Imagine it’s pitch black, loud air sirens are booming and you’re rushing down a endless metal staircase… Having grown up in a war zone bunker – in my case a cellar – this was as normal as your weekly visit your grandparents.
It took me over two years to get tickets for one of London Underground’s Hidden Tours. Tickets go on sale only a few times a year and sell out quicker than a spare tube seat gets taken in the rush hour. I was glad to head down after such a long wait, but it did strike a chord with me and my past back home…
When I booked the tickets I didn’t read into it too much so I thought we’d be seeing a closed off platform at a station, but it turned out this was a massive underground complex specifically built for the Blitz – bombing attacks of the UK by Germany from 1940-1941, there was a LOT to see and you could have easily got lost with the guides.
The tour guides show you around the little underground village that includes a medical station, a canteen that dished out top notch sandwiches and tea, and a recreational area (apparently getting frisky was probably the only sports activity ;). The shelters housed up 10,000 people so you can imagine it wasn’t just a place to stroll in. If your house was destroyed or if you were visiting London you could get a ticket. To get in you needed a pass with a bed number and each bed was allocated to a specific person, plus it was BYOB (Bring Your Own Bedding).
The first time was scary and no one knew what happened, but overtime it got … almost boring. I hated them during the day because it meant we had to stop our hide and seek or tag game, I was scared of them when I was at school or on my way to school as I was away from my mom and brother, but when they came at night it meant I didn’t have to sleep and could play with my friends and cousins
Once you walk down the stairs you step into the tunnels that are full and full of the actual beds that people slept on, some are made up and one had a Ludo game on it, something I had actually played during while killing time in what seemed like another life.
Then, it’s a long walk back up to daylight, I was thinking of my mom, my aunt and other people in town. While they were worried in what state the house or the animals would be I was proably more frustrated about the Ludo game I had lost.
After WW2, the underground tunnels became a kind of youth hostel, then it housed labour migrants from the Caribbean and the military before it was turned into archives – all that top-secret info and what not!
What the future holds for the tunnels is unclear (they want to expand), but similar sites are currently being used for mass hydroponics – growing all sorts of vegetables that turn up in the supermarket! To think your shiny orange carrot may have never seen the natural light of day until you take out outside in your shopping basket!
Now the weather gods are smiling down on us Tea has emerged from hibernation and is actually doing things, here are some favourites you should try – on your next visit to London!
Kikki K – I love Paperchase, but their collections are always a bit hit and miss, which has always been good for my wallet. But then Kikki K landed in London, and I loved the store when I lived in Melbourne. Kikki K has a range of beautiful stationary and organisation items with a minimalist and Scandi vibe. And whether you are looking for a travel journal or wedding guest book, you will find it. They have this Scandi background story, but it’s an Australian brand really. Now can someone bring Typo (another Aussie brand) to the west?
Cereal Killer Café – I know you can make a bowl of cereal at home for 24p, but then again you can make a pizza for £1 at home too (or get it at ALDI!). I recommend you ignore the price and throw a few coins (£3.50) their way to be surrounded by kitsch 80s cereal boxes, a range of special milks in cute bottles and more cereals than you can shake a chocolate coated stick at.
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising – the refurbished museum in Notting Hill is great place to dive in for a few hours. Whereas most London museums are free, this one charges £7.50, but this isn’t too bad. So don some nostalgia shades and go stare at the 12,000+ items on display- you’ll get to see inappropriate war-themed marketing, toys from your childhood (and your mother’s/grandmothers) and there was even a wall of One Direction merchandise (RIP!). And most importantly – you’ll be able to answer the million dollar question – were chocolate bars way bigger when I was a kid?
SMUG – this quirky concept store hidden in Camden Passage in Islington is the place to find beautiful things for the home. They have stuffed their store with must have homeware, stationary and accessories. Make sure you can hold yourself together because this place will make you want to buy everything.
Shake Shack – the New York burger chain made its way to London 3 years ago which means Londoners don’t have to queue up in New York and waste 4/5 hours for one of their delicious burgers. I’m personally not a big fan of their crinkle-cut fries as they tasted like something you can get at Iceland (the store, not the country) but the juicy patties with the shake shack sauce and their milkshakes make up for that. Although the line (at the Convent Garden location) is almost always long, it does move quickly and is worth the wait, though the queing system (with a special plastic fob) did make it feel a bit like Argos or waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
So, what’s next in my Hood You’ll Love series? Well, I’ll give you a clue…N5. No, it’s not a coordinates on a board game, but it’s the post code for Kentish Town. It might be close to the tourist-fly-trap that is Camden, but it’s far far from it in style, atmosphere and stuff to do. So next time you want to escape Cyberdog, Stable Markets and the remaining punks all you have to do is head north.
KENTISH TOWN ROAD
The Abbey Tavern is one of my favourite pubs in London and I reckon I spent 1/3 of my time there when I lived in Kentish Town. If that’s not a great selling point, it’s their outside terrace garden that is the ideal spot for enjoying jugs of Pimms/beers, some food and a board game on a long, hot evening with the gang. Who can say no to a drunk game of Operation??
The Oxford is an ok pub and lunch spot, but what makes it worthwhile are its Puz Quizzes with a twist, clothes swaps and other fun events in their upstairs area. Just follow Wonder Woman and you’ll be in for a surprise.
Craving a bottle of craft beer, or possibly a crate? Well the main street, the imaginitively titled Kentish Town Road is home to two places to get your craft on. Of the two I prefer Clapton Craft, mainly because their logo has a bear, yes sometimes life decisions are very easy for me. And they also do two of my favourite beers from Netherlands. Wish that their location was a little more convenient because I would like to live there and look after the bear they must be keeping in the back room.
And because I haven’t mentioned enough places to drink on Kentish Town Road I have to add cocktail bar Ladies & Gentleman you might fall into at the Y Junction (yes it’s underground). And if you thought ‘HA, that sounds like a toilet.’’ You’d be right, it’s housed in a former underground toilet, but don’t worry, it’s been completely redone so no need to wash your hands, but it’s still chock full of cocks though … cocktails that is.
HIGHGATE ROAD Carrots + Daikon is the perfect lunch (and on weekends) brunch spot and my pick for the best Banh Mi in the city. You can’t go wrong chomping on their lunchboxes and pho with perfect flavour (though I can’t compare it to the real deal) which doesn’t drain the wallet. All in all: Carrots + Daikon pho the win! (Don’t tell me you didn’t see that pun coming).
It’s a bit of an odd location, tucked away in Kentish Town, but that way it feels more like a special secret when you find it. If you haven’t been able to get a table at Pizza East in Shoreditch, why not try the Kentish Town location for a slice of Italy? Fed up of dough? Well, there’s a bunch of antipasta dishes and salads too. Warning – be prepared for food coma.
If you look up as you wander around you’ll likely spot the gorgeous art deco Forum venue, that used to be a cinema in the 1930s and is now a live music venue, sadly the quality of bands there isn’t as reliable as the decor.
Right near the Forum is Dirty Burger, which, you guessed it, serves ‘Murican Style burgers. So if you appreciate a good, quality slice of meat with buns, you won’t be let down if you park yourself here. Their ethos is the patty as headliner and the toppings as a support act- the best combo. I know this sounds like a copy and paste from a press release, but trust me.
SK Vintage is a hidden vintage gem of discovery. It’s not extremely pricey like many other vintage places, and it has a large selection of items, though as with any vintage store, it’s hit or miss. What I’m trying to say that it’s basically that dream closet from your old aunt Mildred, but you don’t feel obliged to listen to her story for 100th time and eat stale biscuits.
Cinnamon Village is an organic bakery slash café that’s a healthy lunch spot…or so they try to make you believe. When in doubt go for the scrambled eggs on toast, trust me … they are hard to beat. The downside? The place is popular with young families, so if you want a bit of quiet to quell that hangover, it’s probably best to be avoided on weekends.
You know when as a kid you and your squad tried to keep up with the way cooler girls, but couldn’t? I’m being a bit dramatic, but that’s my take on Rustique, but like just like then you realise being the cooler girl isn’t everything and your squad is all you need in the end. But do give it a shot, if not just to see a coffee table shaped like two giant books – take note IKEA!
London can be a dangerous place for your bank account to visit, but it also can be a fairly inexpensive as well if you do it right. It’s 2016 so good and delicious food can be found on the cheap pretty much everywhere. Flights are supercheap if you book ahead and fly with a budget air line and even non-hostel accommodation can be affordable if you look in zone 3 and beyond. Activities can extremely expensive to absolutely free. I’ve put together a list of free things here and today I’m focusing on how you can save around £170 by choosing alternative and cheaper versions of London’s most famous and overpriced attractions. Talk is cheap, so let’s begin.
Swap the Shard for the Skygarden
I loved the Shard, but I can image you’d rather spend your £30 on Oxford Street or Westfield, so why not visit the Sky Garden. I don’t particularly like the place -you can read here why- but hey, it’s free of charge and that’s all that counts right? Make sure to book ahead, come on time and bring your ID – but leave your picnic for an actual garden or park.
Swap the London Eye for The Emirates Air Line
If there’s one thing I would want to scrub out of guidebooks, it’s the London Eye. If you want to see London from the top on a moving thing then head to the cable car or The Emirates Air Line sponsored by Emirates Airline. You can even use your Oyster and it will cost just under £9. And since no one really uses it it’s unlikely you’ll have to queue up.
Swap the hop off hop on bus for Bus 11 or 24
A hop on hop off tour sounds fun, but you might end up getting distracted by the other tourists, so why not hop on bus number 11 or 24, take your own tour and save £25. These lines drive past the famous landmarks like Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Bank of England. And the best thing is that they don’t come with that annoying loud family, instead you will enjoy some typical London characters on the bus. One quick thing; buses don’t accept cash, so you gotta reach for an Oyster or contact-less payment card for which a single bus journey is £1.50.
Swap fancy Afternoon Tea for M&S Afternoon Tea
You can’t go to London and not have a classic Afternoon Tea, but what really puts me off is the price (and finding someone who wants to go with you for that price), sure you pay for the experience and you can combine it with a lunch and dinner, but still often the places could be too posh and quiet or a too hip place that will charge you £45 just for breathing their air, so it can be a bit of downer. Well that’s where Marks & Spencer Cafe on Oxford Street comes in handy. They offers them for £6.95. It’s all about scones and clotted cream and M&S knows how to do them. No frills, that makes a difference as the Dutch would say.
Swap the view from St. Paul for the view from Westminster Cathedral
The view from St. Pauls is amazing, but the £16.50 admission might hold you back. Why not visit the Westminster Cathedral – not to be confused for Westminster Abbey – instead? Yes, I know it doesn’t have a Whisper Gallery, but is three times cheaper, they both look impressive from the inside and outside and have a tower you can climb to enjoy looking down like an emperor. Which one would you choose? £16.50 or £5. The landlord, God will love you either way.
Swap The Tower of London for The Monument
I’ve always wanted to go Tower of London as it’s one of my favourite buildings in the city, but from what I’ve heard it’s not focused on about the architecture but more on the fake replica jewels which you’ll have to queue to behold. So instead, I will keep enjoying it from the afar until one day someone will buy it off and put it on Air BnB or something like that. But you know another tower in London that’s much cheaper and much higher; the Monument is an overlooked attraction that happens to also be an old tower that you’ll likely have come across in a history book.
Swap the London Aquarium for the Horniman Aquarium
Do you have the urge to queue up and go to the overcrowded and overpriced London Aquarium? This must only appeal to tourists because I literally don’t know anyone London based who has been. But if you want to see some fish for the cheap head down to south London to the aquarium at Horniman Museum for just £4.40, it’s obviously not a big as the the London one, but they have fish, frogs and jellyfish. Plus the museum and garden are worth a visit (and free!), it’s a kitschy museum in the south of London that holds a a collection of dried insects, a lot of stuffed animals, musical instruments from all around the world.
Swap Harry Potter Filmtour for a Harry Potter walking tour
It is magical, but a visit to the Harry Potter Studio will cost you a wand and a half! Well, £35 + a trains ticket. Alternatively you can take yourself on a magical tour of some of the sites which inspired the series. You’ll get to know which street inspired JK for Diagon Alley, you can take a photo at Kings Cross and there is even an official merchandise shop where you can spend all of the money you saved on above and below. I did one with Muggle Tour and enjoyed it almost as much as I did at the Harry Potter Studio.
Swap Madame Tussauds for real stars
I have never gotten the hang of paying to get into Madame Tussauds and take badly lit photos of wax people, why not skip that and go to a premiere on Leicester Square and spot some A-class and D-listed meat in the flesh for free, well you might need to get there early to get face to face with your celeb obsession. You can also go to a TV show recording, TV shows like Graham Norton (chock full of celebrity candy) and Whatever Talent Show is on at the moment need live studio audiences and you can be part of it! Here is how you can get a ticket.
Now the days are colder and shorter all I want to do after work is go home and curl up with Netflix and Chill Earl Grey. But that isn’t always socially acceptable, so I once in a while I do go out and try something new, so here are some awesome things I’ve seen and done (more like places I had a bite or two).
I am passing on one the best favourite budget tips I was given: BiBimBap in Soho. It’s the ultimate South Korean rice bowl topped with vegetables, meat or tofu and an egg topped off with various sauces. All that and a drink for just under £10 in Soho – you feel like you’re ripping them off! The walls are also plastered with super happy instant film shots of their customers, so you can’t help but smile.
Looking for a caffeine hit in Angel? Check out Saint Espresso for your latest fix: they serve a mean sencha tea, make the best chocolate chip cookies in London and according to my co-workers the coffee definitely hits the spot. It has a raw, concrete and unfinished vibe and I absolutely love it.
Hoi Polloi under Ace Hotel used to be the hottest place in town (well in Shoreditch) until people grew tired of the crowds and rushed off to the next best thing. But this doesn’t mean their food has got any less tasty, and though the menu might need a translator (what is sorrel, dulce, purslane??) it all tastes so good you don’t care that you can’t pronounce it. I prefer their breakfast and lunch over the dinner, but you can’t really go wrong with any of their menu items, and the menu looks so stylish you’ll want to steal it for your website theme.
Most of the photography exhibitions I’ve been to lately haven’t sparked my interest and I almost didn’t go to Noémie Goudal’s Southern Light Stations exhibition at the The Photographers Gallery because of this. I’m very glad I did though because I was blown away by the intriguing pieces, the photos felt like another world, and even went twice. You can visit it till January 2016.
When I heard that matcha ice cream, french toast and chicken wings were all available at the same place, I took a mental note to try Shackfuyu one day and oh boy was it good. I’m not a fan of chicken wings, but this place converted me and has definitely claimed its place on my must-eat list. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but worth it if you’re over eating Asian cheap take away, because life is too short not to treat yourself and stuff your face with ice cream.
Central & Co sits opposite Liberty and Carnaby Street – usually not my favourite places to go. But I’d stick around here if there were more places like this. I give it the Tea stamp for approval: it’s reasonably priced (for where it is), great service (once they notice you) and exciting menu (why the hell have I never put ricotta on pancakes?!). They also do brunch, dinner and drinks and all that fizzle, but more importantly their toilets have a Monkey gone to Heaven poster in them – both for the Pixies song and the actual simian heroes who went into orbit.