Exploring the UK: Edinburgh.

Edinburgh – the city in the North of the UK. With 493,000 inhabitants it is the second largest city in Scotland (number 7 in the UK, apparently). The city is famous for bagpipes & kilts, the castle, the sheep Dolly (the world’s first cloned mammal) and being the birthplace of Harry Potter (the books’, not the boy’). And it seemed to be a very popular travel destination in 2017. A few years ago, during the time when I was living and studying in the UK, a few friends and I decided to take a trip up North to take a closer look at the city ourselves.

The city

Edinburgh is located in the Northeast of the UK, but actually more or less in the South of Scotland, and lies on the Southern shores of the Firth of Forth. The Old and New Town of Edinburgh are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) has a rich history, and you’ll be able to find numerous books and papers on this topic. The city’s history began thousands of years ago (around 8,500 BC), and – as it was the case with so many other bigger cities – during the Middle Ages, a hill fort was established and became a royal residence for the Kings of Scotland. Since the 15th century, Edinburgh has been known as the capital of Scotland and used to be the biggest city in the area until it was outgrown by Glasgow at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1707 Scotland was united with the English Crown and from that on it had the same sovereign, flag, and parliament as England. At the end of the 20th century, a referendum lead to the creation of a Scottish Parliament with its seat in Edinburgh.

The sights & stories

I’ve mentioned this before in other city trips, but a great way of getting to know a city and its history and stories is by taking part in a (free) walking tour. This might also be a good way of getting to know other people, and the local tour guide will give you great tips on what to do and where to eat. So we joined a free walking tour and lucky us, the weather was quite alright even though it was January and thus mid-winter. Only a bit rainy at times, but not too cold, and the sun was out from time to time.

We spent some time on the Royal Mile, which is the main street of the Old Town, saw the typical tourist spots like the City Chambers & Royal Exchange, St Giles Cathedral, the Scotts Monument, and so on. The most memorable points & stories of our walking tour were definitely Greyfriars Kirkyard and Elephant House (and a story about the Stone of Destiny).

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As mentioned before, the city is the birthplace of Harry Potter as it is the hometown of J.K.Rowling. There is one café, the Elephant House, where the author spent many hours there to write the first book of the magnificent story of the boy who lived. In this café, one has an excellent view over a cemetery and other great buildings, and if you visit the graveyard you’ll be able to spot many names that were used in the books, such as McGonagall, (Mad-Eye) Moodie, Riddle etc. According to our guide, other buildings of the town were also a great inspiration for her, the nearby school with its four towers is one example which she apparently used as a basis for the school of wizardry and witchcraft.

Despite all the fame the cafe receives, it does not sell any kind of merchandise and there is no Harry Potter theme in there (or at least there wasn’t any back then when I was visiting). So it’s rather a normal café with just many elephants in there (which is not so ‘normal’ I guess). The only probably not regular thing for a café in there was that every table had a drawer in which you’d find pencils and pieces of paper so you could start your own novel there. Many people had left notes, poems, or short stories in those drawers and we joined them with our own piece of paper.

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The graveyard near the café, Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Rowling got her name inspiration, is also associated with the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. He was a very special Skye Terrier, very loyal to his master as he stood guard over his grave for 13 years in the 19th century. Now, the little dog has his own headstone at the entrance of the cemetery, which marks the actual burial place, and a statue of the dog stands opposite of the graveyard’s gate plus a pub with his name. Cool, huh? The dog statue has a golden snout, and rubbing it brings luck apparently. It so happened that on the day that we were visiting the graveyard, it was the dying day of the dog, and a school group, bagpipe players, the mayor of Edinburgh, and other people were there to celebrate the whole thing.

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A visit to the Edinburgh Castle is a definite must if you ever visit this city. The castle thrones over the city, and from up there one has a great view over the city and the nearby sea.

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The bottom line

We stayed a total of three nights and four days in the city, and we took a very cheap bus from Sheffield to Edinburgh. Despite it being a rather exhausting trip (6 hours one way) I’d recommend checking the busses and coaches in the UK if you ever wanna travel there and can’t catch a direct flight to the city. We stayed in a cheap hostel in the centre of the city right next to the Royal Mile. The hostel was nothing special, but it wasn’t bad either. We were really lucky with our room, and as we were spending most of the time outdoors exploring the city anyways, our accommodation didn’t really matter to us (plus, we were all students so we didn’t want to spend too much on it).

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The capital of Scotland is very very beautiful and I immediately fell in love with it. The mix of the gloominess of the winter season and the architecture of the city was what I liked best. I just loved the dark facades of some buildings and the feeling there in general. I definitely want to come back to Scotland to see more of the surroundings, especially the highlands, and I want to revisit Edinburgh. There are a few places in town that I would not go to a second time or activities that I wouldn’t do again (like going inside the castle… a bit too boring for my taste). But back then when I was an undergrad student, my way of travelling and exploring a city was so different to the way I’m travelling now, so I guess I’d be seeing the city from another point of view :D

London: Street Art Tour.

The London’s East End is known for several things: EastEnders, gangland and Jack the Ripper. But is also famous for its eclectic street art collection. Some of the most famous street artists have shown their creativity there, and new pieces of graffiti art are continuously added or exchanged. Despite becoming a tourist attraction, the East End has not lost its charm, and spending a day in this area is a must when staying in London for a few days.

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Christiaan Nagel’s mushrooms are all over the city

The development of an interesting district in London

The East End is a district of Central and East London, an area stretching from the medieval walls of the City of London to the northern bank of the Thames with no universally accepted boundaries. Home of the Cockney-culture, known for Jack the Ripper, the gangland, and gang wars, immigrants from Russia, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and other former parts of the Empire found their first homes there. The East End’s empty buildings and affordable rent quickly started to attract artists and free spirits.

The usual followed: nice cafés, hip bars, and weird shops, transforming the area into a hip, trendy part of London. This, in turn, is a magnet for others; bankers started showing their interest in the area, diggers and bulldozers are making way for upmarket apartments and office buildings, further driving up the rent. The East End is an alternative and trendy area, one of the most vibrant and exciting ones in London, full of history, interesting and weird stories, and beautiful street art.

 

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Check out the local street art with a free walking tour!

However, there are many talented artists than just Banksy, and a tour through the London East End precisely showed us that. We signed up for one of the free graffiti and street art tours that are held daily (twice I think) where you tip the tour guide at the end if you liked it. Our tour guide was a graffiti artist himself, so he was able to tell us a lot about the different techniques and styles, the development of the art, and the political or legal issues that come with graffiti and street art, and many other things. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture all the artists’ names that we saw (way too many names with all their stories to remember within such a short amount of time) but I tried to remember some of them or look them up afterwards.

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Artist on the left: Ricky Also; Artist on the right: amarpordios

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Artist: Tom Blackford

 

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Street art or not street art?

Though often used interchangeably, Graffiti and Street Art are not the same, yet it is hard to distinguish them as they are closely related art movements. Both types of work are displayed in public and not in a gallery. Graffiti predates street art, dating back to Ancient Egypt, Greek, and the Roman Empire, ranging from simple writings or more elaborate paintings on the wall. It is word-based, mostly self-taught, a type of self-expression expressed in inner-city neighbourhoods. Graffiti ‘tags’ are personal brandings by the artists. This art form is (mostly) illegal which gives it its edge. There are several forms of graffiti, such as gang, tagger, conventional, or ideological graffiti.

Street art, on the other hand, is sometimes done by people who received formal training, is image-based with the streets as their canvas, and sometimes with an overarching message for the public. Usually, street art is commissioned or painted with a permission. Then there is also Graffiti Art, which apparently combines the two. Street art used to be viewed as ‘graffiti’s friendlier but equally filthy younger sibling’ (according to the Guardian). Artists such as Banksy made street art universally known and appreciated or admired by many, making it a form of (mainstream) art that is now the desired choice for edgy investment.

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On the wall – artist: Invader; the white car installation: D’face

A local community project

What was really cool was that not only did our tour guide tell us things about street art, but also things about the area that we were in and he lead us to the Nomadic Community Garden that was full of art pieces. It is always great to see a colourful, wild garden within a busy metropole such as London. This community garden is part of a project that offers partnerships between landowners (mostly companies) and the local community, as spaces left uncultivated due to factors such as waiting period for building permissions are used in the meantime for community projects such as urban gardening thus enhancing the area and promoting healthy living.

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The ones that impressed me the most and that I just liked a lot were definitely Shok-1, who spraypaints very unique X-rays, and Airborne Mark with his origami art:

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So if you admire street art and are interested in seeing some in London, why not go on a tour? Or if you are not interested in a guided one, you can just stroll around and look for art yourself.

 

UK travel adventure: Brighton.

In May I spent a wonderful weekend in the UK, mainly in London. However, I have been in England’s capital a few times before, and nostalgia lead me back to another beautiful place that I have visited before: Brighton.

Brighton is located on the south coast of England in East Sussex and has a population of around 285,000 people. It is very easy and fast to reach from London – only a short 1h train ride gets you there quite easily and also affordable if you book a bit in advance, or if you travel during off-peak hours. Actually, ‘Brighton’ is only a short version of the town’s full name: ‘Brighton and Hove’. Both Hove and Brighton joined into unitary authority back in 1997, hence the name. Around 8 million people visit the town in the south every year, and 6.5 mio of them are day trippers.

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The town is home to the oldest in continuous use cinema in Britain (Duke of York’s Picture House opened in 1910) and home to many actors, musicians and other figures of public interest such as Nick Cave, Paul McCartney, Cate Blanchett, or Noel Gallagher. It is also considered to be the second most haunted town after York. Back in 1974 Brighton was the place where Abba launched their career – with their victory in the Eurovision Song Contest with their song ‘Waterloo’. Good to know, right? ;) What I really liked this time about my visit was stumbling over a road where all the buildings were covered in street art – it fit perfectly to the street art tour that we did in London the day before.

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Apparently Brighton has the nickname ‘London by Sea’, it first became fashionable in the late 1700s when Kind George IV became a regular visitor. He was also the one responsible for the beautiful Indian and Oriental inspired Royal Pavilion which was built between 1787-1823 and screams of extravaganza (especially from the inside – at least what I have read).

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An absolute must in Brighton is walking through the Lanes. It is the city’s historic quarter, resembling a maze of twisting alleyways that offer a paradise for those who look for small independent shops, boutiques and antique shops. The collection of narrow lanes are great for strolling around aimlessly and having a look into whichever shop one finds interesting. Keep in mind though that most shops are only open til 6pm!

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Brighton has more restaurants than any other city in the UK, with a ratio of 1 restaurant to every 250 people, and one of the highest concentrations of vegetarian restaurants. We actually went into one of the most peculiar cafés that we could find: Choccywoccydoodah. Located in the South Lanes of Brighton (but also with a store in London!) this is a place where you ‘step into a world of decadent self indulgence’. They offer handmade chocolates, house style and bespoke cakes, lollies, and bars on the ground floor shop. Upstairs there is a cake garden, a Bar du Chocolate cafe, and various other peculiar rooms. There are no savoury options available, only a sweet menu. We spoilt ourselves with a peanut butter, banana, chocolate ice cream milkshake (big regret – way too much for us – we should have shared this one as well) and were wise enough to share a slice of chocolate cake. Very decadent indeed!

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Brighton used to have 3 piers. The Chain Pier only stood between 1823 – 1896 and was the first pier structure that was built in the town. The famous Palace Pier (also called Brighton Pier) – a pleasure pier with funfairs, restaurants and an arcade – opened in 1899 and is still going strong. On Brighton Pier there are apparently 60,000 light bulbs! Its former rival, the West Pier, opened in 1866 but was closed in 1975 and destroyed by storm damage and arson attacks. Now you can only see the iron structure of the burnt out wreck that is still a fascination to some visitors.

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the West Pier

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Brighton is still one of my favourite cities of the UK and I am always happy to go there and spend a few hours on the pebble beach. Walking through the Lanes makes me happy, and just the general feeling that I get in the city is a thing that I really like. So if you ever have a day to spare in London, or you want to explore another city in the UK that is easy to reach – go down to Brighton for a day!

UK travel adventure: London.

During my study abroad in the UK I did my fare share of travelling in the mid- and northern regions of the country, but I actually never came down to London as I have been there a few times before. So it was long overdue to pay another visit to this wonderful city and it came in handy that one of my Moscow-friends was doing his internship there, so yet another friend and I had the perfect excuse for visiting him and London. As I have been in the city a few times before and seeing all the touristy spots of it was not on our agenda, we only had a loose plan in our head what to do over the weekend. So here’s what you can do to enjoy London off the beaten path and go on your own little London travel adventure.

Go to a market.

Or several markets like we did ;) Quite recently I stumbled upon this post from Lisa’s From Dream to Plan in which she recommends several markets in London, so I had to check some of them out while we were in the area anyway.

As we arrived in the afternoon and had skipped lunch because of our flight and bus ride we were quite hungry so it came in handy that near where we were staying was a big food market – Borough Market. It is ‘your go-to for fresh produce in London Bridge’. Already upon arrival, many different delicious smells reached us and we quickly decided for pumpkin Tortellini with pesto. Delicious!

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The second market that we came across was Old Spitafields Market. Located in the Shoreditch area of London and built in 1876, the Victorian market hall is a market for everyone’s taste and is open 7 days a week. There are market stalls, small boutiques and restaurants with an assortment of art objects, fashion, gift items, antiques and food. And probably much more. It is definitely a bit more vintage than some other markets which I found especially charming.

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Go to a place with a viewing platform.

Looking at the city from a tall building is another great way of exploring the city. However, in most cities tourists are lured into paying a lot to go on top of a tower sometimes not even in the centre of the city. So before falling into such a tourist trap, it is a good idea to do a quick online search and find out if there are any cheaper options available that are located in a ‘better’ area of the city. London has some great locations for doing so. If you were planning on having a drink in a bar anyways, the Gong on the 52nd floor of the Shard is one great option. It has a walk-in policy so you do not even need to make a reservations weeks in advance. I have also heard that the Sky Garden is a great viewing place and you can book a free visit online but you’d need to do this a few weeks before your visit. Both the Gong and the Sky Garden are located near the London and Tower Bridge so the view should be great from there.

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the Shard

What we actually ended up doing was going to the Tate Modern Museum that is located on the riverbank of the Thames by the Millennium Bridge, and taking the elevator up to the 10th floor where we had a great view over central London as well. The museum hosts international modern and contemporary art and is open every day. Not only is the viewing platform for free but also some of the exhibitions so you can easily combine a quick museum tour with the viewing platform.

The exhibition that we saw – ‘Voices’ – was really interesting, as it showcased live art, installation and moving image by highlighting all different aspects of the human voice. We heard a rework of the sixteenth-century choral work Spem and listened to sculptures that integrated voices reflecting contemporary anxieties.

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The funny thing was looking into all the apartments and watch people in their homes :D

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Besides that, we also had drinks in a pub called Culpeper with a roof garden (not only a rooftop!!) in Aldgate that I can totally recommend. We actually got to enjoy (slightly expensive) white wine spritzers surrounded by beautiful decoration and plants while listening to actually good music. As we were too busy catching up on things while drinking in the atmosphere I kinda neglected to take pictures…

Go on a (free) walking tour…

…that does not specialise in tourist areas or tourist things. In cities that I haven’t been to before I like the occasional free walking tours as it is such a good way to see all the main tourist spots and hear funny stories about it. It is also a good way to meet other people if you are traveling by yourself. However, in some places, you just do not want to go and see the tourist spots, or you have seen them before. In such a case, a free or at least cheap walking tour that specialises on something else – sometimes even themes like Harry Potter scenes, or other crazy ones – is a great opportunity to experience the city from another viewpoint. We went on a Street Art and Graffiti tour and got to see some beautiful art of which some has been created only recently. But I have way too many pictures of this tour which I definitely want to share so this will be featured in another post :)

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Take the public bus or tram.

The metro is usually the fastest way to get from A to B, but usually, it is rather dull and packed with people, and in London also quite expensive. Don’t get me wrong, busses and trams can be packed as well, but at least you get to see something interesting while being uncomfortably close to strangers. So if you are done walking for the day and want to do some more exploring take a tram or bus like so many cities have a public transportation option that takes you to the most important sights anyways (and you do not have to take one of those expensive tourist bus tours) or you can just explore another area without having to do much walking. If you feel like you can just get off and on the bus again. That’s what we did – for example, we took a bus from the Old Spitafields market to go back to the Thames while passing the St. Paul’s cathedral.

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Enjoy the local cuisine in a local restaurant or pub.

The UK might not be famous for its kitchen, but there are definitely delicious things one can find. With the history of the former empire, many cuisines home to other countries are already immersed in the English kitchen. Enjoy a typical English breakfast, a Sunday Roast, Fish & Chips, or the Chicken Tikka Masala. Plus, a pint of beer or cider together with a nice meal in a not so fancy pub just perfectly rounds up a nice day that was probably a bit exhausting because of all the walking you did – so you wouldn’t want to hang out in a posh place anyways, am I right?

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Take a stroll along the local river.

I just love cities that lie on a riverbank, and London is a great exemplar. The Thames is magnificent and great to look at, especially on such a sunny weekend. We decided to spend a lot of time near the Thames, especially at the Southbank – an entertainment and commercial district of central London between the Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge. We more or less walked from bridge to bridge, enjoyed a cup of coffee or some doughnuts here and there, and sat down whenever we felt like while enjoying the river and all the big monuments around.

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London Bridge

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Southwark Bridge

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Millennium Bridge

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Blackfriars Bridge

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Hungerford Bridge

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the most touristy picture that we have taken all weekend!

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We came back to the river on our second day as well, just to sit and relax for two hours and walk halfway over the Millennium Bridge – just because of the Harry Potter scene on it. Aren’t we nerds? Haha.

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On the Millennium bridge

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The UK has always been on my travel agenda and will probably always stay there – I will never get tired of this country. My first school trip brought us to the UK, a few years later I returned with a friend for a couple of days, and during my first years of studying, I came back again to visit said friend who was doing her au-pair in the UK. Already during high school, I knew that I wanted to go on exchange there, so during my bachelor degree, I did not even consider any other country so I got to live in Yorkshire – in Sheffield – for half a year. So it was indeed long overdue to pay another visit to this wonderful country and this more than wonderful city.

What’s your take on this country?