If you are not that into mass tourism and reading guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet isn’t really your thing, but would still like to have some tips about London, then you are in the right place. This Mini Guide to London is a guide with some insider tips for travelers on a bit of a budget and would like to get to know the real London.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve been to London 8 times and still haven’t seen enough of this beautiful, old and vibrant city. Because of the mixture of cultures and events happening in the past, London has become an interesting mix of influences which can be seen everywhere. Rumour has it, that it is actually the city with the most cultures per square meter in the world! For me the rich history of what once was a great empire and the influences of modern times, have made London to my favorite place in the world and I am more than happy to share a few of my thoughts with you. Be sure to click through on the links I’ve added in the text for more info. To keep a clear overview, I’ve drawn up some bullet points for you below:
- 1st of all, decide when you want to go. Just like with any big city, weekends and holidays are generally not the best times as prices are high and crowds are big.
- If you are flying in from The Netherlands for instance, to Stansted Airport, don’t catch a train, but take the bus instead! Trains are much much more expensive and the bus only takes approx. 20 minutes longer. Check out “National Express” for bus tickets to Liverpool Street Station at only 8,5 pounds (one way, at time of writing).
- As said before, London is a big city so pre-planning your trip might be a smart thing to do if you don’t want to miss out on anything. If you want to see the traditional ‘Change of the Guards’ at Buckinham Palace, check out the times and dates, as this will not occur everyday. A lot of sights, markets and intresting neighborhoods are scattered across the city. What I’ve done is, grab a map and circle all the things that interest me and divide them over the days I wanted to spend in London.
- Most museums and galleries in London are free, which means lots of fun inside on rainy days for example, The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
If like me, you love to travel but prefer not to spend a fortune, then invest in an “Oyster-card”. It’s a chipcard that allows you to travel with the tube, train, bus etc in London without having to buy seperate tickets. For instance if you only travel by bus (which is highly recommendable if you’re not in a hurry, since you see a heck of a lot more than with the underground!), it will cost you 5 pounds to top up, but only a max of 4,20 will be deducted no matter how many times you hop on or off! For more info visit “London Pass.Com”.
The thing for me with metropolitans like London, is that there are lots of books written about, photos taken of, and movies shown of it. With cities like these, we tend to feel like we ‘know’ it, even before we’ve even been there. Well, now that I have a few times, I can actually say that I do (a bit).
Whenever I go to London I try to combine the highlights such as The Houses of Parliament with the famous “Big Ben” with places like a small boutique in Notting Hill called “Who’s Next?” that are unique for the city. Those famous sights of buildings that have lasted through wars and centuries of time, amaze me the most about the city, but the diverse culture and local spots are that what makes me feel at home. Yes, London may be a big city, but there is no place like it where you can be on your own and never feel alone.
One of my all time favorite things to do when I’m in town, is to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral and cross over the Millennium Bridge towards the Tate Modern Museum on the Southbank of the Thames river. From that point you have an astonishing view over the city, including the Tower Bridge. There are loads of street performers, antique vendors, friends catching up, skateboarders and lovers on benches overlooking the river. Especially at night, walking this route towards the Westminster Bridge in the west, is beautiful and surpsingly calming. For the best photos of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament around it, stay on this side of the river to spice up your shot a little.
If you’re headed for London to have a good time, I’d highly recommend you to go for an ‘after work drink’ in on of the local pubs, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. My favorites that don’t overflow with tourists are “The Clarence” on Whitehall in Westminster and “The Mitre” in Holland Park near Kensington. You’ll see locals getting together and discussing all the buzz and fuss of the week over a pint of ale. If you are into ‘Grand Cafes’, “All Bar One” behind the London Eye on the Southbank, is a great place for drinks or lunch. If you are a traditional British pub lover, check out the “Nicholson’s London Ale Trail”.
Another favorite is a traditional picnic in the park. There are many (royal) parks scattered across London which are perfect for getting away from all the crowds in the streets, without having to leave the city. You will find tourists and locals alike, with baskets filled with yummie food. My favorites are “Green Park” (surrounding Buckingham Palace) and “Regent’s Park“ (near Camden Town and The London Zoo).
When thinking of London, you might also think of musicals. With its world famous West End theater district, London is the buzzing heart of the musical scene. Some musicals, such as “The Phantom of the Opera”, have been around for 25 consecutive years! My favorite, especially as a Queen lover, is “We Will Rock You”. If you wanna go see a show, be sure to check out the prices at the stalls on Leicester Square as they are often much cheaper than at the theaters. This can be up to 50%!
Besides sights, London is also known for its numerous markets, which again can be found all over the city. From Leicester Square, it is only a 5-10 minute walk to Covent Garden, which is the oldest covered market in London. Located right in the heart of the city. Here you’ll find a mix of vintage and design, touristy and local, a diversity of food and (wannabe) street artists.
If you are into vintage and off-mainstream, your place to be is East London, behind Liverpool Street! Only a few streets away lie the old “Spitalfields Market” and “Brick Lane”. This district is filled with a mix of eclectic, vintage, posh and streetwear. Together with small eateries, independent designers and fashion lovers, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun.
Finally another interesting market area is “Camden Town“ in North London. You will find mostly underground, reggae and eclectic styles of clothing but also lots of lovely ‘stalls’ filled with home decorations, jewellery, art and music. This place really is a tourist hotspot but nevertheless not avoided by locals. The market is very crowded and looks a bit like a cosy back-alley. If you cross a street or 2 however, you’ll find yourself walking in one of the best and most beautiful and up-market boroughs of the city. If I could ever move to London, this borough is definitely on my list!
With as many sights as the city has to offer, I can imagine that after a day of walking around, you need a place to revive. Even though you might be on a bit of a budget, being in England, you can’t miss out on an High Tea! Just this once, go out and be decadent by going to a fancy hotel such as The Savoy or The Ritz and indulge in a typical afternoon tea. Don’t forget to dress up, as T-shirts and jeans are not the dress-code!
Accommodation-wise, I recommend the “Safestay at Elephant & Castle” hostel on the Southbank, behind Waterloo. Of course any hostel is recommended when you’re on a budget, but Safestay has just opened in 2012 and therefore has new and comfortable beds (meaning no wires in your back!) and clean hot showers. The staff is friendly and is only a 5 minute walk to the tube-station. Busses even stop at their doorstep.
Besides my own tips above, I’ve gathered some tips of friends and family:
- London Dungeon (S. Veen)
- Spitalfields & Bricklane Markets (K. Gopie)
- Theatermuseum with open air concerts by students (M. Velthuizen.)
- Regent’s Park and Borough Market with surrounding pubs (C. Kroet)
- Restaurants of either Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver (L. v.d. Boogert)
- Canary Warf and Roka Restaurant (M. Bos)
- Covent Garden and the ‘stables’ of Camden Town (T. van Veen)
- M&M’s World at Leicester Square (S. Smits)
I hope that these few tips help you a bit in having the most amazing time in what in my opinion is the most amazing city! If you would like any more tips, or have some of your own, feel free to drop a comment. Also, be sure to visit the Visit Britain website for some great tips about walking routes, pubs and tours.