Why Yin? To my family, ever interested in using the shortest names possible for people, I've always been "Y". It's both a letter in my name and phonetically, the first syllable. For all travel related tags, I've always used #YinLOCATION to make it easier to separate those tweets/posts from my normal spew of words.
#YinUK - You can imagine what it's like walking around a city that is host to so much lore, so many ghosts, and endless history. For a flood of tweets, check up on my hashtag #YinUK.
Coming from a young place--Canada is only just celebrating its 150th year as a nation--I was in awe at every turn during my short time in London. I went on business, and managed to squeak out an entire day (a Sunday, so that added some interesting obstacles) while overseas, to bum around London and soak in as much as I possibly could. And I feel like I had success.
I grew up on British media. Comedies (drenched in dark humor), Music (from the Beatles, and the Clash, to Amy Winehouse, and Cream), Film (Guy Ritchie's worlds, and Pegg's Winchester blow-over), and Literature (Sherlock, Tolkien, and many Poets of the UK). So before I left, I had to plan tightly. If I were to engross myself the deepest, I'd need more of a plan that I usually like to approach travel/adventure with.
Much to my partner's chagrin, I'm not a "planner". But London proposed many hurdles, predominantly time.
I'd go back in a heartbeat. It's one of the few cities on earth that I've been to that I could actually see myself living in. There's so much art. There's an odd hum from the underground scene of creatives living in what boils down to a pretty corporate town. London feels like the type of place that even if you lived there for a decade or more, you would still not know everything about it. That's intriguing.
Things to see
Despite all the magic found around town, and endless alleyways to divert you on your path, I can safely say that some of the places I wound up are uniquely London. That interesting feeling that hangs around town like a fog inundates the attitude of local business owners, and the lesser-known icons of Britain's Capital.
If you appreciate hand-made things like coats, hats, art prints, and tasty treats, then the spiffy (and renovated) Spitalfields Market is a great place to spend some time, and some pounds. Thee's also an unfortunate amount of cheap knockoffs sold at booths by those who couldn't give a single shit about the things you're buying, as long as you're buying them. You get some good, and you get some bad. Spitalfields, as much as it's a sight to see--with its hustle and bustle and long-standing history as a trading post--it has a slightly more corporate feel to it than other markets.
The stand-out stall for me was the lovely gent behind A Book on a Page, who has taken to the trend of designing posters that contain the entire contents of a work of literature within the art. They're amazing, and despite interrupting his breakfast sandwich to gush about old books, the man at the stall was very keen to chat and obviously proud of his work. He ships internationally and I would highly suggest checking out his work if you're a fan of classic stories, and art.
Travelling back in time is part of the journey in London. Considering most visitors arrive via the airport, we're not exactly exposed to anything aside from major technological advancements in travel. Heathrow airport is an astounding collection of buildings. Some of those very buildings could even be considered pieces of art. It's very vogue.
But while London can be about posh style, let's not forget about the time travel bit. Take King's Cross Station for instance; it's a journey back into the day when rail was our best form of travel. None of the foundation has been changed in King's Cross, and it's stunning. Unlike many tourists and locals, I spent the majority of my time at the station with my neck cranked back and my eye-sight up. The glass cieling is breathtaking, and you can practically transport yourself back a hundred years by squinting your vision at the bustle of passangers.
Being that it's still used today as one of the man hubs of London, it'll never be quiet. Starin up at the big--now digital--schedule boards you could daydream about visiting nearly every single part of Europe from here. Families hug loved ones as they prepare to depart on a journey, or back home from a visit. Students by the bundle wander aimlessly, hoping to rid themselves of boredom as their train to Spain doesn't leave for five more hours. It's really like being in an airport, minus the planes.
If you're a big fan of Harry Potter--of which I have recently become--then King's Cross may have a different focus for you. See, that station is where Harry first met Ron. Where the Weasley's originally taught Potter how to run through the wall at Platform 9 3/4s. While you can't actually see (if you could, I sure as heck couldn't find it) the actual filming location, there is a giant gift shop and a mock-up Platform 9 3/4s where you can even get a souvenir photo taken. This shop, much like the station itself, isn't a safe place to find a minute of hush. There's no clarity to be discovered within its walls. Just shoulder-to-shoulder tourists and Potter fans squishing through the narrow aisles of their favorite platform. I picked up a few little trinkets for some friends but saved most of the large Potter purchases for when I visit Hogwarts at Universal. Which will hopefully be soon?
If Spitalfields isn't your jam, and you're more intrigued by the grass roots movement of millennials, attempting to disrupt the normal pageantry of commercial retail, then Brick Lane is an absolute goldmine.
The settings is an outstanding display of expertise in the preservation of a feeling that what's old is new again. From the overly stone buildings to the river of bricks that makes up the apply named lane, everything (much like a lot of London) has that past-tense aura.
Around every bend is a new lane of store-fronts (mostly family-run food places) that have all adopted the idea that if you hire an outstanding street artist to paint the front of your establishment, you won't have to worry about random tags or gross looking sprays. It's something I've seen around the world on many occasions. None have taken it so seriously as London (that I've seen). San Francisco is a close second, but there are still neighborhoods of that town that wouldn't dare allow properly curated art on their walls.
In abandoned parking lots you'll find stalls of street food vendors, and between the abandoned apartment buildings up and down the lane you'll find more little shops. One, that caught me off guard was an underground flea market. Wandering down the steps I thought it might just be a tiny little consignment joint (we have many of them back home) but instead I was treated to a gigantic maze of stalls. It was an astounding large place, maybe even spanning the entire block. All underground, all with amazing vintage wares to peruse. The music was loud, and classic. The air was filled with the scent of old leather and vinyl records. Really a dream come true for thrift adventurers.
Along the same line as the Flea Market, is a food pavilion located just a block away, but on street level. Filled with all sorts of ethnic eats, it's a treat to all the senses.
I warn you though, if you're adverse to Hipsters, or vintage lovers Brick Lane is ground zero. Enter at your own mustachioed risk.
Highlight of it all is probably a little cafe called Cereal Killers. It's cool looking, and has anything you can desire to get your not-a-kid-any-longer mitts on.
Possibly the only semi-tourist spot on my list of musts is Westminster Abby. It's something that I just don't think anyone should miss, even if they only have a short period of time to spend in London.
Located around the corner from Big Ben (okay ... it's pretty big) I originally wanted to go because some of my literary heroes are buried there. But again, my day off to roam around took place on a Sunday, and it was of course, closed to the public.
Standing outside however, may have been the most powerful few minutes I've spent anywhere, in my life.
Do you know what it feels like to be physically intimidated by a building? It lords over you, massive in it's beautiful intricacy. I stood shocked. Astounded. It bore a large hole in my soul. I even--in a short moment--became scared of it. Still, I can't put a finger on it.
Knowing that this building, so finely made, is older than almost ever bit of knowledge source I've ever consumed. The shear scale of complexity is something that can leave one feeling abnormal in its presence. Not to mention, the spiritual side of what this Abbey contains.
NYC's Hell's Kitchen, SF's Nob Hill, Toronto's Parkdale, Vancouver's Main St, every city has them. Neighborhoods that were, at one time, a less than desirable place to set up shop. Whether it be a cool, hip store, or a vintage bachelor apartment with arched doorways, they're there.
Shoreditch is the coolest neighborhood in London, that you've never heard of.
If you like the feeling and atmosphere of Brick Lane, then how about an entire area filled with neat foods, strong fashion sense, and strong coffee.
Shoreditch is "cool". And it shows on the face of every building in the district. Wander around Shoreditch and you'll find yourself at least a handful of awesome things.
The normal glow of "city lights" is an uncommon thing in London. Lots of mellow yellow streetlights brighten the stone streets. So when I tell you that Soho shines like a flashlight in the night, know that I mean it's something special.
Soho is home to London's many theater stages. When I was in town, literally every single major stage-show (many of which are impossible to attend) popular in North America are playing at the exact same time. We're talking Lion King, Book of Mormon, Dreamgirls, Harry Potter, Wicked, Kinky Boots, and even some quirky off-Broadway scripts like Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It was insane to find a new show around every corner, considering many of these shows are impossible to attend back home.
If you're looking for the coolest place to stay in London, look no further than Hazlitt's in Soho. The place that has played host to nearly every major literary diety you've ever known to traverse the United Kingdom, it's quaint, and gorgeous.
Things to eat
I take food very seriously, as you'll learn in most of my travel writings. What and where I eat will generally steer where I wander or what I'm going to try and see.
There's a horrendous misconception about London (or English) food in general. It's not all Fish N Chips across the pond. London is a hot-bed for seasoned chefs, and the rise of young risk-takers.
"An army marches better on a full tummy, likewise the best way to start the day is the taking of proper sustenance." - Chef Fergus Henderson, St. John
St. John Bread & Wine, near Spitalfields Market, could possibly be the only Breakfast/Lunch worth flying across the Atlantic Ocean for. Chef Fergus Henderson is the renowned savior of English cuisine in its purity. Cooking, as Fergus will gladly point out, is as essential as all the pieces of the pig. Famous for his revival of "old world techniques". His book, Nose to Tail, takes proper English eating back before the complicated "downfall" of food.
What I had: Beetroot Soup w/ Horseradish, Calf Brains, and Blood Cake w/ Fried Egg and Brown Sauce
“Any notion you might have that English food is bad? That’s hopelessly outdated thinking." - Anthony Bourdain on the misconceptions of English Cuisine.
Wheeler's of St. James's - Marco Pierre White, the original celebrity chef, inspired millions to don an apron and pick up a Santoku Knife. By far the highest rated chef on my bucket list of eats, an MPW restaurant was the only thing on my mind during my nearly 10-hour flight. The original Wheeler's in Soho is gone, but a Wheeler's still remains in the form of the Oyster Bar & Grill in the Bank District. By far, the simplest, yet most flavorful feasting experience I've ever had in my life, I highly suggest going to one of MPW's three London spots. Wheeler's being my top choice. It's elegant, atmospheric, and they casually take their menu far more seriously than anyone else in town.
What I had: Crispy Deviled Whitebait w/ Tartar, Mr. Lamb's Shepards Pie w/ Peas, Mr. White's Rice Pudding
"Mother Nature is the true artist and our job as cooks is to allow her to shine." - Chef Marco Pierre White
Duck & Waffle - The highest restaurant in London, the view at D&W is astounding. If you don't have a fear of heights that is. After getting through the front door at street level, there are two elevators; one to a sushi bar on the 39th floor, and the other to Duck & Waffle on the 41st. That's it. The lift moves quickly and can be an issue on your way back out if you were to over-fill your stomach. The food is a mix of the traditional west, and high-quality fine. Being a popular place for celebration, or romantic atmosphere, reservations are months in advance. However, if you're fighting a late-night hunger, they open their tables up to first-come-first-served at 11pm. Making it the nicest, and most delicious option for those burning time-related oils. With a famous up-stairs bar, D&W is also a great spot for some liquids and social.
What I had: Duck & Waffle (I had to... it's the name of the place), Duck Egg en Cocotte w/ Soldiers
London is home to plenty of admiral journeys through food. I'd highly recommend putting it on any list you may have of food destinations, the world over. Meals come at a shockingly low price when compared to North American dining, especially when looking at the two different fine experiences.
If you're wandering about town, and need a quick snack or a bit of caffiene, avoid the Starbucks allure. Instead, hit up any Pret et Manger you can find. It's better coffee, healthy snacks, and the friendliest service.
Wifi - As soon as you're allowed to turn your cell phone back on when you land at Heathrow, sign up for a Cloud account. This signal is almost everywhere in London, and has really decent strength, almost everywhere you go. Can be a lifesaver for those visiting and attempting to avoid large roaming bills.
Oyster Card - Buy one. Go to any major train station or convenience store that advertises the cards and pick one up. It'll cost you a few pounds to purchase, and comes auto-loaded with your purchase amount. Much like many of the major cities in the world, London has a one-card-fits-all system. The Oyster card can get you on almost every single mode of public transportation. Unlike most cities, London has decided to do away with change on buses, so if you want to ride the notably red double-decker buses, you will have to have an Oyster card. Two amazing things that Oyster has that I wish more places would adopt are; 1. cap you out at a certain amount every day (9 pounds in this case), which means you can travel as much as you want during the day and never burn your entire stored value. 2. refund your purchase value if you return to a train station at the end of your trip and "return" your card.
Walk - London has a very well designed transit system. It's easy to get lazy. Only use your Oyster card to get from one side of town to the other. Don't go a few stops. Walk. London is filled with an insanely large amount of hidden gems that you just won't see from the underground.
Black Cabs - Never take any other cab. The drivers all know where they're going, and are more than willing to suggest amazing things you'd never find otherwise. Listen. Black Cab drivers are like little London Yodas. Teach you, they will.
The Tube - Look at the stations. They're stunning. You can get almost everywhere quickly, on the Tube. Avoid it at ALL COSTS during rush hour. This isn't Japan, people don't pack into the (surprisingly short ... I'm tall) trains politely. Also, when they call it the London Underground, they mean it. There's no cell signal in most tube stations. Send that message before you enter.
Rain Jacket - Bring one. As a resident of the West Coast in North America, I'm lovingly familiar with the weather set of the United Kingdom. I adore it actually. But some don't. There's not enough chill (even in January) for a real winter coat, but bring precipitation protection.
Heathrow Express - Spend the extra few bucks to take the express into town from the airport. It's a speedy train and it'll put you in the heart of London (if you time it right) less than 30 minutes after making it through customs.
Closing Time - London isn't a "late night" city. Unless you're in Soho (which morphs into a completely different being when the streetlights pop on) most things close fairly early in London. Get things done early, leave chance up to the night.
For a flood of tweets during my time in London, check out my hashtag HERE!