Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin takes a look at how to make the most out of this fantastic city without it taking the most out of your bank account
There are few experiences to rival the first few minutes spent in a city you’ve spent a lifetime reading about and watching on TV. In London, your first experience is likely to be one of sensory assault, especially if you arrive at one of the stations: the chaos of the crowds, the damp, musty, smell, the overwhelming grandeur of the architecture, the incomprehensible and garbled announcements. Take a moment, breathe it in, find your way to a coffee stand to protect yourself from the chaos with a shot of caffeine, and feel the next assault: the one on your pocketbook. London is likely rivalled only by New York in terms of sheer budget strain, with even other Brits grimacing at the cost of the basics here. Still, there are ways for visitors to the city to find their way around, even on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations.
The Tube map is not an accurate representation of the actual layout of the lines and stations, and there are plenty of places where various Underground stations are actually closer on foot than they are by train. Cut down on your travelling expenses by seeing more of the city above ground. Earn your pub meal by stacking up the miles, be kind to your pocket, and see more of the sights, all in one go.
2. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely
There are a few standard accommodation options, and most of them aren’t good ones. If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re looking for a hostel: don’t. You may get lucky, but in my experience, London hostels are still horrifically expensive, and many are seedy to boot. You may end up paying an exorbitant rate to be stuck in a damp, dark room with 20 strangers, twelve of whom snore like drains and three (yes, three) of whom are having sex. Unless you’d like to have bed bugs for the rest of your life, choose a hostel very, very carefully, or steer clear. The standard alternative – a large chain hotel, even a cheap one – is not likely to be much better overall: it’ll probably be cleaner, but will also probably break the bank significantly more. So what are your options? One good avenue to explore is to look for timeshare that’s going begging – this can be a better deal and greater comfort than a cramped hostel or dinky hotel. Another good bet is to look for self-catering accommodation, especially if you’re travelling in a group: if it’s just you, it may not work out cheaper, but if you can cram four people into a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa bed, you can split the costs of grocery shopping and save cash by eating at home. And finally, if you’re really broke, look into couch-surfing, which is a sure-fire way to meet excellent people (and a few wonderful weirdos), and end up with your own friendly traveller in future months.
3. Head Away From The Crowds
Let’s face it: the best bits of any foreign city are not the ones that people flock to in droves. Save your precious London cash by avoiding the most garish of tourist attractions. A wander around Southbank is definitely worth your time, and you can admire Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament at your leisure, without having to elbow-wrestle with fourteen hundred other tourists to catch a glimpse of something interesting. If historical London really floats your boat, pick a few sites that you absolutely must check out, but don’t blindly go along with what every travel blog ever tells you that you “have to see”; read the reviews, do your research, and narrow it down. Chances are high that you’ll have more enchanting memories from an afternoon’s wander round Covent Garden or a spectacular evening in a pub than you will of the overpriced stampede at the Tower of London. Even those ten minutes you spent with your cheek flattened against the train window when you caught the Piccadilly line at half past five in the evening were probably more fun (and cheaper).
4. Don’t Fall Prey to the Souvenir Junk.
What do you think you’re going to do with that “Mind the Gap” t-shirt? It’s not original, or clever. Neither is your miniature London bus. It’s understandable to want to accumulate some mementos to take home with you, but try to make them unique or useful at the very least. Buy a fantastic piece of art at a little market, or a warm scarf that will remind you of London for years to come. If you must buy a standard souvenir, keep it small and cheap, like a fridge magnet or shot glass. That way you won’t weigh down your luggage with unnecessary junk, and when you get home and realise you don’t need it after all, it won’t be difficult to find a place to keep it. Plus, you’ll have saved yourself all the expense of loading yourself up with themed coasters and umbrellas.
As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.
It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica — but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North.
And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!
But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.
Going from Place to Place
Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!
Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.
And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.
Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.
The “Quirky” Neighborhoods
When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.
The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.
Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.
Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.
Food and Drink
It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.
Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.
And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.
And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t really call them Danishes in Denmark.
Well, they wouldn’t, would they?
They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.
Best of all though… Snow!
Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.
I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.
Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy. Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.
And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.
All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.
Borough Market holds a special place in my heart for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is a great cornucopia of aromas, sights and sounds to please the palate, amaze the eye, divert the mind and amuse the ear.
It also makes me nostalgic though. It brings back memories of when we first moved to London eight years ago and spent many a weekend sampling and perusing ripe cheeses, artisanal breads, organic veg and fine chocolates whilst balancing plastic prosecco flutes, often concluding the day by taking high tea in the nearby Bramah Tea Museum or hopping on a tube into town to sip a glass of Belgian beer in bohemian Soho pub The French House.
Trips to the London Bridge/Southwark area tend to be further and fewer between nowadays, but perhaps are more cherished because of their rarity. We took the boy to the Emirates Air Line Cable Cars today (more on that later) and found ourselves with some time afterwards and an urge to saunter and sample pleasures old and new, which we did with much joy. From L’Ubriaco “Drunken Cheese”, to Greedy Goat goat’s milk ice cream (the boy ordered Cappucino ice cream, he’s a chip off the ole block), Heavenly Halloumi Burgers (courtesy of Veggie Table) to a veritable smorgasbord of international ales to choose from at the Utobeer stall, this place is the must-see for the London foodie tourist.
But what took us especially out of our way today was the fond memory kindled by the thought of a gourmet coffee after lunch from the company that continues to set the gold standard for that caffeinated beverage in London, Monmouth Coffee. If you want to find Monmouth just look for the line snaking around the corner to Neal’s Yard Cheese Shop of customers waiting to order their filtered Kenyan blend, popular for good reason. These purveyors of roasted java pride themselves on the time they spend researching and getting to know the provenance of the variety of beans they use from different single farms, estates and coops from around the world. They show care and dedicate effort to what they do and you can taste it in every beautiful cup, transporting you to caffeinated epiphany.
As promised though, before we indulged our addiction to caffeine and good food, we embarked on our primary goal today of seeing the Emirates Air Line cable cars today, a cable car system stretching over part of the Thames leading from North Greenwich to Royal Victoria Docks. Although the particular stretch that it traverses is brown and industrial, the view is breathtaking, the experience is thrilling and, at £4.30 for a single ticket, a bird’s eye view of London is not much more expensive than an all-zones travelcard for the day, making it fantastic value. See for yourself.
An experience well worth the ticket price whether you are afraid of heights (and I am, terribly) or not. All the high flying appeal of a James Bond stunt and all the views looking down on the capital from above.
If you do want to board a flight on “The Air Line” you can obtain more information, specifics and directions from here.
I hope all your Saturdays were equally inspiring.
Before I moved to London, natives told me that no real Londoner spends time in Central London. “Oh it’s for tourists,” they would insist. I could not see how that was possible. After all, Johnson’s adage is true: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” The humming hub of central London, The West End, is teeming with life and buzz and character. We spent many a weekend for what seemed like the first few years of our existence in the capital exploring vintage stores and vegetarian restaurants, cocktail bars and coffee shops that secreted cool.
But hey, you discover a beautiful area like Hackney, you buy a nice place, decorate it with reclaimed, exposed brick, distressed g plan and suddenly you’ve carved a corner of this city for yourself outside of which you rarely have to roam. You think, is there really any point in squeezing, sardine-like, onto the tube to meander around streets immersing oneself in the ubiquitous commercial glitz of the chain store on the Great British High Street, only to compress your body mass once again, bracing yourself for the depths of the Central Line on the way home?
The Missus and I braved it anyway on Tuesday, gluttons for punishment that we are. I had the day off for the Jewish holiday of Shmini Atzeret and we seemed to find ourselves in possession of that rarest of commodities: free time.
So head into the West End we did and surprise surprise, I would rate the journey as okay to moderately pleasant, walking around W1 and environs therein reminded me more of a flaneuristic stroll than a claustrophobic squeeze and most joyously surprising of all was that as we were walking back towards Holborn, hankering for a cup of joe and eager to avoid the blandness of Costa and the burnt yet saccharine putridity of a beverage from a Seattle based chain that will remain unnamed, we stumbled upon Salt (pictured above), a lovely little place and a rare find in touristy central London. Salt is stylishly designed, has a great menu, and a lovely and welcoming atmosphere. It feels much more contemporary East End/Hackney than West End/Covent Garden partly because of the choices made in arranging the sleek and aesthetically pleasing interior and partly because of their choice of coffee — the eminently delectable Square Mile Roasters based in (where else?) the East End, bohemian Bethnal Green to be precise. Employees were cordial and the coffee was smooth, subtle and well crafted as is in evidence below. Tables were high, oblong and affixed to corners and walls, enjoyed atop chic stools from East London Furniture with lattes and flatties served in charmingly mismatched china and glasses.
Big deal. It’s a coffee shop. Doppio a dozen. Why am I so impressed? I’m impressed because you rarely find an enticing independent establishment that’s able to peep out from below brash and bulky elbows of the crowded together conglomerations of corporate cappuccino-serving froth factories in the center of this grand metropolis. Generally speaking, the options for tourists (Yanks and otherwise) range from Nero (bland) to Pret (organic bland) to the aforementioned Seattle-based chain (a taste of home bland) with not much in between. In the East End, you find that enterprising, libertarian spirit from Roman Road Market clear across to Murder Mile, but giving tourists in the ole Covent Garden a taste of high quality espresso for moderately low prices? This place gets kudos for bravery, ambiance, and caliber of product.
So, visiting compatriots, when you are around the market or The Actors Church or The Transport Museum and you want a delicious lunch at a decent price followed by elation-inducing double espresso, this place is not more than a stone’s throw and worth making the time to find.
Salt is located at 34 Great Queen Street, Covent Gardent WC2B 5AA open from 7.30 am – 7 pm Mon-Fri, 10 am – 7 pm Sat, closed on Sun. www.saltwc2.co.uk
Most impressive in this last respect were the people at Make Decent Coffee, who seemed to be affably able to chat about the bitter black stuff (the sobering kind, not Guinness) for days, while pulling a perfect macchiatto, the fourth of which made me feel a bit like my head was spinning like race car wheel, so fast it appeared to be intensely still.
Thankfully, just before we left, I spotted Byron Redman, a Bavarian beer specialist with a stall just squeezing into the corner of the True Artisan Cafe area. I bet his place was hopping (pun intended) in the afternoon, but we had the brunch slot, from 10-1. Redman aims for high quality and commercial friendliness, and he aims well. His beers, especially the Brewers and Union unfiltered, are of exceptional smoothness and subtly, distinctly flavourful. This soft spoken Southern German has a great future in beer.
It may have been purely psychological, but the sampler of Brewers and Union seemed to help me achieve chemical equilibrium in my bloodstream with no perceptible caffeine headache. Of course, it is just possible that this is the sort of experience one should get used to after a whole morning of drinking nothing but exceptionally high quality coffee.
This weekend it was The London Coffee Festival at The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. Sounded like a festival designed just for me and it did not disappoint.
Tickets were £9.50 and so naturally, I start thinking in American buffet mode: must get money’s worth. The canvas bag they hand out at the door does not look promising, holding a few periodicals on beer and coffee geekery and a couple ‘coffee bags’. Thankfully, this did turn out to be a very generous festival.
We start at The True Artisan Cafe area, with a very smooth Flat White from the good people at Caravan Coffee. I waited eagerly, crisp £20 note in hand, waiting to hand our lank, baggy-shirted, floppy-haired baristas, nervously looking around for a price list and wondering if everyone else knew the etiquette because they were just a bit more clued in to the world of coffee than I was. Niggling away at me was the feeling that you can’t possibly have a nice coffee in London for free. My eyes darted around to search the hands at the front of the line for any sign of an exchange of cash for caffeine. None was evident. Then, I ordered: four flat whites, two babycinos. Still no charge. I issued a silly, unnatural sounding laugh as I walked away with my drinks, feeling like I’d got away with it. Naturally, I hadn’t. I’d paid £9.50. Our tickets were good for three hours in the coffee festival. I suddenly realised, I better get drinking.
It turned out that actually, you would be rather naive to pay for any caffeinated beverage at this celebration of all things java. Etiquette, as my wife, Paula, shrewdly sussed, was that if there were prices up, you paid. If there weren’t, you didn’t. And there were plenty of tradesman who were happy to serve you high-quality cup after cup just expounding on their wealth of expertise and experience, thankfully sans snobbery of any kind.