As a gift to myself for having completed my bachelors degree, I decided to take a 3 week stint in Europe this year. After nearly 15 years of only traveling within the US, it was high time I took a trip over the pond.
Of all the places I was fortunate enough to visit, becoming acquainted with English culture in London was by far one of the most memorable of all. Below I outlined some of the highlights of my trip as well as some of the best vegan eats I came across while there.
An American In London
MY TRIP HAD BEEN PLANNED since September of 2017, at the beginning of my last college semester. Having rarely ventured outside of the US, I was fearfully excited to tread into unknown territories halfway across the world — alone. My journey was set to include London, Manchester, Prague, Amsterdam, and Reykjavik.
Of all the destinations I was to visit, England held a special place in my heart. It was home to some amazing music acts, world-famous landmarks, and of course, Harry Potter.
ON JANUARY 12 I HEADED TOWARD O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT to board Icelandair Flight 853 to London, England.
After close to 9 hours of travel time and many Diet Coke’s later, I had arrived in London. I emerged from King’s Cross St. Pancras Underground Station feeling nothing short of victorious.
Then I looked outside.
TO BE QUITE FRANK, LONDON DOES NOT NECESSARILY FLAUNT the most appealing of weather changes. In fact, the vast majority of my time there was rather wet and cold. Nonetheless, as a native Chicagoan I have never been one to flinch at the sight of snow or cower under wind chill. What my time in London lacked regarding weather, was made up by beautiful sights, memorable experiences, and even a bit of culture shock.
AFTER TAKING IN THE COLD ENGLISH AIR, I started to meddle with my phone and a bit of panic kicked in. This was due to the fact that my cell phone service, despite reassurance from my phone company, was null.
I needed to find my hostel, and quickly. Judging by the aforementioned weather, I knew better than to stick around outdoors as rain clouds loomed overhead. Desperate and excited to find my new home (because I have never been one to plan for the unexpected), I searched for a map. Having found one at the entrance to King’s Cross, I snapped a photo and followed it to my hostel.
I was greeted and checked into pretty quickly. After settling into my dorm, I showered and changed for the festivities that laid ahead. The skies cleared up, the rain went away, and I was very much ready to head out. It would go on to be a very memorable first night in Europe for me.
Less Gloom, More Doom
Founded in 2001 in Leeds, this music festival celebrates hardcore culture, and has recently embraced for veganism by not only booking vegan bands (yes, that is a thing) such as Primitive Life, but also showcasing vegan food vendors such as Temple of Seitan and Kraving Cakes.
Hardcore music has always embodied a fundamental belief in camaraderie and brother/sisterhood, and in London it was no different. In fact, Canadian hardcore unit Chokehold were without a singer for the night. Rather than drop the show, they asked the audience to help them sing their songs. One by one, and sometimes in waves, people got on stage to help the band belt out their brand of voracious punk.
In between sets people would chat, buy merchandise, and chow down on some deep fried vegan goods courtesy of Temple of Seitan. I was blown away at just how violent but friendly the 2-day spectacle had been: it brought together bands and people from across the world, all connected by a mutual love and respect for heavy music.
AFTER 2 NIGHTS OF TATTOOED and groove-laden savagery, I was ready to take on a more mainstream approach to London’s fascinating culture.
London’s Sights and Sounds
WHILE I WAS INITIALLY SKEPTICAL of the typical tourist locations that London offered, I knew several of them were staples for English travels, so I reluctantly made a list of the necessary go-to’s and made sure to visit them with an open mind.
While I did attend other concerts and occasionally lost myself throughout the city as means of discovering sights on my own, below I will highlight some interesting things I was able to do during my short time in London.
Museums and Landmarks
WHILE IN LONDON, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a few free tours, where you pay your tour guide at the very end in whatever amount you feel is appropriate. During these tours, I saw plenty of landmarks and visited some really neat locations. Below I will briefly touch on three that stood out to me personally:
The British Museum
DESPITE ITS NAME, the museum in fact hosts a vast array of artifacts from across the world, including items from China, India, Egypt, and Mexico. I was absolutely blown away by their collections, some of which featured ancient Mesopotamian statues (well over 8 feet tall). Their collections are split by geographic region and will definitely raise an eyebrow or two. And it is free!
FOR THOSE WHO DESIRE SOMETHING A LITTLE OUT of the ordinary, the Tate Modern is one of the premier galleries in London. Located in the borough of Southwark, the gallery holds a variety art pieces and installations both British and international, including original work by Andy Warhol. For those seeking views, the Tate allows you to venture to the top of its tower where you can get a stunning view of London — for free.
OFTEN MISTAKEN AS “LONDON BRIDGE”, Tower Bridge is one of London’s most iconic structures. Although it has undergone several renovations and upgrades, the bridge itself has been a part of London for well over a hundred years. It is truly breathtaking to see and makes for fantastic photos as well. If you are in London, this is definitely a must see. It is also not very far from the famed Tower of London!
CAMDEN TOWN IS ONE OF THE PREMIER SHOPPING and cultural hubs of London, home to the famed “Camden Market”, where one can go and spend hour shopping through a unique hub of food vendors and clothing merchants. You will find some of the very best food London has to offer here, both within the Market and throughout the surrounding area. It is the same with apparel: you are bound to find vendors who specialize in everything from heavy metal fashion to name brand rip offs to uber-gothic lolita threads.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
WITHOUT A DOUBT, MY FAVORITE PART OF THE TRIP. Located just northwest of London, the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford is perhaps one of the coolest experiences I have ever had. As a lifelong fan of Harry Potter, it was a dream come true to visit the studio where a large majority of filming took place.
In fact, the studio tour begins just outside of Hogwarts — or at least, the doors used in much of the filming. And staying true to the film, just behind the doors you are led out to the Great Hall: yes, the actual Great Hall, complete with rows of tables, a fireplace, food, and an amazing display of original costumes and props (including some from the Yule Ball)!
I WILL NOT LIE, it was definitely a teary-eyed moment for myself. The tour itself is rather short, as you are eventually left to wander on your own throughout an array of props, displays, and sets, many of which are animatronic, which just goes to show you how much work was put into the film (and despite what you may think, not everything was CGI).
London Eats: Vegan Edition
LONDON IS A VERY VEGAN-FRIENDLY CITY. While not every pub and eatery serve vegan dishes, it can be easy to vegan-hack your way into a good meal, with some planning and creativity of course. However, there are a few spots that specialize in vegan cuisine that are a must try if you are ever in town.
TIP: the easiest way to find vegan and vegetarian eats when you are on-the-go is with the Happy Cow App. This nifty tool was an absolute lifesaver for me during my time abroad.
Address: 73 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9BT, UK
Phone: +44 20 7833 2315
Not far from King’s Cross is where you will find my personal favorite London joint for all things plant-based: Vx (keep in mind, they have a secondary location in Bristol).
For the last 8 years, Vx have prided themselves as being the London go-to for vegan food that is not exactly healthy. They are notorious for concocting some serious junk food: steak fries, burgers, sandwiches, meatball subs, kebab wraps, popcorn chicken, bbq ribs, and more. Not to mention, an impressive selection of sweets and desserts. The shop itself is rather small, but it is a local favorite and is also home to the Secret Society of Vegans, a London clothing company.
Address: 5 Wardour St, London W1D 6PD, UK
Phone: +44 20 7287 5222
After a long morning of walking around and losing myself in the city, I tracked down a unique vegan restaurant called Vantra Loungevity. Located in Soho, Vantra boasts an amazing menu of plant-based dishes, from warm, hearty eats to raw foods and everything in between. Not only that, but they utilize a serve-yourself model that lets you truly mix and match items from their array of tasty offerings. While all vegan food comes from plants, here you will find dishes that truly do feel nutritious and wholesome. I would also like to say that the owner was a very kind and welcoming individual who made me feel right at home. Nothing but positive vibes from this spot.
All hail the Temple of Seitan. Although they have 3 separate locations, my encounter with the Temple was during SweatFest. As one of the vendors for the fest, ToS brought with them their brand of fried, tasty goodness. I tried their chick’n twist wrap: two fried strips of seasoned seitan accompanied by veggies and mayo, all within a wrap. I personally topped it with hot sauce as well. During the 2 days of SweatFest, I probably had 3-4 servings of ToS dishes. Not just because they were a vegan vendor, but because the food was genuinely awesome.
Lebanese Restaurant (editors choise)
Address: SU46 London Bridge Station, Tooley Street, London SE1 2TF
Phone: +44203 432 0201
A vegan classic: the falafel, for the uninitiated, is a crunchy but soft ball of chickpeas and/or fava beans, seasoned and deep fried. London is big on falafel, from street vendors to chain restaurants. If you are out of look with finding a vegan or vegan-friendly restaurant, you are sure to run into one that serves falafel. They are abundant, and for the most part, fairly good.
Travel Tips: When In London
HERE IS A QUICK BREAKDOWN of some street smarts and general tips I picked up during my short venture here:
- ICED COFFEE: for some reason, I found it difficult to obtain this. Perhaps it is just me, or the fact that it was winter, but it seems that Londoners do not like their caffeine served cold. I could totally be wrong, but it is a heads up.
- MIND THE GAP: the Tube trains come in fast. When they say mind the gap, they really do mean it. Stand back and stay aware, or you will end up decapitated. That is never fun.
- STICK TO THE RIGHT: when walking up and down stairs, escalators, or just generally commuting, it is custom to stay on the right side, out of the way from oncoming traffic. Londoners will give you a major eye roll if you do otherwise — do not be that person.
- TIPPING: it is not common to tip your bartenders unless it was phenomenal service. They get paid and do not necessarily need tips, so keep them to yourself unless you truly feel they are deserving of it.
- LOOK BOTH WAYS: I could not figure out their driving system during my stay there, which was over a week. I tried, I asked, but I could not grasp. Look both ways, always, no matter where you go. Disclaimer: I would not be surprised if their driving system was superior to our own to be honest… But I just could not get it.
- PROPER LONDON: ask locals for recommendations. Blogs, articles, and vlogs are great resources, but ask an actual Londoner and they will likely be happy to point out their favorite pub or eatery. While traveling in “tourist mode” means going the safe route, it is far more interesting to do as the locals do and maybe even get lost a bit.
I FELL IN LOVE WITH LONDON and do plan on visiting again, though I will make sure to do so during warmer weather patterns. If you ever get a chance to do so, I highly recommend it.
For those who enjoy a more outdoor experience, London does have nice parks as well as a gorgeous countryside if you are will to make the travel to see it. For city-dwellers, you will find that London is made up of gorgeous, traditional architecture that is often met with razor sharp modernism as well. A truly stunning contrast.
The city has not lost her timeless elegance, but it is very much adorned with a 21st-century flair that makes it all the more unique. You will not regret your time there; do not let a little rain scare you away.
PLACES to eat in London
from The Lokal magazine editors