London for the Non-Museum-Lover
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
London has to be one of my favorite cities in Europe. Obviously, it’s easy on a first-time traveler because everyone speaks English, but there are so many secrets to this city that I’ve been probably 7 or 8 times, lived there for a month for work, and I still don’t think I’ve seen it all. I’m just going to combine all of my trips into one giant list of recommendations of things I wouldn’t skip in London.
Double Tree West End – this was a nice clean hotel. Kind of expensive but they have cool room upgrades if you have Hilton Points. The elevators are a bit sketchy because it’s so old though. It’s also walking distance to a bunch of food and the Tube.
Clink 182 Hostel – we stayed here probably 8 years ago now and we picked it because of its proximity to St Pancreas. It was clean and the dorm rooms had big beds built into the walls for some of the rooms but others just had the standard metal bunks.
Hilton London Bankside – I stayed here for about a month when I was in town for work. It’s on the south end of the city, so it’s a bit less busy than the center of town. It’s walking distance to Waterloo which I appreciated and a 10-15 minute walk to Westminster and the Shakespeare Globe. I will say the rooms were really dark though.
Park Plaza Westimster Bridge London – This is a really chic hotel right next to Big Ben and Waterloo station. The rooms are definitely smaller than something you’d get at a Hilton or another American Brand. In addition, you can end up with a room off an atrium and those can be loud. That said, it was super clean and modern and in a GREAT location.
Hilton London Paddington – this is a great location if you’re traveling outside of the city for work or you don’t care about being right in the heart of everything. Paddington station is huge and central. The hotel is directly attached to it and it has nice rooms. It’s also in a quieter neighborhood, so once the train station stop being busy, it’s pretty quiet. The only con is that there isn’t much in terms of restaurants to walk to.
Thistle Trafalgar Square - We got a great deal on this hotel in the middle of the summer and it's location could not be more perfect. It's right off of Trafalgar Square and close to multiple Tube stations. The only down side is that there are multiple sets of steps that you cannot avoid going up and down and it can be a pain with a suitcase, especially a heavy one. Also, the staff is some of the friendliest that I've met in London and there's a small convenience shop that also sells liquor, beer, and wine right across the street.
Places I wouldn’t stay at again:
An Air BnB in Pimlico - While this place was a PERFECT location, it was super run down – there was literally nothing “charming” about it except the neighborhood it’s in. The showerhead was broken, the wifi died our second day there, it was SO dirty, and it smelled like fish all the time because it was above a Peruvian Fish shop.
SoHostel – This is a nice Hostel, but the walk to get there from the Tube station was a pain. You had to go through a bunch of cobblestone streets and with luggage - that was not fun. There’s so many hostels in London – if you’re looking for one, I’d pick one closer to the Tube.
From the airport – coming in from Heathrow or even Gatwick, there are express options that you’ll pay a bit more for, and then there are regular Tube or bus options. From LHR you’ll probably end up at either London Paddington or London Victoria. From Gatwick you’ll end up at probably Victoria.
Getting around town – get a pass for the Tube. It’s probably the best, most connected underground train network outside of NYC. Just keep in mind that a bunch of the stations will require you to put your ticket in to leave and some of them give it back to ou and some don’t. If you don’t take it when it spits it back at you, you’ll get stuck. Also, remember to stay on the right hand side of the escalator. They may drive on the left, but they walk on the right and if you’re standing on the left, you’ll get run over by people hiking up the steps in a rush.
One piece of advice for when you don't take the Tube, take the black taxis instead of Ubers if you’re getting around town. They’re super knowledgeable and they are usually hilarious. They’ve been in London forever, and sometimes they’re cheaper than Ubers.
My favorite things to do (in no particular order):
As usual with my reviews, I always start a city with the free walking tour. It’s been forever since I went on one in London, but I know Sandeman’s has great one. You’ll get to see all of the main tourist attractions like Westminster and Buckingham Palace.
The Harry Potter Set Tour – this isn’t actually in downtown London and it sells out WAY in advance so make sure you buy tickets months early, but this is the coolest thing an HP fan can do in their lifetime. The website also has good instructions for how to take public transportation to get there. They make it super easy. This will take you at least a few hours, so plan for a spending a half a day or more getting there and wandering around and getting back.
St Paul’s Cathedral and the tower climb - I’m terrified of heights, and there are some spots on the climb that I was not a fan of at all especially with the stopping in line. It’s probably not great for someone with claustrophobia, but the view from the top is so worth it. Also bring a student ID because it’s cheaper. Try to plan it to be on the roof at sunset – awesome photo op.
Wandering around Chinatown – this is just like any other Chinatown, but it’s still cool to wander through if you have the time (see below for my favorite speakeasy there)
Covent Garden – food and shopping. Need I say more?
Westminster & Big Ben – these are the cliché things. You can actually take a tour of Parliament if you buy tickets in advance. Obviously it has to be when the government isn’t there working, but it’s a great option if you can find a time to go. This is also where you’ll find Big Ben.
Trafalger Square – this is just a quick pass-by. Lots of fountains – good picture opp. Make sure you check out the Queen’s Gate across the street.
Tower of London – a classic spot to see. The history, the royal jewels, the views of Tower Bridge. All worth it. You’ll be there for probably a few hours so plan for this to take an entire morning.
Tower Bridge – a lot of people get Tower Bridge mixed up with what they think London Bridge is. London Bridge is actually just this stupid looking bridge a bit farther up the Thames. Tower Bridge is the one you’ll see in all the pictures – you can easily walk across right after doing the Tower of London. I’d also recommend once you get to the South side, walk down along the river going West. You can get some amazing shots of the bridge and there’s always some good street performers.
The London Eye – it’s a cliché. It’s expensive. You can get some cool views of Westminster from the top. Do it once to say you did. The line was insane last time we went by - I'd guess at least an hour if not more wait.
London at the Holidays - It’s a magical experience to see the city wrapped in holiday decorations. I can’t recommend it enough. We went one year right after Christmas and stayed through New Year’s Eve. It’s something I’ll never forget. I even did a separate blog just for this because the experience is one of a kind.
Changing of the Guard at the palace - Check the times in advance and make sure you get there early to get a place on the street. Otherwise you can’t see anything.
Borough Market and/or Camden Market – both of these spots are fun to wander around if you have a casual day in the city.
Shakespeare’s Globe – I’ve never been inside but it’s worth a quick picture from the outside. It’s also close to Millennium Bridge.
Millennium Bridge – this is the bridge that the Death Eaters destroy in Harry Potter. It’s a walking bridge – no vehicles allowed – so it’s a great spot to get a good picture. It’s also right near St Paul’s cathedral and you can take it across the Thames from there to see
The British Museum – this place is HUGE. It’s got so much in it, you can spend probably 4 hours wandering around. I’m not a big museum person, but it’s free and it’s one of the most famous museums in the world, so I checked it out once.
Churchill War Rooms – if you’re a history buff like I am, you can totally geek out on this place. It’s a tour of the actual underground bunkers that Winston Churchill lived in and ran the UK government from during WWII. You can spend probably an hour or two in here depending on how much you like to read historical information. Bad for people who are claustrophobic.
The parks – St. James or Hyde Park. Just wander around the parks if you have time. They’re a lot like Central Park so you’ll find people hanging out i the weather's nice. Once saw a giant pelican in St. James’ Park that attempted to eat my face.
Kensington Palace - This is the home of William and Kate, but you can tour the formal rooms. When we were there, they had an exhibition going of Princess Di's wardrobe. It was very cool.
Hampton Court and Gardens - People have been telling me for a while that Hampton Court is by far the best palace within the "city limits". You can easily get there using the Southwest Rail system that leaves from London Waterloo. I did think the interior tour of the Palace was amazing, but I am a huge Tudor fan so perhaps that's why. It is much larger than a lot of the other palace tours, including Kensington or anything we did in Ireland. The gardens were actually a bit of a disappointment for me. People touted them as being amazing, but I think there are more impressive gardens in Europe - Versailles being the one that first comes to mind. That said worth an afternoon. I'd give yourself at least 3-4 hours on-site not including the train ride.
Buckingham Palace Tour - There are a a few times a year when Buckingham Palace is open for tours. The tickets sell out fast, so keep an eye on the website. We got lucky and got to go int eh summer of 2019. There are a few different options in ticket types, and we went with the Royal Day Out - a tour of the royal Mews (the horses and cars), the Palace State Rooms, and the gardens. We actually ended up being late for our time, and had to skip the art exhibit in order to see the palace and the mews, but it was fine. Keep in mind that if you buy tickets online, you'll still need to wait in a very long line to pick them up day of. You'll go to the ticket offices on the South side of the palace. Look for the guards - they'll direct you where to go. The Mews are really cool and you can do a self guided tour with audio headphones or you can go with the guide. going through on our own didn't take more than 20 minutes Make sure, if you're American, that you wander into the back room of the stable and check out the horse shoes from Obama. Pretty unique. Once you get into the Palace itself, you will not be allowed to take any pictures, but you'll thoroughly enjoy the historical facts and surroundings that you get to experience. Everything from the present day monarchs to the history of why/how the palace was built. The opulence will astound you. Then you end the day wandering through the gardens, which will make you feel almost regal enough to belong ;).
Madison – this is a rooftop restaurant/bar right near St Pauls Cathedral. You have to go into the mall and find the elevator in the center. There will be a bouncer there to let you up onto the roof. It’s a great spot to go in the summer for an incredible view (take a left off the elevator) or anytime for happy hour (take a right off the elevator). They have some great indoor and outdoor seating areas that are first come first serve and they fill up fast. Locals love to hang out here for HH so get there early. If you’re looking for a nice dinner, they also have great food, but you’ll want to make a reservation.
Fish and Chips – I’d probably ask your tour guide or a bartender where to get good fish n chips. There are places that aren’t that great. Bartenders have even told us that their chips are bad in their own restaurant haha
Rucoletta by St. Pauls – We stumbled upon this Italian place after hanging out near St. Pauls one evening. It was crowded and they had to put us upstairs because we didn’t have a reservation, but the pasta was fantastic (see right).
Jamie’s Italian – This was one of my favorite places - it went bankrupt :(phoo.
Experimental Cocktail Club in Chinatown – this is one place I recommend to everyone. It’s a Speakeasy in Chinatown and it’s got great cocktails and a super cool vibe. You’ll know it’s there from the red light outside and the big dude guarding a black door. I think it’s basically next door to a butcher shop. You can google search it – it’ll take you to the right place.
Dishoom for Indian food – Finally got to go to Dishoom for the first time in the summer of 2019 after Tomorrowland. It was 100% worth it but I wsh we had gone the night before TML because our feet were totally done and the line took about an hour on a Tuesday night in July. You cannot leave the line unles you leave one person there. They do bring out Chai Tea for those in line. The food was aamazing - everything we ordered was so yummy. The only thing I'd note is that if you[re a large party and you g to the one in Covent Garden, be prepared to be seated in the basement. I went to another Indian place in Notting Hill and it was fantastic too. London is actually famous for its Indian food.
Dalla Terra Wine Bar – this was a cute little locally owned wine bar in Covent Garden that we came across. Would recommend it for a casual night out. I think they also had snacks too if you’re hungry.
Any of the pubs near Covent Garden – these all come with classic names and they’re a great spot to get a beer and the cliché picture of drinking in an English pub.
Quick Eats – Prete a Manger, Le Pain Quotidienne, Costas (these are on most corners – they’re almost like fancier Starbucks’)
Especially for the girls, this is a classic that we do every time we’re in town. Keep in mind it’s not cheap, but you end up SO full – the food is basically unlimited. In addition, don’t wear jeans – this is a fancier thing to do in the city. Lastly, if you’re going to do tea, especially in the busy season, make sure to make reservations in advance.
Here’s a couple of our favorites:
The Chesterfield Mayfair Hotel – Afternoon brunch in the Butler’s Restaurant. This is a bit of an older location, but it was a classic afternoon tea. We went during the winter so they had a theme going at the time, but I think it would be fantastic any day of the year. They even packed up all of our leftover sandwiches and gave us extras because the food was unlimited.
The Langham – this place was so gorgeous and unique. It’s actually where the tradition of Afternoon Tea was started back in 1865. You definitely want a reservation and you should bring an appetite. I would definitely recommend this one although I think it’s a bit more on the expensive side.
Ting Restaurant – we went for brunch here because it’s the top of the Shard inside the Shangri-La. While the view was definitely cool, the food was terrible and SUPER expensive. Would not recommend it.
Hawksmoor Borough – this is a famous steakhouse in Borough Market. It was super crowded even on a Tuesday night. The steak I got was probably close to $70 USD and it was just okay. You can get way better steaks in North America. I wouldn’t recommend spending the money here.
The Palm Court in the Sheraton for afternoon tea – we actually went in and sat down, and were disappointed by their menu. This was more of a place for business types to go drink after work. Ended up leaving before ordering.
Things I haven’t done but want to:
The Sky Garden inside the Walkie Talkie building – this is probably a good view option instead of doing the Shard. It’s supposed to be a pretty cool indoor penthouse garden.
Victoria and albert Museum
Westminster Abbey – it’s hard to find a time when this is open to the public
The boat trip out to Greenwich to see the Meridian Line
General Tips and Tricks
Do not act like a loud American on the Tube – people will hate you.
London is a huge city – if you want to see it all, you’d probably need at least a week or more
Don’t call your trousers “pants” – that means underwear in British English
The Heathrow Express shuts down over the holidays for repair, so don’t count on that during that time of the year.
While the tube line train itself may have a station listed that’s before yours on the map, that doesn’t mean it’s ending there. It’s just the next major station. All of the Tubes continue on to the end of the line
Make sure you get on the Circle line going in the right direction. It’s a circle, but you could end up taking 12 stops to get there instead of 2.
Brits LOVE to drink on the street. You’ll find that most of the pubs have very few tables and people generally just grab a pint and stand right outside the door. This is especially prevalent after work. They’re big fans of the post-work drink.
Do not order hamgurgers or cheeseburgers in London – they’re terrible everywhere. Even the best burger places taste like McDonalds.