Everyone makes the same mistake when they first arrive in London. Overwhelmed by the size of the city and the speed at which its populace surges through it, newcomers automatically fixate on the underground transit system. The asymmetric layout of Harry Beck’s famous Tube map and its strangely named stops—how do you pronounce Hainault?—mesmerize the recent arrival, not least because “real” Londoners seem to negotiate the subway so effortlessly.
It happened to me, too. I used to take the Tube everywhere, studying its multicolored lines until I could speed through the underground warren like a ninja rabbit. The unintended consequence was that I lived in London for more than a year with only the vaguest sense of its geography. Oxford Circus, Covent Garden, the South Bank—they were all disembodied destinations to visit individually, offering shopping or nights out or a nice walk by the river. I had no idea if they were even near each other.
About 10 years ago, needing to save a few bucks, I started riding the bus to work. (These days a single bus fare costs £1.50—about $2—and you can ride all day for £4.50—half the price of a day’s travel on the Tube.) This being the home of the double-decker, I would naturally climb the stairs to the top deck, a book in hand in case the journey was slow or dull. I almost never opened the book. What those first few bus trips showed me was a London that was not all about me and my little battle to get from one place to another. Under ground, the seasoned commuters would treat their fellow travelers as obstacles—frustrations planted in their way en route to the platform or the escalator or the exit. From the top deck of the bus, the people on the street—shopping, smoking, walking, waiting—were creatures of fascination, not laggards to overtake.
I loved my new vantage point, so I began to take more buses. And the more routes I tried, the more of London’s topography I discovered. The No. 38 introduced me to the true sweep of the West End: the way Shaftesbury Avenue slides down from the grotty shopping hub of Tottenham Court Road toward the Old World glamour of Piccadilly and St. James, as if the row of theaters itself were conspiring in the transformation. A ride on the No. 242 was the first time I realized just how close the sharp-suited bankers working in the City, London’s version of Wall Street, were to the trendy hipsters of Shoreditch—a matter of minutes separated their very different patches.
Finally, the city was starting to coalesce in front of me, instead of existing in unrelated micro-pockets. London’s irregular road patterns—the legacy of a landscape that was once a collection of neighboring villages—can be hard to get your head around, but once you start to know some of the main arterial roads, it’s much easier to orient yourself.
Of course, the ascent to the top deck is essential: The windows on the lower deck won’t show you anything you can’t see from the sidewalk. But the top deck works its magic on even the most jaded of travelers. There’s a reason heading up those stairs makes you feel, just for a second, like a kid again—the everyday can be glimpsed with fresh eyes, and the city reasserts itself as a place of wonder.
Up here, above the homogeneous shop fronts, you’re lifted out of the world of chain stores, free to ogle the beautiful buildings that house them. At street level, it might be just another HSBC or Burger King, but from the top deck it’s revealed as a former inn, or a bathhouse, or a mansion that housed one of England’s oldest and richest families.
Down on the busy street, where the folk walk fast and a new restaurant might not survive a month, London can seem prey to the whim of every trend. Up at tree level, its history and culture endure. It announces itself with no need for a tour guide. An extraordinary cast-iron sculpture of a charioteer marks the Hippodrome on Charing Cross Road (No. 176 bus), and well-preserved signs painted on the sides of buildings publicize previous occupants, as on the former Sunday Post building on Fleet Street (No. 11 bus).
Spend a half hour gazing out the window as you go through the center of town and you’ll see so many heraldry plaques, Corinthian columns, and gargoyles, you won’t know what century you’re in. What this top-deck travel really brings home is how old and solid and sturdy this city is: carved of stone and grand as ever.
ODE TO THE NO. 11
The one bus every traveler should take.
To see as many sights as possible on a single bus journey, hop on the No. 11 for a seven-mile journey that’ll take around an hour and a half.
Starting at Liverpool Street, in the eastern part of the city, this bus takes you through the City of London, passing grand old financial and civic institutions such as the Bank of England and Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. You’ll get a great view of then swap saints for sinners as you pass the Old Bailey (where the country’s biggest criminal cases are tried) and the Royal Courts of Justice.
Next comes Fleet Street, full of reminders of its past as the home of the newspaper industry—from the art deco beauty of the old Daily Express building to bars like El Vino, where journalists would famously start drinking at noon.
Then you’re on the Strand, where high society has long entertained itself in grand hotels and such toney restaurants as the Savoy and Simpson’s. You’ll swing through Trafalgar Square (home to the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column) and along Whitehall—the corridor of political power—past the Cenotaph war memorial, Downing Street, and Horse Guards Parade, all the way to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
Finally, you’ll reach the plush districts of Chelsea and Fulham with some of London’s wealthiest private residences and a few authentic old pubs where you can reward yourself with a pint before catching the Tube back into town. See, the Tube does have its uses.