Written by Lynsey Oxton
I’ve just returned from a long weekend in London. One thing is for sure, you’ll never be short of something to do in our magnificent Capital City!
Despite being known as ‘Old London Town’, it’s every inch the big city and as such, you really need longer than a weekend to fully appreciate all that London has to offer. But, if time is tight, there are a number of things you won’t want to miss. Here’s my favourite ten….
No 1: The West End: Covent Garden.
The West End is perhaps best known for the theatre district but there is something else that has more pizzazz… Once just a mere vegetable market, Covent Garden is now a bustling hub of open-air restaurants, cafes, arts and crafts stalls, independent shops, proper British pubs – and not forgetting, the prettiest flower displays. If you happen to visit in late May/ early June as we did, you will be lucky enough to see ‘Covent Garden in Bloom’, where all of the shops and restaurants participate in decorating the whole area in stunning displays (an instagram-lovers haven). Covent Garden is also home to a host of street performers who entertain the crowds on the piazza from early morning into late evening. It is actually the only district in London with a licence for this and as such, attracts the best acts – from magicians to gospel choirs.
Whilst in Covent Garden, be sure to pop into the London Transport Museum to learn about the city’s transport heritage and look at the many exhibits (such as the famous red bus and black cab). A visit will set you back £16.50 but if buses are your bag, it will be money well spent. The Royal Opera House is here too, if you’re more Figaro than freight.
If you’re feeling peckish, the Ivy Market Grill in the centre of Covent Garden does a tasty pre-theatre menu – great value at only £21 for three courses. Not only will you get tip-top waiter service, but you may also find yourself sat next to a celeb.
No 2: Discover the history surrounding Tower Hamlets.
On the North Bank of the River Thames stands the iconic Tower Bridge which has been keeping watch over London since the late 1800’s. You’ll recognise this famous gothic landmark from its cameos in films such as Independence Day, Trainspotting and Bridget Jones Diary. If you time it just right, you’ll get to see the suspension bridge between the two towers open to allow a passing ship through. Tower Bridge is not to be mistaken for its more common cousin, London Bridge, which can be found half a mile upstream!
The nearby Tower of London is the Queens official palace and the royal fortress. Visitors to this impressive castle can coo over the Crown Jewels, see where a zoo once stood and enter Traitors Gate – and much more besides. The site is steeped in history and is a must see for any historian. Tickets are around £25 – but best buy in advance as the crowds here are enormous!
If modern history is also of interest, in the vicinity of Tower Bridge is the 2012 ‘Shard’, named as such due to it resembling a large shard of glass. This super-impressive 95 storey skyscraper is officially the largest building in London – and you can’t (physically) miss it.
No 3 – Westminster: Visit the Queen (and the Prime Minister).
Surely one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of London is Buckingham Palace? What trip would be complete without at least a little peak at this world-famous ‘Buck House’ and home to our Queen, Elizabeth? Reach it by walking down The Mall, or preferably through St James Park which is home to forty resident pelicans! This working palace is partly open to eager visitors on selected dates between July and September and tours include the famous throne room. Like the Tower of London, this is extremely popular and will get very busy – so buy upfront. During our stay, we managed to catch the end of the ‘Trooping The Colour’ ceremony – an annual tradition to celebrate the Queens Birthday (well, one of them!).
The official entrance to Buckingham Palace is Horse Guards – a historic mid-18th century stables and military building. This is a popular tourist attraction in its own right, where visitors can see the Queens ‘Life Guards’ on horseback. The changing of the guards takes place daily at 11:00 (10:00 on Sunday’s) and there is also a daily ‘Dismounting Ceremony and Punishment Parade’ at 16:00 that many line up to see. If you’re super-keen, you can also pay £8.50 to visit the Household Cavalry Museum to learn about the history and see the working stables.
It’s no secret that British politics is in a state of chaos right now! That said, Downing Street should also be on your agenda when you’re in Westminster. Don’t expect to clamber past the tall black railings (and the armed police guards) for a close up inspection of ‘Number 10’ – but expect to at least get a feel for the Government HQ and well renowned private residence of the Prime Minister, Teresa May (and whoever her successor will be in the coming weeks/ months!).
No 4 – Kensington: A heady mix of antiques, carnivals, park-life and pretty houses.
Portobello Road: “Streets where the riches of ages are stowed”. As a 70’s child (just!) who spent hours watching Disney classics such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Portobello Road in Notting Hill entices me for the nostalgia alone. Actually, it’s home to the world’s largest antiques market and consequently, many a big spender on the look out for something ornate. In fact, Notting Hill is one of the most affluent areas of London with many of the cities wealthiest residents.
Whether ancient Persian rugs and fruit ‘n’ veg markets are your thing or not, Portobello Road is worth making the effort for anyway, thanks to the fantastic pastel coloured houses that are so unique and different to the rest of London. Take your camera! If you’re a fan of the film ‘Notting Hill’, you will also recognise that famous bookshop (142 Portobello Road).
If you happen to visit in August, you may just find yourself in the middle of the fabulous Notting Hill Carnival, where you can enjoy being part of the party, surrounded by vibrant Caribbean colour (and feathered performers)!
Just around the corner, you’ll find the lush Kensington Gardens. Aside from St James Park, this is probably the nicest in London. There’s plenty to see, from the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, to the Serpentine Art Galleries, to Kensington Palace itself (which is partly open to the public). It won’t escape your notice with the beautiful mansions, that Kensington Park is known as ‘Billionaires Row’ and boasts the most expensive address in the UK.
No 5 – Lambeth: Waterloo (after sunset).
“People so busy, makes me feel dizzy, taxi lights shine so bright”…..
Waterloo isn’t only known for a famous train station and a song about its sunset; it really comes to life at night, almost like a big fairground that stretches along the Thames embankment. It also offers the best views of the Houses of Parliament and Palace of Westminster, lit up in the night sky. The enticing smell of pop-up food stalls fills the air whilst buskers turn tunes and skateboarders turn tricks. Of course, you can’t fail to spot the London Eye. For the sum of £28, you can take a trip on the biggest wheel and really see the Big Smoke alight at night. It’s easy to see why Waterloo is a tourist favourite and a popular spot for families.
If you fancy some tongue-in-cheek horror and gore, you’ll find the London Dungeon just a short walk from the London Eye. The London Aquarium, Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre and huge IMAX cinema are all in the vicinity too and stay open until late.
No 6 – Southbank: Art and beach-life.
London really does spoil art lovers, with a whole host of galleries and museums – most of which only ask for a small donation upon visit. Ten minutes East of Waterloo, you will find the Tate Modern – a huge (but not overly attractive) building with all sorts of art under one roof. Free to enter (aside from special exhibitions), the Tate is easily a place where you can happily kill and hour or two looking at the weird, the wonderful and the downright questionable.
There’s also a great viewing balcony from the second floor of the Tate, which looks out across the skyline, Millenium Bridge and over to St Paul’s Cathedral. Don’t miss this – some might even say it’s better viewing than much of the ‘art’!Upon leaving the Tate, enjoy a lazy meander along Southbank where you will find interesting shops, cozy cafes, trendy bars and……a small beach! Although primarily occupied by sand sculptors and not somewhere you’d ordinarily put your sunbed, nonetheless it’s a beach – in a city – and you don’t get that every day. Due to its relaxed vibes, Southbank is the perfect spot to grab a coffee and watch the world (and boats) go by.
No 7 – Marylebone: Literature, Films and Music.
What Kensington has in wealth and Southbank has in culture, Marylebone has in quiet urban-village charm. 221b Baker Street is perhaps the most famous address in the district, belonging to none other than Sherlock Holmes and his trusty side-kick, Doctor Watson. The museum is located a short distance from the Baker Street underground and costs just £15. If you’re a super-fan but don’t have a lot of time, you can still visit the gift shop and purchase a magnifying glass or smoking pipe (or a souvenir pencil). By happy coincidence, we also spotted Doctor Watson (Martin Freeman) filming in the street – albeit not for ‘Sherlock’ on that occasion.In just five minutes, you can take the train from Marylebone Station to Abbey Road Studios. Perhaps commonly known as the recording studio of choice for the likes of Emeli Sande and Noel Gallagher, that famous zebra crossing outside the building steals much of the thunder. Get there early if you want to recreate your own version of the cover of The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ album.
No 8 – Piccadilly: Shop, shop, shop!
Yes, Oxford Street is one of the most recognised shopping streets in Europe and yes, it has LOADS of shops. But, there are more interesting places to spend your money. In the swingin’ 60’s, Carnaby Street was, without question, the place to be. A hive of colour and music with a rebellious streak, it not only attracted Punks and New Romantics, but also famous faces such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. It is now home to an array of quirky shops, lively bars and independent eateries. If you love shoes that turn heads, don’t miss ‘Irregular Choice’, where you will find a pair of shoes that nobody else will have (Kermit the frog heels?).
London is not short of a fancy department store or two. Harrods and Liberty are lovely but in my opinion, you won’t find finer than Fortnum and Masons (and they have the best window displays too!). Across a number of floors, shoppers will find clothing, homewares and a fantastic food hall on the lower ground. If you love a cup of tea, you’ll be in ‘silk bag’ heaven with so many varieties, all of which come in gorgeous, colourful caddies. If you can walk past the huge selection of mini-macaroons and chocolate eclairs without buying one – well, you’re better than me! And not forgetting, Fortnum and Mason are famous for their wonderful hampers. You just need to take out a small mortgage to afford one.
No 9: Central: Trafalgar Square and China Town.
We chose to base ourselves in the Trafalgar Square/ Charing Cross area during our trip, given its central location and easy walking distance to almost everything! In fact, one day, we managed to walk 16 miles without even realising! Tip: Refuel at cocktail hour (15:00) at any one of London’s watering holes. I can recommend Dirty Martini in Bishopsgate; great prices, top atmosphere and friendly staff. Anyway, I digress….
Named after the Battle of Trafalgar, Trafalgar Square houses the famous Nelson’s Column, surrounded by four huge lion statues. The area is known for holding demonstrations and events and during our visit, the Eid Festival was on (lots of nice food stalls!). Trafalgar Square also has the National Gallery which is well worth a visit. Again with free admission, you can easily spend a few hours here looking at the workings of Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
London’s China Town is just a stones throw away from Trafalgar Square and serves up some great Chinese dishes (and well-earned Tsingtao!). Because there are so many eateries in the area, it’s always worth getting a good recommend – which is what we did. Imperial China on Lisle Street didn’t disappoint with yummy prawn crackers, a generous selection of mixed starters and perfect sweet and sour pork. 2019 is the Chinese Year of the pig – so why not play the part?
No 10 – The London Underground – an experience of its own.
The London Underground is quite literally two different places during the week and at weekends. Monday to Friday, it is jam-packed with daily commuters and generally serves one purpose: to get the user from A to B. Come the weekend, however, the tube stations are quiet by comparison, allowing you to slow down and appreciate the artistry that many of the stations display.
I can’t recommend the app ‘Tube Map’ enough; it’s super easy to plan your route and saves time trying to decipher the confusing maps in the underground stations. Single tickets cost around £2.40 but savings can be had with travel card and the Oyster Card if you plan on using the underground a lot.
Enjoy the underground and want to take it that one step further? St Pancras Station has the Eurostar which will whizz you over to Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam or Bruges in no time at all…….but that would be another story.
I hope you found that blog useful for your forthcoming trip? Let me know by commenting below!