London with Rick Steves in My Ears


Our crew (left to right: director Simon, cameraman Peter, and host Rick), finished 20 hard days of shooting and production with all our work — the rough footage for three new TV shows — saved onto a single hard drive the size of an iPhone.

It was the last day of my trip — 25 days of guidebook research followed by 20 days of TV production. Finally, my crew flew home with the footage (not actually “footage” anymore — three weeks of filming is contained on a single, massive hard drive). I was free to do one of three things: stay in the room and edit the research I had done; just go out, relax, and have fun in London; or do all my London audio tours. With so many people using my free audio tours, I decided to do that.

It was a strangely entertaining day. I spent it doing the five London audio tours from my Rick Steves Audio Europe app. For six hours I listened to my voice narrating the very best of London, while my brain was finding ways to make these tours better.

My day went like this: Buy a £7 all-day tube/bus pass (a great deal at about $11), catch the Tube directly to Westminster, do my Westminster Walk (Westminster Bridge to Trafalgar Square), walk The Strand to St. Clement Danes Church, and do my City of London Walk (St. Clement Danes to London Bridge) — interrupting it midway to do my St. Paul’s Cathedral Tour. Then have lunch at the Counting House, taxi to the British Museum to do that tour, and then catch a bus to Euston Station to do my British Library Tour. Finally, catch the Tube for the direct ride back to my hotel in South Kensington. Time management was key: The British Library closed at 6 p.m., but my “off-peak” transit pass wouldn’t let me start until 9:30 a.m.

London’s subway was Europe’s first great system and is consequently the ricketiest — but it still works marvelously. With earbuds in my ears as I walked the streets, the constant churn of London — people, local professionals, big tour buses, taxis, and so on — was strangely more apparent. I was a keen observer. With my buds in, no one talked to me. I was invisible. I noticed what a great percentage of people on the streets were also lost in their buds.

Listening to my tour, I caught a few mistakes. Many of them reminded me of the dangers of travel writing anywhere. For example, I just assumed the Thames flowed. But looking into the river, I realized it is tidal and, when things are slack, it just sits there.

My goal for the audio tours is to make them “real time.” I found, for instance, there is a two-minute stretch on the walk from the Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square that could be filled with informative narration so people wouldn’t have to press stop and walk to the next spot.

The monuments of London have never looked so good. It was fun to be here in the wake of the Olympics. Everyone we talked with commented on how the games went swimmingly — but for tourism, restaurants, taxis, tour guides, and so on, it was a quiet three weeks. As is so often the case, profiteering (the threat of prices jacked up during an event) caused many people (like us, who made a point to arrive after the games finished), to stay away during the anticipated, overpriced commotion.

Whitehall — London’s Pennsylvania Avenue — was grand. Security was almost military — guards with machine guns at the ready strolling in front of the gate at #10 Downing Street (and at train stations and Heathrow Airport). Judging by the traffic, it seems the standard, big-bus sightseeing day trips seem to have been driven out of business by the double-decker, Hop-on Hop-off tour buses. In fact, “HOHO” buses seemed as numerous as regular city buses.

Reaching Trafalgar Square, I concluded that the Westminster Walk is nearly perfect. I’m very happy with it. From that point, I realized it would have been convenient if the City of London Walk started there rather than a mile east at the edge of The City. But walking The Strand to that starting point, I realized we left this stretch out for good reason — it’s boring.

It rained as I walked through The City, the one-square-mile, old town center now consumed by the financial district and Christopher Wren churches. It’s liberating to not care about the weather. For three weeks I needed sunshine to make good TV. Now, with the crew gone, I was singin’ in the rain.

For lunch, I dropped by the Counting House, a former, elegant bank building converted into a fancy pub that’s popular with the neighborhood’s professionals. I confirmed my feeling that, while there are plenty of “cheap and cheery” modern eateries in London, this is a great spot for a memorable lunch.

After touring St. Paul’s, I hopped into a cab thinking that would save me time as it was getting late. I was wrong. Traffic was slow, the meter reached £12, and I could have got to my next sight faster  — and free  — with my all-day transit pass. Still, I enjoyed the British Museum and British Library. Then, brain drained, I hopped the Tube and zipped directly back to my hotel in South Kensington.

It was an exhilarating day — not unreasonable for first timer to do it, too. And it was cheap: about £20 for transportation, the audio tours were free, and the sights were free (except St. Paul’s, which costs £15). Lunch cost £15 with a beer. The total: about £50 for a very full day in London.