Between the lines of one of the world’s most touristed cities, a lazy summer hum pulses through the streets as the sun lingers in the sky past 10:00 PM. In London, you have two choices: a half pint or a full pint. If you happen to be in London during the World Cup and England is winning, get the full pint. If you happen to be in London during the World Cup and England is losing, get the full pint.
Matt and I happened to be in London during the World Cup because direct flights from LAX to Heathrow were irresistibly affordable. With three days to spare before traveling to Amsterdam, we made it a weekend. In 72 jet-lagged hours, we saw the most notable tourist sights, rode the tube during rush hour, drank our fair share of full pints, and experienced a powerful photography exhibit.
If you want to experience the city like a local, go with Airbnb. We stayed at this bright and cozy Chelsea apartment just a hop, skip, and jump from the kinetic King’s Road. Upon arrival, our host had the apartment stocked with fresh fruit, juice, croissants, and chocolate—a welcome reprieve from airport and airplane food.
Despite its reputation as a Victorian artist’s colony during the 19th century and home to David Bowie in the 70’s, Chelsea today has a buttoned-up feeling more reminiscent of a Victorian-era corset.
What Chelsea lacks in artistic fluidity, it makes up for with flattering architecture and royal affluence. In the event you forget, each street sign pronounces itself part of “The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.” If you’re looking for the Beverly Hills of London, this is your spot.
From the manicured neighborhood of Chelsea, you can easily walk to South Kensington station. From here, you’ll descend deep into London’s underground tunnel system, “the tube,” which will shoot you to your destination like a drive-thru bank deposit.
Day 1: The tourist half-marathon
We took the Piccadilly tube line to Picadilly Circus for just £2. “Is it a real circus?” you might be wondering. (No? Just me? Okay, moving on.) I’ll spare you the disappointment just in case: No, it’s not a circus. There are no tents, no acrobats, no popcorn stands. Rather, it’s an advertisement-lined plaza akin to Times Square. Continue walking and you’ll pass through Green Park to Buckingham Palace.
If you want to witness the changing of the guard, fight through whatever jet lag you have and get yourself there by 11:00 AM. We missed this by a long shot due to delayed caffeine intake and poor (see also: no) planning.
From the palace, you can stroll through scenic St. James Park, past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben (currently obscured by scaffolding), and pop out across the Thames from the London Eye. This sizeable ferris wheel enjoyed a brief claim to fame as the world’s tallest but has since been one-upped by China, Singapore, and Las Vegas. However, it maintains its status as Europe’s tallest ferris wheel…for now.
I could tell you how we went on an epic adventure above London’s skyline but the truth is we spent the afternoon drinking pints (the full ones) and eating chips. If this sounds like your type of adventure, skip the Eye line, cross the Thames, and follow the smell of hot dogs to the al fresco summer beer garden under the Golden Jubilee Bridge.
By happenstance, the evening took us to the only two Thames road bridges in Central London yet to be replaced: Albert Bridge and Tower Bridge. While the latter makes more frequent postcard and movie appearances, Albert Bridge encompasses a sense of quiet whimsey. Painted cotton candy pink, the small suspension bridge is illuminated by 4,000 LED lights at night. Due to its weak construction, strict traffic limitations make for a magical twilight stroll (quite unlike that of the traffic-jammed Tower Bridge)
Tip: If you plan to use public transportation—and you should for the experience—buy a reloadable Oyster card. It’ll get you on any tube or bus.
Day 2: Half-marathon recovery
After our 13 mile day, we grabbed a healthy breakfast at Good Life Eatery and spent the day localing around Battersea Park, where you can find everything from tennis courts to mini golf and a rope course. We opted for lakeside pints (still full) and hanging our trusty travel hammock in the shade.
In the evening, our shared passion for discovering speakeasies led us to Bart’s, an unassuming “apartment” hidden in a hotel corridor. From the hallway, you enter a dimly lit passageway papered with comics. Ring the bell and a waitress with red lipstick and slicked back hair answers through a narrow, sliding window. Give her the “secret password” from your reservation and you’ll gain admission.
Stepping into Bart’s feels at once like falling down Alice’s whimsical rabbit role and being kidnapped by British Chicago gangsters. We give it an 8/10 on the speakeasy scale. It’s fun, it’s creative, and they serve damn good cocktails. (Tip: If you like bell peppers and tequila, order the Está Padre. It comes in an actual pepper.)
For Matt’s birthday dinner, we walked next door to Gaucho, a vibey Argentinian restaurant featuring cowhide chairs. Some might call it lavish, others offensive. I’ll let you decide for yourself. Matt gives it a “yay,” I give it an “okay,” namely for the minimal non-beef options. Regardless, the house Malbec was delicious.
Day 3: The Rolling Stones aren’t here
After breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, we followed our Airbnb host’s guide to the Rolling Stones exhibit at Saatchi Gallery. As it turns out, the exhibit happened in 2016. Although we missed the Rolling Stones by two years, the free-admission gallery was worth the visit.
Winding through the gallery’s canvas of blank rooms hung with strange and beautiful modern-abstract art, we approached a particularly crowded corridor resounding words untranscribable to the English-speaking ear. From a distance, colorful photographs lined the walls around a looping interview. The energy drew you into French photographer Lizzie Sadin’s world, whose heart wrenching and award-winning photos tell the story of Nepalese women who’re victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution.
As a consequence of increased economic poverty after the devastating earthquake that shook Nepal in 2015, a failing education system, and social and cultural practices that maintain women’s status as inferior, 20,000 young girls are exploited and more than 300,000 more immigrate for employment. Many of these women are tricked—or even sold—by agents, friends, and family who exploit their hope for a better life.
As I walked from one photograph to the next reading the stories of each woman, one, in particular, stood out. A man in uniform holding an automatic rifle stands guard outside a “dance club.” The caption explains his duty is not to prevent men from entering, but to prevent women from escaping. A woman standing next to me wipes a tear from her cheek.
Moments like these are why I travel. The perspective of Sadin’s lens is one I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. Even now, it’s difficult to find the right words. I guess that’s what makes Sadin’s photographs so powerful. Somber. Brutal. Truth.
As I sit in a cafe writing from my MacBook, a harsh reality carries out on the other side of the world. I’m privileged. Lucky. You are, too. Don’t take it for granted.
You can read more about Sadin’s photojournalism story, The Trap: Trafficking of Women in Nepal, here.
Next stop: Amsterdam, Netherlands »