The capital of the United Kingdom is a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis which has so much for visitors to see and do. London is like a huge collection of villages which have gradually grown and merged together, so there are many different areas and each have a slightly different identity. Visitors should definitely try and see more than just the usual tourist hotspots such as Covent Garden and the West End and experience some of the quirkier areas such as Soho, Camden and Shoreditch. The city has a jam-packed calendar full of all sorts of events through every season. There are loads of open air music festivals and concerts during the summer months; Christmas markets and fairs during the winter; and annual events such as The Chelsea Flower show in May, The Notting Hill Carnival in August, and Guy Fawkes Night in November.
Things to do and see
Sights – As you take a wander down the River Thames you will come across some of London’s most iconic sights including Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, London Bridge, and The London Eye.
Museums – Most of the well-known museums in London such as the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and British Museum are free to enter, and are frequented by locals as much as tourists. However, try some lesser-known ones to see some more unique and unusual artefacts. For a terrifying reminder of what operations were like in Victorian times, visit The Old Operating Theatre. The Fan Museum contains thousands of fans from all over the world, and you can even take part in a fan making workshop. For families, the Ragged School Museum is a good choice to experience a real Victorian school lesson, complete with slates and chalk to write with. Another view into the past is at Denis Servers’ House where everything is just as it would have been in the early 18th century.
Galleries – Again, the famous offerings such as the Tate Modern and National Portrait Gallery are well worth a visit. But for something different that many tourists won’t have seen, head to smaller galleries such as Riflemaker or The White Cube which often display work by young and local artists.
Theatre – Sometimes more interesting than what the West End has to offer is the fringe theatre scene: at any given moment there’s sure to be some intimate performance going on in the upstairs of a tiny pub to an audience of maybe only a handful of people. Try Theatre 503, Rich Mix or The Tricycle for some innovative drama.
Backpackers – London is not a cheap city but PubLove offers dorms beds from around US$20 a night and is also conveniently located above a pub.
Boutique – For Latin-themed kitch stay at the Church Street Hotel with rooms from around US$200 a night.
Luxury – The Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park is an elegant choice with stunning architecture and a beautiful pool. Rooms start from around US$1000 a night.
The extensive underground (known local as the ‘Tube’) and overland train and bus system is the backbone of London and you couldn’t say you’ve properly experienced London without a trip on the Tube or a red double-decker bus.
Tube – Buy an Oyster card as they can be used on all tubes, as well as buses, trains, the docklands light railway (DLR), some river boats, and the cable line running over the Thames. The card itself will set you back US$8, but this will be refunded whenever it’s returned. A zone 1-3 travel card will set you back less than US$60 for a week so add a US$15 top up for occasional travelling outside the area and this will set you in good stead. Most trains run from around 5am to 12:30am.
Bus – Reaching areas not covered by trains and linking up different tube lines, buses are a great way to travel the city as you actually get to see where you’re going. Keep an eye on your map and if in doubt check with a fellow passenger or the driver as to where you should get off. There is a skeleton service which runs during the night.
Taxi – Addison Lee or Radio Taxis are both reliable companies that should be able to give you a competitive quote and pick you up promptly. Black cabs can be hailed down in most central areas but cost more.
Boat – This is pretty much the cheapest way to see the sights of the river. A wonderful long scenic route to take is from Embankment to Greenwich, which takes you through the heart of the city, under Tower and London bridges and past Canary Wharf and Docklands. If you already have an Oyster card with a Travelcard, it will only set you back about US$8 for a single journey (which will come out of your prepaid amount) and takes about an hour.
Cable Car – The new Emirates Air Line which runs from Greenwich to Royal Docks whisks you over the Thames for some amazing views. The enjoyable ten minute journey only costs around US$6 with an Oyster card.
British food – For the classic British favourite of fish and chips you can’t get better than the Golden Union (Price guide: Budget). A fantastic place to get traditional British fare is at Maggie Jones’s (Price guide: Mid-range) and make sure you save room for pudding as the apple crumble and custard is pure heaven! For an award winning feast of historic British dishes, reserve a table at Dinner by Heston (Price guide: Expensive).
Other cuisines – London’s vibrant mix of ethnicities (definitely the most cosmopolitan in the whole world!) and backgrounds means that there are restaurants from literally every corner of the world, as well as ones catering to every diet. Try Inamo (Price guide: expensive) for a novel dining experience where you order the exquisite Asian-fusion dishes from an interactive device which projects the menu onto your table. For meaty tagines and aromatic teas, go to Momo (price guide: mid-range), an atmospheric North African eatery. The Gate (Price range: expensive) offers interesting and tasty vegetarian fare described as Indo-Iraqi Jewish.
Breakfast – For a slice of working class London, head to a The Regency Café (Price range: Budget) which is a typical greasy spoon café with chipped mugs of steaming tea, greasy bacon butties, and a full English breakfast for under a fiver (US$8).
Afternoon Tea – The British institution involves tiny sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, and a variety of cakes, all washed down with copious amounts of tea. Tea & Tattle (Price range: Budget) is simply delightful and also has an adjoined bookshop, and also handy if visiting the nearby British Museum.
Pub – One of the oldest boozers in town is The Dove and it also has a fantastic riverside setting.
Gigs – Music events of all sizes go on every single night at many locations all over the city. You can catch huge acts performing at the gigantic O2 Arena, but smaller, local venues are much more friendly and relaxed. Try the Roundhouse for a cool venue with some big names, or another trendy place is the Brixton Academy. There are loads of pubs that open up their doors to new and emerging bands and are cheap or even free to attend, for instance Barfly.
Club – The Electric Ballroom in Camden hosts different nights from 80s to alternative or for something a bit more trendy head to Fabric in the East End. Arguably the world’s most famous gay club can be found on Charring Cross Road (G.A.Y.) and this venue hosts some of the biggest names on the British pop scene.
Shopping and Markets
Shopping Areas – Carnaby Street and Covent Garden have a lovely mixture of shops selling clothing, shoes and accessories. For something special head to the boutiques of the Kings Road, or to Savile Row for bespoke tailoring. The little shops scattered around Camden, Notting Hill, and Shoreditch offer more unique and alternative choices of clothing and gifts.
Shopping Centres – The two Westfield centres at opposite ends of London, provide a mix of high street and designer, but most people come here to eat and socialise more than to just shop. There’s everything you could ask for under one roof including shopping, entertainment and dining, and this is where you’ll find hordes of Londoners hanging out on a rainy day.
Markets – You’ll find the most interesting and eclectic purchase at markets like Spitalfields and Camden. They both offer seemingly endless stalls with enticing, beautiful and unique products, many of which are created by local artists and are one of a kind. Borough Market is a huge wholesale food market where you’ll be able to pick up organic and specialist produce. South Bank Book Market is worth a wander, and Portobello offers literally everything you can possibly think of with bric-a-brac, antiques and clothes stalls.