London City Guide
London is an amazing city with numerous exciting adventures waiting around every corner. Every day there is something new popping up around the city offering a different experience! If you haven’t had the chance to visit London yet, I’m sure you can think of the iconic sights like Big Ben, Parliament, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Camden Market, Tower Bridge… the list goes on. However, after spending a year living in and experiencing the great city that is London, I would like to share my two cents on what you should see and do!
Know Before you Go
Known for its dreary, overcast, rainy weather, touring London is actually doable in the rain. Plus, if it is raining, visitors get the entire London experience. Walking through a sea of umbrellas is a part of London life that tourists shouldn’t go without. If you visit London during a rare sunny day, consider yourself extremely lucky and make the most of it by spending time out in the beautiful vitamin D!
London is equipped with amazing public transportation. You can even use it to get great experiences around the city. Taking the Tube is easy and quick but doesn’t offer views of the city due to its underground lines. The iconic double decker busses, however, offer spectacular views. I would recommend sitting in the front row of the top deck to get the full experience if possible. The beautiful thing about London is that these different modes of public transportation can all be used with ONE card. Buying an oyster card is easy and effective, and can be kept for a little keepsake once visitors leave (I still have mine). Another great way to see the city is by riverboat. With an oyster card, visitors can hop onto a public transportation riverboat and cruise down the Thames. Seeing the city via river is an amazing experience. I would suggest taking the riverboat from central London to Greenwich if the Prime Meridian is on your list of sights to see. If you want a more hands on transport through the city, renting bikes is easy! Bike stations are located throughout the city so you can start your journey and end your journey in different places! Just be careful, as they drive on the left side of the road!
Everything you Need to See
Located on the top floor of the “Walkie Talkie” building, the Sky Garden boasts beautiful views of London. Instead of paying to ride the London Eye or go up to the viewing deck in the Shard, get a free view of the city at the Sky Garden! While it is free, reservations must be made online in advance. The Sky Garden also has a quaint café where visitors can enjoy a cuppa and pastry while overlooking the city. With panoramic views indoors and an outdoor observation deck to the south, this is a must do in London!
Tower Bridge (commonly mistaken for the London Bridge) should be on your top tourist sights to see if you are a first timer. However, a new exhibit opened on the top section of the bridge that allows visitors to walk high overhead between the two towers while also getting a history lesson about the iconic bridge. The tour takes you across the bridge twice and then down into the engine rooms to see the beast behind the beauty. The cost for this is fairly affordable and they offer student discounts! Take your visit to the next level with this tour!
Westminster Abbey and/or St. Paul’s Cathedral
While both of these sites are worth a visit for architectural purposes alone, tourists are met with steep entrance fees at the door. But there is hope! To bypass the entrance fee and experience a long tradition in the English church, attend an evensong. Evensongs are held in the evening and are a choral service in which the church’s choir sings hymns. Visitors get free entrance to the spectacular spaces with the accompaniment of angelical voices rising through the rafters. Make sure to check times of the services as they do not run every day and plan to get in line early to beat the crowds. Only a certain number of people are allowed entrance! If you want another spectacular view of the city and don’t mind shelling out a little cash, climb St. Paul’s dome for a thrilling experience!
Hampton Court Palace
While most think of Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace when they think of London, Hampton Court Palace is also a must see! Located out of the city center and away from the hustle and bustle, Hampton Court Palace offers visitors with plenty to see and do! The grounds are sprawling and manicured and also plays host to an old maze (to all my Harry Potter fans, this is for you!). The Palace itself is large and intriguing. Make sure to pick up an audio guide as one can easily be entertained for a couple hours with the amount of information that is known about the palace.
Art is plentiful in London. From free museums and public art, to musicals and theatrical entertainment, it is hard to visit London without encountering one or the other. The big public museums are all free and all worth a visit: British Museum, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Tate Britain, V&A, Natural History Museum, Imperial War Museum, Horniman Museum, National Maritime Museum, the list goes on… While these are all free, they also have amazing exhibitions that are affordable and worth the price. Other galleries like the White Cube, Serpentine Gallery (check out their pavilion in the summer!), Saatchi Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery and others, are great places to see ground breaking art shows and are more off the beaten path of the public museums. London is also home to amazing plays and musicals! To get a true experience that is also affordable, buy a standing ticket at the Globe for a Shakespeare play! Don’t forget to walk down the South Bank to experience some great art and culture of London!
One should not leave London without experiencing high tea. The price will depend on the location, but an average high tea costs around 20-30 pounds. While this seems to be a steep price tag, it will leave you feeling full for the rest of the day and give you an experience you will never forget. The top two places I would recommend to get high tea in this price range are Harrod’s and the Orangery at Kensington Palace. At Harrods a reservation is not required. The scones are large, the clotted cream is smooth, and the tea options are numerous. It also allows visitors to walk through the magnificent department store both before and after their high tea experience. To feel like a royal, the high tea at the Orangery is a must. Set next to Kensington Palace within Kensington Gardens, visitors feel like kings and queens while tucking into orange infused scones overlooking the palace grounds. The setting is quaint and quiet, and transports visitors back to the era of Queen Victoria. Just don’t forget to make a reservation! If neither of these sounds your speed, try taking high tea on a double decker bus! If booked well in advance (we are talking months) visitors can both enjoy high tea and see the sights of the city in the public transportation turned tearoom double decker bus!
London is well known for its markets. The markets in the city range from food and flowers to everything in between. Borough Market is my favorite market. Open daily for lunch; it is a great and affordable place to grab a bite to eat. Being located right under the Shard makes it the perfect place for lunch, especially if you are in the area of the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Sky Garden, etc. Camden is the most famous market of London, however I found it overcrowded and touristy. If you are looking for a more local experience, try the Portobello Market in Notting Hill. It is open on the weekends and you can find almost anything there from clothing and beauty products to vintage furniture and vinyl. Portobello is also lined with great restaurants if you get a little peckish. Another market worth checking out is the Columbia Road Flower Market, which is open on Sundays. The Battersea Car Boot Sale is another place to visit, especially if you want a local experience. Everything is sold out of the boot (or trunk) of cars on Sunday afternoons. The Battersea Car Boot Sale in particular boasts higher end vintage finds than other boot sales around the city.
London is dotted with many parks and I never found a bad one! Each offers its own unique experience to the city. Some great areas for an afternoon (or morning, or evening, or midday) stroll is through St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. All of these are connected and offer beautiful green scenery and a decent length walk one way. Visitors will see sights like Buckingham Palace, numerous war memorials, the Serpentine (where you can rent boats!), horse riding tracks, and Kensington Palace. Other great parks are Regent’s Park, where visitors can walk up Primrose Hill to see spectacular views of the city, Battersea Park, and Richmond Park. A twenty-minute tube ride outside of the city, Richmond Park offers visitors a true outdoor experience. Deer and wildlife run free through this park. Richmond Park’s location on the far west end of London takes you out of the city and into a serene environment. Another great park is Kew Gardens. With Kew Palace, the royal botanical gardens, and multiple activities to keep children (and adults) entertained for hours, this is a great spot to spend the day!
What/Where to Eat
Food is a significant part of traveling and experiencing a culture. In England, you shouldn’t visit without trying a few specific dishes including fish n chips and meat pies. London is full of multiple ethnicities and a variety of foods! Brick Lane is the place to go for Indian food, while China town is a must for some staple Chinese takeaway (guilty, I ate Chinese takeaway at least once a week). Borough Market is a fab place to grab lunch, and any pub is the place to be on a Friday night to experience true English culture! If you are looking for a fantastical pub, I would recommend the Churchill Arms. Covered with blooming flowers on the outside, the front of the pub is the typical English pub, but the back is a great Thai restaurant filled to the brim with potted plants! For a more out of the box dining experience check out places like Camden where visitors can find a café that only serves cereal or an ice cream store that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze their product!
If you’re into history and/or pop culture and don’t mind walking, a great way to experience London is through a walking tour. There are several companies in London that offer guided tours led by certified, knowledgeable, and friendly guides. A few examples of walks you can take are the Jack the Ripper Walk, London Street Art, Roman London, and Harry Potter. The walks offer the opportunity to not only hear and learn more about the specific subject, but to see parts of London you may not otherwise get to experience! If you’re on a budget, there are several walking tour apps available for your mobile phone that will guide and narrate your route. If you are up for a real challenge, many charity stores in London (and local book stores) offer books of off the beat walking tours through scenic areas in London.
London is a large city with much to offer visitors. While this list of sights, attractions, tips, and local hot spots does not include EVERYTHING the city has to offer, I hope it makes putting together your London itinerary more enjoyable! If none of these items tickle your fancy, be sure to check out the TimeOut website for up to date happenings around the town!