If you’re planning your visit to London, chances are you have already heard plenty about the Tower, Westminster Abbey and Hyde Park, so that’s not what this post is going to be about.
As someone who has spent the last 7 years living in London, I would like to think that I can offer you some tips beyond the big sights covered in all the guidebooks. Some of my recommendations are free of charge and some can be quite expensive, so the list is will have something for people on different budgets.
Without further ado, here are 8 things to do during your London vacation:
1. Visit a museum
One of my favourite things about London is that most of the museums here are free, so you don’t feel obliged to cover as many rooms as possible to make up for a substantial entrance fee. Pop in for a short while, pick a room you like and then leave full of excitement about the things you’ve seen rather than tired, hungry and dreaming of a comfy seat somewhere.
My favourite museum is the V&A (the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design) due to the variety of its exhibits. You can see things from clothing and jewellery to sculptures and architecture, all inside a stunning building with an open-air courtyard. It also helps that their cafe serves delicious cakes!
2. Go for a walk along the south bank of the Thames
Central London is very congested and you might not want to spend your time walking along traffic jams, which is where the route along the south bank of the Thames will come in handy. If you start by the Houses of Parliament and walk towards London Bridge, you will be able to cover a long stretch with no cars in sight – the walk is right by the river and apart from cleaner air, you will also appreciate how photogenic the route is. London Eye, South Bank Centre, Tate Modern and St. Pauls Cathedral are some of the places you will see.
3. Find a good spot for a panoramic photo
London is generally quite a flat area, so to get a good view of the city you either need to climb a man-made structure (of which there are plenty) or be in the know of where to find one of those coveted hills with panoramic views (hint – they will not be in Central London).
You could go for the heavily advertised London Eye and the Shard or, for something a bit off the beaten path, check out my post on the best places for views of London.
4. If you are tired of all the walking, hail a black cab and go for a short ride
‘Short’ being the key word here. The black cab fares are on the expensive side, so unless money is not an object, I would advise choosing a different mode of transportation for your ride from the airport. Whilst the cars themselves are far from luxurious inside, the design is quite unique and you do get a lot of legroom. You can also rest assured that the driver had to pass a strict test called ‘The Knowledge’ in order to be able to drive you around.
Fun fact: Did you know that black cabs are the only ones that you can hail on the street? None of the other taxi companies are allowed to pick you up just like that, so you need to book them.
5. Don’t fancy a black cab? Bag a front row seat on the upper deck of a double-decker bus and go for a scenic tour
Yes, you can go on a hop-on hop-off bus, where the roof of the upper section is removable, but if you prefer to avoid the overly touristy things, you can mingle with the locals on a normal London bus. Bus number 15 has a route that covers a lot of the landmarks and if you’re lucky, you may be able to get one of the old Routemaster buses. The TfL (Transport for London) website is your source of all knowledge when it comes to researching bus routes.
Useful tip: avoid the rush hour in the morning and evening. Not only will you not bag the coveted seat, you will be lucky to find any seat at all. Also, it is prohibited to stand on the upper deck, so you will have to go downstairs if no seats are available.
6. Visit Canary Wharf on the weekend
Canary Wharf is a super busy financial hub during the week, but on the weekends it turns into a deserted glass and steel skyscraper area with some lovely canals – perfect to wander around if you enjoy modern architecture and want some peace and quiet. To make your visit even more memorable, rather than getting here by Tube, you can use the Thames Clippers River Bus services from Tower or one of the more central piers.
To finish your tour of Canary Wharf, pop into Crossrail Place Roof Garden, a small botanical garden with areas to sit and relax.
7. Enjoy the classic tradition of afternoon tea
If you are spending time in London, going for an afternoon tea is a must. In case the name confuses you, it is not just tea that is involved, but a rich meal, usually consisting of sandwiches, scones and cakes and served on a tiered stand. The tradition goes back to the 1800’s and was started by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Afternoon tea has evolved quite a lot since then and some places have gone for a more adventurous take on the classic menu.
The more expensive traditional options for afternoon tea are the big name hotels – The Ritz, The Dorchester, The Savoy and the like. If you don’t mind losing some of the wow factor in terms of ambience and don’t care for a dress code, you could try the National Cafe in the National Gallery, where the food is delicious and the prices are a lot more wallet-friendly. To research the options and book, visit Afternoontea.co.uk
8. Splurge on a fine dining experience
Did you know that London has over 60 Michelin-starred restaurants? Whilst it’s not as many as Paris or New York, it is certainly more that Milan or Berlin, so why not treat yourself while you’re here to finish off a day of sightseeing.
The restaurants are all quite centrally located and offer a wide range of different cuisines and price levels (none of them will be cheap, understandably, but you are looking at the difference between just expensive and eye-wateringly expensive – sushi for £300 per person at the Araki anyone?
My personal recommendation is a modern European / Scandinavian restaurant called Texture located just off Oxford Street. Their fish tasting menu is fantastic! But if you fancy something different, Evening Standard newspaper has put together this handy map of all Michelin-starred restaurants in London.
Hopefully, this guide has been useful and you have added at least a couple of things to your must-do list. Enjoy you stay in London!
For more information about London also read: Interview With an Expat: Living in London
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