London is a city I visit regularly, usually to catch an exhibition or to go to a gig. It’s truly one of the great cities of the world: there is so much happening on any given day and I love its energy and vibrancy. It’s also scarily expensive, particularly public transport and accommodation, and can be a difficult city to truly get to know. I’ve been five times over the past two years and feel like I’m still scratching the surface. But I’m getting there. The first few times we stayed near Spitalfields and Whitechapel so I feel I’ve gotten to grips with that area at least. And it’s a great area. It has a village feel to it, and there are oodles of great bars and restaurants to choose from, not to mention the fantastic Spitalfields market. The food stalls would make your mouth water, particularly the Indian ones, not surprising considering its proximity to Brick Lane. More recently we've been staying in Kensington which has a completely different and more upmarket village feel to it but also has lots to offer, not least the amazing Whole Foods Market.
I’m not going to attempt a travel-guide to London as that would take about five years and has been done to death. Instead I’m giving a snapshot of the city including a few good and reasonably-priced hotel options, some groovy bars and restaurants (including those that don’t cost an arm and a leg), some cool things to do, and great places to see for free.
I have one piece of practical advice: get yourself an Oyster card to use on public transport. You can use it on the Tube, DLR, London Overground, the bus and on national rail so it’s really handy. It certainly makes life a lot easier and it makes travelling a little bit cheaper. The rate for a journey using an Oyster card is cheaper than buying a regular ticket, and a daily cap is applicable which means that when the total cost of all your journeys reaches a certain amount, a cap is applied. Any journeys you make for the rest of the day in the same zones won’t be charged. You can find out more here:
Great things to do in London:
THE FREE STUFF:
There are endless places to potter in this great city. I love wandering aimlessly along the Thames and on the South Bank, around by Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, across to St Paul’s Cathedral and admit to still being slightly awestruck at each sighting of Big Ben. I love the majestic whitewashed homes in SW1 and SW7, and daydream about what life would be like living in one of them. We recently stayed in a hotel in Kensington (see Places to Stay below) and spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Earl’s Court, around Gloucester Road and up to Notting Hill, peering in at the gorgeous mews houses with flowers and trees everywhere. We even ‘stumbled upon’ (actively went looking for) the lovely St Luke’s Mews in Notting Hill, home to the memorable Cardboard-and-Boom-Box scene in Love Actually (I know, I know, guilty pleasures and all that…). It’s ridiculously pretty. I want to live here.
If like me, you’re interested in modern architecture, get yourself to the financial district in the City of London. Yes I know it doesn’t sound very exciting but it’s home to Norman Foster’s futuristic Lloyd’s Bank, and his iconic ‘Gherkin’ building. I personally love the mix of old and new in this part of the city but Foster’s buildings have proved to be very divisive and many think they’re an abomination, my beloved included. I love how the ancient city is reflected (literally) in the modern one. Another reason to visit the so-called ‘Square Mile’ is the Sculpture in the City initiative, which was in its eighth year in 2018. This is a sculpture trail showcasing approximately twenty sculptures by world-renowned artists, some large-scale like the wonderful Jaume Plensa below, and some inconspicuous. You can download a map here, or just follow your nose.
The National Gallery, Leicester Square – free admission for permanent collection
If you have never been, then I suggest you rectify this immediately. The National Gallery has the most wonderful permanent collection with world-famous paintings such as Cézanne’s Bathers, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, The Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck and the biggie, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Just to name but a few.
Obviously there are hundreds of galleries and museums in London but this is one of my favourites. And did I mention it's completely free???
Hampstead Heath is one of London’s most popular spots for walkers and joggers, located just 6 kilometres from the heart of the city and accessible by Tube and a number of buses. It’s a beautiful area of countryside and parkland with three swimming ponds, and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. It also has terrific views of the London skyline from Primrose Hill. I’ll start with a piece of advice – wear wellies or old hiking boots. The ground is well-trodden and in winter gets verrrrry muddy. You can picture the scene: it’s November and a pretty damp day. I rock up in my new blue suede brogues and skinny jeans and ended up practically swinging from tree branches to avoid massive mud pools. Or being carried on the back of my long-suffering other half. Needless to say it took a little longer than expected to traverse the heath. Which reminds me of piece of advice II: give over a full day if you’re planning on exploring the heath, and spending time in Hampstead village itself. Unlike us, who decided that we’d spend the afternoon there and then attempt to make a flight back to Dublin that night from Gatwick. I would not recommend it. The evening involved rushing back to the hotel to collect our bags, running from one platform to another in various Tube stations, the predicted London delays everywhere, security ‘fun’ at Gatwick and almost missing our flight. I recommend giving a full day, and having lunch or dinner in Hampstead village as it's so very English and charming. We didn’t have a chance to do so that time but swore we'd rectify this on our next visit. Which we did and had a fabulous French lunch in La Cage Imaginaire just a few days before Christmas.
St James’ Park
Smaller than Hyde Park but just as pretty, this is the oldest of London’s eight royal parks. It’s lush and green with wonderful views of Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards Parade, Big Ben and the London Eye, best seen from the Blue Bridge. And it has pelicans. You can watch them being fed every day from 14:30-15:00 beside Duck Island Cottage.
THE WELL WORTH PAYING FOR STUFF
This is one of the lesser-known, but most impressive art collections in the city. There are fewer tourists with cameras, and it has an outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art which you can enjoy in peace without photobombing someone’s ‘Selfie with Painting’. It’s located in the stunning surroundings of Somerset House (Tube stop is Temple), and you should give yourself about an hour and a half to two hours to fully appreciate what it has on show. Its collection of paintings ranges from the early Renaissance to the 20th century but its highlights are without doubt the 19th and 20th century works including Van Gogh’s ‘Man with Bandaged Ear‘, Manet’s iconic ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère‘, a stunning nude by Modigliani and some of the greatest examples of Cezanne’s work including ‘The Card Players‘ and scenes from Mont Sainte-Victoire. The collection is simply outstanding: one of London’s best-kept secrets I think.
One of the reasons we visit London so often is for its exhibitions. They truly are world-class. For the past few years we have visited the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy which is a feast for the eyes and has something for everyone to enjoy. It is the largest open submission exhibition in the world, showcasing over 1000 works of art in a variety of media ranging from painting to sculpture to photography to video. It’s a wonderful snapshot of what’s going on in contemporary art at present. You could easily spend the day there. And the building itself is wonderful.
Take in the city from a whole new perspective, that is from 800 ft above ground, and treat yourself to a glass of champagne with a 360º view. Not a bad way to spend an evening. It is almost twice the height of any other viewing point in London. The jury is out among Londoners as to whether this building is a monstrosity, or a feat of modern architectural genius. I’ll go with the latter. I actually think it’s quite beautiful, particularly in the light of a late summer’s evening. It almost looks like a hologram at times – see pic below. It was designed by the world famous (and extremely divisive) architect Renzo Piano, and has become a new icon for modern London.
Places to stay:
As I mentioned before, London can be ludicrously expensive for rooms that are little more than a shoe-box. But we have found some good ones over the past few years, each with their own particular charms. But our favourite one of all is the top one: The Rockwell in Kensington.
The Rockwell, Kensington
This place is a gem (and a recent discovery) and I can’t see us staying anywhere else in future. The location is fantastic – less than 5 mins walk from Earl’s Court Tube station on the Picadilly line which also means you can get the Tube directly from Heathrow and it’s only a 40 minute journey. The surrounding area is gorgeous with beautiful whitewashed houses, charming streets with mews houses, and trees and flowers everywhere. And very safe to walk around. The hotel is clean and modern with original art everywhere. We were extra-delighted to be given a free upgrade to a suite upon arrival. Such a treat! We had a lovely room with a huge window which looked out on some trees and beautiful town houses. And even though it faced the main street, the windows were soundproof. We had a mezzanine level with a living area and TV, and the bedroom itself had a really comfy bed. I slept like a log. The bathroom had White Company toiletries including sleep spray for your pillow which I thought was a nice touch.And one of the highlights for me: a wonderful breakfast. I don’t say that often about hotels but it was really good. The buffet had granola, a variety of seeds, nuts and dried fruit, really fresh crusty bread with cheeses and meats, and the scrambled eggs were buttery and delicious. Great coffee too. The room itself is bright and airy and all the staff were friendly and chatty. A lovely way to start the day. Also, wait for it, it’s really good value for London. I can’t say anymore other than we’ll be back!!
Qbic Hotel, Whitechapel
This is a very quirky mid-range hotel, with unusual furnishings and bright colours everywhere. The hotel is located just two mins walk from Aldgate East Tube Station, and is in a great location: the surrounding areas of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Shoreditch are really cool with loads of great places to eat and things to do. Pluses: comfy bed and powerful shower. The room was really clean and I liked the cheerful bright yellow colour scheme. Free coffee and tea stations on each floor was also a nice touch, as were the bottles of water left in the room each day – a small thing but important if you’ve forgotten to buy some on way home. Negatives: a small room for a big price. Giant gap between the wall and the sliding door to bathroom. Why? What’s wrong with a good old fashioned door that locks? So there is zero privacy between bedroom and bathroom. Also, a serious lack of storage. There is nowhere to hang your clothes other than a rather strange wooden contraption in the room, almost like a sculpture, but I thought it was a bit gimmicky. Also the TV attached to the bottom of the bed – a tad close for comfort if you were planning on watching something. Square eyes.com. A more traditional but a better option is not too far away – see below.
Holiday Inn, Commercial Road, Whitechapel
This was an unexpected surprise and ticked a lot of boxes for us. It’s in a slightly less nice area of Whitechapel than Qbic above but the pluses outweigh the negatives: huge room, loads of space and storage, a comfy bed, a choice of firm or soft pillows, and a fair sized bathroom also, with a bath. For a fairly reasonable price for London. Shock horror! Really clean too. They got the small things right too – a bottle of water in the room, and a speaker with Bluetooth connection to play music from our phones. This made us very happy and wish other hotels would do similar. Really nice staff too. The only real negative was the price of breakfast – €17 per person – so we didn’t go for that option. But there are lots of great places close by, including the Hungry Donkey on Wentworth St, which I mention below as one of the great places to eat.
Hotel 55, Ealing
This one is quite a distance to travel by Tube into the city centre but it’s quite handy to reach from Heathrow, which was a plus. My first impression was not good as our room was tiny. There was barely enough room to wheel a suitcase between the bed and the wall. However, there are a lot of good things to be said about this place. The bed was super comfy with great pillows and good linen and I slept like a log every night. The room had a Nespresso machine and wine glasses, and every day two bottles of water were left in the room. The bathroom was tiny but spotless with l’Occitane products, which were replenished every day. There was not much space or shelves to put our stuff but not a massive deal in the overall scheme of things. Breakfast was pretty exceptional. Continental was included in our room price but for an extra £4 per person each day you could get a hot breakfast. I thought this was a really good deal and am surprised more hotels don’t operate on this basis. Food was really nice – fresh fruit, little pots with yoghurt, granola and berries with honey, pastries and excellent coffee, served in individual cafetieres. We ordered hot food every day and it did not disappoint. Really buttery scrambled eggs and yummy mushrooms. And the breakfast room is gorgeous Really bright and modern. So a thumbs up if you don’t mind spending a lot of time on the Tube.
Places to eat and drink:
The one problem we’ve encountered in London is the early closing times in almost all bars and restaurants. I’ve always had a picture of London as having a really vibrant night-life but this is really not the case at all, particularly outside of city centre areas like Soho and Covent Garden. On occasions, we’ve found it impossible to get a glass of wine after 11pm on a Friday night, even in fantastic areas like Spitalfields and Kensington . Hard to believe in one of the great cities of the world.
On our last trip to London, we stayed in Kensington and headed out for late tapas at 10pm the first evening we arrived, thinking we’d stay there for a few hours over a leisurely bottle of wine. The place had emptied out by 11pm and it promptly closed its doors, so we wandered the streets looking for somewhere to have a night cap, gave up, and were in bed by 12. On one of the nights, we read that Dean St in Soho was famous for its late night bars so we optimistically headed that way after a great meal in Balthazar (below). Not quite what we had in mind – it was more akin to 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead, with zombies wandering out in front of cars and party girls shrieking in each others’ ears at top volume, or throwing up behind a bin. We escaped quickly, needless to say.
I’m sure there are little hidden late-night gems all over the city but we have yet to find them. I’m determined we will on our next visit though. And I promise to keep you posted on my finds. But here are some truly great restaurants and bars that we’ve stumbled upon over the years, and some we’ve returned to again and again. It’s a varied list: some are cheap and cheerful, some are high-end, but all are superb in their own way. I hope you enjoy!
The Hungry Donkey, Wentworth St
Nearest Tube stations: Aldgate East & Liverpool Street
What a find! We were staying in a hotel which offered a very overpriced buffet breakfast option and decided we’d opt for somewhere a little different. A friend had just sent me an email with great places to have breakfast in London and as this place was a short walk, we decided to give it a go. We were absolutely blown away. It’s an authentic Greek restaurant offering simple and delicious food, using the freshest Mediterranean ingredients. We both ordered the Strapatsada which is eggs scrambled with fresh tomato, Greek cheese, basil and olive oil. It was outstanding. So fresh and flavoursome. And it cost only £7 which is fantastic value for breakfast in London. The coffee was great and the staff were so friendly and welcoming. It was a sunny day so we sat outside feeling very content with our lot. We were still talking about how good it was three days later so ended up having breakfast there again the day we left. They also have a fantastic looking lunch and dinner menu. To be investigated next time I think!
Balthazar, Russell St, Covent Garden
Tube stop: Covent Garden
This French bistro is the sister restaurant to the original Balthazar in New York city. We both love French food and this place did not disappoint. The dining room is absolutely enormous but still manages to feel cosy and intimate in atmosphere somehow. It’s very typically French in style, with low lighting and tables placed close together. The soundtrack from Sweet and Lowdown was playing as we entered so it felt like stepping into a scene from a glamourous 1920s Woody Allen movie. So far so good! We started with champagne, bien sûr. When in Rome and all that. In short, the staff were fantastic and our food was great. That night we sampled the French onion soup, a burrata salad, seabass and rack of lamb – all really good. Their wines are pretty good value too, even by the glass. FYI, this place is one of the few restaurants that stays open late so I’d advise a later table and staying put for the evening.
I presumed we’d be kicked off our table after two hours but as there were still a few free tables by 10:30, the staff left us to our own devices. Actually they encouraged us to have more wine We had a really lovely evening here and I would definitely come back.
If you’re looking for an authentic Italian experience in London, then look no further. You get it all here: it’s an unpretentious little family-run trattoria with great food and wine. It can also promise an entertaining evening to boot in the form of the Italian staff shouting at their family members at top volume across the restaurant. It’s good fun. We stumbled upon it by accident one cold November evening while losing the will to live trying to find somewhere nice to eat in Marylebone without a reservation on a Saturday evening (I know, I know…) We had just about given up when we spotted a chalk board with a hand-written sign for a family-run Italian. We almost hugged the waiter when he squeezed us in at their last table. It’s so cosy and the food is delicious; like a ‘hug for your belly’ as my friend Karen would say. It’s simple Italian fare, well-made with good ingredients. And good value for London too.
Tube stop: Aldgate East
We’ve been here twice on separate trips to London: once for lunch and once for dinner. Our first brunch experience was so good that we decided to come back next time for dinner. And what a lovely start to a Sunday. Friendly, smiling and attentive staff, a beautiful bright room with big windows and groovy tunes playing subtly in the background, comfy booths to sit and chat at, and terrific food and coffee. What’s not to like?
For brunch I had the potato rosti with spinach and poached eggs which was delicious. I don’t like runny eggs so I asked if they could make mine well done. And they did. No small thing – 9 times out of 10 when I ask for well-done eggs, they still arrive soft so this made me happy too. Coffee was exquisite and I really wished we had room for the pancakes with berries and mascarpone as they looked divine. Next time for sure. Our dinner experience was also great. The circular booths are so comfy and it’s nice to be able to cosy up together after a meal. I had the Blixen caesar salad and a pasta dish, both of which were so tasty. A great spot!
Grapeshots, Artillery Lane, Spitalfields
Tube stop: Aldgate East / Liverpool Street
We’ve had a glass of wine or two in this charming little wine bar over the past few years. It’s got an olde-world charm with its location down a tiny laneway and with its wood-paneling and candelabra lighting in the evenings. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly and it has a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Like almost every other wine bar in London it also closes at 11, even at weekends, but it’s a lovely place to pop in for a quick drink before a meal.
No 11 Pimlico Road, Belgravia
Tube stop: Sloane Square
Ravenous after a few hours in the Tate Britain, we discovered this little gem on the way back to the Tube station. As you can see from above, it’s a very pretty place with almost Scandi decor. They also have nice beer but most importantly they do a good lunch. I had their halloumi and courgette burger which was frickin’ amazing. Staff are all very hipster and a bit cool-for-school but the food is great so would definitely come back.
Fortnum and Mason wine bar, Picadilly
Tube stop: Picadilly Circus
We’d avoided this place for years thinking it was going to be extortionately expensive. But actually it’s not prohibitively so. Glasses of wine start from £7.50 but the sky is the limit here – you could spend up to £48 per glass if you were so inclined. The bar itself is gorgeous and the staff knowledgeable and friendly. It’s a nice place for a glass of vino after a trip to the Royal Academy which is pretty much across the road. When you’re leaving, don’t forget to pick yourself up a tin of pistachio and clotted cream biscuits from the store upstairs. They’re about £11 so probably the most expensive biscuits you’ll ever buy, but let me tell you, they are so worth it!
Tube: Whitechapel or Aldgate East
It’s probably a health and safety risk to eat here and not because of the food: it’s more of an overcrowding issue. This is the most insanely busy restaurant I’ve ever been to. Friends of ours had recommended it to us, but happily mentioned that you need to book. It’s a Punjabi restaurant (Indian / Pakistani dishes) which is a real local institution and which has a BYO policy: always good which led to an extremely cheap night out. An extremely short night out too as I confess the number of people in the place and the noise levels meant we were in and out in an hour. Old age and all that. When we arrived first, there was a queue of people down the street for this place. Most were locals and seemed perfectly happy to stand on the street and wait for a table, sipping away at their bring-your-own beer. Why on earth would you not book if you know it’s going to be this crazy? It’s a mystery to me. We squeezed through the door and managed to find a manager, who seated us pretty quickly. Inside it was no better. There was about 40 people standing up inside the restaurant, also waiting for a table, and enjoying their beers too. And this is not a big restaurant. There were people practically hanging over our table to stay out of the way of the waiters who were trying to get past with plates. Utter chaos. So why is this on my list? Because the food was fantastic. The saag paneer and the Karahi tarka dal were really outstanding. Martin had the Karahi chicken masala which is a really popular dish. And I could see why. Naan bread was delicious too. I would’ve loved to have stayed longer and tried a few more things but tables were at a premium and noise levels were getting higher as the evening went on. When we found ourselves shouting at each other across the table, we decided to go. An entertaining evening nonetheless but maybe we’ll try their takeaway option next time
Tube stop: Marble Arch
After another morning’s endless wandering, we had a fantastic lunch here which quickly dispersed the ‘hangry-ness’. It’s a vegetarian / vegan restaurant which caters for every dietary requirement / fussy eater you can imagine. It’s got a slick modern decor with comfy seats in the window for people-watching. We ordered the wild mushroom risotto cake and the tortillas. Both were really tasty, especially washed down with a carafe of Côtes du Rhône. Coffee was also really good and staff were friendly. We’d definitely come back.