Recently, my work gave us two days off for Easter, so I used the four-day weekend to go to London.
The last time I was in London was actually March 1, 2020. It was the last trip I took in the “before times”. In the two years that followed, the UK changed its entry restrictions endlessly — there was a traffic light system; at one point everything shut down due to the “UK variant”; and then you had to get a test on your second day. It was all very confusing. By the time I returned to London in late April, however, all restrictions had been dropped. Very few people were wearing masks, even on the crowded Tube. It was like I had never left.
This was my third visit to the UK, so I had already done most of the touristy things. This time, I just wanted to relax in an English-speaking environment, shop for some things that are harder to buy in Switzerland, and enjoy good Indian food. My itinerary included:
- Shopping in central London
- Getting a haircut at a Japanese salon
- A three-hour tour of Indian food in east London
- Panoramic views of London at the Sky Garden and lunch at the Fenchurch restaurant
- Dark English history at the Tower of London
- Vintage and book shopping in Brick Lane
A very patchy train experience: was first class worth it?
As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, I try my best to avoid flying within the continent of Europe, and always take the train even if it’s more expensive and time-consuming. The round-trip journey between Geneva to London took a combined two days, at a cost of just over 500 euros. This was for first class, and during Easter weekend, so naturally the prices were higher. But still: very steep, and honestly not worth it.
Even though I was travelling in first class to reduce proximity to other passengers, as well as for my own comfort, I found the experience to be inconsistent and disappointing. Both on the French trains and on the Eurostar, all of the seats in the carriage directly faced one another. I constantly found myself sitting face-to-face with a stranger, with very little room to accommodate both of our legs. While the person I sat across from on the Eurostar stretched his legs out diagonally in one direction so that I could stretch my legs diagonally in the other direction, the person on the French train back to Geneva didn’t do that. As a result, I sat like this for over three hours:
To be clear, though, she wasn’t stretching her legs aggressively, nor was she tall. There just wasn’t that much space to begin with. Having been on the train all day, after I got back to Geneva, my legs were swollen and in mild pain. It took about two days for them to feel normal again.
It is now obvious to me that first class is not only not worth the money on the Eurostar and French trains, it may actually be worse than second class. The seats are roughly the same size. The compartments are just as grubby. In fact, in second class, most of the rows face the same direction, and leg room is therefore sufficient. One perk of Eurostar first class is a cold meal and coffee/tea served at your seat, but personally I found the meal underwhelming; I had some sort of cold spinach pie, and my seatmate had a cold salmon. We took off our masks and ate facing each other as though we were friends at the same dinner table, trying awkwardly not to make eye contact. After the meal, almost no one put their masks back on. After all, the train was headed to England, where there were no rules.
(The Eurostar from London to Paris, however, had a different formation, and this time I was able to sit in a compartment whose rows all faced forward. I enjoyed this experience much more. It does seem that it’s a total crapshoot what kind of train you end up with.)
In conclusion: first class on the Eurostar or any train in France is not worth it, in my opinion. In Switzerland, however, first class is fantastic. Beautiful, red, plump seats; much fewer people; a quiet, calm ambience; and all the leg room in the world. It’s often only 10 to 20 francs more expensive than second class, so I would always recommend it for a journey of over three hours.
The bright point of the journey was seeing someone dressed up as the Easter Bunny at the Eurostar check-in point in Paris, handing out chocolate.
Where I stayed in London
During my previous visits to London, I had stayed near King’s Cross train station, and also in Bankside. This time, I chose to stay in east London, just off Whitechapel High Street and about two blocks from the famous Brick Lane.
I absolutely loved the neighborhood. The communities there was largely South Asian; stores had signs advertising their Ramadan hours, and bakeries were offering to host Iftar parties. Convenience shops sold plastic washbasins that reminded me of being in Asia. There were restaurants for every cuisine imaginable. (I reflected sadly upon the limited and expensive food options of Geneva.) There were some tourists, but on the whole it felt very local and quotidian.
I stayed at The Gate Hotel, which was a tall building of aparthotels. The view from the window was decent, and they had a 24-hour front desk, which was helpful as I had to check out at 6am on Monday. I had no complaints.
Shopping in central London
I spent the following morning in central London, mostly around Oxford Street, which had a lot of shops. I popped into the following places:
- Muji – in Switzerland we only have one Muji store in Zurich, so whenever I go somewhere that has a Muji, I always stock up on skin care and stationery
- Uniqlo – comfortable and affordable basics. We don’t have any Uniqlo stores in CH!
- Primark – this was a huge department store; I found the clothing quite ugly and of poor quality
- Oxfam – a tiny charity thrift shop that had an interesting but very small selection
- Bookmarks – a socialist bookstore with a fascinating collection. Unfortunately I only had about 10 minutes to browse here before my haircut
- Oliver Bonas – this was my favorite find in all of London: a small, quirky clothing and home goods shop that I stumbled onto. Everything was well-designed and adorable, but caveat: pricey and mostly made abroad.
I particularly want to highlight the American Candy Store, which, however touristy, was a sight for sore eyes. They had everything. It was all so lurid and tacky and delicious.
While walking around, I came across something very disturbing — a pub that was not only named after the Duke of York, but had his pictures all over it. WTF?
In the early afternoon, I got a haircut at a Japanese salon in the area called Shunji. The stylist was very meticulous and communicative, showing me pictures on their phone of what they envisioned for me. Ultimately, it didn’t turn out exactly the way I had wanted — the cut was too short, and my hair still felt too thick and heavy. However, the layered cut lent itself very well to styling, and when I curled my hair at the hotel later that afternoon, it looked much better.
Indian food tour: a mixed experience
I’ve done plenty of walking tours before, but this was the first time I had done a food tour. I was super psyched to taste all the delicious Indian food that Brick Lane had to offer.
After this experience, however, I think I’ll stick to walking tours in the future. Don’t get me wrong: the food was amazing, and the guide was amazing. It’s just that a series of weird things occurred that, in combination, ultimately made the whole experience a bit awkward and uncomfortable. At the risk of outing myself as a prissy, unlikable person, I’m just going to be honest about what happened.
We started the tour at this restaurant, where we all got big cups of mango lassi to drink. This is where the trouble started. I have always disliked the taste of milk since I was a child, but I had never been lactose intolerant. I had always been fine with ice cream and yogurts. But half an hour after finishing this milk-based drink, my stomach began to bloat like a balloon. It felt like I was on the verge of exploding out of my pants. (Unfortunately, after this trip, my issues with lactose seemed to continue. I bought a small, milky loaf of cake at a bakery that literally made me throw up just with its smell.)
Our next stop was a large South Asian supermarket called Taj Stores, which Jamie Oliver once called “better than Tesco”. The guide showed us the popular spices that are used in Indian cuisine.
Our next stop was a sit-down dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant, which I suspected would be awkward as soon as I met the rest of the group at the beginning of the tour. My group was composed of five couples, most of them retirees, and me, the only solo traveller. While the couples talked amongst themselves, I sat through the dinner quietly, just enjoying the food. The nice Englishman next to me made small talk with me. Where do you live? I live in Switzerland. Where do you live? Here, in London. Are you on vacation? Yes. Me, too. The conversation topics dried out quickly. There was a German woman sitting across from me. We made frequent eye contact and even passed each other dishes, but we never exchanged a single word. Should I try to initiate a conversation with her? Maybe she doesn’t want to speak to me. It’s better if I just don’t try. She probably just wants to keep talking with her husband. I don’t want to risk getting the cold shoulder.
We had puri at this restaurant — it was delicious and my favorite dish of the entire night.
Our next stop was a bakery. It was cramped in there, so the guide went in to grab us all some traditional Indian sweets to go.
We then walked over to a very large neighborhood restaurant, where we were served even more hearty dishes. The restaurant didn’t serve alcohol drinks, so the guide had us all stop at a liquor store on the way to grab drinks. As some of us waited outside the store, I noticed an English woman from the group staring at me intensely. Finally, she seemed to work up the courage to come up to me.
“Hello, darling,” she said. “You doing all right? Do you… do you speak English?”
I simply stared at her. “I’m American,” I said, no emotion in my voice at all.
She seemed embarrassed. “Oh, of course.” Soon, she made an excuse and walked away.
I wasn’t fazed by the question — as an Asian American, random strangers feel entitled to question my heritage, my citizenship, and my ability to speak English ALL THE TIME, both in the States and abroad. In fact, I am perpetually prepared for these types of questions and have an arsenal of curt, politely irritated responses at the ready. However, this did make me think: was the reason the German woman didn’t talk to me for the entire hour that we sat across from each other at dinner? Was this the reason almost no one else in the group spoke to me? Did they all assume that I had just gotten off the boat from Asia, joining this English language tour in London without speaking English? Standing there outside the liquor store, I really let these self-doubts mess with my head. I felt weird, isolated, and self-conscious.
At the next restaurant, I sat next to an American couple that immediately introduced themselves in a friendly way. It put me at ease. The woman asked me what I did. I work at a nonprofit in Switzerland, I said vaguely. Oh, but which one? What kind of work are you in? she insisted, curious as Americans always are.
Reluctantly, I told her the name of the international organization I worked for. It seemed to take her by surprise.To be honest, she said, I’m disappointed that you all haven’t done much to help Ukraine, with the war that’s going on there.
I sympathized with her frustration, the sense of powerlessness that so many of us feel right now. I didn’t really know how to respond.
I didn’t eat anything at this restaurant — my stomach was bloated and deeply uncomfortable. And when they brought on the smoked meat dishes, something happened. I started to sniffle. Then I began to cough. I couldn’t stop. I felt disgusting and embarrassed, sitting in the middle of a crowded table, blowing my nose and coughing as other people ate. I quickly got up and moved to a corner of the table, several feet away from the others. One of the diners gave me a cough drop; another theorized that I was perhaps allergic to the spices.
After dessert, I was physically so uncomfortable I couldn’t stick around any longer. The night had been long enough. I thanked the wonderful guide and excused myself, slipping out early.
Sky Garden: panoramic views of London
I highly recommend the Sky Garden for a visit to London — it’s free and offers a sweeping, 360-degree view of the entire city from the 35th floor. Two tips on this:
- Be sure to pre-book the visit ahead of time; they don’t take walk-ins. When you arrive, you still have to queue to get into the building, through security, and wait for your turn to board the elevator. The process takes longer than expected.
- That’s why I’d also recommend booking a meal at one of the Sky Garden’s two restaurants. With a reservation, you get to skip the line into the building. Be sure to make the reservation at least a week in advance.
Lunch at Fenchurch restaurant
I had lunch at the Fenchurch restaurant in Sky Garden and was very satisfied with the experience. The ambience was elegant and calm without being pretentious, and being at the top of the tower, the view while dining was unparalleled. This was the view from my table.
At the staff’s recommendation, I ordered scallops for appetizers, and monkfish and cabbage for the main dish. The small menu was very pescatarian-friendly but didn’t have much to offer for vegetarians. The plates were huge and the portions tiny, but the food was very good.
Tower of London
The Tower of London is only a 10-minute walk from the Sky Garden. This is a big complex where they used to lock up and execute political prisoners, including Anne Boleyn. It’s also where they keep the royal family’s Crown Jewels on display.
While the Crown Jewels were very glittery and fancy-looking, it did take over half an hour of queuing just to get into the exhibit, plus there are already a lot of high quality photos online, so I wouldn’t rate this as a must-see.
I was more intrigued by Beauchamp Tower, a small stone tower where prisoners were often kept for years. Some of them had carved ornate graffiti into the walls as their last messages.
There was also the White Tower, which was where they kept the armory. Roaming among the legacy of the bloody history of Britain and reading the last words of the prisoners, it was hard not to think about the conflicts ravaging different parts of the world right now, and reflect on how mankind, despite all the technological advances and the horrifying scars of war throughout the ages, continues to be so brutal, bloodthirsty, and inhuman.
Vintage shopping in Brick Lane
I closed out the trip by roaming the shops of Brick Lane. After passing by all the South Asian restaurants, the street sort of becomes this chill, pedestrian flea market, with multiple vintage clothing shops on every corner. I liked the first place I went to, which was called Atika. They had a large, interesting selection that wasn’t just recycled TikTok fast fashion. The clothing was of decent quality.
I ended up buying a jacket from this place.
I also went to a couple of other shops that were very crowded and had a lot of interesting stuff. I did notice, however, that a lot of the shops were still selling mostly winter clothing — lots of very heavy tweed blazers and trenchcoats. It would be interesting to go back at the height of summer to see how the selection changes.
I also picked up a couple of English books for reading on the train trip back.
All in all, here’s everything I bought in London. The most important purchase in the list was allergy medication, which you can’t buy over the counter in Switzerland.