Some travelers have a well-defined idea of “London”: staid tradition, afternoon tea, heavy ales, and cultured accents in tweed. People with this notion of London can easily complete their vacation in 3min. by making their way to the banks of the Thames and staring pointedly at the gilded heights of Big Ben, but this would be to miss the true charm of this expansive, diverse place. Despite its weighty history, the city today is not all ghost tours, beefeaters, and double-decker buses. Beyond Buckingham Palace and the blinding lights of Piccadilly Circus, London is a living, breathing metropolis, home to nearly 9 million residents. Comprised of 32 boroughs along with the City (London’s financial district), London can seem at times more like a conglomerate of villages, each with its own unique heritage and character. Thanks to the feisty independence and diversity of each area, the London “buzz” is continually on the move—every few years a previously disregarded neighborhood explodes into cultural prominence. Each day in London brings something new, so finish up your pint and let’s start exploring.
To say that London is a sizeable city is to adopt the infamous British tendency for understatement. London is bloody massive. The central knot of museums, historical sights, shopping, and entertainment stretches along the Thames from the City of London (yes, a city within a city) through the West End to Westminster. The luxurious residential neighborhoods of Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and Marylebone lie to the north and west. Add in the university neighborhood of Bloomsbury and the culturally prominent South Bank, and you’ve got the whole of central London in a nice package.
These areas encompass most of Zone 1 in the Tube. Moving out to the second ring, a traveler will find less material wealth and more wealth of personality. These outer areas include ethnically rich South London (Brixton), artistically rich East London (Hackney), literarily and musically rich North London (Camden and Hampstead), and culturally rich West London (Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith).
Navigating the sprawl of London can be incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, the ever-obliging Brits plaster the city center with maps, which can be found reliably at bus stops. If you don’t want to leave your direction to chance (or your GPS), you can always shell out for the all-knowing A-Z city map – you’d be hard-pressed to find a Londoner who doesn’t own a copy.
From the time Londinium was a rainy outpost of ancient Rome to the days when it governed a quarter of the world, London has accumulated a few worthwhile sights. A little religion called Christianity came along and led to the elegant churches of Christopher Wren. Centuries of exploration around the world deposited a bounty of treasures into the British Museum. The monarchy’s predilection for home improvement scattered palaces across the city. A thriving 20th-century art scene produced some of the best (and strangest) modern art you’ll ever see. All this splendor is easily accessible to travelers with a little advance planning, and to top it off many of the city’s major museums are free.
Don’t limit your experience to ticketed sights: London’s charm is everywhere. Whatever path you choose—whether you’re strolling down the winding streets of Marylebone, exploring the wonderful parks of Hampstead Heath or St. James’sPark, or stalking the curry houses of Brick Lane—your exploration will be rewarded. There’s no wrong turn. Unless you’re on the Hampstead Heath and you hear a strange growling to your left. In that case, a left turn may be the wrong one.
You don’t need Sherlock sleuthing skills to figure out the best things to visit in London. Just check out our list of favorites, below. Click on the links to explore tours and book local guides.
In recent years, London’s culinary scene has exploded, putting the city squarely on the radar of foodies worldwide. Thanks to celebrity chefs, outstanding ethnic cuisine, and quality street vendors (hello, food trucks) travelers can no longer complain that London is only good for “pub grub.” But those in search of classic British comfort food won’t be disappointed, either: there are still plenty of great places to get standbys like fish and chips, bangers and mash, Cornish pasties, shepherd’s pie, or tikka masala. After all, tradition reigns supreme in London — and that goes for dining too. There’s a reason that old war propaganda line, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” is plastered all over the place; there’s a reason the Queen still rolls down the Mall every June; there’s a reason the Brits always think England will win the Cup; there’s a reason fair Albion still uses the pound; and for that same reason, you’ll always be able to get a pie and a pint on any corner in London. Now eat your mushy peas—the cod’s getting cold.
All visitors to London should try the famed, cholesterol-filled full English breakfast, which generally includes fried eggs, bacon, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato, and black pudding (blood sausage), smothered in HP sauce (a vinegar base mixed with fruit and spices). The full brekky is served in B&Bs, pubs, and cafes across the city. Toast smothered in jam or Marmite (the most acquired of tastes—a salty, brown spread made from yeast) is another breakfast staple.
The best dishes for lunch or dinner are roasts—beef, lamb, and Wiltshire hams—and Yorkshire pudding, a type of popover drizzled with meat juices. Bangers and mash and bubble and squeak, despite their intriguing names, are simply sausages and potatoes and cabbage and potatoes, respectively.
British “tea” refers to both a drink and a social custom. The ritual refreshment, accompanying almost every meal, is served strong with milk. The standard tea, colloquially known as a cuppa, is PG Tips or Tetley. More refined cups specify particular blends such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Afternoon high tea includes cooked meats, salad, sandwiches, and pastries. Cream tea, a specialty of Cornwall and Devon, includes toast, shortbread, crumpets, scones, and jam, accompanied by clotted cream (a cross between whipped cream and butter).
Sir William Harcourt believed that English history was made in pubs as much as in the Houses of Parliament. Brits rapidly develop loyalty for neighborhood establishments, which in turn tend to cater to their regulars and develop a particular character. Pubs are everywhere in London.
Bitter, named for its sharp, hoppy aftertaste, is a standard pub drink. It should be hand-pumped or pulled from the tap at cellar temperature into government-stamped pint glasses (20 oz.) or the more modest half-pint glass. Real ale retains a diehard cult of connoisseurs in the shadow of giant corporate breweries. Brown, pale, and India pale ales—less common varieties—all have a heavy flavor with noticeable hop. Stout, the distinctive subspecies of ale, is rich, dark, and creamy. Try Irish Guinness, with its silky foam head. Most draft ales and stouts are served at room temperature, but if you can’t stand the heat, try a lager, a precursor of American beer typically served cold. Cider is a fermented apple juice served sweet or dry. Variations on the standard pint include black velvet, which is stout mixed with champagne; black and tan, layers of stout and ale; and snakebite, lager and cider with blackcurrant syrup or Ribena.
A bell or the phrase “Last orders!” marks the last call 10min. before closing time. When the bar officially closes, the bar staff traditionally shouts, “Time at the bar!” or (more fun), “Time gentlemen please!”
From Shakespeare to the Sex Pistols, London has never been behind the times when it comes to the entertaining arts. Every time you take an escalator in a Tube station, the barrage of posters will remind you of the breadth and quality of the city’s cultural opportunities. Experience the delights of the stage at a major West End musical, a quirky new production at the Young Vic, an elegant ballet at the Royal Opera House, or that famed British wit at one of the city’s comedy clubs. If it’s dulcet tones you’re looking for, catch chamber music in St Martin-in-the-Fields, or check out an up-and-coming indie band at The Borderline. In the summer, the city explodes with festivals of all shapes and sizes. And for a city as expensive as London, cultural events can be surprisingly cheap.
Ah, “theatre” (thee-ya-tah) in London. The city is renowned for its affordable performances—tickets for big musicals on the West End can be had for as little as £25, a pittance compared to the $100 tickets sold on Broadway. In the West End, London’s main theater district, you’ll find big musicals that stay in residence at a single theater for decades. Other theaters put on more cutting-edge works. Many pubs have live performance spaces where theater groups rehearse and perform for audiences that, after a few pints, tend to find the second act more confusing than the first. Some churches, like St. Paul’s in Covent Garden, host shows during the summer. Only buy discounted tickets from booths with a circle and check mark symbol that says STAR on it; this stands for the Society of Tickets Agents and Retailers, and it vouches for the legitimacy of a discount booth.
“But,” you say, “how can it be nightlife if it closes down at 11pm?” Good question. If you seek the club scene of say, Barcelona, go to Barcelona. London is less lively than many European cities, and the elitist impulse often rears its head in British club life (especially in South Kensington and Chelsea, where many clubs are “members only”). The West End is full of bar-club hybrids that fill with cocktail-drinkers after work and morph into dance clubs on the weekends. This is also the only neighborhood where you’re guaranteed to find something open after midnight on a Monday. Shoreditch is London’s other hopping nightlife center, and, though it’s less prolific during the week, you’ll find better music, cheaper prices, and more plaid than high heels. Speakeasy-style bars focusing on mixology and feeling hip can be found throughout the city. Keep an eye on local listings (in free daily newspapers, posters, and flyers) to find out what’s going on after dark. With a history of homegrown musical talent—and many of the best ‘90s pop groups—London’s fantastic music scene goes way back. Today, it has all of the big name acts you’d expect a major city to draw, in addition to an underground focus on indie rock and a surprisingly ample dose of folk and blues.
As with everything else in London, the dance scene is diverse, innovative, and first-rate. Come for the famous ballets at older venues like the Royal Opera House or stop by a smaller company for some contemporary dance.
The English are famous for their dry, sophisticated yet sometimes ridiculous (“We are the knights who say ‘Ni!’”) sense of humor. This humor thrives in the standup and sketch comedy clubs throughout the city. Be warned that the city virtually empties of comedians come August when it’s festival time in Edinburgh.
An ode to the experience of shopping, Harrods is probably the most famous department store on the planet. Packed with faux-hieroglyphs, a “Room of Luxury” (and its sequel, “Room of Luxury II”), and just about anything you could ever want to buy, Harrods is as much a sight to see as it is a place to shop. The prices and the people who pay, may be the most entertaining part of it all. Be sure to check out the toy section—you’ll struggle to contain your inner child. Don’t miss the food court’s candy section, where they sell chocolate shoes. On the bottom floor, they sell “Personalised Classics,” which enable you to substitute names for the ones already in a given book. Who needs “Romeo and Juliet” when you could have “Fred and Agnes?” “Fred, Fred, wherefore art thou Fred?” The answer: in shopping heaven.
Tips in restaurants are sometimes included in the bill (sometimes as a “service charge”). If gratuity is not included, you should tip your server about 10%. Taxi drivers should receive a 10% tip, and bellhops and chambermaids usually expect £1-3. To the great relief of many budget travelers, tipping is not expected at pubs and bars in Britain (unless you are trying to get jiggy with the bartender). Bargaining is practically unheard of in the upscale shops that overrun London. Don’t try it (unless you happen to be at a street market or feel particularly belligerent).
The Brits love to drink, so the presence of alcohol is unavoidable. In trying to keep up with the locals, remember that the Imperial pint is 20 oz., as opposed to the 16oz. US pint.
Britain uses a thoroughly confusing and unpredictable mix of standard and metric measurement units. Road distances are always measured in miles, and many Brits will be clueless if you give them distances in kilometers. For weights, don’t be surprised to see grams and ounces used side-by-side. There’s also a measurement called a “stone,” equal to 14 pounds, that is regularly used for giving body weights. Paradoxically, meters and centimeters are the most common way to give body heights.