“Why, Sir, 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
Thus spake Johnson to his distinguished biographer James Boswell, and though the words are over 200 years old, they might equally well apply to any age. For London is and has always been one of those places where you can experience the complete spectrum of human possibility. Centre of an empire for centuries, from history to the arts to the sciences, London is a place where you can see, do, and find anything- a world unto itself. If you however, unlike Johnson, will measure your stay in London in the days rather than the years, you’ll want to quickly sort the wheat from the chaff and avoid the touristy riff raff. This list will help you decide what to check out.
London at a Glance
The weather in London generally varies from bloody dreadful to mildly repulsive as the year progresses. In the summer months (June to August) the mercury is cracking into the low 20s Celsius (70s F) during the day, though you’ll still need to jacket up at night. In winter, you might get around 8°C (46°F) in the middle of the day and blustery, with frosty conditions at night, but if you get lucky and it gets cold enough to snow then the city can look quite enchanting.
Prices per day:
Big Mac Index: £2.69 (US$4.02), 11.8% cheaper than a US Big Mac
Food: £30 – £100 (US$45 – $US150) depending on whether you stick to good value chains, cheap curry houses and pub meals, or wine and dine at nice restaurants. Either way it’s possible to get great food.
Hotel: For budget hotels, prices start around £75 (US$112) a night up to £150 (US$225) as you approach 4 stars. Try the Colonnade Hotel in one of my favourite neighborhoods, Little Venice. For luxury and high end the sky’s the limit- expect £150 – £500+. I love the Adria Boutique Hotel in Chelsea-Kensington.
Hostel: £25 – £35 for a dorm bed, £27 – £36 for a bed in a private room. I’ve stayed in the Generator Hostel in Russel Square and it was good.
Entertainment: Entry to most pubs is free, but often they close early and if you want to kick on to a big club then expect to pay big squid- £20 is not unusual. Entry to the Tate galleries is free (but the special exhibitions will cost you) and for other museums you might pay around £10 (US$15) or so.
Drink: £6 a pint of beer, £10 cocktail
Transport: You’ll pay £4.50 for a single trip on the tube in the city, or about £2.50 for the bus. But do yourself a favour and pick up an Oyster card. You can buy these at any station and top them up with money every so often. They’ll make things much cheaper for you- in fact almost 50% cheaper! Taxis are fairly pricey as you would expect for a major capital city, but if there’s a small group of you then suddenly it’s good value.
The only way to travel in London is by train. Well, it’s not the only way, but with so many corners of the city covered (usually) pretty efficiently, if you have an Oyster card you’ll normally be best off jumping on the Under- or Overground. Taxis are fairly pricey as you would expect for a major capital city, but genuine London black cabs are fun to ride in and if there’s a small group of you then suddenly it’s good value. Or you can get a mini-cab- cheaper still, and sometimes safe and licenced, but often just a guy with his car hanging outside the station. I’ve done so several times (especially after crazy nights out) and never had an issue but then I’m a tall hairy guy- use at your own risk!
1. Walk Around Westminster
Westminster is London 101 and thus deserves its spot up front. The area that lent its name to the parliamentary system of dozens of countries around the world has been seat of the British government for nearly a millennium. Take in the magnificent Houses of Parliament, take a tour in Westminster Abbey, watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, or simply stroll along the River Thames and bask in the air of British pageantry and seagull poo. Tube: Westminster, St James, Waterloo
2. Ride a Boris Bike Around Hyde Park
Mayor Boris Johnson may have his critics but any politician setting up bicycle sharing schemes will always find friends at Confiscated Toothpaste. The scheme was set up in 2007 and allows you to rent a bike from one of myriad self-service locations across London using your credit card. Dubbed Boris Bikes, they’re a great way to travel short (or longer) distances around London and good for getting the pulse going a bit faster in the cold grey air than the old walking pins might otherwise allow for. A very lovely place to ride is in Hyde Park– serenity is often best enjoyed at breakneck speed. Grab a bike from Marble Arch or Hyde Park Corner, and head toward the Serpentine, where you can swim or ice-skate depending on the season. As an alternative, grab a partner (preferably one you’ve prepared earlier) for a cuddle and a smooch as you watch the swans. Tube: Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner
3. London Tower and London Tower Bridge
Another quintessential London locale, the Tower is as touristy as it is unmissable. Built in concentric layers by successive kings over the centuries, the castle began with the construction of the central White Tower by William the Conqueror in 1078. Although the Tower found fame as a notorious prison and place of execution for traitors, kings and queens overthrown and disgraced, it was initially used as a royal residence, and in later times housed the Royal Mint, armoury, treasury and the Crown Jewels. It is still patrolled by Yeomans in their strange finery and by the famous ravens that live within. The tower is historically fascinating- hear the stories of Edward the 5th, who went missing from the tower in 1483 aged 13 along with his younger brother, both presumed killed by their Uncle Richard who then became king, with their (suspected) bones not showing up for another 200 years. Or Lady Jane Grey, who was manipulated by her father-in-law into accepting the Crown following the death of her cousin, only to be imprisoned 9 days later and charged with high treason. After watching her husband’s execution from her cell she was next upon the scaffold. She was only 16.
After you’re done with the stories of the Tower, take a walk across the Thames over Tower Bridge. An enduring symbol of London, it’s surprising to learn that the bridge was built only in the late 1800s, being one of the newer river crossings. The London Bridge of “falling down” fame is in fact the next bridge down the Thames and comparatively unexciting, though its present incarnation is undoubtedly more solid than that of the past. Tube: Tower Hill
4. Visit Hampstead
You may not have heard of Hampstead in West London, but on its vantage point above the Thames River Valley it has been the home of artists and intellectuals for centuries and continues as such today. The High Street is an absolute delight. It is also the home of Hampstead Heath, a large, green and ancient city park which is one of London’s best, if not the best. As a cool piece of trivia, the “Ship House” from Mary Poppins (where the crazy old Captain would fire off cannon rounds) is also located here. London Walks does a really good tour of the village and you’ll see stuff you might not have seen on your own. Tube: Hampstead
5. Catch a Show in the West End
If you’re as much a theatre nut as I am, then this one will be a no-brainer. But even if you’re not, go anyway- there are few places in the world where you can indulge in theatre of such calibre as here. Every musical, play, farce, tragedy or commedia worth its salt has played or is playing here. Live life on the edge of your seat and book half price tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square on the same day as the show- just have a list of shows in mind before you go and you can usually get decent (occasionally superb) seats. Or rock up to the theatre box office itself and see if they have any deals for that night. For best results have a drink prior to the show or during intermission and grab a box of Maltesers to munch on too. Tube: Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus
6. Get a Pub Lunch
During the campaign to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, Jacques Chirac, campaigning on behalf of Paris as French President, chastised the British for having poor quality cuisine. Like his decision to blow up nuclear warheads in Polynesian atolls, this assertion was clearly wrong and this was recognised as such by the International Olympic Committee who promptly awarded the games to London. The truth is that you can get the best, bar none, pub food in London pubs. From roast beef with all the trimmings to chicken pie with mushy peas and baby carrots to Banoffee pie and peanut butter ice cream, British pub food is the perfect antidote to a chilly climate. Grab an ale to wash it down- you’ll also find some of the world’s best in London, and though they have a reputation for being “warm” the truth is they are cold enough to enjoy but just not so chilled as to dumb down the flavour. If you’re looking for suggestions for cool pubs to try, why not try Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (where one Charles Dickens used to drink), White Horse in Chelsea, The Prince Alfred in Little Venice, or the Fox and Anchor in Smithfield.
7. Brick Lane and Shoreditch
You’ve seen the west, but don’t ignore the east of London, which is a microcosm of cool pubs, clubs, markets and street culture. Once the crime scene area of Jack the Ripper, Brick Lane nowdays has some of the best street art in London featuring work by Banksy, ROA, Dscreet and Ben Eine to name just a few. The area in and around nearby Shoreditch is also rich with artworks. If you like street art, this end of London is your seventh heaven. Tube: Aldgate East, Shoreditch High Street
8. Go Out for a Curry
It might surprise you to know that you can get one of the best curries outside of the Middle East/Indian subcontinent in London, but the city’s large Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities have made it so. If you’re looking for a spicy flavour party try the original Rasa in Stoke Newington, Lahore Karahi in Tooting, or Needoo Grill in Whitechapel, or seriously just choose something at random anywhere in London where you are walking past and chances are it’ll be pretty decent.
9. Go to a Football Game (or the Ashes or Wimbledon…)
Since we’re talking all things English, when I say football I’m talking about soccer. Getting along to a Premier League game is one of the funnest and liveliest things you can do, and though the crowd can get a little heated during the match, you can lower your blood pressure a little by sitting well within the home team stands and making sure you wear something in the home team colour (or at least not in the away team colour!). Having said that, I’ve sat right beside the away team’s corner unintentionally and had people yelling insults back and forth all around me and loved it. For extra points, go to a game with Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United playing, but book well ahead of time!
Other sports well worth checking out in and around London if you are there at the right time include the cricket (particularly during the epic Ashes series between England and Australia) and the Wimbledon tennis championship. The latter requires some patience, queueing and money if you have your heart set on a prime centre court match; but is much easier (and cheaper- more like £20) if you’re flexible and don’t mind schlepping it on one of the lesser courts with the plebs.
10. Explore Old Tube Stations
If you’re in any way slightly geeky like me, you’ll not just see the London Underground as a means of transport but as a marvel of Industrial Revolution engineering. The Tube, as it is affectionately known due to its (mainly) circular-drilled tunnels, was the world’s first undergound railway system and the world’s first electrified underground system. Some of the stations are well worth a visit in their own right. St James Park is an Art Deco masterpiece, while St Pancras is a Victorian wonder. Baker Street station was one of the stops on the original Metropolitan Railway (which grew into the London Underground) and is lovely to hang around in out of historical interest as you long as you try not to look too creepy. Tube: St James Park, Kings Cross/St Pancras, Baker Street
11. Columbia Road Flower Market
I know, I know, a flower market doesn’t sound particularly interesting, or at least I must admit I was skeptical when a friend asked me to meet her here. But once I went I was astounded by what I saw. An East London street transformed into a jungle of flowers and plants of all shapes and colours and such character as to defy description. Bring a cute friend and impress him/her with a pollen-encrusted gift, or come to people watch and check out the barrow boys who’ve been doing this all their life sell to the crowd with a colourful banter. Tube: Hoxton
12. Take in some Grizzly History in Southwark and Eat at Borough Markets
Southwark, south over the River Thames from London’s commercial zone, is one of London’s most historic neighbourhoods. Furthermore, it’s an awesome place to wander and is a veritable warren of charming old houses, stunning ancient churches, settings from Dickens novels (he lived nearby as a child and his father was incarcerated at Marshalsea Prison) and various ghastly grizzly old historical sites. The latter includes such macabre attractions as The Clink Prison (which gave its name to all others), a medieval burial ground for prostitutes, illegitimate children and other outcasts, and Europe’s first operating theatre. The latter pre-dated the invention of anaesthetic by Thomas Lister in 1846, but that didn’t stop them from amputation of limbs and “therapeutic” blood-letting. You probably won’t feel much like lunch after all this but on the off chance you’re hungry, stop in at Borough Market for some delicious hearty street food. It’s one of the oldest fine food markets in London. Or stop by The George Inn, who do a decent pub lunch and are the last remaining 16th century galleried inn complete with a courtyard where the coaches used to pull up. It’s old. Tube: Southwark, London Bridge
13. Take a Narrowboat Voyage from Little Venice to Camden Lock
Tube: Warwick Avenue
I am forever being surprised by London and one of the greatest surprises was Little Venice. Believe it or not, a system of canals operates throughout London and was used in pre-railway days for transport of cargo. In those days horses would tow the boats along the side of the canal but these days the boats have motors and you can walk along the still-existing tow-paths. But an even better way to see this hidden and enchanting side of London is to get aboard one of the boats. Although the canals are no longer needed for their purpose of yesteryear, they are inhabited by enthusiasts who lovingly keep the boats afloat, shuttle tourists around, and in many cases live on the canals. Do yourself a favour and head down to little Venice, jump on a narrowboat (there’s even a waterbus every hour, but if that’s not there have a look around for whoever else is offering a ride) and alight at Camden Lock- one of the craziest places you will ever lay your eyes upon. Which brings me to…..
14. Camden High Street and Markets
When I arrived in Camden Town I felt I had arrived at the end of the world but strangely there was a sense of joy about that. The High Street is a riot of alternative colour, the domain of punks, goths, metalheads and every kind of interesting person you could imagine. And the markets there have to be seen to be believed. It’s a great place to shop for leather jackets, old vinyl LPs, jewellery, retro clothing, arts and crafts, and a million other odds and sods that you never knew you wanted. For me, the Stables market is the most interesting, and comes complete with mazes of giant bronze sculptures of the horses that used to live here beside the canal. It’s a bohemian labyrinth, a bizarre bazaar. At the other end of the High Street you can grab some lunch at the Camden Eye pub, or if you enjoy some heavy metal with a pint of ale as I do then drop into the aptly named World’s End. Tube: Camden Town
15. Enjoy an Existential Crisis in Shakespeare’s Globe
William Shakespeare inspired reverence from the English (“He was not of an age, but for all time” -Ben Johnson), contempt from the French (“Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only those in London and Canada” – Voltaire) and confusion from just about everyone else. Whatever category you fall under, you’ll have a good old time at the Globe Theatre, a reconstruction of the original Elizabethan theatre in Southwark where Shakespeare chilled with his posse. The Globe often has performances from foreign troupes so you might catch Hamlet, 12th Night or The Merchant of Venice performed by companies from Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia- hell, even us heathen Aussies don’t mind a bit of big Willy. If you’re balking at the price of a gallery seat, here’s a hot tip- you can catch last minute standing room in the stalls for only £5- less than what you might pay for the pint of ale afterward. Tube: Blackfriars, but a bit of a walk
16. Go Shopping in the City
If you’re looking for fashion and other luxury items, or even if you’re not but just want to have a look, head to the vibrant West End. Department stores of varying quality and chain labels can be found in Regent Street and Oxford Street, while Bond Street in Mayfair is home to the most expensive elegance in London. Meanwhile, if dropping a few grand on a suit is your thing, you’ll want to head to the tailors of Saville Row. Hamley’s Toy Store on Regent street is a magical kingdom for kiddies both over and under the age of 30 while nearby Carnaby Street was the epicentre of London’s swinging 60s and is still colourful today. After you’re worn out, grab a bite to eat around Covent Garden and watch some street performers somersault their way into your heart. Tube: Bond St, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus
17. St Paul’s Cathedral
Yeah yeah, I know what you’re thinking- every European city has a cathedral to see, but London’s is really a pearler. Even in today’s highrise city, the St Paul’s huge dome stands as a stupendous sight among the surrounds for miles around- I can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been when it was built over 300 years ago. The Cathedral survived the bombing of World War Two relatively intact despite being targeted and is an incredible both inside and out. You can buy a ticket to ascend to the mezannine gallery and then finally to the very top of the dome. It’s amazing to stand up there in the cold wind as the roof curves and disappears into the heights all around. Tube: St Paul’s
18. The Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and British Museum
I don’t necessarily suggest you visit all of these, unless you are blessed with oodles of time, as they all demand a day of your time if they demand a minute. The Tate Britain holds the most famous items of Britain’s art collection, with the highlight being the superlative Turner collection. The Tate Modern is housed in a wonderful old power station building in Bankside and always has something interesting on. Meanwhile, if historical artifacts pilfered and pillaged from 4 corners of the globe – including ancient Egyptian sculpture and friezes chiselled from the Acropolis – interest you (and they are endlessly interesting) then you’ll enjoy the British Museum. Be entertained as they try to justify the removal of the relics from their rightful regions during the age of empire.
What about you? Have you lived or stayed in London? What would you add to the list? Add your recommendations below!