By Jenny Peters
The Best Ways to See One of the World’s Greatest Cities.
Whether you’re taking your very first trip across the pond to see all that London has to offer or perhaps are thinking of returning for another visit to that beautiful British capital city, having a plan of action is key. For this is a large place, with so much to experience it’s impossible to do it all. But with a good plan of action, you’ll spend less time traveling and more time doing. Here are some suggestions for creating a memorable trip to London town, including sights, museums, shopping, dining, hotels and pure fun.
Key Places to Visit
Getting around London is very efficient, either by simply walking everywhere or by using the London Underground Tube, famous London cabs, bus network, rail trains and trams. Buy a tourist’s London Travelcard ahead of time ($18 one day, $48.50 seven days) via mail; or pick up a more expensive (but more flexible) Oyster Card when you arrive that works on all the transport systems.
Big Ben won’t chime again until 2021, as it is under a four-year repair program, but coming upon it, the Palace of Westminster (Parliament) and Westminster Bridge is still an iconic sight for any London visitor. Westminster Abbey is nearby, too, the ancient church where the country’s monarchs are crowned (each one since 1066) and many are buried. It’s fascinating to just wander around and read the gravestones in the abbey — you’ll find everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin and Laurence Olivier.
Buckingham Palace is an easy walk from there through St. James Park; arrive just before 11 a.m., when the spectacle of the Changing of the Guard occurs, usually every other day (check online for the exact schedule). Visit on June 9 to see the annual Trooping of the Colour at the Horse Guards Parade on the opposite side of the park, for that commemorates Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, and you might get a glimpse of the monarch herself.
Three miles east along the river you’ll come to the Tower of London, the palace and prison where past monarchs, princes, lords and ladies came to terrible ends. Henry VIII imprisoned and executed two of his wives here, as well as his advisor Thomas Cromwell. Hear those and many other stories from the red-uniformed Beefeaters who still guard the palace, and revel in the Crown Jewels stored there. Those crowns, scepters, swords and other regalia are out of this world.
Britain ruled the waves and most of the world for generations, which means the British Museum (built in 1753) is one of the greatest repositories for historical art and artifacts on the planet. It’s a massive undertaking to see all the exhibits in this huge, 94-gallery museum located in the Bloomsbury district, but happily they offer a list of the “don’t miss” items. Those include the Rosetta Stone, Tang Dynasty tomb figures, an Easter Island moai statue, sculptures plundered from the Parthenon and much more.
Lovers of art and design need to spend some quality time at the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) in Knightsbridge, built in 1899 under the auspices of Queen Victoria. With over 2.3 million objects spanning 5,000 years of architecture, fashion, ceramics, painting, glass, jewelry, textiles, sculpture and more, the V&A melds old and new into an always fascinating group of rotating exhibits.
To see particularly British art, visit the Tate Britain in Vauxhall, the beautiful museum right on Thames River, where Brit artists like Turner, Bacon, Millais, Blake, Hockney, Moore, Hepworth, Sargent and many others have their best works displayed. For important contemporary artworks, head to the Tate Modern in Bankside, to immerse yourself in the minds of Dali, Picasso, Warhol, Rothko, Matisse and other modern art geniuses.
Shop Till You Drop
From bespoke men’s suits made in tony shops on Savile Row in Mayfair, to casual open markets filled with stalls selling everything from socks to chandeliers, London has something special for every shopper’s taste. Be sure to wander through Oxford Circus, starting at the venerable Selfridge’s and moving on to other quintessentially English retailers like Topshop, John Lewis and Ted Baker, finally indulging at Liberty London department store. Over in Knightsbridge, the must-visit department stores are Harrod’s and Harvey Nichols, and a stroll down Sloane Street will dent your wallet with visits to top international designers like Tom Ford, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana.
The lively Spitalfields Markets (both the Traders and Arts markets) are London’s oldest. Now open every day (it used to just be weekends), the Traders Market has 110 stalls brimming with new and vintage clothing, children’s toys, jewelry and interior design items. The Spitalfields Arts Market is full of works offered from both established and up-and-coming artists, but is only open on Market Street on select weekends (Thursday to Sunday) from March through September.
Other interesting places to shop for unique goods and gifts are Carnaby Street, Covent Garden, King’s Road and (for really quirky, interesting items) the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill.
London has so many places to dine, from cozy local pubs to world-class Michelin-starred restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs known all over the planet, it is tough to choose where to have a meal. Visit Gordon Ramsay (in Chelsea), run by Chef Clare Smyth, or Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, as each boast a three-star Michelin experience; try Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental or Umu in Mayfair for two-star deliciousness.
Enjoy excellent, authentic Indian fare at Dishoom, with outposts in Kensington, Shoreditch, King’s Cross, Carnaby and Covent Garden; all are stylish restaurants serving breakfast and all-day dining. Check out the newly opened Bang Bang Oriental in North London for a pan-Asian cornucopia of flavors from 33 different kiosks under one roof — there’s bound to be more than one that delights with Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other cuisines represented.
The Borough Market began in 1014 near the London Bridge in Southwark. It’s the city’s oldest food market and today it features produce and meat stalls, shops and restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander and explore. Try Eliot’s Café for seasonal, locally sourced meals cooked over a wood-grill fire and paired with organic wines.
For the ultimate elegant London living experience, there’s nothing quite like checking into the award-winning and newly renovated five-star Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, located in Knightsbridge just steps from the park and a few blocks from Buckingham Palace. Always chic and beautiful, the hotel’s new facelift created by interior designer Joyce Wang is full of soothing tones of gray with pops of color and Asian motifs; book a room with a view and you might not want to ever leave. Another world-class choice is the also-award-winning five-star mansion known as the Milestone Hotel in Kensington, where every room and suite has a different old-world look (it was built in 1689) and the amenities are legendary, including personal butlers and free cell phone rentals. Expect to pay over £500 (~$675 USD) per night at these spectacular hotels.
For a less pricey choice, the New Road Hotel has just opened in Whitechapel, with a very modern take on travel living. The boutique hotel built on the site of an old textile factory is for visitors who don’t plan to spend much time in their room, with small-to-medium-sized lodgings designed to make use of every inch of allotted space. At prices starting well under £200 (~$270 USD) for rooms that include an ensuite bath, 49” TV, large beds and original factory windows, this cool-vibe East End spot is an easy walk to galleries, markets and even the Tower of London. Over in Paddington, The Pilgrm (with no “i”) is another new mod hotel, offering everything from tiny bunk-bed rooms to small, medium and large living spaces. No butlers here, you even check in online, and rooms begin at around £100 (~$135 USD) per night.
Just for Fun
If you’re willing to believe, there’s plenty of fictional fun to be had in London, starting — naturally! — with a visit to 221B Baker Street, where the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes once lived. Well, not really lived, but it is where author Arthur Conan Doyle said he lived back in 1887 when he invented the master sleuth. It’s a real building nowadays, which houses a museum devoted to that genius of deduction and a terrific place for fans to explore.
J. K. Rowling invented Harry Potter in London, too, which means lovers of the boy wizard can head over to Warner Bros. Studios London to tour the places there where the eight movies based on her novels were created. Or get even more adventurous and head out to see some of the actual London spots where Harry, Hermione and Ron had many of their magical experiences, by taking one of the numerous Potter-themed guided walking tours offered in town.
Potter lovers can also head to the West End Theatre District, where Rowling and collaborators John Tiffany and Jack Thorne teamed up to create “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a two-part play. Be sure to book tickets for both parts; each run nearly three hours, so plan on two nights at the theater or a marathon day of both (presented on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday).