Studying abroad in London for six months really means living there with little responsibility with all the time in the world to explore, experience, and enjoy one of the world's most dynamic urban environments. In this series of articles, I want to explain and recommend the best London has to offer"”whether you're looking for a museum, an underground indy club, a fashionista's paradise, or just a good meal that doesn't make the conversion rate too unbearable.
In my first few articles, I'd like to discuss some of the surprising tourist landmarks that initially attract millions of people to London. The start of any tourist-based London excursion really should begin with a trek to Buckingham Palace. To get there, get off at Victoria Tube Station and visitors will see a tall black post with an arrow pointing in the direction of the palace. Following that arrow, walk up to the palace from the side, so make sure to watch out for the roundabout right in front"”no one wants to end a visit with the Queen by getting run over by a double-decker. After safely crossing the street, there is a gold statue on top of the enormous fountain in front of Buckingham. Amazing statues of past kings and queens surround the fountain, making for a great "send-this-to-Mom" photo opportunity.
I couldn't help but bask in the palace's sheer grandeur; the tall, gold-tipped iron gates caused me to stand in awe of the power and wealth contained within. To be honest though, the drab gravel in front conflicts with the magnificence of the palace's exterior and detracts from the aesthetic of the property. Eerily, both gravel and palace are a similar shade"” were I the Royal Landscaper, I'd recommend some grass, as it would make for a nice contrast. Other than that, the palace is everything I wanted it to be: both large and intricate, with awkward fluffy-hat-wearing guards protecting the property and desperately waiting for their next chance to move. (The changing of the guards is pretty neat, and it takes place everyday at 11:30am in the summer months and every other day at that time in the winter).
Once visitors photograph their little hearts out, turn around and take a walk through St. James's Park, the oldest of the Royal Parks of London. This is probably my second favorite park in London (the first being Hampstead Heath). St. James's offers a lot of green and a healthy dose of people-watching. The slope on the left side of the park is probably one of the best locations, because there are plenty of trees and you can sit on a bench next to the lake. There's a charming contemporary cafÃ© there called "Inn the Park" that has great sandwiches. But since drinking out-of-doors is legal in London, I recommend a picnic on the grass with a favorite bottle of wine.
After visiting the park, continue walking down the road through more gravel (the British really need to step it up with their landscaping) and pass underneath a few large arches. Here are found the guards on horseback, which can add to the "mom-approved" picture file. Taking a left at the horses, pass by the Prime Minister's house, which always has a good protester out front to cheer you up about global warming!
More importantly than all of that, right next to the Prime Minister's house, there's a little stand that sells the tall constable hats for only one pound (the cheapest I've found). So after a long parade through royal grounds, put on this cheesy souvenir hat and hit the closest pub for a cold one. (Or a warm one, because they have those too).
Written and photography by Willy Lopez