For those who want to understand the gigantic, sprawling organism that is London, here are some suggestions, arranged into a busy three-day itinerary. Rather than the big sights besieged by tourists, we’ve concentrated on insiders’ tips – places that will give you a feel for the real city. To travel around the city, see our tips on the Tourist Attractions page, and try to take the bus wherever possible – you’ll see much more.
If you’re up and about early, take a look at the morning rush hour to get an insight into the workings of the city. Between 7:30 and 9:30, the majority of London’s residents will be crowded onto buses and the tube , making their daily trek in from the residential areas outside Zone 1. Good places to take a look at the commuting phenomen are mainline rail stations, particularly Liverpool Street in the City, London’s financial heartland. But take care not to cause an obstruction: commuters don’t take kindly to delays.
Friday would be a good day to visit some of the big attractions on your personal checklist. This is a good time to acquire a little historical perspective?, by heading to Westminster to see the historical sites where so much of Britain’s history has been decided. You might want to take the time now to visit the Houses of Parliament, have a look at Big Ben, and survey the splendours of Westminster Abbey. This shouldn’t take too long, and you can then head towards Buckingham Palace, and enjoy a picnic in St. James’s Park, along with the office-workers and the ducks.
If you’re seriously interested in London’s history, it’s a good idea to pay a visit to the excellent Museum of London early on in your stay (you’ll need to take the tube or a bus across town). This 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.
If you prefer more glamorous attractions, however, stay in the West End, and pay a visit to Buckingham Palace. Or for something more exciting (especially if you have children with you), you could take a boat trip on the Thames.
If you still have energy left, you could take a stroll around the famous market and piazza of Covent Garden, resting at one of the many cafes. Or the really determined could go for a hectic high-street shopping experience along Oxford Street.
For an evening on the tiles, try a trip to a popular and fashionable area such as Islington, Camden (alternative, live music and clubs) or Shoreditch (painfully hip restaurants and trendy bars and clubs).
Start the day off with a trip to well-heeled West London, and pay a visit to the famous Portobello Road Market. There’s a wide range of stalls selling antiques, vintage clothes, records and much more, but a large part of the appeal is the atmosphere and the setting among the elegant – and wildly expensive – town houses of Notting Hill.
Busy shopping areas can be hellish on a Saturday, so I’d recommend staying well away from Oxford Street. Why not get away from the crowds by visiting a museum or watching a matinee performance at one of London’s many theatres?
London offers world-class museums and attractions to suit all interests, and most of them are free. High on the list of priorities is the British Museum, which contains an awe-inspiring array of treasures from around the world, including the famous Elgin Marbles. Whatever your political take on this, the exhibitions are well-presented and definitely worth seeing. Plus, the main displays are free and the museum has a good cafe.
If you prefer to sit in a plush seat and be entertained, London is the place to do it. Cultural events are one of the city’s prime attractions, and a look at the listings (buy Time Out magazine) will present you with a wide selection of plays, musicals, ballets and operas. Try to get a ticket in advance if you can, to ensure a good seat (most theatres and booking agencies will let you book online), but there are often tickets available on the day. Most theatres have an afternoon performance on Saturdays, and often seats will be cheaper and easier to come by than for evening shows.
The reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe, on the South Bank will give you a true insight into London’s play-going past. It’s a great experience, but do check what type of ticket you get, as ‘groundlings’ will have to stand in the open for the whole performance. The performance season runs from May – September (Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are this years big plays), but the guided tours are available all year round.
On a Saturday evening, the heart of London is the place to be. Head for Soho or Covent Garden, enjoy a restaurant meal and then end the evening at a theatre, bar or nightclub, or simply enjoying the hugely intense buzz that is Soho at night. Packed with drunken young (and older) people on their week’s ‘big night out’, the area is chaotic, but fairly safe. Stay alert, don’ t carry huge amounts of money, and never take one of the unlicensed mini cabs that prowl the streets. Black cabs can be hard to come by, but waiting to hail one of these, or using one of the city’s decent nightbuses, is by far the best option.
Check Time Out to decide your evening’s activity, as London has a wealth of excellent possibilities, but most are geared for specific tastes and you want to make sure you get the most from your night. There are too many diverse nightclubs to recommend one or two, but a glance at Time Out’s listings will help you avoid the expensive tourist traps.
For a taste of ‘authentic’ London, get up bright and early and head to 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.
The East End is a traditionally working class area, notorious for crimes by Jack the Ripper and gangs like the Krays. Despite the recent trendiness of ‘mockney’ films feting this violent aspect, the area, while still poor, has recently gained in respectability as fashionable young professionals move in. The areas close to the city, around Brick Lane, Whitechapel, and most of all Shoreditch and Hoxton, have become immensely fashionable with an arty young set, with studio spaces fetching inordinately high prices. 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 down crowded Brick Lane you could view art installations in warhouse space, eat vegetarian or ethnic food at a stall, hear a ragtime street pianist, pick up some wonderful cheap fabric from sari shop or a bargain antique piece of furniture (if you have room in your suitcase).
From Spitalfields (where the market is now sadly damaged by development), take a wander through the City of London. 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.
What many modern Londoners do on their day of rest is take a walk along the river. 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 . The Tower of London is also alongside the bridge, where, if you can afford the entrance fees, you can see the Crown Jewels and take a step closer to the more murky bits of London’s past, viewing Traitors Gate, through which those accused of treason, like Ann Boleyn, passed towards their deaths.
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. Undeneath 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.
Now would be a good time to put all you have learned and experienced into a visual context. Still on the South Bank, between Westminster and Hungerford bridges, you’ll find the famous London Eye. It’s an expensive ride, but offers an unmatchable panorama of the city (and excellent photo-opportunities). If you’re really on a budget, the next best thing 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.
If you’re feeling tired after pounding the city’s streets, a more relaxing afternoon can be enjoyed in the open air in Primrose Hill (Chalk Farm tube). A beautiful and exclusive residential area, Primrose Hill also boasts one of London’s most pleasant vistas. Primrose Hill itself is a grassy park rising above Camden, where you can lie back, enjoy a picnic and admire the city spread out before you, from the tall towers of Canary Wharf to the graceful white London Eye.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, the crowded alternative commercial heaven that is Camden Market is a short walk away. 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.
If all you want to do is chill out, check Time Out’s music listings and head for one of London’s many pubs offering live music. Enjoy the warm atmosphere and a traditional point, and rest comfortably in the awareness that you have discovered many of the diverse pleasures of London. No longer a disorientating jungle, perhaps you’ll begin to appreciate Johnsons’s words and wonder how anyone could tire of such a vibrant city.