London, England Kosher Vacation
Guest Article by Joshua Feigin
London, the capital of England and the former center of the British Empire, is a fantastic place to visit for travelers of all types: History and art enthusiasts can spend days roaming the various world class museums. Explorers are able to discover the beauty of the architectural styles and various neighborhoods throughout the city. Shoppers have every imaginable store within arm’s reach. Film lovers can visit the Harry Potter Studios and platform 9 ¾. Combined with the excellent resources for Jewish traveling needs, these elements truly make London a place for an enjoyable get-away, whether for adults only or the whole family.
Some Useful Information:
While the winters are not freezing and the summers are not boiling hot, London often experiences rain and cloudy days. When I was there I was lucky to have sun. Nonetheless it is important to pack many layers consisting of sweaters and water-proof jackets and outerwear.
England uses the type G outlet, which is different from the standard European and American plugs. Bring an adapter with you or buy one in England. Just note that due to electric voltage differences, certain appliances such as shavers might not work.
The Pound(£), not the Euro, is the national currency. A lot of tourist attractions in London actually do not accept cash, so make sure you have credit cards that are internationally usable. You really do not need that much cash.
London is a pretty pricey place to visit. Prepare to make some compromises by either visiting during less busy seasons, or prioritizing cheaper activities (of which there are many). Otherwise it is very easy to go through a lot of money quite quickly.
England recently left the European Union, which in addition to being a point of political contention, also means that many things in England do not much that what is standard in most of Europe. This applies especially to border controls. When traveling, be sure to fill out the UK entry form and provide any other necessary documentation. Leisure visitors from the US/Canada/Europe can receive travelers visas upon arrival.
London is a large city. Try to plot all the attractions you want to visit out on a custom map on Google maps in order to itinerize according to physical proximity. (Attached is a link to the map that I personally created, which was of great help, even though I did not follow it exactly: shorturl.at/hqzFU)
The “London Pass” can be purchased for admission to over a hundred attractions, provided you make a reservation. Depending on your plans and season of travel, this pass may or may not be worth purchasing.
Some of the slang and verbiage used may be a bit jarring to speakers of American English. You will still be understood and be able to understand others though. Just have fun and see how many differences you can spot!
Assuming you are arriving in London by plane from North America, you will most likely land at Heathrow airport. (London has six airports in total, so make sure you know which one you are going to!) Getting between the city and Heathrow can be done in one one of several ways. One such method is by taxi, which perhaps the most comfortable, especially with many bags and/or children, may not actually be the fastest due to city traffic and will most likely be the costliest. Travelers can also use the express train, known as the Heathrow Express, which takes 15 minutes to travel from the airport to Paddington station in downtown London. While seemingly enticing, beware of the hefty fares for this service, which often hover around £30 per passenger! Commuter train services also exist and cost about £10 per traveler. I opted to take the Tube, which chugs along, making many intermediate stops with a journey time of around 45 minutes. Why? Three reasons: The low price, the ease of then switching to another tube train to reach the final destination, and the accessibility from all terminals. The two other train services cannot be reached from every terminal, so even the speedy 15 minutes Paddington express journey could become a 30 minute journey once a terminal transfer is accounted for.
The public transportation system in London is quite a pleasure and ease to use. I would highly discourage driving, unless absolutely necessary. Firstly, cars drive on the left of the road, which I can only imagine takes some getting used to. (Even as a pedestrian it is sometimes hard to cross the street because you are not used to the directionality of traffic flow.) Additionally cars entering the downtown area are subject to a special congestion charge, non-grid-like, narrow streets, and a nightmare when it comes to parking.
The best option is thus taking the Tube/Underground, both terms used to describe what Americans would more likely dub to be a subway. The network covers the downtown core and extends to many farther out neighborhoods as well. Note that the pricing structure for journeys is based on zones – the more zones a journey traverses, the greater the fare. I actually messed up and wasted £40 because I bought the wrong type of pass. Oops. If you buy a weekly pass (which may be worthwhile spending on your travel needs), make sure it covers the zones you need, zone 1 being the downtown core, while higher number zones lie farther in the suburbs. If you do not buy a pass, your daily spending will be capped at a certain point, essentially allowing unlimited rides on the tube for a locked maximum fare. Additance to the platforms is accomplished with a card, known as the Oyster Card. Note that “topping-up the Oyster Card,” just means to reload more money onto your train ticket.
(Double-decker) Bus service is quite frequent as well and is useful for reaching areas not efficiently connected by train. Taxis are available through ride-hailing apps such as Uber. If the weather is right, exploring some of the city’s quieter areas using a Lime scooter is quite a treat. I did this also in Washington DC and Tel Aviv and it has now become my go to method for getting a feel of a city. Simply download the app, find a parked scooter, unlock, and you are off. It may take a bit of getting used to, but that is beyond the scope of this article for the moment.
For a kosher traveler, the best areas to stay in are Golder’s Green, Hendon, and Finchley. These three neighborhoods are 20 minutes away from downtown by tube and boast an impressive amount of kosher dining options and shuls. Try staying as close as possible to a Tube station, so that you can easily get from your accommodation to the attractions. I personally stayed in an Airbnb and loved it. For less than $100/night I got a spacious one bedroom flat (apartment) with a living/dining area. The hotels in this area on the other hand were not the best. My friend who visited London stayed at a local hotel, paid more than I did, and got a really cramped room with a twin bed in an old, poorly staffed building. Additionally the room smelled of mold and money was stolen by the cleaning staff, which the management denied. In summary, not the best. Since hotels in downtown London can be really pricey and far from kosher amenities, whereas hotels in the Jewish neighborhood are questionable in quality, the apartment rental route is probably the best option.
London has an abundance of kosher dining options, primarily located in the Jewish neighborhoods in the north of the city. Although England is supposedly known for sub-par cuisine, I found the options to be delicious, high quality, and reasonably priced. In the cleverly named “Kosher Kingdom,” the variety of cheeses, sweets, and cakes prompted me to video call my relatives in America to show them what we were missing. It seems also that the culinary culture supports a greater quality and quantity of baked goods, which was a delight. My personal favorite restaurant was SOYO Cafe, whose breakfast spread is pictured. I must have eaten there 3 or 4 times, because it was that good. I highly recommend trying the granary bread there, (a hearty loaf with various nuts and seeds), should you get the chance.
In contrast to the Jewish areas however, Downtown London really lacks kosher options. The only kosher establishment in the center of the city is Reubens, which I cannot speak for, since I did not try it. It is quite easy to bring take-away food downtown though (provided that your accommodations are located near kosher restaurants). Another place to check out is Tescos, which is a British chain convenience shop. Vegan wraps as well as many snacks, chocolates, dried fruits, etc can be purchased. Some Tescos, depending on location, also sell Kosher sandwiches.
The Kashrut system works a bit differently in England (and Europe in general) than in the US, in the sense that many kosher products do not label certifications on the packaging. Thus, one needs to resort to either prior knowledge of a product’s status or a published list of kosher items. The main kashrut agency in England is the KLBD. Their website can provide more information about this: https://www.kosher.org.uk/article/just-landed-uk
For someone planning on exploring more areas of England outside of London and Manchester or for a long term stay, it is definitely worthwhile to figure out the list system. For a short vacation like I was on though, it is probably much easier to stick to kosher restaurants and groceries, rather than walking up and down the aisles with a big list.
Below is a list of some of the many restaurant options organized by neighborhood. (The ones in bold are the ones I had the chance to visit).
Golders Green – SOYO Cafe, SOYO Diner, Novellino, Head Room Cafe (Other restaurants that we did not go to: Hot Cut, Pita, Sushi Haven, Machane Yehuda, Met Su Yan)
Hendon – Bonjour Bakery, Bagel Bar, White House, White Fish, Pizaza, Grill House, La Brioche Bakery, Orli’s, Hummus Bar, Hendon Park Cafe
Finchley – Burger Bar, Bread Bakery, Nu Nosh
Downtown – Rubens
History – As the capital of the former British Empire, London is home to a lot of cultural treasures and artifacts. The majority of these are housed in the British Museum, which boasts quite an impressive collection. Particularly of interest for Jewish visitors are the Persian and Babylonian exhibits, where goblets from the time period of Achashverosh’s parties are on display. Also check out the Rosetta Stone, the key to interpreting Hieroglyphics, located near the museum’s entrance. I will say though that due to the museum’s vast size and range of exhibitions, creating a plan for which exhibits to see, following a suggested path on the museum hand out maps, or even joining a guided tour can enhance your visit. I absolutely loved the gift shop here, despite my usual aversion. Perhaps less well known is the British Library. I stopped by out of sheer curiosity and I am glad I did. In addition to impressive towering columns of books, the library also houses hundreds of intriguing documents. Historical Bibles, Mandatory Palestinian currency, and the Magna Carta were some of my favorites. Sticking with the theme of history, another nice attraction is the Tower of London, which, beyond the tower, is actually more of a complex. Throughout the centuries, monarchical officials resided, were imprisoned, and even executed within the fortress. The coin mint and armory (among various other royal bureaus) were housed here. During your visit, enjoy one of the hour-long tours of the grounds. Then head independently to the crown jewels exhibit, where ceremonial gemstone treasures are stored. I liked the mint exhibit a lot, where there was even a placard explaining Jewish persecution due to coin clipping.
Monuments – The famous Tower Bridge provides a nice backdrop for some photos and a walk along the Thames River. The gothic Westminster Abbey church is also quite grand with its flying buttresses. Also quite nice to check out is the interior stairwell of the St. Pancras Hotel. While not technically open to non-guests, I managed to play it cool and boy, was it nice – like straight out of a castle. Big Ben is also worth a brief stop. And of course the quintessential London tourist stop – Buckingham Palace. If one times it well, the changing of the guard ceremony can be seen. I ended up just walking by for a few minutes during the day, saw the guards walking around, and got the idea.
Shopping – Oxford Street is the equivalent to New York’s Broadway – a lot of foot traffic and shopping. This was the first place in London that I visited in order to get an introduction to the city. Be sure to check out Marks and Spencers, a British clothing brand with remarkable selection. There was also an amusing shop known as “American candy,” which seemed to me like a regular candy store. I guess they are doing a good job with authenticity. A large, luxury department store to visit is Harrods. After I saw a £3,000 coat though, I decided to browse elsewhere. Hamleys is a well known toy shop which has cute trinkets and games. Hop over to Covent Garden for an artsy craft market with individual vendors selling their wares. Camden Town is a pretty touristy area to buy souvenirs which were not to my fancy, but the canal and surrounding neighborhoods were wonderful to explore by scooter. For Harry Potter fans, definitely stop by Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station. Along with a shop carrying a variety of memorabilia, fans can take pictures of themselves pushing a trolley through a brick wall.
Viewpoints – Perched on the Thames river is a giant Ferris wheel, the London Eye. Passengers board enclosed pods and can enjoy the approximately half hour ride with stretching views. Although a bit expensive, I found the experience to be relaxing and well worthwhile. For a free/additional option, check out the Sky Garden. Located at the top of a skyscraper, visitors can explore 360 degree panoramic vistas with the comfort of an indoor garden and ample seating. Since it is technically a bar/adult area, access is only granted to those above the age of 18.
Pool – Since my accommodation did not have a pool, I ended up purchasing a facility day pass at the Nyx Hotel in downtown London. For £25, access is granted to lockers, the pool, a sauna, steam room, and a sitting area.
In London: Harry Potter Animation Studios, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, The Shard observatory, Other Museums (Freud Museum, Tate Modern, Portrait Gallery, Natural History, Freud Museum), Parks (Regents Park, Hampstead Heath, Hyde, Kensington palace and gardens, Windsor Castle) London Zoo, Notting Hill, Life Size monopoly, Royal botanical gardens, and Greenwich observatory
Day Trip/Further Beyond: Stonehenge, Bath, Paris, Scotland