London: City Guide

Every time I visit London, I find it more beautiful and interesting. Full of iconic buildings and historic landmarks, there’s a timeless, yet energetic, vibe.

Like any major city, there’s no shortage of ways to fill your time. If it’s your first time traveling to London and you only have a few days to see what the city has to offer, these are the 10 things I’d recommend allowing time for. If you’ve got a few days to explore though, keep reading for a guide to my favorite things to do and places to go.

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Interesting Attractions

  • Bird’s Eye View of the City from The Shard or London Eye: If you want a good view of the city, I’d recommend reserving tickets in advance for either The Shard or London Eye. Both are set along the Thames River, where the best views in the city can be found
    • The Shard is hard to miss in London- as the city’s tallest building, it offers panoramic views. You can buy tickets to go to the top, or have a drink at one of the bars and admire the view while sipping a cocktail
    • The London Eye, near Big Ben also offers great views of the city

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  • Tower Bridge: Tower Bridge, often mistakenly called London Bridge, is one of London’s most iconic landmarks, infamous because of its drawbridge effect. If you want to cross the bridge, climb the glass walkway for a great view of the river below

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  • The Tower of London: Nearby Tower Bridge, the Tower of London is a must-visit on your first trip. Founded in 1066, the castle was used as a prison for many years. Despite the Tower’s grim reputation as a place of torture, it was also a powerful fortress
    • Guided tours with the Beefeaters guards happen every hour and give a short history of the Tower’s highlights (tour price is included in your admission). If you visit, don’t miss the Crown Jewels exhibition- they’re stunning. There may be a short wait to see them, but the line moves pretty quickly. Buy your tickets in advance, the Tower often becomes busier as the day goes on
    • Pro-tip: Across the river from the Tower of London is Borough Market, a food market with specialities from around the world

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  • Buckingham Palace: Buckingham Palace is the London residence of the Queen, located next to St. James’ Park. If you’re lucky enough to have nice weather, take a stroll through St. James’ Park- there are beautiful views of the London Eye and city throughout
    • Depending on the time of year you visit, you may be lucky enough to tour the state rooms at the palace. If tours aren’t available during your visit, I’d still recommend stopping by to admire the palace’s beauty from the outside gates
    • Some visitors plan their trips around the palace’s Changing of the Guard, which happens daily. The ceremony is when one regiment takes over from another in their “guarding” duties. Although regarded as a “must-see” by some, I wouldn’t go out of my way to ensure I’m there for a ceremony. It’s cool to see if you just so happen to be there, but in my opinion, isn’t worth planning a day around

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  • Big Ben & Westminster Abbey: Big Ben is located in Westminster. Funnily enough, the clock tower gets its nickname from the bell inside the clock, but its official name is the Elizabeth Tower
    • In the same vicinity, Westminster Abbey, where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and where Kate and Will wed, is a stunning cathedral worthy of a visit
    • Pro-tip: The London Eye is also nearby, in case you want to visit while you’re in the area

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  • London’s Bountiful Markets: London is known for its amazing markets, make sure you visit at least one of them on your trip. Check each market’s website for opening hours and best times to visit before you go:
    • Portobello Road: Brace yourself for the crowds, this famed market sells everything from fruit to clothing and accessories to household goods
      • The neighborhood Portobello Road is situated in, Notting Hill, is my favorite neighborhood to wander when I’m in London. It’s truly enchanting
    • Columbia Road: Known for its stunning flowers, visiting this market on a Sunday morning left me speechless. You feel like you’re in a flower jungle while wandering throughout the booths, it’s incredible
    • Borough Market: Excellent food, nearby the Tower Bridge- the perfect place to stop for a quick bite after touring the Tower of London
    • Camden Market: The place to be for clothing, fun accessories and home items

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  • Hyde Park & Kensington Palace: Right in the heart of the city, Hyde Park is one of London’s biggest parks. In the middle of the park, there’s a pond known as the Serpentine, and you’ll often find people picnic’ing on its banks
    • Kensington Palace, home of Princess Diana and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is located at one end of the park. I’ve never toured the palace, but it’s nice to admire from the outside, along with its gardens. As for touring the palace itself, I’ve heard mixed reviews (e.g., not luxe enough to justify the ticket cost or time)

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  • London’s Free Museums: 
    • The British Museum never gets old. Stop by on a rainy morning and spend a few hours walking through some of the exhibits in one of the world’s oldest museums. If you’re limited on time, head for the mummies, the Rosetta Stone and the Lindow Man
    • Another great museum, the Natural History Museum is full of wonderful natural artifacts housed in a beautiful space
    • I’m also a fan of the Tate Modern, nearby the Globe. The permanent modern art collection features Matisse, Rothko, Bacon and Twombly

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  • High Tea: The British are known for afternoon tea, so having tea at a fancy hotel or restaurant can be a good way to indulge on your vacation. Make reservations before you visit to ensure availability, a lot of the popular places book weeks in advance
    • I haven’t been to all of these, but they’re recommended time and time again as places for great afternoon tea: The Sketch, The Corinthia Hotel, Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson Hotel, Fornum and Mason, The Dorchester, and One Aldwych’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory themed tea

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  • The Globe Theatre: Nearby the Tate Modern, which you should definitely check out if you have time, the Globe is a reconstruction of the original theatre Shakespeare built in the 17th century. Touring the theatre is like stepping back in time, and depending on the time of year you visit, you may even be able to buy tickets for a live show

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  • Shopping in Soho & The West End: Oxford Circus, Regent Street and Picadilly Circus triangle should be on a first time visitor’s list if they enjoy shopping
    • Oxford Street is the main high street in London with a slew of high-end and modern shops. Spend an afternoon shopping (or window shopping) and stay for an evening show in the West End
    • Don’t leave the area before you check out Piccadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square. If you’re seeing a show in the West End or shopping in Soho, it’s a quick stroll to see the bright billboards and neon lights
  • See a Show in the West End: If you live in a city where Broadway shows come on a rotational basis, seeing a play in London can be a lovely experience. On previous visits, I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and the Lion King
    • When we saw the Lion King, we went to TKTS in Leicester Square the day of the show and scored last-minute tickets on the ground level a few rows from the stage for $65 per ticket- such a good deal!
  • Harry Potter Studio Tour & Platform 9 3/4: As a fan of Harry Potter, this attraction has been on my must-visit list for a while. I haven’t been yet, but I’ve heard exploring the museum, which covers all aspects of making the movie from costumes to actual stages, is a pretty special experience. Added bonus: After you’re finished with the displays, you can sit back and relax with a Butterbeer
    • Can’t make it out to the studio tour? Head to King’s Cross Station to see where Platform 9 & 3/4 would have been
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral: Chances are even if you don’t make it inside the cathedral, you’ll still see it- it’s located right in front of Millennium Bridge. The architecture is beautiful, and the view from the top is stunning

  • Abbey Road Studios: Getting to Abbey Road is easy if you take the Tube to Marble Arch. From the station, it’s a 10-15 minute walk to the intersection featured on the album cover. Nearby, the studio is still operational and has a gift store you can pop in if you’re interested in taking home a piece of Beatles memorabilia
  • Day Trips to Castles (just outside the city)
    • Hampton Court: Known for being the residence of Henry VII, several sections of the castle have been preserved for display. Pick up an audio guide, it’s extremely informative and helps transport you back to a time when the castle was occupied by royalty. Be sure to leave at least 1-2 hours for the gardens and maze, they’re spectacular
    • Windsor Castle: Such a lovely castle with a rich history. Home to The Queen and with over 900 years of royal history, exploring the castle and the surrounding town of Windsor felt like experiencing quintessential British history
  • Street Art: The city is full of great street art, from works done by Banksy to up-and-coming artists. My favorite part of London to wander in hope of discovering street art is Shoreditch. You can either walk around the area (my method of discovery) or take a walking tour to ensure you see iconic pieces, and to learn more about the city’s history with urban art

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Where to Get Coffee

London is a city brimming with coffee culture, these are just a few of my favorite places to grab a cup of coffee or sit back with a latte:

  • Monocole Cafe (Marylebone): Do yourself a favor and order a cinnamon roll and flat white. Promise you won’t regret it
  • Allpress Espresso (Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch): Go-to for morning coffee if I’m in the area
  • Hackney Coffee Company (Hackney): Cozy space, good coffee
  • Old Shoreditch Station (Hackney, Shoreditch): Excellent coffee, like the vibe here- free wifi helps make it a good work space. Also dig the local sodas served here, tried a Rhubarb one when I visited & loved it
  • Ozone Coffee Roasters (Shoreditch): Great for breakfast or grabbing a flat white
  • Shoreditch Grind (Shoreditch): Yes, the coffee is good, but so are the espresso martinis
  • Monmouth Coffee Company (South Bank): There’s a line for a reason, many people consider this to be the best coffee in London. Recommend coming here early, grabbing coffee and then heading to Borough Market for breakfast before the crowds arrive
  • Workshop Coffee (Clerkenwell): Excellent flat white & coffee
  • Black Sheep Coffee (Fitzrovia): Lovely neighborhood coffee shop

Where to Eat

London’s food scene is fantastic. Whether you’re looking for a nice meal or cheap eats, you’ll be able to find it all. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the city offers, but these are a few of my repeat places:

  • Granger & Co. (multiple locations): One of my favorite places to brunch in London, this place rules. Recommend the ricotta pancakes and sweet corn fritters
  • Daylesford Organic (Kensington): Lovely shop with a restaurant in the back. Simple, whole food for breakfast, but it hits the spot
  • Bread Ahead (Shoreditch): When the New York Times rates your doughnuts as the best in the world, you know you’re doing something right. The foccacia bread is also top notch
  • Fabrique Bakery (Hackney): The cinnamon buns & cardamom buns are nothing short of amazing
  • Homeslice (multiple locations): Eat in and enjoy a huge, seriously good pizza OR grab a slice to go. Either way, you can’t go wrong
  • Dishroom (King’s Cross):  A gorgeous space and really, really good Indian food. Go with a big group and order to share
  • sketch (Soho): Having afternoon tea in the pink room is like a dream, but Parlour and Gallery have great menus and cocktails as well
  • Bob Bob Ricard (Soho): Everything is superb. Come here for fancy comfort food for adults. Loved the oysters, lobster mac & cheese, chocolate glory dessert, and Press for Champagne button, of course
  • The Breakfast Club (multiple locations): Craving American breakfast in London? You’re in luck- this place serves up tasty avocado toast, great pancakes with berries & seriously good french toast
  • Wagamama (multiple locations): Yes, this is a chain restaurant, but I looove it. Their noodles are on point, and I love the fresh smoothies as a healthy addition to my meal
  • During your trip to London, you have to visit a pub for traditional fish and chips. Trust me on this one- I don’t eat much fried food in the U.S., but well-done fish in the UK is flaky, juicy and not greasy. A lot of pubs serve fish & chips, but only a handful of them have a reputation for serving this quintessentially English dish perfectly, check out:

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Where to Drink

You can’t go to London without popping in a few pubs for a pint. Even better if there’s a game on to enjoy. There are a ton of pubs across the city, but these are a few of my regular go-to’s:

  • The Ten Belles (Tower Hamlets): Known for being the watering hole of a few Jack the Ripper victims, this place is a go-to for day-drinking outside or after work in the summer
  • The Commercial Tavern (Spitalfields): A quirky neighborhood pub, great for after-work drinks
  • The Culpepper (Tower Hamlets): Cute pub with small roof terrace, ideal for spring, summer or early fall
  • Churchill Arms (Kensington): The plants on the outside of this pub make it a must-see, espeically in the spring and summer
  • Windsor Castle (Kensington): Cozy pub with a lovely beer garden for summer evenings
  • The Champion (Notting Hill Gate): The epitome of a perfect local pub
  • The Harp (Charring Cross): Great selection of beers & plenty of space to sit upstairs
  • Princess Louise (Holborn, Covent Garden): A good old fashioned Victorian pub. Love coming here for a pint whenever I’m in the area
  • Brewdog Shoreditch (Shoreditch): Not quite a pub, but a great selection of craft beers

Legend has it British bartenders introduced cocktails to London after making them for American passengers on Atlantic cruise liners. One thing is for certain, there are world class mixologists in London. I’m used to having great cocktails in New York and ones in London definitely don’t disappoint:

  • The Nightjar (Hoxton, Shoreditch): My favorite cocktail bar in London. You’ll need a reservation later at night, especially if live jazz is playing. I came one night right after they opened and had no problem getting a table for a few hours. Truly phenom cocktails and a laid-back crowd
  • NOLA (Shoreditch): If The Nightjar is my favorite cocktail bar, NOLA is a close second. This tribute to New Orleans serves up some seriously perfect cocktails. Come early or make a reservation to get in
  • Happiness Forgets (Hackney): Superb cocktails in Hackney Square, dig that the menu changes seasonally
  • Artesian (Marylebone): Another fantastic option for super phenom drinks in London. Everything here is done to the nines (and you should expect to pay for that). After one round, you’ll understand why this place was voted the best international hotel bar
  • Blixen (Spitalfields): I’ve heard good things about the food, but we came here for a late afternoon drink in the garden, which was just lovely
  • Experimental Cocktail Club (Chinatown): An intimate vibe with classic cocktails. As with most speakeasys in London, it’s best to come early or make a reservation
  • Cocktail Trading Company (Tower Hamlets): Creative cocktails, two thumbs up
  • Joyeux Bordel (Shoreditch): Solid speakeasy with good cocktails
  • Callooh Callay & Jub Jub (Shoreditch): Callooh Callay is a quirky Alice in Wonderland themed bar. Jub Jub is the secret bar above Callooh Callay, which can be tricky to get into, but is so worth it
  • Gordon’s Wine Bar (Charring Cross): Not a cocktail bar, but worthy of a stop if you’re nearby- Gordon’s is like stepping back in time once you enter the dark, candle lit cellar. Order the cheese & bread and settle in with a bottle of wine (or two)

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EXTRA KNOW BEFORE YOU GO INFO

  • Identification: Passport
  • Language: British English
  • Currency: The pound. Currently (fall 2016), the exchange rate is set at 1 pound to $1.22 USD
  • Money Exchange: Because the pound is a common global currency, most banks will convert for free before you go. I’d recommend taking enough money in pounds to cover small purchases and using a credit card with no international transaction fee to cover larger items, e.g., theatre tickets, tube passes, dinner/drinks, etc.
    • If you do plan on using a credit or debit card while abroad, remember to alert your bank that you’ll be traveling internationally
  • Getting There: London has three major airports: London City, London Gatwick and London Heathrow
    • Heathrow is easy to get to/from the city on the tube. Trust me on taking the tube, a taxi or Uber could easily turn into a pretty expensive trip with the pound to dollar conversion
    • Gatwick and Luton are easy to get to from city center via scheduled trains
  • Getting Around: Take the tube. You’ll save a lot of money by taking the tube, plus it’s clean and efficient. Trust me, black cabs and Ubers may seem convenient but because the exchange rate favors the pound, you’re guaranteed an expensive ride
    • If you have to take Uber, try to use the Uber Pool option for a flat-rate fare
    • Pro-tip: Get an Oyster card and pay even less each time you take the tube. The card itself costs £5, and you’ll be able to pre-pay with any amount of credit you choose
  • When to Visit: I’ve been to London in winter, spring, summer and early fall. High season for tourism is spring-late summer, so although it may be a bit chillier, you’ll likely find better travel deals in the mid-late fall and mid-late winter. Thus far, my favorite time to visit has been mid-September- warm, but mild temperatures, blue skies and no rain
  • Where to Stay: I’m partial to Airbnb whenever I travel internationally. When I’m in London, I tend to stay in the Bayswater / Notting Hill area or Shoreditch. I prefer these areas because they’re more residential, nice to wander in the morning and usually have a slew of coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and grocery stores for whatever I need. Airbnb’s guide to London’s neighborhoods is helpful if you’re a newbie and figuring out where to stay
    • If you’re set on staying in a hotel, I enjoy The Hoxton Holborn. It’s a good value in a central part of London
  • Wifi Access: Wifi is easy to find in restaurants and cafes. As long as you plan activities ahead of time and have a general sense of which tube stops you need, you should be fine to only use wifi as it’s available
    • If you really need wifi for directions or other activities, I’d recommend adding it to your cell phone plan (Verizon offers connectivity for $10 a day) or renting a TEP wireless device
  • Power Adapters: You’ll need an international adapter, this one is similar to the one I have. I also travel with a USB charger so I’m able to charge every device imaginable at the same time

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