As a girl who has always lived close to home – I envy those who “cross the pond” to explore lands unknown. I recently spent an afternoon catching up with my friend Cathy Dishner who writes the blog Modern Expat Family. She regaled me with stories of her trials and tribulations after transporting her family of 4 (two teenage daughters included) to London. I was completely smitten by her words – as I’m sure you will be too. She’s funny, honest, and incredibly brave. If you find yourself in London any time soon be sure to check out Cathy’s list of favorites for good ideas of what to do. She’s practically a local – local expat that is.
Cathy Dishner’s London Story
The best part of becoming an “expat” overall is the chance to get out of your routine, your comfort zone, your life as you know it. By definition, the experience is the opportunity to start fresh. As with any move, you suddenly have to navigate your way through everything ranging from the mundane task of finding a dry cleaner to the fundamental need of finding a friend. There is inherent excitement in this discomfort because you truly need to live every day in the moment. You embrace carpe diem as a fundamental mantra rather than a hopeful ideal.
Becoming an expat in London is a very welcome change. Suddenly, I am referred to as “luv” in the most endearing and non-offensive way. The English truly mind their manners, and I appreciate that a proper politeness prevails and replaces brash American tendencies. There is no official language barrier, but nonetheless I find myself learning a whole new vocabulary so that I may be understood: I cook on the hob, throw rubbish in the bin, drink orange juice with bits, wear my kit to the pitch, mind the gap, and push my cases on the trolley when I go on holiday. Best of all, Europe is at my doorstep, making foreign travel irresistibly accessible. With a short train ride, I can eat breakfast in London and lunch in Paris! I agree with Dr. Suess, “Oh the places you will go!”.
At the start of my third year abroad, I have assembled a list of my favorite things to do in London. Some are more typical than others, but none include the tourist traps of riding the London Eye, rubbernecking in Parliament Square, or hauling shopping bags down Regent Street. If you have the good fortune to hop across the pond, here is what I suggest you do to pass the time and experience the best of what London has to offer.
My Top Ten Things to Do in London:
1) There is no better place to eat and shop than Borough Market. Located near the base of London Bridge, Borough Market is a food lovers’ paradise. Stock up on imported olive oils, French cheeses, German pastries, and Italian black licorice. Feast on assorted Indian curries or Mediterranean mezze. Treat yourself to Turkish delight, candied nuts, specialty chocolates, or homemade gelatos. Quickly quench your thirst with fresh squeezed juices, sample imported wines and local ales, savor a rich cup of cappuccino at the famous Monmouth coffee shop where the line always weaves outside the door. Purchase crisp organic produce, smell fragrant warm breads, find English specialties like pork pies and scotch eggs, or try the more exotic ostrich and sable steaks. When your bags are bursting, take a seat in front of the nearby Southwick Cathedral and enjoy your bounty in a relaxing setting.
2) When culture calls, head over to the Royal Academy. Housed in an impressive historic building on Piccadilly, this manageable gallery is easy to survey within the hour. Stroll through the well-chosen exhibits and then cross the street to enjoy afternoon tea at the world famous Fortnum & Mason or lunch at the established London institution, the Wolseley restaurant.
3) Stretch your legs and experience the beauty of London’s gorgeous parks. Choices are endless, but here are my favorite ways to enjoy a sunny afternoon. Hike to the top of Primrose Hill to take in views of the iconic London skyline, including the London Eye, the Gherkin, and the brand new Shard. Stroll through St. James Park and stand in the middle of the footbridge where you can simultaneously glance at the imposing Buckingham Palace and iconic London Eye on either side of you as swans swim along the winding river. Wander through the wild landscape of Hampstead Heath and meander along the well-worn paths to the famed Kenwood House for a cappuccino and a tour of its impressive art collection.
4) Tired of drinking beer and eating mushy peas? Take a walk on the wild side and head into Soho to Bodega Negra for a frosty margarita and spicy Mexican cuisine. Don’t let the street front entrance mislead you. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not a Sex Shop …though the food and ambiance is racy and hot!
5) No one does private clubs better than the British. Join the Etonion crowd at 5 Hertford Street in Mayfair. You’ll need to find a member to invite you to the cozy paneled bar where Michael can make you his famous “Screaming Viking”, a delicious grapefruit and tequila concoction. Then, descend the stairs to the exotic dining room at LouLou’s where tables are tucked into discreet banquets amid lush décor. After dinner, dance the night away under a spinning disco ball in the private nightclub.
6) Tempt yourself with treats for all the senses at the Burlington Arcade. Start with a colorful, chilled gourmet macaroon at Laduree. The pastel hues of these specialty cookies are showcased in a golden nook that provides a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Stroll further down past the treasure chest of estate and antique gems that line the storefronts. End at N. Peal and wrap yourself in the most luxurious fur-trimmed cashmere. If there is still money in your pockets, round the corner to Saville Row and glimpse at the custom fabrics and suits in the windows.
7) There are loads of outdoor markets for the shopper who enjoys the hunt for a bargain, the charm of vintage, or the lure of antiques. Each market has a unique personality, and here are some of my favorites. Camden Market, located in Chalk Farm, feels like NY’s East Village with its funky clothing and artsy jewelry, tattoo parlors and Indian cuisine, patchouli scent and pierced crowd. Old Spittalfields Market, in the up and coming East End, offers a potpourri of clothing, art, and jewelry stalls for all ages. Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, becomes a “happening” on the weekend when bands entertain, food stalls pop up, and all the shops open their doors offering everything from priceless antiques to cheap souvenirs.
8) London is known for its West End, but there are other outlets for great entertainment. Go catch a new movie release at any of the Everyman Theaters spread through the city. Here you can sink into a plush sofa, prop your feet on a foot stand, sip you chardonnay, and snack on little bites as your favorite movie plays across a big screen. It is like having surround sound in your own private living room.
9) When you have a few free hours, go online and search the daily offerings at londonwalks.com. Every day, London Walks provides interesting guided walking tours in different areas of the city: join the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour of the Swinging ‘60s, learn the secrets of Westminster Abbey, uncover Jack the Ripper’s haunts, trace the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, discover the architecture in the famous Square Mile…the choices are endless. Best of all, no advance booking is necessary. Just turn up with £10 in your pocket. This could be the only bargain to be found in pricy London!
10) Dare to get lost. With google maps in our pockets, it is hard to aimlessly wander any more, but London is a great place to abandon planning and just follow a random windy cobbled lane. After an overdose of stimuli in Harrods, I did just that. I ambled away from the retail behemoth and found myself on the charming Walton Lane, populated with small cafés, decorative design wares, high-end fashion, and low-key boutiques. It is a place I randomly found and now purposely return.