I was born in London and lived there for most of my life. I’m often asked to recommend tourist activites, so I wrote this page to help prospective visitors.
As one of the leading cities in the world, London offers something for everybody. There are lots of great online references such as:
This page starts with geographical sections, then focuses on other topics.
The obvious first port of call for most tourists. A lively, buzzing area, larger than some towns, the West End is full of life, and offers entertainment, shopping, food and drink, commerce, and more. It’s so big, I split it into sub-sections:
Oxford, Regent, Bond Streets
These three criss-crossing streets are the quintessential West End shopping experience, boasting unmatched scale and variety.
Oxford Street is a main east-to-west road in Central London, a shopping destination with wide pavements and one lane of traffic in each direction. The eastern part was once tacky, but is improving due to the Crossrail redevelopment at the Tottenham Court Road end. As the street continues west, passing Oxford Circus at its mid-point, it becomes classier, finishing up in Marble Arch. All the big chains are here, along with icons such as Selfridges, once glorious, now naff, far too expensive for most locals, with far-Eastern tourists queuing up for the privilege of entering the Prada and Gucci sections.
At first glance, Regent Street appears simlar to Oxford Street. The sweeping Beaux-Arts Architecture gets lost from ground level with all the shops and traffic. Regent Street is generally more upmarket than Oxford Street. The stores are still mainly chains, but higher-end. They are bigger and airier than on Oxford Street, and some feel as if they exist as much to advertise the brand, than to make money.
Bond Street is the poshest of the three. It’s smaller and more discreet than the others, running between Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The shops may seem standard in these less innocent days of generic consumerism and significant wealth, but Bond Street is still the spiritual home for the likes of Gucci, Louis Vutton, Prada, and other haute couture. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, it might be worth swinging by to see how the other half shop.
Piccadilly is another east-west artery, connecting the smarter parts of the West End to the smarter parts of West London such as Knightsbridge and Kensington. A stroll down Piccadilly evokes the aristocracy and class of a bygone-Britain. In the prosperous modern country, material wealth is more widespread than ever, but Piccadilly touches on a rarified world that has little relevance to the average person’s day-to-day life.
Landmarks such as The Ritz Hotel, one of the most exclusive hotels in the world, known for its legendary Afternoon Tea, the Burlington Arcade, and Fortnum & Mason make Piccadilly an essential part of any trip to the West End.
Green Park, one of the Royal Parks of London runs alongside Piccadilly for a good part of its length, sitting nicely between Hyde Park and St.James’s Park. Even as the least interesting of the Royal Parks, Green Park provides a pleasant break from the hustle and bustle of the city, and a great cut-through from Piccadilly for those visiting Buckingham Palace. In fact, all the Royal Parks in Central London make great cut-throughs, and they more or less join up to make a contiguous area.
Tucked away between the more intense areas of the West End, Covent Garden is a delightful mix of independent shops, arts, crafts, and street performers. A couple of hours here is a great way to recharge the batteries. The piazza containing a former vegetable market, now full of shops, food, and shows, is the most recognizable landmark, and apart from being a pleasant way to pass the time, provides valuable cover if the typical London rain kicks in.
Westminster is an area rich in history and tradition. Being the seat of government and the monarchy, Westminster is the political heart of London.
Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament due to its occupants, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is the heartbeat of the UK Government. Its iconic Gothic Revival architecture is instantly recognizable, most of all Big Ben which is technically the bell in the clock tower, but colloquially used to refer to the tower itself. The “new” Palace “only” dates to the mid-19th century, following an 1834 fire which destroyed the centuries-old original. Tours are available to the public.
Whitehall, the home of Government ministries, is interesting but off-limits to the public. An exception to the rule is the Churchill War Rooms, part of the Imperial War Museum. It comprises two parts, the first being the underground complex from where Winston Churchill and the rest of the Cabinet made the decisions that would lead to the Allied victory in World War II. The other part is the Churchill Museum. The concept is brilliantly executed and preserved, and you don’t have to be a history buff to get into it.
The area backs onto St James’s Park, another Royal Park which boasts a lake and waterfowl.
City of London
Don’t let the name fool you. Unlike most areas known as “City”, the City of London is not an obvious port of call for tourists. It’s where London started and spread out from, and in the modern age it’s a focus of big business, commerce and finance, none of which are of much interest to tourists.
With its Brutalist architecture that you either love or hate, but can’t miss either way, the Barbican Centre is an oasis of art and culture in the otherwise commercial City. It incorporates a concert hall, theatre(s), art gallery, cinema(s), library, restaurants, bars, a lake, and more. It also includes the largest residential housing development in the City, the Barbican Estate made up of three high-rise towers, 13 terrace blocks, a mews and more.
Museum of London
The Museum of London sits on the edge of the Barbican complex. Despite its grand name, it’s less well-known than the biggest museums in London. The proposed move to Smithfield backs up my suspicion that the location is not ideal. In any event, a worthwhile visit, telling the story of this historic, modern city.
Primrose Hill backs onto Regent’s Park, and offers an expansive view of Central London. The area around the hill, also called Primrose Hill, is famous for rich arty-types. Its variety of cafes, pubs and small shops make it worth passing through if you’re in the area.
Camden Town / Market
Camden Town is a great destination for alternative and “street” culture, accessible by bus or tube from Central London. It’s more touristy now than when I went to school there 30 years ago, but it’s still worth a visit for anyone into rock, punk, goth, metal, and other related themes. I have listed music venues are in the venues section below.
Camden Market is actually five smaller markets next to each other, creating a monster. Budget half a day for an in-depth exploration. Camden Lock and the Stables Markets are the most essential. They’re situated by the canal, which is worth a walk in itself, and they offer a wide variety of stalls and street food.
- Hawley Arms is best known for the Amy Winehouse and friends culture back in the day, today still a great place to chuckle at hipsters from a comfortable sofa.
- The World’s End is notable mainly for its size and cheap drinks. Not somewhere I’d go on a date, but worth a pint if passing through.
- Also see The Black Heart in the venues section below.
Knightsbridge is as posh as it sounds. Without doubt one of the most upmarket areas in London, Knightsbridge is home to the famous Harrods and Harvey Nichols department stores. With an average property price of around £5 million, and shopping to match, you may not wish to buy anything, but Knightsbridge is an experience not found elsewhere. Watch out for visiting Arabs with expensive imported cars. Ferrari and Lamborghini in Knightsbridge are like Ford and Mazda in your town.
I have a soft spot for South Kensington. An incredibly wealthy area like Knightsbridge, the refined, airy area around the station is pleasant to relax, eat and drink considering its central location. More importantly, it’s the home of the most famous London museums. Each one can take a day to explore thoroughly, and they are free to enter.
- Natural History Museum exhibits over 80 million life and earth science specimens, in the areas of botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology.
- Science Museum holds over 300,000 items such as historic locomotives, jet engines, steam engines, and spacecraft.
- Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest art and design museum, housing over 2.3 million objects. It contains ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, medieval objects, sculpture, prints and printmaking, drawings and photographs over 5000 years from ancient times to the present day.
Notting Hill / Portobello Road Market
The most compelling reason for a tourist to visit Notting Hill is the Portobello Road Market, the world’s largest antiques market, a great place to browse and explore. Be sure to check the opening hours as not everything is open every day.
East London is traditionally associated with the working-class due to its proximity to the River Thames and the docks. It (notably the East End, the closest part to Central London, has been the first port of call for London immigrants for centuries, amongst them the Huguenots, Irish, Jews, and Bangladeshis.
Shoreditch / Dalston
Shoreditch and Dalston, like Notting Hill, are areas that have gone from downtrodden to desirable. Next to the City, Shoreditch has become a typical hipster hub, strong in art, technology, and nightlife. Moving further from the Square Mile, neigbouring Dalston is grittier but still a world away from the deprivation of most of the last century.
The East End is home to London’s best-known markets, again a homage to the area’s working-class trading history. As always, check opening days and times to avoid disappointment.
- Old Spitalfields Market is so close to the City that it might as well be part of it, but is technically in the East End. A market with a long history, the tasteful redevelopment of the area hasn’t diminished its considerable appeal. Art and fashion figure heavily amongst the stalls.
- Brick Lane Market Like Camden Market, a hodge-podge of smaller markets making for an intense experience. Brick Lane itself is also famous for its curry houses and bagel bakeries.
- Petticoat Lane Market Actually a combination of Wentworth Street and Middlesex Street Markets, this famous clothing market is fully open on Sundays.
- Columbia Road Flower Market may be less relevant for tourists as flowers aren’t something one generally brings back from a holiday. But the flower market adds colour to a grey inner-city area, and may be worth visiting if you’re visiting the other markets on a Sunday.
The London Divide evokes the idea that North London is classy (or pretentious) and South London is homely (or run-down). Indeed, most of the well-known areas are north of the river, but in reality both North and South London are too large to generalize about.
London is home to all types of art. As I have a particular interest in music, that’s where I’ll focus here.
My favourite gig tracker Songkick lists everything from massive arena productions to small dingy clubs. If you’re serious, create an account to track your favourite locations and artists.
The best option is buying tickets from the venue itself. But if you find yourself stuck without, there is a roaring trade in second-hand tickets, led by unscrupulous vendors such as viagogo and StubHub, which have high availability at a premium.
Small clubs / bars
Due to the large number of small clubs, I can’t claim to list all of them. These are some that have touched me over the years:
- The Black Heart
- Camden Underworld
- The Dome, Tufnell Park
- Highbury Garage
- Ronnie Scott’s
- Student Central Venue (forumerly ULU Live)
- The Water Rats
- Barbican Hall
- London Forum (formerly The Forum)
- O2 Brixton Academy
- Eventim (formerly Hammersmith) Apollo
- Islington Assembly Hall
- Royal Festival Hall
- Shepherd’s Bush Empire
- Oyster or credit card with limited cap
- Boris bike
- Uber / black cab
(Header image: The Serpentine, Hyde Park, London.)