Whether it’s your first or your 50th time flying into London, there’s always something new – and something very, very old – to see.
Go on a River Walk
Forget those hop-on, hop-off tours. The best way to see London, or at least a chunk of it, is on foot. Walk to Tower Bridge through the city, starting along Brick Lane and walking past Hawksmoor Church to Old Spitalfieds Market. Then stop into Leadenhall Market for a snack when you start to lose steam.
As you pass the “Walkie Talkie” building — a commercial building that does indeed resemble its moniker — turn down Rood Lane, continuing past a beautifully overgrown church and on down to the river. Pause for the obligatory snaps of the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, and continue along the river for gorgeous views of The Shard, HMS Belfast, Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. Pop across to the other side of the river at Southwark Bridge to peek into Tate Modern and check out St Paul’s Cathedral. Borough Market is of course also right around the corner.
Visit the Various Neighborhoods
Besides checking off all the mandatory landmarks, be sure to also just absorb the essence of London’s colorful pockets and streets, which give the city so much character. There’s posh Mayfair and Marylebone; trendy Soho and Covent Garden; historical South Bank; high-wattage West End; gentrified Hoxton and Shoreditch; and too-cool-for-school Fitzrovia, just to name a few.
Streets like Brick Lane (curry paradise) in East London and Portobello Road (antiques market) in Notting Hill, and Oxford and Regent Streets (shopping) are also famous in their own right.
Explore Chancery Lane
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you can’t go to London without checking out the London Silver Vaults, which were the inspiration behind Gringotts Wizarding Bank. They hardly depart from the description in the books, aside from the trolls, of course. And along Chancery Lane you’ll also stumble onto Fleet Street, home to the imposing Royal Courts of Justice as well as the equally infamous tavern Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (read on), which has been pouring journalists beer since the 1600s.
Seriously: if you’re willing to brave the crowds, shopping at London’s beautiful department stores is like visiting Willy Wonka’s factory. There’s Harrods, Harvey Nichols, House of Fraser, Selfridges, Liberty… the list goes on.
Get a Suit Made
Everybody knows about Savile Row, but have you heard of Jermyn Street in St James’s? Get lost in all the options, get a shirt or full suit made to your exact measurements, or even just pick something off the rack.
Take the Tourist Trail
Luckily, most of the most touristy spots — Picadilly Circus, Leceister Square, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the Churchill War Rooms, and Buckingham Palace — are relatively close together. They really are all worth seeing, at least for the architecture if not for the history lesson. You can hit it all on foot, resting in verdant Green Park or stopping for a cheeky pint at The Harp. No one will judge if you cheat and take an Uber if it’s raining. And chances are, it’s almost definitely raining.
Relax by the Riverside
A walk along the Tow Path will lead you to numerous casual cafes with outdoor seating, friendly service and excellent nosh to boot. Grab a blanket on the lawn at Tow Path Cafe, crack a bottle of wine and enjoy the day – that is, if you’re lucky enough to have some sunshine.
Head up to Hampstead Heath
If it’s a sunny day in London then you better believe that everyone and their mother will skip work and flock to the parks. One of the most pleasant plots of grass can be found at sprawling Hampstead Heath Park. Trek up to Parliament Hill, grab a seat in the sun, or strip down and take a swim in one of the public lakes. Afterwards, grab a hand-pulled pint and a hand-pulled pork sandwich at the charming Southampton Arms pub.
Visit the Maltby Street Market
On weekends, you can enjoy the best of Southeast London at the Maltby Street Market – dig into artisan burgers, pork pies, donuts and more all day long. It’s also conveniently located down the street from Jensen’s Gin distillery and Kernel Brewery, which are both built under the train tracks for added charm.
Grab High Tea
High tea is every visitor’s rite of passage, and the options are endless when it comes to clotted scream scones. The beautiful Claridge’s is a safe choice, and offers such a generous spread that the tiered stand has to be placed beside the table, not on it.
Claridge’s, Brook Street, W1K 4HR, +44 20 7629 8860.
Or, splurge on the Thames Foyer high tea at The Savoy Hotel. It’s a regal affair with a live pianist, fresh flowers and lots of natural light spilling in. Expect all the fixings — finger sandwiches, premium tea, clotted cream, cakes, and scones — all under the glamorous roof of The Savoy.
The Savoy, Hotel, The Strand, West End, +44 20 7836 4343.
An institution in London, St. John has singlehandedly proved that British cuisine is much more than just fish ‘n’ chips. The group started in 1994, opening St. John Bar and Restauran and later expanding to St. John Bakery, St. John Maltby and St. John Bread and Wine. At the informal Bread and Wine outpost across from Spitalfields Market, diners share small plates of noise-to-tail creations that employ fresh, seasonal ingredients alongside fresh sourdough bread and a great wine list. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the incredible baked goods. Try the Eccles cakes and Madeleines after your meal — they’re bomb.
26 St John Street, +44 20 7251 0848.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
If you’re looking for something upscale and right on trend, a visit to Dinner (which also serves lunch) at the Mandarin Oriental is a must. Headed by one of the most prestigious chefs in town, Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck put London on the dining destination map, Dinner is a more conventional fine-dining experience in a beautiful high-ceilinged space that faces Hyde Park. The meat fruit will melt your heart.
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7LA, +44 20 7201 3833.
This is not a recommendation, this is a command. Mangal 2 is a cozy, warm, and casual joint that doesn’t seem like much at first glance. But it serves ace lamb, chicken and veggie kebabs as well as addictive hummus. Get there early and expect a line.
4 Stoke Newington Road, London, (+44) 20-7254-5788.
A stalwart Punjabi restaurant that you should not miss, Tayyabs basically put White Chapel on the map. The two-story restaurant serves up irresistible crispy charred lamb chops. They do daal and curries too, but you may just buy a bunch of lamb chops and skip the rest. Seriously, they’re that good.
83-39 Fieldgate Street, London, (+44) 20-7247-6400.
It’s not a trip to London without a few cheeky pints in an old-world pub and The Harp is the perfect place to check that box. With colorful windows and a shrine of a bar covered in beer labels and coasters, the place has more than its fair share of character. Pull up one of the old wooden stools and taste one of the ales and ciders on tap — all at pretty reasonable rates, considering it is in the heart of London.
47 Chandos Place, London, (+44) 20-7836-0291.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
An old stomping ground for the packs of writers (including Charles Dickens, apparently!) and journalists who used to roam around Fleet Street, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is more like a cavern than a tavern, spiraling down two stories of windy passages into a dark and stony basement. If it looks old, that’s because it is — one of the oldest in London in fact. However, it was rebuilt in 1666 after a fire. They still serve the same Sam Smith’s beer too, which, admittedly, is not very good but is part of the experience.
145 Fleet Street, London, (+44) 20-7353-6170.
Duck and Waffle
The 24-hour Duck and Waffle is where it’s at for a deliciously simple meal with sky-high views to boot. The glitzy-casual restaurant serves two main items: duck and waffle, and they do a pretty awesome job.
Heron Tower, 110 Bishopsgate, EC2N 4AY, +44 20 3640 7310.
Not to be confused with the lesser “Bagel Bake” next door, Beigel Bake has a bright red sign and serves only a handful of baked goods. Imagine a slab of salted beef, sharp mustard and a pickle sandwiched between two slices of soft, freshly baked bagel. That’s all you need to know.
159 Brick Lane, London, +44 20-7729-0616.
Hawksmoor has a sterling reputation for serving up the best steaks in town. There are several branches all over town, each as swish and sophisticated as the next. It’s not going to be the cheapest dinner you have all week but it just might be the most satisfying.
157A Commercial Street, +44 20 7426 4850.
If it’s cocktails you’re after then seek out this New Orleans-inspired bar, hidden up a set of stairs in Shoreditch. The low-lit spot comes complete with a few wooden booths and an outdoor cigar terrace, but the highlights are the drinks. The bartenders at Nola take classic cocktails seriously, so go old-school and try a sazerac. No kidding, Nola was the first bar outside the US to be awarded the “Seal of the Sazerac” by The New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society — so rest assured, you’re in good hands.
1/F, 66-68 Rivington Street.
Walk into the Bulldog Cafe and uber cool lobby and you can immediately feel the modern energy at Ace Hotel. The Shoreditch hotspot has a reputation for cutting-edge technology, sleek rooms and great food. Plus, the central location in the creative Old Town and Shoreditch neighborhoods means you’re right in the middle of the city’s most vibrant food and nightlife scene.
From £249 ($2,969). Ace Hotel, 100 Shoreditch High Street, London, (+44) 20-7613-9800.
For a grand and historical experience, check into The Langham, also curiously known as the most haunted hotel in London — which, to be honest, is part and parcel of being just another incredibly old building in the city. The rooms are unbelievably comfortable, and the bathroom ensuites are a bonus.
1C Regent Street, (+44) 20-7636-1000.
Getting There and Around
Daily flights are offered by Cathay Pacific, British Airways and other major airlines. The black cabs are great and everything, don’t get us wrong, but they cost a pretty penny. Take an Uber instead for a fraction of the price. For pedestrian navigation, Citymapper is the way to go.