It’s one of the first cities I had heard of in my life. So much of the world’s history seemed to revolve around it and its country, especially when I grew up next to the city that was under its rule for most of my childhood (Hong Kong). Whenever the topic of international travel was brought up, London was often one of major cities mentioned. And also, since the Olympics were held there recently, I had to visit their Olympic Park.
- 22 October: Arrived in London, dinner at Nando’s Greenwich with my cousin and his wife, quick tour of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and London Eye
- 23 October: SoHo/Chinatown, Olympic Park, London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, lunch at Dishoom, personal walking tour with former creative director from work: Trafalgar Square, South Bank, Tate Museum, Globe Theater, Clink Street, Golden Hinde II and London Bridge. Abbey Road, dessert take-out from Princi for dinner.
- 24 October: Left London via St. Pancras International train station.
In the less-than-48-hours that I was in London, I thought it was a solid city. I drew similarities to my experience in New York, with its constant stream of activity during the day, and the similar neighborhood vibe I got from Chelsea in New York and SoHo in London. The familiarity made me feel less impressed with the city, but I must withhold ultimate judgment until I spent more time to explore more areas in the future.
I flew in from Tromsø, Norway, with a connection in Oslo, and landed at Heathrow airport. I had heard so much dissatisfaction with Heathrow but my experience was typical of most airports. I then took the Piccadilly and Bakerloo trains into the city, and checked into the hostel.
Since I only had less than two days in London, I wanted to be central and close to the action, or at least to a popular Underground station. Unfortunately, the hostels I considered staying had one night of availability each. It sort of cut into my time to explore London by having to change hostels midway, but I made the best of it.
YHA London Central
I got off the Regent’s Park station at around rush hour and was already experiencing the liveliness of London, with people walking quickly and cars in traffic on Marylebone Road.
I found my way to the hostel using a cached map on my phone. The front desk area looked pretty much like the photos on the website, which was reassuring and exciting whenever I physically arrived at a place I had only seen in pictures, like when I finally walked by Jardin Sagrado in Cuzco that I had only seen multiple times in Google Street View (and once in my dreams).
The staff was friendly; Americans should have no problems interacting with them. One of them did have limited and stereotypical knowledge of San Francisco, which was interesting to see my home from a foreigner’s point of view, and it also took me out of the bubble and realize that the Bay Area was not the center of the universe.
My first night in London, I stayed in a six-person dorm. When I got to my room, it looked pretty empty, and I was told I could take whatever bed that wasn’t taken and clip my receipt next to the bed. But I found out pretty quickly that there were people napping in their beds, and there were only two beds available, so I chose the one by the window and unpacked quietly.
I didn’t interact with my dorm mates too much throughout my stay, but I did discover one by one that most of them were middle-aged men. I chatted with one of them briefly, and he had a long journey coming to London from elsewhere in the England, which was why he was napping in the early evening.
The beds were fine. There were three bunk beds and I was the bottom bunk of one of them. The beds were made and sheets were included. I loved that there was a shelf next to it with a lamp and outlet. I quickly took out my adapter and starting charging my phone.
There were large cupboard lockers, enough to store a large luggage. But it was kind of noisy to open and close, and lock and unlock (with my own lock), so I tried to limit my use and take out or put back multiple things at a time.
Every guest was given a key card to get to only their floor and only their room. They also need it to enter the hostel after hours.
The bathrooms were separated into individual water closets with toilet and sink, and individual shower rooms. The rooms were tight with medium ventilation. The sink in the water closet was incredibly small and had a shelf over it, so it was hard to bend over to wash my face without risking banging my head on the shelf. It was also difficult to dip and move my hands in the sink to wash without the faucet splashing water. It just seemed like poor design.
The hallways on sleeping floors were a series of door after door. I got lost a few times.
The main common area was next to the front desk, and it had a bunch of long benches and a few couches in the corner. Computers were along one wall with extra outlets, and those were the only outlets I could find, other than the couch areas (which were occupied anyway), so I had to sit next to the computers to use my phone while charging it. There were signs throughout the common area listing activities the hostel was organizing, including movie nights and local tours.
Buffet breakfast was available for a small fee that I paid right at the front desk/breakfast bar. But the process was a bit confusing since it was an open area and there were no signs saying where to pay or how the flow went.
The selection of food was decent and typical (toast, cereal, juice). There was an espresso bar for the staff to take drink orders. The breakfast selection had too little meat for my taste. I felt that I could probably get a better breakfast in the area for only slightly more money. Still, this was a decent alternative if you were in a hurry or crunched for time, like I was.
Wi-Fi only worked in the common area, and a little bit at the hostel entrance. When I checked in, I was given a code. I found out the following night that the same code worked in my second YHA hostel as well. The speed was good by American standard.
If I were to visit London and stay there again, I would come with friends. And I would spend at least more than one day so I could do some of the activities the hostel was offering.
YHA London Oxford Street
My second night, I stayed at the Oxford Street location a few blocks away. That morning, I checked out of London Central, checked in to Oxford Street early, and dropped off my luggage. The entrance to the hostel was almost unnoticeable. I buzzed the door bell and got a muffled response. I tried to explain I had a reservation, and I heard a muffle response again, but the door was opened.
Once inside, it was a tight space with narrow staircase and an elevator. I couldn’t figure out how to work the elevator so I took the stairs up. I discovered the hostel was about five to six floors above ground.
Luggage Storage in the Basement
After checking in, I was directed to the basement to lock my luggage. At the end of a hallway from the elevator with limited signage pointing towards it wa the room with the lockers. There were two sizes of lockers: the smaller costed two pounds, I believe, and the larger costed three pounds. And it only accepted one-pound coins. Once the locker was locked, the key could be taken out, and opening it would reset the locker, requiring more money to be added to lock again.
This time,e I stayed in a four-person dorm room. Again, my dorm mates were middle-aged men. I was surprised how popular these youth hostels were for middle-aged folks. Regardless, these men were friendly but could actually be a bit talkative.
This time, I was given the top bunk, which I was excited about at first because up until that point in the trip, I had only slept in the dark, bottom bunk. But the novelty of the top bunk quickly wore off as I had been assigned top bunk in all the hostels for the rest of my trip.
Like the YHA London Central location, these beds also had a shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. There were also similar lockers at the foot of my bed, but it sort of created a congested area when everyone needed to use it as we got ready for bed.
And like the other hostel, the bathrooms were split into individual toilets and showers. One difference was that the sinks were even smaller. I think it was the smallest working sink I had seen anywhere in my life.
The staff was friendly and pretty relaxed. In fact, at one point, they were prank-calling another YHA pretending to be a potential guest asking about the rules on pets, until the staff on the other end finally caught on and everyone had a big laugh.
I asked them for recommendations in the area, and they were able to give me a few suggestions.
The Staff and the Chinese Guest Who Couldn’t Speak English
The staff who was working the night shift was otherwise friendly, but he had a lot of problems communicating with an old Chinese man who didn’t speak any English. He lost his patience many times and started yelling things like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT!” at a slow pace, as if the Chinese man could suddenly understand. To my surprise, the Chinese man did not yell back in anger, probably because he felt very lost and desperate for help. So I tried to intervene with my poor Mandarin and managed to resolve the situation by helping the man pay for the computer usage time and print out an email that his relatives wrote for him to get to where he needed to go.
Oxford Street YHA hostel was much smaller than the London Central location, at least in horizontal space. The common area was a multi-purpose room that had a few tables and chairs, a custom cushioned seating area along one corner of the room (which had outlets hidden by the cushions), a few beanbag chairs that were seemingly for children, and a few computers on a long table along another wall. There’s also a TV hanging from the ceiling in one corner of the room.
Computer use was charged by the minute, and one needed to buy credit from reception. Printing also costed a fee.
While there, I saw a family or two with kids. I could imagine this being a more affordable alternative to hotels for family visiting London. Therefore, the “youth hostel” vibe was barely there.
Next to the Common Area was the kitchen that guests could use apparently, but it looked so much like a commercial kitchen that I didn’t think to prepare food there in the evening.
The Wi-Fi only worked in the Common Area, and a little bit in the lobby/front desk. As I mentioned, the Wi-Fi code I got from London Central location worked at this hostel as well. It apparently could be used for seven days.
There was an option to pay for a regular buffet breakfast, or to order an item in addition to the buffet, which they would make/heat up to order. I ordered an extra sandwich because I felt the standard breakfast would not be enough for me. The buffet also seemed to have a relatively smaller selection of food than the London Central location.
And like the London Central location, I wish they would do a better job explaining how the breakfast flow worked. I felt that if food was laid out in a public space (the kitchen), it’s up for grabs. That just might be my American way of thinking.
Because I was tight on time, I had planned my route ahead of time and grouped the places I wanted to see. I took the Underground to get from one main area to another, and walked my way through the spots I wanted to see before getting on the Tube again.
A friend gave me her Oyster card before the trip so I loaded it with some money at the airport. The fare system for the Underground was too complicated for me to decipher, and the fact that I was going to be in London for less than two days made getting any special multi-day passes pointless, so I just paid regular fare for each ride.
- Time of year: Mid-October.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
The temperatures were pretty mild, a little cool. Long sleeves and light jacket should suffice. In the afternoon I got a little warm from the sun peeking out of the clouds from time to time as well as from walking for hours.
The people I encountered were fine; typical big city interactions. The staff at the Indian restaurant Dishoom were particularly friendly and attentive. I wasn’t sure if it’s because I was a party of one in a crowded restaurant during peak times.
People spoke English, but in a funny accent. Just kidding. I barely noticed the accent; I just accepted it as how people talked, and I think people did the same with me, probably because they’re used to tourists. I did noticed one of the guys who worked at the hostel having a strong regional accent or slang that I couldn’t follow half the things he said, so I just nodded and smiled.
This is my account of my one and only full day in London.
I read that Gerard street was the main street in Chinatown, so I headed that way, only to find the street being two blocks or so long, and with me visiting on Thursday morning, very few shops were open, and half of them seem to be restaurants. The street barely had people walking by; it was mainly workers unloading shipments from a truck. Very different from the Chinatown of San Francisco or New York.
I got off at Stratford station to find myself at one end of the shopping center. I made my way to the park side, using the stadium in the distance as my north. Most of the park was empty. I saw a few joggers and one or two small groups of people hanging out.
I walked by little sculptures and displays throughout the route, trying to picture two years prior, when a lot visitors checking out the park.
I got to the stadium but there was construction, and the perimeter was blocked off. I walked around it to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, of which I was still confused by the concept. I noticed a few class field trip groups in that area as I sat down on a bench to take a break and have some snacks.
I walked some more towards the Aquatic Center and found the entrance where there were young kids coming in and out of swim practice, but I couldn’t see any information about checking out the pool. I walked around and peeked through the tinted windows and noticed a standard looking Olympic-sized pool, so I probably saved some time and money by not going inside anyway.
I walked back towards the shopping center to give it a browse, but there were very few interesting shops to peak my interests.
London Eye and Jubilee Gardens
The London Eye had a long line, so I avoided it, as much as I wanted to have an elevated view of London. I did take a quick look of the timeline exhibit of the Jubilee Gardens nearby and learned about the history of that street block in the past century.
Took pictures of it, including selfies from Westminster Bridge, like all the other tourists.
St James’ Park
I continued down Westminster Bridge and made my way past a couple of people in suits and suddenly, the scene turned very manicured and recognizable from scenes I had seen on the news. I didn’t know where I was exactly at first, though I had a hunch. I saw park maps pointing towards the Buckinham Palace so I strolled through the park, enjoying the walk and the sights of little bridges and lakes.
Out of St. James’ Park I noticed really tall, fancy looking gates and finally seeing the palace in the distance with a giant traffic circle in between. It took me a while to figure out the quickest way to get to the front of the palace, and that was a series of crosswalks and detours. At many points, I was tempted to just run toward the middle circle when there weren’t cars, but I didn’t do it because 1) it was rare and unpredictable to spot cars going by; I was confused which traffic lights were for which lanes, and 2) with it being the Buckingham Palace, I was afraid there would be security catching me and ordering me to leave the premises. So I took the long and proper way to get in front of the palace, took a “few” photos, and moved on. It was after noon so the Changing of the Guards already happened that day anyway, so there was very little reason to stay there.
After lunch at Dishoom, I met up with my former creative director, a British woman, who contacted me earlier that day when she found out I was in town (after I sent a selfie with Big Ben to her and another former manager who used to live in London). We walked to Trafalgar Square, and she told me the history and significance of it because I knew absolutely nothing about it, not even how to pronounce it, until that afternoon. (I still have very little understanding of it.) To me, Trafalgar Square was a really big square with a lion sculpture in front of the National Gallery, and a giant column in the middle. We took a few pics and moved on.
South Bank, Tate, Globe Theatre
We made our way toward the Thames, crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, and walked along the South Bank while she became my personal tour guide and gave me a very brief history of the area.
We stopped by the Tate Modern and checked out the exhibition they had in the lobby before resuming our walk by the Thames. She pointed out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which I wasn’t expecting and also felt sort of hidden if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. I took an obligatory photo and continued our walk.
Clink Street, Golden Hinde II, and London Bridge
She then took me down Clink Street to show the really old English buildings and the way streets used to be. We arrived at the Golden Hinde II, which was a replica or something of a ship with great history, which I forgot.
Then we ended our tour at the foot of the London Bridge as she had to meet up with other friends. She pointed out the Tower Bridge in the distance, which I could almost see, but that was as close as I got to it in the day time. I had seen it the night before when my cousin drove accross it, with lights beaming on the over-the-top ornate details. I was tired from the long walk by the river so I decided that was good enough and I should head to my next destination instead.
It took me two tries to get to the right place. Somehow I thought the station to get off was Kingsbury, but a double-check via some random wifi outside of Kingsbury station revealed that I was supposed to get off at St. John’s Wood.
It was getting dark and looked like about to rain, so I walked as quickly as I could toward the pin on my semi-cached map. The intersection was a fork, and it took me a while to figure out the best place to take a picture of the famous crosswalk. I debated whether I should get a picture of me doing the pose. I thought it was cheesy and awkward to be just one person in the picture. But I did see a group of ladies being directed by some guy who seemed to be hanging around with an iPad for this purpose, so I took photos of their process.
After seeing them take the photo, there was little else to do; it really was just a crosswalk. So I made my way back to the station, but not before getting the start of a downpour.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
The first night, I went out to dinner with my cousin and his wife at Nando’s Greenwich. The food was good; it was what I expected from a higher-than-fast-food restaurant.
For breakfasts on both days, I paid for it at the hostel. I think it would’ve been better to get breakfast outside of the hostel if there was more time for it. Otherwise, paid breakfast in the hostel was still fine.
A coworker highly recommended Dishoom. I thought the food was solid but not exceptional. I had a chicken dish with curry, naan, and rice as well as a lassi. Everything was delicious, but nothing really stood out.
Service was really great, even when I was by myself and it was very busy. They wanted to squeeze another party so they asked me very nicely if I could move down a seat, which I totally understood and moved without hesitation. And they were very grateful afterwards as well.
I was craving dessert so I went to this restaurant and got a mango cheesecake and a tiramisu. Only afterwards did I find out that Princi was one of the pastry shops my former manager recommended. I had the desserts for dinner at the hostel, and both cakes were both good. Again, they’re of expected quality but neither were remarkable.
I guess I didn’t have any traditional English food. I knew I didn’t want to get fish and chips because of a prior experience. However, I heard from somewhere that Indian cuisine was the most popular in the country, so I did have that.
I took the Underground to King’s Cross station/St. Pancras International station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. St. Pancras station felt very serious and modern. There’s a security station to scan luggage, but it was slightly less organized and I stumbled my way through queues. Same with the immigration lines.
Once through immigration, there’s a giant lobby where people wait for many different trains. Once one train was ready to board, half the lobby emptied and more people trickled in to wait for their trains. The actual train platform were one floor above the lobby, and people ascended multiple escalators to get to the platform.
There was a restaurant or two in the lobby with free Wi-Fi, along with a small newsstand store, which was where I bought stickers for my travel log. Near the newsstand store was a currency exchange booth where I converted all my remaining pounds to Euros.
From My Travel Log
23 October 2014, 8:56pm, London YHA Oxford
- London is like Hong Kong, New York, Macau. It’s real. It’s city life.
- Walking on Westminster Bridge, I thought, I am f***ing here!
- Big Ben, London Eye, larger than I thought.
- London also smells a bit, maybe that’s how Europe’s gonna be.
- Seeing Hank and Rhi made me not feel alone. But being in an English-speaking place helps as well.
- Hostel staff
- Hank, Jin (my cousin and his wife)
- Dave, Paul, Conor (Hostel roommates)
- Chinese guy who didn’t speak English at all
- Rhi (my former creative director)
- If there are ladies walking around, especially in tourist areas, shoving a little flower wrapped in foil to you until you take it, then ask you for donation and say it’s for “Children’s Day”, and it’s not May, it’s a scam! The first time, I was on Westminster Bridge among a lot of tourists, and one scammer lady grabbed my arm to give me the flower, even when I leaned back to get away from her. She signaled me to come to her, almost angrily, but I kept walking. The second time, I was in Green Park, where there was less people, and a lady approached me more politely. I was in a nicer mood, and more naive. When she gave me the flower, I hesitated for a second. Once I took it, she asked for a donation, and I finally could tell something was fishy. While I was digging in my wallet, she feigned interest and asked me where I was from. For some reason, I felt that saying “Not here.” was appropriate both to express my acknowledgement of being gullible enough to fall for the scam and to withheld any more personal information about myself in case she wanted to further the scam, even though I was sure she could tell where I was from based on my accent. After giving the lady some money, I walked away feeling cheated. I looked at the flower, trying to make the best of it and debating whether I should keep it as a souvenir of a “funny story”. But looking at the flower again just reminded me of the scam I consciously witnessed happening to me, so I chucked the flower into the next trash can I passed by.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage: London
- YHA London Central official website
- TripAdvisor: YHA London Central
- YHA London Oxford Street official website
- TripAdvisor: YHA Oxford Street
- London Average temperature (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor: Dishoom
- Dishoom official website
- Tripadvisor: Princi
- Princi official website
If you have questions about specific experiences of London, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.