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For someone who once considered himself an Anglophile—the first two cars I ever owned, after all, were British—19 years is a long time to go without visiting the Mother Country.
And yet that is how long it has been. Thinking back, I sure had guts back in 2000 to fly to England, rent a right-hand-drive hatchback, drive 1000 miles on the left-hand side of the road while operating a left-handed stick shift, all while relying on paper maps and a bad sense of direction for navigation. I actually thought of doing the same during this trip—but using a smartphone and its GPS instead of ancient cartography, of course—and ended up using mass transit instead.
Anyhow, so why England, why now? Ultimately it came down to these reasons: 1) Three friends were over there at the same time this month and had invited me to come visit, 2) I had some work downtime, at last, and wanted to get away for a little bit, and 3) flights to London were remarkably cheap. How inexpensive? Under 600 bucks, round-trip!
Actually, if I booked them more than, oh, a week in advance, they could have been even less. My friend Emily of Fort Collins, for example, arrived at Heathrow one hour after I did, and said her tickets cost around $300, “or less than it would to fly to the east coast” of the United States. She did, however, book them last year.
Another reason for flying into London was its proximity to two of my favorite cities in the world, Barcelona and Paris—again, for cheap. (E.g., one-way flights between London-Gatwick and Barcelona were about $45.) In fact, although Emily and I were not traveling together, we both used London as a jumping off point to those cities and ended up being in them at the same time.
During this European tour I was never in London for more than two days at a time, but I was there on three separate occasions. Here is a list of some of the things I got to do:
- Visit the British Library, which is home to 14 million books and was packed despite having a long security line to get in. I actually met up my friend Angie there (she is from San Francisco but was staying with her sister’s family in London for the month).
- Eat at Leon, a chain that sells “naturally fast food” that has options not just for omnivores like myself, but also for vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, and those who prefer gluten- and wheat-free dishes. The quality of the food was excellent and priced very reasonably. I wish we had Leon in the States.
- Visit the British Museum, which was kind of meh.
- Have coffee at Monmouth, which Angie said had some of the best coffee she’s ever tried.
- Stepped inside a Zara, which is a Spanish “fast fashion” chain and is the main brand of Inditex, the world’s largest apparel retailer. I read case studies about Zara in the MBA program at WGU, and was intrigued to finally step inside one. There are Zara stores everywhere in London.
- Ate lots of fish and chips!
- Went running through Hyde Park, past the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, then by Buckingham Palace, Green Park, and St. James’s Park. [Strava data]
- Had lunch with my ol’ biking buddy Debby in the Shoreditch area that she works in. Tried their Cock ‘n’ Bull: a half chicken, half steak sandwich since it was recommended by people on Yelp. It was pretty good.
- Went to a Tesco to find a power adapter (the U.K. uses a huge three-prong 240V outlet that is different from Spain and France and of course the U.S.) Tesco is a huge English retailer I had heard about but never been to until now. It’s the third-largest retailer, after Walmart and Carrefour of France.
- Visited the Westfield Mall, where there was a Tesla showroom.
- Ate lots of Indian food, as London is kind of renowned for it due to its large Indian population.
- Went for a stroll through Riverside Garden Park, which is actually in the town of Horley but is walking distance of the London-Gatwick Airport. I stayed in a hotel one night within two miles of the Gatwick airport before going to the southern city of Brighton and Hove the following day.
- Visited the Wellcome Museum in London, which had really cool science exhibits.
- Had dinner at Look Mum No Hands, a bicycle café.
- Went to a “meet a publisher” meetup with Angie, as she is a writer. (She wrote the book Crazy Cycling Chick: The Inspirational Journey of Angie Across America.)
Unfortunately, I did not have many meaningful interactions with Brits aside from some conversations with salespeople inside the Westfield Mall. But I did get the impression that the English say “sorry” a lot!
Things I would love to do the next time I go back to London include visiting Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, the Millenial Wheel, and Notting Hill—after re-watching the movie Notting Hill, of course. I would also try more authentically English food, like bangers and mash, pigs in a blanket, etc.
Maybe I would also use London as a launching point for another driving tour. Going up to, say, Wales would be a hoot.