American Vagabond in London: Part 1

One week of exploring London is just too much to put into only one blog entry.  It was really hard to leave, and I was tempted to get a flat for three months and have a go at getting a work visa and finding a job.  That’s how much I loved London.  I don’t get wrapped up in the whole royal family news, but neither do any of the people I met living there.  According to one girl, they love the royals mainly for the tourist dollars they generate.  I guess for me, it’s the energy of a big city, combined with the old world architecture and history of England.  Add in a great public transit system that allows a newbie to get around like a local and you get my new favorite stop on my journey thus far.

The thing that makes London unique from any other place I’ve been is the mix of old and new architectures.  And by old, I mean 500 years or more.  I figured this would be common in Europe, but according to some Londen locals, it’s not.  It’s too early for me to know because I haven’t seen other major cities in Europe, but I guess London is one of the few that has built modern structures right next to thousand year old ones.  It’s surreal to see the 900 year old Tower of London, then look behind, and you have towers of glass built in just the last few years.  

My travel energy was at full strength too for my visit, so I really got out and explored London.  There is a good free walking tour I found on my second day.  I’d pick one of these tours over the “hop on, hop off” bus tour any day of the week.  You see so much more walking around, and you’re getting some exercise.  They also give you a good idea of things you can go back to and spend more time.  It pretty much hits all the highlights in the city of Westminster…

Buckingham Palace

Personally, I find the whole royal family thing to be uninteresting.  It is just a constitutional monarchy, of course, and all power lies with the prime minister and parliament.  However, I can appreciate the historical aspect of the royal family.  If you think about it, Queen Elizabeth II descends from all those kings and queens who ruled England for centuries.  The family, the palaces, the royal guard and all the pageantry are a living museum.  

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

On the tour, I learned the clock tower is only nicknamed “Big Ben”.  It’s official name was just Clock Tower until this summer when it was renamed to Elizabeth Tower in honor of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  There’s some disagreement as to how the nickname came to be, but our guide said it came from a large man of the same name who was associated with the construction of the bell inside the tower.  I’ll leave it up to the philosophers to decide.

Westminster Abbey

There’s a £12 fee if you want to get a tour of the abbey.  Or, you could attend Sunday services and see it for free, but be warned.  I was told if church officials see you not participating in the service, you’ll be perceived a freeloading tourist and asked to leave.

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is named after the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval battle fought in 1805 by the British navy against the French and Spanish fleets.  Admiral Horatio Nelson led the British to victory, but was killed in the battle.  There’s a huge tower with Admiral Nelson standing at the top that was too high for me to get a decent photo.  The National Gallery of Art is the building with the dome at the top of the Square.  Interesting tidbit… the four giant lion statues flanking Nelson were made from melted down French cannons.

And, of course, no tour of London would be complete without a few shots of those signature red double-decker buses and telephone booths.

Since I plan to be in the UK for a little over two weeks, I looked into getting a sim card for my phone.  I still hadn’t called Sprint about unlocking my iPhone, but was assured they would by the manager of the store I purchased my phone.  It took a few calls over skype to customer care, along with resetting my phone to factory defaults, but I got the job done.  Still uncertain this would work, I set out to find a UK mobile provider, and after some research settled on vodafone.  They seemed to have the best deal in terms of pay-as-you go service, and might possibly work in other countries.  For £10 ($16 USD), it was worth the academic exercise to see if it could work.  If it did, I’d have data on my phone for about a dollar a day while in the UK.  I won’t go into all the details, but about an hour after the vodafone rep popped that sim card in my phone, I had service 🙂

I’ll wrap up part 1 of my London tale with a famous English dish… fish ‘n chips.  I was looking forward to sitting down at a pub with a pint of beer and this classic meal.  I was excited at the end of my walking tour when our guide took a few of us who stuck around to an “authentic English pub”.  So I get in there, and order my fish ‘n chips, and what I get was so bland, I’m not sure it was even food.  Not even the tartar sauce and vinegar could save that meal.  Determined not to give up, I googled “Best Fish and Chips in London”.  As you might imagine, there were lots of suggestions.  However, a couple establishments seemed to make everyone’s list, and so I went with one called Sea Shell of Lisson Grove.  This place came through, and the meal was quite good.  It was a nice day as well, so I enjoyed it outside.Afterwards, I wandered the streets and found an old pub called the Duke of York that had a cool exterior.  The girl working the bar was from Ireland, and on hearing my accent asked me where I was from.  We had a good chat about travel, the history of the bar, and life in London.  I was starting to feel at home here.

Part 2 of my London experience will be about the London Underground system, Couchsurfing experiences and the museums I visited.  There are a lot of museums in London, and the best part is almost all are free.

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