Posted on

Pony Trekking–Tour the English Countryside By Horseback

Pony trek Horseback riding travel in England

In Britain, a “pony trek” is a horseback ride that is undertaken primarily for sight-seeing purposes, at a slow pace. It does not necessarily mean you will be riding a pony (although most of the provided mounts are ponies or cobs – short, stocky horses that can carry larger animals). “Horse riding” or “trail riding” means a faster-paced ride for the fun of riding. Generally, you have to be willing to demonstrate basic riding skills to be allowed to go on a trail ride (unlike in the U.S., where the same term covers both). Pony trekking, however, is open to all, even if you have never sat on a horse before. A “pub trek” is a ride that visits local bars–it is not illegal to ride a horse under the influence in the UK, although drinking in moderation is best.
Most pony treks are one hour, a half day, or a full day. Although multi-day riding holidays are available, most are angled towards people who know how to ride. Here are a few tips:

Fitness

If you are not a rider, then even a one pony trekking ride can leave you saddle sore – that is to say, sore in the various muscles you use only when riding. The worst-hit areas are generally the inner thighs and the lower abs (below the belt). If you are planning a half day or full day ride (and certainly if you are booking a riding vacation), then you may want to work on your fitness some first. These exercises will prevent some of the soreness new riders or those who ride infrequently may experience.

What to Wear

Specialist riding gear is not necessary except for helmets. The center will provide helmets since it is illegal to ride on public trails or roads without a helmet in the UK.

In addition to that, you should wear:

  • Long pants– Riding in shorts is inadvisable. The best thing that’s likely to already be in your wardrobe is straight leg, “boyfriend” cut or boot cut jeans. Well fitting sweat pants can also work. Avoid skinny jeans, as they may interfere with your ability to get on and off the horse. Yoga pants are often too loose and may get caught on something.
  • Closed-toed shoes or boots with a bit of a heel– Boots are better than shoes. Avoid athletic shoes, which are particularly prone to get caught in the stirrups if something goes wrong. Hiking boots are also a bad idea because of the broader soles. Also avoid fashion cowboy boots with a very smooth sole, as you will have no grip.
  • A plain, long-sleeved top–Short sleeves might be tempting, but long sleeves will protect you from sun, wind, and accidents.
  • Gloves– Gloves protect your hands from blisters. Cycling gloves are great. Do not ride in plain wool gloves, as the reins will slip right through your hands, especially if they are wet from rain or horse sweat. Trust me.
  • Wicking cotton socks 
  •  Sports bra–For ladies, or a bra that is particularly comfortable and reduces “jiggle.”
  • Sunglasses–Sunglasses are a good idea, especially if you don’t wear prescription glasses. Some people also prefer to ride with a strap to hold their glasses in place.

Choosing a Place to Go

Keep in mind the following when choosing a place to go pony trekking:

  • You get what you pay for. Typical rates (in 2018) work out to around $30-40 an hour. Anything much less than that should be a red flag.
  • Look for a center that is approved by the ABRS (Association of British Riding Schools) or BHS (British Horse Society). These mean that the center and guides have to meet fairly stringent standards of competence and safety.
  • Check reviews on TripAdvisor and similar to see what other customers are saying.

Some great places to try include Snowdonia Riding Stables in North Wales, Loch Lomond Pony Trekking in Scotland, and Masham Riding & Trekking Centre in Yorkshire. The last mentioned has been around for over twenty-five years to my knowledge (the website claims thirty) and uses almost entirely purebred Highland Ponies, a gorgeous rare breed.

Safety

  • Horseback riding is considered a high-risk activity. As previously mentioned, helmets are required in the UK and are provided. Many centers will also not allow you to ride in unsuitable footwear. However, despite that, accidents on the trail are rare, especially if you take the following precautions:
  • Pay attention to the guide. If English is not your first language or if you have issues which might cause you to have difficulty hearing and understanding, talk to them in advance about the issue.
  • Avoid over consumption of alcohol, including on those “pub treks.” If you are too impaired to drive, you are too impaired to ride.
  • If you have young children, don’t let them wander into stalls or barns.
    Stay one length from the horse in front. For those who don’t ride, you should be able to see the hocks, that is the middle joint of the leg, of the horse in front between your horse’s ears.
  • If wearing a jacket, keep it zipped up. Floppy jackets can startle horses.
    Don’t approach a horse from behind or walk behind a horse. Yes, even if you see the guides and grooms doing it. They know how but you may not.
  • Make sure that you are covered by travel insurance if something does go wrong.

Pony trekking is a great way to see the British countryside. The small horses often used may come from breeds that are rare in Britain and all but unheard of outside (Highland Ponies, Dales Cobs, etc). You can reach areas that would otherwise need a difficult hike to access. It’s worth trying to make time during your British vacation for an hour on horseback.

Posted on

Insiders Guide to Festivals in the United Kingdom

If you’re heading to the U.K., check out the lineup of festivals around the British Isles. The country offers numerous festivals for every interest and age. Check out a few of these festivals that often fly beneath the tourist radar.

Soul Circus

The Cotswolds, U.K.

This yoga and wellness festival int he U.K. will leave you feeling healthier and more relaxed than when you arrived. Experienced yoga and wellness instructors offer 20 classes a day in three different “experience tents.” The atmosphere is somewhere in between a DJ yoga rave and a mindful meditation. Spa tents revive both body and spirit. Music plays all day and far into the night by buskers and bands and a DJ late night party in the woods.
Organic food and drinks from home-grown sustainable sources put the “w” in wellness, and guests can attend workshops on healthy cooking. Inspirational talks from life coaches are on the agenda as well as soaking in hot tubs. Many people put up tents or tipis for total immersion. After such a rejuvenating weekend, even traffic can feel tranquil.

Robin Hood Festival

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire

Taking places during the first week of August, this annual festival has grown into a pop-up 13th Century village with a square half-mile of woods full of stalls and attractions. Armor-clad knights hold frequent energetic jousts. Vicious fights erupt between Robin Hood and the Sheriff’s men. Children join impromptu, theatrical re-enactments of the Robin Hood story dressed as the mythical hero or Maid Marian in garlands of flowers. Archery lessons, pony rides, and discovery trails are the most popular attractions.
Jugglers, buffoons, and minstrels mingle with the crowds. There are exhibitions of falconry and alchemy. Magicians, storytellers, puppeteers, and musicians weave the wonder of a bygone time in and around the shade of The Major Oak, an 800-year-old tree. This festival celebrates Merrie Olde England without the Medieval scourges of plague and serfdom for a lighthearted immersion into a fanciful storied time.

Hampton Court Palace Festival

London, U.K. 

Big name acts perform at the annual summer music festival on the grounds of Henry VIII’s magnificent Tudor palace and world famous, extensive gardens. The intimate, open-air auditorium seats 3,000. Pre-concert festival picnics are elegant four-course seasonal meals including a cheese course and wine that attendees can enjoy at their leisure on the palace grounds.
You can reserve a gazebo and enjoy the luxury of a lake view and dedicated waitstaff. The exclusive and unforgettable VIP package includes dining in royal splendor inside the castle. Private dining apartments can be arranged. The VIP experience ends with champagne at a post-concert castle gathering that allows an inside look at King Henry’s public and private spaces.

Latitude

Henham Park– Southwold, Suffix

Four days of music, art, theater, and unexpected experiences define this family-friendly festival. Each year in mid-July, people ditch the city to rent tents (some luxury) or pods and enjoy a multi-day get-away in the woods. Special areas and activities are set aside for kids and teens. Sheep are dyed funky colors, and surprising sights abound.
SOLAS is the hearth of Latitude for relaxation, yoga, and eclectic art immersed in a pine forest and serenaded by emerging U.K. and Irish talent from troubadours, ambient electro, folk music, and dark pop. Ambient soundscapes accompany slow-motion visuals. Spa treatments and workshops are set up to enhance wellness and wisdom.
This U.K. festival offers a large variety of entertainment in music arenas, film, theater, and dance arenas, a comedy arena, and more venues scattered around the park. Established talent join emerging performers for an eclectic variety of acts.
You can enjoy a game of croquet or sip Prosecco in a forest bar, swim in the lake and listen to live music all day. Late night dancing in the woods is an ethereal experience. You never know what’s around the corner in The Faraway Forest, but expect theatre performances, interactive art, and a visually stunning walk through a world of woodland imagination.
More than 80 of the U.K.’s finest street food vendors bring a world of tastes to the festival including modern Greek cuisine, wood-fired pizza, Himalayan soul food, Indonesian charcoal barbecue, and Portuguese prego along with the more traditional burgers and wings.
This festival offers maximum fun with minimal festival distress. You won’t get lost, wonder what to do with the kids, or have to leave any night but the last.

Twelfth Night

Bankside–London, Epiphany

This raucous Twelfth Night Celebration aspires to be biblical but has many pagan, pre-Christian elements. At London’s Bankside near the Globe Theater, the Holly Man, covered in fresh holly, glides along the Thames in a small decorated boat before joining crowds for toasts with mulled wine. Festivities incorporate a re-enactment of the story of St. George and the Dragon. Some revelers are costumed. Two audience members who find a bean in their Twelfth Night cake are crowned King Bean and Queen Pea. Revelers march on to the George Inn on Borough High Street for more dancing, mulled wine, the Kissing Wishing Tree, and storytelling. This coaching inn is one of London’s oldest pubs and can hold a large crowd. The George is famous for being the only galleried coaching inn still standing in London.

The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss

Padstow, Cornwall

Reputed to be the oldest dance festival in the U.K., the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss (Hobby Horse) sees thousands of people converge upon this small Cornish town, many with hobby horses of all types. The festival, celebrated each May Day, celebrates Celtic horse-worship, a pagan fertility parade. The festival was even used as a warning to would-be invaders of the portside fishing village.
Townsfolk decorate the village in greenery and erect a Maypole. Dance troupes parade down the streets, each led by an ‘Oss, a dancer costumed as a horse. “Oss’s” capture young women and conceal them in black capes, thought to be a pagan fertility rite. Another ‘Oss represents peace, and they duke it out. Traditional music is heard all day. Costumed troupes cavort around town before retiring to their stables — two local pubs — to be joined by townsfolk and visitors for a festive night. Revelers return to the town center to dance around the maypole at midnight.
The U.K. offers a multitude of music festivals all summer, but other seasons are festive as well. Be sure to check out the festivals happening during Christmas and Easter!

Posted on

The Overlooked Gem of England: The Midlands

When people from overseas consider a trip to Great Britain they are most likely to consider London or Scotland, possibly Wales. Many visitors only pass through the English Midlands, possibly stopping at Nottingham in the vain hope of bumping into Robin Hood.
However, the Midlands has a surprising amount to offer. The official area of the Midlands is split between the East Midlands (Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, and Rutland) and West Midlands (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire). However, many people expand the Midlands slightly north and south to include Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire. For the purposes of this article I’m going to stay within the official East and West Midlands. Here are some of the hidden or less hidden gems.

Nottingham

Nottingham is the one place in the Midlands that most foreigners have heard of, and most often in the context of its folk hero, the aforementioned Robin Hood. In fact, Nottingham somewhat embraces the legend and still, to this day has a sheriff–an almost entirely ceremonial role designed to attract tourists. A statue of Robin Hood is located under Castle Rock in the center of the city (It has no arrow because of the number of times the arrow has been stolen). Nottingham is a small, fairly modern city, but does have a number of attractions.
Castle Rock no longer sports much of a castle (the inner and outer gates are the only parts still standing), but has an art gallery and museum, although the site is closed for major redevelopment until 2020. The castle played a key role in the English Civil War. It is also possible to tour the caves under the castle, which have seen numerous uses and are still used by a couple of pubs…as beer cellars. Visitors should get a drink in what is generally considered England’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. A bit outside Nottingham is the iconic Wollaton Hall, which was used as Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises.

The Peak District

Most of the Midlands are low lying. The Peak District is the exception. It’s a National Park, although that doesn’t mean quite the same thing in the United Kingdom. The area is great for hiking, camping, cycling, and pony trekking. Oh, and this being England, you can take the bus or train to pretty much every trailhead, although a car is nice for flexibility. The truly ambitious can attempt the Trans Pennine Trail, which runs the full width of the country. You can enjoy the wildlife and wildflowers, particularly at the designated meadow sites at Hard Rake and Stanage-North Lees. Be aware that the weather can be unpleasant even in the summer. Proper hiking boots and a good rain jacket are recommended.

Matlock Bath

Most of the Victorian “spa” resorts were on the coasts, taking advantage of the sea water and salt air. The town of Matlock Bath is a rare exception. It has everything a traditional British seaside resort has, with the exception of the sea. Matlock Bath is home of the Peak District Lead Mining Museum but is best known for The Heights of Abraham and the cable car that crosses above the town’s “high street” on its way up to a Victorian-era view point. Nearby is Gulliver’s Kingdom theme park, the original of a small chain of child-oriented theme parks. The park has been open since 1976.

Crich

Crich is a pretty village in Derbyshire, but it is also the home of the Crich Tramway Village, also called the National Tramway Museum. A day ticket gives you unlimited tram rides on the mile long track, using restored historic trams. They also have an exhibit on the history of trams and a period village which includes buildings moved from elsewhere and a police box (or a TARDIS, if you prefer). The Cromford Canal runs close to the museum, and the Friends of Cromford Canal offer scheduled rides on Birdswood, their horse-drawn narrowboat.

Birmingham

Affectionately known as “Brum,” and its inhabitants as “Brummies,” Birmingham is England’s second biggest city. It has almost as much to offer as London (although the transport network is notoriously “bad” for England, it’s still better than anything you’ll find in America). Birmingham offers canal boat rides, theater at the Birmingham Hippodrome, shopping at the famous Bullring and fine dining. You can even visit the BBC’s Birmingham studios and get a tour.

Rutland Water

Rutland Water is a large reservoir that is a playground for locals and tourists alike. You can walk, bike or bird watch along the shore or engage in a variety of watersports. The lake is home to the Rutland Osprey Project, although the reserve has many other feathered stars. You can hire everything from canoes to paddle boats to windsurfers. There are no power boats on the lake, so it’s a great place to practice your paddling and sailing skills. There are watersports and fishing lessons regularly.

Skegness

Skegness, in Lincolnshire, epitomizes the classic British seaside resort at its most wonderful (and occasionally tacky). It has a golden beach, ideal for building sandcastles, or for the little ones to take a traditional donkey ride. The beach is now a Blue Flag beach, after some problems in the past. It also has the original Butlins, opened in 1963 as the first of the famous holiday camps, and now a modern family resort where you can stay or just get a day ticket to enjoy rides and the water park. Skegness also offers a seal sanctuary and rehabilitation center, a small theme park and the world’s first ‘official cloudspotting area.’
The Midlands is not a place to drive or ride the train through on your way to somewhere more interesting, but a destination in their own right with numerous attractions, some of which can be quite surprising. There are particularly good destinations for families in the “Heart of England,” but you can find something for everyone’s taste here. Look for various events and festivals through the year, or just find yourself a good pub and settle down for a pint.
worldvia-email-subscribe-adventure700
 

Posted on

How to Eat Well in the United Kingdom

Feast Through the United Kingdom

The fact is that it’s quite possible to eat well in the United Kingdom. You just need to know where to go and what to look for. Here are some suggestions:

Go Indian

beef_tiki_masala_worldvia
Beef Tiki Masala

It’s been said that you can get better Indian food in London than you can in Delhi. Of course, you’re most likely to hear that from Indian restaurants in London. The truth is, though, that Britain imported a lot of people from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s – and a disproportionate number of them started restaurants. As long as you can handle spice, you can find good to great Indian food almost anywhere, including small towns in North Wales and the Midlands. Mediocre Indian restaurants just don’t survive very long. Just remember – Vindaloo is not for the faint-hearted. Try Maharaja, near Kensington Park.

Pasties, No, Not That Kind

In the US, the word “pasty” often means something associated with strip clubs. In the UK, it always means a fold over pie. Pasties became popular during the mining era (hence “Cornish” pasties, because of the amount of mining there). A “Cornish” pasty is specifically a pasty filled with beef, potato, swede, and onion. As they have Protected Geographical Indication, they can only be called that if made in Cornwall. Stores outside Cornwall get around it by calling them “traditional” pasties, and everyone knows what they mean. You can also get pasties full of chicken and bacon, ham and cheese, you name it. Pasties are often still good cold and make a tasty picnic lunch. Get your pasties at a traditional pastry shop. The Proper Pasty Company sells some of the best in a variety of locations, or ask a local where to go.

Chinatown

chinatown_london_worldvia
Chinatown London

If you’re in London, then London’s Chinatown, while quite a bit smaller than New York’s or San Francisco’s is worth a visit (especially if you’re taking in a show in the West End, as they’re right next to each other). It’s more like San Francisco both in feel and in the kind of food than New York. British Chinese food, dominated by Hong Kong cuisine, is not quite the same as American Chinese. Don’t expect to be able to get General Tso’s, but do expect to get excellent sweet and sour. Seafood lovers will be particularly satisfied. But look for an established joint such as Joy King Lau, serving Cantonese food on three stories.

Fish and Chips

fish_and_chips_worldvia
Fish and Chips

It’s a British staple to the point of being a stereotype, but good fish and chips (hard, although no longer quite impossible, to find in the United States) is something every visitor should try at least once. Fish and chips is fast food, and best eaten out of paper on the street. Sadly, it’s no longer legal to wrap it in newspaper, although some chip shops will put a sheet of newsprint around it outside the food safe paper just for old times sake. Yes, vinegar is a condiment here. You can get fish and chips in restaurants, but if you happen to be in Haxby, York, you can visit this year’s National Fish & Chip Award winner, Miller’s Fish and Chips. Yes, that is how seriously British people take fish and chips!

Pie Day

If you’re in Britain on 3.14, or even on any other date, you can seldom go wrong with savory pies. The most common are steak and kidney, steak and ale or chicken and mushroom, but cold pork pie is a picnic favorite and many pubs now sell pies with some very interesting fillings such as smoked cheddar, coronation chicken, leek and cheese, etc. Cottage pie, in which the upper crust is replaced with mashed potato, is another pub favorite (note that it is only shepherd’s pie is made with lamb). The best pies are often found at specialized pie houses such as Battersea Pie Station in London, but almost any pub will sell you a decent pie. “Fast food” pies are a good alternative at chip shops if you have somebody who utterly hates fish.

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding

yorkshire_pudding_worldvia
Yorkshire Pudding

British people use the word “pudding” in three different senses that sometimes have to be worked out from context. “Black” pudding is blood sausage. “Pudding” on its own often means any kind of dessert. “Yorkshire pudding” is a kind of dumpling that is traditionally served as a side with roast beef and filled with gravy. A variant is the “giant Yorkshire pudding” where the entire entree is put inside the pudding. This is another good thing to order in a classic English pub, if you can find it – not as many places have it on the menu anymore, and it is often only on Sundays, but I was recently able to find beef inside a Yorkshire pudding at The Parsonage near Wigan – so look for a Hungry Horse pub.

Treacle Pud

For dessert? Go for “treacle pud.” It’s sponge cake made with light molasses and served with a thin custard (trust us on the custard, it’s better than it sounds). It’s on the heavy side, so make sure you save room. Equally delicious is “toffee pud” or the disturbingly-named “spotted dick.” The spots are raisins and “dick” in this context is slang for “dough.” For the very best, you’ll need to go to a place called Upton upon Severn, where you’ll find The Pudding Shop’s cafe – but be careful, they sell them to go.

Cheese

To finish up, it’s worth talking a bit about cheese. It can seem that every single little town in England has its own cheese. If you want to try actual cheddar, not the stuff generically called cheddar, look for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and get the extra sharp. But it’s also worth trying a few more. Stilton, which comes in white or blue, is worth sneaking a bit of. Cheshire and Wensleydale are delicious crumbling white cheeses which are hard to get in the United States. If you really want to be adventurous, try Stinking Bishop. Which lives up to its name.
So, a few things to try to help you realize that Britain isn’t the hideous “food desert” a lot of people claim. Just a few caveats, though:

  • In a “restaurant,” things work the same as they do in restaurants everywhere. If you are eating in a pub, however, then you are expected to seat yourself. You should then send somebody to the bar to order drinks and food (two people if it’s a large party, as they’ll be bringing the drinks back). Make a note of the number on your table so the waiter knows where to bring the food.
  • Britain is an optional-tipping society. Tipping is not required, but it is appreciated. 10-15% is customary in restaurants, but it is completely acceptable to stiff the waiter if service is poor. Larger groups may be charged an automatic tip. Generally, you don’t tip in pubs and some bartenders will actually take it as an insult.
  • Marmite is every bit as vile as you have heard. Other foods that can be acquired tastes include rollmops (pickled herrings) and, of course, haggis.

Enjoy your trip…and appreciate the fact that you really can get food that is not completely bland and over-cooked.
worldvia-email-subscribe-food700

Posted on

How to Make the Most of Your London Trip

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.

The Must-Sees

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.