There’s something strange about being a tourist in your own country. There’s something even stranger about listening to travellers rave about landmarks that you’ve been used to seeing for years. This is the situation I found myself in on a recent trip to London; I was there to meet a friend visiting Europe from Australia, and as a result, became immersed in the whole traveller experience.
Because I was visiting London for the weekend, I had decided to stay in a hostel due to the budget rooms on offer. I’m no stranger to hostels, staying in many across the world during various trips, but I’ve never experienced one in the UK. It was intriguing to see how British hostels compared to those worldwide, and whether they offered the same facilities as their overseas counterparts.
The hostel was situated in Russell Square, a fairly central location easily accessible by underground or over ground trains stopping at Russell Square or Kings Cross. It’s a busy area; there is a small shopping complex housing many popular stores, and numerous restaurants and coffee chains. It also has a local feel, as it offers small independent cafes, specialist bookshops and cheap internet facilities. The hostel was simple to locate, as the website gave clear instructions on how to reach it from either train station. The hostel itself was a large sprawling building, comprising of accommodation over five floors, with a café, refectory and bar on the ground level. Staying in a four bed mixed dormitory was more or less what you would expect for £27 a night. The room was small, containing two bunk beds, four lockers and a sink, but the occupants were friendly and it was fascinating to hear about their travels.
London offers many famous and historical tourist attractions, and if you are visiting for a short period of time it can be difficult to choose. The excitement of the American girls overheard discussing the Tower of London was palpable, and it was interesting to hear a different perception of this British landmark. Living in the UK, it is easy to become immune to the sights of London and often another perspective can help rediscover them. It’s simple to get to famous landmarks, either by underground or on foot, and all attractions are clearly signed from the stations.
Buckingham Palace is a must on most travel agendas, it being one of the most recognisable of London’s sights. Situated in the verdant greenery of St James’ Park, it sits at the end of the Mall, a long tree lined avenue popular with runners and cyclists. The area was a prominent feature of the London Olympics, and is recognised worldwide for the role it played in the wedding of Prince William and Kate. The gates are usually crowded with tourists, each wanting that perfect photo and hopeful for a glimpse of royalty. At 11.30am daily (alternate days from August to March), the changing of the guard ceremony takes place, an event that’s very popular with visitors wanting to witness a British tradition. Established in 1660, the Queen’s Guard are responsible for protecting the sovereign palaces, and this has been the case since the reign of King Charles II. The ceremony also takes place at Winsor Castle and Horse Guards Arch.
The sights on the banks of the Thames River can be easily accessed by either Embankment or Westminster Bridge underground stations. Embankment will bring you straight on to Waterloo Bridge; you can then walk across to Southbank for a variety of restaurants, cafés and street entertainment. On crossing the bridge, we encountered the Zombie Walk; a wide spectrum of people dressed in wild costumes and covered in fake blood, all in aid of World Zombie Day. The London Eye, the city’s most popular paid tourist attraction, is situated near this bridge. At 135m high, it is the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe, and offers impressive views across the city on each thirty minute trip. Walk across Westminster Bridge to visit the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. This impressive building was rebuilt after fire in 1834, and serves as the centre of British government. It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and is one of the most iconic and recognisable symbols of London. In late afternoon, the setting sun throws the building into shadow, offering spectacular photographic opportunities as the light reflects from the Thames.
Visiting London at the weekend meant that evenings were busy with travellers and locals alike making the most of all the bars and clubs the city has to offer. I spent an evening in Covent Garden; this central location is excellent for daytime shopping, and at night it comes alive, with people packed into the outdoor bars and enjoying the variety of eateries. The areas of Piccadilly and Leicester Square are also popular evening destinations; try an all you can eat buffet in Chinatown or see a show in the most famous of theatre districts, the West End’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
This visit provided a great opportunity to see how London is perceived by international travellers. My Australian friend was amazed at seeing the aforementioned sights in person, and it helped me rediscover things I’d forgotten about or got used to. And as for the hostel…it was fine for two nights, but I’m not sure I could have stayed much longer!
I had a similar experience last summer when my Canadian friends visited for my birthday 🙂