I love London! People often ask me what my favorite place to visit has been. I hesitate to ever pick favorites and genuinely find it hard to do given that cities and countries all have their own personalities, but if I were really pressed, I would probably say London. At least, it’s probably my favorite big city to visit.
Aside from a few trips directly over the U.S. border into Canada, London was the first city outside of the U.S. that I ever visited. I enjoyed its vibe then and still do today. It is clean, classy, and a great blend of tailored and trendy, preppy and hip. Plus, everything is better with British accents.
When I am in London, I feel inspired to be some combination of Queen Elizabeth, Lady Diana, Princess Catherine, and a groupie of The Clash. I want to find Sharon Horgan and hang out with her. I want to be as elegant and cool as these people, and as London itself. I do the best I can walking around in my Boden Breton shirt, but will never truly pull it off. No matter how hard I try, I am still just an uptight, almost-40 American soccer mom.
I’ve wondered if I love London so much just because it is probably the closest experience to “home” for me in Europe, with English being the native language and with British culture being similar to American culture. I hope I am not that basic! I actually feel like it is different in many ways, even the simple differences of driving on the opposite side of the road and accents sometimes being undecipherable; different enough anyway.
I’ve now visited London three times, first in July 2008, then in March 2017, and most recently in April 2018. I am going to write about all three trips combined here. Each trip was 3-4 days, so what I’ll outline here could probably fill a two-week vacation.
As I got my notes together to write this, I was amused to find that even back in July 2008, before moving abroad and before creating this travel blog, I kept travel notes and scrapbook items from our trip – a paper-based, hard-copy prototype of what this blog is now. Apparently, I’ve always loved documenting travel!
My general London travel tips involve preparation and transportation. As always, I recommend buying advance tickets to any popular tourist attractions you plan to visit. This can almost always be done online and lets you skip lines and reduce waiting times. The Visit London website has other tips and links to tickets for popular attractions, as do the sites’ individual websites. If you are visiting a lot of the standard attractions, consider the London Pass.
For transportation, the London public transit options are great. I recommend getting the Visitor Oyster Card for use on the Underground/Tube and buses. I prefer the Underground, but my son also loved riding in the front seat of the top level of the double-decker buses, basically just sitting in a giant window. There are also the iconic black taxis.
On our first trip, we flew into the city from the U.S. On our second trip, we took the train in from Belgium. On our recent trip we drove our car from Belgium via the Chunnel. On all three trips, we exclusively used public transit to get around once we were in the city. When we drove in, we parked the car for the weekend, it was just more affordable to do that than take the train because we booked the trip last minute. We reserved a parking spot in a lot near our hotel via Just Park reservation.
Driving in London was a bit stressful, but not as bad as it was in Rome! (I should say “passengering” because my husband actually did all the driving. But I like to think I was “co-piloting”!) We did get stuck in a giant roundabout a couple of times … seriously, a “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament…” moment, but that just adds to the fun of travel.
The best part about driving to destinations is that your packing isn’t hampered by suitcase limits. I could pack 6 pairs of shoes for 4 days! I could pack my own iron because hotel room irons always suck! I could buy things to take home!
What We Did
First, I want to say that London is a busy city. On our two recent visits, the constant din of helicopters overhead was a reminder that there is a lot of activity in the city and the authorities are always watching. London is well known for its widespread public CCTV surveillance. That said, aside from one really crowded tube ride that was unpleasant, it hasn’t ever felt overcrowded to me, but it is busy enough for interesting people watching. On one trip, we were fascinated by a group of men we kept seeing on the street in fancy suits with briefcases on their way to some sort of club or organization meeting. I don’t know what they were, but they all looked like the Monopoly man, or the father in Mary Poppins. Keep your eyes open for fun sights like that!
It’s impossible to visit London without frequently seeing and traversing the River Thames. Many attractions are along the river, like Big Ben (actual name is Elizabeth Tower with the Great Clock and the Great Bell named Big Ben inside) and the Parliament buildings. We walked by these often, though on our most recent trip, Big Ben was completely covered in scaffolding due to current repairs. That may still be the case depending on when you are reading this.
The London Eye offers a great view of the River Thames, Big Ben, Parliament, and the rest of the city. (The main photo at the top of this blog post was taken from inside the Eye). It is worth doing at least once, and worth purchasing tickets in advance.
There are a lot of bridges over the Thames. We’ve walked over Westminster Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, nicknamed “the ladies’ bridge” because it was built by mostly women during World War II. We also used the more newly constructed, pedestrian Millennium Bridge to cross the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the South Bank.
On one trip we toured St. Paul’s Cathedral, on another we just took in the view from the outside. St. Paul’s is a working church but is open for tours. We went all the way up to the top of the dome, an impressive and at times claustrophobic climb!
The Cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, a popular architect in our family as he also designed the building in which my husband and I got married. St Paul’s has hosted many famous events, weddings, and funerals, most notable to me was the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
We also toured Westminster Abbey, another stunning, working church which also hosts many royal events, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Lady Diana’s funeral, and the wedding of Prince William and Princess Catherine.
Another bridge worth viewing and crossing is the beautiful and iconic Tower Bridge. On our first visit to London we visited the Tower Bridge Exhibition, a great way to learn about the history and operations of the bridge.
Also, on our first trip, we visited the Tower of London, home to the Crown Jewels, other significant historical artifacts, dungeons, jail cells, and more. It is worth taking a guided tour there with a Yeoman Warder, also known as a Beefeater.
On our first visit, we walked by No. 10 Downing St., the British Prime Minister’s official home and office. I’m not sure it was that exciting to see, though it is iconic. We also walked through Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and along the South Bank. I’ll mention some of my favorites along the South Bank in different categories below.
Palace tours are available in the summer and on other select days, but we did not take any. We also haven’t been around for the Changing of the Guard yet. On our first trip, we saw the Horse Guards on Whitehall at The Household Cavalry Museum, but we didn’t go in the museum.
My husband and son enjoyed the palace and gardens while I took my time going through this beautiful exhibit which tells Diana’s story through her fashion. This is a must for any fan of fashion, Diana, or the Royal Family!
I also enjoyed the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments and felt sorry for the Queen that the King’s were much fancier.
Many of London’s museums offer free public entry. This provides a great opportunity to see some important world artifacts and pieces of art for free!
At the British Museum we purchased a £2 map of the “top 10 objects to see in 1 hour.” This was worth it as it guided us straight to the Rosetta Stone and an Easter Island figure, among other highlights. “Oh,” my son said about the Rosetta Stone after he finally got through the massive crowd of other tourists in order to see it, “it’s just a giant rock.”
Albeit a critical artifact in the history of language, it’s hard to argue with his logic. My husband and I couldn’t help but remark on the fact that a lot of what is displayed at the museum is essentially artifacts from other countries, taken (stolen?) by the British. We wonder, perhaps some if it should more rightly live in its homeland? But I won’t go any further in that discussion today. The history of civilization is complicated.
Another free museum entry I am glad we took advantage of was to Tate Modern. You do have to pay to enter some galleries and exhibits there, but not all. We had just under an hour to fill between two scheduled events one day. Since we were right near Tate Modern, we popped in, paid £1 for a map, and went to one free section of the museum to view works by Bridget Riley, Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, and Gerhard Richter. Not a bad use of time!
I can’t imagine visiting London without taking in a show in the West End. On our first trip, I dragged my husband to see Les Misérables at Queen’s Theater. Les Mis holds a special place in my heart as it was the first musical I ever saw (thanks, Mom!) and I loved seeing it again in London.
On our second trip to London, it was time to do what my Mom did for me and give the gift of musical theater to my son. We saw School of Rock at what was then called the New London Theater. (It has recently been renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre by owner Andrew Lloyd Webber after the ballerina and choreographer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.) He loved it and so did I!
On our third trip to London, I took my son to see the Lion King at the Lyceum Theater. We loved it too. What a beautiful show. I was crying five notes in. My son could hardly stay in his seat. It brought us both so much joy!
Visit London has some tips at this link for buying theater tickets. You can book through them, directly through the theaters, or through many other online sites (I have used seetickets.com and londonboxoffice.co.uk). I like to browse a few sites to look for the best deals.
On our third trip to London, we also visited Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. My son had studied Shakespeare in school a few weeks prior, so it was a perfect opportunity to go to the Globe Theater and supplement his learning.
The Globe Theater is not the original theater or theater location, but it is pretty darn close. They did the best they could. We took the theater tour which also includes entry to their permanent exhibition. I particularly enjoyed two aspects of the exhibition – a few costumes on display and an audio feature presenting dozens of deliveries of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy revealing how spoken language has changed over time.
I recommend getting the audio guide for the exhibition to get the most out of it. Our tour guide was excellent. I never really connected with Shakespeare, but she did such a great job getting us excited about the theater’s approach to performances, my son and I both left disappointed that we weren’t staying to see a show (we had to get to our performance of the Lion King)! Of course, we did visit the gift shop on our way out the door.
One of the reasons for our most recent visit to London was that I was invited to attend a workshop on fundraising (my pre-expat-life career) being held at the beautiful Royal Academy of Music. While everyday tourists may not get to visit the Academy, they do host student performances in their recently renovated performance theater, so check it out if that’s your thing! I enjoyed dusting some cobwebs off my career brain at the workshop. Plus, I got to pretend to be a London-based career woman for a day and got to explore the Marylebone area which was filled with many cute retail stores.
In Marylebone, I visited Daunt Books, primarily a travel bookstore, but it also has a nice selection of other books. It is one of the most photogenic bookstores I’ve ever been in. I easily could’ve spent twice as much time there as I did. I bought a collection of essays written by expat women.
On both trips with our son, we had to visit Hamleys on Regent Street, an enormous (multi-story) and popular toy store in which the staff is playing with bestselling toys and encouraging your child(ren) to do the same. We also shopped in the mini-location in St Pancras Train Station. Beware of sensory overload and overpricing. Our son loves it.
On our first trip to London, I felt it was very important to buy good quality tea and take it back to the States with me. I happily found the Tea House at Covent Garden for that purpose.
My husband prefers to drink something a bit stronger, so he enjoyed the selection at Royal Mile Whiskies on Bloomsbury St. (We also shopped at one of their locations in Edinburgh!) While he was in there, I window shopped a closed bookstore nearby that I see now is Bookmarks Socialist Bookshop. I’m not sure I would’ve found anything to my liking in there, but it might have been interesting to browse!
On both of our trips in recent years, we strolled past the Southbank Centre Book Market while on the South Bank. The first time we saw it, I thought it was a random find. I was happy to find out it is a regular occurrence. I cannot pass a chance to shop a used book sale. It looks like Southbank Centre has a lot happening on a regular basis.
One of my favorite things to do while travelling has become browsing in grocery stores. I love to see what is popular locally, as well as what products I can get in that location that I can’t get in Belgium, especially if we drove and I can fill up the car! In London, we made a few trips to Sainsbury’s and bought things like shredded wheat, custard filled cookies, local candies, and some awesome cooling gel forehead strips for headaches.
Where We Ate
There are coffee and tea shops all over London. We usually ate breakfasts at our hotels, or places like Starbucks, Krispy Kreme (definitely can’t get those in Belgium), or Costa Pronto. I had my first ever taste of French press coffee at the hotel on our first trip to London in 2008. It was delicious, obviously, and we bought our own French press immediately.
On the South Bank, we had a great meal of Mexican tapas at Wahaca’s Mexican Street Kitchen. It is impossible to find good Mexican food in Belgium, so this was a real treat for us.
Near the British Museum, we had lunch at the Camera Museum Café, a quirky little place with a café on the ground floor and a camera museum in the basement.
Near Kensington Palace we had a nice French bistro lunch at Aubaine in the Hilton London Hyde Park.
Near Tate Modern we enjoyed a British pub lunch with a view of the Thames at Founder’s Arms Pub & Dining.
During the lunch break of my workshop at the Royal Academy of Music, I had lunch in Marylebone at a sweet café with great service, Orrery Epicerie.
South of Tower Bridge, we had dinner one night at Draft House Tower Bridge. My husband still talks about how good his Scotch Egg was there.
Another good pub dinner was at The Crown at 51 New Oxford St. (not to be confused with The Old Crown Public House at 33 New Oxford St., which may also be good, but it’s not where we went).
We were the only family and the only table eating dinner when we went to The Square Pig restaurant in Holborn. The rest of the customers were clearly enjoying after dinner drinks with colleagues. My son made sure we stuck out as much as possible by spreading out a tourist map on the table to color on, and by playing with the new bird puppet he got at the British Museum, but nobody seemed to mind.
A somewhat “fast food” option, we had dinner one night at Nando’s which specializes in South African chicken.
London is known for good Indian food, and we enjoyed meals from The Chambeli restaurant on both of our recent trips. It was near our hotels and we dined-in once and took carry-out back to our hotel room once.
I was sad to learn that two of the places we ate on our 2008 trip have closed. One was called the Stock Pot and it was a great little place in the theater district where we had a comfortable meal that tasted like home cooking. The other was Porters, which has now relocated out of London. It served delicious traditional British food. We bought their cookbook on that visit and it is still on our bookshelf.
Where we Stayed
In 2008 we stayed at the City Inn Westminster which is now the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London – Westminster. It is a great location in Westminster, close to many attractions.
What We Missed
Every time we visit London I fall more in love with it, and I learn about more things we still need to see and do there.
While my husband and I have seen the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge Exhibition, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, we should probably take our son to them. A tour of Buckingham Palace would be interesting, and we still need to see the Changing of the Guard. As a horse lover, I think I might enjoy the Household Calvary Museum.
We noticed that a lot of boat tours operate on the River Thames. If the weather is good, that looks enjoyable. My son and I want to go back to see a Shakespeare play performed as intended at the Globe Theater. Now that I know about the Southbank Centre, I’ll check to see what is going on there during any future visits to London. There is always more to see in the many museums in the city. I read that there are new items on display now at the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibit, and I certainly wouldn’t mind returning to that!
So, it looks like there are plenty of reasons for me to return to my favorite big city, London, in the future!