I have a confession to make: I am an anglophile. I’ve wanted to be British for a while. At first it was so that I could say things like “brilliant” or “cheers” or “knob” in everyday conversation, but now my desire to be British stems primarily from my desire for EU citizenship. I know it’s not exactly cool to harbor such an all-consuming love for Great Britain in the backpacking community, where the further off the beaten track a place is the better and English-speaking countries are considered the easy way out, but I can’t help it. I love England (and from a recent visit, Scotland.) The way I see it, the only negative thing about London, one of my favorite cities, is the weather. And it’s very expensive. The first problem can be easily remedied by traveling in the summer, when the heat is comfortable, unlike where I live in Spain where I am 85% sure I will burst into flames 90 days of the year. The second problem, the fact that London is insanely and cruelly expensive, is remedied by latching onto a Brit and never letting go, which is honestly the only way you’ll see a London that isn’t brimming with tourist traps (seriously, what’s so special about Big Ben? Someone tell me, please.). This is exactly what I did with Lucy, who now serves as my free London tour guide and is always so kind as to let me stay with her (for free) in her lovely Stratford flat.
Now that you’ve latched onto your British friend and have a free place to stay, go get something to eat. It seems that England has always had a stereotype of terrible cuisine, but I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s not so much that English food is good, but rather that in England, like in America, you can get whatever you want: Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Spanish. You want it and it’s there. As a vegetarian I tend to judge a country’s food by its availability of dishes I can eat, so England gets an A+. Try Brick Lane (Liverpool Street tube stop) for an interesting culinary experience. As you pass the myriad Indian restaurants, they offer you discounts or free rounds of drinks, and in the end you choose the best deal. Lucy is an expert at this and always chooses the cheapest and most delicious restaurant.
Easily the best food market in town and one of my favorite London spots is Borough Market (Borough or London Bridge tube stops). It has, in a nutshell, everything, from Indian spices to Oregon beers (I found Rogue at one of the stalls), from homemade pasta to Spanish paella. While you’re in England, you should of course eat a traditional Sunday roast, which is usually beef or chicken, but has a vegetarian alternative as well (Portobello mushroom and the obligatory peas and carrots). Of course, you could go for the standard fish and chips. As a vegetarian, I can’t comment on how delicious they are. Sorry.
Head to Brighton for an easy day trip away from the big city (about 15 pounds roundtrip on the train). Brighton, the gay capital of the UK, is a hedonist’s paradise. Every bakery looks scrumptious, every restaurant mouthwatering, every bar intoxicating (excuse the pun). In Brighton Lanes you will find every kind of shop imaginable, selling vintage clothes or posters, bizarre sex toys or decades-old issues of Playboy Magazine. The Brighton pier, lined with carnival-type games, is a place to experience a second childhood. The Royal Pavilion looks nothing like architecture you’ll see anywhere else in the country. I would imagine Brighton is a bit dull in the winter since the pebble beach would be too cold to enjoy, so try to visit in late spring or summer.
Back in London, make sure you hit up the markets. Camden, potentially the best people-watching spot in the world, is a personal favorite of mine. It is filled with crazies amid hip stores and international food. For a calmer scene, go to Spitalfields (Liverpool Street tube stop) for fashionable (and relatively cheap) clothes, bags and accessories. Greenwich Market, open Wednesday to Sunday, is also worth a visit. More artisanal than Camden or Spitalfields, Greenwich offers a wide range of goods, from bangles welded from antique silverware to used books to novelty T-shirts.
Of course, the museums are worth a visit too, and most of them are free to enter. Go now because according to my British friends, they probably won’t be free too much longer. The British Museum houses many great collections from all over the world, but its current exhibition is about ancient Afghanistan. The Victoria and Albert Museum (South Kensington tube stop) currently has exhibitions featuring fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, the Aesthetic Movement from 1860-1900, and contemporary South African photography (the museum is free but the exhibitions cost around 3.50 to 6 pounds.) Across the street you’ll find the Natural History Museum, which has its own dinosaur gallery (sadly it’s closed until July 22.).
It’s easy to skip over London or see it in just 3 days because it’s such a great city to start a tour of Europe. Last month was my tenth visit and every time I see something new. With your British friend teaching you how to cut corners and (I hope) letting you crash for free, the pound shouldn’t destroy your bank account too badly. If you’ve already been to London, which most of us travelers have, then go again. I hope you see the London that I see, not the one seen through the eyes of your average tourist, but the one seen through the eyes of someone who so badly wants to call London her own. Cheers.