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.
~ Samuel Johnson
The above quote is cliche, I know, but I find it so true. After having lived in London for a year, I’m just completely smitten with the city and will gladly talk the head off of anyone who wants to hear all about it and attempt to convince them they need to visit. I’ve been back in the States since late 2014, and this love for the city still hasn’t worn off! So I’ve decided to write down my favorite places I recommend in London for anyone who decides to go. I recommend taking a minimum of a few days in London and checking out at least one thing in each category, and use Google Maps to pinpoint and group them by location and save time. However, it is a massive city, I lived there for a year, and there were still things I didn’t see, so that gives you some idea! Just whatever you do, drink it all in and enjoy it!
1) View from up high: London Eye or The Shard
These are two ways to see the city from above, and I enjoy different things about each of them. The Eye is very iconic to London, and is right across from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, so it’s a great area to walk around, but the Shard is a more recently added icon (just completed in 2013) that is also the tallest viewing platform in Europe! I recommend scheduling either one ahead of time around sunset, as the city is extra beautiful at dusk.
2) City Tours: Cruise or Walking Tour
Usually for every city I visit briefly, I go on a guided tour of some sort to give me a big picture idea of what the city looks like, the history, and a general feel for the place that you would not get by exploring on your own. The only overall city tour I did in London was a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. It was good, but I feel like London is too big for a short bus tour to do it much justice – it may just be overwhelming. A couple of visiting friends did a river cruise, which I think would be a great way to take in the skyline and most iconic sights and history. There are also a lot of walking tours you can do in central London, some free. For more independence, I love the free walking tours through Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app, which will show you parts of the city in a reasonable walking distance at your own pace. If you can only do one, I recommend the Westminster Walk, which is short but will show you several of the must-see sights of historic London!
3) Markets: Old Spitalfields, Borough, or Camden
One of my favorite things is a good market, whether it’s food, goods, art, or all of the above. I usually just walk around and absorb each markets’ feast for the eyes, only occasionally buying an item or two. And so I checked out all of London’s major weekly markets. Old Spitalfields is actually more modern than it sounds – is my favorite and mostly focuses on quality handmade crafts and goods. I bought a shirt, a scratch map of the UK & Ireland, and a handmade card holder from a map (for my transport cards, mainly, and yeah, I like maps). They also have some great food stands and restaurants there at the market.
Borough Market, right next to the original London Bridge, is a big and crowded, but fantastic, food market every Saturday morning. Fresh produce, seafood, cheeses, baked goods, sandwiches, jams, fudge… if you’re a foodie, just go check it out. And come hungry.
Finally, Camden Market, not far from where I lived for about 8 months, is a collection of several markets next to each other – funkier kinds of markets with both food and goods (handmade and not). A great place to find a gift, get yourself a corset or steampunk necklace, or eat a fresh, hot doughnut. Depending on what you’re most interested in, I recommend checking out at least one of these to get the full London experience. And check ahead of time to make sure your market will be open when you want to go, as they all have seasonal hours.
4) Well-groomed Nature: Regent’s Park or Hyde Park
London is one of the most green cities per capita in the world. This may not be immediately obvious when you’re just seeing the most famous sites, but there are several huge parks in the city, and I made a point to visit all of them. My favorite (though I love them all) is Regent’s Park. It has everything for a park: a blooming, statue-filled, manicured English garden, a beautiful pond, mini-forests of trees, huge fields full of running, laughing crowds in the summer, wide paths to stroll or bike along, the Queen’s garden with couple little waterfalls, a big hill to overlook the rest of the park… it’s easy to spend hours just walking around here. There’s a zoo there as well, but it’s tiny and sad and not worth the time and expense, in my opinion, so I tend to ignore its existence – there’s much more to enjoy elsewhere in the park.
Hyde Park, another great option, has many of these amenities, but also is more iconic and a bit more central to the sites. It’s next to Kensington Gardens and Palace, has the Serpentine pond, and modern Princess Diane memorial fountain. It’s so central that there are a lot of other sights you might want to see right nearby, as well!
5) History: Tower of London and Tower Bridge
The Tower of London is one of the oldest buildings in the city, a royal palace, and the heart of the history of London. There is plenty to see for all ages, including the actual Crown Jewels, the ravens that guard the Tower, statues representing the wild animals once chained in various areas for the entertainment of the king, a chapel built on the graves of thousands of executed assumed traitors, and the spot where Ann Boleyn was decapitated. A short stroll away is the beautiful Tower Bridge (not the London Bridge as many think – that bridge is much older but not as striking), which is at least worth a photograph or two, as one of the most recognizable London landmarks.
6) Art: V&A or Tate Britain
London is one of the best cities in the world for art, and the most amazing part is that almost all the museums are free! There’s really something for every art lover, but my personal favorites are the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Tate Britain. The V&A was founded by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, and its collections span two thousand years of art in virtually every medium: paintings, sculpture, photography, glass, furniture, clothes, ironwork, everything! It’s a beautiful museum to stroll around casually, take a free tour, or head straight to your favorite medium’s section and drink it in.
Tate Britain is a much more traditional kind of museum, dedicated to paintings by British artists, but it is so well planned and curated that it bounded above my expectations. I used their free mobile walking tour with my phone and headphones, and spent most of a day here. But even with more limited time, Tate Britain is a worthwhile stop for art lovers.
7) Entertainment: A West End or Globe Theatre Show
London is one of the world’s top cities for live theatre, I dare say, and I saw a bunch of shows while I was there in London’s theatre district, the West End. My very favorite West End show was Billy Elliot, which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it! Whatever you’re interested in, buy a ticket ahead of time online – and on a limited budget, you can get cheap tickets for terrible seats. I’ve done this a few times, but enjoy a show much more in better seats. Completely up to you, but if you like theatre, make sure to see a show while you’re in the city.
Besides the dozens of West End shows at any given time, there’s also Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, a recreation of the original in the same spot! They run a series of shows throughout the spring-autumn, so check out which show is playing during your trip; tickets sell out quickly. I was lucky enough to see the Comedy of Errors, and it was brilliant! Globe actors are clearly talented and passionate. I also recommend taking the informative tour of the theatre, giving you its background and history, which you can do whether you have tickets to a play or not.
8) Royalty: Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Park
Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s workplace and residence during the week, is a British icon. It’s beautiful to visit the outside of any time, and you’ll see a couple of fuzzy-hatted guards in front of the palace, but depending on the time of year, there are a couple other things you can do. For about two months in late July-September (when Her Majesty is on holiday), you can tour the State Rooms inside the palace, which are very extravagant; everything is ornate and gilded. Or, during the off-season, you could see the changing of the guard, with lots of pomp, horses, and official looking Brits in a marching band. Check on the guard-changing times ahead of time, as they are seasonal. It’s pretty exciting, but I went in April, and it was super crowded and involved a lot of waiting around even after I showed up and got a decent spot – I’m sure it’s really crazy in the middle of the summer, when most of the tourists come, and you may not be able to see much. Tip: Many people crowd up to the fence of Buckingham Palace, but most of the marching happens in the roads in front of the palace, so I recommend picking a spot there – you won’t see much peeking through that big black fence. While you’re there, walk around the lovely and relaxing St. James’s Park in front of the palace. It’s especially beautiful in the springtime, when the many trees and flowers are in bloom!
8) Grand Churches: Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral
London, and England in general, has countless huge, beautiful cathedrals and churches. These are the two most famous and iconic in London, but they’re very different. St. Paul’s Cathedral has one of the best views of the city from the top of its tallest tower, but be prepared to walk up the 550 exhausting steps to the top if you want to see that (and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re short on time – instead do the Shard or Eye for other great views). It was designed by the famous architect Christopher Wren, and famously survived the Blitz of WWII that devastated so much of the city.
Westminster Abbey is older and holds tons of history, including the last 1000 years or so of royal coronations. Crowded with hundreds of graves of royalty and historically significant Brits, the church is not technically a cathedral (a different nearby church has the title of Westminster Cathedral), but is certainly as grand as one. I recommend taking a tour if you go to either church, as you will learn a lot about the history and significance that you wouldn’t get otherwise from just looking around.
10) Historic London Underground: The Tube
Whatever you do, make sure to ride the Tube (Londoners’ nickname for the London Underground, the under- AND over-ground city transit system) at some point to get from place to place. It was the first underground train in the world, and for some inexplicable reason I fell in love with it, and stayed in love even when commuting to/from work on it every day! To me it’s very easy to navigate, especially considering the number of lines and size of the city. I found that you can get anywhere within central London within 30 minutes. Get an Oyster Card for easy travel by both tube and bus, either online beforehand or from a London tube station when you arrive. The downside of the tube is that you don’t see any of the city while you’re down there, it’s a different world! So I recommend taking the tube at least once or twice, especially for any longer distance trips, and walking or taking the bus the rest of the time. If you’re as fascinated by the history of the tube as I am (or transportation in general), I highly recommend the Transport Museum in the Covent Garden neighborhood if you have time!
And that wraps up my Top 10 list of things to do in London! I have a few other tips that I’ll elaborate on in a second post, as well as an upcoming post on day trips from London. As always, please let me know if you have any questions or feedback! I shall leave you with this…
I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?
~ Charlotte Brontë