London is one of my absolute favorite cities in the world. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been there for fun, family visits, and work. Each time I go, I fall more in love with it. I hadn’t been there in several years, however, so I decided to use the 2016 Thanksgiving break for a visit.
Personalize Your Perspective
I’m fortunate to have friends and relatives living in the UK who can give me a local perspective. When they asked me what I wanted to do, I told them that most of all, I wanted to see them and hang out sort of like I would in Chicago, except in London. I didn’t want or need to sightsee the same way I might have during my earlier trips.
Even if you don’t have ready-made local connections, there are lots of ways you can localize and personalize your experience of a place, whether it’s your first visit or your twenty-first. It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t see the best-known attractions, but by bringing a part of yourself into the equation, you end up with travel experiences that only you could have had.
In this post, I’ll describe some things I personally loved doing in London (roughly in chronological order), but I’ll also share some of my thoughts about how they translate into a more general personalization strategy that we can use any time we travel.
[Hint: If this seems daunting, check out my travel planning services and let’s chat about how I can help you!]
Have a Drink at Happy Hour / English Pubs
I’m sure this one is a no-brainer, but kicking back at neighborhood cafes, pubs, or beer gardens is a great way to relax, recharge, (recover from jetlag), and soak up some of the local culture. You might strike up an interesting conversation, but if not, the people watching is always fascinating.
In London, I particularly enjoyed the neighborhood pubs at happy hour, chatting with my friends over a pint as people came in to unwind after work. English pubs have their own special character that somehow gets lost in the translation overseas. If you get out into the neighborhoods, they’re even better than the ones putting on a show for tourists in the more centralized areas.
In this case, I was particularly interested in the cask-conditioned ales; every pub offers at least a few. Though beer wasn’t a priority on this trip, I did a little research via TimeOut to find the best-rated real ale pubs near where I’d be staying. Funnily enough, the White Horse, alongside a nice selection of English ales, had several Goose Island (a Chicago icon) beers on tap as well. Talk about feeling at home! I didn’t go all that way to drink Honker’s Ale, though, so I stuck with local porter and ESBs.
Re-Experience Your Own Culture / Thanksgiving Dinner & Black Friday Shopping
I love to be adventurous with food when I travel, and I always eat as much of the local cuisine as I can (sometimes too much!). However, food is also one of my favorite ways to see how different cultures respond to or interpret my own country’s products.
I always find it interesting how restaurant chains localize their menus, and I enjoy browsing the snack food aisles in grocery stores to check out the different flavors and packaging on familiar treats (Cool American Doritos, anyone?).
On Thanksgiving, my friend and I debated whether we should have an actual “Thanksgiving dinner.” With American expats and cultural exports everywhere, it’s not that hard to find. I’ve had several Thanksgivings abroad, and it’s always interesting to see the local take on the big turkey dinner. We eventually talked ourselves into it and went to The Botanist in Sloane Square.
This was undoubtedly fanciest Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever had. The meal started with venison and mushroom croquettes; then moved on to turkey with some creative (and delicious) renditions of stuffing, sweet potatoes, and cabbage; and ended with pumpkin in cake rather than pie form. I’m happy to say, there was no green bean casserole in sight.
That other Thanksgiving break tradition, Black Friday shopping, also seems to have followed Turkey Day across the pond. I did not know this was a thing. We took care to avoid the craziest shopping areas, opting instead for Spitalfields Market and some boutiques in Shoreditch.
Pursue Your Hobbies / Friday Night Skate
Shared interests provide a natural way to connect with people and places. Finding people who share your interests is the best way to meet people when you move to a new city. However, this approach can also work for shorter-term stays. For example, one of my friends seeks out CrossFit gyms so she can meet people and keep up with her workouts. Think about which of your interests might be most “portable” and seek out local meetups, expat groups, arts centers, or other organizations that might be open to guest participation.
On this trip, dragging my hockey gear over to London for a pickup game wasn’t practical. Instead, my friend suggested meeting up with a local group for their Friday Night Skate, so I threw my rollerblades in my suitcase (so much for packing light).
Skating at high speeds through the city at night is not for everyone, but if you’re a competent skater, this is amazing. The people are super friendly, and it’s a great way to get some exercise. I lucked out during my visit; the route that night took us past many of London’s iconic landmarks. We were moving too fast to stop and take good pictures, but whizzing past all the familiar places provided a fun new perspective I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.
Dance to the Music / Passenger Concert
Attending a show by a local musician or group, or someone who at least popular locally, is a great way to tap into the spirit of a place and its people. Even if the band is a touring act, it’s pretty amazing to hear them in their home environment with fans who might have been listening to them since their early days. The love between the performer and the audience intensifies when they’re on their home turf and the exchange is one the can’t necessarily be duplicated anywhere else.
My friend had been planning to go to a Passenger concert while I was in town, so she invited me and my other friend along. It was a great show, at the Apollo, packed with 5,000 people. I could see Passenger anywhere when he’s on tour, but hearing him in his home country in a relatively small venue, connecting with a crowd of adoring fans, was a particularly emotionally charged experience.
Get Out of the City / Denham Village
“What’s the coolest thing to do in the suburbs?” said no one, ever. When I told a few Londoners that my Sunday plans were to visit my cousin in Uxbridge, they said “See if you can get her to come into the city instead.” However, even though we all know the city is where it’s at, don’t dismiss the ‘burbs out of hand.
This is definitely where having a local connection helps, but you can go on your own as well. You might experience countryside charm or find some interesting slice of local life not far from the end of the main line if you just venture out.
My cousin and her dog met us at the Uxbridge tube stop and took us to Denham Village, just a 5-minute drive away. We had a traditional English Sunday lunch at a charming little inn called the Swan and then walked around the village for a bit before heading back to the city.
Don’t Categorically Dismiss Tours / Jack the Ripper Tour
Even though you’re avoiding the big packaged tour, don’t categorically dismiss all tours. They do offer a perspective from a local expert you wouldn’t be able to get on your own. (Even as a local, tours can be a great way to learn something about your home.) Also, don’t discount the pure fun factor and permission to be a silly tourist that tours offer.
One day while we were walking around, an old-fashioned double-decker bus drove by advertising its afternoon tea tour. It was such a kistchy caricature of what London is all about we almost signed up for it on the spot (sadly it was sold out).
We did, however, take the Jack the Ripper walking tour of Whitechapel. This is a bit macabre, but it’s definitely a unique take on the city. You get a lot of period details and some seriously gory stories. Because modern buildings now stand on most of the sites, the tour is only as good as the storytelling of your guide. Ours did a great job of bringing the story to … life? He also projected a slide show (“Ripper Vision”) on the walls of buildings to give helpful context of how the area used to look.
Stay with a Host / Airbnb in Fulham
Airbnb has built its business on the idea of making yourself at home in a place. Next time you travel, especially if you’re by yourself, consider staying in a rental where your host is actually there. Better yet, find one who rents out a couple of rooms. If your housemates are the chatty sort, you’ll have the benefit of multiple perspectives, and you might even make some friends.
I’ve mostly used Airbnb to rent an entire house, but this time we had some housemates. My friend had just moved back to London and was renting a room until her apartment was ready, so I stayed with her there. This ended up being really fun as the hosts were super friendly and we ended up getting drinks with one of the other guests.
We stayed in Fulham, a major London neighborhood, but outside the chaos of the central city’s main tourist areas. Staying outside the city center can give you a more relaxed perspective on life there. Hopefully, it will also encourage you to explore more.
Getting around / London Transit
You’ve probably heard this one before, too, so I’ll keep it short. Use whatever transportation method the local people actually use. Not all cities have a great of a transit system as London does, but do consider the local offering. It’s a lower cost way to get around, you don’t have to deal with parking, and you might see neighborhoods you wouldn’t experience otherwise.
If you can, get a data package for your phone so you can use one of the many apps that make it easier to navigate without looking completely lost. I use Google Maps most places, but City Mapper served us well in London.
One thing I enjoyed more than I thought I would was taking London’s buses. In previous visits I usually stuck to the Tube and walking. I’m generally more biased toward trains when I travel. In Chicago, I take the trains most often because they’re generally cleaner and faster than the buses. However, while the Tube can be entertaining, the buses are more comfortable and they give you more route options. You can also get a better mental map of the city by seeing where you’re going.
So there you have it, some ideas of things to do in London. Hopefully this has also provided some inspiration for how to personalize your experience in a new place. I’m not suggesting you skip all the famous landmarks entirely, however.
Let’s face it: we’d be foolish to go to London without seeing Big Ben. You can’t go to Paris without at least a glimpse of the Eiffel tower. And don’t even think of visiting Florence without seeing David. If it’s your first time in a place, figure out your must-sees and must-dos. But make sure you also take the time to figure out what it would mean to make the place yours.
Now I’m curious to hear some of your ideas and experiences. So tell me in the comments, what are some of the things you’d like to experience as a traveler? Do you have a story you’d like to share about how you made a place all your own?
And as always, I’m here for you. I can help you put together a trip that is uniquely yours no matter how many times you’ve been there. Just let me know where you want to go!
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