Last Easter holidays I headed down to London for an interview. Knowing that a) it was an expensive trip and b) how difficult it is to get any job right now, let alone your dream job, I decided to make the most of what may have turned out to be a wasted journey.
So, on the recommendation of a uni friend, I headed down to a YHA hostel early the day before and set about exploring the city. Though I’ve seen a few shows and visited a few friends in recent years, I haven’t been to London proper since I was a child. This was days before Kate and William’s wedding so the whole place was absolutely buzzing with people, merchandise and the best feeling I can ever remember in what is normally quite an unfriendly city. There were tourists everywhere. I might be British, but London is miles away from my home city (Birmingham) or the tiny village where I currently live (rural west Wales) – London is as foreign to me as it was to the scores of Americans pounding the streets that day. And if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.
London vs Wales
Perhaps as a native I should have been practising slightly more ‘refined’ tourism and hunting out the ‘hidden gems’ of the city or whatever else it is guidebooks encourage you to do, but the appeal of the well-known icons is universal. Within minutes I found myself outside Westminster, taking a million terrible pictures of Big Ben alongside every other tourist.
A few hours later, I was at the back of the longest line I’d seen all day, the giant wheel rotating slowly before me: the London Eye.
London Eye at Sunset
It’s billed as overrated and expensive, but I had an amazing time trying (and failing) to take decent photos of the skyline through the dirty, curved glass and the haze of smog hovering over the Thames. I headed back to my hostel an hour or so later, Oyster card and hidden-gem-of-a-restaurant’s-£5-buffet-box in hand to complete the ‘traveller over tourist’ requirement of my trip.
Inside the Capsule
Even though I was exploring a city endlessly familiar to me through programmes, friends and regular visits, it was those iconic images of London that really excited and inspired me. I stopped in the middle of the pavement with my mouth gaping open to stare up at Big Ben, locals tutting and pushing and shoving their way around me. I laughed and clapped along and threw money in hats watching mimes on South Bank. I sat through the 3D video about the London Eye and had a cheesey photo taken against a green screen backdrop which was converted into a cartoonised view of the city while I was going round in the Eye.
Westminster through the Fog
I read so much about how we should always be ‘travellers’ and not ‘tourists’, how the most famous landmarks are often overrated and how indulging in them is essentially uncultured and prevents you from experiencing the real place. But you know what? In the middle of my own country, I was nothing more than a typical tourist – and I absolutely loved every second of it.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think we should shy away from the big things just because there are so many other tourists doing them. Yes, there are a million other wonderful places in Paris, and perhaps there is an amazing view from the top of some little-known public building in a residential street, but isn’t it the Eiffel Tower you always dreamed about climbing up when you were a kid? One day, perhaps I will be lucky enough to visit New York and while I will do my best to explore the parts of the city left out of the guidebooks, I know it will be standing in Times Square or taking pictures of the Statue of Liberty that will really make me feel like I’ve made it. Icons are icons for a reason – without the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, perhaps tourism to other regions would never have begun at all. So next time you’re travelling in a world-famous city, just remember: it’s OK to indulge your inner tourist once in a while. Go ahead and take that picture of you holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. It is, after all, probably the reason you began.
(And, just in case you were wondering, I got the job.)