The Insider’s Guide to Visiting London

June 26, 2012 by

Sightseeing, Tours & Activities, Travel Tips, Unforgettable Experiences

Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their London adventures!

All eyes have been glued to the British capital this year, with the epic Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and the upcoming Olympic games thrusting the city firmly into the limelight. Of course, London has long been renowned for its cosmopolitan population, rich history and trailblazing status in art, fashion and music, but this year the city is set to reclaim its ranking as one of Europe’s most popular destinations.

If you’re joining the masses in London this year, you’re sure to be swamped with sightseeing options, but for those looking to get a taste of the real London alongside checking off their to-do list, here’s the insider lowdown on what, where and how to get the most out of the Big Smoke.

What to see and do

London’s most popular sights, with the exception of the London Eye (opened at the start of the new millennium) are steeped in history and tradition, and they remain an important counterpoint to the city’s modern, multicultural vibe. A lengthy walk along the Thames Path covers many of the key sights including Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, Big Ben and the Tower of London, although a tour of the latter is necessary if you want to fully experience the eerie dungeons and learn more about the tower’s fascinatingly gruesome history.

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in London

With the Queen’s Jubilee celebration still fresh in mind, more tourists than ever will be flocking to Buckingham Palace for a glimpse of British royalty (look out for the hoisted union jack, indicating that the Queen is in residence) but get there early if you want a good spot for the changing of the guards (daily at 11:30am).

Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace in London

Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace in London

For some more light-hearted entertainment, pay a visit to Madame Tussauds for guaranteed photo opportunities with hundreds of celebrities (or at least their wax alter-egos) or catch an all-singing all-dancing show in the city’s famous West End (ticket booths around Leicester Square offer up last-minute ticket deals for those short on cash, but get there early in the morning for the best selection of evening tickets).

Don’t forget to include some of London’s world-renowned museums and galleries too. The neighboring National History and National Science museums are universally popular with great interactive sections for kids, but there are plenty of alternatives – the London Transport museum, Cabinet War rooms and Sir John Sloane’s museum are all worth a look. The British Library is home to some legendary texts, from the Magna Carta to a selection of original Beatles’ lyrics. For galleries, the V&A has excellent fashion, art and photography exhibitions and the famed Tate Modern offers a rotating cast of contemporary and installation art guaranteed to get people talking, or for something a little more off-the-wall, check out the super modern Whitechapel Gallery.

If you’re short on time or money, investing in a London Pass for free entrance and queue jumps for all the main attractions or opting for a hop-on hop-off open top London bus tour could be worthwhile.

Eating and drinking

While Britain’s gastronomic reputation might remain steeped in the realm of comfort food and stodgy staples, the capital offers a myriad of exotic choices when it comes to eating out. Fast becoming renowned for its varied cuisine, London is home to some of the world’s most innovative restaurants.

Afternoon Tea in London

Afternoon Tea in London

Whether you fancy Japanese sushi (try the famed Nobu or Ubon), Turkish mezes (Pasha in Islington is a popular choice) or a perfectly spiced Bangladeshi curry (head to any of the curry houses on Brick Lane), you’re likely to find exactly what you’re looking for. Just don’t forget to throw a few homegrown dishes into the mix too – head to a local ‘chippie’ for a good old-fashioned battered cod and chips (try it served up with a healthy portion of mushy peas) and eat away your hangover at the nearest ‘greasy spoon’ (small breakfast cafés aimed at workers), with a full English breakfast served in stomach-churning portions – expect eggs, bacon, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread and if you’re lucky sausages, hash browns or black pudding. You shouldn’t need to eat again until dinnertime.

If you’re after something traditional with a touch more class, opt for afternoon-high-tea at one of the capital’s world renowned settings – the Ritz or Claridges are two of the most famous, but plenty of smaller cafés and bakeries offer their own versions – The Hummingbird Bakery in Soho makes an excellent choice. While the fine china tea-sets and elaborate platters of clotted-cream scones are mostly for the benefit of tourists, few Brits will pass 4pm without a good cup of tea and a biscuit, so the custom is still very much alive.

Come late afternoon, tea drinking gives way to beer drinking, with vast numbers of London’s office workers headin to their local pub for an obligatory after-work pint. Whether you’re making a night of it or just sampling some of the local brews, there are few excuses not to enjoy a cool draught beer served up in a traditional pint glass. Try the Draft House near Tower Bridge, with over 25 beers on tap or The Rake at London Bridge, eclipsing the competition with a mammoth 130 beers on offer. Alternatively, just pull up a bar-stool at the first pub you come across (not a hard task on the streets of London) and request a pint of their finest British ale.

Best money saving tip

Make good use of London’s extensive networks of parks – there are over 3,000 in the London region – pockets of greenery shielded from the car fumes and sightseeing crowds and all absolutely free. For the best results, head to the supermarket or bakery and stock up on cheap eats for a picnic lunch, then take a stroll and enjoy some of London’s cheapest attractions. Hyde Parkoffers free live entertainment from its makeshift stages throughout the summer months, as well as pedalos and rowing boats for hire on its lake. Hampstead Heath has some great open-air swimming spots. Primrose Hill is one of the best for people watching and joins Greenwich Park and Parliament Hill in offering some incredible views over the city. Even in wintertime there’s plenty to do, with ice skating rinks and Christmas markets taking over the snow-covered gardens, and horse and carriage rides circling the Royal parks.

Hyde Park in London. Photo courtesy of gailf548 via Flickr.

Hyde Park in London. Photo courtesy of gailf548 via Flickr.

If you only have one day in the city

Visit a local market, where you’ll find unique souvenirs and get a glimpse of the vibrant and varied cosmopolitan London. Whether hunting for antiques and local clothing designs at the eclectic Portobello market, rifling through vintage wares at London’s oldest market, Spitalfields, munching on local foodstuffs at the famous Borough market or snapping pictures of the mohawked punk-rockers along the lock at Camden market, there’s a market to suit all tastes on every day of the week. Prepare for some crowd weaving, light haggling and plenty of friendly banter, then grab your lunch from one of the many food stalls, where you can pick up some of the city’s tastiest cheap eats.

An often-overlooked place I love

London’s many boroughs are full of surprises and getting out of the city center is a great way to experience the local lifestyle at a more relaxed pace. The world heritage site of Greenwich, an easy 20 minutes on the train from central London, is one of South London’s most intriguing destinations, with an idyllic location on the Thames riverfront and a variety of unique attractions within walking distance.

Enjoy a wander around Greenwich market (open every day, except Monday) or visit the Cutty Sark, a legendary ship dating back to 1869, then further explore the town’s rich naval history at the National Maritime museum, one of the city’s most fascinating museums, including a worthy tribute to Lord Admiral Nelson. Right next door is Greenwich park, London’s oldest Royal park with pretty flower gardens, impressive lookouts over the city and herds of wild deer. It’s also home to both the impressive Queen’s house and the Royal Observatory, where the world’s main transit telescope is based (from which ‘Greenwich mean time’ is drawn and therefore, on which all maps and clocks are founded). Complete the experience with a scenic boat trip back up the Thames to South Bank.

The best things to eat in the city

There’s an abundance of posh eateries throughout the city but for some time-honored British grub, the humble pub roast is what the locals will be tucking into. A roast dinner is traditionally Sunday lunchtime fare and if done properly, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day – book ahead at the The Bull and Last in Highgate, Gordon Ramsey’s York and Albany for some of London’s tastiest and heartiest spreads or just head to your nearest boozer (opt for somewhere with a beer garden in summer). Make sure you try all the trimmings – fluffy Yorkshire puddings, healthy portions of stuffing, roasted parsnips and thick hearty gravy – and don’t forget to save room for dessert – a delicious spotted dick or bread and butter pudding served with lashings of custard are amongst the best options.

- Zoe Smith

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s London tours and things to do, London attractions, and London travel recommendations, or book a private tour guide in London for a customized tour!

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