If you have 48 hours in any major city, the following rules will apply:
1. Pack just enough.
2. Familiarize with native language/slang/transport system.
3. Ask locals to recommend their favorite spots, and then seek them out.
4. Walk across a famous bridge.
5. Rent a bicycle as preferred mode of transportation when possible.
6. Research the best bookstore and allow time to get lost inside.
7. Trust the chef.
8. Trust the bartender.
9. Sleep for only as many hours as your body needs to function; You will be back home soon enough.
10. Let serendipity be your guide.
My parents always believed that travel was a necessary part of my upbringing. From family trips to Montreal just when the tree leaves turned from green to pastel to a cruise ship tour across Europe to island hopping in Costa Rica, we seemed to do it all. There was the time (and time again) we swung through the treetops of Maui. Or when we rented an open-air jeep to ride the windy roads of Corfu. And the miles of hiking through Australia's Blue Mountains with only the sound of mist and our own laughter. My sister and I, we took it all in and we loved it. We loved it all.
I even remember the trips I wasn’t old enough to remember. “We used to always take you girls camping. You don’t know it, but we did,” my mother would tell us over dinner table conversation. She’d somehow think she needed to convince us of a once loved past time, although we already knew it to be true. These places and moments came to define how I perceived the world around me, with an eager and ever-present curiosity.
Because travel is in my blood, I find falling in love with a city an easy thing to do. Maybe that’s why I move frequently — from San Francisco to Paris to Melbourne to now, New York. But a true Explorer knows that to be 'well-traveled' does not come from number of destinations lived nor number of cities/villages/towns visited. What makes one worldly is in actuality the ability to compare cultures from one another, and use that knowledge to create more meaningful exchanges. This is the reason I dream of visiting London.
Among these great monuments - the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State, the Golden Gate and the Great Ocean Road - are the ones I've never seen - London Bridge, Big Ben, Hyde Park. I had picked up on what London might look like for a traveler: a fast-paced ecosystem of old, Victorian architecture, high fashion retail, groomed men with striking accents, covert cocktail bars, interactive theatre and gastronomic experiences that leave one satisfied three times over.
My flight leaves JFK headed to Heathrow at 11:30am. I allow myself just 48 hours to get lost — hopelessly lost and potentially, intoxicatingly in love. The whole thing is amusing novelty.
I go in style, packing my essentials from practical to posh: an activity tracker to visualize my cosmopolitan adventure using data, an unused journal to ask strangers for hand-drawn maps and sandals because I’m desperately hopeful for sunshine. The clothing in my bag is versatile and functional, neutral colors with bold patterns, a wardrobe for all occasions.
At arrivals, I hail for a Hotel Hoppa, this brilliant little system that transports you directly to your accommodation for just 4.50 pounds. My driver is an older man with burly, white hair and a hearty laugh; his age translates into historical wisdom of the city. The tour starts before I even drop my bags as we exchange conversation about well-known architecture and royal parks. I offer him an extra few dollars for his shared knowledge and he bids me adieu at the entrance of The Artist Residence, 52 Cambridge Street in Pimlico, just 5 minutes from Victoria Station. The bespoke hotel is more chic than I pictured, a modern vibe mixed with rustic aesthetics. There are 10 bedrooms across three floors, each individually decorated. I am assigned to door number 7, an intimate room flanked by brick walls and vintage leather seats. ‘Eclectic luxury’ offers a more personalized, familiar stay: the concierge service more like an uber-chic in-the-know British aunt who raves about all the places simply not to be missed.
But, I’ve also done my research. I know that Borough Market offers a sensory overload of delicious sweets & treats in London Bridge; Electric Coffee Company is an outstanding place to get caffinated; St. Paul’s dome is worth the hundreds of odd-steps for a view on a sunny day. I also know that cocktails here often come with art because everything is a conversion of sorts, like the museum that hosts late-night experimental shows.
I consult my Wanderlist, a catalog of hidden gems curated from well-esteemed London experts: friends who once lived abroad, the most respected New York Times travel journalists, and Londoners themselves. According to the experts, if I eat, drink and play according to their recommendations, I’ve by-passed the most hyped-up venues and discovered the most memorable and authentic highlights, where one can people watch and enjoy the most delectable Sunday roast.
As any traveler venturing to new land, I pool information from these collective networks to gather ‘locals-only’ insight.“Doing what the local people do when I’m on the road comes naturally. To do anything else would seem silly,” Alfredo Gangotena told AFAR Magazine in 2014. I always keep back issues of travel magazines stacked along my bedside because even as travel becomes increasingly ‘digitized’, the fundamentals always stay the same. Gangeotena's words resonate as I re-read the old content, flipping through pages of ideas that remain relevant however far they are from the past. Just one instance of the power within travel is that perspective remains critical no matter how we age and change with each new country discovered.
But enough of all that. It’s morning now, and I want to see the city proper in the very early morning, the day and the night. Into the streets we go.
I orient with a map at Monmouth Coffee Company, any ardent coffee-drinker’s mecca in Convet Gardens; The potent, strong roast floods me with memories of sitting alone at my favorite coffee shop in Melbourne and immediately I am filled with a sense of nostalgia. I allow myself to be fully consumed by sights and flavor.
Most eloquently, London’s ex-mayor once told the New York Times that “um, visitors should hire a bike and ride through the park.” And most naturally, I’m inclined to. I rent a bicycle and ride through Hyde Park; later I walk slowly through Kensington Gardens for comparison. And then, I continue walking — across the Millennium Footbridge, through Trafalgar Square and its four surrounding plinths, and everywhere that tourists are sprawling but not imposing. I take the mandatory writer’s pilgrimage to the city’s oldest bookstore, Hatchards, where I am completely absorbed by books I can read anywhere yet set amidst an environment that inspires me. I purchase keepsakes for my home; I hope to preserve this foreign memory for years to come.
London has an old legacy of art and architecture. The museum buildings are impressive structures in their own right. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a place that culminates both crafts, the world’s largest museum of decorate arts and design filled with fashion, photography, multimedia and objects. But even more, I am mesmerized by the content of the British Library: drawing inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches, Alice’s Adventures Underground and a Gutenberg Bible. Digital images can’t ever give you the physical sensation of what it feels like to stand in front of this type of history. Like synagogues for prayer and museums for viewing, libraries elevate the experience of reading, which is possibly why we feel uplifted in the presence of old books and ancient artifacts.
By night fall, everything is just divine. I take this time to rate the city’s culinary and drinking scene to that of other major cities. My controls are a number of characterful new and legendary destinations discovered on a self-led grub-crawl. Polpo, a stylish Italian tapas restaurant group occupying three unique spaces around the city, all of which received the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand for five consecutive years; the Blind Pig, an sultry speakeasy serving cocktails in a wood and leather flanked setting; Cahoots, a 40's swing bar nearly disguised from the street; The French House, a classic always-packed, always serving pub in Soho; and Duck & Waffle, for 24-hour cuisine on the top of a skyscraper. I can certainly get used to pre-theatre/post-theatre thrill of excitement — the buzz in the streets and the smell of bourbon long after dark. The energy of the city is unshakeable and slightly seductive, or so it seems this late at night.
Breakfast is equally rich with options, such as Wolseley, a name among the critics for old school english service and tea. Then there’s the full english breakfast destinations, The Delaunay or Electric Diner, but since everywhere serves the classics, I choose the Riding House Cafe to manage the morning after like the locals. The modern all-day brasserie offers greater context while seated among fellow diners at the communal table. I fancy a conversation with a charming English man, and this place seems to afford the most fortuitous encounters.
The gent seated next to me wears a dark blazer with dapper leather shoes. His two front teeth have a slight gap. As with almost everyone I’ve met here, he’s congenial, rather entertaining, slightly charming and eager to please. I tell him we can meet later, and he can be my tour guide (rule 3, 10), because I am deeply curious about East London, and left with just twelve hours before I spin the globe once again.