'If You’ve Only Been To London, You Haven’t Seen The UK'
No shade – but how far out of London have you actually travelled?
I’m not here to pass judgment, I too hadn’t branched out of the centre of town until recently. But considering London boasts almost 10 million people, (that’s double Sydney’s population), they won’t all be found at TopShop at Oxford Circus. (Unless it’s sale time.)
A little background, the United Kingdom is a country of countries; England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all governed under the incomparable Queen Liz and all trading with the pound sterling. No matter your feelings on the royal fam – you have to admit, that makes it pretty bloody easy to travel between each unique destination.
So I decided to travel outside London’s hectic hub and discover more of the motherland's thriving cities. Here’s how far I got:
I flew directly to Manchester, the UK's third biggest city, in the North of England. If you haven’t been to Manchester, you will have definitely seen and heard the byproducts of its distinct culture. The birthplace of bands like Oasis and the most loyal fandom in history: Manchester United - to name just a few.
It’s the people that make cities, right? Well visitors get to experience everything Mancunians do; shopping, bars, restaurants, theatres, live music venues, museums (all of which have free entry) and galleries. Rather than stuffing in a myriad of landmarks, you live locally almost immediately.
During my wandering I met John from Manchester Taxi Tours – the only local guide of his kind – who explained just how the cosmopolitan population come together from Castlefield to Trafford, the panoramic Salford Quays and beyond.
“Last year after the awful attack at Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena, it was the people that held the city together. That’s the Manchester way, we’re all tied together by our working class history. The workerbee is the symbol of Manchester and then last year it was used to show strength and support for the people who suffered.”
Street art being a signature of the landscape, a day after the attack a spectacularly poignant mural appeared on the side of a building in the city's Northern Quarter; 22 Workerbees representing the 22 victims – needless to say I had chills.
Of course this sense of community is also palpable during times of celebration. The simple question, ‘Are you a red or are you a blue?’ evokes tension, excitement and loyalty whether you’re a Manchester United or ManCity fan.
I took a tour of Old Trafford stadium and it instantly made me a fan. (Sorry ManCity.) Unfortunately, tickets are sold out three months in advance (get in early!) So I take a seat at the neighbouring Hotel Football to watch a game in the spillover atmosphere. You can even have a friendly (or not so friendly) game yourself on the hotel rooftop. Eat. Sleep. Football. What more do you need?
Keen for a local feed, I hear word of a food festival held in the archway of a former train depot near Piccadilly Station – urban, gritty and vibrant, I'm told. Held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday year-round locals and vistors alike attend GRUB for its diverse mix of cuisine and the perfect weekend watering hole with a wide selection of craft beers.
I arrive in Bristol aching for a well-brewed coffee. Surely, there’s some Aussie-grade beans around here? I thought.
At Wapping Wharf, a vibrant independent hub of activity, shops, and workspaces I find my beacon of light; Mokoko Coffee. The quirky independent supplier of the coffee, started my day with a taste of home before I ventured out to my most anticipated activity: a Banksy tour, courtesy of street art experience, Where The Wall.
A guide – who I’m 73% sure is Banksy himself – positions me outside the local council building. He turns opposite to face the iconic 'Well-Hung Lover' artwork – a direct affront to the government building due to its near impossible removal, as well as a nod to a former manager who was stealing his pieces. Satirical, anti-establishment and provocative - the Bristol street art scene is intoxicating.
My guide explained how Banksy never worked for notoriety; he was born in Bristol and is fiercely loyal to his hometown. He hands me a spray can, Make your mark. I’ll admit, the wind blew my efforts back in my face, but the act was exhilarating (and legal, dw).
I celebrate my day by grabbing dinner at local haunt Bocabar before seeking out a non-descript prohibition-style bar called Hyde & Co located just outside ‘The Triangle’, a popular nightlife region. If you walked passed it, you would definitely miss it. But for those in the know it offers the perfect eclectic speakeasy with low-lighting and an extensive cocktail menu, which takes you on a romanctic and crime-filled journey through curated narration.
Of course the UK is not all about its cities, if you venture just a little ways out you might as well travel back in time, stumbling across castles dating back to the 11th century.
At Warwick Castle all my medieval dreams came true. If you’re a history-lover or even a fan of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter you will appreciate the attention to detail in the staff who never break character. There are also activities like archery, sword fighting, jousting, the exquisite bird show and even a trebuchet that catapaults a boulder-like object each day. With so much to experience in just a few hours, I vowed to return right then and there.
Similarly when you jump the border to Wales – with ease, as we’re still in the UK remember – Cardiff Castle is a standout. Upon touring the castle you walk the same paths as royalty from past and present. (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had just recently been to visit.) After my tour I’m gestured to a banquet hall where staff in traditional fare welcome me with open arms, pour fine wine and sing local songs before a Welsh banquet to drool over.
Waking up the next morning, I pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. For a change of pace, and give or take a few hundred years, I wander into the city to Spillers Records to strum through vinyls - established in 1894, it is the world’s oldest running record shop. I managed to nab a limited release Rolling Stones album. I gripped it tightly from other shoppers.
Keen to see how the area melded old and new, I ventured only a short distance from the castle to a restaurant favoured by locals called The Potted Pig.
After my banquet the evening before, I was still full but couldn’t help but try the local delicacy ‘rarebit’ – no, not rabbit. The dressed up cheese on toast consisted of fresh sourdough, Welsh cheese, doused in Worchestiere and Tabasco sauce. Followed by a selection of 70+ gins to choose from, I left well-fed and watered.
You can’t help but absorb the history of the UK as you travel from city to city exploring every nook and cranny. But in plain view at Liverpool’s Albert Dock, I was shown about by local guide Joe Keggin who has an in-depth knowledge of the local history.
Passing by Tate gallery, you realise how important the docks and waterfront are to the city’s culture. Not to mention it’s home to the British Music Experience – a must-see for any Beatles fan. This is their birthplace after all.
Cosy up at night at The Smugglers Cove to taste the local 'scouse' stew, a traditional roast or a more-ish steak and ale pie. Comfort food to warm you up and make you feel right at home in the middle of UK.
Don’t get me wrong – this article is not about NOT going to London. Instead, while the UK continues to shift with new hubs popping up all over the place, I encourage you to branch out from the city centre.
Instead of sticking within a kilometre radius of your hotel, jump on the tube and venture out to the lesser known areas of London, which are home to some of the most unique experiences the city has to offer.
As close as Kings Cross, sits Granary Square, a melting pot home to endless inviting restaurants. I spot a bubbling venue called Caravan and instantly fall-in-love with the menu. Avocado as far as the eye can see. Single Origin coffee. Are we in Bondi?
Full of sustenance I make my way to a vintage bike tour at Gabriel's Wharf and ride to a famous street art tunnel started by Banksy himself (miss you Bristol!)
On to Spitalfield Markets, which houses a vibrant mix of old and new – everything from top hats to luscious cakes - I can’t believe I’m hungry again, but Poppies Fish & Chips is just across the road and is renowned for the freshest and most delicious fish.
I needed the feed before attempting to conquer my fear of heights with the longest and tallest tunnel slide in the world - the ArcelorMittal Orbit at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. In the interest of full disclosure, I cried in anticipation of my first go, and squealed in delight during my second.
Just over the bridge you will find the locals head directly to Hackney Wick, where craft beer tours run along the canal. I end up at Crate Brewery in the sun, tasting an array of beers from a blueberry sour to a house pale ale. Their signature Roman-style pizzas are not to miss. I legit must have grown a second stomach at this stage.
Of course there are a multitude of foodie opportunities around London. Giant Robot Street Feast at Canary Wharf is known for attracting locals to a sheltered watering hole and offering up treats from succulently fried chicken to spicy tacos and plentiful cocktails to wash it all down.
But perhaps the most special dining experience was the most intimate. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Eat With, you are hosted by celebrated chefs who invite people (strangers) into their home and serve up a five-star meal to rave about. You can come by yourself and make new friends or book out private functions. My chef was Alice Churchill – 14 years experience in Michelin star restuarants whose home holds up to 24 guests. While she serves up the meal, her husband will hand you a drink and have you in stitches. As the wine pours, strangers become friends.
So are you game to stretch out your UK adventure, wander about the motherland and discover all it has to offer?
Title Image: @muradosmann
Want to experience the best the UK has to offer for yourself? Contiki and MTV have teamed up with VisitBritain to bring you the ultimate UK hit list. From must-see destinations, can’t-miss experiences and give-me-another foodie experiences, find YOUR Great Britain here.
PICS: MTV Travel Editor Takes The UK
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