“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”Samuel Johnson.
I’ve been to some incredible places around the world but from the moment I stepped off that plane into London 12 years ago, it had my heart. It was the first major international city I visited and it’s still my favourite.
I absolutely love London.
I’ve been there four times now; the most recent visit was only just over a month ago, purposely set as the glittering finale to a three-month tour across Europe. It gave me something to be excited about at the end and a way to finish what would likely be the trip of a life time on a high.
While I never really dreamed of travelling the world when I was growing up, London was the one place I always wanted to visit. I think because I read so many beloved English books as a child and teen, it really earned a place in my consciousness and became this city of history and adventure. Then I grew up… and I still feel the same way.
There are so many grand cities scattered across the globe but for me, it’s that tangible feeling of history that you get in London that makes it such an enjoyable place to visit. I love walking through neighbourhoods hundreds of years old, visiting landmarks that have stood for generations, admiring architecture rooted in another century. Whenever I walk through the Tube stations I still feel like I’m transported back to a WWII era version of London, even though it’s such a modern and contemporary city.
I also love the culture of London – the museums in particular – and the fact there are so many diverse things to do and see. You can be in a royal palace one minute then lost in a park in the middle of the city the next. At a world class sports stadium or taking in a show in the West End. The food is incredible and the shopping extraordinary, and there’s boundless opportunities to sample both.
London is easy and it’s fun. I love it’s grandness but also those tiny corners that reveal it’s wonderful character. It is absolutely the great regret of my life that I didn’t do what every other young Australian did and spend a few years living there, but I try and make up for it with as many visits as possible.
Because what Johnson says is absolutely true, when a man is tired of London then he is tired of life.
Where to stay.
London is a big city with any number of different boroughs all capable of accomodating you admirably. If it’s your first time in the city then I highly recommend staying somewhere central to the action in order to give yourself the best possible chance of getting around easily to see everything.
For this I particularly like the Soho/Mayfair/St James/Fitzrovia part of town, which is in walking distance of a lot of the main attractions, access to plenty of Underground stations, and good restaurants and shops. It’s safe and well lit and you won’t have any problems navigating the area. That said, it’s also probably the most tourist-filled part of London and packed with people at all hours, so if you’re looking for something quieter and more relaxed then this isn’t it.
The last three times I’ve been in London I’ve stayed in a private room at the YHA London Oxford Street (https://www.yha.org.uk/hostel/yha-london-oxford-street). It’s actually not right on Oxford Street but rather tucked into Noel Street, which runs parallel a block to the south. My brother recommended it to me and I’ve really enjoyed it every time I’ve stayed there. While they do offer a heaps of activities and discounts on visiting sights around the city, this isn’t a party hostel as such and a lot of diverse groups, families and travellers stay there. It has a common room, kitchen facilities and – best of all if you’ve been travelling for a while – washing machines and dryers. The location is also absolutely unbeatable and you won’t get anywhere better value in the area. I paid £325 for four nights in a private room at the start of December 2018, which is roughly AUD$145 per night. The rooms are clean, modern and fairly spacious, and although you will need to use the shared bathrooms, there’s a sink in the private rooms. Oxford Circus tube station is only a couple of hundred metres away, there’s a Marks and Spencer food hall a stone’s throw from the hostel, and plenty of other restaurants close by. Plus you’re obviously only a few steps from the biggest shopping street in London. If you’re after a private room here then the key is to book at early as possible as there’s only a few available. For my recent trip, this was the first accomodation I booked even though it was going to be at the end of my holiday, because I just didn’t want to miss out. I had this locked in by the end of February for a December visit, which gives some idea of how far out I was planning. I’d suggest if you are visiting London in peak times such as the summer months, you’d want to get on to a booking as soon as you could. Again, I can’t recommend this place enough for location and value, especially for solo travellers or people visiting London for the first time.
My other favourite place to stay in London is around the Kensington area, which is a little further west in the city. I really love the architecture and leafy streets in this part of London; for me it’s like the storybook/Mary Poppins version of the city. It is still relatively central and you can still walk to a lot of great museums, parks and attractions from here, plus it also has good public transport links. Kensington isn’t a cool or trendy part of town, so if you’re looking for something edgy then this isn’t it. Instead I find it relaxingly classic and a step away from the crowds of people around Oxford Street. I’ve tended to stay here when I have transit stops in London ie I’ve come into the city from somewhere else and am moving on reasonably quickly – I prefer Soho for more substantial stays. Last time I stayed here was for a night when I arrived from France and was heading to Iceland the next day, because I knew I wouldn’t be racing around trying to do or see a hundred things. I wanted somewhere easy and familiar with a good choice of restaurants and an Underground station close by. I’ve stayed in a few hotels in this area and per night it’s a more expensive than the more central hostel stay, however I’m generally happy to pay a bit extra here because the stay isn’t as long and comfort is key.
My absolute favourite hotel here (and actually one of my favourite hotels anywhere) is The Nadler Kensington (https://www.nadlerhotels.com/the-nadler-kensington.html) in Earls Court. It’s in a gorgeous old townhouse building on a beautiful street, and it’s just really nice and plush. Not over the top glamorous, just super comfortable and welcoming with lovely staff. There’s a Sainsburys supermarket in walking distance, I always have a burger down at Byron, and last time I strolled to the nearby cinemas on Fulham Road to see A Star is Born (worth it). It set me back about AUD$230 per night for a basic double room. Highly recommend. Also, if you can’t get a room here, anywhere along Courtfield Gardens or surrounds is well situated.
Where to eat.
I love to eat, I love good food, but I’m definitely not a huge foodie. My travels aren’t opportunities to try out high end restaurants and I’m generally pretty happy just eating in a good pub… or buying a pastry or two (or five) from an amazing bakery. Sometimes that lack of meal planning has let me down though, so it’s actually one of the areas of travel planning I’ve gotten better in over the past couple of years. Doing a little bit of research on where I should eat before I go so I don’t miss out on any fantastic experiences is something I now find really pays off. And food is also something people love to recommend – so if you’re going somewhere for the first time, ask mates who’ve been if they have a favourite spot to check out.
I’m not gonna lie, when I’m in London I will generally eat a lot from the Marks & Spencer food hall. I really love their stuff, they have fantastic fresh and healthy food and it’s especially a really good option for lunch. For under ten quid you can buy a decent sandwich (the Scottish salmon or ploughmans are always my favourites), salad, fruit, drink and chocolate or dessert. I actually find it easier to make better choices with my food here than if I head into a cafe or restaurant where I’m distracted by something deliciously unhealthy. Of course a lot of other supermarkets sell pre-packaged food, plus there’s places like Pret and Greggs, but M&S is my clear favourite.
On my last trip, I had two really nice breakfasts in places with Australian links. No one – no one – does breakfast like Aussies and I’d say our cafe food was the thing I missed most while I was away. The first was at a place called Caravan in Fitzrovia (https://www.caravanrestaurants.co.uk/fitzrovia.html) where I had smashed avo with a poached egg and a really drinkable coffee. The menu isn’t super extensive and it’s all light and fresh rather than your stodgy English style brekkies. I went on a Sunday morning when it opens at 10am and got there about quarter past, with very few people inside. By half an hour later it was packed. There’s a few branches of Caravan across London so if Fitzrovia’s out of your way, there should be another that suits. The second place was Granger & Co. in Notting Hill (https://grangerandco.com/notting-hill) and I would warn you – this place is popular. I was there on a weekday morning about 10am or so and was about eighth in line, with the interior already packed. Another really tight menu and sadly they were out of the smashed avo on the day I was there, so I just had scrambled eggs on toast with bacon, plus juice and a coffee that was probably the best I had in London. The service was excellent but the place isn’t particularly cheap. All of that set me back nearly AUD$40 and the bill includes a mandatory service charge of 12.5% and a one pound donation to charity.
I have a horrific sweet tooth and a friend of mine who is exactly the same gave me some absolute winners to try this time around. Bread Ahead (https://www.breadahead.com/) has the most deliciously insane ginger cake you would ever hope to eat – it’s so moist and tasty and just heavy with spices and goodness. They also have a ton of other great cakes and their doughnuts are a speciality, plus they have lovely sandwiches if a meal of sugar isn’t your thing. I went to the Carnaby location a couple of times and they also have a stall at Borough Market (which is an also an excellent food destination in itself). While I was in Notting Hill for brunch I stopped at Ottolenghi (https://ottolenghi.co.uk/) to pick up a couple of cakes to eat through the day and they were incredible, picking which two to eat was probably the hardest decision I had to make on my trip and I still have regrets about what I left behind… They were seriously incredible. There’s also Middle Eastern inspired salads available which looked fantastic, but in the end weren’t cake so I passed (ha). The cafe at the National Gallery used to be a favourite of mine but I went on my last trip and it’s been renovated and sadly just wasn’t as good. Otherwise most big museums in London tend to have decent places to grab a bite and are worth consideration.
For those who like burgers, I really love Byron Burgers (https://www.byronhamburgers.com/) and if I’m staying at The Nadler, I’ll always end up having one at the Earls Court location. If you’re after something a bit more traditionally English and happen to find yourself in Greenwich, then you must stop in at Goddards at Greenwich (https://www.goddardsatgreenwich.co.uk/), a pie and mash shop that’s been around since 1890. For just over £5 you can get yourself a truly delicious pie with a couple of scoops of mashed potato and either liquor or gravy. So bloody good and they have a really nice dining room upstairs with views over Greenwich.
There’s two dinners that particularly stand out for me – the first was a couple of years ago at a place called Bob Bob Rickard (https://www.bobbobricard.com/) in Soho, which is fancy-ish with prices to match. I had lobster mac and cheese from memory, so think along those kinds of lines. It is also super Instagrammable with those ‘press for champagne’ buttons in every booth that you might have seen previously. Indian food is generally not my favourite but when both a good friend and Mindy Kaling recommended Dishoom (http://www.dishoom.com/) then I put it on my list. They actually take bookings before 6pm so if you can sneak yourself in for a 5.30pm dinner then it saves you a potentially long wait because man, is it popular. The two tables either side of me when I was there were filled with Australians too, so I knew it was going to be good. Super delicious modern Indian with a focus on picking a heap of smaller plates to share. I thought Dishoom was really well priced too and for a couple of plates, naan and a cocktail it cost me less than AUD$40. I went to the Carnaby location but they have a few across the city. Again, really great service as well as good food, and if I was going to recommend somewhere for dinner in London then this is definitely it.
Finally, because I’ve been solo in London a lot of times I haven’t had big nights out drinking but if you’re looking for somewhere cool and quirky for a cocktail, then definitely head to Mr Foggs (https://www.mr-foggs.com/), which is inspired by Phileas Foggs, the protagonist in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Here’s a weird twist of fate – when I went, I was actually reading the book at the time because I’d not long before been to visit Verne’s house and museum in Amiens. I actually didn’t realise at first that the bar – I went to Mr Fogg’s Residence in Mayfair, there is a couple of locations all slightly different – was actually modelled after the character in the book. The interior is pure Victorian era and it’s jammed with intriguing curiosities that Fogg could of picked up during his race around the globe. The cocktail list is not cheap but it is fabulous (starting at about £15 for a drink, plus they add a standard 12.5% service charge) and well worth going as a treat.
What to see and do.
When I’m travelling, I tend to have a particular skew when it comes to sightseeing and that is museums, predominantly art museums. So if that’s not your kind of thing then you may want to jog on for at least some of this (sorry not sorry). First and foremost though, London is a city you could spend infinite time walking around and still not discover every amazing thing or interesting niche. It’s a beautiful city to look at, it’s reasonably easy to navigate and it’s attractions are really diverse. Whatever you’re into, I’m sure you’ll find it in London.
The National Gallery is the only place I’ve been on every single trip I’ve made to London and with good reason – I think it’s the best art museum in the world. It has an incredible collection, particularly of British art (the Constables and Turners are excellent), with some of the world’s most famous works displayed here. You could spend hours wandering through it’s beautiful interiors so make sure you allocate plenty of time to see everything. Just behind it sits the National Portrait Gallery, which I visited for the first time on my most recent trip and really enjoyed it. Hit them both up then make use of the photo oportunity that is Trafalgar Square and it’s famous lions. The British Museum is walking distance from here so it’s easy to head there next and check out pieces from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt including the Rosetta Stone. I like the museum and it’s incredibly well curated, but things like holding on to pieces such as Elgin’s Marbles when Greece desperately wants them back always kind of jarrs my visit. The Victoria & Albert Museum aka the V&A is another fantastic choice and is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, so includes more than just paintings. They also tend to have excellent temporary exhibitions so it’s worth seeing what’s on while you’re in town. Both the Tate and the Tate Modern are great and if you’re at the latter, then hit up Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre next door for a tour, then walk across the Millenium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral (and, if you’re like me, spend the next couple of hours with “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…” stuck in your head). On my last trip I visited Somerset House for the first time for a Charles Schultz Peanuts exhibition – it’s worth checking and see what’s on during your visit because as well as holding temporary exhibits, they also do a range of other things such as ice skating in winter.
If history is more your thing than art, I highly recommend a visit to Churchill’s War Rooms in Whitechapel, which gives a unique look into England’s decision making during WWII. When you’re in the area you can also get a peek at 10 Downing Street and the Horse Guards Parade. If you’re still in the mood for a bit more war history then the Imperial War Museum is also fantastic and fairly sobering. For sports lovers, Lords Cricket Ground does really good tours and you get to see into the historic Long Room. If you’re travelling with kids or just love nature, then the Natural History Museum is the perfect place to spend a couple of hours.
I still kick myself that I missed the remembrance poppy installation at the Tower of London in 2014 after deciding not to go there as I’d done the tour a year earlier (do it, it’s good). Plus the Tower Bridge is such an iconic spot for a photo. Unfortunately Big Ben is in the process of being restored but otherwise makes for a perfect London selfie opportunity and while you’re there, head into Westminster Abbey for a look around then over to the Houses of Parliament for a tour.
Do the London Eye. Yeah, it’s cliche and touristy but it’s also worth it.
I also love going to see something, anything on the West End while I’m in London. Shows are pretty strongly advertised in tube stations, otherwise have a look online to see what’s running. If there’s something you really want to see and you have a limited time frame to get to it, I’d recommend purchasing a ticket online otherwise head to one of the booths in Convent Garden on the day and see what you can snap up for cheap. Last time I was there I bought tickets to the Magic Mike London show and uh, yeah, it was totally worth it. Nearby Picadilly Circus always gets a mention but to be honest, it’s touristy without having any real substance or things to actually see – just neon advertising.
Greenwich is my favourite part of London and I always head there for a day when I visit as it makes a nice change from the bustle of the city’s centre. You can easily get there by light rail but if you haven’t been before, I highly recommend doing a boat tour up the Thames that finishes there or take one of the regular ferries. A really cool way to see London. Greenwich has a real village atmosphere with lots of tiny stores and places to eat. Head to the National Maritime Museum then walk through my favourite park in London, Greenwich Park, up to the Royal Observatory where you can see the prime meridian and stand with a foot either side. The observatory also has one of the most incredible views (and photo opportunities) over London, with the beautiful architecture of the maritime museum spread out across the park and the city skyline in the distance.
Notting Hill is another lovely part of the city to find yourself strolling around in, looking at high end stores, pretty buildings and fancy cafes. Portobello Market is also in the area. If you like markets then make sure you head to Camden Market or try Brick Lane – both are a bit cooler and more modern with a Brunswick or Newtown type vibe. Borough Market is also an excellent place to wander and find yourself something really delicious to eat, and it’s open seven days.
London also has some fantastic parks so aside from Greenwich Park, Hyde Park and Regents Park (the latter including the royal parks) are perfect places to stroll and enjoy a bit of greenery in one of the world’s biggest cities. They’re also full of memorials and other historically interesting bits and pieces. I find the parks a good change of pace on a packed day or sightseeing and there’s plenty of great photo opportunities. Unfortnately I’ve never been in London during the short season where you can visit inside Buckingham Palace so I can’t give you any advice there.
Finally, if you’ve got some time on your hands or you’re a super fan, then I highly recommend the trip to see the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour (https://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/). I like Harry Potter and have read the books and seen the movies, but I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with it. However this tour was exceptional and was such a fantastic experience all round. Book an audio guide then give yourself a couple of hours to wander around the sets and see how the books came to life on the big screen. What they have preserved from the movies is amazing and it’s such a wonderful insight into film making in general. A couple of things: if you want to make sure this is somewhere you’re going to visit, then you need to buy a ticket a few months in advance as they sell out. Seriously. I was a bit ambivalent about it and thought I might like to go see it, but didnt make any solid plans. When I looked online two days before the Decmber date I wanted to go, I found out all the tickets were sold out until mid-February (FOR REAL). In a piece of sheer luck, a ticket became available online for the day I could go and so I snapped it up, but I was incredibly fortunate to have this happen. Book a ticket early if you definitely want to go. Also, you can’t buy tickets there and hey need to be pre-purchased online. The studio is about 20 minutes or so on a train out of central London in Watford Junction, then you need to catch a shuttle bus there from the train station. It will take you about 2-3 hours to get through the tour so I would suggest setting aside a whole day for this experience – that will give you enough time to get out there and do it all without rushing.
Where to shop.
If you’re in London and you’re shopping, then there’s only one place to start – Oxford Street. It has every High Street store you could think of (Zara, H&M, Topshop, New Look, Mango, Uniqlo, Gap, Dorothy Perkins, Urban Outfitters, Warehouse, etc) plus department stores such as Selfridges, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. And that’s just a start. You’ll also be battling hundreds of other people at any given time as it’s probably the busiest street in London. I prefer Regent Street, which runs off Oxford and has stores that are slightly more high end. They have the awesome & Other Stories and Cos (my two British faves), plus a J.Crew, Reiss and more. There’s still a lot of people but it’s a smidge less full on. Tucked just behind the juncture of those two is the Carnaby Street area, which is a recent favourite for me. Lots of great shops with a slightly trendier feel and good restaurants and bars, with a really cool night time vibe. Liberty of London is also situated in here.
I remember coming to London years ago and being super excited by make up and skin care in Boots and Superdrug that I couldn’t get at home (think UK equivalent of Priceline or US drug stores), but this time I didn’t feel like there was as much unique stuff there. I do like grabbing random shower gels and cheap stuff like that, and they do have some inexpensive make up ranges that are worth a look. The Una Brennan or Liz Earle ranges are good for skincare you can’t get in Australia too. Space NK is awesome for high end products and they have a big store in Notting Hill (though plenty of other outlets across the city) – stop in there while you’re stuffing your face with cakes from Ottolenghi. Notting Hill in general is good for a wander as they have a lot of higher end stores if you’re looking for a splurge. I stopped in at the Goop pop up there, though I’m not sure how long it will be in place. In the big department stores, I loved being able to play with the Charlotte Tilbury stuff which we can’t buy in store in Australia. I ended up getting quite a few make up things from her excellent range, which has such beautiful products. Kiko is an Italian brand that has a couple of outlets in London and they have inexpensive but good quality make up – I love their eyeshadow crayons especially.
If you’re heading to any of the museums I mentioned, then a lot of them have great museum shops as well. I particularly like the V&A one which has a lot of textiles, jewellery, stationery and other things you’d buy for yourself – not just crappy souvenir type stuff. The British Museum tends to have a good book range too. Oh and speaking of books, if you’re a reader or lover of books in general then go to Waterstones. They’re a larger book chain but the stores have such a wonderful range of stock and I always find a heap of incredible things there that I want badly but are too heavy to bring back. This time I bought a gorgeous city guide there as a trip memento.
Finally, if you haven’t been to Harrods then definitely make sure you go. Even if you aren’t going to buy anything, it’s such an experience just spending time wandering through the gorgeous building and dreaming of what you’d buy with an unlimited budget. The perfume hall there is one of the best places in the world to buy fragrance, so keep that in mind if you’re perfume obsessed like me.
London: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: First timers shouldn’t come for less than five full days, four at an absolute pinch with the expectation that you will miss out on some things. The longer the better when it comes to London.
Getting around: There are train services from each of the major airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, London City and Stansted). These will come into London’s main stations, such as Kings Cross St Pancras, where you can get an Oyster card from the machine and top it up at any Underground (Tube) or rail station in the city. If you’re just in London, most of the time you’ll be catching the Tube and I reckon it’s one of the best public transport systems in the world. It’s easy, efficient and services run very regularly. The one downside is that it’s not the cheapest public transport in the world. London also has their famous red buses but I’m almost embarrassed to say I haven’t caught one since my first visit to the city. And I’ve never caught a black cab either! Walking and the Tube tend to be it for me.
When to go: I like London in autumn or spring (September to November, or March to May) because it’s cooler and slightly less packed. Summer is peak season with prices and crowds to match. In winter you’re getting sunsets before 4pm so the shorter days make sightseeing harder.
Key places for first timers: National Gallery and Trafalgar Square, British Museum, London Eye, Tower of London and Tower Bridge, St Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park.
Underrated gem: Greenwich, which is lovely at every turn and always makes me feel like I’m in Mary Poppins.
If you could only eat at one place: Bread Ahead. I’m still dreaming of that ginger cake.
Best photo opportunities: London Eye, view from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Oxford Street rush, retro interiors of so many of the Underground stations, Big Ben selfies.