If navigating London has taught me anything, it’s that public transportation can completely change the way people experience a city. Without the shield of car windows, I was immersed in the bustle of London, was jolted by the bright-red double-decker buses and was constantly reminded by an automated voice to “mind the gap between the train and the platform” as I sat on the Tube.
London’s public transportation system is one of the city’s most iconic features. The London Underground, commonly known as the Tube, spans 402 kilometers, 33 boroughs and 270 stations. With approximately 5 million passengers using public transportation each day, the network of Tube stations is almost like a city in and of itself.
Like a city, the Tube has its own culture. I quickly discovered that chatter and slow walking are not welcome on the Tube. Londoners make it clear that they do not want to be disturbed — reading books and newspapers or listening to music as they travel better fits the Londoners’ sensibilities.
Riding the Tube made me acutely aware of how many different worlds are contained within the city of London. Just glancing at the overlapping colors and lines of the Tube map was daunting, and trying to untangle it made the city’s vastness even more apparent to me. The Tube stations themselves have their own architectural styles, artwork and features that reflect the character of the surrounding area. For example, Charing Cross station, which is located near Trafalgar Square, depicts the Battle of Trafalgar on its tiled walls. Other stations embrace their roles in fiction, such as King’s Cross station, which features a Platform 9¾ that was created after the “Harry Potter” series became popular.
Even with the overwhelming scope of London, the Tube makes London feel connected and more manageable. There are usually multiple Tube stations and bus stops within walking distance of each other, making it possible to travel around London using only public transportation. The ease and accessibility of travel encouraged me to visit new places.
Out of the nine fair zones in London, I traveled mostly within zone one, which encompasses the entirety of Central London. I saw what people typically associate with London — the River Thames, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre and the British Museum. The city’s towering skyscrapers and large museums capture what I think of when I picture London: a great metropolis that houses so much history and life.
Of course I relished my time as a tourist. One of the highlights was seeing “Hamlet” at the Globe — this version reimagined the play with a female Hamlet and a male Ophelia. Sitting in the historic theater upon the Thames as I watched the unconventional rendition of Shakespeare’s play fit in perfectly with my image of London. My romanticized vision was fully realized as I walked along Millennium Bridge and had high tea in Covent Garden later that day.
But the Tube opened up a whole world that lay outside of zone one — one that more accurately reflected the art and cultures that exist in London. After visiting the British Museum, I was deeply dissatisfied with the museum’s commodification of African artwork and totalizing perspective of Africa. So I took my Oyster card and traveled to zone three to look at the Horniman Museum’s African Worlds Gallery — a dramatic improvement from the British Museum’s exhibit. Instead of grouping all African artwork into one room, the gallery was organized according to different regions of Africa and explained the artwork from a more Afrocentric perspective. Simply stepping outside of Central London exposed me to artworks that would not be considered valuable in a Eurocentric, touristy environment and provided me with a richer experience.
The accessibility of the Tube also meant that I could travel to places such as Shepherd’s Bush, an area in zone two that is becoming increasingly gentrified and whose demographics are rapidly changing — just a sample of a larger gentrification problem within London. We exited the Shepherd’s Bush station, hopped onto a bus and watched the glitzy shopping mall morph into a slew of run-down Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores within two stops. There, my mom’s cousin greeted us with open arms and ushered our family into Vine Leaves Taverna, the Mediterranean restaurant he owns. Adorned with hanging vines, Coptic Christian icons and wooden fixtures, the restaurant felt like a world away from Central London. We talked for hours over plates of delicious Egyptian and Greek foods, feeling none of the rush that accompanies life in zone one.
In continuing my exploration, I took the Northern line and a bus to visit Hampstead Heath, a gorgeous ancient shrubland covered in grass, trees and ponds. The idyllic Hampstead Heath is tucked away at the edge of zone two and was popular with several Romantic poets, including John Keats. After Keats died tragically, the surrounding town commemorated his legacy by converting his house into a museum and a library on a street affectionately renamed to “Keats Grove.”
Passing by the small storefronts on the street, I felt like a sliver of Keats’ Hampstead Heath was still there, living and breathing in the simplicity of the town. The town felt so distant from the city, but in reality, Central London is only about half an hour away by Tube. As I wandered around and read for hours, drifting in and out of bookstores and cafes, I finally appreciated the complexity of London. Even with all of the pockets, cultures and histories it contains within its borders, London still calls itself one city, united by the Tube.