Londoners always seem to be on a mission somewhere very, very important. They file down the labyrinth tunnels of the underground at breakneck speed and in perfect, focused synchronicity, never seeming particularly phased by the throng of fellow commuters or the uncomfortable, muggy grip of an English summer. No one even bats an eyelid at the painful screech of the train as it pulls into the station. And there I was, already having got one half of my body (conveniently the half that was still attached to my 500kg suitcase) stuck on the wrong side of the gate after paying the train fare, and shoved out of the way on the elevator between stations (apparently one must keep left if one is not on the move somewhere very, very important) within the first 5 minutes of being in the city.
But, with little time to spare in London Town I had to get a grip and get hustling. Luckily, I had an old school friend living in England to help me out – she fetched me from the airport and acted as my tour guide/magical fairy godmother for the rest of the day. Without her, I probably would have crawled up into a ball of solo-travel anxiety and just given up on life.
After a fairly uneventful 12-hour flight from Cape Town, I’d arrived at Heathrow airport earlier that morning, bleary eyed and still altogether failing to deal with the sickening mix of feeling both wholly terrified and ridiculously exhilarated at traveling half way across the world completely on my own. A year ago I’d taken the plunge and booked an 18-day Topdeck Eurotrip – the European Odyssey – as a solo traveler. This was my first trip to Europe and the UK, first time traveling to an international destination alone and London was the first of ten stops on the whirlwind tour, which would be departing from the city at the crack of dawn the following morning. I was terrified, overwhelmed, but ready to get my camera out and get exploring. As would be the case for the next three weeks, there was still so much to see, yet so little time.
After finally checking into Burn’s Hotel, my accommodation for the night and the Topdeck meeting point, we set off for a whistle-stop walking tour of the city.
The first stop was a sweet one, as I pushed open the doors to Harrod’s and entered foodie heaven. While the endless make-up counters, and towers of shimmering perfume boxes and immaculately dressed sales ladies had me completely in awe, it was the food and fresh produce departments that really got me excited about life. Glass case after glass case of fresh salads, and sandwiches and delectable pastries and dainty chocolates, wall-to-wall shelves stacked to the roof with tins of exotic teas and shortbread biscuits, and bunches of flowers in pastel shades all came together to create a visual feast I couldn’t get enough of. I literally wanted to eat everything (okay, maybe not the flowers). But, on we marched!
The rest of the day whizzed by in a blur of How To Be A Tourist in London for Dummies, from strolling through hyde park while enjoying a rare spot of English sun, to snapping selfies with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and almost getting annihilated by a red bus while crossing the street – I got completely distracted by a bunch of Brexit protesters opposite Big Ben. And, of course, no trip to London is complete without a photo opportunity beside one of those charming little red telephone boxes.
If you think it’s impossible to see a majority of the British Capital’s major attractions when you only have 24 hours in the city, think again! You just have to take a page out of a Londoner’s book and learn to hustle a bit – get in, get out, snap a photo because proof or it didn’t happen, and on to the next item on the bucket list. While this isn’t an ideal way to fully experience a new place, at least I can say I’ve done the tourist-y things – I’ve braved the crowds and the infamous sales of Oxford Street, meandered through Covent Garden and gazed up at the London Eye. And, when I one day return to London, I’ll have more time to explore the city and get more of a “local” experience.
It also proved to be super quick and easy to get around, with most attractions being within walking distance of one another, and the tube as a convenient alternative when you decide you’ve done enough trekking around on foot for one day . The whole tube/public transport situation was still a fun novelty at this point, though, despite how hot and chaotic it was down there.
The Topdeck tour began and ended in London, so when I returned to English soil for another 24-hours in this frenetic city, my friend decided we needed to take it down a notch and treated me to a relaxed morning in Camden Town. I absolutely loved it there – the markets, the contradiction of shops (you could quite easily buy a pair of anti-brand gothic combat boots and then pop on over next door to Accessorise for the 70% off handbag sale), the artisanal food stalls (starting to notice a pattern yet?), and building facades decorated with obscure sculptures. While the atmosphere of the markets was more laid back than the inner city, it was still alive with a certain creative energy, the kind that makes you want to quit whatever you’re doing and open your own gourmet food truck. It was a different side of London I didn’t expect to see, and seems like the kind of place many first-timers to the city wouldn’t necessarily experience. But, it’s definitely well-worth adding this little cultural gem to the list.
Anyway! Let me not get ahead of myself – I had one hell of a Eurotrip and saw and experienced so many diverse things before I even got to Camden.
But, my time in London prior to the trip certainly set the tone for what was the come. Each destination we’d visit along the way would be as amazing as the one before it, with so many attractions to see, foods to try and souvenir shopping to be done, and so little time within which to do so.
Look out for the next instalment of the European Odyssey, where I meet my fellow Topdeckers for the first time, jump on a ferry at the White Cliffs of Dover and make my merry way to the land of love and croissants – Paris!
Until then. xx