How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

“So where are you from?” asks the girl chopping up onions beside me. We’ve been preparing food in the companionable semi-silence of a small hostel kitchen for a good few minutes: it’s time to have the obligatory initial travellers conversation.

“Oh, I’m from London, in England. How about you?” I reply – and the girl’s curiosity is piqued. “Wow, that’s amazing!” she says. “Are you really from London? I love it there…”

Why is London such a popular place to travel to?

Growing up, I never really understood the significance of living in England’s capital city. Between school, part time jobs and a typical teenage lifestyle, I didn’t explore London much – and from the moment I turned eighteen and left school, I was constantly hungering for places farther afield. All those foreign cities and countries that I could head off to and explore were much more exciting than the dreary familiar streets of my home.

But the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve realised that London is almost universally viewed as a kind of travellers’ mecca. When I’m abroad, most foreigners I meet will either eagerly offer up stories from when they visited, or tell me wistfully that they want to. Walking through central London is like a global microcosm: people of every ethnicity speaking dozens of languages, all united in taking breathless photos of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, and every single red phone box possible.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

For a born Londoner though, these places are supremely uninteresting. I’ve walked, driven, cycled and stumbled past all of the tourist-worthy sights in London so many hundreds of times that they blend into the background along with the black cabs and the grey pigeons. The streets of South East London, where I lived for eighteen years growing up, are overtly familiar – and less than a month after I came back to London I already felt stagnant, aching for new and unexplored places.

Not travelling anymore means that new sights, sounds and experiences aren’t laid out in front of you. Instead, you have to hunt for them. So what do you do when things get too familiar? Change your situation.

A first-time move across the river 

Soon after I got back from South America, a friend living in East London mentioned that her flatmate was moving out. I jumped at the chance. A few weeks later, I packed up my stuff and crossed over the Thames so I could start a new chapter of my life in an area of my city that I’d barely seen before.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

For those of you unfamiliar with East London’s reputation, here’s a brief intro. It’s a place filled with quintessential hipsters – think beards, braces, skinny jeans, oversized spectacles and tiny dogs. It has a penchant for quirky little cafes serving Monmouth coffee, open face sandwiches and imaginatively iced cronuts.

The streets are filled with cyclists, graphic designers, and people wearing asymmetrical clothing who may or may not attend fashion school. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon warehouse parties and pub lock-ins of an evening.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

There are also more than a hundred different languages to be heard on the streets of East London. The borough of Hackney plays host to communities of Ghanaians, Bangladeshis, Kurds, Poles and Nigerians. It’s an area where Turkish barbers open up their businesses opposite Mexican taquerias, and where Hasidic Jewish families walk along streets that hide raucous Colombian indoor markets.

It’s where signs for Turkish social clubs hang above front doors sandwiched beside Spanish delicatessens, and where the smell of salted and dried fish heads mix with the pungent tang of freshly chopped mango.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

My senses were heightened as soon as I arrived. Gone was the autopilot that I’d unhappily thought I had to succumb to; instead, I was able to see this new and unfamiliar area of London through my travelling eyes.

Realising that just because I’m grounded to one city for the time being doesn’t mean that I can’t explore the different cultures that are already established here too.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

Finding the world in London

Luckily, it’s not just me who’s intent on travelling as much as possible without actually leaving London. Ed Hewitt, a fellow Londoner, has created an app called ‘World in London’ which offers people the chance to explore London specifically through cultural experiences from a myriad of different nationalities.

Think along the lines of a Japanese sushi making class, or a night of storytelling from a Sierra Leonian musician and speaker – or if that doesn’t tempt, there’s the chance to  learn about Georgian wine, bathe in a Russian banya or tour an Iranian mosque and enjoy a 3 course Iranian meal plus a bit of shisha smoke.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

Ed’s also offering walking and tasting tours around London, and in just a few hours of wandering I ended up learning a ton of hidden information about my new neighborhood.

There’s the unassuming looking church that used to be used by a Nazi reverend for blackshirts meetings; the hipster-friendly Dalston Eastern Curve café which sits on the site of a Turkish bath from the Victorian era; the Hackney Peace Mural that Ray Walker died before finishing in the 1970s, so his wife finished it instead.

There was also a large amount of Turkish gozleme that we bought from a food truck parked at the entrance to Ridley Road market, and snacked upon as we walked.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

But my favourite stop by far was an old department store building in Seven Sisters. Completely inconspicuous from the outside, until I walk through the doors and discovered an indoor market that is the closest I’ve come to Colombia since I left in July.

A bit of Colombia in London

We pushed through jostling groups of Latinos as they gossiped outside hair salons, music shops, cafes and clothes stalls. I could hear bachata and salsa rhythms coming from black speakers hanging perilously above our heads and widescreen TVs propped up on fridges, showing scantily clad women in music videos.

It felt wonderfully familiar: the do-it-yourself, cobbled together attitude that reminds me so much of South America.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

The strange part is that it felt so familiar to be speaking Spanish with Colombianos, ordering plates of chicharron and choosing between glasses of lulo, mora or guanabana juice – but then I had to check myself, and remember that I was in the middle of London with a group of wide eyed, non-Spanish-speaking London dwellers. They all said I looked ridiculously happy, and I was.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

Why is East London so travel-inspiring to me? 

I’ve always been a Londoner, but this part of my identity is resonating a lot more now that I’m living in the city for the long-term again. Discovering London feels different to arriving in another foreign city for the first time: here is a place that I simultaneously know explicitly and don’t know at all. I’m not just here for a few days, or a couple of months, either. London is home, and always will be in some sense, even if I spend the next two years here and then head out again.

It’s a shame that I’ve never looked at South London in the same way – but maybe I was never really aware of how diverse the area I grew up in was. It didn’t impact on my daily life as a child because travelling and the curiosity I had for different cultures hadn’t quite caught up with me then. But that’s OK: that part of the city is still there, whenever I choose to discover it again. For now, it’s all about the East, wandering through streets I’ve never seen before, and paying many more visits to Seven Sisters market to brush up on my Spanish.

And I’ve already booked myself an appointment at the Turkish hamam on Stoke Newington Road.

How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

Have you ever experienced other cultures in your own city? How do you stay travelling when you’ve gone back home? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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26 Responses to How to Travel the World (Without Leaving London)

  1. John December 8, 2014 at 12:27 am #

    You have made me homesick for a city I left 7 years ago, great post!

    I too am originally from the south east and as much as I liked growing up in Beckenham, it was only once we moved to East London that it felt as right.

    East London is crazy. So much seemingly happens all of the time, the people, the noise, the smells. It really is like travelling overseas, but without having to understand an unknown currency or transport system.

    Thanks!

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

      Glad you agree with the East London love, John!

  2. Andrea Anastasiou December 8, 2014 at 6:13 am #

    Although I’m not from London, I bloody love that city. When I lived in the UK I used to travel there at any given opportunity to soak it all up. Despite all my travels, I still maintain that it’s my favourite city in the whole wide world…

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

      It’s definitely on my favourites list too, Andrea 🙂

  3. Ed December 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Nice article Flora. I’m Ed the founder of World in London. You can do the same tour as Flora and loads more besides by pledging to our crowdfunding project. Check it out at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/worldinlondon

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      Thanks for sharing the Crowdfunder link Ed – and glad you enjoyed the piece as much as I enjoyed your tour :p

  4. Brenna December 8, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    I love this article, Flora! As you know I am a huge fan of East London – I hope I can always have a home here somehow. Also nice to see Ed and my old flatmate Richard pictured 😉

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      I didn’t know you used to live with Richard! Such a small world 😉

  5. Vid December 8, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    Nicely written 🙂 We live in London and although we used to frequent the area around Spitalfields ever so often, it has become really crowded now. We now frequent Dalston which is also beginning to pick up as a popular area for locals and tourists alike. I hope it doesn’t go the same route as Brick Lane.

    Cheers !

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

      Yep, I really hope East London keeps at least a bit of its diversity – although I do absolutely love Brick Lane still..

  6. Kara December 8, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    I feel almost exactly the same about my hometown, New York City! I am not going to be there long-term anytime soon but I hope to follow in your footsteps by exploring the cultural diversity that exists in my city as well.

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

      You definitely should, Kara – and let me know how it goes!

  7. Béatrice December 9, 2014 at 1:58 am #

    Great post Flora! A well written and enjoyable read! After living 5 years in Singapore I now live in NYC and I feel the same about the excitement and cultural diversity here. I am inspired to discover more culture like you are doing in London. I can certainly find Singaporean and Malaysian food, Little Koreatown and of course plenty of Latino culture. I am inspired by your positive outlook!

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it Beatrice 🙂 It’s definitely about searching out a different way to learn the city you’re in, I think. I’d love to hear about the global travelling you get up to in Singapore!

  8. Laura December 9, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    Such a lovely post about an awesome city! I was nodding along – London is definitely a travelers Mecca – I have only visited once but it took my heart. It’s easy to get jaded about where you’re from – I used to feel that way about New York, but now I love getting back there and exploring a new area that I don’t know yet.

    • Flora December 9, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

      Ahh great to hear you’re a bit more excited about going back to NYC now, Laura 🙂

  9. Kate December 9, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    You’ve made me quite homesick, in a good way. I lived in London while doing an MA and just moved from there to San Francisco, so it is an exciting time, but I still feel quite a bit of nostalgia for my time in London. I loved London’s diversity as well. It really did feel like I could see the world there! I went to the African market at Old Spitalfields, heard Turkish music at Union Chapel, attended Matsuri at Trafalgar Square… I could go on and on. There is just so much to enjoy throughout London’s various neighbourhoods. If you are ever keen to hear good, international, free music, do check out SOAS’s concert series. They bring in musicians from all over (Congo, Bali, Jamaica, Colombia, Spain…) for concerts several times a year. This year’s list is here: https://www.soas.ac.uk/music/events/concerts/

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

      Great tip about the concerts at SOAS, Kate – I’ll definitely check them out! I’m afraid it’s often a case of the grass being greener though, particularly if you’ve just moved to San Francisco. I love that city too much :p

  10. Christine | The Traveloguer December 11, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    My sister had moved to East London and found that Columbian place straight away, she was loving speaking Spanish and pretending she was back in South America too!
    I can’t wait to visit her in the New Year.
    I recently moved back to Dublin after three years of travel and I find that I am seeing the city through traveller-eyes. I’m making up for my lack of travel by exploring parts of the city I didn’t spend much time in before. 🙂

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

      I hope you keep hold of those traveller eyes as long as possible, Christine – it definitely helps 🙂

  11. Fabiana January 6, 2015 at 1:46 am #

    I can’t blieve i still haven’t visited London after all of thse years of traveling. But I’m certainly going to, it is one of my dream destinations.

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

      Here’s hoping you make it to London in 2015, Fabiana!

  12. ysuser2014 June 25, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    It is helpful for students

    • Flora July 1, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

      Great – glad to hear you’ve found it useful!

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