The thing that always surprises me about London is how the city combines the historic and the modern, sometimes even on the same street. You might, for instance, encounter an outrageously hip clothes store on a block where Charles Dickens once observed the harshness of child poverty, or contemporary cuisine served in a tavern that’s been around practically since Shakespeare’s time. One minute it feels like you’re in a History Channel show full of royal households and churches; the next minute you’re in a place totally on the cutting edge.
Local chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are now as famous as rock stars, though a tourist requisite is still traditional afternoon tea. You can splurge on Saturday morning along Portobello Road or stroll Jermyn Street for gentlemen’s shops bearing royal warrants (Prince Charles gets his pajamas at Turnbull & Asser), but these days it’s also fun to join the flocks of shoppers at fashion-forward boutiques along Elizabeth Street or (less expensively) around the markets and funky shops of Brick Lane in the East End.
London is a big city geographically. The majority of visitors spend most of their time in and around the West End, where London’s main attractions are located (Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Road’s bookshops, Covent Garden, Soho, Regent and Oxford Streets, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Carnaby Street). Further west are the pricey neighborhoods of Belgravia, Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum), Knightsbridge (Harrods, Harvey Nichols), Mayfair, Chelsea (Kings Road) and Notting Hill (Portobello Road).
The City of London, the financial district (and home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street and the Tower of London), is a must for history lovers — it is where London began, as the original square mile built by the Romans, and it still exists as its own self-governing entity.
There are plenty of attractions in London you can experience for free or little charge. Our favorite freebies are the museums (though there is often a charge for special exhibits). These include the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert, Museum of London and Science Museum. Other free attractions include the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and the craziness of the ad hoc speechmakers who do their thing at the Speakers’ Corner of Hyde Park. We also love the city’s markets, which offer a chance to view local life and pick up some bargains.
London’s most iconic landmark was recently renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of the queen’s diamond jubilee. Big Ben, as it may always be known, is actually the nickname for the 13-ton bell inside the clock. When it was completed in 1859, it had the largest bell in the U.K. Its accuracy is controlled using old pennies (the coins act as counterweights in the clock’s mechanism to ensure it keeps time to the nearest second). A photo is a must-do. Only U.K. residents are currently permitted to visit the clock tower; tours must be arranged through your local MP several months in advance.
The spectacular Gothic buildings overlooking the Thames known as the Houses of Parliament are home to the English government. At one end is the House of Lords; at the other, the House of Commons. U.K. residents may take free tours throughout the year, while overseas visitors may only tour the building on Saturdays and during Parliamentary recess.
The largest museum in England, the British Museum is London’s most visited attraction. Highlights include the Elgin Marbles, the 2,200-year-old Rosetta stone, Egyptian mummies, the Portland Vase and suits of armor from the time of King Arthur.
Don’t believe the naysayers! It is fun to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Queen’s 600-room house — Buckingham Palace. It’s always at 11:30 a.m. (on alternating days in the winter and daily in the summer). Get there early and you can practically push your nose through the front gate. The Queen’s Gallery is worth visiting to see hundreds of objects collected by George III and Queen Charlotte since 1762, when he purchased the house for his bride. You can also get inside 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms adorned with Rembrandts, Rubens and such. The Royal Mews is home to an amazing collection of historic carriages and coaches — many still used today — such as the Diamond Jubilee State Coach built to honor the Queen in 2014.
Once a venue for duels, executions and royal hunts — and a giant potato field during WWII — Hyde Park is now a manicured park filled with idle sunseekers along the Serpentine Lido and joggers running a broad swath through an urban English countryside. Check out the Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein sculptures dotted throughout. Head to the northeast corner, and you’ll see rambling orators astride soapboxes at Speakers’ Corner going on about anything they want — a kind of retro stand-up act that started back in 1872 in response to some very serious riots. The only rule is that speakers can’t be obscene or otherwise breach the law.
Kensington Palace is the birthplace of Queen Victoria and the former home of Princess Diana. The unprecedented outpouring of grief after Diana’s death brought the biggest collection of flowers here. The seven-mile long Diana Memorial Walk winds its way in a figure eight and is marked by 90 handsome circular plaques. Though Diana’s apartment is not open to the public, the State Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection are. FYI: You can have a light lunch or afternoon tea in the Orangery — an 18th-century greenhouse built for Queen Anne — throughout the year.
The Natural History Museum is housed in one of London’s finest Gothic-revival buildings; prime exhibits include dinosaur skeletons, Mammal Hall (with its massive blue whale) and the Darwin Centre, which offers behind-the-scenes access to Charles Darwin’s collection. Editor’s Note: If you want to avoid the hordes of school kids, skip the dinosaurs.
As the gateway to the West End of London, Piccadilly Circus is where five of London’s busiest streets meet. By day, it’s a bustling area filled with tourists, shoppers and businesspeople. By night, it springs to life with high-voltage hues of neon and a big party vibe. Have a seat at the statue of Eros in its center before joining the throngs to shop, dine and sightsee.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s 17th-century Baroque masterpiece, celebrated its 300th birthday in 2010. The dome (second in size only to St. Peter’s in Rome) and 528-step climb are still the best part. The American Memorial Chapel should not be missed — it’s a moving tribute to nearly 30,000 American soldiers stationed in Britain who lost their lives in WWII. There are also photos of Charles and Di tying the knot back in 1981. Editor’s Note: Bear in mind that when you whisper secret messages in the Whispering Gallery, everyone else standing there will hear them.
Created by Henry VIII in the 16th century, St. James’s Park is one of London’s loveliest places. It’s filled to the brim with ducks, swans and even pelicans, and it’s home to a large lake and a bridge that offers super Buckingham Palace views. Nearby St. James’s Palace (also built by Henry) is one of London’s oldest buildings. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, but you can try to get the two ever-present Royal Household Guards standing guard in their cherry-red tunics and “busby” hats to smile (they won’t do it).
An impressive historical archive of British art, the Tate Britain is filled with works by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough, as well as the world’s largest collection of works by J.M.W. Turner. The museum also produces interesting artist shows.
Home to a massive collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present by artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Warhol — along with a good showing of British upstarts — the Tate Modern, in its own modern building on the banks of the Thames, is a don’t-miss.
The original London residence of the British Royal Family, the Tower of London is a walled complex of ancient buildings right in the middle of the city, home to the Crown Jewels, Beefeaters and Anne Boleyn’s chopping block. Kids will like the cool collection of armor. It’s pricey to get in (though they do sell a family ticket), but admission includes one-hour guided tours by the Beefeaters every half-hour. If you want to avoid long lines in the summer to get close to the jewels, get there early. We love the Ceremony of the Keys. At exactly 9:53 p.m., the red-coated and Tudor-bonneted Chief Warder carries a candlelit lantern and the Queen’s Keys to lock the tower gates — as all the guards and sentries salute the keys, after which they all proceed through the Bloody Tower archway and up toward the steps where the main guard is drawn up. (Admission to the late-night ceremony sells out months in advance, so book your tickets early.)
One of the world’s most famous bridges, the Tower Bridge is an excellent example of Victorian engineering. Opened in 1894, it still operates using the original mechanisms. Climb to the North Tower for city views, or — if you’re brave — walk across the new glass floor and look straight down!.
Highly pedestrianized and chock-a-block with pigeons, Trafalgar Square is great for people-peeping and soaking up London ambience. Built in 1805 following Britain’s naval victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Square is adorned with fountain and statues, the most famous being that of Admiral Horatio Nelson (a triumphal memorial to England’s victory over Napoleon). Two excellent art museums are nearby: the National Gallery (with works by heavyweights such as Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh) and the National Portrait Gallery (featuring famous British personages).
It’s just wonderful to see Henry VIII’s writing desk, James II’s wedding suit, the enormous Great Bed of Ware that’s mentioned in “Twelfth Night” and Dickens’s original manuscript of “Oliver Twist.” These are among the thousands of eccentric items on exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Enjoy a “cuppa” in the outdoor courtyard cafe during the summer months.
Westminster Abbey is the site of every British Coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066 and also the final resting place for countless royals and nobility since the 13th century — as well as the site of Princess Diana’s funeral service. Elizabeth I is buried on the North Aisle of the 1519 Chapel of Henry VII (he’s behind the Altar); Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Carroll are over in Poets’ Corner with William Shakespeare. Check out the 700-year-old oak Coronation Chair and High Altar of the Sanctuary.
There’s so much to see in London that you may not want to head out of town, but if you do, the cobbled streets surrounding Windsor Castle are terribly sweet (although the golden arches of the nearby McDonald’s are a bit disconcerting). At the castle, an official residence of the Queen, you can visit rooms including the State Apartments (furnished with art from the Royal Collection), see Queen Mary’s famous Dolls’ House and tour St. George’s Chapel, one of the loveliest examples of Gothic architecture in England. Back in the town of Windsor, take the old cast-iron bridge across the Thames to historic High Street in Eton — where you’ll spot antique shops galore and well-heeled boys in their walking coats amongst the venerable old buildings of Eton College, which was founded by Henry VI in 1440. The train from London to Windsor takes only about 35 minutes.
One of Europe’s first seaside resorts, Brighton is less than an hour by train from London’s Victoria Station to see the spectacular Palace Pier. Still awash in old-fashioned charm, it’s a fun place to explore; stop for fish and chips at English’s, shop North Laine and have afternoon tea at the Mock Turtle Tea Shop.
Take the hour-plus train trip to Althorp to see the childhood home of Princess Diana, where she is now laid to rest. The Spencer home for the past 500 years, it’s one of England’s most beautiful country homes — filled to the brim with works by Rubens, van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Out in the gardens, in the center of a small island named Round Oval, is where Diana is buried.
Military history buffs will want to stop by in London at the Cabinet War Rooms to see the underground bunker from which Winston Churchill directed the WWII British effort. The rooms are as exactly as they were during the war — plus lots of photographs and wartime memorabilia. Another haunt for wartime devotees is the Imperial War Museum.
Among the numerous royal haunts, Hampton Court Palace is famous for its giant hedge maze planted in 1690, as well as its ghosts; consider arriving by boat via the Thames. The palace gardens are wonderful, as is seeing the oldest tennis courts in the U.K. The Tudor and Baroque palace itself is magnificent (it’s the oldest Tudor royal residence in England), and it contains oodles of art, tapestries and furniture.
Gardeners will want to ogle the orchids inside the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Gardens, established in 1759. The massive gardens are spread over 300 acres, including a pond, lake and aquatic garden. The Princess of Wales Conservatory alone offers 10 different climate zones. Make sure you see the Palm House (a lovely 19th-century wrought-iron and glass pavilion) and the Kew Palace that was a country retreat for George III. Located along the banks of the Thames, it’s an easy no-climbing walk.
The London Eye serves up London’s best in 32 capsules in 30 minutes (though to some it may seem like a lifetime as it moves at an interminably slow pace). If the weather’s clear, you can see Windsor Castle. Book in advance to avoid long lines.
If you have kids in tow (or if you simply love science), touch hundreds of hands-on exhibits and visit dozens of galleries heralding major scientific advances from the last 300 years, all at the Science Museum.
The best place to pay homage to the bard in London is Shakespeare’s Globe. The original 16th-century playhouse was accidentally set on fire during Shakespeare’s performance of “Henry VIII,” but has been recreated to near exacting specifications.
Stratford-upon-Avon is only two hours on the train from Paddington Station. This is a must for Shakespeare lovers in spite of the summer crowds. You can see the house where the playwright was born as well as his grave at Holy Trinity Church. The town is just beautiful, what with the well-preserved timber-framed buildings and graceful white swans swimming lazily on the Avon. You can also see the childhood thatched-roof cottage of Anne Hathaway, the bard’s wife. The big draw is the Royal Shakespeare Company, which features some of England’s most famous actors performing great works by the bard. To spot the actors, eat at Marlowes. Viator offers a number of day trips from London to Stratford.
While the British Isles have long suffered a reputation for bland, unremarkable food, London is enjoying a new “best eating town in the world” reputation — evidenced with a respectable showing of one-, two- and three-Michelin-star eateries as well as a dizzying range of ethnic cuisine options from around the globe. It’s common practice for restaurants to add a service charge to your bill. If they don’t, leaving 10 percent is customary with a jump closer to 15 percent at posh places.
The attraction at the Cinnamon Club is exquisite, high-end Indian cuisine with dishes like spice-crusted halibut with tomato tamarind sauce and tandoori paneer with garlic naan. The restaurant, open since 2001, is housed in the Old Westminster Library.
Americans might know him from his TV show “Hell’s Kitchen,” but Gordon Ramsay has more than TV credits as a three-starred Michelin chef with about a dozen restaurants scattered around London. For a taste of Ramsay’s treats try the set lunch at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey.
For a cheap meal, head to Gaby’s Deli, which opened in 1964 and is still run by Gaby. It’s a hit with celebrities (see photos of Matt Damon and others on the walls). Dishes include corned beef (called salt beef here), falafel, potato pancakes, hummus and wonderful salads, with lots of offerings for vegetarians.
To sample the food of Jamie Oliver, the Food Network’s super cute “Naked Chef,” head to Fifteen, where a portion of the proceeds go to a program to support disadvantaged youths in training.
For smoked Scottish salmon, steak and kidney pudding, and other traditional British fare, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is the place. The roast beef is carved right at your table. (The restaurant offers 90-minute carving lessons if you want to hone your own skills.) The “Ten Deadly Sins” breakfast is a must for those with big appetites; it includes sausage, eggs, bacon, black pudding, fried mushrooms, baked tomato and egg, liver, fried bread, baked beans, and “bubble and squeak” (a traditional English dish made of potatoes and veggies).
Head to the Lanesborough Hotel for the city’s best afternoon tea. A silver service sumptuously served on Royal Worcester a la tiny pots, milk jugs and pretty strainers in the chinoiserie-draped Conservatory will put you back a pretty penny (but it’s oh, so worth it). A box of house-blended tea choices is presented, and the intricate brewing process is explained. Indulge in delicate sandwiches like tuna on tomato bread and curried chicken on herb bread. Your just-out-of-the-oven scones will be accompanied by a luscious sweet-but-tart lemon curd and clotted cream that’ll make you purr. Just when you think it can’t possibly get better, you’re presented with a wonderful assortment of petite pastries.
Shopping in London
From the bustling department stores of Oxford Street to the charming antiques market of Portobello Road, London offers a shopping experience for just about everyone. Looking for a good souvenir? Seek out anything with the red, white and blue Union Jack — like T-shirts, caps, socks and tea towels. Biscuits, lemon curd and tins of tea are always a good bet. And for big spenders, anything in Burberry’s signature tan plaid will make a fitting memento of your trip (but you may find cheaper prices on eBay than in London).
Oxford Street, the busiest shopping street in Europe, boasts a mile and a half of department stores (such as Selfridges and Marks & Spencer), fashion boutiques and big-name chain stores (Gap, Urban Outfitters).
For a more upscale shopping scene, make your way to nearby Bond Street, where you’ll find names like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany & Co.
“If they don’t have it, they’ll get it.” Harrods is one of the world’s biggest department stores. There are hundreds of departments (including a pet spa) and dozens of food venues — and you can’t see it all. The venerable landmark is handsomely dressed up in Edwardian terra cotta — and the famous Food Halls will knock your socks off. It’s well worth a visit even if you’re not a shopper.
Carnaby Street has regained its “Swinging 60s” rep with plenty of funky shops, along a collection of cobbled roads behind Regent Street. Check out the Great Frog for cool handmade jewelry.
You’re wrong if you think Notting Hill only got popular after the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film. Truth is, this place has been at the corner of Right Now and Fabulous for years (the Portobello Road antiques and flea market came onto the scene around 1948 and remains popular today). The Travel Bookshop, the inspiration for the shop where Hugh met Julia, unfortunately closed its doors in 2011. But Books for Cooks on Blenheim, an incredibly well-stocked shop with five tables tucked away in the back for lunch, is still in business. The area is chock-a-block with hip restaurants and funky shops, secret gardens and seriously grand homes for rich types such as Stella McCartney and Richard Curtis (he wrote the Notting Hill film). Head for Westbourne Grove and Emma Hope for shoes and bags.
When hunger strikes, head down the Thames to the Borough Market, a must-stop for foodies. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, the market operates Wednesday through Saturday, and is open for lunch Monday and Tuesday. It’s easy to make your own meal here — pick up cheese from one of the dairy shops, buy a loaf of bread and some meat pies, and accompany them with a side of the freshest produce in London.
–written by Fran Golden