A friend recently posed a question on facebook. She was asking whether it was worth going to London, even if she didn’t want to do “touristy” stuff.
I answered that it was definitely worth it. London is on of the premier global cities and is a must at least once in your life. As Samuel Johnson said in his oft quoted line: “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Now, I wrote a list of things to do and see in London a while ago. I have added more items to the list and given them in more detail here. Enjoy!
London can be a daunting place to face, but once you get off the tourist trail and walk its streets you find a place so teeming with life and beauty that it cannot be matched.
Here are my things to see and do. Names in brackets and italics denote the nearest Tube stop.
Things to see and do:
All the regular sites:
Yes, they are worth doing, despite being ‘tourist’ places. They are beautiful and worth it. There are plenty of tourists, but it’s not like ‘Rome in the summer’ sort of tourists. These places are best viewed while walking around town.
Parliament / Big Ben / Westminster Abbey (Westminster)
Trafalgar & Leicester Squares, Piccadilly Circus & Covent Garden (Piccadilly/Leicester Square)
A good way to see these sights is to walk between them all. Central London is quite closely packed together and is easily walkable. The tube map makes things look far further apart than they really are. Don’t fall for that trap. If in doubt google map it.
If walking: Start at Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly Line). There you see the Wellington Arch. Walk through the arch and down Constitution Hill (yes, that’s its name. A lot of roads in London don’t have an odonym). On your left is Green Park and right is Buckingham Palace. You can then walk up the Mall to Trafalgar Square or through some side streets to Westminster / Big Ben. That would only be about two miles (about three kilometres). It’s all rather close.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
All the museums and galleries - National Gallery (Also National Portrait Gallery at the back), V&A Museum, Natural History, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, etc. They are all free and open to the public. Definitely worth a visit.
Portobello Market - the long market down Portobello Road in Notting Hill filled with all manner of things from antiques to fresh produce. Best on saturdays. (Notting Hill Gate)
Camden Market & Lock - just a little bit of crazy. (Camden Town)
Tower Bridge and the Tower of London - Tower Bridge is commonly mistaken as London Bridge. The old London bridge was replaced by a dull concrete piece in the 1960s. (Tower Hill / London Bridge)
Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens - Wander all around it. Make sure you get a drink from the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen and enjoy it by the Serpentine (lake). You can also take a paddle or row boat out onto the Serpentine. The Albert Memorial is also worth a look. (Hyde Park Corner / Marble Arch / High Street Kensington)
Also check out Speaker’s Corner on a sunday afternoon. Everyone out expounding their wisdom / insanity. Heckling is encouraged.
Regents Park and Primrose Hill - The short / steep walk up Primrose Hill is incredibly rewarding. You can see all over London from there. (Baker St for Regents. Camden Town for Primrose)
Richmond Park - this park is three times the size of New York’s Central Park. It is massive and you’ll probably get lost as I did. Hundreds of deer roam freely through the park. (Richmond)
The Southbank - walking along the southbank of the Thames from Westminster to London Bridge takes you past many great sites, markets and museums. It’s only two miles (3km). Definitely worth it.
Borough Market - all the best fresh produce you could ever want. Just about every stand had free samples. (London Bridge)
Westminster Cathedral / Brompton Oratory - the Oratory is incredibly beautiful inside. It is next door to the V&A. Also just behind the Oratory is the HTB Church Gardens. If you need a moment of peace that is where to find it.
Ain’t Nothin But Blues Bar - this bar is perfect for a cheap and fun night out. Live music every night. Best is at the weekend. Get in early if you want a seat or want to get in at all.
Yumchaa - great little tea house in Soho. I love the ‘walk in the woods’ tea.
Soho - Soho is an area of tightly packed streets north of Piccadilly. There are many little bars, cafes and hidden things to find.
V&A Museum Tea Rooms - after you enter the V&A go right through to the back of the museum, probably through the garden and there you will find the tea rooms. They are utterly beautiful and exquisitely detailed. The price of food is a bit exorbitant, but it goes to supporting the museum so it’s not too bad.
The “City of London”. The city is the historic centre of the city. It’s where you can find the Monument, Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. There are also a few little gems like Leadenhall Market and old churches (bombed out in WWII) that are now gardens. Also, at the Barbican there is a large conservatory - a little tropical rainforest in the middle of London. It is quite the sight! On the edge of the city is Brick Lane. (Bank / Monument / Liverpool St)
Brick Lane - This area used to be a heavily migrant area filled with people from the subcontinent. Nowadays it still retains a sub-continental feel, plus loads of vintage and second hand shops and galleries. Great food too! (Liverpool St)
A West End show - The London equivalent of Broadway. Leicester Square has a few ticket booths covering most of the many theatres. (Leicester Square)
Greenwich - You can see the Cutty Sark (a beautifully restored old Tea Clipper), The Royal Observatory (where time is calculated from) and the Old Royal Naval College. In the college there is one of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen. Opposite it is the Painted Hall. Stunningly beautiful.
Harrods - It can be quite touristy down the bottom, but the antiques section upstairs is ridiculous. Also the food hall is to die for. (Knightsbridge)
Most people will get out a map, freak out at the perceived size of the central areas and go for the Tube. The Tube map is deceiving though. Stops like Embankment and Charing Cross are so close together that the front of trains have entered one before they have left the other. Also Piccadilly / Leicester Square / Covent Garden are situated within half a mile (900m) stretch. It is not worth getting the Tube between them, although they’re happy to let silly tourists do so.
Because the Tube was originally build by private companies in the late 1800s/early 1900s they didn’t work together. They built stops close together in competition. Now that they’re all the one system, it’s a muddle.
Public Transport (TFL)
You will need the Tube or the bus at some point though. To use either you will need an Oyster Card. You can buy this at Heathrow or once you get into London at a Tube station. It’s a card that you can top-up with credit to use public transport. It is much cheaper (by nearly half) than buying cash tickets (£4.30 one-way on the Tube, £2.20 on the bus). Make sure you touch on when you get on a bus. If in doubt, copy the locals. If you’re going to be in London for a week and going to be using public transport each day, get a travelcard (usually a zone 1-2 card is all that is needed). Ask about it at a tube station when topping up (putting money on your card). It is usually a lot more cost effective than constantly topping up.
The best to plan your way around London is to use the TFL journey planner. Google maps works fairly well, but TFL is the best. You can get walking, cycling or public transport options.
TOP TIP #1: While on escalators STAND ON THE RIGHT, WALK ON THE LEFT. Londoners will get quite angry (through probably will be to polite to say anything) if you stand in the walking lane.
TOP TIP #2: Have your Oyster Card ready to scan when entering a Tube station. The Tube gets busy and there is nothing more annoying than a tourist fumbling about blocking hundreds of people from getting home.
I would recommend using the Boris Bikes. The official name is Barclays Cycle Hire. Boris it the mayor’s name, hence the name. They cost £1 a day as an access fee or £5 for a week. When you take out a bike it is free for the first 30 minutes and then costs from there. Generally though you won’t need it for more than 30 minutes at a time. Just ride from one sight to another and then dock the bike.
I’m sure I have forgotten some things, so please feel free to suggest anything!