London is huge.
Really huge. I explain this to my friends and family back in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where I grew up, but no one gets it until they’re touching down at Heathrow Airport and see the sprawling cityscape dotted with green, the River Thames winding through the middle. I’ve lived here nearly six years and I’ve probably explored only half of it. And I’ll barely be able to cover that in this totally non-comprehensive travel guide that includes only some of my favorite things.
London is over 10 times the size of Boston and holds 8.3 million more people. But London can feel small, too. This paradoxical feeling comes from how easily its neighborhoods (sometimes called villages) are connected, and also how self-contained each one is.
Given the recent favorable exchange rate (in early March, £1 was worth about $1.18) and the coronation of King Charles III coming up May 6, it’s an especially fun time to plan a trip to London. King Charles III is the nation’s 62nd monarch in a succession of royal leaders spanning about 1,200 years. Though the Royal Family’s power has waned considerably since the end of the 17th century — when Parliament’s power was firmly established, starting the process toward the democracy in Great Britain today — the royals still draw tourists, especially when a rare event such as a coronation is on the docket.
To explore this great city, it’s easiest to choose a few pockets and use a day for each area. Even though the public transit system is one of the best you’ll find, if you try to go from one side of the city to the other, and then back again to wherever you’ll be resting your weary/happy feet, you’ll waste valuable time.
We begin in North London. Double Knot (instagram.com/doubleknotcafe) is a great new breakfast spot in the Angel neighborhood to fuel up for the first day of exploring. Try the shakshuka, a hearty Middle Eastern dish with eggs and feta in a fragrant tomato sauce. Your belly will be full, so a casual walk is in order. From there, venture north to Islington’s bustling high street, which offers upmarket shopping peppered with some great “charity shops” (thrift stores). Islington Square is a new shop-dine-drink quarter settled into the old postal sorting office. There, Borough Kitchen (020-3582-4859, boroughkitchen.com) has loads of cooking and chef-skills classes, such as bao bun-making or fermentation and pickling. Soccer fans can pop into the Arsenal Football Club (020-7619-5000, arsenal.com) team store nearby for swag — though getting tickets to single games may be a distant dream.
For some great Caribbean food on the go, pick up the jerk chicken wings from One Love Kitchen (020-7619-3677, onelove-kitchen.co.uk), then head over to Finsbury Park. Its 110 acres include an amphitheater, a pond with lots of bird life (buy a bag of feed for about $1.20), a skate park, and tennis courts. At the west edge, there’s an entrance to Parkland Walk (parkland-walk.org.uk), a 1.7-mile-long nature trail, formerly a rail line. It’s my favorite place to dog-watch. It takes you to the edge of Highgate, a quaint village of shops and a few restaurants with a stellar pub selection, and only a 15-minute walk to the eastern edge of Hampstead Heath, London’s third largest public park at 800 acres.
In Highgate, you’re “spoilt for choice” (as the locals say) of watering holes. Try the 476-year-old The Wrestlers (020-8340-4297, thewrestlershighgate.com) for some quintessential British vibes. (Ask there about the Swearing on the Horns — a farcical oath tradition dating back to the 17th century.) The pub culture in London is second to none. And did I mention children are generally allowed until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.?
You might need two days to cover Central London — it’s the beating heart of the city with a high concentration of eateries, bars, sightseeing, and activities. Beginning with food is always recommended. Dishoom (020-7420-9320, dishoom.com/covent-garden), a London-based chain, does a particularly good job at the most important meal of the day — its bacon naan roll with egg gets an A-plus.
One lovely gesture London offers tourists and locals alike is free admission to dozens of museums. Though exhibitions require separate advance tickets that can be expensive, the Natural History Museum (020-7942-5000, nhm.ac.uk) has more than enough on offer in its permanent collection — and booking a free ticket slot lets you skip the lines. Wander the cavernous halls and 4.6 billion years of history. Stop by the formidable T. rex and don’t forget to visit a favorite permanent fixture of the museum, Guy the gorilla, or gaze upon the world’s largest collection of Darwin works, including a rare first-edition On the Origin of Species. Or, you could take in the dazzling exhibitions the Victoria & Albert Museum (020-7942-2000, vam.ac.uk) curates. Currently showing: Africa Fashion, The Korean Wave, Re:Imagining Musicals, and Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance.
For an outdoor afternoon activity, you can get your Bridgerton fantasy on with a trot around the famous Rotten Row on horseback with Hyde Park Stables (020-7723-2813, hydeparkstables.com). Children as young as 4 can partake in private lessons. London’s mews properties started out as rows of horse stables and carriage houses, but over time many have been converted into homes, often quite nice ones. Hyde Park Stables and neighboring Ross Nye Stables are two of the last mews with horses in London.
A 15-minute walk down Oxford Street and just off the busy thoroughfare of department stores (hello, Selfridges) is Mercato Mayfair (020-7403-0930, mercatometropolitano.com), a food hall focused on sustainability that’s housed in a deconsecrated but impeccably kept 200-year-old church. It’s the perfect way to taste the varying cuisines this city encapsulates. It’s worth mentioning that the days of only bangers ‘n’ mash and fish ‘n’ chips (though, those dishes — done well — are still fan favorites) are long gone; London is as cosmopolitan in its culinary offerings as any major metropolis and doing incredible things with vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Not to be missed is Gordon’s Wine Bar (020-7930-1408, gordonswinebar.com). When it’s cold, sit inside the rock cavern and choose from hundreds of international wines with a wide range of prices in London’s oldest wine bar. The long patio is perfect for people-watching over a charcuterie board and a flight of vino. To walk it off, head over to Carnaby Street. As an alternative to the consumerism that has somewhat overtaken this famous West End neighborhood, the Carnaby Echoes (carnabyechoes.com) tour app provides a neat history of the area’s music legends, such as Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.
For dinner, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen (020-7434-2448, imadssyriankitchen.co.uk) is worth the chaos of Kingly Court. Imad Alarnab, the proprietor and a successful restaurateur from Damascus, fled Syria in 2015. The small but exquisite menu is made for sharing and full of food from Alarnab’s homeland — the falafels are some of the best I’ve ever had, with a perfect crispy-to-soft ratio, and the Syrian ice cream dessert is divine.
I’d recommend a later start for your third day of exploration to give yourself a little break. Borough (pronounced “Buh-ruh”) Market (020-7407-1002, boroughmarket.org.uk)is open during late breakfast and lunch hours, and while it is a tourist hot spot, it’s worth it. For over 1,000 years, merchants and artisans have hawked their goods on the site of this industrial yard just south of the River Thames. Eat freshly shucked shellfish or breads straight out of the oven, or taste homemade nut butters and regional cheeses. There’s Thai, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Lebanese, South American, and more. You can’t go wrong with vendor Padella’s hand-rolled, fresh pasta.
Around the corner is George (020-7407-2056, greeneking-pubs.co.uk), the last remaining “galleried inn,” its origins dating back to the 17th century. While it does look its age inside — all wonky angles and dark wood — it has hearty ale and friendly barkeeps. For more imbibing, but also some walking, the Bermondsey Beer Mile (www.bermondsey-beer-mile.co.uk) is a (now 2-mile) stretch of breweries with taprooms open to the public on Saturdays. Food stalls pop up, too, a necessity at some point during a brewery crawl.
Stroll along the Thames, following The Queen’s Walk and stopping at outdoor markets, and you’ll see Shakespeare’s Globe (020-7401-9919, shakespearesglobe.com; about $6 for standing room tickets), and eventually reach the Southbank Centre, where the London Eye sits tall. And what better way to take a look at the whole city than with a trip skyward? Not on the over-priced Eye, though. A better option is to spend about $50 on a cocktail and an appetizer at Göng (020-7234-8208, gong-shangri-la.com), the sushi restaurant and bar on the 52nd floor of The Shard, the tallest building in the city (and in the UK), which offers stunning views of Tower Bridge, the Thames, and its environs. A more family friendly and free option is the Sky Garden (033-3772-0020, skygarden.london), the city’s highest public green space.
Of course, if you have more than three or four days to visit London, I’d highly recommend it. Brixton and Peckham are vibrant neighborhoods south of the river. Go west and you have Kew Gardens, east and there’s Hackney with great boating canals. This city has so much to offer — I’m only getting started.
Where to Stay
For a centrally located place to stay under $200 a night, you’ll want to search for a B&B. Yes, this is short for bed and breakfast, but no, it is not like the quaint B&Bs you find all over New England. They’re cheap and cheery, if you’re lucky, but you’re probably not going to be spending all that much time in your room anyway.
For a small group or family trip, Wilde Aparthotels (020-3744-7520, staycity.com; standard studios during March and April start around $289) in Covent Garden offers a great short-term option with a small sink, fridge, and toaster, among other standard hotel amenities.
East London has some great mid-range options, including the recently refurbished Ace Hotel, now with a brighter palette and reopened as One Hundred Shoreditch (020-7613-9800, onehundredshoreditch.com; from about $220). There’s a sleek cocktail bar in the basement called Seed Library with concoctions by the master mixologist, Mr Lyan, and a pastel pink rooftop bar. Or try Hart Shoreditch Hotel (020-3995-3655, hartshoreditch.com, from about $225). It’s close to the Tube and has an outstanding nonalcoholic drink menu, and for only $7.50 per drink.
And if it’s luxury you’re after, The Stafford (020-7493-0111, thestaffordlondon.com, from about $584) near St. James Palace is literally royalty-adjacent — the late Queen Elizabeth used to enjoy a tipple every now and then at their American Bar. It’s also home to some fascinating history, including a World War II bunker in the cellar.
Valentina Valentini is an American freelance journalist living in London. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.