A London Guide for the Uninitiated
by Joe Thomas
Joe Thomasis a writer from the UK living in London. He loves experiencing the endless activities, and finding the hidden gems around the city, where most people won't look to go.
Every visitor wants something a little different from their stay in the capital. While some will want to follow the tourist trail; others are seeking culture; while yet another group wants to visit the best pubs and restaurants on the map. You might even try to include a little of everything into your visit whether you are coming for a day or a much longer stay.
However, whatever you want from your visit there is something for everyone and this guide will help you find your way around and guide you to the best on offer.
Top Tourist Spots
There are so many tourist attractions to see in London that it is best to plan out what you want to visit ahead of time, so you miss nothing. Then plot your route either on an Underground map, a street map or decide which open-topped bus you will hop on to see as much as possible, in the shortest time.
It's often best to group attractions together, so for example if you are heading to the South Bank you can take in Tower Bridge, The London Eye, the London Aquarium and then move on to the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben. Globe theatre, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are all worth a visit as are Trafalgar Square, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace and the Globe theatre. You can choose which of them you are just going to view from the outside and which you will spend longer touring.
Here's a Checklist for you, so you don't miss anything:
Popular Watering Holes
All that walking and photograph-taking might have made you thirsty and a trip to London has to include a visit to a pub or two.
The pub is as much a part of British culture as fish and chips or a cup of tea and you can truly say you have mixed with the locals once you have bought a round or two at the bar.
Pubs can also tell you a great deal about British history and these five have just as much to say as a visit to a museum.
If you prefer cocktail bars, then the world is your oyster in London, especially in recent years as the trend for cocktails has seen a resurgence. Callooh Callay, Love & Liquor, The Lucky Pig, Mr. Foggs and the extravagantly named Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Bar are all worth heading to. Party the night away without a care in the world as you can always burn those calories off with more sightseeing tomorrow.
- The Star Tavern, Belgravia: This establishment has seen many famous people pass through its doors including Diana Dors and Peter OToole. It also has the perhaps more infamous claim to fame of being the place where The Great Train Robbery was planned in the early 1960s.
- The French House, Soho: This pub was used as a meeting place for members of the French Resistance, including General de Gaulle, during the Second World War. Today it retains a French flavor and even the alcohol is served in measures used across the Channel.
- The Dog and Duck, Soho: It was here that the novelist George Orwell used to drink, maybe gathering ideas for his next book. It has been mentioned that in more recent times Madonna has dropped by on occasion.
- The Lamb and Flag, Convent Garden: This pub can also boast it has been the hangout of great writers with Charles Dickens frequenting the bar as well as 17th Century poet John Dryden. This pub holds regular celebrations with the bunting being hung out every St. Georges Day.
- The Viaduct, Newgate Street: Opposite the Old Bailey, this pub may have acted as a temporary gaol at one time. It is also the last surviving Victorian gin palace in London and the perfect place to visit for a G&T.
If you like your drinking establishments a little more tucked away, try these out for size.
- Tamesis Dock, Albert Embankment: Get on board for a pint or two at this floating pub. This 1933 Dutch Barge, that used to travel the waters of the Seine, now offers great food and cold beer and even better you can sit outdoors and watch the sun set over London as you eat.
- The Mayor of Scaredy Town, Spitalfields: This truly is a secret, hidden away beneath The Breakfast Club. On arrival you need to say you would like to see the Mayor and only then will you be led downstairs to discover the bar hidden behind a door disguised as a SMEG fridge.ΚΚ
Putt In The Park, Acton: If you want a little exercise alongside your cold beer then head to the park next to Acton central railway station. Here you can enjoy a round of mini golf while enjoying a pint or two. This is a tranquil destination where you will be surrounded by greenery and the sound of running water from the small streams dotted about.
Enjoy The Nightlife
When you want to enjoy the London nightlife you need not worry about being short on choices. Stand-up comedy, cabaret, clubbing or the enjoyment of fine wines or whiskies, it's all on offer.
The following three areas of the Capital are worth exploring as they have a great deal to offer in terms of nightlife.
- Camden: Camden is a great place to visit day or night as it is a hub of the arts. During the day Camden Market offers a wide array of stalls selling handcrafted wares including clothing, jewellery, leather goods and artwork. As the sun sets head to one or more of the quirky pubs, many of which offer live music. The Black Heart is the place to try locally brewed beer from the Camden Town Brewery, such as Camden Hells Lager.
The Dublin Castle is less about the look of the pub and more about the ambiance and the music. It is one of the pubs around London where new bands come to prove themselves and over the years it has featured Madness and Blur.
It bills itself as the only true pub left in Camden and with its roaring fire in Winter and relaxed atmosphere, you may just agree. It also features unknow indie and alternative bands so if you want to discover new music The Enterprise should be on your tour.
- Mayfair: There are plenty of nightclubs on offer in Mayfair although you may need a slightly larger bank balance to make the most of them. For Seventies Chic and a groovy dance floor head to Loop Bar. Trader Vic's is all about the South Pacific and thus you need to enjoy a cocktail or two as you soak up the atmosphere. By the same people who brought us the Playboy Club is Baroque which has lush surroundings and a mix of party nights, often with live music on offer.
- Soho: Head to Soho in the West End for a mix of high energy nightlife. The Box has seen many celebrity clients over recent years. Bar Rumba and the St. Moritz Club are famous basement bars, and the latter has been a hub of entertainment for decades. If karaoke is more your thing, but you prefer to do it in relative privacy, then head to the pods inside Lucky Voice Soho where drinks and nibbles are also on offer.
Museums Not to Be Missed
London is home to many national museums and art galleries, such as the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Science Museum and Tate Modern. All of these are worth a visit but what happens if you want to experience something just a little different?
- Sir John Soane's Museum: Sir John Soane was the architect of the Bank of England and this, his former residence, includes a range of his architectural drawings as well as the art and antiquities he surrounded himself with, including the Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti.
- Geffrye Museum: This museum is a fascinating insight into how we have all lived through the centuries. Taking us from 1600 through to the present day it explores the English Home with a focus on the living room, the place where we all spend the majority of our time.
- The Savoy Hotel's Museum: Naturally you can enjoy a cocktail at the Savoy Hotel's American Bar before heading next door to take a look around the museum. This features photos of many of the famous guests of the hotel and even a little vintage alcohol makes an appearance.
- The Grant Museum of Zoology: A wide range of specimens are on offer here and you can even take part in a 'Dead Life Drawing' class, although a glass of wine is on offer to lighten the mood.
- The Viktor Wyne Museum of Curiosities: This museum really does offer an eclectic mix of exhibits. Live petting evenings when you can meet millipedes is a highlight.
- The Pollock Toy Museum: If you find old dolls frightening this one might be worth a miss. However, if instead they fascinate you, make sure you don't miss out on this museum.
- The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society: If medicine through the ages is one of your interests this museum doesn't disappoint. Find out what patients experienced as they went through surgery before anaesthetics and pain relief were discovered and find out when and why leeches were used.
- Dennis Severs' House: For an insight into life in the 18th Century for a wealthy family head to Dennis Severs' House. This has been recreated with food on the table and unmade beds, just as though the family have gone out for the day.
It's time to experience a little more culture around London, but all of these are relaxing as well as fun.
- Wilton's Music Hall: Located in Tower Hamlets this music hall harks back to the good old days of variety and is the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world. Offering a range of theatre productions it's worth a visit to see the interior of the building alone.
- Temple: This is an area of London known for its connections to the practice of law over the centuries. The name came about because it was established by the Knights Templar in the 12th Century and because of this it also played a central role in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It's definitely worth a visit for any lovers of the book or film.
- Fulham Palace: Surprisingly this is a National Trust property right in the centre of the capital. It is well known for the variety of events it runs throughout the year usually coinciding with seasonal events such as Apple Day in October and Bones, Bumps and Bats close to Halloween.
- Guildhall Art Gallery: If you want to find out what life was like in Roman London then head to the Guildhall Art Gallery. During restoration in the late 1980s they discovered the circular walls of an amphitheatre which can now be viewed together with a fascinating insight into the history of the area.
There's Always Time to Shop
London is packed full of world-renowned department stores such as Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Hamleys and if you are visiting close to the Christmas season the window displays are not to be missed.
However, where should you head if you enjoy smaller boutique shopping?
- Camden Passage: This is probably one of the most well known and loved centres of independent stores and it hosts a selection of shops and cafes. Many of the shops are catered towards vintage so this is definitely the place to head in London if you want to pick up something unique.
- Little Venice: Little Venice is on the Thames and is a collection of waterside shops and cafes. What's makes it even more fun is you can even hop on a canal boat and head off to your next destination, almost like being in Italy.
Let's Get Outside
It's not just the urban buzz that attracts people to London. What makes it so special is there is so much opportunity to get outside and experience green spaces in the fresh air.
- The Thames Path: This stretches all the way from the Thames Barrier across the country to Cirencester. There are many shorter routes you can take within London to see the sights and if you head out by bike you could even make it to Windsor to visit the Castle. Stop off at any of the many pubs along the way for a hearty lunch to keep you going.
- Japanese Roof Garden at the School of Oriental and African Studies: If you want the perfect place to relax then head to this garden which was built during the 2001 Japan Celebrations at the college. The theme here is Forgiveness, and this is summed up by the Kanji character engraved on the granite water basin in the garden.
- Postman's Park: This park is home to The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. It was built in 1900 by George Frederick Watts and celebrates the heroism of individuals who gave their lives to save others. The park acquired its name because it used to be the place where workers from the old General Post Office ate their lunch.
Street Food: Shoreditch is a great place to experience a wide array of street food. It holds many food festivals and markets, most notably the Urban Food Fest which happens every Saturday. This includes many street food stalls plus a changing selection of craft beers, wines and even cocktails.
Another street food destination is Borough Market and this offers both food which is ready to eat straight away plus fresh produce. A foodies dream to find everything under one roof. In Fact there are many amazing spots dotted all around London, so wherever you are, there shouldn't be one too far away from you.
Restaurants: There are so many restaurants to choose from in London that before you head out, it's best to narrow your search down by deciding what kind of food you are in the mood for.
If you are craving ice-cream then Chin Chin Labs in Camden takes this sweet treat to a whole other level through the application of liquid nitrogen.
A trip to London wouldn't be complete without that traditional trip to the pie and mash shop. You can even try the local delicacy jellied eels, but be warned it isn't for the faint-hearted.
One of the latest trends in London restaurants has been the upsurge in venues which are tucked away and offer seclusion. Back in 5 Minutes, Freud, Four O Nine and Old Tom and English all make it on to this list, but remember most will need early reservation.
It's All in the Planning
You will get the most out of any trip to London if you do some planning before you arrive. That way you can group together all the places you want to visit and waste less time on the Underground or in the back of cabs.
There are now several apps available you can download to your phone to help you get around and to find places worth visiting close to wherever you are, so you never miss out on anything. It's also worth browsing the reviews on Trip Advisor or looking through Time Out London to find new places of interest.
There are many guides covering numerous sectors specialized to what you want to do. London on a budget, London as a couple, or London with a team are three.
Your friends and family can sometimes be the best people to advise you on what you will like so don't be afraid to ask around in person and on social media to capture a wider network.
Lastly it's important to remember that there is so much to see and do in London that it's unlikely you will get to visit everywhere, regardless how long your stay is. So choose wisely and above all pace yourself so you intersperse sight-seeing with plenty of rest and relaxation in the pub or in the beautiful open spaces around London.