There are cities you love the moment you step foot in them. Then there are other cities that take you a while to warm up to. Of course, the flip-side of this is that there are also cities you hate instantly or fall out of love with.
My relationship with London has been a complicated one. It’s not a city that I can say I love, but at the same time it’s also not a city I can say I hate. I’ve now visited London a number of times and each visit seems to launch me to-and-fro from loving the city to mildly disliking it and then somehow winning me back once again.
Of the many European cities I’ve visited as an adult, the city of London is the one I have the most complex relationship with. In 2004 I returned to Europe for the first time as an adult. The trip was done through Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College and was a guided six week whirlwind taste of the British Isles with the first three weeks spent in London. Despite the incredible amount of ground we’d covered during the year-long visit to Europe my family and I had engaged in when I was 11, we’d never crossed the channel to explore the British Isles. This made London extra exotic and the ideal place to re-launch my wanderlust as an adult.
As you might imagine, I loved London as I wandered from the Tower to its grand Museums and then out into the countryside to Stonehenge, Bath, and the White Cliffs of Dover. Each cobblestone street teased my imagination and inspired me to explore further. Since then my visits have typically, but not always, been more utilitarian. A trip to London for a conference, to see friends, or for a wedding. These visits are likely at the heart of my mixed love affair with London.
The visits that have given me the best taste of the city of London as an entity were the ones where I was most involved with as a tourist. It was on many of the more utilitarian visits that I found myself disgusted by London’s sprawling, slow and at times grossly over-crowded public transportation system. By the ludicrously short hours for the Metro, and by the sense of dystopian bleakness that defines some of the city’s suburbs. Suburbs that often remind me very much of a scifi megalopolis designed for three or four million but now lumbering under the weight of four or five times that all colored by an aging infrastructure, crime, and urban decay. While this, and the reality that Londoners in some areas are lovely, while Londoners in others are…not, is all true but I’ve come to realize misses what the city has to offer.
So, it was with some interest that I received an invitation from Tune Hotels to do a weekend getaway to London. Their invitation was simple; They’d take care of my flight, and put me up in exchange for a challenge: re-do London as a tourist, but on a budget of 150 GBP for the duration of my 36 hour visit. Challenge accepted. What followed was a visit to London that left me eager to return and reminded me that when we struggle with a destination, it is often the side of it we’ve exposed ourselves to or the approach we’ve taken. Not the destination itself that is ultimately to blame.
I arrived at London Gatwick late in the evening. I’d left work in Copenhagen, grabbed my bag, and caught a mid-evening flight to London that deposited me at the Airport somewhere around 10 in the evening. With no checked baggage it took me roughly 30 more minutes to find my way through immigration and to the central train hub. A quick inquiry at the nearly empty train station cue left me with directions to Liverpool Street Station, which was a brief 5 minute walk to the Tune Hotel Liverpool St. location where I’d be staying.
To my surprise the ticket was only 15 GBP (weekend-off peak), a welcome discount compared to the exorbitant price that transit to and from London’s Airports often extorts. Ticket in hand I had a 15 minute wait for the next train and then a forty or so minute trip into the city center. The trip from train to metro was straight forward and took minimal guesswork, though upon arrival at Liverpool Station I did learn that apparently I should have also picked up a metro ticket for the final leg. As an indicator of how the trip was going to go, the gate attendant took pity on me, outlined my mistake, and let me through the gates without any hassle. At this point it was passing midnight and the walk from Liverpool Station to my hotel took me through an area with vibrant nightlife. People were in the streets enjoying the weather, partying, and heading towards the plethora of late-night eateries in the area to refuel and sober up. The walk felt safe and had I arrived an hour or two earlier in the evening, would have had me depositing my bag and heading back out for drinks and a taste of the local nightlife.
Though I’d read up on Tune Hotels a bit before hand, I didn’t want to overly bias myself one way or the other. They position themselves as a budget add-on hotel with excellent locations and “five star beds”. It’s an interesting model that competes with hostels and hotels alike. You get what equates to hostel pricing, but have the benefits of your own private room, bathroom, and quality facilities. But, at the same time, prices are low because everything – from towels to TV and wifi – is an add-on price. This includes the basics, but also includes some nice additions like late checkout at a fairly reasonable price.
My room was small but clean and they’d given me the full-package to try out which apparently would have cost around 90 GBP total for my two night stay. Water pressure was great, the wifi-worked without issue, and a bit of TV was perfect after a long work and travel day. Previously I had stayed with another similar hotel chain when traveling for business – this room was better all around. Particularly in that the room was larger and the bed WAS definitely significantly better. Having said that, was the bed really on-par with a five star hotel? Definitely not. It was decent, better than you’d find in most cheap hotels and definitely your average hostel, but it was far from the type of bed that left me eager to sleep in late or wondering how I could get a version of my own for home.
Checked in, unloaded, but not quite ready to call it a night – it was time for an old tradition: Kebab. So, down to the reception I went. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, they immediately steered me away from the hot-dog peddler on the corner and directed me to a kebab place a three minute walk down the street. The kebab cost me four pounds and was served up by spunky middle eastern immigrants that had that had that sharp-tongued banter that always reminds me of New Yorkers who are fully in-the-zone.
After downing my kebab it was time to unwind and to get some sleep. Despite a mild disclaimer on the website that there might be periodic rail noise, my room on the fourth floor was completely silent and I slept like a baby.
A Day Spent Re-Discovering London
My morning started with a mission. During my early visits to London I was exposed to the body-tingling, ear caressing, mindgasm of great theatrical performances. I started with the classics; the Phantom of the Opera and what still remains my all-time-favorite, Les Miserables. From Much Ado About Nothing in the Globe, to Cyrno, Tango Fire, and the Lord of the Rings one of my favorite parts of any proper visit to London is a show. For this visit to be complete a show was non-negotiable. The big question became one of price and last minute availability.
A quick Google later and I was browsing a list of the day’s shows, their minimum price, and availability. Ultimately it boiled down to Mama Mia, the Lion King and Wicked. Wicked, which had an early evening showing at Apollo Victoria Theater/Station would run me 40 GBP for a cheap seat and beat out Mama Mai due to slightly cheaper pricing and its standing as one of my brother’s favorite shows. Lion King, on the other hand was nearly sold out and ultimately outside my budget.
Ticket secured I set out for lunch and a long-day of wandering. The weather was brilliant – sunny, but with just enough of a breeze to keep things cool. First on the list was the nearby Brick Lane market street, famed for its shopping and selection of ethnic (predominantly Indian) foods. However, as I ambled towards the area marked on my map – less than 10 minutes walk from the Hotel – I was intercepted by a Mexican restaurant.
For any Americans from the Southwest reading this, you’ll know that one of the hardest parts of being abroad is the lack of quality Mexican food. Since, at this point, I’d been away from the US for more than two years and limited to Copenhagen’s tragically lack-luster assortment of Mexican cuisine, continuing on towards the market street wasn’t an option. Five minutes and 9 GBP later and I sat in DF Mexico devouring a large, flavorful burrito that reminded me heavily of Chipotle. The shop had a fun vintage retro-fusion feel and looked out on a small converted parking lot that had been turned into a hipster-sheek food-court with shared pick-nick benches and several semi-permanent food trucks, all decorated with smashed cars and quirky massive video game-ish characters. It was funky and fun.
Burrito devoured, I made my way through the food court, which in short order dumped me down a narrow street and onto Brick Lane. Despite being a bit perturbed at myself for opting for the not-so-cheap Mexican, when a street full of amazing dive and street food was right under my nose I swallowed the urge to stuff myself with a second lunch. In its place I sated myself by wandering the length of the street pausing often to admire and photograph the wealth of dynamic and engaging graffiti that lined the side streets. The shops were a charming mishmash of corner stores, small shops, grocers (Durian sitting on the street outside the shop included), and barbershops.
One of my favorite pieces of graffiti consisted of two Star Wars characters. Traditional Imperial imagery was juxtaposed with that of Corporatists resulting in a dynamic take on the Corporate/Star Wars mashup. A quick glance at the cached map on my iPhone showed me the right direction to head in and I slowly wandered from Brick Lane to the business district and then down towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. The route took me between London’s massive modern architectural models, providing numerous opportunities for fun structural shots.
As the sun kept me warm, I wound through central London before finding myself passing the Royal British Mint and then getting dumped out at the Tower of London. The Tower of London remains a building that fascinates me. The structure, with its series of towers, moats, and squat brick defensive structures mirrors the Tower’s complex history. My visit to the outside of the Tower brought back memories of 2007 when I toured the interior and came across a medieval re-enactment, replete with knights clad in armor engaged in a swordfight.
A quick stroll out onto Tower Bridge left me chuckling, remembering the old wives tale about Lake Havasu which had purchased the London Bridge, and had it re-located brick by brick to the US where it was re-constructed. The old story, which is likely manufactured, goes that the unlucky Americans bought the bridge thinking it was, in fact, none other than the Tower Bridge.
The view from the bridge offers a grand vista of London. While some tourists opted to stand in line, pay their fee, and to take the skybridge I saved my pounds and took in the free view. The vista includes a retired battleship dressed to kill in its Dazzle camouflage, the “Egg”, the Tower, and the rest of downtown London’s skyline. I also found myself surprised by the sheer amount of traffic traversing the Thames, most of which consisted of tour boats navigating the swift currents and difficult breezes that made it clear which captains were old veterans and which were likely newcomers to England’s mightiest river.
From the Tower Bridge I worked my way along the waterfront past the other side of the Tower of London, pausing to record a few quick videos, and then cut towards what I suspected was Trafalgar Square. However, before I’d made it too far I noticed that a series of cones were being set up to divert traffic. As it turned out, my visit overlapped with London Pride and I had the good fortune of stumbling into the path of the march and festivities.
No matter what city I’ve stumbled on Pride Parades in – London, Copenhagen, Dublin, etc. – they’re always a fantastic party full of happy people embracing vibrant characters and identities. The London Pride Parade was no different, though the sheer size and scope of it was amazing. Over the course of the day I’d stumble upon the serpentine meanderings of the parade numerous times – each time finding the streets absolutely packed shoulder to shoulder as vehicle and accompanying pride marchers made their way by. Of the wealth of themes I saw, my favorite was an entire team from Fujitsu carrying signs paying tribute to Alan Turing.
Though I never made it into Trafalgar square (properly) I let the flow of the parade take me down towards Big Ben, which provided an incredible view of the boulevard lined by vibrantly dressed folks as an “Americans in London” themed Pride bus made its way down the road, framed by Big Ben, and shouting with extra exuberance in celebration of the previous day’s Supreme Court announcement, delivering Marriage Equality to the US.
Eventually the march route turned, but I continued on making my way down to Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster. Despite the roaring, churning, mass of humanity a few blocks away the area around Big Ben was not excessively crowded. I strolled leisurely taking in the sight, snapping photos, and marveling at the unique architecture that defines several of the world’s most iconic structures. Feeling a bit foot-sore, but far from done, I crossed the bridge for a different view of Big Ben and Parliament before re-tracing my steps and locking eyes with the London Eye. The eye spun, I marveled at its size, and then we both continued – going back to the business of exploring London.
A glance at my phone told me I was near several of the great parks. At this point the afternoon was starting to race past and I made the decision to continue my urban trek, skipping the metro and hoofing the remaining distance from Big Ben to Victoria Station and the Apollo Theater. So, with a bit of a jump to my step I made my way across to St. James Park – one of London’s wealth of gorgeous green spaces – and then wound up the external edge, hunting for a market where I could buy some water and a pop. This took me past the Churchill War Rooms, 10 Downing Street, and the Horse Guard’s Palace with its vibrantly uniformed guards sitting astride gorgeous parade horses.
To my left St James Park boasted beautiful botanics and an assortment of large White Pelicans. But, deadset on finding something to drink, I resisted the urge to delve into the park deeper and instead cut northward across The Mall, and past the London Library where I once again rain into the Pride Parade. Still failing to find what I was looking for my path took me westward past St. James Palace up to Piccadilly and the Green Park metro. Spot checking my map told me I was closing in on Victoria, and as I still hadn’t eaten dinner, I decided to tighten my belt a notch, ignore my parched lips, and trek on through Green Park – which was full of sun-bathers. To my surprise I also passed two folks hidden in the bushes doing what I can only assume was Heroin. Saddened, I was reminded that there is incredible contrast in our lives, and the lives we, as individuals, choose to embrace.
Before long Green Park gave way to the Wellington Arch, and its multi-monument park. The mini-park consists of the Arch, the Australian War Memorial, the New Zealand War Memorial, the Machine Gun Corps Memorial and a War Monument dedicated to Artillery. Each of these are stunning and impactful monuments that are artfully crafted. As I paused to browse the names and reflect, I felt an especially keen sense of regret and awe as I’ve recently gone through extended history podcasts covering World War I and key parts of World War II (see my post about great historical Podcasts). Knowing some of the history behind these monuments and the horror they commemorate gave me goosebumps.
The final leg of my walk took me from the Wellington Arch down to Victoria Station – a marvel in and of itself with its historic feel that blends with more modern architecture, and a cavernous interior.
Dinner and a Show
The Apollo Victoria Theater which is currently home to Wicked, is located immediately kitty-corner to Victoria Station. A quick glance at my phone indicated I had roughly an hour and a half to eat and grab my tickets. A five minute wander down Wilton Rd. brought me to a Pub advertising 50% off all dishes. Keeping my budget in mind, I sat down, found a table, recharged a bit, and rested my very tired feet while enjoying a burger and soda. In total Dinner cost me 9 GBP and left my stuffed.
Picking up my ticket for Wicked and finding my seat went smoothly and took no more than 15 minutes. The cheap seat I had opted for provided a great view from the balcony, minus a partial obstruction caused by the banister. Given the seats next to mine were 2x the price, and all I had to do to see past the obstruction was lean forward – I was anything but bothered.
It was my first time seeing Wicked, though I had heard the soundtrack countless times on family road trips with my brother. Still, I was only vaguely familiar with the story – this let me enjoy the play fully. The sets were absolutely fantastic and took full advantage of the space, both in the use of depth and height. The performers were skilled and their vocals strong. The story itself was engaging, fun, and I can definitely see why it quickly became a crowd favorite. My one gripe, and this may have been due to the seat location, or just my tendency to be a bit of a finicky audiofile, was that the audio was over-amplified and poorly balanced. This meant that instead of getting that authentic feeling of powerful vocals and a skilled orchestra, it had the feeling of speakers that failed to balance the performer’s audio, thus depriving it of its richness and subtle inflections. In its place was the overly amplified sound of the orchestra constantly teetering on the edge of sliding from rich audio into flat disappointment.
Despite my subtle grumbles about the sound, I left humming the songs and would highly recommend Wicked during your visit. It may not trump Phantom or Les Mis, but it is a wonderful option, especially for anyone on a budget.
My trip home consisted of a 4.50 GBP metro ticket, and a few quick hops on the metro line. It was convenient, and a welcome respite for my exhausted feet. I settled into bed at Tune Hotel grateful that it wasn’t a noisy hostel bunk bed and slept like a baby.
Stay tuned for Part II in this two-part series. In it I chronicle meeting up with a fellow travel blogger, a local’s tour of Soho, and a budget-friendly afternoon spent relaxing in London before catching my late-evening flight back to Copenhagen.
For the 36 hours I spent in London my total expenses (excluding hotel/flight) were 127 GBP. This broke down the following way: 40 GBP for Wicket, 15 GBP LGW -> Tune Hotel, 16 GBP Tune Hotel -> LGW, 14.50 GBP for amazing Ramen in Soho, 12 GBP for a 24 hour metro pass, 9 GBP for a pub dinner, 9 GBP for misc. items and drinks (water/soda etc.), 8 GBP for Mexican lunch, 4.50 GBP for a metro ticket.
Ready for Part II of this post? View Part II now.
This trip was sponsored by Tune Hotels and their Liverpool Street Station – my itinerary, dining, and entertaining choices are mine and mine alone with the sole stipulation that I limit my 36 hour budget, including transport to and from the Airport to 150 GBP or less. You can find updates from the trip on Twitter and Instagram using the #Londononabudget hashtag.