This post might be rather untimely. With Brexit and the fact that I moved to London nearly three years ago, it’s a strange time to be writing about moving here. Nonetheless, if it helps a newcomer or two, or even if it is a purely reminiscent exercise for myself, it’ll have served some purpose.
I moved to London at the end of summer 2014 to finish off a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics. I then got a job at the LSE and stayed ever since. So my experience in London may just be a little bit biased. I’ve also only ever lived in Zone 1, so my bubble is just that small. While we’re at it, I’m a Chinese-Candian liberal spiritualist with a dash of conservatism.
Despite these limitations, these three years have taught me a thing or two about this town and the country at large. Before I leave, I thought I’d jot some of these down. These range from the practical to lifestyle to food recommendations, so bare with me. As the listomanic that I am, this will come in a form of a nice little list, but not as neat as my lists otherwise are…
19 Things You Should Know About Living in London:
- Water Taps: The separate hot and cold taps are real. This is not a rumour. Prepare to do the hot ‘n cold sink dance (Katy Perry as delightful accompaniment). Your hands will lose a layer of skin, but it will make them tougher and more durable
- Public WCs: My fellow North Americans, welcome to the land of no toilet door gaps! Finally, you can do your business in peace and total privacy.
- Surveillance: But public privacy is not a thing because CCTVs are everywhere. And I mean, EVERYWHERE. London is not named the most-surveillanced city for giggles.
- Food (British): British food may be notoriously bland, but the English breakfast is actually quite a treat. Except for the baked beans. I can’t do the beans. I just can’t.
- Food (the better version): And if that’s not your cup of tea, London has all the world’s food to offer. So have no fear, because authentic cuisines are here! You’ll find all the world’s food here, an assortment of different combinations of them, and whatever else your palate desires. The restaurants range from dirt cheap to Michelin-stared. Every bite as euphoric as the last one. It’s a big town. Go out and explore!
- Money: But do beware that your wallet and bank account will bruise terribly. London is one of the most expensive cities to live in. Budget smartly, spend wisely and be prepared.
- Weather: Of course we have to talk about the weather. It’s only THE British thing to do. Rain is not as common as you are led to believe. Some years it is terrible, but most years are fine. Or maybe that’s because I’m from Vancouver, and I’m used to constant rain. Do carry an umbrella with you at all times. Just because it doesn’t rain as often, doesn’t mean the rain is predictable. Cloudy days are a real struggle here though. You may suffer from vitamin D deficiency if you are from the sunny side of the world.
- Housing: Unless you are a student and your school will take care of accommodation for you, here are some real useful websites for the dreadful “flat” hunt: spareroom.co.uk (my all-time favourite), rightmove.co.uk, zoopla.co.uk, and gumtree.com. Good luck my fellow expats.
- Museums: Go to all the museums. They are free. No joke. This is one of the best things about being in London. My favourite is the Tate Modern, mainly because of its newest extension which leads me to my next point…
- Aerial Views: The Tate’s new extension offers a brilliant view over the Thames. Take your date here for a hell of a sunset and that may just make you lucky. One of my other favour places to take dates and visiting friends is the top of the Walkie-Talkie building. (Delightfully, London has nicknames for all its skyscrapers. You’ve got the famed Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Shard, the Razor, the Aerosol Can). Although you can pay to go to the top of the Shard, or sneak in by saying you are headed for a drink on the 32rd floor Aqua Shard Bar, I’d recommend you either book a free ticket to the Sky Garden on the Walkie-Talkie or do a walk-in at 6PM. Do dress up a little. They have a firm line against khakis and flip-flips. The reason it’s my favourite out of all the sky scraping goodness in London, is because it not long offers a 360 degree view, but it also has an actual garden (not in name only) and gives you a great view into the Cheese Grater. If you are up for spending, cocktails at the Sky Pod Bar are 12 a pop; if you are loaded, try the Darwin Brasserie. If you are a millionaire or someone else is paying, go for the Frenchurch Restaurant. Although, the Guardian has said that “the more you pay, the worse your view”. So you are warned. Otherwise, the Sky Garden also hosts a bunch of early-morning yoga and HIIT classes, if getting up at 6 and putting your body through the torture are what floats your boat.
- Transport: If you are from North America, walking to and from places may be a foreign (and probably uncomfortable) concept for you. Give it a chance, London is a wonderfully walkable city. Even though Google may tell you it’ll be a 45-minute walk, it’s a completely different experience here. Put on those comfy trainers and get with the rhythm of this city! If you really are desperate for an alternative, Boris Bikes is the solution! I hate the tube. It’s cramped, dusty, polluted (you can see the dirty air on the platform), horribly hot in the summer, and full of miserable-looking people, so I avoid it as best I can. I also don’t like the buses, as they are notoriously unreliable. Not so much in terms of wait time, but more in terms of unexpected diversions, bus driver changes, and other delightful little surprises along the way. If you are a stickler to public transport, make sure to download CityMapper onto your phone.
- Friends: No matter your background, native language, interests, quirks, or personality, you will find your crowd here. You’ve got 8.8 million colourful souls to pick from. So swallow that introvert, even for a few minutes, bring hand sanitizer (if you are a germaphobe), and talk about the weather.
- Drinking: Every weekday at 6PM, the outdoor spaces of pubs roar to life with workers drinking away the long day. I’m not one for the pub scene but it’s got its jolly merits. So go for drinks, for pub food (hit and miss, that one), or for company. Or, grab cheaper drinks at your local grocer and sit on the Southbank until the stars come out. You can drink in public here! Also, make sure you attend a pub quiz night or two. It’s a load of fun despite you not being able to answer more than two questions correctly. If you are in the know, you might just win a prize or two!
- Events: One day can be completely different from the next if you choose to have it that way. There is always something new happening in this ever-changing, kaleidoscopic town. To keep up with great events, new store openings, and other funsies, I’d suggest following these guys on Facebook: the Londonist, TimeOut London, and TheatreMonkey (For North Americans, theatre here is not referring to the movies but to musicals, plays, and other live-action wonders).
- Bookstores: Unlike Canada, bookstores are not a dying breed here. For bibliophiles, tsundokus (Japanese word for someone who loves to hoard books), or those of us simply brought to life by a large collection of books, London is THE place to be. Besides the staple big vendors of Waterstones and Foyles, this town is littered with independent booksellers. Some of them may be small but they’ve all got big personalities. For specific recommendations, Google it. My favourite is Blackstone at the Wellcome Centre (The Wellcome Centre is its own marvel).
- Movies: I am a heavy movie-goer. London is great in terms of offering a variety of prices, cinemas (yes, North Americans, it’s called cinemas, not theatres!) and experiences. For the ultimate IMAX experience: BFI Southbank. You’ll see it. It’s the reason the roundabout on the Southbank-side of Waterloo Bridge exists. Big cinema chains include ODEON, Empire, and Vue. I frequent these the most. Smaller (and usually more expensive) ones include Pictureworld, Curzon, Everyman, and Cineworld. Cheapest locations I’ve come across are: Peckham Picturehouse (6 pounds a pop) and ODEON Covent Garden (10 a pop). If you want to experience unusual movie-going, London is full of open-air cinemas (in parks and on rooftops) and watch & dine luxuries. You can also do celebrity-spotting. It’s a good place to practice that sport if that’s your thing.
- Geography: As if there isn’t enough wonderful things about London already, another absolutely delightful characteristic is the dynamic areas. From Stratford to Wimbledon, from Hampstead to Crystal Palace, every area has developed its own personality. If you are up for walking, there will be countless places where you turn a corner and hipster town turns into 1960s bunker-style enclosures, where on one end of the street stands elegant half-moons of white townhouses and the other end is full of corner shops and raw ruggedness. So study a map of London for a bit, and then go out for a long stroll. The longer the better (I’ve done 5-hour walks myself).
- Travel: Trains are expensive. Ridiculously expensive. Travel anyway. Go north to meet the great Scots, gawk at JK Rowling-writing spots, find the Loch Ness, and admire majestic nature in the Lake and Peak Districts. Go west to see ancient roman remains, drink Irish coffees, and breathe in all the beauty of the Cornish coast. Go east to stand under the shadows of the cathedrals and atop iconic, rolling white cliffs. Go south to dig your toes into the sand and dip your feet into the great English Channel. Or simply stay in London and spend lazy weekends on the many greens. Have picnics, with drinks. Observe city wildlife and the tourists that try to take a selfie with them.
- Love: 8.8 million people. There is no better place to find that him or her. And if you don’t succeed, you’ll have met some incredible people along the way. Have some fun!
This may only be a morsel of what it is like to live in this dazzling town, but hopefully, it’ll help settle you into an insane rollercoaster ride, or a tranquil boat ride, whichever you prefer to have your life be here. London is vastly accommodating to every sort of lifestyle.
Take it all in. You are in one of the most fabulous, dynamic, and fearless cities in the world.
Eat. Watch. Laugh. Love.