Beyond Buckingham Palace and Off the Beaten Path
Maybe you’ve been to London before and have seen all of the touristy bits, or maybe it’s your first visit and you’re someone who likes to avoid those places altogether. Either way, this magical city offers its guests so much more than Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. I’ve spent my fair share of time in London over the years as my mom’s family lives in England, and I studied abroad at a university there for five months back in 2016. London is hands down my favorite city in the world. It bears a friendly and accepting environment and each of the city’s neighborhoods is distinct in their own way. The museums are free, public transport is easy, and you’ll be struggling to choose among the wide varieties of food that the city has to offer. Here are some top tips for things to do when spending time in London, personally approved by someone who can’t get enough of the city.
When you want to eat at the best restaurant in the city…
First thing’s first. I’m about to ruin all Indian food outside of India for you. Dishoom has five locations around London and I would eat at any of them every day if I could. Trust me, I won’t leave the city before I’ve eaten here. Voted Best Restaurant in the UK in 2015 and 2016, Dishoom has succeeded in recreating the warm, welcoming atmosphere of an old Bombay café at each of their restaurants. This is a great place to go with a group of friends, on a date, or with your family. Every item on their breakfast, lunch, or dinner menu is sure to make your mouth water. With a vegan menu and adherence to other dietary restrictions, Dishoom has something for everyone. Read my tip about Dishoom for more info regarding reservations and the best menu items.
When you wake up hungry…
When in London, I’m usually all about a big fruit smoothie and some Nutella toast to keep me going until lunch but some days I’ll wake up wanting heaps of hash browns and ketchup. The Breakfast Club is a great choice for a morning meal, certain to meet all of your breakfast needs. It’s got six locations so there’s probably one near your hotel or Airbnb. Enjoy a full English breakfast with all the fixings or go for something a little different but just as delicious, like the Argy-Bhaji. While TBC is known for their brekky, they also serve lunch and dinner and every so often will put on fun events. Check their website for details.
If you’re looking for something a little less mainstream, head over to Bloomsbury Coffee House near Russell Square. I studied at SOAS University right down the road and frequented this spot for breakfast or coffee in between classes. They’re vegetarian-friendly and most of their produce is grown in Kent, just outside of London. Not to mention, their baked goods are delicious. Space is small, below a couple of hotels, making for a quiet and charming experience.
I mentioned Dishoom above. They offer a delicious breakfast menu that you must try one morning! Not to mention they make the perfect chai.
When you can’t decide what to eat…
This is a problem I frequently experience when visiting London but I have a solution! There are tons of markets across the city where you can pick and choose from whichever little restaurants and stalls you fancy most. Of course, I have a couple of favorites.
Camden Market is top of my list. I could spend hours weaving in and out of the booths that sell jewelry, art, and antiques but I especially love their food market. Overlooking Regent’s Canal, the outdoor food stalls offer every type of food you could imagine in one small area. At one end of the market, Kolkati sells flavorful Kati rolls, and on the other, you can devour the best-fried halloumi you’ll ever have from Oli Baba’s. Make sure to go on an empty stomach!
Over in Hackney, Broadway Market is a great place to spend your Saturday morning or afternoon. With fresh produce, street food, and stalls selling vintage clothing and other goods, this little market has got it all. Don’t miss Crosstown Donuts at the north end, selling unique flavors of tasty homemade donuts, made fresh daily.
South of the river is Brixton Market, which includes a street market as well as a covered market. This is the place to go for food from all around the world. My personal favorite spot is Senzala, selling Brazilian inspired crepes as well as small plates and drinks.
When you’ve got some money to spend…
One of my favorite areas in London is Covent Garden. Maybe I love it so much because of the nostalgia I feel when I visit from spending so much time in the area when I was younger, but it truly is a wonderful place to make time for when you’re in the city. The area is known for its shopping; you’ll find every store you could ever need in one place. If you’d rather save your money, it’s still a great place for wandering around and window-shopping. Visit the covered market, always beautifully decorated, which first opened in 1830 and has since been restored. On the lower level, you’ll often find street performers playing music for visitors who’ve stopped to have a cup of coffee.
North of Covent Garden, down Neal Street and around the corner, you’ll find Neal’s Yard. A secret hideaway, Neal’s Yard is one of London’s hidden gems. Eat at one of the many restaurants overlooking the courtyard or take photos of the brightly painted buildings with window sills full of flowers. I highly recommend the vegan spot Wild Food Cafe or Homeslice Neal’s Yard.
For those looking to get more bang for their buck, don’t miss Brick Lane over in Shoreditch. Every other store on this street is either a vintage clothing store or an Indian curry house or supermarket. Trust me when I say that you could spend hours here. On Sundays, there’s a market set up along the road.
When you’re in the mood for some art and history…
Scattered around London are plenty of museums to satisfy anyone’s interests, but I do have a few favorites. Over in Kensington just south of Hyde Park are the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum. The V&A is an art and design museum offering all types of exhibits from sculpture and photography to fashion. Check their website to see what’s on during your visit.
Right across the street, you can spend a good chunk of your day at the Natural History Museum. With an exciting dinosaur exhibit, stunning photography displays, a tranquil wildlife garden, and much more, you’ll want to make sure you’ve explored the entire museum before you leave.
Down the road from both museums is Comptoir Libanais, a delicious Lebanese restaurant with tasty food and great cocktails. If you need a pick-me-up after an afternoon of walking around the museums, the Mezze Platter paired with the Roza vodka lemonade is a great choice. In the wintertime, Hyde Park puts on a Winter Wonderland extravaganza, complete with amusement rides, theater shows, carnival games, and countless food and drink stalls. If you’re visiting London around Christmas time, this is not something to miss.
On the south side of the river in between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridge is the Tate Modern, housing contemporary and modern art. Many of the exhibitions here are free to explore but some require tickets, which you can buy online. If you’re between the ages of 16 and 25, sign up for the Tate Collective to access £5 tickets and get discounts at the museum restaurant and cafes. There are always new, fascinating exhibitions being put on at the Tate and I especially love checking out their interactive installations that usually include some sort of sensory aspect. They also have a viewing level on the top floor where you can get a 360° view of the city.
No matter the season, whether I’m in a t-shirt and shorts or bundled up against the cold, I always enjoy walking along the south bank of the River Thames. This is a perfect way to spend time after visiting Covent Garden or the Tate Modern. You’ll come across fun street performers and can stop for a bite to eat or grab a pint at any of the restaurants, cafes, or pubs lining the walkway.
When you want to do the London Eye but don’t want to wait in line…I’ve admittedly ridden the London Eye more than once, and don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but if you’d rather avoid a costly and crowded tourist attraction that you’ll need to wait in line for, I’ve got some other suggestions.
One option that is virtually free (just pay the tube fare to get there) is Primrose Hill in Camden. From here you can enjoy a beautiful view of the London skyline. Bring a picnic during the day or go at night and take in the twinkling city lights.
A view of London that I believe to be even better than the one you’ll find on the London Eye is at The Sky Garden. I went here for the first time last summer and was absolutely in awe. The building features a handful of high-end restaurants as well as a floor dedicated to their garden bar. The restaurants are quite expensive so if you’d rather not splurge, go for a drink at the Sky Pod Bar, which accepts walk-ins after 6 pm on weekdays and 9 pm on weekends. They do have a dress code, so no sportswear, sneakers, or flip flops. The bar features live music and the most incredible panoramic view of London, the crystal clear windows listing each significant landmark as you lookout. This is the absolute perfect place for a date with your significant other.
When you’re looking for the perfect G&T…Nightlife in London is plentiful and there’s something for everyone when it comes to popular nighttime spots. London is huge though, so sometimes you just have to know where to go.
I’ll start with some places that can double for a low-key weekday drink or a fun night out with music and dancing. When I lived in King’s Cross, I frequented Big Chill, just up the road from the tube station. I loved being steps away from this bar because on school nights I could spend a few laid-back hours chatting with my friends while sipping a gin and tonic, whereas on the weekends I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with their DJ and could dance off the week’s stress. Their drinks are fantastic and they’ve got a nicely decorated rooftop (heated in the winter).
If you’re like me and love a good game of foosball, or you’re just looking for an exciting space to hang out with some friends, visit Bar Kick in Shoreditch. One of my favorite places in London, they’ve got foosball tables that you can reserve for the night, or grab one that’s unreserved if you’re just walking in. The Parisian owner was raised in Barcelona and has done a phenomenal job of bringing the eccentric cultures of both vibrant cities to his London bar. Order a caipirinha.
Be At One is a great choice if you want to get energized for the rest of your night out. There are a handful of locations around the city and each has an extensive cocktail menu. They’ve got tons of seating for big groups and always play good music.
Personally, I think Shoreditch is one of the best neighborhoods for nightlife in the city. I’d call it the Brooklyn of London if you’re familiar with that part of New York. Apart from restaurants where you can find all types of food, as well as Old Spitafields Market selling quirky art and vintage items during the day, Shoreditch offers 20 and 30 somethings a vibrant nightlife that attracts a trendy crowd. If you’re looking to dance into the early hours of the morning, this is the neighborhood for you. XOYO is a popular club with two floors for dancing and features some of the best DJs in the city and from around the world. The Book Club is less of a club and more of a bar but still gets packed with an awesome crowd of people on the weekends, all grooving to popular tunes.
Northwest of Shoreditch is Islington, a neighborhood that appeals to all ages but is still great for a younger group. I spent a lot of time here when I lived in London as it was a short bus ride away from my flat. Barrio Angel was one of my go-to spots for good drinks and live music to dance to. Inside, the bar is super colorfully decorated, making you feel as if you’ve transported to somewhere in Portugal or Spain, and they’ve set up a refurbished caravan in the back as a seating booth. The staff is really lovely as well – always a plus.
Some other clubs worth mentioning are The Queen of Hoxton in Shoreditch, Egg London in King’s Cross, and Electrowerkz in Islington. All fun spots with late-night dancing and booming music.
When Uber is too expensive…The London tube system is a super easy and simple way to get around the city and will save you money on taxis and Ubers (though Uber is handy when it’s 2 am, not many trains are running, and you’re by yourself). You can buy an Oyster Card upon arrival at any London airport or pick one up at a kiosk at any of the tube stations. The city is comprised of 6 tubes “zones”, with central London making up most of zone 1. London visitors usually only travel between zones 1 and 2. The fare for a tube ride within these zones is £2.40 (about $3), or £2.90 at peak hours (M-F 6:30 to 9:30 am and 4 to 7 pm). If you’re visiting London for a week or longer, you have the alternative option of buying a £35 Travelcard, which gives you access to unlimited tube rides in and between zones 1 and 2 (Travelcards for other zones are also available). You can also use your Oyster Card or Travelcard for any London busses (£1.50 for single bus fare, cannot be paid in cash). Be aware of what train you get on at the platform. Some tube lines are split and will get to a station “via” different stops. Check the maps on each platform to make sure you get where you need to go!
The welcoming energy of London is hard to ignore and its residents are friendly and happy to assist you in having the best experience possible in their city. Don’t be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone, get a little lost, and stumble upon something you weren’t looking for. Have fun in the greatest city in the world!
Photo by Luca Micheli on Unsplash