THESE DAYS doing the ‘London Thing’ is somewhat of an international cliché, especially for Commonwealth jet-setters. Ok, it’s a delightful, deliciously satisfying cliché, but one that many wanderlust sufferers tick off their travelling bucket lists early. A visa stamp, a bar job and a credit card debt later and they’re done. And then you have the Europeans, who downplay visits to the English capital as annual childhood pilgrimages – talk about a luxury when the flights are faster than a spin class! In any case, London is a path very well-trodden, but the footprints haven’t set everywhere.
When I immigrated to London back in 2013, I didn’t consider the move to be without cultural purpose, although initially it wasn’t exactly intrepid. It was a teenage dream to follow my mum’s 20-something footsteps and experience the ‘London Thing’ for myself, that is to say an adventure living abroad with an unknown expiry date. She told me bedtime stories of shopping in Sloan Square, sipping pre-theatre cocktails on the West End and regular day trips to the British countryside and I was in absolute awe. Back in mum’s day, however, the UK as a travelling destination was exotic and the fact that she frequently jumped on the Eurail as a single woman was a seriously bold move, unlike today when hesitating to travel solo usually warrants an eye-roll.
Today there are 87,000 Australians living in the UK, while more than 500,000 Aussie travellers visit as tourists each year. Perhaps as many as 300,000 live here with dual passports, but firm data is hard to capture. Latest stats from the Office of National Statistics, meanwhile, show one in eight UK residents in 2014 were born abroad and this figure is climbing. Britain is a multicultural society, perhaps one the most varied in the world, and the prism of cultural diversity is made up of people just like you and me.
I was fortunate to piggyback on a British passport courtesy of my mum’s favourite souvenir – my dad so my arrival must read like a stroll down Easy Street. When I think of the alternative routes my friends have taken, it probably was. I have friends who lived and worked in provincial Italy without (initially) speaking a word beyond ‘espresso’ let alone grasping the beautiful Italian sentiment of ‘dolce vita’ (which is absolutely a thing, we’ll talk later). I have another curious friend who decided to call Chang Mai home, and then packed up and moved to Spain. As you do, of course.
And here I am, living an international cliché and loving it, in a very unclichéd way. Sure London is my base, but similarly to the thousands of expats I sardine myself alongside on the tube with daily, I’m still making the most of exploring as much of Europe and the UK as I can. And why wouldn’t you? The old adage of being bored of London, bored with life, rings true when you consider how much more there is to explore beyond the obvious tourist traps – and that’s how you keep it rich.
There is more to London than double decker buses, picnics in Hyde Park and selfies inside a basically defunct red phone box (as much as they all have to be done at some point). My London is filled with this, and much, much more. I’ve discovered the ‘London Thing’ is like a finger print, no two experiences will ever be the same, and with so many options it’s impossible not to choose your own adventure. As someone who continues to ride the double decker buses, DLRs, overgrounds and tubes; who picnics in Hyde Park and other central commons and who can’t resist a phone box selfie when the mood or Champagne strikes, here are my recommendations for visitors hungry for their own taste of the travelling buffet that comes with experiencing the ‘London Thing’ for yourself.
Top five tips for designing your own ‘London Thing’
#1 | Shopaholics rejoice: Harrods, Oxford and Regent Street and Covent Garden are the obvious meccas for international shopaholics, but in true London style there are plenty of equally fabulous options off the beaten track. Try the Swinging Sixties fashion capital of Carnaby Street, Notting Hill’s Portobello Road and Shoreditch’s Brick Lane for vintage treasures, Camden Market for hipster curiosities, Stratford and White City for uber Westfields and Kings Road Chelsea for a splurge and potential celebrity sighting. Sign up to your favourite stores, too, as they frequently email sales and specials. In fact, why not order online now and pick up on arrival with many stores now offering free in-store pick-ups.
#2 | A little bit of History repeating: Is Kate Middleton’s wardrobe on your Christmas wish list every year, too? Follow the intrigue around the royal family not by loitering around Buckingham Palace gates, but with a visit the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s London palace in Kensington. And if you adore British royal history as much as I do, why not combine that visit with a trip to the Tower of London, Hampton Court, the Banqueting House and Kew Gardens with an annual membership with Historic Palaces. For just £48 you can visit the lot, or prepare to pay up to £25 for entry to one. Similarly, if you’re around for a little while, culture vultures can look into an annual membership with free entry and discounts through the National Trust (£63), English Heritage (£52) or Tate museums (£70).
#3 | Let’s get high: As Europe’s largest building, the Shard has obvious appeal. But pocket the £25.95 entry fee and magically turn your coin into cocktails by visiting the Oblix cocktail lounge. Just half way up the mighty tower on the 32nd floor, this must-see destination will serve you eastern city views of the Thames, Gerkin and Tower of London. Cocktails are served in fancy chalices while an impressive wine list and tapas are also on the menu.
#4 | Get out of town: there’s so much to love about London, but you really need to explore the counties beyond the capital. Long weekends are easy when you only need to take one day off if you’re employed in London, but many destinations are simple to do in a day. Trains frequently depart to big ticket cities like Oxford, Bath and Canterbury and will get you there in less than a couple of hours, but don’t rule out picking a nearby town you’ve never heard of to get lost in. Some of my favourite short visits are Leicester for the history, St Ives for seaside charm and St Albans for one of the quickest and most underrated day trips from London.
#5 | Eat fish and chips like a Brit: Ok, seaside sun-seeking does not spring to mind when you think of holidaying or living in the UK, but there’s a reason fish and chips are quintessentially British. If you can catch a sunny weekend, there are some gorgeous finds along the coast to unwrap your seafood papers. Try Whitstable for a darling fishing village feel and world-class seafood in the east, Padstow for Rick Stein’s world-class dining in the west and Cowes for dinner along a marina of yachts that backs onto a cobbled stoned high street. Super short on time? Brighton or Southend-on-Sea will sort you out in no time.