the pitcher. In this area, you can also explore London’s vast network of canals and locks which are great for a Sunday stroll. I then hopped on a double-decker bus, which took me to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I was faced with a truly bizarre sight! Just like many other major cities in the world, there was a shanty town of tents and youth who are occupying spaces in downtown areas to peacefully protest Capitalism and to attempt to rebuild our society. To me, it just looks like an excuse to camp out and party rather than actually accomplish anything tangible. St. Paul’s Cathedral is quite impressive and is quite central to the Church of England. It’s dome is visible from almost anywhere in the city, and is in fact, Europe’s second-largest unsupported dome after St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In the crypt, you can find many tombs of famous Britons, including Admiral Lord Nelson, honored for his victory against the franco-spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can also climb up to the top of the dome, where you can get an awesome 360-degree view of London from a height of around 350 feet. After crossing the Thames on the infamous Millennium Bridge, I allowed myself to be baffled by the many oddities of Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable visit, and I’m glad I had a few days to look around the city. It is such a rich city, that even a week would not be enough to truly enjoy all that London has to offer. Check out my full slide show below!

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