People don't usually visit the UK for the sole purpose of tourism. They either go there to study, work or visit family. Last year I had the chance to spend three weeks in London, and it was the best vacation of my life. The only reason many, at least from Bangladesh, don't consider the UK as a holiday destination is because of the high price tag. But if you're savvy, there are many ways to cut down on your expenses. Once you figure out food and shelter, your UK trip should be a breeze.
Before I get into the details of my trip, I feel that it's necessary to give you an idea of what I am like as a person, because that determines which places I chose to visit. I grew up reading British literature, like many other Bangladeshi “90s kids.” I used to paint as a hobby, and I deeply appreciate fine art. I enjoy walking in random streets when I travel, because I once read in a Feluda book that the best way to learn about a city and its people is to walk—and it's true. If you are someone who enjoys restaurants and theme parks and other fancy attractions, you probably wouldn't like the places I visited. Most people are usually quite disappointed that I didn't go to Madame Tussaud's or Buckingham Palace, but you must understand that I am an artsy snowflake who has no time for mainstream tourist spots. It's not you, it's me.
Now that the introduction's out of the way, let me tell you the number one secret of cutting down on travel expenses: find a place where you can stay for free. I know it's not easy, and in some cases impossible, but please check whether you have a long lost Sylheti relative who will let you stay at their place for little to no rent. I lucked out because my favourite aunt is a doctoral student in London, and I am also her favourite niece. So despite being a person with zero connections to Sylhet, I found a perfectly fine place to stay, along with free food.
The second trick to saving a whole lot of money is to visit museums, since most of them don't require entry fees. I love museums because I feel that it's the closest I can get to time travel. So I passed on deformed wax figures of footballers for sculptures made by people who are long dead. In South Kensington, three museums are located side by side—the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Out of the three, I loved V&A the most, because it's a design and art museum. I stayed in London for 17 days, and there are three places that I visited twice—one of them was V&A.
My engineer aunt took me to the Science Museum on my first day in London. But I am not a (wo)man of science. Sure, I know how important the steam engine was for the progress of human civilisation, but I don't find engines to be more interesting than table cloths designed during the French revolution. So I went next door to V&A, a museum that I had never heard of before. As soon as I entered through a little tunnel in the subway, I was blown away.
There are many ways to tell history. You can talk about the gruesome details of wars, you can talk about the lives of the revolutionaries, you can write historical fiction. But art and design are just as important as wars. While we all know about Marie Antoinette, Jacobins and guillotines, how much do we know about the daily lives of the people who lived in France at that time? V&A contains everything from tea pots to intricate sculptures to fashion that tell the history of specific peoples who lived during a specific time in human history. I now realise that I can write an entire article only on V&A, but since that's not possible at the moment, I'll just mention some of my favourite exhibits. Of course, the French Revolution gallery was one of the best. Apart from that, there is a gallery on medieval England and its many noble houses, which reminded me of Game of Thrones. A part of the museum is dedicated to Asian art and design, and there was a gallery that hosts beautiful Arabic rugs, patterns and calligraphy. Everyone always talks about the sculpture collection of the British Museum, but if you are a fan of sculptures, then don't miss V&A. It's just as good.
The other place that I visited twice was the British Museum, simply because these museums are just way too big to finish in one day. But what can we do? The British stole so many things from their colonies that they needed these giant museums to store everything. Despite this gory reminder of a bloody past, the British Museum is like Disneyland for history buffs. The sheer size of the place was overwhelming for me, but that could've been because my old leg injury started acting up by the end of the trip and I had to visit the museum with a crutch. I have wanted to see mummies for as long as I can remember, and here I saw so many that it's safe to say that my dream is more than fulfilled. The museum's best exhibit is probably the one on Egyptian history, but one lesser known exhibit that really stood out to me was on Africa. Maybe I liked it so much because I knew very little about the history of Africa to begin with, but regardless, it's a wonderful gallery that tells the story of a unique land. Also, they're not lying when they talk about that sculpture collection. There are Nereid monuments, sculptures from Parthenon, and Egyptian statues that I never thought I'd get to see in person, and I was not disappointed at all.
I went to a lot of places in and around London during my stay, but my favourite was the National Art Gallery, where I shed tears standing in front of Van Goghs and Monets because I grew up studying these very paintings, and I was extremely overwhelmed after I saw how beautiful the work were in person. There are very few moments in life when you feel truly content, when you know that you have ticked something off of your bucket list, and you have lived a somewhat good life. When I stood in a room at the National Art Gallery and stared at Van Gogh's Sunflowers, I had a moment like that. But make no mistake—the National Art Gallery is so much more than just Van Gogh. It has thousands of paintings, each more impressive than the other. The museum has paintings from the mid-13th century onwards, and I looked through them chronologically. I saw how art evolved, and how it fit with the time it was created. I went back to the gallery just to see Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Monet one more time before I left, because I wanted to remember every little detail about how the paintings looked, and how they made me feel.
The one word I would use to describe this trip would be liberating; I am a 21-year-old who hardly gets to walk alone in the streets of Dhaka, yet I managed to travel the entirety of London mostly alone, with just the help of Google Maps. I did not get lost, never got harassed, and everywhere I went, I was fortunate enough to find helpful, kind people. Vacations may be meant for partying, but I used mine to learn about history, art, and art history. London holds many more interesting places, and perhaps I will elaborate on them some other time. But it's no wonder that Diagon Alley is hidden inside London—the city really is full of magic.
Aanila Kishwar Tarannum feels depressed after writing this article because she misses hopelessly staring at the abyss at London's tube stations. You can send her your condolences at email@example.com.