London – What to Know & What to See

* During this time of social distancing, quarantine, and staying put, hopefully this guide can serve as inspiration and motivation as you plan a future trip. *

As one of the largest and most iconic cities in the world, there is no shortage of things to do and places to see in London. Brexit may be the focus of present economic and political discussions, but London has had an evolving history since its founding by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. On a visit to this hub of business and culture, blend the modern with the traditional to get a full appreciation of this beloved and multicultural capital.

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Know:

  • For historical and cultural context on London and England, here are just a couple of suggested books, movies, and literary works to read/watch/ listen/ view:
    • For a refresher on your likely not so recent history classes, Christopher Daniell’s A Traveller’s History of England will provide an abbreviated overview of 20 centuries of England’s history.
    • Charles Dickens is considered one of the greatest English writers. Some of Dicken’s most well-known works are Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, – read the books, see the movies, or watch the plays for a better understanding of English society during the Victorian era.
    • For studies on British social norms and hierarchies during the Regency and post-Edwardian eras (respectively) in Great Britain, Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen and the TV drama series, Downton Abbey are beloved and entertaining works of fiction.
    • The historical drama The King’s Speech presents Colin Firth as King George VI, the reigning British monarch at the time of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939.
    • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a 2019 novel that follows the lives of 12 diverse characters in the United Kingdom over the course of several decades.
    • I would be remiss if I excluded the Harry Potter series from a list of relevant literary works coming out of the United Kingdom. If you’re an aspiring wizard, you’ll appreciate seeing J.K. Rowling’s books and the corresponding movies come to life across the city.
  • If you’re a bit confused on the differences in terminology and relationship between the United Kingdom (UK), Great Britain, and England, here is the correct nomenclature. The UK is a sovereign state that includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the largest island situated off the north west coast of Europe. England is a country within the UK.
  • With vehicles driven on the left side of the road in the UK, you’ll need to remember to look right when crossing the street (there are signs at the cross walks in case you forget though)! Leftward flow of traffic dates back to when people carried swords or other weaponry while traveling. For the majority of the population, who is right-handed, riding to the left permitted better defense of oneself from assailants approaching in the opposite direction from the right.

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Prepare:

  • Leveraging the city’s public transit is a smart way to maximize your time getting from site to site. If you are planning to use the London Underground (“Tube”) and red, double-decker buses, an Oyster card is your best bet for paying for tickets. For a refundable £5, purchase the Oyster card at a transit station kiosk when you arrive and add credit “pay-as-you-go” to the Oyster card for Tube and bus fares (kids under 11 are FREE). To use the Oyster card, touch it to the yellow reader at the gates as you enter and end your journey on the Tube. You don’t need to touch out at the end of your journey on buses and trams. When you leave London, return the Oyster card at a Tube station kiosk for a refund of the £5 deposit plus the remaining pay-as-you-go credit (if under £10).

London has six major airports with London Heathrow (LHR), London City (LCY), and Gatwick (LGW) airports being the closest to the city.  To central London (Trafalgar Square),

    • from Heathrow Airport is about 50 minutes on the Underground.
    • from City Airport is 30-40 minutes on the DLR and Underground systems.
    • from Gatwick Airport is about 50 minutes, but the Gatwick Express is more expensive.

If coming to London on the Eurostar train from Belgium, France or the Netherlands, you’ll arrive at St Pancras International Station which is adjacent to King’s Cross Station (see below for how to find Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾).

  • Booking tours and purchasing tickets for museum visits in advance, while not absolutely necessary, can help you maximize your time and make sure you see what you’re most interested in, while avoiding long lines.
    • A Thames River boat ride is a relaxing way to see the city and can be enjoyed as a dining or sightseeing cruise. We did the lunch cruise with Bateaux London a couple of years ago and were very happy with the meal and mid-day views of the city.
    • Doing a guided walking tour on your first day is an excellent means of familiarizing yourself with the city with the added benefit of receiving context about history and culture. Secret Food Tours offers great walking, food, and drink tours. A tour on your first day helps you get oriented and set up with plenty of local tips you can utilize throughout your visit.
    • Purchasing or reserving tickets ahead of time to places such as the Tower of London and the Sky Garden means that you can avoid long queues.
  • On the topic of the local currency, the pound (£), not the Euro, is the local currency – this is good to keep in mind if you’re visiting other countries in Europe before or after your stay in London. Other things to keep in mind when paying:
    • Contactless card payments are becoming very common in London, so if you have the capability to pay in this way, you will find merchants prepared to accept.
    • Tipping in London is usually of 10-15 percent at a restaurant whilst there is no need to tip at any bar or for drinks. There’s also no need to tip when utilizing a cab, but it is standard to round up the amount to the nearest pound. Most London restaurants add on a 12.5% service charge to your final bill so keep an eye out for this so you don’t duplicate with a tip.

See:

  • The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a demonstration of Norman power, serving as both fortress and gateway to the city. It was also an infamous prison and the place of execution of three of Henry VIII’s wives. Today it is the most complete example of an 11th century fortress palace remaining in Europe. Booking tickets online in advance is a good idea to take advantage of a small discount and avoid the queue in person.
  • The Tower Bridge crosses the River Thames right next to the Tower of London and is an iconic symbol of London built in the 19th century. You can book tickets to the high-level walkways with glass floors, walk across the bridge via the lower pedestrian path, or take in the views from either bank.

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  • Westminster Abbey is famous for having been the site of all royal coronations since that of William the Conqueror in 1066, 16 royal weddings, and the burial site of more than 3,300 persons, including many British monarchs and prominent British artists and scientists. The Abbey charges admission but a reduced rate is offered on Wednesday evenings (4:30pm–6:00pm) during Wednesday Late. The Abbey closes for special services and events so it’s wise to check online ahead of time.
  • Just across the street is the Palace of Westminster which is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. It is in this historic building where the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet. Both UK and overseas residents can visit with an audio guided tour or book guided tours of the Houses of Parliaments, watch debates and sit in on committees – find helpful visitor information online (https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/).

Interesting to note, it is the Elizabeth Tower on the north end of the palace that houses the iconic bell known as Big Ben. Unfortunately, the tower is undergoing renovations until 2021 so at the moment, you’ll have to look past the scaffolding.

  • The Churchill War Rooms is comprised of the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum. The War Rooms were a secret underground complex of rooms used by the British government during WWII after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. The Churchill Museum explores the life of the politician and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. You can book tickets to tour this fascinating historical bunker online ahead of time.
  • Stroll through St. James’s Park on your way to see Buckingham Palace. The changing of the guards in their red tunics and bearskin hats takes place outside the palace on certain days at 10:45 AM and lasts around 45 minutes (find the schedule here à www.changing-guard.com/dates-buckingham-palace). While you can usually only view the palace at a distance, it is open to visitors for 10 weeks each summer and on select dates during winter and spring.
  • For a look into Queen Victoria’s childhood home, the King’s State Apartments, the Sunken Garden, and exhibits on Princess Diana, visit Kensington Palace for a tour. Tickets can be purchased online ahead of time at a discount.
  • London’s green spaces are well-loved on both sunny and gray days. In central London, you’ll find:
    • Hyde Park with The Serpentine lake and adjacent Kensington Gardens;
    • Green Park and James’s Park connected by The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace;
    • Regent’s Park in northwest London with a number of attractions, including rose gardens and Primrose Hill with its wonderful view of the city.
  • Entry to many of London’s museums is free… Yes, free! Below are a couple popular suggestions.
    • In the British Museum, you’ll find the Rosetta Stone, famous for its role in deciphering Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, along with the Elgin Marbles which were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens and acquired rather controversially.
    • For artwork, visit the National Gallery to see works from up until 1900 and then the Tate Modern on the South Bank to view modern art.
  • The Sky Garden offers fantastic views of the city in a public garden on the 35th floor of the “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper. Access is free, but tickets should be booked ahead of time online – they are made available three weeks in advance. There are a couple dining options in the Sky Garden, or you can grab a drink and walk around to enjoy the 360-degree views of the city.

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  • For a theater show in London, you have many options:
    • London’s West End is the theater district where you can find the most popular performances playing at almost 40 theaters. For discounted prices, purchase tickets to shows on the same day from ticket shops around Soho and Piccadilly Circus.
    • The Shakespeare Globe Theater is a replica of the original Elizabethan theater showing Shakespeare plays in the open air.
  • Despite being struck by bombs during the Blitz of WWII, Paul’s Cathedral and its prominent dome survived and became symbolic of British resilience. The Cathedral charges admission of those who are sightseers, however worshippers do not pay a fee to enter.

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  • Another prominent landmark of the skyline is the London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames. Tickets to this Ferris wheel can be booked in advance online, although they are quite expensive.
  • For a Thames River boat cruise, Bateaux London has river dining cruises that depart from the Victoria Embankment. Lunch is a cheaper but no less eventful option.

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  • For Harry Potter inspired fun, you can visit Warner Bros. Studio Tour London The Making of Harry Potter for behind-the-scenes peeks of the Harry Potter films. If Platform 9 ¾ is what you seek, head to King’s Cross Train Station and you’ll find a half-trolley in the brick wall underneath the platform sign next to the Harry Potter Shop. Cross the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge but be wary of Death Eaters.

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  • If you’re really looking to increase your heart rate, try a run along the River Thames on the scenic Albert Embankment in the Lambeth area or a Boom Cycle indoor cycle class (clip-in shoes included in the cost of your ride).
  • On account of the well-connected rail system, there are quite a few destinations that make for great day trips outside London.
    • Bath is about 1.5 hours from London via train and known for (and named after) its Roman-built baths.
    • Brighton, a popular seaside resort city, is a one-hour train ride from London.
    • The unique White Cliffs of Dover are one to two hours away by train.

Eat & Drink:

If you’re in search of fish & chips, an English breakfast, Pimm’s, or room temperature beer, you won’t fail to find such British staples. From food halls and ethnic markets to traditional afternoon tea and Sunday roast, London has a thriving food scene that may surprise you.

  • For something other than the traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, baked beans and a baked tomato, Lundenwic is a great option near Embankment Station.
  • A couple lunch and dinner options include:
    • Unpretentious Grumbles on Churton Street
    • Byward Kitchen & Bar near Tower Hill for fish & chips or a hearty English Breakfast
    • The Black Prince at Hotspur Street for typical British fare in a pub setting
    • Bosa Lebanese Kitchen in Southfields for its warm atmosphere and BYOB
  • There is no shortage of places to grab a pint or drink, but to name just a few:
    • For pints near Borough Market with outdoor seating, try the Ring Pub
    • Enjoy the gin-based liqueur Pimm’s in the outdoor courtyard of Truckles of Pied Bullyard
  • For casual eating, try
    • The food stalls of the Borough Market and Camden Market or
    • Harrod’s Department Store has a foodhall where you can purchase pre-made food for a picnic in the park.
  • If visiting around the Christmas holidays, you can enjoy a festive (albeit expensive) dinner at Kaspar’s at the Savoy

To dine with a view of London, a couple options are the Tate Modern 7th floor restaurant, 5th View café on the fifth floor of Waterstones bookstore at Piccadilly, and the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane.

If afternoon tea is what you seek, the Orangery in Kensington Gardens is ideal for warm weather while the Portrait Restaurant and Bar at the National Portrait Gallery has an indoor space with nice views of the city. A reservation is a good idea, but you can expect your tea to be accompanied by a full meal consisting of a surprisingly robust arrangement of scones, sandwiches, and cakes.

With a weekend or a week in London, you will find yourself with no shortage of things to do – use these suggestions as a starting point and then discover the city for yourself.

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