I’ve lived in London for long enough to know that the area around Oxford Street-Piccadilly Circus-Trafalgar Square is best avoided if you’re not a tourist. But I was wrong!
I found myself at 9am on Oxford Street on a Wednesday – and it was great! It was a cold January morning, and the crowds were nowhere to be seen: so I wandered around for a while just taking it all in.
I noticed the impressive architecture around Piccadilly Circus; took photos of the statues in Trafalgar Square; looked at the cool store fronts in Carnaby Street. Then I hopped on the tube to get to the Tate Modern just as it was opening, when art students sit on the floor with their sketchbooks.
Having my breakfast and looking at St Paul’s across the river, I felt so lucky to have had a moment of peace in this amazing city.
London is an incredible city, you can easily spend a month here exploring all the sights, museums, parks and more. But there’s also lots to do off the beaten track. Here are some of my tips:
Look over the city from the Walkie Talkie:
This may be one of the ugliest buildings in London, but it’s a good place to go to get great views over the city. What’s more, tickets are free, you just need to book in advance.
Sample the local brew at We Brought Beer:
With locations in Clapham and Balham, this is a great place to sample a wide range of local beers. The staff can help you find the perfect ale, which you can drink on the spot or take home with you.
Take a leisurely walk in Richmond:
Richmond is the perfect place for a quiet break. You can walk by the river, spot deer at Richmond Park, or spend a whole day wandering around Kew Gardens. It’s easily accessible through the District Line, but it feels so different from London!
See great art at the Dulwich Picture Gallery:
Most tourists will visit the National Gallery and the British Museum, but further afield there are lots of less popular (and less crowded) galleries and museums. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a short train ride from London Bridge, and always has something amazing on.
What are your favourite things to do in London?
I’ve started reading A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, many times before. Somehow I never finished it!
This time around I was committed to sticking with it, and it is (as any Dickens novels) really great. The book is set partly in London and partly in Paris – so it’s an ideal read to take with you on a trip across the channel!
If you’re never been to London, deciding where to stay can be quite difficult. There are lots and lots of options, but prices are way too high, and there are many bad hotels around. Here are my tips for getting a good deal:
Accommodation in London is really expensive (it’s really expensive to rent here too, so there’s no escaping it!).
If your only concern is about money, then Easyhotel is as cheap as it gets. With double rooms start at £30, it really doesn’t get cheaper than that. Of course there’s a trade off: this place is tiny, and you even have to pay extra for a room with a window!
Other usual budget options include Ibis and hostels – although in London even a bunk bed in a shared room can cost over £40! Tripadvisor had good mid-range options from £80, although really it’s unusual to pay less than £100 per night (yikes!).
I’ve stayed at the Royal National the first time I visited London. It’s a good option: a massive and boring hotel, but good value and good location.
And of course there’s Airbnb, with lots of options for around £80 for two. This is probably the best choice of all.
I’m sure there are absolutely tons of high-end places, but this blog doesn’t really know anything about that.
Location, location, location
London is a big city, but public transportation is very good, so as long as you’re inside zones 1-2 of the tube you can’t go very wrong. But these some good areas to consider:
- Victoria is a good area to stay, as it’s very central and there’s lots to see and do.
- King’s Cross is another good option, as it’s a transportation hub and it’s close to Islington – a nice region to explore with a great nightlife.
- Around London Bridge, especially near the river, there are some of the main sights, and it’s not as full of tourists as other areas.
- Soho is at the heart of the action, but I imagine would be quite expensive to stay around there.
- And for those who want a more authentic experience, staying a bit further from the centre should be considered.
But the best way to have a great time in London is staying with a local, as I’m sure my friends would tell everyone!
London has some of the best museums in the world, and many of them are free to visit! For such an expensive city, London is very generous with its art. Here’s my quick guide for making the most of London museums:
1. NATIONAL GALLERY
Right at Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is a great place to see amazing art. You can easily spend a whole day wandering around, staring at masterpieces such as the Arnolfini Portrait and The Ambassadors (two of my favourites). It’s also a great place for British art, with anything from Turner to Hogarth.
It’s free to visit and there are many free talks and even drawing lessons!
2. TATE MODERN AND TATE BRITAIN
Split on either side of the Thames, Tate Modern and Tate Britain are among the most well-known galleries in the UK.
The Tate Modern specialises in (obviously) modern art, with exhibits cleverly displayed in a range of broad themes. The building is an attraction in itself, with the massive Turbine Hall serving as a unique venue for large displays which are specially commissioned annually.
Tate Britain is the home of British art (my words). Here you can see the best of the Pre-Raphaelites alongside Henry Moore sculptures. The building has been renovated recently, when all the displays were reorganised strictly by date.
Both are free to visit (temporary exhibitions are paid). Check for special events as well as free tours.
3. THE BRITISH MUSEUM
It’s impossible to visit the British Museum without ending up reflecting about colonialism. This museum holds a massive collection of historic objects from all over the world, from Easter Island Moai to Egyptian mummies.
Entering the permanent collection the first thing you will see is Rosetta Stone. Just a few rooms away are the equally famous Elgin Marbles – the insides of the Parthenon are not in Athens after all.
The British Museum is located within a beautiful building with a Greek façade which is replicated inside the museum with a modern twist. The main court houses nice souvenir shops and a good cafe. Free to enter except for temporary exhibitions.
4. EXHIBITION ROAD: V&A, Natural History Museum, Science Museum
Exhibition Road in South Kensington is home to three amazing museums.
The V&A is just too wonderful to describe. The beautiful building is home to the largest collection of design objects in the world, with room after room filled with beautiful displays. Join one of their free tours and then chill out at their fancy cafe.
Across the road is the Natural History Museum, where you can see dinosaur fossils alongside dodo models. It’s a great museum, but avoid weekends as it’s always too packed with children.
Next door is the Science Museum, a fun and interactive museum which include exhibits like a lunar module. Again it’s full of children on the weekends, so it’s best avoided then.
All of these are free to enter, except for special exhibitions.
5. OTHER POPULAR MUSEUMS
- Royal Academy: Very centrally located, it’s not free to visit, but it has great exhibitions on all the time.
- Courtauld Gallery: Housed in the beautiful Somerset House, this is the best place to see impressionism in London. Tickets at £7.
- Wallace Collection: The building has just opened after a long renovation, so it’s a good time to visit. Stop for a meal at their popular restaurant.
- Transport Museum: I visited this recently, and it was really fun! Tickets are expensive at £16, but you can visit as many times as you wish throughout the year.
- Soane Museum: An unusual home filled with a unique collection.
There are countless galleries around London, with new displays available every day. Just wander around Hoxton or Soho and you will find lots of places with great art.
Within the Southbank Centre, the Hayward Gallery has great temporary exhibitions, with tickets at around £10.
HOW TO PLAN:
Go get lost in a museum!
You could easily spend months exploring London. But if you’re short for time, one of the best things to do is walking along the South Bank of the Thames.
This is the first place I take my friends when they come to visit, as you can see a bunch of the city’s highlights at once.
So here’s a step-by-step itinerary for a leisurely day in London:
1. Eat something first:
Start your day by taking advantage of one of many places around London that do great brunch. My suggestion is Milk, in Balham (I discovered it recently and it was AMAZING!), but there are loads of places around.
2. The London Eye
Start your walking tour at Westminster Bridge. There you get one of the best views of the city: Big Ben and the Parliament on one side, London Eye on the other.
The view from the London Eye is awesome (on a sunny day), but the ridiculously long queues are really off-putting. If you are planning to go, book in advance as it saves time and sometimes you can get a good discount (an adult ticket costs £26.96, ouch!).
3. The South Bank Centre
Continuing along the river, the Southbank Centre is a great venue for arts, so check out what they have going on.
4. The Tate Modern
You will then reach the Tate Modern. Admission to the permanent collections is free, so you should really stop and have a look around.
There are also some good cafes and restaurants (as well as a great shop), so you can stop for lunch there.
5. The Globe Theatre
Right next to the Tate is the Globe Theatre, which is the original Shakespeare theatre (although it had t be rebuilt after a fire).
There are always performances on (not all of them are Shakespeare plays), and standing tickets cost only £5! I see something there at least once a year, and it’s always great.
6. Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s
Across from the Tate is the Millennium Bridge, which leads to St Paul’s Cathedral. This is another great place to get a good view of London.
You can continue along the river all the way up to Tower Bridge, but I always prefer to split this up in two days – so I’ll leave that for a future post…