London is my home. I may not be there now but it’s where I spent ten years and where I return time and time again to step back into the life I built there. I grew up just half an hour by train from the city so in a way I was there even longer. It’s hard to condense such a dynamic and sprawling city into an ‘essentials post’ such as this, so I’ve also written lots of other London posts, including a whole video series called Victoria’s Insider Guide to London.
Victoria’s Insider Guide to London
- How to find the village feel in London
- The best places to Instagram in London
- 24 Hours in London as a Londoner
This is the first place that I recommend newcomers to the city explore. A walk down the South Bank from London Bridge to Westminster not only takes you past a host of landmarks, but also gives you a feel for the city. It changes with the seasons, hosting a Christmas Market in the wintertime and exhibitions in the summer. Sights along the way include Borough Market, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, St.Paul’s Cathedral, the BFI, Royal Festival Hall, House of Parliament and Big Ben, London Eye and lots of bars and restaurants.
Soho is where I spent most of my time as a student. It’s in the city centre and is filled with tons of restaurants, bars and shops. The outer edges of the area are some of the most touristy parts of the city (Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Oxford Street and The West End). These are the things that most locals avoid but you will find them drinking / eating / shopping in the streets of Soho.
Once upon a time this was the hippest place in London. Now that its secret is long out, that badge goes to an ever-changing plethora of lesser known up-and-coming areas such as Dalston, Haggerston or Peckham. However, Shoreditch still retains a lot of what earned it that hipster status and it remains one of the most arty areas in London. Highlights include the multitude of independent cafes, bars, restaurants, clubs and shops, as well as Spitalfields Markets and the Sunday UpMarket. A visit to Brick Lane gives a hint of the area’s past with its many Indian Restaurants alongside its new vibe of trendy coffee shops and artisanal beer.
Whether you choose to use the word regenerated or gentrified, there’s no denying that Brixton has changed over the past five years. It still retains a lot of character but yuppies and hipsters have been added to the mix of what was once a predominantly African / Caribbean community. It remains one of my favourite places in London, mainly because of the amazing Brixton Village.
Other areas we enjoy include Hampstead (a posh little village where you can take walks on the Heath with beautiful views of London); Greenwich (charming market at the weekends and good for walks in the park); Islington / Angel (filled with excellent restaurants along Upper Street); Camden (good for bars); Peckham / Camberwell (arty South London where we lived).
Things to do
I think the best way to discover London is to choose an area and walk around on foot. That’s why I always send people to the South Bank first. There’s so much to discover and you can pick and choose what takes your fancy – from markets to museums to cafes. The same goes for Soho or Shoreditch where you can easily spend days exploring.
If the city gets too much, then take some respite in one of its many parks. Hampstead Heath is great for views, Hyde Park is huge and if you go to St James’s you’ll see the palace. I also like Victoria Park in east London, as well as some of the smaller green areas like Gray’s Inn Gardens or Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.
Nearly all London Museums and Galleries are free to enter apart from some of the special exhibitions, which require a paid ticket. The British Museum is worth stepping into if only to look up at its amazing roof (the collection is also awesome), and Exhibition Row hosts some of the best of the city’s museums side by side (The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum and the V&A). My favourite time to visit the museums is during their late night events where you can combine your trip fro drinks.
Where to eat
England always get a bad rap for its food, but London is one of my absolute favourite places to eat. You’ll find some of the best flavours from around the world and you’re never far from a good place to eat. Here are just a few of our favourites.
This lively covered market is filled with excellent independent restaurants and a bustling, friendly vibe. It’s one of our favourite places in London. Particularly popular options include the Kao Sarn, Honest Burgers, Franca Manca pizza and Cornercopia. All are delicious. The vegan cupcakes at Ms Cupcake are also amazing. Be aware that there are two sections of the market – Brixton Village and Market Row. Be sure not to miss either one.
Mildreds is a great option if you’re in Soho and are looking for some interesting vegetarian food. It’s an entirely veggie menu and the restaurant itself has a charming bustle to it.
Yotam Ottonlenghi is one of London’s favourite chefs. Every friend we visit has a least one of his cookbooks incluing us who are big fans of Plenty. Visiting one of his restaurants in the city (Nopi in Soho or Ottolenghi Islington / Belgravia /Notting Hill) is a very special treat and one certainly worth splashing out on.
For a quick, cheap bite to eat at lunch, some of the chains are surprisingly good, such as Pret, Pod, Itsu or Leon. We’re also fans of cheap evening meals at Pizza Express (be sure to check online for special offers) and Wagamama.
As with restuarants, there’s no end of excellent cafes in London. Some of our favourites include:
No.67 is attached to the South London Gallery in Peckham. If you find yourself in the area, don’t miss it. The breakfasts in particular are incredible including an interesting veggie take on the full English, complete with halloumi, and bubble and squeak. The mushrooms on toast are also incredible.
The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club is a cheerful brand of cafes that started as just one little place in Soho but now has a few locations around the city. It gets everything right, from its hearty and varied menu through to its colourful décor and quirks. Note: last time we went to the Shoreditch one, we saw Russell Brand!
If you’re in Clapham and you like cake then Esca is a must. The high-celined deli is a beautiful space and the selection of cakes is exquisite. The salads are also great.
The Book Club
The Book Club is a big and bright cafe in Shoreditch with a ping pong table and a great breakfast menu. It’s also a bar/club by night when the downstairs room opens too. This area is full of great cafes. Just walk around an explore. Two to note are the cute Vintage Bean cafe and the stylish Franze and Evans.
The official Monmouth Coffee shops are in Covent Garden, Borough and Bermondsey, but the coffee itself is also sold in various locations around town. Their name is always a sign that the café takes its coffee seriously.
Where to go out
London is filled with pubs, bars, clubs and live music venues. The best place to find out what’s happening is in the weekly Time Out London. LeCool is also a great resource if you want to find some of the more unique offerings of the city.
Bars and Pubs
Our personal favourite is Franks Bar, which is open during the summer on top of a multi-storey car park in Peckham. Other than that we enjoy the local pubs, such as The Montpelier in Peckham and The Tiger in Camberwell. Both have pub quizzes, which are a particular English delight.
Check to see if Secret Cinema is happening while you’re in London. These theatrical , evenings make going to the cinema a truly interactive experience. It’s pricey but worth it for a special occasion.
For something a little more low-key, see what talks are taking place. London attracts tons of world-class speakers and there’s always something interesting going on. Steve and I are particularly big fans of 5×15, a night where five people speak for 15 minutes about something they’re passionate about. The RSA also puts on good events.
Where to sleep
I recommend couchsurfing in London. There’s a great community and you’ll get to know the city better by doing that. If that’s not your cup of tea, then AirBnB would be a good alternative. The most important thing is to make sure it’s in an area that’s to your taste. London is huge and we’ve heard of many people booking accommodation in places that are far, far away from the things that interest them. Also, be sure to check there are good transport links or you may find yourself stranded.
In terms of actual hotels / hostels, we’ve never had to stay in one, but Budget Traveller has made a great list of budget hotels in London. Never Ending Voyage also speak highly of The Hoxton, which is a boutique option, and we can vouch for The Church Street Hotel in Camberwell, which is where Steve’s family stay when they come to visit. It’s also home to an amazing tapas restaurant!
London has a brilliant transport system made up of the underground (tube), buses, overland trains and boats. Choose the Underground (tube) if you’re in a rush or opt for the buses, which have the added bonus of being able to see where you’re going. You’ll also need to use the night buses if travelling past midnight as the tube closes around then (it opens again around 5:30am, or 6:30am on Sunday). Night buses have an ‘N” in front of the number. You can find the timetable and route of each bus on the bus stop itself. The Transport for London (TFL) Journey Planner is also very useful.
Things to be aware of
The number one thing to avoid in London is the tube at rush hour (7.30am-9:30am and 4:45-6:30pm). It’s simply not worth it.
And don’t stand on the left of the escalators. This will drive the locals crazy. You stand on the right and walk on the left.
Let us know in the comments if you have any other tips to share…