Australian comedian Zoë Coombs Marr offers her advice for Antipodeans in the capital.
Also in this series: Tips For Americans In London - From An American In London
So. You're an Australian in London. How did you get here? Buy your way off the farm with a stolen ha'penny? Bribe a travelling mutton trader, disguise yourself as a sheep and stow away on his ship? Or did you take the nonstop Qantas flight from Perth? (it's pretty good huh?). However it happened, you've escaped the colony and now you're in London! And you need tips, innit? Happy to help, guv'nah (as a Londoner may or may not say). I've been coming here for yonks and I love it. From one Australian to another, here's how to do London right.
1. First things first... Are you alright?
Alright? Now that you're in the motherland, get ready to be constantly asked if you are alright. Now, in Australia, if someone asks 'are you alright?' it means one of two things:
- "I am sincerely concerned about your wellbeing" (in this scenario, you are either having a breakdown or there is blood gushing from your head).
- "Do you want to fight mate?!" aka "what the hell are you looking at?!" aka if there is no blood gushing from your head, there soon might be...
Londoners do not know this. They mean no harm. To them, "are you alright?" is a standard greeting. I know I know. It's confusing. You are just meant to smile, nod and reply: "alright". Imagine they have just asked "how you goin'?"… you answer "yeah, alright". See? Easy. Except I have been coming here for ever and I still haven't got the hang of it.
2. Visit Highgate Cemetery — filled with celebrity corpses
There are a billion touristy things to do in London. My top tip: go to Highgate Cemetery. If you don't know Highgate, it's a big old famous cemetery on gorgeous grounds, filled with notable celebrity corpses. Beautiful and star studded, like a very grim film premiere.
The grounds are divided into the East and West sections. The East cemetery is the newer section and you can wander through as you like, visiting Karl Marx and adding to the bouquet of biros for Douglas Adams. Our own Sidney Nolan is even there. The West section is the older and THE BEST of the two. When we visited, you could only go on a guided tour, because the grounds are so wonky they were worried you might fall into a grave. Apparently that has since changed — either they've fixed the paths or they simply don’t care about you falling in anymore, I don't know. Either way, you can wander at your leisure. BUT I highly recommend the tour. They're run by the most delightful volunteers (ours was a retired history teacher) and they get to write their own itineraries, so you're getting the favourite stories of a true enthusiast. This is honestly one of the best things I have ever done in London. Book ahead! GO!
3. Ditch the avocados... embrace the fried bread
Australians are obsessed with breakfast. Guess what, so are the English! I mean… it's a full english. They’re done a little different here — heavier on the beans and potatoes, less emphasis on avocado. But basically, it's the same. (By the way, lower your expectation for avocados in London. They taste like nothing here, but that's not their fault. They've come a long way and they are very tired.)
I suggest leaning into the full greasy spoon experience (fried bread and all) at E Pellicci in Bethnal Green. I hear there are often long queues now, but where else are you going to find an art deco family run Italian-cockney café that's been operating since 1900 and where the servers have the same faces as the black and white photos on the wall because they are their grandparents. Nowhere, that's where.
4. Don't kill yourself seeking out good coffee
Travelling Australians are absolutely insufferable when it comes to coffee. "Where's the good coffee?" we anxiously whisper to each other every time we set foot outside of Oz. Coffee in Australia is excellent — due to Italian immigrants who imported espresso, created a ludicrously high standard across the Antipodean continent, and now tattooed hipster baristas are our number one export, thus completing the circle of life.
I used to be an insufferable coffee fiend. Constantly stressed. Never satisfied. Searching out a "good" cup of coffee. And yes, you can find them. Sometimes. But after years of stress — as a constant traveller on a Sisyphean caffeine quest — I simply decided to... stop caring. Yep. It worked. I lowered my standards entirely. I accept whatever slop comes my way. And my life has VASTLY IMPROVED. No one wants to hear an Australian whinging about their flat white. Enjoy your holiday. Free yourself from the tyranny of standards, let it go, relax, and smell the slop.
5. Keep left! No... right! No... left?! Oh god...
I will keep this short. Aussies drive on the left. Brits drive on the left. Easy. When walking, Aussies keep to the left — acting the same as a car. Same rules. Easy. Brits… keep to the right?!! WHY?! I do not know. This applies 100% of the time in train/tube stations… and from what I can gather… some? of the time out in the open. All I can say is — if you're on an escalator, keep to the goddamn right, or else you will get some very angry "sorrys" which do NOT mean sorry.
Bonus fact: British people are polite. They are polite when they are being polite and they are polite when they are being rude. Confusing! Unlike Australians, who are fun-rude when we're being polite, and mean-rude when we're being rude, which of course is confusing and means everyone will think you are just rude-rude. This is OK. It doesn't really mean much. Once I saw an English man drop a coin and then apologise to it. And it's that kind of cultural experience that we travel for folks.
6. Soho's great... so's everywhere else really
When I first started coming to London I was working and living in Soho. This was a fun but ridiculous existence. No-one lives in Soho. OK, there might be, like, a cocaine dealer who lives above a bar or a banker who's forgotten to go home or something. But as a comedian, living in Soho feels like the equivalent of eating lunch at your desk. (And I was staying in an apartment that shared an air vent with a Subway sandwich shop, so it kind of smelled the same too.)
Don't get me wrong, I love central London. (All the touristy stuff is in there. Do it! See it! Go see a musical! Heaven! Where else can you have a wine in a sooty cave that smells of a cheese fart but Gordon's Wine Bar! Fave! Pretend you’re rich at Liberty! Yes Ma'am!). You will still find me slouching around Dean Street, catching a show/propping up the bar at Soho Theatre, or having a delicious meal at Ducksoup. I even had a Groucho Club membership for one season. And there is nothing like people watching in the theatre district. I once watched two old school grifters who looked like twin vampires work their way around The French House, getting free drinks out of their victims while selling some kind of book/movie deal combo that clearly didn't exist. I hope they're doing well.
But it wasn't until maybe my third visit that I actually got out of the centre. This seems like very basic advice, but evidently I needed it, so maybe someone else does. Get thee to Hackney, Bethnal Green, Dalston, and all that. Spend some time in Brixton! Beyond the tourist centres, London is full of cute streets and shops and cafes. There is delicious food from every corner of the colonised globe*. There are tiny pubs and great people and lovely parks. Go enjoy them.
*(Pro tip: do not bother with Thai or Vietnamese food here — we have it too good in Australia and you will only be disappointed — but DO make the most of the best curries and Caribbean food while you can. So so good.)
7. A lovely walk to try
Now that you’re out of the centre, let's go for a walk. London is a great walking city, and I love a stroll. There's a big diagonal line that I often find myself walking, which goes:
- Up from Arnold Circus (where you can visit Rochelle Canteen or Leila's Shop)
- Along Columbia Road (Time it with the flower market if you can. Grab an oyster from the oyster guy. Have a bloody mary and a Sunday roast at the Royal Oak!)
- Through Haggerston Park (there's a mini farm/petting zoo there)
- To Broadway Market (get the fried plantains!)
- And then end up at London Fields (beer at Pub on the Park? Do it!)
You can split this up over a couple of days, or come back for particular markets or whatever, but I always end up visiting at some point. And yes I know the markets are a bit touristy, but we are tourists, aren't we?
Otherwise go to Hampstead Heath — people will tell you to swim in the ponds but it has always seemed pretty gross to me. And I grew up on a farm. I've swum in plenty of ponds, so I'll sit this one out and then see you at the adorable Holly Bush. The cutest little pub.
(You've probably worked out that I like pubs. London is chocka with excellent pubs. All year round (so adorable at Christmas — they all have Christmas trees! Especially this one), so get into it. And get the Sunday roast. I am a disgusting vegan and even I'm catered for.)
If you're up Clapton way you can also take a great walk down the River Lees, through Hackney Marshes, and stop at a pub along the way like The Princess of Wales. Down a pint while watching a family of swans glide by. Adorable.
Or wander along the canal in Haggerston to the Towpath Café.