London, summer 2011

Tower Bridge
I had previously been to London on business — multiple times in fact, in the late 1990s. Those were the heady days of the dot-com boom, and I came away with the impression of a beautiful, sprawling city filled with hard-drinking expats in search of their technology sector fortune.

This summer, we spent 10 days in London on a family trip. It’s a remarkable city that offers immeasurably much to see and do. No specific number of days would be ‘enough’ to see all of its significant sites, in part because — unlike New York — there are no natural boundaries confining one’s explorations. The closest thing we had was perhaps that our Oyster cards (London’s prepaid transit charge cards) limited us to zones 1 and 2 of the public transit system, which still cover a significant area.

To North Americans, London is an object lesson in evolving a kind of livable urban sprawl that remains, in a way, on a human scale despite its immense dimensions. The first thing that strikes visitors from the New World is how low the buildings are. Restrictions on building height are rarely lifted, and there are no condo towers and only a few corporate sky scrapers. The result is of course a city that looks usable, approachable, manageable.

In Toronto, we commonly take pride in having a ‘reasonable’ public transit system. But it’s only reasonable when compared to other places in North America that basically don’t have a transit system at all (such as Detroit or Los Angeles). London’s dense web of tubes, buses and regional trains puts even Germany’s public transit to shame. Sure, the tube is cramped at rush hour and you have to take a lot of escalators into the depths of the earth to get to your platform, but the net effect of the interconnected nature of the system is that there’s no single point of failure (both at the system level, and in terms of your personal travel options — there are always multiple ways of getting to your destination).

At surface level, it’s very much a walking city. To those of us unaccustomed to doing a lot of urban walking, it can be a bit of a shock to the system to be on your feet all day, every day. You do become used to it after a while though. In the inner city, everything is actually very close and easily walkable.

And the spoils of navigating at street level are myriad and wonderful: delicious restaurants, pubs and sandwich shops (offering healthy fast food) at every corner. Beautiful architecture as far as the eye can see. Markets, museums, parks, red double-decker buses, quaint (and basically unused) red phone booths, the South Bank. The bustle of Londoners and tourists dodging each other everywhere. (The dodging happens because Britons drive and walk on the left, and there are now so many tourists in London during the summer months who steadfastly cling to their own continental walking habits that the sidewalks turn into a very long and exhausting basketball game every day.)

We also spent several days visiting the ‘official’ sites. The Tower is surprisingly interesting and impressive, particularly the hourly tours led by a Yeoman Warder. The strange realization that every depiction of the British monarchy prior to the 19th century you’ve ever seen on television essentially takes place in the White Tower, which was the official residence until 1837.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was a revelation: I had expected something more like Toronto’s ROM (a hodgepodge of cultural artifacts, not-quite-art and not-quite-cultural-history). What I saw instead was a collection of some of the most priceless and timeless art, sculpture and historic craft I’ve ever encountered in a single building. (Even though I couldn’t quite shake the notion that the British were displaying everything they had looted in 400 years of Empire.)

The London Eye — built after I last visited London — is also well worth queuing up for (and it was a surprisingly short wait). It’s a marvel of technology and is much bigger than it appears in photos. I was so tickled by the sheer engineering achievement of the giant Ferris wheel that I’m afraid I missed taking in many of London’s famous sites while we were on it. I would go on another ride in a heartbeat, regardless of the relatively high cost.

Speaking of costs, I actually found London surprisingly affordable. The main cost, inevitably, is for accommodation. Acceptable (i.e. clean) short-term accommodation in London is possibly at even more of a premium than it is in New York. Our approach was to rent an apartment via, and so we lived it up in a South Kensington mews townhouse that left my Londoner friends somewhat speechless and assuming I was made out of money because nobody can afford to actually live in South Kensington (the per-person, per-night cost was still much lower than an acceptable hotel room would have been). The cost of food, however, seemed lower than it is in Canada, and perhaps somewhat more predictable because both taxes and restaurant service charges are included.

If it weren’t for the jet lag (I’m writing this blog post at 5:30 am), we would certainly visit it more frequently. It’s an unconditional recommendation and a must-see if you haven’t been.

Jennifer’s write-up and (much better) photos from our trip are here.

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