London travel tips

Last month I made a blog post with travel tips regarding my favorite city in the world: New York City. Today I thought I’d bring you my tips for traveling a bit closer to home if you live in the Netherlands. It also happens to be my SECOND favorite place in the world and that would be good old London town. I’ve been to London several times, the first time being 1998 when I was on vacation with my parents as a teen. I later went on a mother-daughter trip when I mom and after years of not having been to the city of red doubledecker buses and Big Ben, I found myself booking a trip in 2009 to see no other than Britney Spears perform her Circus Tour at the O2 Arena. I went, fell in love and have been going back every year since. My most recent trip was October 2013, so that makes a grand total of 7 times that I’ve been here. These tips include the standard ‘this is what you have to do’ type of tips, but also some more off the beaten path ones. So I hope you enjoy.

Houses of Parliament with Big Ben (June 2009)

As with any trip you take time is your main constraint when visiting London. Also whether you’ve been there before or not is a defining factor in what you will want to do during your trip. In my experience, the best times to visit are October (crowds & weather if lucky) or May (weather). My 2009 trip was a very short one, so I did something super duper touristy and hand when you have little time to explore the city, but you do want to see most of the city: take a tour bus. If you have some more time on your hands my advice is you walk as much as possible and only take the tube back to your hotel when you are too tired to continue.

I’ve stayed at several hotels, from budget hotels to more midclass hotels. London is fairly expensive when it comes to hotel prices, and rooms are small, so don’t be surprised if you’re housed in something that looks like your broom closet at home. Every hotel I’ve stayed at in London so far came with a breakfast of some type, which is a nice benefit. If you’re flying into London I can recommend you looking for hotels that are close to the train stations that service the airport you’re arriving from. Heathrow Express goes to Paddington Station, Gatwick Express arrives at Victoria Station, and regular trains arrive at St. Pancras/ King’s Cross, but usually only run weekdays. I personally like the express trains. They’re a bit more expensive but they do get you to and from the airport quickly.

Tower of London (October 2013) – St. Paul’s Cathedral (October 2013) – National Gallery

When you’re only visiting London for 2 – 3 days I suggest you at least visit these places:

  • Houses of Parliament/ Big Ben. There are tours available for the Houses of Parliament, but only in July and August and apparently you can only go on one if you’re a UK citizen. Your best photo ops are from ACROSS the river Thames, so cross that bridge and take a right. Afterwards you can also walk along the South Bank and go to the London Eye if you’d like, though personally I am not a big fan of the ferris wheel.
  • Westminster Abbey (including tour). One of my main highlights of one of my London trips was Westminster Abbey. There are tours available at additional cost and I really loved the one I was on. It gives you a lot of information on the rich history of this very special church.
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral (including tour). St. Paul’s is a must even if it’s just for a peek inside. You can climb the stairs and go up to the Whispering Gallery or you can take a tour which is done by a local volunteer. Very informative and also very interesting to hear more about the building of the Cathedral, which is nothing like a traditional cathedral at all.
  • Tower of London. The Tower of London is a must on every tourist’s list, but my advice is: don’t go inside. Unless you like shelling out over 20 pounds to combat long lines and gaze at less than spectacular crown jewels. The Scottish one are apparently not only better, but they also house the crowning stone that is placed underneath the throne (which is in Westminster Abbey) when a new King or Queen is crowned.
  • Tower Bridge. But when you’re at the Tower of London anyway, you will also be very close to Tower Bridge. Which is far more impressive than the fortress itself. You can walk across it to the South Bank and if you’re up for it you can hike all the way to London Eye and get some nice views of the city while you’re at it.
  • Buckingham Palace. Not necessarily to see the changing of the guards, but just to have a peek. Is the flag up? That means that the Queen is home. Walk along The Mall to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (or turn right and walk up to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament).

Tower Bridge (October 2013)

If you’re there for a bit longer, there are other landmarks and places you can visit. But of course, a bustling city such as London also has plenty of activities you can do. Many museums in London are free of charge so it’s super easy to gaze at amazing art or brush up your knowledge on a rainy day.

  • Kensington gardens/ Hyde park/ St. James’ Park: London parks make for a great stroll on a nice day. They are inhabited by tons of squirrels which eat out of your hand if you feed them something they find interesting enough.
  • Camden market. For those of you who are into ethnic cuisine and wears and a bit of vintage, you have to visit Camden Market. One of the places where London’s melting pot becomes most visible. It’s a vibrant place and if you walk all the way to Camden Lock you’ll find some great food places as well.
  • Old Truman Brewery/ Spital Fields market. Calling all vintage lovers: this is where you have to go.
  • Marble Arch. On Oxford Street. Just go there, grab a picture and get your shop on!
  • The Mall. Close to Buckingham Palace so chances are you’ll go there anyway.
  • Trafalgar Square. See Nelson stand on his column at one of the busiest crossroads in the city.
  • The Strand. Street where you will find some book shops, Somerset House and some coffee shops. Leads away from Trafalgar Square.
  • Bloomsbury. This is a really nice part of London. There are some independent shops around and there is a university located as well as some museums.
  • Visit the big/ old stores: Harrods/ Fortnum & Mason. Just to be awed by all that extravaganza and expensive wears.

Things to do:

  • Visit museums! They’re free. Recommended: British Museum, National Gallery, V&A museum
  • Do a musical (there are discount ticket offices in the city, mostly situated around Leicester Square – Billy Elliot is great!)
  • See a ballet/ opera performance at the Royal Opera House. Just be sure to book tickets in advance as they sell out quite quickly.
  • See a play at the Globe Theatre. Also something to book in advance. The Globe Theatre features plays which are performed in true 16th/17th century fashion. It was built after the original Globe Theatre where many of Shakespeare’s plays had their debut. The Theatre is open roofed which means it only shows performances through spring and summer.
  • Watch the changing of the guards.
  • A tour from I’ve taken several tours with this company and it’s brilliant. You check the website, show up with the fee at the designated tube stop at the designated time and you go on themed walking tour around part of London. I can highly recommend the Harry Potter tour.

Temple Church interior (February 2012)

Of course there is plenty more to do and see when you visit London. Here are my tips after you’ve done the true and tested London must sees.

  • Highgate cemetery: unused Victorian Cemetery in Camden. It’s a super pretty location. You can walk up and visit the East cemetery any time. The West cemetery is only accessible by tours, but it’s well worth it.
  • Do a concert @ the O2 Arena. Tickets sell out fast, but you plan on seeing anyone play there anyway, you might as well book a longer trip.
  • Tour of the Royal Opera House. If you care for seeing how a huge theater operates, then this is for you. The Royal Opera House also houses the Royal Ballet and on this tour you have a chance to see the dancers go through their classes and warm ups. Each tour is different as one room in every tour is changed up every time. If you’re lucky you’re allowed to go into the main auditorium.
  • Somerset House. Has a lot of fun, more off the beaten track exhibitions.
  • Greenwich. It takes a while to get there, but Greenwich has more to offer than the meridian that gives us GMT. There are the Royal Naval Colleges which are used in tons of different movies (Les Miserables and Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed there) and the town itself is small, quaint and comes with vintage clothing stores and record shops.
  • Tour of the Globe Theatre. If you have the time, take a tour of the Globe. It’s fun, informative and they have a great little store.
  • Take a day trip to Oxford. Not London, but close enough that you can go there for the day.
  • Visit Brighton. Same as Oxford. In case you need to get away from the business that is London you can visit this forlorn British seaside town.
  • Walk through Belgravia. One of the nicer neighbourhoods of London. Same goes for Notting Hill and Chelsea.
  • Temple Church. For Da Vinci Code enthusiasts, or just those of you curious in history and culture. A bit difficult to find and with strange opening times, but well worth a visit.

Houses of Parliament – Highgate Cemetary – Tower Bridge

Whenever I go to London, I at least reserve one day for shopping. Because apart from tons of history and culture you can shop till you drop in London town.

  • Westfield shopping centre. There are several locations in the city, some outdoor and some indoor. So even when it’s raining cats and dogs you can shop all major highstreet stores.
  • Oxford Street. For your highstreet shopping featuring Primark, Forever21, Urban Outfitters, Topshop flagshipstore, HMV, New Look, etc etc etc.
  • Soho. If you are into music and vintage shops, then Soho is the place to be. It has independent music stores, stores for instruments as well as London’s redlight district (which compared to Amsterdam’s is a complete joke btw).
  • Carnaby Street. Features the MAC pro store as well as Illamasqua. There are also a few fashion shops such as Monki.
  • Covent Garden. For all major chains. It also has a Dr. Marten’s store and more boutique type shopping.
  • Camden market. Vintage/ Ethnic market place. If you’re looking for more unique finds.
  • Vintage shopping is done in East London mostly though. The area around Brick Lane (also good if you dig Indian Food) has some great vintage stores.
  • Selfridges. Large department store with the best beauty departments ever. From Tom Ford, Nars, Laura Mercier, Bobbi Brown, Illamasqua and Charlotte Tilbury: it’s all available from Selfridges. It’s located on Oxford Street almost across from Marble Arch.
  • John Lewis and Debenhams are two other department stores on Oxford Street where you will find make up brands such as Urban Decay, Stila and Smashbox.
  • Waterstone’s near Piccadilly Circus = 5 floors of book heaven.
  • Victoria’s Secret is located on a side street off Oxford Street and in one of the Westfield Shopping malls. Look up the address, because you won’t just stumble across it.
  • There is a Kiko store off Oxford Circus, but it hadn’t opened yet when I last was in London so I can’t tell you whether it’s any good.

View over Greenwich and London from the Greenwich Observatory (May 2011)

Last but not least, a few tips on going out to eat.

  • Garfunkel’s: a cheap place for steaks and burgers. It’s a chain which you can find all over the UK.
  • TGI Friday’s for American burgers, just know you’ll be in for a wait. In 2013, I didn’t want to wait too long and I found a diner across the street which was a Jamie Oliver pop up restaurant. Not sure whether it’s still there.
  • Covent Garden has some great places to eat. Just have a browse and you’ll find something you like
  • Camden Town does some great ethnic dishes of all scents and flavors
  • Brick lane is the place to go for Indian cuisines
  • Soho is the place to be for veggie places. I found the address for a great hummus restaurant before I went last time, but I didn’t have the time to go there.
  • Pubs! If you are looking for a true English meal, just pop into a pub and have some traditional English food. Fish and chips anyone?

What’s your favorite thing to do in London?

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