Live the London Life
The capital of the UK, London has a myriad of things to do whether you are a tourist or a resident.
With a history dating back hundreds of years, London is full of interesting things to do. Whether you are a history buff, a foodie, or just in the mood for shopping, London will not disappoint. Additionally, due to its location and importance, there are plenty of day trips out of London if you want a break from city life.
While this city boasts the oldest subway in the world, it certainly isn't the easiest to figure out. When traveling in London, make sure to bring a print out of a map with the stop locations on there. The lines run all around and it can get really confusing. This is the graphic map that shows you the lines. Here is a better, interactive map, that shows you the lines and where the stops actually are, because unlike NYC where 34th street is on 34th street, all of these stops have names (most from nearby locations). An alternative option is to take the bus or a taxi which if I'm honest can be rather long as London is such a spread out city that always seems to be full of traffic.
London is a fun place to be a tourist, whether you are on the double decker busses with a camera and a union jack hat, or on a water taxi jetting along the Thames, it is a great time. It is impossible to do all of London in a few days, but I've listed the basic tourist checklist (excluding museums which I covered separately):
See the Queen's Guards at Buckingham- Heads up, this will be packed. Check the times for when the Guards change and enjoy the ridiculous pagentry.
Kensington Palace- Although you can't really go in Buckingham palace (with the exception of a month in the summer), you can go into Kensington Palace! Kensington is such a fun 2 hours. You get to see the rooms that Queen Victoria lived in, walk through shadow waltzes, see her furniture, things, and enjoy a great story about her life. At the end is a great cafe that opens to the most lovely garden. So grab some tea and a piece of Victoria sponge cake while you enjoy the sun. Side note: keep your eyes open for the scratch and sniff map, it was a funny and random part of the tour.
Tower of London- It will take you hours to go through this, the audio tour is perfect at explaining the history of the Tower. The views from the walls are great, and exploring the history of London through the Tower really is unique. Also, it is home to the Crown Jewels. Although you imagine them in a case secured by guards, you are essentially on a moving walkway as you go by the crowns and the septres. Note: follow one of the yeoman tours if you want more info about the Tower, also they're really funny and engaging.
St. Pauls Cathedral- A huge and beautiful church designed by the great Christopher Wren, St. Pauls is a cornerstone in London monuments. The architecture and beautiful ceilings will really take your breath away.
Westminster Abbey- Westminster is home to many important events throughout British history and is the final resting place to many notable Brits, including Queen Elizabeth I. The architecture is beautiful, and the audio tour is definitely great at giving a very detailed look at everything in the Abbey. Only point I will say about the Abbey is that after the first 10 memorials pointed out, it can get depressing. The entire church is FILLED with memorials for the dead whether they be large stones or sculptures, and I started to feel like I was in a graveyard.
+note I couldn't get tickets ahead of time for Westminster Abbey unless I had a London Pass ( a super expensive, but quick and all encompassing option for people who just want to get in and out of places quickly without purchasing other tickets. If you take the London Pass route, make sure to get it while it is on sale. More about the London Pass is here).
Parliament- I heard this tour was great, but I refused to pay the price to get in, so if you go, let me know what you thought. Looks great from the outside though! Connected to Parliament is the clock tower that is mistakenly referred to as Big Ben. Although Big Ben isn't the name of the clock it is the name of the bell. Also, you are not allowed up to the tower unless you are a UK resident, and even then you must get approval to get in once you establish residency. When I asked why this was, the man told me that it's because they didn't trust Americans to go up there- I thought that a bit rude and it just enhanced my desire not to go to Parliament.
Shakespeare's Globe Theater- First and foremost, don't expect to see the actual Globe, that actually burned down years ago. Fortunately, an AMERICAN raised funds to recreate this huge part of our literary history. These tours are fun and you get to explore a museum of the history of the Globe, typical theater costumes, and a bit of detail of Shakespeare's life. Also, if you want to be immersed in some more Shakespeare, keep your eye out for their event schedule as they have his plays there in the summer so you can enjoy the plays like Londoners did back in the day.
Platform 9 3/4- Located in Kings Cross (as it should be), the cute luggage trolley is half through the wall so you can take your picture as though you are on your way to Hogwarts. As with anything Harry Potter, it has been heavy commercialized, so if you are there during the day prepare for a long line and a man pushing official Harry Potter photos on you. I went at night and there was no line, and no commemorative photographer.
Check out the Views:
Tower Bridge (the one everyone thinks is called London Bridge)- I loved doing this bit, the views were fantastic and I loved the see through floor panels. You can get a Tower Bridge and a Monument ticket together for just a 1.5 pounds more. I would recommend doing the Tower first. Check the opening times before you go, and remember that the office is like in the middle of the bridge, don't spend all your time at the ends of the bridge looking for it like we did.
The Monument- When you go to the monument (a tribute to the great fire that practically devastated London), It gives you a decent view of the Bridge, the Shard, and other monuments AND when you get down you get a certificate that you climbed it. Note about the Monument: WEAR SNEAKERS/TRAINERS. You are going up 300 narrow steps, sooo if you have a hard time with that, I'd skip the monument.
The Shard- The shard is the perfect alternative to the London Eye, you get all the time you need up at the top, the lines are shorter, AND there is a Champagne Bar on top. Triple win. You can visit the website here, then click book tickets.
London Eye- This attraction is so overrated I can't even. From the lines (even if you purchase ahead), to being crammed into a box and shoving other people trying to get the view of Parliament and the river, this attraction is seriously not worth it. Furthermore, your time at the view is limited as you only go around once if I'm not mistaken. Knowing that you'll do it anyway, here is the link for tickets.
MUSEUMS & LIBRARIES:
London houses some of the most amazing museums in the world. Home to the Rosetta Stone and so much more, I found so much to see while checking out the boundless museums that London had to offer. Here is a list, hardly conclusive, of some of the most famous museums in London and my personal favorites.
British Museum**- If you only go to a few museums in London, this must be one of them. It is huge and literally has everything. You will spend no less than 4 hours here so plan your time and enjoy. Make sure to check out the Rosetta stone, its surreal to see in real life. Prepare to lose yourself in all the wonderful ancient artifacts the British empire stole from the rest of the world (haha, just kidding.. but not really).
National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery**- Located in Trafalgar square (NPG is down the road), these museums are as central as you can get. They house incredible paintings and portraits of the royal family in addition to the who's who of old British society. While I was at the National Gallery they had a wonderful exhibit on Impressionism so maybe that is why I am a bit predisposed to the museum (I am obsessed with Monet). However there are so many beautiful pieces in the museum its easy to get lost. At the top of the Portrait Gallery is a nice cozy restaurant where I enjoyed the tea time while taking in a great view of the skyline.
Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V & A)**- This museum was suprisingly amazing. They have such great features on fashion throughout the centuries in addition to original pieces from Monarchs and Popes. It is the largest museum on Decorative Arts and it is worth an hour or two. Such a beautiful museum.
Somerset House and Courtauld Gallery**- A cool, neo-classical building right by the Thames, the Somerset House always has something going on in its open space, whether it is an ice rink, fountains, or even a concert. In one of the wings of the Somerset House is the Courtauld Gallery. Situated over a few floors, the Courtauld Gallery is a great little museum. The rooms are beautiful and it houses some of the most beautiful paintings I've ever seen.
The Science Museum- This museum covers so much with its interactive displays. From the exhibit on the development of the Nuclear bomb and Churchhill to the space exhibit and the replicas of Moon Rovers, this museum is interesting and enjoyable to anyone.
Natural History Museum- Now I will be forthcoming about this, I LOVE dinosaurs. Although this museum has many replicas of dinosaurs which were interesting, it wasn't up to par with the Natural History museum in NYC. Other than that, they had good exhibits of mammals and insects, but I didn't love this museum. However, my opinion might have been affected by the 300 screaming children running around and the large line to get in. To put it into perspective, my friend who gave up smoking, needed to stop and light up as soon as we got out of there because she was so stressed out.
British Library**- Located between Euston Station and St. Pancreas, this libary could not be more conveniently positioned. With interesting exhibits throughout the year, and an incredible collection of religious books, letters (from King Henry the VIII), and original works from writers and songwriters (including the Beatles) in the big dark room to the left of the entrance, make sure to make this a pit stop.
+side note: No large bags are allowed in the building and I didn't see a coat room to put them, so if you are traveling, make sure to keep a locker in Euston or Kings Cross.
Tate Modern- This large museum which dominates the river bank, is a huge space full of interesting pieces. It is full of contemporary art, so if that isn't your scene, it's still cool to see from the outside.
Tate Britain- More out of the way than many of the other museums, the Tate Britain houses many paintings and pieces of art. While I liked the Tate Britain, I didn't love it and would recommend the National Gallery and the Courtauld Gallery instead.
DRINKING & DINING:
Save water and drink gin:
As I wrote in my Birmingham section, the UK is notorious for their gin. The best place I went in the UK to discover the types of gin and how it should be properly sampled, was at the London Gin Club. You can get a fleet of gins with appropriate accents and tonics, and the waitress will patiently explain to you how to taste them and things to note. I found my new favorite gin through these tastings (Navy Bathtub Gin). A great experience and would recommend it, it's only open from Tuesday to Saturday and open until 11. The website is here.
There are so many restaurants in London, I don't know where to begin. However I can say that, similar to Birmingham, London is full of chain restaurants and pubs (you can tell if it is a chain pub if you see an alternative name under the name of the pub or on the board of specials ie. Nicholsons, Wetherspoon, etc). If you do end up at a chain pub, check out the Taylor-Walker pubs, they have the BEST pot pies (in the opinion of myself and my mother, therefore it is a fact).
My favorite way of avoiding chain establishments was through street fairs and practically living in Borough Market.
Borough Market- Easily my favorite place to go with friends. We grab a pitcher of Pimms, post up one of the tables (this part is imperative, someone must be there to hold the table) while one or two of us goes amok in the market sampling and bringing back different meats, cheeses, and the most amazing Greek honey to eat while we sling back 2 to 3 pitchers of Pimms. Solid afternoon.
Gordan's Wine Bar- This is the coolest and apparently oldest wine bar in London. Tucked away behind Victoria Embankement Gardens by Charring Cross Station, this wine bar is another fun spot with friends. You get a bottle wine, a bunch of cheeses (and get the stuffed peppers, you're welcome) and grab a table outside and enjoy yourself. Gordans is always fun, but also always packed. They don't take reservations, so prepare yourself.
Mews of Mayfair- Tucked away off New Bond Street this secret bar and restaurant was one of my favorite hidden gems. With great drinks and food worth taking pictures of, Mews of Mayfair is a great place to sit outside and take a break from the shopping crowds on Oxford street. Keep in mind its a bit pricey so keep your eyes open for the groupon deals and the set meals. Here are some of the trip advisor reviews .
London is an awesome city full of things to see and do. The list of my museums hardly scrapes the surface on the culture, and around every corner is a different shop or restaurant. Each neighborhood of London has a different flavor, and you certainly must experience it. Here are a list of key London areas to get lost and walk around in:
Oxford & Regent Street: The areas around Oxford and Regent Street are great places to shop. Full of well known brands, Oxford street is where everyone goes to shop. A key place to check out on Oxford Street is Selfridges (yes the one that the show Mr. Selfridge is based on).
Carnaby Street: A hidden pedestrian street behind Regents street, Carnaby street looks like it came out of a children's book. There are little streets that branch off of this street that are just as charming. Great place to check out and go for a stroll.
Piccadilly Circus: The London equivalent of NYC's Times Square, Piccadilly is always full of people and billboards, walk down the street and you'll find plenty of places to eat and browse, make sure to check out Fortnum & Mason. With floors of the most amazing jams, cookies, teas and more (they have commemorative teas for the royal family events and I've collected them like Pokemon cards). I easily spent over 60 pounds on some of the most British-esque treats. +There is also a F & M in St. Pancreas train station. It isn't large but here you can have tea and snacks while you wait for your train (or your always late, and full of excuses, boyfriend to pick you up).
Knightsbridge: Running along Hyde Park, Knightsbridge area has plenty of stores including the famously regal Harrods department store.
Covent Garden: There are so many restaurants and shops around Covent Garden in addition to the interesting covered markets in the area.
Hyde Park: A HUGE park connected to Kensington Palace. During the winter, it turns into a "German" Market. Full of music, stands with food and trinkets, a carousel that is also a BAR, and rides for kids it is so much fun. +Side Note: went there with a German, he was kind of appalled thats what the British thought of Germans.
Regents Park: Home to the London Zoo (which was expensive but decent), Regents park is full of people pretending to be athletic while drinking in groups (similar to Central Park).
St James Park: Leads from the Churchhill War Rooms to Buckingham, full of aggressive swans and adorably ugly goose-ducks. Nice reprieve from the crowds at the Palace.
OVERALL, I loved walking around London discovering new museums, neighborhoods, and sights in general. London is a great place to explore and a fantastic base for day trips out around the UK.