It was amazing the amount of warnings I received about the prices of living in London before I even moved to the city…..and you know what? They were right. London is an expensive city. However, I truly believe that it is still a city in which you can go out and have an amazing time – even with a limited budget. I was really happy to prove this when I was challenged by Travelex to have a day/night out in central London with only $150 US to spend – at the time that I picked up the Travelex cash passport, that was equivalent to approximately £113. Let the fun begin!
I have to admit I did a boo boo and ended up having to do the challenge twice. So in other words, I ended up spending my own money on the first weekend anyway – but that was my fault, and I did stay on budget (actually below budget!!). This experiment, then went over two weekends. The first weekend, I chose to meet my cousin, Kathryn, for a big girls evening out (ie. no little munchkins for once!). We decided to call that weekend “Pork and Prosecco”…because we both had a craving for Chinese roast pork and of course, we had to have our little bit of alcohol – and what is more British than prosecco (okay fine there are more British alcoholic drinks but we like our bubblies, okay?!). So we first went to Dumpling House in Chinatown, right by Leicester Square in London and had dinner. The dinner was tasty for the most part, but the service was awful and they forgot half of our order. Then, when it came time to pay, I realized that I had forgotten to register the Travelex Cash Passport – so I just ended up paying in cash.
We then met my friend Niki and we headed past the dancing Hare Krishna (did you see my video of them on my Instagram?) back to Leicester Square to one of my favourite “hole in the walls”, Cork and Bottle, where the three of us shared a lovely sparkling red wine (not prosecco, but bubbly and amazing….these sparkling reds are quickly becoming my favourites!). And guess what…even with all of that, I only spent just over £100 – so if I had registered and used the Travelex Cash Passport, £100 paid for a large Chinese meal for two and an amazing bottle of wine for three. So that weekend alone proved my point – that although London is expensive, you can have a lovely evening out for less than $150 US!
I felt bad, though, because I hadn’t used the actual Travelex Cash Passport, so I wanted to try it out so that I could give you a fair opinion on what I thought of it. So, when I heard my sister was coming to London for the weekend, I had a second chance. This time, I made sure to register it online. The process was much easier than I thought it would be, and when I downloaded the app onto my phone for instant updates on my balance and the opportunity to see how and when I spent my money, I was flying. The Travelex Cash Passport is pretty cool….and this is coming from someone who has lost my entire envelope of traveller’s cheques before the second day of my vacation before (let’s not talk about that). I loved that the Travelex Cash Passport made it so easy – it was able to be used at anywhere that a Mastercard would be accepted and I could even have used it in an ATM to get actual cash out if I had preferred that option. To be honest, the hardest thing about spending other people’s money on this card, was trying to remember my pin. They had even given me the option of having a second card just in case I lost the first. In that case, I would just have to call in and then they would switch the balance over to my second card. Definitely an option for my next few vacations I think.
Anyway, I digress. I cannot remember how I heard about the restaurant that I booked my sis and I in, but I chose Shuang Shuang because I thought it sounded like a cool concept restaurant.
It is in Chinatown as well, but the concept is that of a traditional hot pot blended with the modern fun of conveyor belt eating. Sound complicated? Not quite. If you’ve been to a Korean barbecue restaurant and to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, you can handle it. You are seated in front of a large bowl on a induction heater and given an option of different broths ranging from traditional lamb broth, to hot mala, to a weird sounding soy milk based one (which I may try at some point in my life but not that weekend…).
Then you choose from a house dipping sauce or the “d.i.y.” sauces (I chose the latter).
When the broth begins to simmer, you choose the ingredients you want in your soup from the conveyor belt, and these ingredients range from tofu to fish balls, to raw chicken, to beef, to all sorts of vegetables and greens to various noodles. Then, you cook it with the timings indicated on the plates and enjoy your meal.
Accompanied by fancy jasmine flower teas (or something less exciting if you wish), the meal is a lot of interactive fun and a great place to take a crowd.
It is, however, almost as dangerous as dim sum if you are unfamiliar with the idea of eating a number of small bits at a time instead of a full plate all at once. You tend to fill up fast and you tend to take more and eat more than you probably normally would! My sister and I certainly ate a lot more than we normally would, even ordering appetizers of tea flavoured eggs (one of my favourites) and considering dessert (at least I did). When we finished, we had the two broths between us (lamb tonic and mala), two jasmine flower teas, and over 20 plates. Like Yo Sushi, you are charged per plate, with the plates being colour coded.
I ended up spending about £70 from my Travelex Cash Passport on that meal alone. It was fine though – because after a meal like that, you just want to roll home and go to bed, right?
The next day, my sister went home, but I went to see two special exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum that I had heard about before Christmas last year.
At that time, my cousin went to see the Textiles of India exhibition and had urged me to go…so I did. The Textiles of India exhibit was amazing, but at the same time, there was the Al Thani Bejewelled exhibit on and the Shoes: Pleasure or Pain exhibits – both of which tickled my fancy.
I did not have the time to attend them then, but I definitely did the day after I ate at Shuang Shuang. Now, museums in London are free. Yep. All permanent exhibitions at museums in London are free (ie. if you are on a budget guess what I’m advising you to do….), but the temporary exhibits usually have a small entrance fee.
The Al Thani exhibit and the Shoe exhibit were both just over £10, and using my Travelex Cash Passport (I remembered the pin this time), I was able to get in and view some of the biggest and most amazing jewels I’d ever seen (including a 21 Karat uncut diamond and these things called ruby spinels!!) and some of the funkiest shoes I’d ever seen. I also had a chance to run into their gorgeous (but expensive!!) cafe and take in the views from there…
While in the area, I also took the opportunity to pop into the Brompton Oratory for Vespers and Mass (it was a Sunday after all). That is also a sight to see, so if you’re in the area, do pop in and take a look around. It is a fully functioning Catholic church though, so please be respectful if you are visiting.
I have to add a paragraph on the Brompton Oratory for you though…cause not only is it a thing of visual beauty, but the Vespers…oh my the Vespers! As I mentioned a few blogs ago, I am in the middle of a divorce. So this process is really annoying because you go back and forth between being perfectly fine to feeling unsettled…and unsettled in a horrid way because you cannot pinpoint what has set you off. I’ve been unsettled for the entire month of January. After the divorce trauma and two family deaths, I really needed some peace – and I had not gone to church in a few weeks because I was either exhausted or truly unsettled and just did not allow myself to go. But something called to me at the Brompton Oratory. I did not know that the Vespers were at 3:30pm and I was not planning on making mass at 4:30pm because my appointment with the shoes at the V&A was at 4pm. I was actually walking out when the Vespers started – but it was so beautiful that I did a 360 and sat in the pews and closed my eyes and just listened….and peace….that peace I had been seeking enveloped me and I wanted to weep because not only was I hearing something so beautiful that it was unreal, but I was surrounded by some of the most spectacular religious architecture that I had found in England….and the entire experience was transcendent. Now, you’re not allowed to take photos in the Brompton Oratory but I snuck one for you because I wanted to prove to you that this is worth going to.
This photo is of the main altar, but just walk around the main nave and you will see so much beauty that your heart will sing. And if you catch the vespers…do let me know because I would love to share that joy with you. Oh. And entrance to the Brompton Oratory, as well as any opportunity to take part in the masses or vespers etc, is free too.
I was completely knackered after that, so headed home….and thank GOD the Costa at Wimbledon train station was open – because I used the rest of my Travelex Cash Passport stipend to buy myself a small decaf soy mocha and a glutenfree chocolate brownie for a much needed sugar shot. Oh. That ended up being dinner cause I completely knocked out as soon as I got home after my brilliant budget weekend out!
Who says London has to be expensive? You just gotta look for the opportunities to see the truth of a city, not just the tourist attractions…..and if I can have that good of a time with only $150 US in the expensive City of London – you definitely can too. Just do some research – look at websites like Time Out and the Londonist and Alternative London and find some fun things to do…and worse comes to worse, look for walks around London or do your own! Or even better, check out what other bloggers got up to with this challenge by searching the hashtag #travelextourist.
A city like London does not have to be expensive to be fun. My budget weekend was amazing, and I have to thank Travelex Cash Passport for it, because if they hadn’t challenged me, I would probably have stayed home and tried to pack suitcases, feeling crappy and finding things like my old wedding guest book and getting even more unsettled because of it. Instead, I managed to have a lovely dinner with my sister, visit two amazing temporary exhibits at the Victoria and Albert museum and enjoy vespers at the Brompton Oratory and find some peace of mind. I loved it and I would completely do it again….what are you waiting for? Get out there and plan a budget weekend of your own!