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Returning to London: Visiting my “Favorite City” 6 Years Later

People ask me about my favorite country a lot, and it’s a ridiculously hard question to answer. I love so many place that I’ve been; it’s impossible to choose one. I usually end up mumbling some random combination of Italy, Colombia, Vietnam and Mexico. Oh and maybe Bosnia. I have eclectic tastes.

When I’m asked about my favorite city however, it’s a no brainer. I love London.

London is kind of like my first love. I studied abroad there and discovered my passion for travel while wandering its many neighborhoods. Then I moved there after graduation and spent a brilliant season working, partying and discovering every nook and cranny of the city. Each subsequent visit was a little more meaningful as I explored new sides of the city. I’m firmly convinced I could live in London and never ever get bored of its history, culture and diversity.

And yet.

Our visit in May was the first time I’d been back to London since 2009. Five and a half years. Why did I stay away so long? No reason exactly. I was just busy exploring other parts of the world, and never had a good excuse to go. In that span of time I’ve probably been to three dozen countries and fallen in and out of love with dozens of cities. I met my husband and married him. I settled down on the other side of the world. I was busy living, and London just wasn’t in the plan.

So obviously, coming back after so long was very strange. I am a completely different person now, and my last visit to London was so long ago. Would things still be the same?

Me in London in 2009. Don’t know why I was posing in front of cars.

To further up the stakes, I was visiting with Mike, who had NEVER been to London. For years he has listened to me wax poetic about the place. How could it possibly live up to the hype? How could I make Mike understand my passion, with such little time to work with?

So do I still love London?

As it turns out, London has changed a little, and I have changed a lot, but it’s overall still the same hectic big city with hidden depths I’ve always loved. A few more bikes in the street now, a lot more cell phones on the tube, but in a city that is over 2000 years old, 5 years is basically no time at all.

It was trying to illustrate the magnificence of London to someone else that proved hard. We were in London for almost a full week, but Mike had to work for a big chunk of that, so I very limited time to show him one of the biggest cities in the world.

Luckily he was game, and curious to see my city. We walked until our feet went numb. We lay in Regent’s Park, perused Spitalfields Market and gawked at Big Ben like good tourists should. We rambled along the South Bank, drank at a thousand year old pub with old friends and visited my favorite budget pizza place near UCL. We did an awful lot in just a few days, and bless Mike, he barely complained at all as I dragged him back and forth across town.

“Please hurry, this phone booth smells like pee”

It was a great introduction but it was also shallow. It was a tourists highlights tour, and it failed to capture the intricacy and depth of this city that I know so well. It takes time to do that, time and intimacy and endless casual days to explore and create memories. Short of a brain transplant, there was just no way to show Mike my London exactly, which was deeply frustrating.

And although London was essentially the same place, I had definitely changed too. In my early twenties, I loved London in a passionate, desperate kind of way. It was the city I wanted, but couldn’t have. London has always had symbolic meaning for me: it was the place where I first fell in love with travel, where I cultivated my own independence and spirit.

Now, at age 30, my love for London has mellowed and matured. I still love it, but now I love it more like an old friend that I can always rely on. We go about our own lives, we change and grow apart, but as soon as you get us in the same place, that old magic still twinkles. We will never run out of things to talk about, London and I.

In any case, this trip did answer one niggling question in the back of my mind. While I certainly wouldn’t pass up the chance to live in London, I’m no longer desperate to get there. London hasn’t so much been demoted as it has joined a pantheon of other places I’ve grown to know and love. Hong Kong for example, and Barcelona, and San Francisco. And of course the place I actually live now, Seattle.

Things have changed in so many ways in the past 5 years, but one is most significant:

For once, I’m actually happy with where I am.

13 Responses to Returning to London: Visiting my “Favorite City” 6 Years Later

  1. lindsey August 19, 2015 at 8:13 AM #

    Thanks for the thoughtful, insightful article. A lovely read

  2. Katrina Elisabet August 19, 2015 at 8:32 AM #

    I love your closing sentence. I’m still in the throes of an infatuation with London, having only been there for a total of 48 hours on a seriously last-minute trip in 2014. I’m returning again in two weeks for another last-minute trip (only just booked last night!), and I’m curious to see if this trip will continue to whet my appetite or help ease my hunger. At any rate, I’m starting to also be happy with where I live, though I never lived abroad, and to appreciate being in the here and now moments of life on the U.S. East Coast instead of always wishing to be somewhere else.

  3. @gottatravelbug August 19, 2015 at 12:39 PM #

    You went to UCL? I just graduated from there! I’ll have to go back and read your old posts! Surely the budget pizza place was ICCO’s?

    • Steph August 19, 2015 at 1:21 PM #

      I did a semester abroad there- loved it! And yes you are 100% correct about ICCO’s. Loe htat place.

  4. Kristin August 19, 2015 at 12:50 PM #

    Aww I absolutely love this post. You really are a gifted writer, and conveyed beautifully the idea of a memory and a place as a capturing a moment in time, one that can’t be repeated– but that’s not necessarily a bad thing– totally agree. I loved hearing your closing thoughts– you articulated this so perfectly.

    • Steph August 19, 2015 at 1:21 PM #

      Thank you Kristin! Glad it resonated.

  5. Katie August 19, 2015 at 1:59 PM #

    I will always love London, it was my home for 6 years, but I was definitely ready to move on when I did. Knowing I can always go back there definitely helps. My infatuation city is Vancouver and after being desperately in love with it for years and so sad that I couldn’t live there, after spending time there this summer I feel like the infatuation has lessened. I still want to live there again one day but I will be OK if it doesn’t happen. I am looking forward to moving back to New Zealand instead

  6. Jane M August 19, 2015 at 6:40 PM #

    I lived in London for almost 10 years and for the first few years I did love it. By 2006, when we finally escaped, I was so relieved to leave. It’s a hard and exhausting city to live in and the lack of sunshine nearly broke me. London has changed dramatically since then (so I’ve heard – I’ve never been back). Some of my London friends report positive changes, like the upswing in people partaking in healthy activities and a food scene that has blossomed. Others are complaining that the old London of underground clubs and independent business is getting wiped out by corporate development.

    I’m sure both are true in equal measure and it’s this dramatic change which finally has me itching to go back.

    Thanks for the hint as to what it might be like to return after all these years.

    Jane

  7. Martin W August 20, 2015 at 8:22 AM #

    This is a very serendipitous article. I am going back to Sevilla for a few nights next month. The last time I was there, I was 20 and I was studying abroad. Now, at 30, I am excited to see how it has changed, how I have changed, and experience the city and region with a different perspective. After, I will look forward to visiting again at 40!

    • Steph August 20, 2015 at 12:29 PM #

      It’s definitely a bittersweet experience i think.

  8. Amanda Williams August 20, 2015 at 1:39 PM #

    Very nicely written! And I know what you mean – I still love London to death, but I’m not as desperate to live there and be there as I was after my first couple of visits.

    Though, Wellington is to me what London is to you. It’s the city where I studied abroad and really fell in love with travel. And Wellington still makes me feel all those things whenever I’m there – I’m still a little bit desperate to live there someday!

  9. LisaLDN August 20, 2015 at 11:36 PM #

    I studied abroad in London as well, and it has always been my favourite city! I miss it loads now, and am considering moving back after I finish my Masters Degree! This was a great post 🙂

  10. Dave Jones August 29, 2015 at 12:22 AM #

    Really great post. The way you explain how London has grown as an old friend you can rely on was pretty cool. Thanks for sharing.

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