Up until March, heading into London was a normal thing to do. After all, I might not live there anymore, but I still work in London. Whether it was my daily commute into the office, meeting up with friends, shopping or simply exploring town, London was only ever a 45-minute train ride away. Occasionally a little longer, if train services were disrupted. But never ever could I imagine not being able to actually get to London for weeks on end. But then, it happened. The whole world came to a brief stop, the UK (and many other countries) went into lockdown. Although we are now gradually getting back to some form of normality, the new normal feels a million miles away from the old normal.
And the same goes for trips to London.
Let me stress here, that I am not promoting trips to London here. I am not saying you should come back as a tourist just yet. I just wanted to share with you my experience of visiting London after the lockdown. What is it like? Does it feel safe to visit London after lockdown? How has it changed?
London after lockdown: My first time back
End of July was my first trip to London after lockdown. With lockdown measures eased, shops and restaurants had gradually started to re-open and so had hairdressers. As many others, I was desperate for a haircut, so decided to chance it and head into London for the day. Armed with a face mask, hand sanitiser and a bottle of water.
At that time, wearing a face mask was already mandatory on public transport, but not yet in shops. This would be introduced later that week.
I was a little anxious how it would be going back into London and using public transport. After all, I had done my best for four months to stay well clear of anyone and everyone.
Since I avoided rush hour, the train into London was almost empty and keeping my distance to other travellers wasn’t a big issue. In fact, I was the only person in the carriage for half the journey.
To minimise interaction, I decided to not use any public transport in London. So instead of taking the tube or bus, I just walked.
I met up with a friend down by the Thames and we ended up pretty much walking all the way from Tower Bridge to Westminster Bridge and back whilst catching up. We had a takeaway coffee along the way (or rather I had, my friend wasn’t quite ready to consume any food or drink outside the safety of her own home just yet) and sat down every now and then (at a safe distance to each other obviously).
As lovely as it was to finally see my friend and to be back in London, it felt rather surreal. London after lockdown looked nothing like the busy London I remembered. July is usually high season in London. Lots of tourists from all over the world. Families on days out, whilst the kids are off school. But not this time. There were hardly any people around. Not only were the tourists missing, most people hadn’t returned to their offices yet. London felt very much like a ghost town. Which had a certain appeal as well. When else would you be able to just walk along the Thames and enjoy the sights without constantly bumping into other people?
London after lockdown: Subsequent visits
With every trip into London after the lockdown, I became a little less anxious about it. My trains were still very empty, but there were more people out and about in London. By the time I went into London for the second time, more restaurants and shops had re-opened. The government was running their ‘eat out to help out’ initiative, introduced to get people back into restaurants and therefore boost the economy. My friend did eventually muster the courage to have a coffee and lunch with me (still outside though, but the weather was nice, so we would have stayed outdoors anyway).
As we walked through London (yep walking again, even on trip two I was still avoiding tubes and busses), we went to Covent Garden. Just to see what it would be like. Covent Garden market is usually a very busy area with loads of little shops, but this time it was almost deserted.
It wasn’t until my third trip into London that I actually took a bus. Getting back on the tube took even longer.
What to expect visiting London after lockdown
London after lockdown looks and feels quite different. Even now (mid-September), loads of restaurants and shops haven’t reopened. A lot of people are still working from home, so the streets are empty. Tourists haven’t returned yet (or at least not in the same numbers, you can spot a few).
Safety measures are in place to ensure social distancing is observed. Markings on the streets and pavements remind you to keep your distance. Walking down the streets, you will frequently come past sanitising stations.
Some streets (like Regent Street for example) have narrowed down the road to increase pedestrian walkways and make it easier to stay clear of each other.
Restaurants that have re-opened after the lockdown had to reduce the number of guests to ensure everyone can stay well clear of one another. Where possible, restaurants have expanded onto the pavement, allowing some al fresco dining (and therefore maximising their capacity). Walking down some streets in Soho and Covent Garden makes you feel like being in the Mediterranean with tables and chairs lining the streets.
When eating in a restaurant, you are required to leave your details. Whilst seated you don’t have to wear a face mask. But staff will wear a mask or face screen.
Most restaurants have changed to disposable paper menus, to minimise cross contamination.
A lot of places have gone cashless or are at least encouraging you to use cards rather than cash.
When having drinks in Covent Garden, we even had to order via their website (and pay online), the only interaction with the waiter was when he brought our drinks.
Not all shops have re-opened yet. But those that have, had to change the way they allow customers into the shops. One-way systems have been introduced. Arrows mark the ways you are meant to walk. Hand sanitisers are present at the entrance and you are strongly encouraged to use those when entering the shop. Plus, you have to wear a face mask whilst in the store.
Changing rooms are still closed, so clothes shopping can be a bit hit and miss.
When shoe shopping, you will be given disposable socks to wear when trying on shoes (I ‘ll be honest, wearing plastic bags on my feet whilst trying on trainers wasn’t an experience I had on my bucket list so far).
Souvenir shops were obviously quick to adapt and are now selling all kind of face masks along the usual souvenirs.
On all public transport it is mandatory to wear face masks. And from what I’ve seen, both on tubes and busses most people seem to stick to it (on national rail trains it sadly seems to be a different matter, more and more people don’t seem to bother with masks anymore. Or maybe that’s just on my line, I don’t know).
The number of passengers on busses is limited to ensure sufficient distance from one another. On the tube you are asked to not stand in the aisles (which works if you are in London in the middle of the day, no idea how this is meant to work during rush hour). Tube stations operate a one-way system where possible.
How to prepare for a visit to London after lockdown
If you are heading into London any time soon and you are thinking of visiting specific places, I would strongly recommend checking before you go. Loads of places are still shut or have limited opening hours / capacity.
Museums for example are gradually reopening now, but even though some of them don’t charge any admission fee, you will have to register and book a time slot before you visit. Visiting London spontaneously has become a whole lot more complicated. Check the websites for amended opening hours and see if you need to book tickets. The last thing you want to do when visiting London is travel unnecessary.
Theatres are still shut, and it is unclear when they will finally reopen. The first one that has announced that they will start playing again is ‘The Mousetrap’ at the St. Martin’s Theatre. Which was London’s longest running show, playing continuously from 1952 until March 2020 (when everything had to stop during lockdown).
Whilst heading into London still feels a little odd and certainly not like the normal daily thing to do, I am gradually getting used to the idea again. I haven’t been back to the office yet as I am still working from home. But just meeting up with a friend and going for a coffee feels like such a luxury at the moment.
What about you? Have you been to London after the lockdown? Or to any other big city? How did you experience it? Did it feel weird? Did you feel safe?