I lived in London for six months and I now miss it dearly. The city is filled with wonderful people, fantastic sites and some of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It can be an expensive trip, but by using public transport, taking advantage of all the free tourist attractions and eating at some of the great and healthy quick-service restaurants, can keep costs low so you can splurge on a few nice dinners and trips to some of the pricier sights like the Tower of London. Now let me be your tour guide…
If you plan on using the tube or buses — and your should — buy an Oyster Card. It’ll save you a ton of money by reducing the standard £4 tube fare to about £1.50 within the center of the city; the bus fare is reduced from £3 to 90 pence. You can pick up the blue-on-blue RFID-embedded cards from most train stations and even some convenience stores. To plan your trips, use the fantastic TfL website, which will give you detailed bus, tube and walking routes anywhere you’d like to go.
From the airport, you can take the Piccadilly Line right into town in about 45 minutes’ time for £4 and if you’re staying somewhere near tourist attractions, like Mayfair, Soho or Holborn, chances are it’ll take you nearly to your doorstep. Compare that to a cab at £65 and up, or to the Heathrow Express at about £15 — and that only takes you to Paddington station, so you’ll likely need to hop on at least one more train or bus to get where you’re going. Just beware that a lot of stations have a good deal of stairs to negotiate, so make sure you can lug your own luggage.
What to See
London boasts a huge list of attractions, but these are some of my favorites in no particular order…
- National Portrait Gallery — interesting and well-organized collection that’ll give you a great overview of British history. It sounds like it could be boring, but if you have a choice between this and the National Gallery (both in Trafalgar square) definitely do the portraits. Also, except for special exhibits, the museum is free, as are all national museums.
St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge
- Tate Modern — fantastic collection of modern art in a very cool riverside setting. From here, you can also walk across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral
Parliament and the London Eye
- Westminster and around — spend a day doing the classic London sights by checking out Buckingham Palace and St. James Park, then the Horse Guard’s Parade, Parliament and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which is sort of like a mini parade and rather hard to see happens at 11 am. They also do a ceremony at the Horse Guards Parade at that time, where you’ll probably get a better view — and the Horse Guards where much more interesting uniforms. Parliament and Westminster Abbey are best seen on weekdays — they both have very limited or no weekend hours (I never actually made it inside either one, though my parents did). Also don’t miss a trip on the London Eye — the giant observation wheel.
- Soho/Covent Garden shows — the theater in London is fantastic and quite inexpensive if you call same-day (you can get prime seats for £30-£60 on weekdays). Avenue Q was my favorite show I saw when I was there — it was absolutely hilarious, though it may be a bit inappropriate if you’re traveling with kids or thinking of going with your parents.
Springtime in Hyde Park
- Hyde Park or Regent’s Park — these two parks are the biggest in central London. They’re great places to take a rowboat or paddle boat out on their little lakes, have a picnic or just take a stroll. Parks to Brits are like beaches to Californians — everyone hangs out in them on sunny days. If you’re looking for an even bigger park excursion and don’t mind heading out of central London and paying an admission fee, head over to Kew Gardens to see its Victorian glass houses, themed gardens and new treetop walkway.
- Highgate Cemetery and Hampstead Heath — take the tour of the old part of the cemetery to learn about some of London’s quirky Victorian-age history that doesn’t involve the kings and queens, then take a stroll to the heath and climb up the rather small Parliament Hill, where you’ll see lots of people flying kites.
A Tower of London Beefeater
- Tower of London — go on the most hilariously campy tour in London by letting a Beefeater guide you around this historic castle. You’ll get to marvel at the crown jewels, hear about beheadings and see a great view of Tower Bridge.
- Borough Market — go on a Friday to beat the weekend crowds to check out this foodie extravaganza south of the river. It’s also right near Southwark Cathedral and Sir Francis Drake’s pirate ship, and not too far a walk or bus ride from the Tate Modern and the Globe Theater.
Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory
- Greenwich — if you’re into science, make a trip out to Greenwich to go straddle the prime meridian. There’s a small museum right at the prime meridian and there’s also a maritime museum, which is interesting, but a bit kid-focused. There’s also a pretty park and a footbridge under the Thames. It’s a bit out of the way, but a pretty good half-day excursion.
- Shopping — walking around places like Carnaby Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street can keep you very busy, and there are some ridiculously big department stores like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, and Selfridges (among others) are great for food, shopping and even sightseeing. Try the fancy afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, or mavel at the Egyptian-themed ridiculousness of Harrods.
What to Eat
London is an amazing place to eat. Some of my top recommendations…
- Make sure to go to a pub, of course! Actually, go to several. They’re everywhere and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and range from gorgeous, old-fashioned wood-and-crystal establishments to dingy, bare-bones watering holes. If you want some pub grub, go for lunch, not dinner, as they get very crowded and rowdy and are filled with more post-work drinkers than diners.
The papaya salad at Amaya
- Try some gourmet Indian. My favorites were Red Fort in Soho on Dean St. and Amaya in Belgravia. Both serve incredibly creative, beautiful and delicious dishes. You’ll get better deals if you go at lunch. Tamarind in Mayfair is also good, though the fare isn’t as fancy and the setting isn’t as nice, and Imli on Wardour St. in Soho offers tasty tapas-style Indian food at pretty reasonable costs.
- Try the innovative fast food. For lunch and snacks, there are a ton of quick-service places that offer lots of healthy and often organic options like Pret a Manger, Eat, Benugo and Leon.
- If you want great burgers, try out Gourmet Burger Kitchen. It’s a chain, so there are quite a few. There’s one on Frith Street in Soho.
- For the city’s best coffee, go to Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho or Monmouth Coffee near Borough Market. There are tons of chain coffee places around, including many Starbucks, though if I was going for a chain, I’d usually choose Nero or Costa.
- For good pizza, try Delfino’s in Mayfair
Chocolates at a Melt tasting class
- Indulge your sweet tooth. London has incredible chocolate shops. Two of my favorites were Melt in Notting Hill and William Curley in Mayfair.
- Check out restaurants and attractions at review sites like Qype, Tipped, and Trusted Places.
- Check out pubs at Fancyapint?
- Know how to get where you’re going via tube and bus at the TfL website.
- Get the heads-up on news and events on Londonist.
- Get train schedules for heading beyond London at the National Rail site (note: it doesn’t accept foreign credit cards).
If you can’t find enough sights to occupy yourself in London or you just want a break from the city, you can easily take some day trips by train or bus to Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds Castle in Kent, Eltham Palace, the Chiselhurst Caves or Bath. All are well worth visiting.
Do you have anything you’d add to this guide? What are your favorite london sights? Let me know in the comments below!