Samuel Johnson famously wrote “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” but to the visitor this huge city can seem a daunting grey jungle. Where should they begin?
London is not a city whose charms are all on show, presented in a tidy package to the tourist. Amid the imposing, noisy, confusing bustle, it is no wonder that many opt for an easy tourist trail of expensive attractions. Tussaud’s, the London Dungeon, the London Eye, the Tower of London are all musts for many visitors. But if you are on a budget, or if you wish to see some of London’s other faces, here are some suggestions:
For travelling around London, the tube is quick – study the maps closely as there are more than ten lines. But I’d recommend taking the bus wherever possible. It’s a very cheap option, and there’s nothing like the view of London you get from the upper deck of a traditional red double-decker bus.
For sightseeing, the number 38 is an excellent route. Departing from Victoria Station, it passes Buckingham Palace gardens (from the top deck you can see over the high wall to the royal lawns and tennis courts), heads along Piccadilly, across Piccadilly Circus and cuts across Soho along Shaftesbury Avenue, lined with theatres. Then it turns left up Charing Cross Road, famous for its secondhand bookshops. A glance to the left will show you hectic Oxford Street, before the bus takes a right towards Holborn. Further along the route you pass Sadlers Wells Theatre and classy Islington, where you can eat, drink and entertain yourselves (unless you want a glimpse of London’s more deprived areas, in which case you should stay on the bus until its final destination, the debt-ridden borough of Hackney).
Museum of London
This excellent free museum is in the strange Barbican complex, built by architects dreaming of an urban renaissance. Like a city in a sci-fi novel, this area is composed of high walkways, residential tower blocks and peaceful lakes, fountains and gardens. There is also a theatre, where the Royal Shakespeare company perform in the winter, a concert hall and some good restaurants and cafes to suit all budgets. The museum itself provides a marvellous overview of London, from prehistory to the present day, with fascinating temporary exhibitions as well as a good permanent collection. Here you can walk along a recreated Victorian Street, or admire marble sculptures from a Roman Temple of Mithras.
London has a large variety of markets, and a trip to one of these is a real chance to see the city at its vibrant, living best. Most-visited is probably the famous (and touristy) market and piazza of Covent Garden, but there are many more in the centre, or a short tube ride away. Portobello Road Market in expensive Notting Hill has a wide range of stalls selling antiques, vintage clothes, records and much more, and offers good opportunities to view the smart set.
Early on a Sunday morning, the highlight is Columbia Road flower market in East London (Bethnal Green). The flower stalls provide a welcome splash of brightness in the heart of the city, and the cockney stallholders shouting incomprehensible descriptions of their wares supply a different kind of colour. Meanwhile a mixture of trendy young things and East Enders wander up and down the narrow road, or break for refreshments in the pub or a cafe.
After the flower market, experience more of the unique mixture of cultures composing the area by a visit to Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market. On a standard Sunday along crowded Brick Lane you could view art installations in warehouse space, eat vegetarian or ethnic food at a stall, hear a ragtime street pianist, pick up some wonderful cheap fabric from a sari shop or a bargain antique piece of furniture (if you have room in your suitcase).
A bus ride away in North London is the crowded alternative commercial heaven, Camden Market. Hugely popular (with pickpockets too – watch your wallet), this is a good place to buy unusual gifts (fake black roses from a Gothic Emporium?) and clubbing or vintage gear.
The City of London
The City is the oldest part of London, and nowadays is the financial heart of the UK. Packed with rushing commuters from Monday to Friday, the area is eerily deserted at the weekend. These ancient winding streets contain many gems. Historic squares and buildings stand cheek by jowl with the most gleaming of modern architecture. Highlights include the medieval Guildhall and the 202-foot-high Monument, built as a reminder of the Great Fire. St Paul’s is one of the finest sights the City offers, a gigantic testament to the aspirations of past Londoners.
The River Thames & the South Bank
Historically the great tidal river was London’s hub. Nowadays it is sadly underused, but its banks offer a sustantial leisure resource. St Katharine’s Dock, next to Tower Bridge, is an intriguing mixture of historic dock and luxury marina. There are often interesting historic vessels to view, free entertainment, and good pizzas in the picturesque Dickens Inn. It’s a good place from which to watch Tower Bridge open, too. This happens surprisingly often, when high-masted vessels pass up or down the Thames, and you can check when it’s due to take place by calling 020 7378 7700.
Crossing the river and walking westwards along the South Bank you’ll find a pleasant relaxing atmosphere and some nice restaurants and pubs with river views. There are often small festivals or outdoor entertainments, some tourist attractions, and the soon-to-be redeveloped South Bank Centre, a major cultural complex. Underneath Waterloo Bridge you’ll find second hand book stalls, and the intellectual haven of the National Film Theatre. Don’t be put off by the serious-looking young men; the Film Cafe (with outdoors tables) is a pleasant place to take a break, and the cakes are fantastic.
The next best thing to the London Eye (and free) is the viewing platform at the Oxo Building, also on the South Bank, close to Blackfriars Bridge. Take the lift to the top floor and don’t be daunted by the restaurant (excellent for a meal with a view), the open air viewing platform above the river is open to the public.
Get to the heart of London in three days with our sightseeing suggestions, and experience the city’s diversity: Three days in London