When I visited London last fall, I had a lot of expectations: Rain, puffing chimneys, scones and well-appointed pea coats.
The reality of London, though, was a bit of a shock. Not only was it a heat wave when I was there, it didn’t rain once the whole time I was there. I also learned once I got there that Mary Poppins, one of my top inspirations for the London obsession I’d had since childhood, was actually filmed in Beverly Hills.
But I’m grateful I went into my trip with such skewed expectations. As a result, I was able to see so much more than if I was chasing locations from Dickens novels and Disney movies. Here’s what I learned from my trip to London going just a but different than planned.
I learned to set a home base.
The best gamble I made in planning my trip was to pick a place to stay based on its proximity to Borough Market. I loved walking there every morning for a bacon sandwich, and a man in a stall there made me a fresh chai with real ground ginger prepared as I watched.
It was also a great home base for snacks at the oyster bar after a long day of walking and cheese samples at Neal’s Yard Dairy of varieties you can’t even get in the U.S.
Even though I was only in London for a week, having a central location and common landmark helped give me a sense of place I might not have had staying elsewhere.
I had to realize that you are not a different person on vacation.
When you visit an international city like London, it’s easy to feel like your itinerary is already set. You could probably spend your entire trip going to just the places you don’t even have to research: Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, London Bridge, the list goes on.
I too had planned to hit most of these main attractions. But after one crowded morning at the Tower of London, I had to step back and reassess. I didn’t enjoy myself, and here’s why: I don’t like crowds. Long lines bother me, and I’d rather spend my budget on a great meal than a guided tour.
In my planning phase, I’d kind of assumed I’d just become a different traveler on my flight across the Atlantic and somehow get over my homebody tendencies. That didn’t exactly happen. Setting up a home base helped, but I also had to let go of some of the expectations I’d had for the trip so that I could have the best trip for me.
I had to go places I never expected.
Once I let go of the impulse that I had to fill out every square of the standard-issue Trip to London bingo board, I needed something a little less full of people and expectations to fill my days.
My favorite parts of my trip are the times we went away from where they take the pictures for postcards and ventured into where the actual people live.
A friend brought us to Leather Lane Market, where working people from the area go for lunch from food carts. Eating British-Cajun sausage and rice at Gray’s Inn Gardens, a park close by, is one of my favorite memories of the trip. There wasn’t a guided tour. We got lost on the Tube trying to get there. But it gave us the opportunity to see what London is like off the silver screen.
If you find yourself on a trip that looks a little bit different than the postcards, don’t give up. With a little bit of an open mind, you can create memories that are even better than the pictures.