Never in my life have I thought that I would be able to take a casual weekend trip to another country to celebrate my birthday. Like seriously, who does that? Who has the time or money or sound reasoning to drop everything and spend five days on a slightly bigger island than the one you’re currently living on just for the heck of it? Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t. I have none of the above, but that didn’t stop me or my friends from making it happen. Disclaimer: I didn’t force ten of my closest friends to do what I just mentioned all for the sake of celebrating my birthday. Oh no, it just so happened that it was not only my birthday, but FOUR OTHER birthdays being celebrated that weekend. Therefore, it was completely justifiable. Because seriously, what are the odds, that out of a group of 23 people in a graduate program, five people all have birthdays within five days of one another, and THREE of them are on the SAME DAY. Seriously. We actually looked up the supporting statistics. They’re not high. THIS WAS DESTINY.
So of course we had to celebrate. And we decided to do that by taking a long weekend, packing up, and heading to London! And I will just say right now, no one even cared that it was a “birthday” weekend, we were all just so ecstatic to be somewhere that wasn’t Malta. It is kind of weird however that the location we choose is really just an enlarged version of Malta, as it is still an island in Europe and, considering the fact that Malta is a former British colony and very recently independent, making London one giant Malta.
In fact, walking around at one point, I actually felt as though Malta was more British than London was. I know that sounds insane. My roommates told me so when I asked if they thought the same thing. But really, Malta is flooded with British influence. Think of it in terms of Cuba. Cuba, if you’ve been following along with recent updates, has essentially been closed off for fifty+ years, making Cuba today seem as though it’s really fifty years ago. That’s how Malta is. A British environment from decades ago. London actually seemed less British than Malta because it was so much more “Americanized” than Malta. There were Starbucks and Chipotles on every corner; this does not matter to me as I don’t like food products from either of those institutions, but it was still exciting to see something that is so familiar to us at home. We walked into a pharmacy and saw products that we were used to. Here in Malta, a pharmacy is a pharmacy. It’s no CVS with groceries and hair products and make-up. It’s where you go to see a doctor and get medicine and that is it. That other stuff, who even knows where you can buy it here?
Anyway, I’m getting a little off topic here. The point is, London was amazing because looking outside the hostel window or walking down a neighborhood street, I honestly could have thought I was walking through Washington DC (or some other equivalent American city). Like I’ve said before, the biggest and most important parts of a culture are sometimes not so easy to spot. So yeah, the big red phone booths and mailboxes made it obvious that we weren’t in DC (although those are another thing that Malta does have), but those aren’t defining of the culture, making it seem like just another global city.
I think the biggest and most important thing we did while in London, was attend an Evensong worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This was not my favorite activity, and it isn’t even what one generally thinks of when thinking of London (at least not me, because I didn’t even know about it until I read it in a travel book), but it opened up a huge glimpse into what real life is like living in London. Because we all know that local Londoners don’t go to see Big Ben and ride The Eye every day, just like New Yorkers don’t go to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building every day. They’re called tourist attractions for a reason, and while yes, we did see those landmarks because they’re important and characteristic of the area, they alone do not make London what it is.
The Evensong service that we went to was a bit of an accident. We were walking along that side of the city and decided to go see the Cathedral, because it is a landmark and it is gorgeous. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of it, but google it, because it’s beautiful. We walked in, and they were preparing to start the service, and that’s when I remembered having read about it before our trip a few weeks ago. The excerpt, part of which is below, spoke so highly of experiencing one of these services, that we decided to stay. None of us really knew what to expect, and we all had different feelings about it, but we all agreed that it was a cool experience and it was special to be able to witness something to a part of the culture.
“One of my top experiences in Britain is to attend evensong at a great church. During this evening worship, singing or chanting priest leads the service, and a choir- usually made up of both men’s and boy’s voices- sings the responses…You’re in the middle of a spiritual Oz as 40 boys sing psalms- a red-and-white-robed pillow of praise, raised up by the powerful pipe organ. You feel as if you have elephant-size ears, as the beautifully carved choir stalls- functioning as giant sound scoops-magnify the thunderous, trumpeting pipes…Thank God for evensong. Amen.”
– Excerpt from Europe through the Back Door, Rick Steves, 2015
With a recommendation like that, how could we not want to stay for evensong?
The rest of our time in London was spent doing the traditional touristy things. We of course saw Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace (where I didn’t get to meet the Queen, even though it was my birthday), all of which are beautifully ornate and intricately designed. We saw The London Eye, originally the world’s tallest Ferris wheel.
We visited the British Museum, which was absolutely amazing and on par with the American Smithsonian institutions. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time there, but it was easily a place to spend an entire day, if not more. The Rosetta Stone is currently on display there, which was definitely a major attraction.
We stopped by the National Gallery, London’s art museum that houses over 2,300 paintings from some of the world’s most famous artists. As a student who studied art in high school and once dreamed of going to art school after graduating, being able to see original paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and Raphael, among others, was incredible. I really can’t describe what it’s like to look up and see a painting you’ve seen so many times in school and recognize it and realize that is the painting. It is really, really cool.
Other highlights including seeing The Tower of London and Tower Bridge. We saw London Bridge as well, which is famous from the nursery school song, but is really just your average bridge, nothing special about it. Tower Bridge, commonly mistaken as London Bridge, is beautiful and was much more exciting to see. We ate fish and chips and cornish pasties (essentially like a chicken pot pie minus the chicken and wrapped up in pastry) and ate at some local pubs, which London is widely known for.
London also features a lot of free walking tours, which is really cool for travelers on a budget (us). We went on a tour our last night there, and it was about Jack the Ripper. It was pretty cool for a couple of reasons. One obviously being that it was free, and at the end you pay your guide what you feel comfortable giving. It also allowed us to see some parts of London that we otherwise would have passed right over, and we got to hear the history behind those locations as well. The other thing is that, I had absolutely no idea what Jack the Ripper was before this trip. It turns out that he/she was a serial killer in London in the late 1880s who killed anywhere from 5-13+ people, and then all of a sudden, stopped. To this day, Jack the Ripper has become the world’s greatest unsolved murder mystery, because no body knows who he was, why he killed people, or why he stopped. It’s fascinating and our guide did a fantastic job of giving us the historical information in a non-creepy way while making us want to hear more. It was like reading a murder novel, but actually much less intense/scary while retaining the entertaining aspects. I would highly recommend it.
Since we did go to London to celebrate our birthdays, I will mention that part. Honestly, we were all so excited to be somewhere new, we kept forgetting why we were actually there. It didn’t even feel like my birthday because I truly was just too amazed to be in London. Also it was two other people’s birthdays as well, so that was actually kind of weird. But we did celebrate and eat dinner together which was really nice.
Spending the weekend in London was amazing. We saw so many parts of the city and had a lot of fun trying new things. Some of us stayed in a hostel, and others in an Airbnb. I will say that there are pros and cons to both, but I really enjoyed the hostel and I actually miss my bed there. Our place had a bar and Thai restaurant underneath and we could have free coffee/tea/soft drinks/juice any time of day, as well as free breakfast. That’s pretty sweet. Also, it was warm. Yes London itself is cold, but it is possible to go inside and get warmed up. Here in Malta, it is warmer outside than it is inside and it is impossible to be warm because none of the buildings have heat or insulation. So yes, I miss the good ole’ days of being warmer in rainy London than I am in sunny Malta. Weird, right?
I’m really glad I got to go on this trip and see another European island. In fact, since moving to Malta, I’ve only been on islands. Malta, Sicily, England. I can’t get enough I guess. My whole life I’ve never been inclined to go to the usual tourist destinations. Paris, Germany, England, Hawaii, etc. have never been at the top of my list. I am much more intrigued by opportunities to go to places like New Zealand, Peru, Tanzania, India, etc. which is why I sometimes have difficulty being in Malta, when I would like to be somewhere like Haiti. Again, weird. But despite that, London was very cool, and I enjoyed every single moment of it. I would highly recommend it, as it is a major international city. We were also able to very quickly figure out the London Underground (British metro/subway system) and navigate around the city. Also, seeing as we are students on a budget, we found tons of things to do for free.
Simply walking around and seeing all of the major landmarks is very entertaining, and free of cost. All of the following were free to do and I would recommend any of them
- Buckingham Palace
- Big Ben
- Westminster Abbey
- Houses of Parliament
- Hyde Park
- Borough Market
- Tower of London
- Tower Bridge
- British Museum
- National Gallery
- Walking tours
Stay tuned for the next adventure!