13 Tips to Live Like a Local in London
Must-know tips to help you get around England like a true Brit
When visiting a major city such as London, tourist attractions are often first on the must-visit list. And while I enjoyed seeing the likes of Kensington Palace, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye as much as the next person, when you’re living in London for several months, there’s more to see and do that will give you a more accurate portrayal of real, daily British life. And those types of experiences have been my favorites of my entire experience living in London.
1. Do as the Brits do. Whatever you do, wherever you go: MEET PEOPLE. By far the easiest way to become a local, talk to one! Find out where they are from, what brought them here and perhaps they’ll even have some local perspectives on things to do or places to go. The best way to find out what the locals are like, is to ask one.
2. Theatre is a cultural mecca. In London, theatre (i.e. the West End, but not exclusively) is more for the locals and far less touristy than New York City’s Broadway. All the shows are superb, including the original productions, revivals and US transplants. While many people in my program were content seeing the likes of commercial successes Wicked, The Lion King and Mamma Mia, I took a different approach. I wanted to see shows that were exclusively British or originated in the UK. My thoughts: if I can easily see it (or have seen it already) back home in the US, it’s wasteful to see it again. I wanted to make my London experience special and unique, including the theatre shows I saw.
3. Brits love their telly. Watch British shows while they are currently airing and engage with the local public also watching it (Twitter is very popular during the most watched programs). British television is extremely popular among locals, especially regarding the immense loyalty many people feel toward the BBC and other popular networks. There are scripted series (comedies and dramas alike) and factual (reality) programs. Some of the most popular shows include Great British Bake Off, X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Gogglebox. If you only have time for one show, Gogglebox breaks down the latest from all the popular shows, what real people think of it and has plenty of humor to keep you entertained. Helpful hint: the BBC iPlayer posts all shows you may miss online within a day, as does Channel 4 and ITV.
4. Embrace the lengthy Tube commute. There’s nothing more British than riding the Tube at rush hour. Typical commutes are at least one hour. And sometimes, the cars are so packed that you won’t be able to step on. Once, I missed three trains in a row on my way to my internship. You just have to be patient and wait for the next one; it happens. Just breathe and wait a few more minutes.
5. Which leads us to Tube behavior and etiquette… No one talks on the Tube. At all. An exception is if two colleagues or friends traveling together, then they might whisper quietly. Also, the Tube (even if not traveling at rush hour) is still going to be packed. Just embrace it. With every new train that pulls up to your stop, it will be crowded, and you will have to stand smushed between people cheek-to-cheek at least for one stop. Don’t make a scene, just find a sliver of space to stand and enjoy your experience as a true Brit. And if you can master the London Underground, you can master pretty much any public transport around the world.
6. Choose local. While many people in my study abroad program opted for commercially successful activities (fancy hotel afternoon teas, famous outdoor markets), I chose smaller, local versions of such traditional U.K. activities, so I could truly get a feel for the authentic British lifestyle and not the cliched version constantly known from pop culture and movies. Visiting places you know about from world-famous ads and films don’t picture as much of an authentically unique view of what a daily Brit does and enjoys.
7. Stay current on the local news! If you are living there, you should at the very least know the headlines of the latest stories. To make it even simpler, the Tube distributes free issues of the Metro and Evening Standard newspapers and their weekend magazine. At least skim through an to see what’s going on and even find activities to do. Also, many locals will read it on the Tube and leave it behind for future passengers.
8. Don’t be afraid to find unique activities that you can’t find in a guidebook. While in London, I had the privilege to attend local events that were things I was truly passionate about, such as the British Fashion Awards, London Fashion Weekend, art exhibits at the Saatchi Gallery and the V&A Museum, a pop concert at the O2 Arena, among others. Such activities weren’t highly publicized and attended primarily by local patrons. At each place, I wanted to learn as much as I could about what brought them to attend and more about the industry I was most passionate about in general and the British perspective, as well as getting to know the locals that share the same passion as I do (refer to number one on this list).
9. Learn to pronounce things correctly. There’s nothing that makes you stick out faster than pronouncing everything Americanized, ala Li-cester Square. (No, it’s pronounced like Lester Square.) Fancy learning some British phrases or how to correctly pronounce words? Try this helpful YouTube channel! Same goes with understanding the currency and how it differs. (Remember currency is in pounds, or more commonly known as quid.) One of the simplest tips to live like a local is to blend in, and language is arguably one of the biggest differences when living abroad.
10. When in doubt, just walk. One of my favorite activities on any given day had to be taking walks around parks and just observing the locals. When I had no plans for the day, I’d head to a park (there are many to choose from), just walk around and observe the beauty of London around me. Or even walk around random streets and neighborhoods! You’ll never know who or what you may see when you get outside your student flats.
11. Eat local. Or even finding a local cafe to do work in, or just take in your surroundings. I had plenty of homework and blog work to complete while living in London, and going to work in a Starbucks, Pret a Manger or Caffe Nero all seemed to commercial to truly get a feel for the locals. So, I found adorable cafes that had delicious treats and drinks and a perfect atmosphere to get work done and take in the London city vibes. My favorites include Timberyard in Seven Dials, Fleet Street Bakery near Holborn and Urban Tea Rooms near Piccadilly Circus. Definitely check it out for yummy pastries, breakfast and lunch meals and a chance to see what real Londoners do and places they go on a typical day.
12. Avoid any massively crowded tourist traps. Examples include Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square— it’s like the equivalent of Times Square in Manhattan. Also, those areas are the Tube stops that are the most crowded with tourists. Most locals tend to avoid tourist centers, unless they are seeing a show or indulging in the nightlife, but most tourists won’t be there in the evenings.
13. Venture outside the bustling city at least once. See other towns and cities outside of London. London is huge, a melting pot of the UK, its entities and Europe. So, take a day’s journey and find out what people live like outside the metropolitan area. (You could even walk around university campuses and meet British and international students!) Or even visit the ethnically diverse areas within London if you don’t have time to venture outside the city. For instance, check out Brick Lane, only a short walk from Spitalfields Market. Walk around the neighborhood, try some local cuisine and explore the art and fashion market too!
If you’re living in London for several months, that’s plenty of time to become a Londoner… and I’d advise doing so, as opposed to being an American tourist abroad. Get traveling, and remember to live like a local while abroad.