I know this blog is supposed to be about personal finance, but I just got back from visiting London – my first trip to Europe! – and my mind is still swimming in all the wonderful things I got to see and do. For years, I’ve been an armchair traveler, the type of person who visits the world vicariously through the Travel Channel or my friends’ vacations; this time, I got to do it all myself. It was exhilarating.

As a European history major in college, I thought I knew a lot about the UK, even if I was a newbie to international travel. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. So I’ve put together a list of the ten most surprising things I learned while in London. Did you know these things? Read on to find out!

  1. A British pint isn’t the same size as an American pint. Fact: in the UK, a pint is 10 oz., while here in the States, it’s just 8 oz. The result? Three drinks is more than enough to put me under the table.
  2. If you spend enough time riding the Tube (aka, the Underground, aka, what Londoners call the subway), your snot will turn black. This is not a joke. My friend told me this my first day in London, and I doubted her enough to look it up on Snopes. The website said it was indeed true, which I learned firsthand soon enough. The reason for the dirty mucus: steam engines used to chug through the Tube, and microscopic dust particles still pollute the air. Gross, I know.
  3. The Tower of London isn’t merely a tower. In fact, it’s an entire castle complex, surrounding what’s called The White Tower. Despite my history classes – and my penchant for 15th century Tudor fiction – I never realized this. Another interesting fact: more people were executed on the Tower grounds during the 20th century than any other point in history, even during the years when Henry VIII was executing any woman he could get his chubby little hands on.
  4. London Bridge is not, in fact, falling down; to be honest, it doesn’t look like it ever will. It’s a sturdy-looking, utilitarian style bridge that replaced the original decades ago. When most people think of “London Bridge,” they’re actually visualizing the far more stylish Tower Bridge.
  5. Queen Elizabeth’s birthday is April 21st (I know because I was there, and the British army shot off a 21 canon salute in her honor over the Thames that day), but the official celebration date varies depending on which part of the British empire you’re in. In the UK, the official celebration actually occurs in June, two months after her true date of birth.
  6. Even though Discover Card will tell you that it’s widely accepted in the UK, I failed to find a single British merchant that accepted the card – and I even shopped at some big-name retailers like Harrods. Visa is, truly, everywhere you want to be.
  7. The British monetary system is confusing, but here’s what you have to remember: the pound is like a dollar, and a pence is like a penny. The conversion rate is roughly one pound for every $1.50 USD.
  8. Those iconic red telephone booths? Even though everyone in the UK – just as in the US – has a cell phone, those phone booths are literally everywhere in London. I saw plenty of people (me included) posing to take photos inside the ubiquitous booths, but not a single person actually making a phone call in one.
  9. You can do a lot of things for free in London. My favorite freebie? The British Museum, where all the antiquities of the British Empire are housed. This single museum is akin to all of Washington’s Smithsonians, all grouped within one massive complex; you could spend a week in the museum, and not see everything. And although it’ll cost you £20 to tour St. Paul’s Cathedral (where Charles and Diana were married) or Westminster Abbey (where William and Kate tied the knot), you can spend some quality time in both houses of worship if you walk up to the front doors and ask to hear mass.
  10. Tipping is already included with your bill in most establishments, whether you’re dining with a large group or not. Gratuity is typically much lower in London – on average, we were charged between 10-12%, compared to 15-20% in the States – but there’s still a place for additional gratuity on your bill.

Have you ever traveled to the UK or London? Did you learn anything surprising on your trip? If so, please share!

Libby Balke
Libby Balke