Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week, I’ve been talking to Anastasia, an international student currently living in London. Anastasia loves cultural travel and often writes about it in her History Geek in Town blog. She’s also obsessed with European history and foreign languages, and, in both cases, cannot settle with one subject.
Hi, Anastasia! Where are you sending this postcard from?
I am currently writing from London. It is my first year in the city, and it’s tremendously exciting. Some dub it the “capital of the world”, and I feel, that they are not wrong. It is as if all the features of European capitals – culture, arts, diversity, immigration, financial vigour, magnitude, architecture – were concentrated there and increased tenfold. It can be quite expensive here, but it’s never boring.
What’s the weather like – and when is the best time to visit?
Contrary to popular stereotypes, weather in London is rather mild. It’s no more rainy, than in Paris or Vienna, and much warmer, than in Berlin. Winter is quite cold, but it rarely, if ever, snows.
As for the best time to visit, I would recommend late spring, summer and, possibly, September. Then you’d be able to enjoy countless outdoors activities without ever having to leave the city – from biking in Regent’s Park to canoeing on Thames. Of course, walking tours are also much more pleasant, when it’s sunny – and you’d need walking tours, because there’re plenty things to see!
Which neighbourhood of London do you live in?
I live in Islington, to the north of the famous King’s Cross. This area is much less glamourous, than stuccoed southern areas, but then, it’s also more suited to most people’s budget (mine included). There’re also excellent transport links: 15 minutes on the Tube will get you right in the heart of the city.
Ooh I love Islington. There’s so much going on around Angel! What are your favourite things to do in London?
Oh, I am just like that sugary protagonist of Sound of Music – I have too many favourite things. But, to name a few, I love museums and exhibitions. And there’re museums and exhibitions for everything in London – from Egyptian tombs to digital data. V&A Museum in South Kensington has literally everything: paintings, jewellery, Renaissance interiors, West End costumes…
I also love London dance scene. On the serious end of the scale, there’re annual ballroom dance Championships in Royal Albert Hall and tango shows in smaller theatres. On the more light-hearted one, there’re plenty of vintage parties and dance classes. For example, Swing Patrol organizes Charleston lessons practically in every area of the city, as well as multiple social dances every week. There’re also Prohibition parties (1920s), Blitz parties (1940s), lindy-hop workshops and tea dances in Royal Opera House. The London vintage scene is positively glittering.
So true – there are so many cool vintage things to do in London! As a history lover, tell us what things people absolutely shouldn’t miss when they visit…
I would absolutely recommend visiting the Museum of London. It allows you to see the history of the city from the first settlers to the 2012 Olympics. It’s intricate and vibrant: you would see anti-Roman graffiti, learn about medieval fast-food, eavesdrop on the conversation in Georgian pleasure garden and look through the windows of Victorian shops.
If you are, like me, somewhat a bibliophile, I would recommend you visiting Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly. Holding the title of the largest bookshop in Europe, it boasts 6 floors of titles. And just nearby there is Hatchards, the oldest bookshop in London, which was founded in the 18th century and still retains its regal feel and dark wood panels.
Where will people find the best food in London?
London food scene is as diverse, as its population, and doesn’t start and end with fish and chips. For example, there’re plenty ethnic restaurants in Shoreditch (some of them award-winning). If you find yourself in the city centre, I would recommend you to check out Chicchetti restaurant on Piccadilly. Wonderfully cosy place with excellent Italian cuisine, it is based on Venetian tradition of bistros, serving snacks (chicchetti in the local dialect).
London has loads of unusual and off the beaten track things to discover. Can you recommend any of your favourites?
Brompton Oratory in Kensington is about 5 minutes walk from the famous V&A Museum, and it’s one of the most magnificent Catholic cathedrals I’ve seen. One doesn’t expect to find it in such a quintessentially English quarter, but here it is! Moreover, the statues – splendid example of Italian baroque – were acquired from Siena Cathedral in 1895.
As a more light-hearted (though expensive) option I would recommend splendid champagne bar called Vertigo 42. It’s located on, well, 42th floor of one of the tallest buildings in the city, and allows you to enjoy fantastic view after the dark. Undeniably slick, it’s also by booking only, so plan beforehand.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a trip to London?
Given London prices, I’d advise to rent an Airbnb flat instead of staying in a hotel. If you are staying for a week or longer, I’d then advise to use Waitrose website to buy groceries – they have free delivery and allow you to pick an hour-specific slot. Thus you’d be able to tailor it to your sightseeing timetable and avoid carrying heavy bags (London distances are merciless).
Can you recommend a great book about London or it’s history?
I loved Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography”. It’s very unusual, as it doesn’t follow historical chronology. Each chapter deals with particular theme in London history and culture: food, time, danger, trade, architecture, childhood, media. It creates an intricate pattern, where everything is continuous and connected. For example, Ackroyd shows, how a medieval take-away grew on the spot of Roman public kitchen, to be later supplanted by chop-houses, which, in turn, resemble 20th century pubs. How Georgian stockbrokers’ obsession with time rings true to the Londoners of today. How the grandeur of Victorian public buildings echoes – and sometimes was deliberately designed to echo – great monuments of ancient Rome.
Finally, what do you love most about travelling?
I love the moments, when I am able to glimpse beyond the “theme park version”, presented in most travel brochures. You know, “Venice as the city of romance”, “Paris as the city of sweetness and love”, “Munich as the city of beer houses”…
NB – All images are owned by Anastasia.