I jotted down a few quick thoughts for the Startup Catalyst crew that will soon be in London, (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that for some of them it might be their first visit to the UK).
This is basically a quick collection of the things that I have found interesting, weird, or confusing since moving to London at the start of 2016.
If you’re a first-time Australian in London, it is easy to be somewhat dumbstruck walking around everywhere. The history of the motherland is being stuffed into your eyeballs with almost every step you take as you walk around the city, and the temptation is to let yourself idly wander around as you attempt to soak it all in.
To Londoners, you have become yet another annoying obstacle in their daily routine. You are a Hazard to Navigation that has been air-dropped into their lives by those bastards at Qantas who seem to do nothing else but delight in putting random tourists in their way while they’re busy power-walking from Meeting A to Meeting B.
Fortunately, the famed politeness of the English means you’re rarely likely to be chastised for your careless wanderings. You might, however, bear the brunt of the most savage of their disapproving sighs, something that — if you’re even remotely a local — will leave you red-faced with sheer mortification that your concentration momentarily flagged to the point and a fellow Londoner was forced to alter their gait to get around you while you gazed, starry-eyed, at one of the many wonders.
There are two important aspects to walking in London.
The first is to keep your head down and your eyes firmly fixed on what is directly in front of you, resisting the temptation to be distracted by random things like pubs that are older than our whole country. Your vision should be constantly sweeping from side to side to maintain the sort of situational awareness that SEAL teams spend years training to achieve; you should be ready to step slightly aside so a faster (and thus more evolutionarily perfect) specimen of humanity can pass you on the way to simply the most important meeting ever (or, alternatively, so they can make it to the next tube, because who wants to wait another two minutes for the one after, right?).
The second thing is to note that despite the fact that roads have standard rules about which side you should be on, the footpaths do not. Apparently there are simply too many people in London from too many different cultures for a standard to have been formally agreed on. (Unlike escalators — see below.) However! It does seem that more people walk on the right hand side of the footpath. This makes sense because it is the complete opposite of what you’d expect given the side of the road they drive on. My recommendation is to try to stay the right when you’re walking around as it seems to avoid slightly more head-on collisions.
Of course, it is super important to take time out to be a tourist while you are here. Enjoy the beautiful sights and the amazing history. But get the fuck out of the way of everyone else while you’re doing it lest you fall afoul of the most dreaded criticism of all — someone saying “excuse me” in a slightly irritated tone!
Escalators need a quick note. Despite the complexity of simply walking around, escalators — particularly those in tube stations — have a well-defined and commonly accepted standard: if you’re standing on them, you stand on the right.
This is slightly counter-intuitive, at least to me. As a driver, if I’m slower traffic, I would expect to remain in the left lane, so that people can overtake me. But whatever.
If you’re standing idly on the left — for example, staring at the infinite stretch of steel stairs at Angel tube station, or in a jet-lagged stupor at Heathrow having just stepped off the plane — bear it in mind. Step right. Put your luggage in front or behind of you on the stairs. Do whatever it takes, but leave a clear passage up the left side of the escalator to allow those to pass by you on their urgent tasks.
Plan to use the tube for all your travel. Seriously. If you are here for a week, get a weekly travel card. If there is even a slim chance you’ll come back to London for visits, get an Oyster card.
You might be faced with some temptation to get a cab or an Uber. You’ll get where you’re going (more so if you take a black cab), but it will generally take you way longer and cost way more. (Example: an Uber from Heathrow to the city will cost you about 50 pounds and take an hour; the tube will cost about 10 and take the same amount of time).
In many cases it will actually be faster and easier to walk instead of getting the tube. Two tube stops might sounds like nothing, but often can take more time once you add the overhead of switching lines, stopping, etc. Don’t use the tube map as any sort of reflection of the usual reality of space/time.
Buses are fine but depending on your exact route often slow because of the insane traffic, especially around the city.
If you have a hangover, bear in mind in some cases it’s a long time between stops and barfing on someone’s shoes during their morning commute is considered poor form.
And remember: if you’re here in summer, it can get hot in the tube. Air-conditioning is non-existent or poor; there are often cases of people passing out due to heat exhaustion. Take some water.
Assuming you’ve survived walking from where you were to where you wanted to be without the embarrassment of hearing the dreaded “tssk” noise of a distressed Brit, you might be feeling like a flat white to calm your nerves.
I can’t help you. I’m a tea drinker.
What I can tell you: every single English person seems to know that Australians turn up here and complain about the coffee. (Note: this also seems to be true in the USA.) Because they’re sick of it I suspect that if you turn up and ask where you get a “decent cup of coffee” you’ll be directed to a “great local place” that turns out to be a Starbucks or a Maccas.
I am reliably informed that getting good coffee in London is possible. One place that seems to make Australians not whine is Trade, in Whitechapel. Aside from that you’re on your own. Just drink tea. (Or see below about beer.)
Pub life in London in summer is simply fantastic. After the Long Dark of the Eternal Winter, as soon as the sun comes out and the temperature gets above about 17 degrees Celsius (i.e., a particularly cold Brisbane winter day), everyone flocks to the pubs to grab a pint and stand outside to imbibe. The atmosphere is lively and congenial everywhere you go.
If you’re an Australian though you’ve probably grown up on tales of crappy warm English beer. I can happily report that English pubs are often stocked with a variety of truly fantastic beer, ranging from hipster microbrews to pretty decent major brewery stuff.
If you’re coming in summer, you might want to avoid the ales — the “warm” beers, so called because they’re typically just not refrigerated. Stick with the lagers and you’ll be fine. The ales though tend to be really interesting and varied in their own right; it’s just that if you’ve gotten off a packed tube in 30 degree heat you’re probably gagging for something that is a little bit closer to absolute zero.
Possibly the most useful tip I can give you is that almost everywhere you go, the bartenders will cheerfully give you a (free!) taste of the beers that they have on tap. It is a great way to walk into a pub and try a few things before dropping five pounds on a pint.
If you’re travelling on the Australian dollar you might find eating at pubs and restaurants can feel annoyingly expensive for a casual meal (“12 pounds for the pie, let’s see, that’s … $20 for a pie?! What the shit!?”). Many of them do have lunch deals though where you can get a good feed (and often a pint!) for a decent price.
If you have access to a microwave, you should be aware that many of the chain corner stores — Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose — sell cheap pre-made meals that are actually surprisingly decent. They are a quick and easy way to feed yourself and are only a few pounds per meal (Waitrose will sell you three for six pounds). I would normally have avoided these like the plague but they were recommended to me when I got here and I’ve since discovered some of them I can happily eat every day (Waitrose’s chicken penne arrabbiata in particular).
If you’re interested in great Indian food then you’ll be right at home in London. Many places will give you a good feed (curry + naan) for around £5. But if you want an amazing feed for a reasonable price, check out Tayyabs!
In terms of cheap booze, you’ll find in general it’s roughly the same as it is back home. The main differences are: a) you can buy grog from basically any corner store b) it’s hard to find a carton but it’s OK because c) the cost of a six-pack is not a complete rort.
Due to the irritating tendency of the IRA to put bombs in rubbish bins a few decades ago, many parts of London are devoid of places to dispose of your waste. If you have any rubbish on you, get rid of it at the first available bin, lest you wind up carrying it around for hours looking for a suitable location to toss it.
Please don’t become the sort of lazy jerk that just tosses their crap into the street. This is sadly common in London, which, as a result feels like one of the dirtiest cities I’ve been in.
London is an amazing city to explore. There are way too many things to do and see for me to bother writing even a small list. Soak it up and enjoy the experience.