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With centuries of history and heritage at the very core of its character, London, the capital and most dense city of England in the United Kingdom, is undeniably steeped in timeless beauty. From its amazing architecture—myriad and majestic in style and influence—to its charming stone-and-brick buildings and stunning monuments, from its breathtaking green spaces to its bustling city streets, and from its cosmopolitan centers to its leisurely boroughs and quaint markets, London thrills the soul as only London can.
Flying with the heart of the Filipino
Our journey of 6,689.90 miles (the approximate distance between Manila and London) began on board the country’s national carrier, Philippine Airlines. While there are other trip options in the market, PAL appeared to be the best choice, given the much-lauded warmth of Filipino hospitality and the fact that the airline offers direct service to London—no deplaning, no transiting, and no connecting flights.
I am generally not a fan of long-haul journeys (14 hours in the air, in a confined space, with the nerve-wracking possibility of turbulence) is hardly my idea of fun. I must say, however, that time seemed to pass more quickly than I expected on board the PAL flight.
The heart of the Filipino—the airline’s catchphrase—was evident in the special touches of care and attention given passengers: a varied selection of in-flight entertainment (enjoyed on individual iPads), delectable on-board meals by renowned Filipino chef, Glenda Barretto, and the attentiveness of the crew, for example.
Add to all that the wider seating afforded by the quad-jet Airbus A340-300 (A343), and I found myself rather enjoying the experience. Before I knew it, the flight’s captain was announcing our final descent to London’s Heathrow Airport. Hurrah!
London’s irresistible allure
It is easy to see why, despite the oft-gray wet weather, chilly winds, and rather hefty cost of living, London has—through time—captivated the hearts of men and women. Its allure is irresistible, and it is quite pointless to try and escape its enticements.
Over the course of years, artists and creative souls have proclaimed the praises of London, not just its glory but its grit, as well. For it is a city’s gritty nature that rounds out its cultural character and makes it a truly unforgettable destination. To put it plainly, London has a way of getting under your skin, and, very possibly, a way of staying there.
As I walked down cobbled streets, perhaps the same streets once trod by the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens, I felt my spirit come alive and hearken to the call of London. This vibrant, lively, cosmopolitan, richly cultural, and incredibly open global power player had imprinted upon me. So much to absorb in five days; the very thought threw my head in a tizzy. I knew that it would be an impossibility to take it all in, but—as Bob’s your uncle!—I was certainly determined to try.
London is your Oyster!
Getting around London is not difficult, although people and vehicular traffic during rush hours can prove rather daunting. Despite these pitfalls and perils—typical of any megalopolis—public transport in London is super convenient. It is fairly easy to figure out a sightseeing route, and connecting from one place to another is pretty straightforward. Visitors can get about by London Bus (yes, those nifty red ones!), underground train (called the Tube), London Overground (above-ground trains), London River Services, among others.
London taxis, on the other hand, make for great photo opportunities and comfy rides, but are not necessarily the most cost-efficient option.
If you plan on staying for some days, it would be best to buy an Oyster card (a reloadable smartcard you can use to pay for travel on London’s public transport), the most economical way to dive headlong into all that the city has to offer.
Tours can also be arranged for you by a local operator, your hotel’s concierge, or you can go it on your own, as we did. Whichever you go with, it’s all hunky-dory and well worth the effort.
From West End to Westminster
One of the distinct aspects of London is its diversity, in terms of its population, activities, sights, food, and other cultural aspects. There is something for everyone in this multi-faceted capital. For lovers of the theatre, London’s West End is the equivalent of the highest level of heaven: an entire area devoted to theater and the arts! Galleries and museums abound, as well, making this part of town a true treat for those who are more culturally inclined.
West End spans much of the boroughs of Camden and Westminster, and is every theatre lover’s dream come true. Theatres sprawl up, down, and around the length of several streets, playing everything from award-winning adaptations to hilarious musicals. Unfortunately, as lack of time would have it, all I could do was gaze longingly upon the dazzling marquees and colorful playbills outside the different venues.
Chinatown and Soho are a hop, skip and a jump from West End, and are go-to places for on-trend shops, bars, and restaurants.
Those looking to take in classic London sights will find the Westminster Walk a fulfilling tour of iconic spots. Comfy shoes are a must to fully enjoy this self-guided, on-foot adventure of London’s financial and political center. We hopped off the Tube at Westminster and made our way up, street side, right by the River Thames, across from Big Ben, and the London Eye. This touristy trek took us to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey (an absolutely stunning gem of Gothic architecture), No. 10 Downing Street (home and official office to the British Prime Minister), the Horse Guards and the Household Cavalry (we missed the changing of the guards, but the handsome horses proved reason enough to stop), the Banqueting House at Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, St. James Palace, the National Gallery, and Buckingham Palace.
An unexpected bonus was an invitation to the Philippine Embassy to witness celebrated young Spanish-Filipino sketch artist and painter, Maria Murga, do some studies of Philippine Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Evan P. Garcia.
Parks and green spaces abound across London, so while on the Westminster Walk (or any other tour, for that matter), do allot enough time to enjoy the splendid sights, as well as the awe-inspiring natural scenery.
London is likewise all about royalty, and this regal bearing is central to the essence of the capital. We managed to visit Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria’s ancestral home, to take in a bit of this nobility and to feast our eyes on some of Her Majesty’s memorabilia.
God save the quirk!
It is not just London’s classic, traditional side that is drawing an influx of visitors—its decidedly left-off-center side is gaining ground, too. London has, in more recent years, established a reputation for quirky, eclectic fun.
For instance, there’s a restaurant called the Breakfast Club, which Londoners frequent for a typical meal of bacon, poached eggs, smashed avocado, and the like. But, instead of the usual all-day brekky fare, you could ask “to speak to the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town,” where a “secret breakfast” awaits. Upon this seemingly unusual request, you will be led through the doors of a huge Smeg refrigerator, and down to a hidden bar.
Then there’s a shop called God’s Own Junkyard, at Ravenswood Industrial Estate, in London’s East Side. This is a brightly lit haven of neon art, in a kaleidoscope of color. The “junkyard” features the work of Chris Bracey, the highly acclaimed “Neon Man.” On display and for sale is an eye-catching array of new and used neon creations, salvaged signs, vintage neons, old movie props and retro displays, and other awesome works of neon art.
For some eclectic shopping fun, my favorite spots were, undeniably, the Covent Garden markets, and Portobello Road street shops, both of which offer one-of-a-kind vintage finds and curio items.
These are just a few sites on the ever-expanding landscape of quirky London.
We simply cannot speak of London without speaking of its many pubs and taverns. Around every corner, just about, you will come across a watering hole or two, which serves up pints of delicious ale. As far as beer goes, London brews some of the best. Microbreweries are in no short supply, and offer unique beers such as Chocolate Tequila Stout, Earl Grey IPA, Imperial Pumpkin Stout, or a wine-barrel aged Sour IPA.
Many of London’s pubs have been around for centuries, and boast the added attraction of ambiance, along with their appealing ale. Some of the best Fish and Chips and Meat Pies—as customary as London food gets—are to be had at these pubs, as well. I happily squeezed in some long-overdue catch-up time with a childhood friend at The Green, a cozy pub in Shepherds’ Bush, over some pints of hearty, handcrafted brews.
As I had anticipated, the trip was done—all too soon. So much on my list had yet to be ticked, when it was time to make the nearly 7,000 mile journey back to Manila. Best I could do was utter a friendly Brit-style goodbye, with a promise of return: Cheerio, London! I shan’t be a stranger.