Our first 36 hours in London blew us away with its endless urban sprawl, overwhelming diversity, and ancient history. So we decided to take it easy on our second morning there and spend our last few hours wandering around the East End of London and checking out a few movie highlights before we met up with some friends in southern London.
On the recommendation of our AirBNB host, we ate breakfast at a 100-year-old Bethnal Green fixture, E. Pellici. The Italian-British family-owned restaurant has been serving breakfast fry-ups and Italian classics for over 100 years in a wood-paneled Art Deco facing a busy street lined with Middle Eastern immigrants selling vegetables and fake purses. We sat down at a wood varnished table and were immediately given a warm welcome by one of the family, Nevio, who shouted out our orders in Italian and asked us in a Cockney-Italian accent where we came from and if Kansas was anywhere near Boston. Tony, tall and greying and wearing a half-unbuttoned collared shirt, brought us coffee and fried eggs. We sat near the door, and every time a regular walked in, he was hailed in multiple languages and hugged firmly.
After we devoured our plates of toast and smoked salmon, a woman came bustling out the kitchen holding a square package wrapped in foil. "Now I know you must be healthy and all, but I'm going to send you with some of my mama's bread pudding she just cooked this morning because it's your first time here and you need to get fattened up!" She pushed the foil into our hands and told us to come back again soon. How could we not, after a breakfast like that?
The rest of the morning, we wandered from Bethnal Green to Brick Lane, taking it all the way down to the Old Spitalfields Market. Brick Lane is a bustling South Asian immigrant community that is slowly being overtaken by hipsters and graffiti artists, Banksy street art curving over street signs in Bangla. Walking down the street gave us opportunities to pop into small, quirky independent shops and get a very different feel for London we hadn't experienced at the Tower Bridge and British Museum.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the Old Spitalfields Market - a large Victorian brick shopping mall converted to trendy restaurants and stalls selling African-print dresses and handmade jewelry - then went back to our AirBNB apartment, grabbed our bags, said good-bye to our host, and traveled down to meet our next hosts.
As I've mentioned, the highlight of traveling is making personal connections with locals or fellow expats. And luckily for us, we knew a couple who had moved to London a few years ago. I had grown up in the same hometown as Ashli, our families close although we were around several years apart in age. Thanks to Facebook, I contacted her to meet up in London, although we probably hadn't seen in each other in over ten years.
Andrew and I met her at her workplace, which happened to be the London headquarters of Bloomberg - the Bloomberg, which I didn't quite realize til we had gone through security and were sitting in the lobby, watching the financial news streaming on multiple television screens and countless serious-looking people rushing about in suits. Again, we were seeing a fascinating side of London that is normally inaccessible to tourists, thanks to friends.
While waiting for Ashli to finish up her work day, Andrew and I hopped on a train to quickly see a few tourist sites that we couldn't resist checking out. We are huge Sherlock fans, and the famous entrance to 221B Baker Street and McSpeedy's Cafe - both featured on the show but not actually on Baker Street itself - was quite close. We found it, took a few photos, then left. At least we can say we've been there.
We also stopped by St. Pancras/King's Cross Station to see Platform 9 3/4 of the Harry Potter series. I had hoped to take my photo with the luggage trolley, but there were more than fifty people in line. So I just took a photo of someone else.
On our way, we passed by the British Library, which held a free exhibit of rare and famous books - which, of course, I couldn't resist. The Treasures of the British Library held original copies of the Magna Carta, handwritten letters by Anne Bolyen with a post-script by her husband (and soon-to-be-executioner) Henry VIII, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles scribbled on the back of a child's birthday card, centuries-old religious texts, musical scores by Handel and Beethoven, Jane Austen's writing desk, and more. If you're a book lover visiting London, it should definitely be on your list of stops.
After a very full day, we met back up with our friend and traveled to southern London, kicked off our shoes, and spent the evening listening to old records and catching up over several years' worth of life events, expat experiences, and food. We only had one day left in London, and we planned on filling it with food...more on that later....