the travels & travails of an escaped lab rat


London is another city that holds a special place in my heart.

While perhaps not the oldest settlement in Europe, it is certainly the largest and most populous metropolis in the European Union today by most metrics (14 million inhabitants within its 1,700 square kilometre area).

It’s home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the oldest and most extensive underground railway network in the world, the world’s busiest international airport (by number of passengers), some of the best Afternoon Tea on the planet, and for nearly 400 years, it was the heart of an Empire where the sun never sets.

London’s got it all: history, architecture, culture, style, and drive (drive, being something that can, at times, be somewhat lacking on the rest of the continent proper). Without the strict building restrictions that can be found in some other European cities (like Paris), London may not have as uniform a feel to its facade and skyline — you’ll find bright and modern right next to stately and historic all over the city — but juxtaposition of styles seems to inject a kind of energy (or vibrancy) rather than detract in London’s case.

Of all the cities I travel to regularly, I’ve been coming to London the longest (over 15 years — yikes). And while I’ve settled into several favourite haunts, I always discover something new on each visit.

I like walking in London (and that’s not just because I absolutely detest driving in London). The streets are generally clean and the people are cordial, if not friendly. There’s a surprising amount of green space for such a busy and crowded urban area. The Tube system is brilliant (oh sure, there are breakdowns and omnipresent construction, but it works far more than it doesn’t — and several billion extra bonus points for not smelling like a urinal).

It’s hard to get bored here; plenty to see and do regardless of taste or proclivity. I could see myself settling here for a while and managing to keep myself amused in one fashion or another the entire time.

It can get expensive though. The British Pound is still rather strong against other currencies, and on top of that, the general cost of living in the UK is higher than that it is in North America. Goods and Services Tax (V.A.T.) is also slightly higher. Overall, it’s not hugely more, but over time it all adds up. Stay for a few days or a week and you won’t really notice (unless you’re already coming over on a budget), but linger for any longer, or visit repeatedly, and you’ll quickly realize your dollar doesn’t stretch as far in London as it would in Toronto or even New York.

London traffic is killer though. I mean that quite literally. This whole right-hand-drive combined with oblivious/forgetful-foreign-pedestrians thing is a recipe for daily injury or death. We North Americans are conditioned from birth to look primarily left before stepping off the curb to cross (yes, yes, I know we’re supposed to look both ways), but in the UK, looking only left before crossing will get you killed. I have pulled back people from the street on more than one occasion as I watched them step out into oncoming traffic without realizing they were looking for danger from the wrong direction.

Still, pedestrian incompatibilities aside, London is the world-class city that all cities secretly want to be when they grow up.

“Big Ben” is the name of the bell — not the clock.

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