Which London tourist attractions are actually worth visiting?A guide for locals and tourists
London is one of the world’s great cities, boasting over a thousand years of rich history, so there’s no shortage of tourist attractions to keep you occupied for several lifetimes. But we don’t have that kind of time. What are the must do tourist attractions that won’t leave you feeling burnt out, but will help you appreciate this vibrant capital? Here’s our list of favourite places that pop up on tourist lists, but are worth returning to, even if you live in London.
For a dose of royal history: The Tower of London
If you love history, Kings, Queens, castles, or grisly tales of political intrigue, the Tower of London is London’s most exciting example. (It also packs a greater physical punch than Buckingham Palace for out of town guests). Even if you don’t like any of these things, it’s one of the most iconic sites in London: an old castle on the banks of the Thames, with beautiful Tower Bridge in the background. From the Yeoman Warders guarding the front gate, to the glittering crown jewels inside, don’t be fooled by the Disney effect, this is the real deal. The guards (nicknamed ‘Beefeaters’) actually do dress like this, and have for hundreds of years since Tudor times. They are all members of the Armed Forces, they work for the Queen, and the Tower of London is still very much part of the royal realm. It’s been used as a royal residence, a prison, and an execution site (ahem, Anne Boleyn). On my first visit to London at the age of 15, I remember it as the highlight of my visit, and since moving to London decades later I’ve returned to see if it still holds the same magic. It does. You must take the free Yeoman warden-led tour, as they’ll fill you in on all of the true historical events that make this site so interesting. (Try to stand close to the front to actually hear them). We always remember the story of the Princes in the Tower in particular. (This tends to grip young imaginations; 12 and 9 year old princes were held in the tower for their own protection, only for them to disappear and their Uncle to ascend the throne in their place. Allegedly they haunt the tower to this day). British history is bloody, and there is no better setting in London than an ancient castle on the banks of the Thames, overlooking Tower Bridge to hear about it. Ideally you would visit in the fall or winter as it’s packed with tourists in the summer. If you are planning to visit when schools are on holiday, be sure to book your tickets ahead of time online (and save 10% for doing so).
For a scenic walk along the Thames: From The Tower of London, it’s an easy 15 minute walk along the river and over London Bridge (where you can take the best photos of Tower Bridge) to Borough Market for lunch. Packed with food stalls selling the best cheese, sausages, produce, champagne, oysters from Brittany, fresh baked bread, and a host of prepared foods, it’s a popular tourist spot, but locals come here as well. (Fun fact, Bridget Jones’ original apartment in the first film is above the Globe pub). If you want to absorb the atmosphere of the stalls, but prefer a sit down meal, Padella is a super popular option that serves amazing fresh made pasta. There tends to be a queue so grab a snack from Borough market for an appetizer if needed.
From Borough Market, a five minute walk along the Thames will take you past the famous replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where you can still buy tickets to see one of Shakespeare’s plays in (which we highly recommend). From here its just a few minutes to the Tate Modern, which recently overtook the British museum as the most visited attraction in the UK. Herewith, are a few notes on how to have the best experience at the Tate. This may sound controversial, but if this is the most visited attraction in the UK, it seems to be owing to the building itself, rather than the art inside. After bringing multiple out of town guests to the Tate, I’m willing to bet that the average visitor is not here to see a particular work or artist. After all, most of the most famous artists and works in London are largely at the National Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Courtauld Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The Tate Modern is housed in a former Power Station and its opening redefined the modern art museum as a cultural center that could revitalize a previously industrial area. It is enormous in size, has large open spaces, but can be pretty confusing to navigate. The permanent collection has free entry, while special exhibitions will require you to buy a ticket. You could easily spend all day here, and if you love modern art, or they have an exhibition you want to see, then go for it. If you’re a casual visitor who likes art, but might not be very familiar with modern art and doesn’t want to spend all day, here’s what we advise. Enter for free, walk in and view the big open ground floor space that typically hosts a rotating large scale installation of some sort and then head up to the 2nd floor of the Bell building to see the Rothko Room. We love this enormous, dimly lit room filled with massive Rothko paintings that were originally intended as a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, but the artist withdrew his commission when he realized a buzzy restaurant wasn’t the setting for his dark, meditative canvases. The mood in this room is soothing, and we love to come here and sit on the bench in the middle to take it all in. On your way out, the surrounding galleries host the permanent collection that includes works by Gerhard Richter, Picasso, and Matisse that are worth seeing on a short visit.
Favourite fancy department store: Harrods may be a famous retail landmark in London, but we prefer Liberty of London.
From the iconic Tudor exterior with the Union Jack flying, to the wooden galleried interior, this isn’t an average department store. It feels quirky, uniquely British, and has an impeccable selection from designers around the world. We come here to dream, and to find more eclectic items that we haven’t seen in every other store. We especially love the designer vintage section.
Favourite High tea: What’s more British than getting high tea? It’s one of those things you probably never do at home, so it is fun to get the full experience with crustless sandwiches, and scones with clotted cream. We like the Wolseley for a fancy but not break the bank traditional British experience, or Sketch for a quirkier, more Instagram-bait interior. (Seriously, the interiors of Sketch are worth visiting just to see, but they’ve become so popular that doormen have cracked down on people ‘just popping my head inside’ and you now need to have a reservation).
Favourite swanky hotel bar: Claridges
When we want to pretend our troubles are miles away over a £19 cocktail, this five star hotel is the place. It’s one of London’s most glamorous hotels, with all the marble and art deco trappings you’d expect from a place that has hosted everyone from Kate Moss (who held her 30th birthday here), to Audrey Hepburn, to Diane von Furstenberg who designed a few of the suites. Despite the glitz, the staff is always kind and accommodating, and we’ve stopped into the lobby just to rest our feet or use the loo on multiple occasions, and never received anything other than a gracious reception. Every Christmas, a different famous designer is commissioned to decorate the Claridges Christmas tree, making this a particularly festive and welcoming destination around the holidays. Families and wannabe influencers line up to pose with the tree, and there is a lack of snobbery in what could otherwise be a pretty snooty environment. But back to the bar. It’s surprisingly small and intimate for such a grand hotel, but the bartenders pour impeccable drinks while wearing their dapper suits with pocket squares. As mentioned, a single cocktail will set you back £19, but they do bring you a silver tray of tasty bar snacks including olives and salty crackers that we’ve made a meal from before. If you’re in the mood for a glamorous splurge, this is one of our favourite spots.
The most quintessentially English restaurant for a special meal: The Rules
We’ve been coming here for years, and have written more about it here but it’s London’s oldest restaurant, specializes in game and meat pies, and oozes British charm from the top hatted doormen, to the upholstered banquettes and portraits of hunting dogs. There’s no mistaking you’re in London when at The Rules.
Favourite underrated museum: The Wallace Collection
Minutes away from the bustle of Oxford Circus, this is one of London’s most spectacular, civilized, and underrated museums. The collection is housed in a former stately home, so it feels more intimate and reflects the unique tastes and sensibilities of its generations of collectors. It houses some of the most beautiful and famous examples of French Rococo painting, including our favourite, Fragonard’s The Swing. There are also beautiful Canaletto, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals examples all surrounded by priceless clocks, bureaus, desks, and furniture that round out the collection. We love to pop in here whenever we’re in the area, even if just to sit and read in the upstairs atrium room for a few minutes, since admission is free. We recently came for the summer 2019 special exhibition of Manolo Blahnik shoes juxtaposed throughout the collection. It’s a spectacular show for fashion and art enthusiasts alike, and is a genius pairing that clearly shows the influence of these classical works on Manolo’s designs. (The Frans Hals ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ inspired boot might be our favourite pairing in the show).
Favourite touristy pub: The Churchill Arms
This is one of the most photographed pubs in London with its famous flower-covered exterior. Inside its low ceilings, blazing hearths, British tchotchkes galore…and Thai food. Yes, this famous pub is British through and through, except for the food. It was the first pub in London to serve Thai food, and the same family has been serving authentic, and very reasonably priced pad thai and satay here for 15 years. Yes, it can be touristy, but the food is great and the ambience is fun and eclectic.
Favourite street market: Portobello Road Market
Ever since the film Notting Hill cast a spotlight on this charming, quirky corner of West London, Portobello road has been rammed with tourists. That said, the Friday and Saturday market still hosts some of the most amazing vintage clothing dealers in London, and the atmosphere is an eclectic mix of Caribbean music blasting from speakers, natty dressers peddling vintage wares, and every variety of people watching. The key is to know what part of Portobello road to visit. Ideally, you don’t get arrive at Notting Hill Gate tube station and walk up Portobello. Almost everything on this stretch of Portobello between Notting Hill Gate on the south end, and Cambridge Gardens on the north end is a cheap tourist parade of knickknacks and black cab magnets. This is not where you’ll find locals spending their Saturday. Instead, you should take the tube to Ladbroke Grove, and when you exit, walk under the Westway overpass from Ladbroke Grove to Portobello road (one block). Here, the vintage clothing, jewellery, and record stalls begin. At the corner of Portobello and Cambridge Gardens under the Westway overpass is the heart of the market. Wind your way through the stalls, where the vendors put street style stars to shame. If you want to wander a block or two to the right (heading south on Portobello), you can do so, but after a block, the shlock and tourist factor increases dramatically. Instead, do as the locals do and head left on Portobello heading north for more of the local stores, cafes, and vintage and antique vendors extending up to Goldborne Road.
Favourite Park: St. James Park: The parks in London are fit for a Queen, and in fact, most of them belong to her Majesty. They are clean, green, filled with beautiful flowers (aside from Green park), and beloved by locals and tourists alike. In the summer, striped beach chairs materialize for nominal rental fees, and picnics are spread out on the lush lawns. There’s opera in Holland Park, Shakespeare in Regent’s Park, and horseback riding in Hyde Park, but our favourite place for a stroll, or to sit on a bench reading and people watching, is St. James Park. With Buckingham Palace on one side of the lake, and Duck Island nature reserve on the other, it’s one of the smaller but in our view most peaceful and beautiful parks.
Favourite countryside getaway…in the middle of London: Hampstead Heath
Where else can you feel like you’ve traded the big smoke for a country villlage in only a few tube stops? The area around the heath has a charming, village feel. We love walking down Flask Street and picking up a secondhand book at Keith Fawkes, before continuing on to the Heath. The famous crepe stand La Creperie de Hampstead on the high street will have a line, but it’s worth the wait (we opt for ham and gruyere cheese). Another nearby stop is Keats House which is free, and a pilgrimage for fans of the poet. Upon entering the green, overgrown expanse of the heath, we love to walk past the bathing ponds (just what they sound like) and up to Parliament Hill for a view overlooking all of London. We then continue through the heath to Kenwood, a beautiful stately home overlooking landscaped gardens, and containing museum worthy paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer among others. Operated by the National Trust, admission to the home is completely free, and it’s absolutely one of London’s hidden gems. Finally, we exit the heath and go to…
Favourite non-touristy pub: The Spaniard’s Inn
Dating back to the 1500s, the interior is cosy with wood burning fireplaces, and the exterior gardens are expansive and perfect for a warm day. Dickens has dined here, the food is good, solid pub fare, and it harkens back to the coaching inns of yore.
Favourite walking tour: Dickens Walking Tour with Richard Jones
What would a visit to London be without a dose of Dickens? Sure, every other establishment in town claims he ate there, drank there, walked there, or stayed there, but these tours make history and Dickens’ famous characters come alive. We’ve gone with die hard fanatics who have read every one of his novels, and hard to please tourists who have barely read any books in their lives, and both have loved Richard tours. Not all Dickens guides are equal, and we’ve found these tours to be the most interesting, backed up with his unparalleled depth of knowledge and clear love of the subject matter. The themes covered, from changing attitudes towards the poor, and the working conditions for children in Victorian London, are particularly fascinating and hold relevance today. We particularly love the Christmas walks and highly recommend this for anyone lucky enough to visit London in December.
Where we’ve been gallivanting off to recently
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