Link to more recent blog post A Taste of London here featuring my top picks in London - a guide to some of the best cafés and restaurants the capital has to offer.
London is the city that leaves you wanting more. There is always something new to discover and no two trips are ever the same. From Kensington to Shoreditch, from Chelsea to South Bank...choose a different neighourhood every time you visit and have a completely different experience.
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, 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
Get your trainers on and start walking. There are endless places to potter in this great city. There's nothing like a stroll along the Thames and the South Bank, passing Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, eventually crossing the iconic Millennium bridge over to St Paul’s Cathedral.
North of the Thames you'll find Hyde Park and the upmarket neighbourhoods of Kensington and Notting Hill, home to some of London's fanciest homes.
Fans of Christmas favourite Love Actually should make a point of heading for the lovely St Luke’s Mews in Notting Hill, home to the memorable Cardboard-and-Boom-Box scene. It’s ridiculously pretty.
City of London
If you’re interested in modern architecture, take a wander to the financial district in the City of London, home to Norman Foster’s futuristic Lloyd’s Bank, and his iconic ‘Gherkin’ building. I personally love the mix of old and new and 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, a sculpture trail showcasing works by world-renowned artists, some large-scale like the wonderful Jaume Plensa and some inconspicuous.
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 National Gallery, Leicester Square – free admission for permanent collection
The National Gallery is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in art. It 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.
Hampstead Heath 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.
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 gorgeous 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.
If you happen to be there at Christmas, you can go ice-skating at the front of Somerset House.
One of the reasons we visit London so often is for its world-class exhibitions. Everyone should try to visit the Royal Academy's annual Summer Exhibition at least once - it's 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 and you could easily spend the day there. The building itself is wonderful too. If you've worked up a thirst from all the art appreciation, Fortnum and Mason's wine bar is just across the road.
When you’re leaving, make sure 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! I bought some as presents for people and ended up scoffing them on the plane.
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. I think it’s quite beautiful, particularly in the light of a late summer’s evening. Designed by the world famous (and extremely divisive) architect Renzo Piano, it almost looks like a hologram at times. It has become a new icon for modern London.
Where to stay:
We've all heard the stories...London is ludicrously expensive for rooms that are little more than a shoe-box etc... But we have found some good ones over the past few years, each with their own particular charms.
The Rockwell, Kensington I'll open with a disclaimer - this is where we got engaged so it will always hold a special place in my heart. But aside from that, it's a terrific hotel with friendly staff in a great location: less than 5 mins walk from Earl’s Court Tube station on the Piccadilly line. This essentially means you can get the Tube directly from Heathrow and it’s only a 40 minute journey. Décor is clean and modern with original art everywhere and we were delighted to be given a free upgrade to a suite upon arrival: a lovely room with a huge window looking out on some trees and beautiful town houses. The beds are super-comfy and the bathroom had White Company toiletries including sleep spray for your pillow which was a nice touch. Breakfast was one of the highlights for me, a buffet including granola, a variety of seeds, nuts and dried fruit, really fresh crusty bread with cheeses and meats, and some buttery and delicious scrambled eggs. Great coffee too.
NB: just one thing to note - on our second visit we stayed in a standard room. There is quite a difference in size between the standard rooms and the Junior Suites so it's definitely worth paying for an upgrade if you can stretch to it.
Qbic Hotel, Whitechapel This is a very quirky mid-range hotel, with unusual furnishings and bright colours everywhere. Located just two mins walk from Aldgate East Tube Station, the location is great, close to Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Shoreditch, groovy areas with loads of great places to eat and things to do.
Pluses: comfy bed and powerful shower and a 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 = zero privacy between bedroom and bathroom. Also, a serious lack of storage. 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: 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, all for a fairly reasonable price for London. They got the small things right too – a bottle of water in the room, and a speaker with Bluetooth connection. 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 - see below.
Hotel 55, Ealing This one is quite a distance to travel by Tube into the city centre but it’s handy to reach from Heathrow, which was a plus. Despite the tiny room, there are a lot of good things to say about this place including comfy beds with good quality linen, l’Occitane products in the bathroom and an exceptional breakfast. Continental was included in our room price (fresh fruit, little pots with yoghurt, granola and berries with honey, pastries and excellent coffee, served in individual cafetieres but for an extra £4 per person each day you could get a hot breakfast - I'd highly recommend it.
Negatives: storage is minimal
Eating and Drinking
The one problem we’ve encountered in London is the early closing times in almost all bars and restaurants. It can be hard 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. I’m sure there are many known-only-to-locals favourites all over the city but we have yet to find many of them. Here are some of the 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! Update, Oct 2019: some new discoveries were made on a more recent weekend trip, including a terrific late night bar. You can read about them all here in my more recent blog post A Taste of London
The Hungry Donkey, Wentworth St Nearest Tube stations: Aldgate East & Liverpool Street
What a find - an authentic Greek restaurant offering simple and delicious food, using the freshest Mediterranean ingredients. Order the Strapatsada which is eggs scrambled with fresh tomato, Greek cheese, basil and olive oil. It's outstanding. The coffee is good, the staff are friendly and welcoming and there is plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy a sunny breakfast.
Balthazar, Russell St, Covent Garden Tube stop: Covent Garden
This French bistro is the sister restaurant to the original Balthazar in New York city. The dining room is absolutely enormous but still manages to feel cosy and intimate. We walked through the door as the soundtrack from Sweet and Lowdown was playing, just like stepping into a scene from a glamourous 1920s Woody Allen movie. In short, the staff were fantastic and our food was great. 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.
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. You may be in line for some free entertainment too courtesy of the Italian staff shouting at their family members at top volume across the restaurant. It’s good fun. The place is cosy and the food is delicious; simple Italian fare, well-made with good ingredients. And good value for London too.
Blixen, Spitalfields Tube stop: Aldgate East
We’ve been here for both brunch and dinner, enticed back on a second trip by memories of friendly, attentive staff, a beautiful bright room with big windows and groovy tunes playing subtly in the background, comfy circular booths to sit and chat and terrific food and coffee. What’s not to like?
Grapeshots, Artillery Lane, Spitalfields
Tube stop: Aldgate East / Liverpool Stree
Love this cosy wood-panelled wine bar which can be found down a tiny laneway in Spitafields. 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, I did some serious damage to a halloumi and courgette burger here, washed down by a beer (or two). Décor is Scandi-cool and the food was great.
Tube stop: Marble Arch
Another classy lunchtime find.. The Gate is 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 when washed down with a carafe of Côtes du Rhône. Coffee was also really good and staff were friendly.