Bristol and a town called London
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December, 2004; June, 2005
Flying into London is expensive. In fact, England as a whole is expensive, what with the Pound dominating nearly all global currencies. Here’s a tip for anyone flying into London from continental Europe though: perhaps choose to fly into Bristol on a cheap carrier like RyanAir, and then take a coach (bus) across to London later. Many times it works out cheaper, and you get to see the city of Bristol as well. If you plan it right, you can even swing by Stonehenge on the way there (though I missed it due to darkness). Flying into London Stansted or Luton requires about an hour transfer into the city anyway, so it’s really not that much further.
So with that little scheme I somehow found myself in Bristol, a teeming little University and port town where real life trumps those usual “tourist” activities. I headed up to Cabot Tower, a 105 ft. tall tower on a hill overlooking the harbor that commemorates the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. It’s a cool little piece of history and a nice view, but other than that there’s not much going on, although the garden areas surrounding the tower are a good place for a relaxing stroll. Really, the town is dominated by two hotbeds of activity: the harbor, and the University green. At the latter, students can be found lounging on the grass and eating at one of the many dining places lining the school grounds. One of these restaurants was advertising “USA Fried Chicken” as their signature dish, which I found to be a little odd. While there is meant to be good exploring in the area surrounding Bristol, I had had enough of the city by the sea, and hopped aboard a crowded coach for the journey over to London.
For someone visiting London for the first time, it really is a pretty overwhelming experience. There are so many places to visit and different “high points” to check out, it feels like an endless laundry list of “must-see” attractions. All you can do on a trip to London is choose a few and knock them off one at a time. Personally, downtown, my favorite spot to hang out is Trafalgar Square. The people watching is top-rate, there are a wide collection of eateries serving mediocre British food, it’s right in the thick of the city bustle, and there are enough pigeons to keep you entertained for hours (though apparently lately the city has been doing its best to oust them). That’s just me, but Trafalgar is one of my top London hangouts.
Another quirky spot that really gets me in London is Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. While Hyde Park is a sprawling area set in the heart of the city, I feel the most action is many times happening right on the tiny northeast corner. A public forum for intellectual, political, or societal rants, a day spent at Speaker’s Corner is never dull. While some “lecturers” draw a larger crowd than others, there is nearly always someone to be found speaking their mind. It’s all highly entertaining. Speaker’s Corner aside, the best way to spend a sunny day in London (seeing as they are so rare) is to crisscross the manicured lawns of the park, all the while dodging games of football and sunning lovers and schoolkids. At the far west end of the park is the Princess Diana memorial fountain, which while unique, has drawn criticism for being mildly underwhelming.
Back in the city, for anyone wanting to spend some time taking in London’s famed theater, the best place to look for tickets is down at Leicester Square, where tickets for shows that night sell for as much as 50% off. I was able to take in an energetic showing of Mamma Mia, which is something I never would have done had the tickets been full priced. The “Broadway of Europe”, I highly recommend taking in a show while in London.
Though a short way outside of downtown, another quirky venture while in London is to spend a Saturday at the jam-packed Portobello Market in the Notting Hill district of West London. One of the world’s largest street markets, thousands of people flock from all over the city to shop and haggle at street stalls on anything from clothing to furniture or food. It’s a great place in London to pick up some cheap souvenirs, and it’s nice to get out into the suburbs and out of the chaos of the downtown city life for a bit.
As previously stated, London continues to have on tap an endless run of activities, sights, and ways to pass the time when in town, though to mention all here would be far too lengthy. Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, the grass courts of Wimbledon, riding a double-decker bus, or simple eating a meal deal from Boots Pharmacy are all an integral part of the London experience that shouldn’t be missed. You can only scratch the surface on a single visit to the city, and for those who are drawn to the fast-pace of the big city scene, London will draw you back time and time again.