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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.