London was more than I’d hoped for, and everything I wanted it to be. From the dazzling skyline juxtaposing new and old, to the culture, food, and churches around every corner, it’s a city I would visit again and again, and one I could even see myself living in.
Having spent some time visiting many cities across Europe, small, medium and large, I had prepared myself to not love London. I have found that I tend to prefer small to medium sized cities that retain their charm without being overcrowded and touristy, and that have a really authentically historic through- line. London actually ticked all those boxes while still being modern in the same breath of air. It was a surprise and a delight to explore.
Five days was definitely not enough to do everything I wanted to, but I made a really concentrated effort and managed to get through most of my “must see” list. And I have thoughts. And advice on Things to do in London. And photos! Soooo many photos.
Where to Stay: after much research in terms of what was most important to me, I decided to stay at the Citizen M Tower of London Hotel, located above Tower Hill Underground stop (very convenient), and within view of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. This part of town seemed the most historic, which was a criteria for me, but the hotel itself was new, modern and super trendy.
Do a food tour. I booked one through Secret Food Tours London and chose the Shoreditch route, an area in London’s East End that I would have loved to explore further. If you’re into vintage clothing, murals, and a grungier side of London, it’s truly the cultural melting spot to see. Whether alone or through a tour, there are several food halls worth stopping at (like Brick Lane Food Hall and Old Spitalfields Market) in Shoreditch. On the tour I tasted Beigels (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) at Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (with the best horseradish mustard I’ve ever had. Ever) as well as Turkish Indian Fusion at the Sunday Upmarket, Local chocolate from Dark Sugar, and a few other treats. It’s always fun to start with a food tour because there’s typically a bit of history built in so you can get a good lay of the land and find the places you want to go back to for another taste!
Take a Thames cruise. This is another good “start” to a journey, if there is a river to be had, as it’s typically an inexpensive way to get a bit of history while orienting yourself. There are many companies offering the cruises, and multiple tours to choose from. I used the City Cruise company for a one way tour in the direction of Parliament from the Tower of London so I could walk back.
Insider Tip: Speaking of walking, London is a very walk-able city, and even though there is an easy to use and inexpensive Underground system, most of the time it wasn’t a time saver, and unless the weather prohibited, I preferred to walk since there is so much to see. Aaaaand it helped me walk off all that goodness I was eating. But the Tube was a very inexpensive (though surprisingly long) way to get to the hotel from Heathrow. If you’re in a hurry, I don’t recommend that route, but if you’re not it’s worth the savings.
Visit Westminster Abbey. Maybe. So it’s a realllly big church. And yes, it’s super well-known (per their website, “royal weddings, coronations, kings, queens” etc. etc.) but the lines are long, the church is very crowded (think being herded like cattle through some of the more interesting spots) and you cannot take photos inside. If you do decide to go, here’s an insider tip: buy tickets from their official website (not through a third party) and you’ll skip the entrance line. Also, it’s worth stopping into St. Margaret’s Church next door while you wait. Lots of history there to be found.
Plan for half of a day at the Tower of London and talk to a Yeoman (aka Beefeater). If you’re into history and want to see some of the oldest (and only remaining) buildings from the original City of London, this is where you need to be. Your entrance fee includes seeing the Crown Jewels (tip: go as soon as the Tower opens and beeline for the crown jewels to avoid the wait), and as many of the free guided tours as you want to take part in. The tours are led by the Beefeaters and, take note, they are not costumed actors (I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know this, but I am willing to admit it here for future generations to learn from! Do your homework! : ) That is all). From the Tower of London website, “Beefeaters or Yeomen warders have been guarding the Tower of London since Tudor times. The Yeoman Body of 37 men and women are all drawn from the Armed Forces”. What this means is it’s a selective, elite, and sought after position and these folks know everything there is to know about the history of London and the blood that was shed as it volleyed between Catholic and Protestant kings and queens vying for the throne and racing to produce heirs. It might have been my favorite experience in London. Also, if your timing is off and you can’t make the actual changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, there is a smaller version that occurs here, without the full blown marching band fanfare. Oh, and the café inside the grounds actually had some pretty tasty foods!
Pop into the historic shops along Picadilly. It’s hard to wrap my mind around how old things were in London, as a rule rather than the exception. Two of the places I just wandered into were Hatchard’s Bookstore (the oldest in London, Est. 1797) and Fortnum and Mason (food and “Joy-giving Things” Est. 1707). I had no agenda here other than to wander, which is part of the fun.
Walk the city at night. London lights up at night in the most interesting ways, particularly along the waterfront. From the London Eye to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the city streets glowed and thrived as the red buses blurred by at impossible speeds. The Tower Bridge, which I spent a bit of time walking back and forth across, looks especially cool at night.
Insider Tip: Speaking of St. Paul’s Cathedral (founded AD 604), which dominates the skyline and draws the eye from multiple vantage points, I learned too late that you can reserve time to climb into the dome. I would totally have done this.
Get thee to the Globe. One of the highlights of my trip to London was seeing a play by Shakespeare at the rebuilt (a true replica of the original) Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I had the joy of seeing Merry Wives of Windsor and thoroughly loved it. If you’ve only been forced to read Shakespeare’s plays in school, but have never seen one performed, I suggest you do so. Never does literature come to life more than when it’s seen as it’s meant to be seen, on the stage. I stalked ticket sales as I planned the trip and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale (in Feb. for a May visit) and also pre-rented a seat cushion because, trust me, those wooden seats are not meant for comfort. By the way, in case you didn’t know, the theater is open air, so it gets cold at night (you can bring a blanket) and it also gets rained on if you choose the standing room only cheap “seats”, so beware. Because, rain in London is a thing. Also, you can visit the original site of the Globe Theater which is, sadly, just a plaque in the middle of a concrete jungle. But I saw it!
Pub crawl. There are SO many to choose from. I’d suggest just wandering into ones that look cool and sound busy. That’s pretty much what I did. My favorite stop? Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Rebuilt 1667). This might have been the best Fish and Chips I had in London and in one of the most historic of pubs. Definitely worth seeing.
Oh the food. So many options across so many cultures and cuisines. Maybe, in addition to that pub crawl, create yourself a food hall crawl. London is chock full of food halls and public markets that offer everything from shopping to eclectic eating. A favorite stop for me was Borough Market where I tasted some local cheeses and bought a Scotch Egg. Super tasty! But my favorite dining experience in all of London was at Gymkhana, where I had a 7 course Indian Tasting menu that blew my mind. It was amazing. I will never eat Indian food anywhere but London ever again.
Speaking of food – take the time to take High Tea, but choose wisely and reserve ahead. High Tea was something that yes, seemed touristy, but given my foodie tendencies, I just had to partake of. However, I left it too late for reservations at some of the more notable locations and so I was a bit disappointed in where I ended up. But I still recommend the experience. It did check all the boxes – hot and delicious tea, scones, clotted cream and jam, finger sandwiches and tiny little desserts. Oh, and champagne. Though, to be honest, the best scones I had in London were from, wait for it, the Marks and Spencer bakery aisle. Weird, I know. But let’s face it, I didn’t do a thorough enough examination. I guess I will have to return.
Do all the churches. My favorites? St Dunstan’s in the East ruins. And Southwark Cathedral was also beautiful – this soaring ceilings and stained glass (and one of the three great monastic churches that have survived in London). I don’t know what else to say as my photographs speak volumes over words. Another bit of history, older than any church, is some of the London Wall, a Roman Wall that still exists in London. That’s Roman, as in 200 AD. Yeah, that old. Very cool piece of history.
And what is London, or any trip with me, without seeking and finding rooftop bars with a view. Citizen M where I stayed had its very own rooftop overlooking the Tower of London, but next door at the Doubletree Tower of London there was an even better view. Both worth the price of a drink.
There were so many other things I wanted to do in London, (Churchill War Rooms, tour Parliament, See the Changing of the Guard, ride the London Eye, Climb St. Paul’s dome, tour Kensington palace, ride the hop on hop off) but I think I absolutely got the flavor and flare of this city, both ancient and modern, and all it had to offer.
Until next time, London. Cheers.