Next up on our Stiletto’s Europe list is London, the wonderful, beautiful stunner of a city that I called home for just over four years. London is a great place to layover on your way to more exotic locations in Europe, Africa or the Middle East, especially when coming from the US – it is also a fantastic place to spend a week, a month or a year (more to come on day trips and other fab places to see in the UK). Without further ado, here is the quick’n’dirty Stiletto’s Guide to London – everything you must see, do and eat!
This is one of the most famous churches in the world and is definitely worth the GBP 20 ticket per person… buy your tickets online in advance – this will save you the waiting time outside of the Abbey. There are also late night entries/tickets available on Wednesday nights when the Abbey stays open later than any other day. Wanna get in for free (my favorite price)? Head to evensong or another one of the Abbey’s church services – if you are coming to worship, you don’t have to purchase a ticket to enter. Wanna get married here? Best of luck to you – unless you are someone very special (meaning royal), you will have to slum it with the commoners. Sorry.
While you are visiting Westminster Abbey and pretending you are marrying a prince (was that just me?), don’t forget to look up and check out Big Ben – you can’t go in but definitely have a walk around. Attached to Big Ben are the Houses of Parliament – the detail in the architecture is astounding – take your time exploring this building and make sure that you get pictures from the sky when you are on the London Eye!
2. Buckingham Palace & St James Park
Pull up a stripey lounge chair in St James Park and watch the world go by. Once you’ve had enough of that, wander over to Buckingham Palace for a visit with the Queen. Peek through the famous gates, take pictures of the fuzzy hat-wearing guards, wish you were a member of the Royal Family… as you do. If you are feeling up to dealing with a crowd – try to make it for the changing of the guard. The days vary depending on the time of year, but in the summer the changing of the guard takes place every day around 11am.
3. Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath
Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill are beautiful, central parks – they are impeccably manicured and good for a little stroll in the greenery. Regent’s Park has a beautiful open air theatre – if you are around in the summery months, make sure you check out your options! Primrose Hill has a fantastic view of London from the top of the hill – you can also explore Hampstead Heath (which is a wilder, bigger, greener piece of land further north) – it has swimming ponds and lots and lots of nature to explore. There are tons of great restaurants around Primrose Hill – head to Hampstead village for a quaint little stroll through what appears to be a quiet country town. This is an ideal place for a pub stop or a Sunday roast!
4. Shopping on Oxford and Regent Streets
Oh shopping – shop it up on these two main streets for all the greatest hits. Remember to consider any tax refunds you can get if you are not a European resident (enter smugidy smirky-smirk as I sneak into Burberry). If it was me, I would focus on some of the British greats – Top Shop, Burberry, Mulberry, Selfridges, LK Bennett, Reiss, Hobbs, French Connection and Sophia Webster. Happy shopping!
5. Tower of London and Tower Bridge
One of the coolest compounds in Central London, right on the River Thames, is the Tower of London. It is a giant stone fortress smack dab in the middle of the city, surrounding by all sorts of modern architecture (for example, the Shard – just across the river). Lines, crowds are abundant here but do make time to see the Crown Jewels, the famous crows of London Tower and the hilariously dressed guards. Plus the views across the river and of Tower Bridge are pretty phenomenal.
6. Wimbledon Village (and Tennis)
If you are one of the lucky few that manages to get Wimbledon tickets (or have some fancy friends in fancy places), definitely take advantage of a sunny day out in Wimbledon for the tennis. Grab your strawberries and cream (and some champagne) and head west to the gorgeous green hamlet in the London suburbs. If you aren’t able to get tickets, you can still head out to Wimbledon any time of year – visit the tennis grounds if you would like but do make sure you see Wimbledon village. I lived in Wimbledon for a few months and the village was the highlight – set on a hill, near Wimbledon commons (basically a forest), are so many cute little restaurants, boutiques and pubs. You are technically still in London but it feels like you’ve been transported deep into the English countryside.
Another stop just outside of Central London is Windsor Castle. This is the Queen’s favorite weekend residence and it is the epitome of all that is British royalty. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world and is open for visitors year-round. Like Versailles in Paris, it can be quite touristy but it is definitely worth facing the crowds. And who knows, you may get to see the Queen!
Head east on a Sunday morning (8am-3pm) to either the Old Street or Bethnal Green tube station – the Columbia Road Flower Market is open rain or shine and is always full of tons of the most amazing flowers. It can get crowded so try to get there early. Being East London (not far from the Shoreditch area), you have plenty of great coffee and brunch options so make a whole morning of it – don’t forget to pick up some flowers!
9. Afternoon Tea in Mayfair
Afternoon tea is the very best – so leisurely, so luxurious – it is basically a civilized late brunch that you dress up for… amazing. Head over to the Dorchester or the Ritz – if you want to go quintessentially British, make a reservation at Claridges or the tea room at Fortnum & Mason. If you are looking for something more budget-friendly, try the Palm Court at the Langham Hotel – it is the best value for money!
11. Richmond Park
Richmond Park is way out west but is worth the trek – the park is immense and home to hundreds of deer that can be found roaming, unafraid of humans. There are lakes and hiking paths, a river winding through it and a huge hill with benches and pubs atop it (yes, pubs… it is Britain after all). The town center of Richmond has some pretty top notch restaurants, cafes and bakeries. They also have a Whole Foods and Lululemon – so you know this is where the well-to-do of London live in suburban bliss.
12. Portobello Road and Notting Hill
Portobello Road Market is a great place to explore, look for all sorts of random antiques and people watch. While you are in the area, take the time to meander through Notting Hill – the houses, the cafes and restaurants, the little boutiques. If you happen to be in London at the end of August, try to make it to the Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival for insanely good food, parades, dancing and lots of music!
13. Curry on Brick Lane
OMG the curry in London is arguably the best in the world – I am pretty sure that Chicken Tikka Masala is considered the national dish. I ate so much Indian and Pakistani food in London that I haven’t had it since and when I was living in East London, there were over 100 curry delivery places that would deliver to my apartment… so… yeah, I need a break. But do make sure that you head over to Brick Lane for a traditional curry in one of the many curry houses there.
The four must-see museums are the Tate Britain (Millbank), the Tate Modern (South Bank), the British Museum (Holborn), the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square) and the Victoria & Albert Museum (South Kensington). These are my four favorite and while there are many more – these tick all of the boxes.
The Tate Britain features British art from the 1500s to today; the Tate Modern is all about the crazy modern art (piles of dirt, child-like finger painting, etc.); the British Museum is a mix of art, history and culture – including a fantastic Egyptian collection; the National Gallery is the London equivalent of the Louvre; and the Victoria & Albert Museum is focused on art and design (I went to an amazing history of lingerie exhibit there once).
The great thing about all these museums is that they are FREE (oh the fiscal responsibility)! Check their websites for all special events and exhibits – you do need to buy tickets for most of the special exhibits, so you may need to plan ahead.
The National Gallery sits right at the top of Trafalgar Squares, so you know, two birds one stone.
Start at London Bridge tube station – look directly up at the Shard (you can’t miss it, it’s that tall, pointy building). Hit up Borough Market (Monday to Saturday) – grab a coffee, try some of the fantastic street food but save room for a donut from Bread Ahead… you’re welcome. This is also where I always came for cheese (the Comte guys are my besties) and truffles (OMG Taste Croatia – TODIEFOR).
After your food foray, head west along the river. This South Bank pathway has amazing views all along the Thames, from London Bridge down to Westminster, Big Ben and the London Eye. If you are feeling ambitious, pop into the Tate Modern for a look around.
Once you make it to the London Eye – get in line (or buy your tickets ahead of time and plan your arrival) – this is an expensive must do, but it is worth every pence. The views of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are incredible.
16. Shoreditch and Street Art
Shoreditch is to London what Brooklyn is to New York – gentrification, millenialisation, $17 avocado toast brunches, Voga (Madonna’s Vogue-inspired yoga), etc., etc. As a result, there is some incredible avocado toast graffiti to see in Shoreditch. You can make your own tour (try this site for a list of suggested stops) or you can take the Shoreditch Street Art walking tour!
17. Jack the Ripper Tour – Gritty East London
This is one of my most favorite things to do in London – it is entertaining, spooky, historically accurate (very important) and a great way to see the gritty side of East London (before all the hipsters moved in with their cold brew and man-buns). The guys that run this tour are the world’s experts on Jack the Ripper (a specialty not offered at my university unfortunately) and their extensive knowledge of life in London during that time is impressive. It was one of the most enjoyable, entertaining experiences I had in London – so much so that I have been on the tour twice!
When I lived in London I was OBSESSED with Made in Chelsea – it was like going back to my days of watching Laguna Beach and the Hills, except instead of entitled, snotty California kids, this show is all about entitled, snotty British kids… so they have cute accents and less sunshine. Going out in Chelsea with some of my West London friends inevitably meant ending the night at Raffles and running into one of those entitled brats outside of the club… those were the days… but I digress. Head to Chelsea for excellent people watching, a wander through the Saatchi Gallery, shopping on the Kings Road, excellent restaurants, cafes and bars – just be prepared to pay a premium.
19. Food and Drinks with a View
You can either go up the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie or Heron Tower… your choice. At the top of the Gherkin, you have 360 degree views of central London at Searcy’s Champagne Bar. At the top of the Walkie-Talkie is the Sky Garden, you have similar views but also a giant covered garden… both serve booze… totally up to you. If you are look for food with an insane view, head over to Duck & Waffle or Sushi Samba over at Heron Tower. Personally, I prefer the Gherkin – it’s smaller, intimate and the champagne is on ice – but that’s just me. You need reservations and tickets in advance for the Sky Garden – the Gherkin, Sushi Samba and Duck & Waffle have reservations online too, but you don’t have to pay to reserve a table.
20. Sunday Roast
I love a good Sunday roast – this is basically the equivalent of brunch, just more traditional and British. Most pubs and traditional restaurants will serve Sunday roast – make sure you get in before mid-afternoon or you may not have much of a selection. Choose between the roast beef, lamb, chicken or some sort of vegetarian option – all plates come with roasted or mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables (YUMMM PARSNIPS), Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Perfect for a rainy, dark London Sunday.
So we have come to the end of the Top 20 Things to do in London…. but wait… there’s more! I couldn’t just contain my list to 20 – there is way too much to do in this amazing city, so here are five bonus items to tick off your London list!
21. Hyde Park
There are so many fantastic little places to explore around Hyde Park – from the Serpentine Lido (and its year-round swimming club) to Speaker’s Corner, the Grand Entrance to the Princess Diana Memorial – there is so much to see here. In the summer, there is the British Summer Time music festival. In the winter, there is Winter Wonderland which is one giant Christmas market full of hot cider, ice skating and shopping. There is always something happening in Hyde Park… but if not, just head to the water and watch the swans.
You can’t leave London without seeing St Pauls (even if only from a distance). It’s iconic dome features in almost every picture of the London skyline. Like Westminster, if you want to avoid the GBP 18 entry at the door, make sure to attend one of the many worship or prayer services instead.
23. Somerset House
Somerset House is in the heart of London, not far from the West End and all of its bright theaters (or rather, theatres). Somerset House hosts ice skating outside in the winter months and in the summer, has the Somerset House Summer Series – open air concerts and performances – and Summer Screen – open air movie screenings. There is a fabulous little cafe and terrace that is open year round, and you can go in and explore the building itself, which is full of cultural exhibits ranging from Big Data, Dear Diary, Memory Machine, Old Palace Tours, the History of Perfume and more! Click here for the list of current events taking place at Somerset House.
24. Canal boat tour
There are several tour companies that run canal boat tours from Little Venice to Camden Lock. There is a whole scene in London surrounding the canals – houseboats, pubboats, pubs along the river… pubs. These tours run through the windy little canals from West London, through Regent’s Park and the London Zoo, all the way to Camden Market…. which brings us to…
25. Camden Market
Camden Market is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful things. There are over 1000 vendors (boutiques, stalls, cafes, bakeries, booze, music, etc) and all sorts of events happening at any given time. Try your hand at gin making, get cheesey at the London Cheese Project or have your problems solved at the Problem Solving Booths. Anything and everything can be found at Camden Market. There are several classic music venues around Camden, so make sure you check out the events happening during your stay!