Wherever you are, be all there.
— Jim Elliot —
Jim Elliot’s “be all there” philosophy is as wonderful for daily life as it is for traveling to unknown cities. My general interpretation of this is to blend in and attempt to exist in the city in much the same way a local would.
Veer off the beaten path, and you never know what you’ll find. I love the hidden treasures!
So it might come as a bit of a surprise that I’m about to recommend some of the best touristy things to do in London.
As I’ve probably mentioned before (because I won’t shut it about traveling to London) I’ve been to London twice. That is not nearly often enough in my opinion, and you can bet your best biscuit that I have a well formulated plan for when I go back. For now, though, I thought I’d share my Top 10 Travel Tips (specifically for those going to London for the first time).
So you’ve bought your ticket, you’ve made the flight, you’ve figured out the best Airbnb (I suggest anything skirting the more central part of the city; the tube makes everything accessible), and you’re in the city. It’s big, it’s wonderful, and you don’t know where to start. Strap on your most fashionable walking shoes because we’re going on some tours!
1. The Tower of London
This is my all-time favorite London tourist attraction! It is almost always crowded, but definitely worth it. My best advice: take the tour. It’s short, the Yeoman Warders (who give the tours) are funny, and very informative. Afterwards, head to the Crown Jewels (also doesn’t take too long), and then wander around. There is a lot to see, including a ton of armor, and you won’t regret any of it. Tickets run about £23/person.
2. Don’t Do the Eye, Go to St. Paul’s
I know the Eye of London looks intriguing and seems the best way to get a bird’s eye view of the city, but the truth is you’re walking into a tourist-filled plastic pod which at any given time has some major blind-spots. Plus, you’ll be taking pictures from inside dirty plexiglass. If you go at night, the view is, believe it or not, even worse. Also, you’re moving. So, for me, the Eye is great in theory, but ultimately a no-go. It’s also quite pricey.
Go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can put the £25+ you would have spent on the Eye towards a 2-in-1 experience in a beautiful, historical church. The entrance fee of St. Paul’s is £18/adult, which includes a tour through the whole Cathedral, and then allows you time to climb the stairs to the Whispering Gallery and higher to the Stone and Golden Galleries where you will get a 360 degree view of London, unobstructed by dirty glass.
You will never hate stairs so much in your life, but you probably can’t spend £18 in a more economical way while in London.
3. Tour of Parliament
It’s the building attached to Big Ben, and it’s really cool! This 1,000 year-old building holds both the Commons and Lords Chambers, the location of the Queen’s State Opening, and more. A guided tour will run you about £25, and they walk you through the parliamentary process, the history of the building, how things have changed, and the various meaning behind everything from the paintings to the carpeting.
A lot of British tradition is held within its walls, and if you’ve ever wondered how the British parliament differs from the American governmental system (or any other country’s system) the Houses of Parliament is the place to go.
4. Westminster Abbey
Once you’re done at Parliament, hop over to Westminster Abbey. A tour is about £22 and, in my experience is mostly self-guided, with a head-set that will explain things like all of the tombs, ceremonies, architecture, and more. There are also guided tours for bigger groups, and a few other options.
My best advice: go to Evensong. This is a short service that takes place Sunday afternoons at 3:00 pm. During the tour you will most likely only hear the choir in the background of one of the recorded bits on the head-set. If you go to Evensong, you will hear the famous choir full-force. It is a religious service though, and they expect — tourist or not — your full respect while it is taking place. So keep that in mind if you would like to get pictures or anything like that.
5. Borough Market
Are you hungry after all that touring? Good! Head down the Thames to Borough Market. This is an eclectic market that I can only describe as a cross between the traditional farmer’s market, and maybe New York’s Chelsea Market? It’s huge, and packed full of vendors selling everything from fresh produce to full dishes that make great lunches or dinners. Wander around for a while, and find something delicious (which is not difficult).
If you can, find the hot lamb box. It is literally a box with rice, lettuce, lamb, and I think some sort of sauce. Changed my life. I think it came from a stand off to the left hand side of the market, probably from a Middle Eastern restaurant stand. It’s delicious, and if you can find it, get it!
6. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
You’re still hungry??? Good!
Just kidding. You can wait a little bit. But at some point in your trip find Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. It’s just a cool place with delicious meat pies. Fun tip: the name has to have Ye Olde in it, or you’ve gone to the wrong one. Sure the other Cheshire Cheese pubs around town are probably fine, but the Ye Olde one is super old and therefore has a ridiculous amount of charm. Also, it’s down an alley, but if you’re having a hard time finding it, don’t give up!
7. Abbey Road Studios
Located in St. John’s Woods, Abbey Road Studios is the iconic recording studio whose cross walk graced the Beatles’ album of the same name. You’ll know you’re there when you see the studios themselves. Fun tip: don’t stop in the middle of the cross walk to imitate the famous picture, cars won’t be happy with you. And! The Beatles didn’t stop, they were just walkin’ so your picture will be more accurate.
I don’t think you can tour the studios, but they do have a gift shop, and the area surrounding the studios is very nice. Explore!
8. Ride the Bus
Sounds like a strange suggestion, but honestly one of the cheaper things you can do. Hop on one of the double-decker buses, climb to the top, take your seat at the front, and ride around the city. You get a fantastic view, and a sight-seeing tour without the expense of a tour-guide.
It’s the simple things in life.
9. Ship and Shovel
It’s quite difficult to find a bad pub in London. The place is chuck full of them. But if I had to recommend one beyond Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, I would say it’s the Ship and Shovel. Though, honestly, there are a ton of great pubs in London.
The Ship and Shovel is pretty old, but my favorite thing about it — and maybe I’m just easily entertained — is the fact that is is on both sides of the street! The basement of the pub connects the two buildings on either side of the street making, in essence, one pub, but it’s on both sides of the street!
Whether you’re just as fascinated as I am about how much of the street it takes up or not, the Ship and Shovel is just a cool pub tucked back in an alley.
10. All the Museums!
Honestly, this list could go on forever, but I’m going to keep it paired down by combining all the fabulous museums into one heading.
In no particular order, there is…
- The V&A
- The Natural History Museum
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The Tate Modern
- The Tate Britain
- The Wallace Collection
- The London Museum
- The British Museum
- The British Library
And so, so, so, so many more. No matter what your taste in art is, or what you want to learn about, London has a museum for it. I love museums and galleries, and could honestly spend a week just going to through all the museums. If it’s not your thing, though, there is plenty more to see in London.
My final suggestion for first-time London explorers is to choose a part of the UK outside of London, and do a day trip. Oxford, Bath, and Cambridge are, I’m pretty sure, the easiest to get to. But most places are a train-ride away.
With much love to London, I wish you all happy travels!
© Elaine Marie Blog 2018