An American in London: What I wish I had known

Before June 2021 I had never been to the United Kingdom. If I’m being totally honest until I arrived in London the most information I had about the city I learned from movies, books, and television shows. No, I didn’t think that everyone would be soaring through the air on broomsticks or flying kites in every park, but I thought I had a good idea about how to converse and fit into the city. Turns out I was very wrong. Of course, the media only told me part of a much larger story and I had to fill in the blanks. Here are a few of the things I wish I had known before living in London.

#1- No one cares if you aren’t from London

London is one of the most global cities in the world. People from across the globe come here to start a life. I thought the second I opened my mouth and let my American accent slip, that I would be marked as an outsider. In truth, no one cares where you come from. The people in London are used to meeting people from all walks of life and soon enough I melted into the crowd. On a rarity, you will come across someone who is particularly interested in the United States, but the interactions are usually full of genuine questions and lead to nice conversations.

Although it is seemingly easy to become a Londoner, I would still make an effort to study British culture and politics before your arrival. You want to be able to genuinely converse with people you meet, and you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone.

Family biking in London park. Photo by ‘Time & Leisure.’

#2- Most places don’t have air conditioning

In the United States, no building isn’t air-conditioned. This is so prevalent that I have had conversations before about what temperature I like to set in my house. In London, I could count on one hand how many places I’ve been that have air conditioning. Here it is so uncommon that places with air conditioning will advertise it outside of their establishments. The rain keeps the summer heat down, but during dry days sticky temperatures cover your entire flat.

My best advice is to get used to it and get out of your home. Enjoying the outdoors or finding a nice place you can sit and have a cool drink can help you endure the long, hot days. I found a café with air conditioning that I can take shelter in whenever I need to cool off and leave the stiff air.

#3- London is not obsessed with Harry Potter

As I said, I knew that there weren’t going to be people walking through the streets in Hogwarts robes or attempting to fly on broomsticks. But I did expect there to be more of a homage to the Harry Potter franchise. In the United States, there are battles for who is the biggest Harry Potter fan, and here in Harry’s hometown, I haven’t seen a sign, pun, or store yet that is named for the Harry Potter franchise.

If you are a fan, there are places to visit around the city. For example, Kings Cross Station, No. 12 Grimmauld Place, or Millennium Bridge. However, if you’re looking for a wizarding experience you have to do your research. The best things I have found include a Harry Potter shop in Kings Cross Station with a photo-op at platform 9 ¾, a walking tour to the film sites, or a studio tour of some of the original movie sets in the Warner Bros studios.

Harry Potter studio tour. Photo by ‘Mummy Travels.’

#4- It is better to dress up

London is stylish. This is a city of fast fashion and global influences. Most people will put on a full outfit to go to the store or out for a quick meal. I have to admit, I do occasionally see people wearing leggings or sweatpants, but not in the day-to-day culture seen in the United States. I always err on the side of look cute now, be comfortable later. Jeans are acceptable every day and t-shirts are common, but during the week when many people are traveling to work, you will feel self-conscious in sweats.

In addition, on a night out I have found that it is better to dress up a little. However, heels should not be your first choice of shoe. One word: cobblestones.

#5- Indian food is London cuisine

I was told before leaving for London that I needed to try their classic foods. This included two dishes: fish and chips and bangers and mash. Two very catchy names and, in my experience, very delicious meals. However, I was not told until my arrival that the true authentic London cuisine is Indian food.

During my cab ride from the airport, my driver shared with me “the most important advice I would ever receive:” if someone in London tells you they don’t like Indian food that person cannot be trusted. At the time I thought this was an exaggeration, but it was not. This city is very proud of its Indian food. Of course, there are English influences on the cuisine, but it has evolved into the perfect meal for the classic Londoner. One cannot walk down the street without passing a restaurant with Indian food and once you’ve had it you suddenly become very glad that there is a restaurant so close.

An array of Indian cuisine. Photo by ‘Shaftesbury hotels.’

Any native Londoners reading this are probably shaking their heads by now, laughing at these seemingly obvious London expectations. I laughed to myself writing this as well because I could believe some of the things I didn’t know before I experienced them first-hand. Again, the best advice I can give for anyone thinking of traveling to London is: do it. You will not regret becoming one with this beautiful city and while these are a few things that I have learned, there are many more waiting to be discovered.