American Vagabond in London: Part 2

When I was in Washington, DC, one of my favorite aspects of the city had to be all the free museums.  London is the same way, and I think it makes a lot of sense for an international destination if they want to show off their history and culture.  As a budget traveler, they’re a very welcome sight, and I took full advantage of it.  According to Wikipedia, two of the four most visited museums in the world are located in London, and I went to both.

The British Museum

Shot of the grand hall shortly after entering.

I think if you only had time for one museum in London, this is the place you would have to visit.  It’s over 200 years old, and has a very extensive collection of items documenting just about all of human history.  One of the most popular attractions that has been at the museum for over a hundred years is a collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts.

The Egyptian stuff is definitely cool, and draws a crowd.  However, my favorite piece in the whole collection would have to be the Rosetta Stone.

The stone contains a decree by a ruler of ancient Greece in 2nd century BC.  It’s written in three different scripts… Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Demotic (an Egyptian language used after Hieroglyphs) and ancient Greek.  When the stone was rediscovered in the late 1700’s, scholars knew ancient Greek quite well, but the Egyptian glyphs were still a mystery.  Using the Greek translation, and a lot of time and effort, the hieroglyphs were interpreted using this stone.  Now we can read all the writings on the pyramid and ancient Egyptian monuments and tablets.  Pretty incredible piece of history, and just mind blowing for me to be standing in front of it.  All of the scripts had to be painstakingly chiseled into the stone.  I wonder what happened if you made a mistake.

There’s also an extensive collection of items from ancient Greece, including pieces from the Parthenon, and dozens of statues.

My other favorite part of the museum was a section that used to be known as the King’s Library.  I think it’s just part of the British Library system now.  It has a collection of old books and statues.  I wanted to just sit and relax in there with a good book and a cup of tea.

There’s a lot of controversy around the British Museum because some items are perceived to be “stolen” from other countries.  During the 1800’s when a lot of the artifacts were being uncovered, laws protecting antiquities really didn’t exist like they do today.  The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has tried unsuccessfully to get the Rosetta Stone back several times.  They even requested the stone be loaned to them for 3 months. The British Museum made a full scale replica of the stone, but that’s as good as they’re offering.  All in all, obviously a world class museum despite the controversy.  Sometimes it’s easy to get tired of seeing museums when you’re traveling, but this one is an exception.

National Gallery of Art

This art museum is situated at the top of Trafalgar Square.  Unfortunately, they don’t let you take photos inside, so I had to go to the internet to get the pics below.  I hate using other’s material in my blog, but I really enjoyed walking around the museum, so wanted to document the memory.  Really beautiful and peaceful inside that place with a lot of well known works of art… Rembrandt’s, Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and even a work by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Awesome museum, and a nice cafe inside too.

Natural History Museum

Unlike an art museum, or museum of human history, natural history museums document the history of our natural world… climate, geology, oceans, and all the creatures that occupy the planet.  I’ve been to a couple of these on my trip, but something about this one makes it special.

The building itself is a unique place and definitely sets the tone for the rest of the museum.  The inside is even more stunning.  It’s like a cathedral of science.

They have good collection of dinosaur bones, but I don’t think it was anything more than what I’ve seen in the Carnegie Museum, Smithsonian or Natural History Museum in NYC, but it definitely has some of the best atmosphere for viewing such a collection. 

Tate Modern

Travelers will tell you one of the best things about solo travel is that you learn a lot about yourself.  I’m positive that I don’t care for modern art.  That sounds rather unintelligent, and I realize modern art relates more to the world I live in today, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.  A lot of people will tell you to go to the Tate, but for me, it was kind of meh.  Give me a Renaissance painting, an impressionistic landscape, or an ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite any day over modern art.

I also went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (Also just called V&A).  It’s a museum dedicated to the decorative arts.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s cool, and right across from the Natural History museum.  It was my last full day in London, and it was raining when I went.  I was tired, so I just kind of went through the place quickly.  The courtyard and garden area was worthy of a snapshot.

Transportation in London

The Underground or Tube as most people call it, is London’s subway system.  It is a modern marvel of engineering.  Very extensive system that runs all over London.  It’s simple and documented with plenty of signage.  Transfers and exit points are well marked, and I don’t see how anyone who can read a tube map could get lost.  If you do, they have assistants in most stations to help with navigation or purchasing tickets.  I wanted to snap a few pics of the train and stations themselves, but there is a bit of paranoia around security in the UK as in the US.  So I was hesitant to take pictures.  I took the pic below in a rather stealthy way, so it’s not good.  What’s hilarious is that the photo contains the phrase that most people probably think of when riding the train… Mind the Gap.

The train is not level with the platform in most stations, so a kindly British gentlemen in a pre-recorded voice is constantly reminding you to “Mind the Gap”.   For my fares, I probably should have just bought a one-week pass, but I bought an Oyster Card instead on my first night after the plane arrived in Heathrow.  I ended up having to top it off a few times, which is a hassle, and I probably spent £5 more for my rides.

The cool thing about the Oyster Card is that once you reach the daily rate, you don’t pay any more.  I think the daily travel card is £7, so if you’re riding all over the city like I was, once you’ve used £7 of your card, the rest of your rides that day are free.  The Tube was one of the best public transit systems I’ve ridden.  I grabbed a pocket map on my first night and carried it around all the time.  It came in handy and was pretty beat up by my last day.

Hostel Life

Yet again, I stayed at a hostel and used CS to meetup with locals.  The hostel I stayed in was inexpensive, but felt a little dirty.  They didn’t have enough showers or bathrooms either in my opinion.  The benefit of a crappy hostel is that you don’t spent much time there, which makes sense when you’re in London.  I typically left by 9 or 10 in the morning and didn’t come back till 10PM or later.

I scored the bottom bunk again 🙂  I’ve been having good luck getting the bottom bunk lately.  However, on my last two nights, there was someone sleeping above me who snored like a hog.  I’ve learned there is a third universal truth in addition to death and taxes… there will be a snorer in your hostel room.

I’ll wrap-up London in a 3rd installment with some of my couchsurfing experiences.  I didn’t surf, but definitely met up with some locals.  I ended up having a pretty incredible Saturday when a series of spontaneous events emerged to form one of those perfect days.

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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.