Thanks to its iconic buildings and impressive combination of different cultures, London remains a must-see for anyone hoping to explore the greatest modern-day metropolises in the world. With so many highlights to cover and never enough time, however, figuring out what to see and how to get around beforehand is crucial to fully enjoy a city that has as much to offer as anywhere in Europe. Tilting back and forth between celebrating tradition and pushing forward into the future, London is also much more than just a staging point for a European or English adventure. Consider these tips when figuring out your plan for maximizing the potential of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to London.
Getting Around London
There’s a reason why the Romans chose to set up a foothold in present-day London nearly 2,000 years ago. A natural port connected to the North Sea as well as the heartland of England thanks to the Thames, London has grown into a modern-day masterpiece that is as eclectic in its food and culture as it is with its visual design. With the importance of the Thames being so central to London, leaving the city without taking a ferry or river cruise would also border on malpractice, as traveling by river is both scenic and practical.
For those who want to delve into a traditional experience, you can enjoy English cakes and teas (or champagne) as you make your way along the east-west river, where you can get excellent views of city staples like the London Eye, Palace of Westminster (also known as Houses of Parliament), the Tower Bridge, and plenty of other icons as well. While a variety of cruises are available to get a visitor acclimated to the city, getting around with the Thames Clippers can save you considerable time while bringing you right to the heart of the city. Many locals also commute on the Clippers, although you’re always likely to see quite a few out-of-towners looking to soak up an organic London experience.
The Clippers also easily connect you to a variety of different Tube stations, which are either right by a pier (e.g. Embankment) or just a short walk inland (e.g. St. James’s Park, Waterloo). By mastering the Clippers and the Tube, you’ll find that London has earned its reputation for being one of the easiest cities in the world to get around, and the modes of transportation can even be fun in their own right.
Though you could easily spend a summer in London without getting to everything, there are a few areas that are absolute must-sees for any visitor. To experience a little local flavor, places like Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden are flooded with homemade arts/crafts, talented street performers, and unique shops, which makes them natural gathering points of central London. This area, loosely called the West End, is also where you can find all kinds of world-class theatrical productions to go with a staggering variety of different restaurants, from English staples to renowned restaurants featuring food from just about anywhere in the world.
Not only could you easily spend an entire afternoon soaking up with the West End atmosphere but you will also be extremely close to many of the city’s other highlights. A well-known rule for exploring London is that you typically pay for admission to the churches and get to enjoy the museums for free. For anyone who loves digging into the past, Westminster Abbey and the British Museum–both easily walkable from Covent or Piccadilly–tend to live up to expectations thanks to their incredible collections of artifacts from both English and world history. Also nearby is the National Gallery, another renowned museum where you can find famous artworks dating back to the 13th century.
Of course, few visitors make it to central London without shooting over to Buckingham Palace, which sits a short walk west of Westminster or south from Piccadilly Circus. The changing of the guard ceremony is a popular event for visitors, but merely wandering around inspecting the neighboring areas can be a terrific experience. Green Park, Hyde Park, and St. James’s Park offer rolling green spaces somewhat akin to Central Park in New York City, making them ideal spots for a picnic lunch or just for catching your breath before plunging back into the busy city epicenter. If you keep pushing west from Buckingham, Kensington Gardens is a gorgeous area that feels airlifted from the 17th century, with perfectly manicured hedges, explosions of colorful flowers, and tranquil ponds that sit just a stone’s throw from the residence of Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.
Other ways to get acquainted with the city include taking a spin in the 443-foot London Eye, one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the world, or taking an elevator ride up to the top of The Shard, which towers a thousand feet above the ground and is located just south of London Bridge. Anyone interested in medieval England also needs to find their way into the Tower of London, an 11th century castle built by William the Conqueror that currently houses the Crown Jewels. The Tower of London is one of four different UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the city limits along with the Palace of Westminster (which includes Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church), architectural wonder Maritime Greenwich, and the stunning Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Beyond the City’s Main Icons
It’s true that London has quite a few worthwhile landmarks to peruse, but that’s really just a launching point to experiencing what life in London is really like. One of the best areas to stay or visit is Canary Wharf, a bustling business center that is perfect for waterside walks, shopping, grabbing a meal at one of the many great restaurants near the Thames, or just inspecting London’s amazing cityscape. Although it can be packed during festivals or special events, it also can be very tranquil on weekends or business holidays, making it one of the most unique places in the city. It’s also well-known for its modern architecture and vast public artworks, which gives it a little extra flavor in addition to the more buttoned-up atmosphere you might expect from a business-heavy area. From Canary Wharf, you’re also an easy ferry or Tube ride to the other highlights of London.
After a day of hopping around the city, one of the best ways to enjoy the city is actually to get high above it at a place like the Sky Garden. Right near St. Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge, Sky Garden is a place for cocktails or dinner as you look out over the city lights. Although it’s also available to walk-ins, it’s best to get a reservation to avoid a long wait or getting turned away, and travelers are typically dazzled by the scenery coupled with the great pubs and restaurants.
To continue the local experience, borough-hopping is also a great way to get away from the more tourist-heavy areas of the city. In Camden, you can see a little bit of London’s underground hipster scene to go with all kinds of international restaurants, comedy houses, and popular dance clubs. Meanwhile, Hampstead is a terrific little village within the city that is famous for its list of artists and writers, and you can even take a dip in one of the bathing ponds in the summer. Other popular boroughs worth considering include Notting Hill, where you can find plenty of quaint cafes and boutiques, as well as the historic district of Greenwich to see the rows of centuries-old buildings that give the neighborhood its fame.
Visitors also might want to check out one of the many markets scattered throughout London, starting with the extensive open-air Borough Market in Southwark. Borough Market is known for its spread of street vendors showing off organic local produce and English delicacies that make it the perfect pit stop for lunch. For vintage shoppers, both Alfie’s Antique Market and Brick Lane show off an impressive slate of items from different eras and are especially known for their unique collections of second-hand clothes and furniture.
Choose Your Own Adventure
There are plenty of great cities and towns that don’t really require much of a plan, places where wandering is the key to the best possible experience. Although spontaneity and self-discovery are always important for a traveler, London just isn’t that type of city to tackle without at least a loose game-plan thanks to a nearly overwhelming collection of things to do. The good news is that transportation is very user-friendly for outsiders and it’s easy to find some local flavor hidden right around the corner from the city’s most popular landmarks. If you find the right balance between experiencing the famous mainstays of the city and exploring local life, it usually isn’t very hard at all to fall in love with London. Whether you come for the history, the architecture, the world-class entertainment, or a little bit of everything, London is a true international marvel that continues to live up to its billing.