A Visit to London, With Students as My Guide
A Visit to London, With Students as My Guide
By SETH KUGEL - New York Times 3/31/2011
Back in January, I was handed a daunting task: spend a week in London on a budget. The city consistently ranks far ahead of any city in the United States in cost-of-living indexes; so the cost of traveling couldn’t be far behind. To make matters worse, my first step was to lose $600 on a Craigslist rental scam.
As I looked around for alternate housing, I wondered, who can help me navigate the city on a slim wallet? The answer, once it came, was obvious: some of the hundreds of thousands of students who call London home, at least temporarily. Not necessarily undergrads getting their first taste of life away from their families but more tasteful, adult, yet cash-poor grad students. As it happened, I already knew one, Priscila Rocco Ignacio, a friend of a friend studying for a Master of Laws at Kings College. And my cousin Lindsey Randol is studying psychology at Roehampton University. Seeking to be close to even more students, I reserved a quirky guesthouse across picturesque Northampton Square from City University, the 1811 Georgian Town House (£67 a night, about $107 at $1.60 to the pound, which apparently affords to charge low rates by saving money on a 1990s-era Web site.)
My first challenge: an affordable night on the town. Priscila offered to meet me the night I got in at the Strand on campus, which appeared to be a 30-minute walk from my hotel. But I hadn’t counted on 1) getting lost and 2) the pouring rain. Drenched and hopelessly misdirected to Fleet Street, I hopped into the subway and inaugurated my Oyster Card, the London Tube’s best deal for visitors unsure if they’ll use the system enough to purchase an unlimited pass. (The card — which costs a refundable £5 — allows you to pay per trip but automatically gives you the daily pass rate if you travel enough. Our first stop was dinner at the Slug and Lettuce on Stamford Street, a chain pub not far across the Thames from campus that offered entrees for £5.95 – I had the cottage pie and a pulled cask ale for £2.55 – well within my budget. And then we headed to meet her friends at Knights Templar, a pub in the Wetherspoon chain that had a massive hall with a glittering bar that was adorned with a full suit of armor perched above the upside-down vodka bottles. I drank £2.50 pints and questioned her grad school classmates incessantly on their favorite things to do in town.
Once they offered a few suggestions, I realized that my plan was flawed. Students can find you the cheapest pints (which in this city means under £3). But they will steer you to chain pubs, which in general make only a half-hearted effort to recreate the individual ambience that you’ll find at an old-fashioned local pub. The chains I tried reminded me of the faux-local décor of Applebee’s almost laughable “There’s No Place Like the Neighborhood” slogan.
I decided to take another stab at the pub scene. I ventured into the City University campus and asked random students there about night life. Nodding and ignoring the advice of those who suggested low-cover electronic music clubs I knew I would hate, I decided to take the suggestion of some psychology students who recommended pubhopping among the punk crowd in the Camden Town neighborhood. They especially liked a bar called Ice Wharf.
Ice Wharf turned out to be — surprise, surprise — yet another in the Wetherspoon chain. And whereas Knights Templar had touches of pubbiness, Ice Wharf felt like a Midwestern college town meat market, with an endless wait at the bar to boot. True, the beer was cheap – John Smith’s Ale for an astonishing £2.35 a pint, but I ended up at Elephants Head, at 224 Camden High Street. It was perfect – an independent old school pub with a crowd that lacked piercings and tattoos and with “Mother’s Little Helper” as the typical musical fare. The John Smith’s was £3.55, but the care with which the adorable pink-haired bartender (a sort of punk-you-could-take-home-to-mom type) poured the ale and wiped the excess foam off the glass was worth the extra quid-and-change.
Luckily, Priscila had a few other money-saving tricks up her sleeve that would allow me to explore a genuine part of London by day. One was a trip to the food stalls of Borough Market on the Southbank by London Bridge. The covered market – full of fine produce, prepared food stalls and lots of free samples – is hardly a secret. But Priscila’s key piece of advice was to go on Friday. On weekends, she said, it gets so crowded as to be unbearable. (And the free cheese and paella and cookie pieces and the like are much harder to come by.)
She led me straight to the Roast To Go stand, where a pork belly and apple sauce sandwich went for £6, £14 less than the price of the same entrée at a pricey nearby restaurant. We both watched, drooling, as the man behind the counter slathered on Bramley applesauce and used his tongs to load crunchy, sinfully greasy roast pork belly onto the bread. We split it, adding on fresh fruit juices from a stand called Turnips, and a cherry almond tart andé clair. Our total lunch cost, for two, was about £15.
After lunch, we headed for coffee. Priscila’s favorite cafe, Monmouth Coffee shop, near the market, was closed for renovation but a kind employee there directed us up the block to a chocolate shop called Rabot Estate, which also served Monmouth coffee, even “with the same milk.” We both ordered a flat white, a creamier, stronger version of a latte that I had never heard of before but turned out to be old news to Priscila and in wider British coffee circles. We sat around a communal wooden table in the back of the shop and sipped our £2 drinks — cheaper than Starbucks — and this coffee was so rich it literally made me forget I was surrounded by luscious chocolate, an almost impossible accomplishment.
Priscila and I met up again later during my trip for more food and drink. This time instead of merely choosing a cheap restaurant, she used yet another trick: Vouchercloud, an iPhone application exclusive to Britain that senses where you are and offers you great discounts (50 percent off or buy-one-get-one-free style) at businesses nearby – albeit mostly chains. We dined at La Tasca, a tapas chain that would have been mediocre if the whole meal – four tapas almost the size of main courses, with a glass of sangria each – hadn’t cost £17 for the two of us.
You can always find a way to eat and drink for cheap. But other London attractions — like the theater — are trickier. Priscila’s friends I met at the Knights Templar provided a great tip: instead of buying day-of-show discount seats at the booths in Leicester Square, use the Web site getintolondontheatre.co.uk instead. From the convenience of my own computer, I browsed the shows that I had both not seen and that had low prices, ending up with a seat for “Chicago” for £15. When I tested the price against the multiple and confusing booths in Leiscester Square the day of the show, I found that £19.50 was the best price that I would have gotten. And even better, when I picked up my ticket at will call, I had been upgraded from nosebleed seats to Row K, in the orchestra (or “stalls” as they call them) where the people around me had paid £39.50. Sure, the show was in its 14th year in the West End, but it was all new to me. And apparently to my fellow audience members, so many of whom must have been from non-English speaking countries that I found myself alone in laughing at some of the clever and maudlin wordplay.
Beer, food, theater, night life — students were happy to talk about all of it. But universally the first thing they all mentioned was: THE MUSEUMS ARE FREE. Yeah, yeah, I thought, but so what. I’d save $10 or $20, which I’m often happy to pay if it’s for world-class exhibits, which I know London has.
I soon realized that when you don’t pay for museums, it changes the whole experience. When Lindsey and I arrived at the Natural History Museum just a half-hour before it closed, we just zoomed right in, whizzed by some cool dinosaurs, and sped right out, our wallets unscathed. When I had just an hour free and was passing by the Tate Modern, I strolled in and focused on the surrealists on Level 3. It felt like a guilty pleasure, sort of like sneaking into an expensive breakfast buffet just to pilfer a pain au chocolat, knowing you could come back any time for the poached eggs or fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
Still, while students had some excellent advice, I soon realized that planning an entire trip around their tips was folly, and turned to some other friends and relatives for more tips.
More on that next week.
But before I forget: I did end up finding a chain that was worth the trip. Many students I questioned practically urged me to visit Nando’s, a South Africa-based grilled chicken chain that has practically taken over London near universities. I nodded appreciatively as people spoke glowingly of something called peri-peri chicken. I just couldn’t resist heading to the Covent Garden branch on my final night. To my surprise, I found myself led down a spiral staircase to a pleasant dining area — nicer than Applebee’s — and though I ordered at a counter, my quarter-chicken with two sides and choice of six sauces for £6.59, was delivered to my table by friendly servers. The spicy peri-peri sauce — which is promoted as a traditional Portuguese-Mozambican creation, was a step up from most bottled or chain-store sauces. And you can even order wine and not feel stupid. In the student world, as in the frugal travel world, that counts as a bargain you can’t afford to miss.