I’m not sure that two weeks in London qualifies me to write How To Be a Successful Tourist articles, but I seem to have an over-attention to detail that lends itself well to explanations and instructions. Besides that, I do what I want! So I am beginning this series as an outlet for all of the information I picked up these past sixteen days, and if it is helpful to anyone planning a trip to London, than all the better. If I have any international readers, I apologize in advance for any heavily-American biases.
Let’s start with some basic points about the city:
-London is a lot of cities.
Seriously, London is huge, and this is because it’s not just one city. You’ve probably heard of places like Kensington, Chelsea, Soho, Covent Garden, Westminster, and Nottinghill. Well, each of those names belongs to region/city/borough within the district of London. If you ask someone in London where they live, they will probably tell you one of these places, rather than just saying “London. Duh.”
-The universal language is… ??
America may be The Melting Pot, but London is the bowl where all the ingredients are stirred up before going on the stove. There is such a variety of nationalities in this city, that you are guaranteed to hear a dozen different languages in one ride on the Tube. Even American accents are so common that sometimes I forgot I was in another country – and I’m not just talking about the high-level tourist places either. Completely local-looking people will open their mouths and surprise you with what comes out all the time.
-Wi-fi is widespread.
Unlike America, where you have to visit a Starbucks if you want wi-fi in public, it’s so common for restaurants and cafés of all kinds to offer free wi-fi here that anyone who doesn’t generally puts up a snarky sign noting the lack (“No, we don’t have wi-fi. Try talking to each other.”) On top of the various eateries, you can also find wi-fi in some theatres, most museums, and even random spots on the street or in the parks. No data? No need to fret!
-Napping in the parks isn’t just for the homeless.
Sightseeing worn you out in the middle of the day? Pull up a patch of grass! There are a lot of parks and gardens throughout London, ranging from large ones like Hyde Park to tiny areas like Cavendish Square. They all share a common trait though, and that is the plethora of people peacefully napping on the benches and under the trees (on a day with good weather, at least).
-Time is strictly military.
America needs to get on board with this, and not just for Disney theme park employees. Most Americans don’t even know how to tell military time, and here the rest of the world is running on it!
-Jaywalking is completely acceptable… as long as you don’t make anyone hit the brakes.
In Italy, you cross the street wherever and whenever you want without even bothering to look both ways. That crazy driver hurtling towards you will slam on his brakes, every time. In London, you may not want to try that. However, no one seems to mind if you cross the street away from the crosswalk, as long as you make sure no cars are coming. Don’t expect anyone to stop for you; do expect to get honked at if it happens.
-Pigeons inhabit the city in seemingly greater hordes than people.
And they don’t exactly have the safest flight patterns, so stay alert. I have been hit in the head by one. I have also witnessed a group of pigeons attacking a food source in a way that immediately brought to mind a video of piranhas devouring a defenseless fish in seconds.
You do not want to be in the center of that bird fight.
-Smoking is still in style.
Cigarettes seem to be going out of fashion in America, and we have a lot of laws now about where you can and can’t light up in order to keep the general public away from second-hand smoke. While you can’t smoke indoors much in London, over half the people around you will be smoking on the doorstep, in the parks, and walking down the street. If the person strolling in front of you raises their hand to their face, duck fast or get a face-full of smoke. Oh, and they still call cigarettes “fags,” which just throws me off.
-Bathrooms are shockingly private!
You know that infamous crack along both sides of the stall door in a public restroom? Like, the crack that you try to avoid noticing at all costs for fear of making eye contact with a stranger washing their hands outside. Stuff of nightmares, there… Guess what? Those cracks don’t exist in London (or most of Europe)! That’s right – apparently, there is a way to design those doors that insures complete privacy for the stall inhabitant. Maybe, if America would progress into the modern age of bathroom privacy, we wouldn’t have to freak out so much about who exactly goes in each side.
-“Zero” is a floor.
Buildings in London don’t start with Floor 1 and count up from there. The first floor is instead referred to as either the “Ground Floor” or “Floor Zero.” For them, the first floor is what we call the second floor. It can get a little confusing. Throw in the fact that most buildings also have basement floors (sometimes listed as Floor -1, -2, etc.), and your brain should be sufficiently addled.
-There is no more swiping.
I think America is moving towards this a little slower than Britain. No one swipes their credit cards here anymore – even inserting the card is getting to be old hat, as most people have moved to contactless payment. You can even use a contactless card to get on the Tube without buying a ticket from the machines. The real difference in the UK is that everyone has small, portable card machines, and at restaurants, they never take your card from you – they bring the machine to your table and complete the transaction right in front of you. Definitely better security.
-Air conditioning is not the norm.
Maybe it’s because most of the buildings are 100+ years old. Maybe it’s because Londener’s think 75 degrees is a sweltering day (I laugh so hard every time I hear that). Whatever the reason, don’t assume your room will have AC. Windows are left open pretty much 24/7 in these warmer seasons (and they don’t even need screens, because there are no mosquitos!), but that doesn’t stop any enclosed space from turning into a sauna by 9:00. You actually want to go outside to cool down… an extremely weird concept for a Texan.
-The prices will trick you.
There’s a very specific number for the exchange rate between US dollars and UK pounds, but it’s easiest to keep the number “1 1/3” in your head. Six pounds in London, about eight dollars. Thirty pounds, about forty dollars. Here’s what’s tricky though – if you take the pound sign off of the prices here and replace it with the dollar sign, then all the prices look right. Groceries, restaurants, theatre tickets, souvenirs, clothing – everything is priced with the same numbers that you would expect to see in America. There’s simply a pound sign in front, so they actually cost 1/3 more. All of this means that your mind will often fall into the rhythm of thinking you are paying decent prices for stuff, forgetting that London is, in fact, really expensive. Until you see the converted rates on your credit card statement, that is.
There’s a few fun tidbits on the city to get you started. So what are you waiting for? Book a ticket to London now – there are pigeon-infested parks to be slept in!