i've been getting a bunch of messages lately asking about my recommendations on what to see, do, and eat in london - specifically things off the well-trodden tourist circuit. i wrote a first rough draft london city guide last feburary, but these messages prompted me to compile and share a quick updated list of some of my london faves.
i actually think the super touristy things in this city are mostly really cool! in my opinion, every london visitor should go inside westminster abbey, and climb to the top of the dome of st. paul's cathedral, and wander the national gallery after experiencing the buzz of trafalgar square. but here's a few things i really love in this glorious city that are a bit more obscure.
- the royal courts of justice is, in my opinion, the most underrated building in london. its exterior is super pretty and grand, and it's free to go inside! you can sit in on cases being discussed in court, which is kind of neat. the lawyers even wear white ringlet wigs!
- the sky garden, at the top of 20 fenchurch street (a skyscraper londoners affectionately call "the walkie talkie") is super cool and affords amazing views of the city. it's free, but you have to get tickets ahead of time online. i suggest going just before sunset so you can see the views in daylight and all lit up and glittery!
- i love camden market. it is just so full - of colour and life and interesting corners to explore. the food stalls at camden locke are incredibly diverse and so fun, and all the quirky shops tucked down alleys and under arches just make the place a total wonderland.
- if you want a good overview of the city, i suggest hopping on bus 23. go straight upstairs and hope the front seat is available (if it's not, just wait a few stops and it probably will open up). 23 runs from notting hill, past hyde park, down oxford and regents streets, through picadilly circus and trafalgar square, down the strand a fleet street to st. paul's cathedral and nearly to the tower of london and tower bridge. it's a really great route, and there's nothing like that front row seat on the top deck of a double decker! another great way to take in the city is to rent santander bikes. you'll see them all over and it's just 2 pounds to take one out, cruise around for thirty minutes and return it at a different stand (after a few minutes' wait, you can take another bike out and spend up to thirty minutes on it, and that can continue all day if you want!).
- among the hustle bustle and sleek modern skyscrapers of the financial district, there's a little historical and charming arcade called leadenhall market. apparently this place represented bits of diagon alley in some of the harry potter movies! it's just lovely and worthy of a peek and perhaps a lunch break. (maybe before or after a trip up to the sky garden!)
- harrod's is fun to see once in your life, but in my opinion there are far better grand department stores in london. fortnum & mason is devastatingly lovely and so much fun to peruse, and there's a really cute little "parlor" on the second floor where you can feel totally british and slightly fancy eating scones and cakes. liberty london is probably the prettiest store in the world and really enjoyable to wander around. even just the exterior is worth seeing - it's an gorgeous, huge, old tutor building and the flowers and window displays are always incredible.
- i kind of feel like everyone should experience afternoon tea in london. it's just so fun - always beautifully presented with petite sandwiches and traditional scones and pretty little cakes. if you're feeling really fancy (and spendy), splurge for tea on the top floor of fortnum & mason (apparently that's where the queen has her tea!). or if you want a quirky cool modern london experience, check out sketch. for a classic tea in a special setting, go to the orangery at kensington palace. my friend (who is really an afternoon tea aficionado) recently told me that there's a really great affordable afternoon tea at ham yard hotel. i can't wait to try it!
- just wandering around different neighborhoods is my favourite thing to do in london. there are a myriad of tiny delights around so many corners - colourful rowhouses, cobbled mews streets, wall murals, gorgeous architecture, beautiful little gardens. here's a few of my top areas to just stroll through and look for pretty scenes:
- notting hill. portobello road market is usually crowded but genuinely fantastic. go on a market day and walk the entire length of the road to take in all the antique stands and food stalls and beautiful creations for sale. but even better than portobello are the streets off of portobello - just wander them and you'll find the most darling little scenes. st. luke's mews is particularly pretty. also, don't miss the churchill arms pub, especially if you are there in summer, when its exterior is absolutely drenched in flowers or at christmastime, when it is covered with dozens of christmas trees!
- mayfair. regent street and picadilly and the buzz of oxford street are really fun, but i think the best part of mayfair is the less busy side streets packed with interesting and pretty scenes. i was walking through the area south of oxford street and north of picadilly just this afternoon and almost felt like i'd gone back in time as those classic london black cabs cruised past gorgeous brick buildings. it's just lovely.
- seven dials. this area is so named because there is a central roundabout with seven exits, each leading down an enchanting street. it's just north of covent garden and full of treasures, including homeslice pizza in super colourful and cute neal's yard, udderlicious ice cream, fabrique bakery (the cinnamon and vanilla buns will knock your socks off), and bread ahead (the best donut of your life, i promise). and...there's non-edible treasures too :)
- chelsea. start at sloane square and explore the little streets poking off of kings road. there's lines of rainbow rowhouses and darling little shops and charm galore.
- south kensington. hop off the tube at south kensington station, take in the grandeur of the natural history museum (it's definitely worth walking inside even if you don't see any of the exhibits - the main hall/staircase is one of my all-time favourite spots in all of the city), peruse the victoria & albert museum (it's just exquisite), and then stroll west through side streets and cobbled mews.
- primrose hill. super pretty streets with adorable corner shops and colourful houses, and you'll run into the canals, which are lovely (yes, i fully intend to overuse that word in this post).
- shoreditch. if you want to see a bit grittier side of london, head to trendy, hit shoreditch. around spitalfields market there are these gorgeous old rowhouses, and really awesome street art.
- regent's park is the most lovely green space in the city, as far as i'm concerned. don't miss queen mary's rose garden, especially in the summer. it is to die for. the the neighborhood of primrose hill is adorable as noted above, and also primrose hill itself is wonderful. it's at the north end of regent's park and the views from the top are really great. you can also take a row or paddle boat out on the lake.
- there are so many amazing museums in london, and the best part is that they are free! as noted above, i love the natural history museum and the v&a ... and i also really love the national gallery and the tate modern. but i think my favourite museum in london is the tate britain, which is not really frequented by tourists. the collection is amazing and so well curated, and the museum is just the right size. it's really fun to explore the tate britain and then take the commuter boat down the thames to the tate modern.
- if you're into the wonderful allure of bookshops, check out daunt books in marylebone, which is organized by world geography and is so pretty, or hatchard's on picadilly, which is apparently the queen's book store (whatever that means) and is just the charmingest and loveliest. one of ian's and my favourite spots in the city is right around the corner from our flat - stanford's travel book shop in covent garden. it's a wonderland.
- i absolutely adore tower bridge and think every london visitor should walk across it and admire it. but a couple other suggestions for bridges along the thames: my favourite view of the city is from waterloo bridge - where you can see the iconic old landmarks (along with the london eye) to the west, and the iconic new landmarks (along with st. paul's cathedral) to the east. i also think walking across millennium bridge is so fun. it's pedestrians only and it's just kind of exhilarating.
- visiting the tower of london is on most tourists' lists, and i think that's great - as long as you make sure to be on a yeoman's tour. if you happen to be planning your trip many months in advance, see if you can get tickets to the ceremony of the keys at the tower of london. i just went to this a couple weeks ago and it was so so so cool. you go to the tower just before 10pm and get to witness a ceremony that has happened every single night for seven hundred years. you witness living history, and it is super neat. unfortunately the tickets are usually booked out 6+ months in advance, but it's always worth a try to see if any are available (just check on the tower of london events site).
- a couple quick tips for kids: the princess diana memorial playground in the northeast corner of kensington gardens is the bomb.com. every london kid i know absolutely loves that place, and it really is kind of magical. in the summer, the princess diana memorial fountain is also super fun because you can play in it and get all wet ... and that reminds me of the splash pad on the south side of the thames just west of tower bridge - its called more london riverside fountains and the views from it are pretty epic. there's really fun stuff for kids in the natural history museum and the science museum, which are right next door to each other and are both free!
- and a few more recommendations for food: as noted above, fabrique bakery, bread ahead, and udderlicious have amazing treats, homeslice pizza is soooo dang tasty, and camden market has the most incredible and diverse food stalls (borough market also has awesome ones). i'd also suggest checking out:
- flat iron for a £10 suuuuper delicious steak with a lovely side salad (it's the only thing on their menu - besides a few yummy sides - which i love!) and a free salted caramel ice cream cone for everyone on the way out!
- ottolenghi for the most devastatingly beautiful, colourful, fresh and tasty food and desserts.
- dishoom (for breakfast). this indian food place is super popular and hyped up. i can take or leave their lunch/dinner (it's solid, but not life-changing), but their breakfast! if you feel weird about eating indian food for breakfast, you won't after you try it. you'll feel awesome about it then.
- in south kensington, there's this tiny bakery called maitre choux that has the most darling facade, the most gorgeous eclairs you'll ever see, and most importantly the most delectable little pastry treasures called chouxettes that i consistently dream about.
- mae deli was started by food blogger "deliciously ella" and her dairyfree/glutenfree/etc stuff is amazingly delicious - even if you love your dairy/gluten/etc. go for lunch and try a bunch of stuff, but don't miss the walnut fudge brownie. it's insanely good.
i hope this is helpful! and if you're reading this and you know london quite well, let me know what's missing in this list!!!