I studied in London for a year but spent much of that time doing, er, studying. I can’t say that I’ve properly experienced the city as a true Londoner. Oh, I’ve done the usual tourist suspects – Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Hampton Court, &c. But apart from occasional visits to Leicester Square for food/gatherings, I’d never really taken advantage of the unique, simple pleasures that living in London offers. Dropped into a random church just out of curiosity, say; or spent a weekend exploring the British National Museum. It was only great good luck that enabled me to revisit London on two work-related occasions in the past 6 months. And this time, with the help of my York-born but London-living friend, I had a few successes in my quest to stop experiencing London as a tourist and learnt a few things along the way.

interior of the victoria & albert museum

1. Visits to (free) art galleries are like balm for the soul. My fourth trip to the National Gallery reminded me of the beauty of Sassoferrato’s work and the genius of Michelangelo and da Vinci. My maiden one to the Tate Britain confirmed that I can love modern art, key criteria being (a) ‘if it makes sense’ (as my dear friend pithily observed); (b) if it is aesthetically appealing. It also exposed me to the gorgeous works of John Piper and reaffirmed my fondness for the pre-Raphaelites. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also delightful, with its exhibits ranging from cartoons by Raphael to Islamic art, fashion, furniture, and E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.

2. A good classical concert can literally give one chills. I attended a ridiculously affordable concert (my seat with restricted views cost nine quid) by the extremely competent Vasari Singers held at the lovely (undergoing-restoration) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the baritone solos in Fauré’s Requiem literally raised goosebumps on my neck. I had no idea quite how famous the Vasari Singers are until I Googled them. This concert triggered a spell of massive re-listening to all my classical favourites, including J S Bach, Mozart and of course Fauré.

interior of st stephen walbrook

3. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a church service held in London. (Funny thing is, I can’t say the same for the church services I have attended in Singapore.) It so happened that when I entered the interestingly round church of St Stephen Walbrook – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – there was a service going on. Quite befittingly, the service ended with a quietly beautiful three-part mass by de Victoria, sung a cappella by an alto, tenor and bass. The whole experience was clean and elegant – not unlike the church itself.

hampstead heath

4. It’s lovely to have easily accessible parks to pop into fresh out of a tube station. There’s the Hyde, the Regent’s, and of course, the (Hampstead) Heath. It was winter and the trees were skeletal, but the green alone was pretty and peaceable. In a similar vein, London gardens can be jolly nice – I envy the English their varieties of native plants.

charing cross tube station

5. The London Underground, despite frequent delays, suspensions, surprise closures and tonnes of stairs, is really an excellent way to get around because of the density of the stations, especially in central London. What the Tube doesn’t adequately cover, the buses make up for, which is a great credit to the city’s public transportation system. (Love Ian Bostridge too – where else would you find an advertisement for one of his concerts?)

hampstead village

6. And yet the great thing about London is that you can have a rather fulfilling everyday life without walking further than 20 minutes from your home. The ‘village’ concept is still in force; you can generally find a good array of shops, food places offering varied cuisines, Starbucks, your local bank, the parish church, and even a cinema. I watched the excellent ‘Michael Clayton’ at the Swiss Cottage Odeon on a Saturday evening and it was lovely to be able to walk home discussing it.