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TIPS

The Low Down on London

As a travel destination, London has a lot to offer.

The city has the distinction of being an unwavering, steadfast city of historic magnitude and rising super star at the same time. With history that spans two thousand years, it has enough icons (from Big Ben to the Tower of London) to keep you busy as a Bobby for a full week.

Then, there are the storied neighborhoods to wander through that once explored feel like autonomous villages, with no connection to the one right next to it, nestled between beautiful verdant parks that used to be the private hunting grounds of Kings and Queens.

Oh, yeah and the whole Royal pageantry thing will have you smitten. You’ll act all cool like you could care less about such trivial things, but the first time you see one of the Queen’s guards with their towering furry hats, you’ll be as taken as if it were Daniel Craig under there (that’s Bond, James Bond).

With all London’s hoi polloi, it’s a city that has always had an edge. Even though it’s known as the quintessential British city, it’s the multicultural capital of all of Europe, with 7 million people speaking 300 languages.

It’s why I love this city. Everyone dreams of going, but no two people will experience it the same way.  Next time you head to London, pack this list of my tips and favorites:

Transportation from the Airport

Heathrow Express. With a train that leaves every 15 minutes and arrives in 15 minutes and costs £18 there’s no reason to take a cab that will cost £50 to £80 and take 30 minutes to an hour.

Getting around

Even public transportation in London is expensive at about $6 a ride. The Oyster Card is a must. It essentially makes a single ride trip costing over £4 no more than £2.

Cheap eats and still a bit of history

Green Cabbie Huts are literally green huts that look like gardening sheds established to serve food and tea to the infamous cabbies of London. They were set up in the late 1800’s since drivers couldn’t leave their cabs unattended to get a warm meal. There were once 200 in London. Now, there’s only 14, but it’s still worth seeking out. Inside, you’ll find a tiny seating area reserved only for London cabbies. However, you can order a bacon roll and a warm cup a tea and look into a hidden world that’s been in existence for over a hundred years.

A great pub

Not all London Pubs are created equal. The amount of hanging flower baskets out front isn’t an indicator of authenticity, either. To find a really good pub, make sure it’s a “Free House,” meaning it’s not sponsored by mega beer brands that shut out the little guys. An example of this would be The Wenlock Arms which offers micro brews from England that we could never find in the states. A bit out of the way in Greater London in a non-descript neighborhood, but you’ll be drinking with the locals.

Wagamama, please come to America!

Wagamama is an Asian canteen with a modern convivial atmosphere. Wagamama serves wonderful spicy, sweet, sour and salty noodle dishes. I went to one back in 1992 when it first opened and I’ve been waiting for them to come to the States ever since.  Okay, they are in Boston, but that’s not good enough.

Best view (and way to work off those fish+chips)

Hands down, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Most people head to the London Eye for phenomenal views, but the capsules keep you enclosed and protected from the noise of a great city. That’s why I like St. Paul’s. It puts you outside where you feel the air and hear the energy of the London town. Make sure you stop at the whispering gallery on your way up the stairs. In America, it would’ve been called a yelling gallery, but those British, they’re so polite.

My favorite “Holy Crap London’s old!” attraction

You have to check out the Ceremony of the Keys. Essentially, you’re just watching the locking up of the Tower of London, but talk about tradition! This has gone on every single night since 1340, except once when it was delayed ½ hour due to the German’s bombing of London! I remember reading one reviewers post that this was the most boring thing they did. (Yeah, and the Changing of the Guard is a real nail biting cliff-hanger). What I like about it is that the Tower of London is pretty cool by day and downright spooky at night. Due to high demand, they only let so many people in and you have to write two months in advance for tickets. The good news is tickets are free.  More info

Best curry

Head over to Malabar in Notting Hill. Very good Indian food, at a great price in a nice, dare I say sophisticated atmosphere. It’s tough to get all three at the same time. The lamb with yogurt and mint was lovely. I highly recommend the samosas, which were flaky and moist at the same time.

James Smith Umbrella Shop

Ever think you would spend $200 on an umbrella? Once you see this shop you will. Opened in 1830 and family run ever since, it’s a time machine of a Victorian shop that still has its original fittings where the umbrellas are handmade. Even their website is charming with umbrella care as a clickable category. Located in London’s West End it’s a must visit. And by spending so much do you think you’ll ever leave your umbrella behind?

Spitalfields Market

Once a Sunday only event this extremely popular market is now open 7 days a week.  If you’re looking for unique London fashion but don’t have the Kate Moss salary this is where you’ll find 100’s of stalls featuring independent designers creating clothing, handbags, jewelry and fancy things for the home.

Camden Town

This is a neighborhood where you could die your hair pink and dance around in a garbage bag and no one would look at you twice.

British Boot Company

It’s been around since the mid 1800’s and in 1958, became the first shop to sell Dr. Martens. They still get exclusive Docs here and I still regret not buying the calf-high silver glitter boots laced up with large black satin bows.

Cherrio! And have a brilliant time!

What are your favorite things to do in London?  Post them in the comments below.

As a travel destination, London has a lot to offer. Here are my favorite things to do when I visit.

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This Post Has 25 Comments
  1. Sam, I’m soooo excited to see this! I’m going to London in a month. I was there last year, too, but I’m looking forward to seeing a million things I didn’t get to see last year. Thanks for the great timing of this post! Love you and your shows!!! Sheila

  2. A great pub I visited was Ye ol’ Mitre Pub in Hatton Garden. Est. 1560’s. Great food, local people and a great history lesson. The Churchill war rooms are a must in my book. The hardships during the Battle of Britain is staggering.

  3. Tower Bridge is my top favorite attraction among others.
    St Paul is relative good and definitely the awesome dome can be seen from many vantage points in London.

  4. I love watching the bird’s eye view of the magnificent city from inside a London Eye capsule. The historical tour inside Westminster Abbey. And, i really enjoyed the food and theatrics where we had the Medieval Dinner (sorry, i forgot the name of the resto). Anyway, it was really a lot of fun!

  5. Samantha do you have any ideas, photos, things to do and paces to visit in France? Please advise as my son is making a trip there this December! Thanks, R

  6. Just got back for our 4th time. We love trying the different cuisines – French, Indian, Lebanese, etc. It’s amazing! We loved going to the play, Mouse Trap. It’s been playing 65 years and is very British and fun! Also, there are a number of bus day trips that are great! We did a Downton Abbey tour that was amazing! (You must book way in advance and its only a few times a year). Also I discovered you can do day trips by rail (there’s a website for this) so you don’t have to be in a big group like cattle. We hopped a train for Bath (drops you off by the city center), spent a lovely day and easily made it back to London!

  7. British Library Historical Documents Room!!!

    I am always surprised that this is not on the top of everyone’s London must sees.

    Gutenberg Bibles, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, Beatles lyrics scribbled on cocktail napkins by John and Paul, The Magna Carta and the list goes on.

    I have been to London about six or seven times and of all the things I have seen, this is at or very near the top of my list. Maybe I am just a nerd.

    Oh, and it’s FREE! In a city as expensive as London it is nice to find something so special for free. (OK, maybe drop a pound in the donation box, and splurge on a British Library book mark.)

  8. We loved taking a boat ride on the Thames, touring Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, these are must sees.
    We purchased tickets ahead of time for a night at the theater too. Lyric Theater was a wonderful old place. Oh, and shopping at Harrod’s, you’ll get lost! Amazing city, I want to go back.

  9. A favorite of mine is the Old Operating Theatre Museum. It’s essentially a time capsule. Be forewarned that it is not at all handicapped accessible. You will have to climb up a very steep, curved staircase to get there. Also, doing a free Harry Potter walking tour is definitely recommended. I cannot for the life of me find the one I used but here are some good ones: http://www.hypable.com/give-yourself-a-harry-potter-tour-of-london/. http://www.freetoursbyfoot.com/harry-potter-tour-london/, or http://www.the-magician.co.uk/. Even if you aren’t a fan of the films, these still show you some really cool, out of the way London features. Yes, these are free, but you will have to navigate the Tube on your own. There’s also the “not so” Roman baths in the middle of Kings College which are cool to peek into.

  10. My favorite thing to do in London is to go down to the houses of Parliament around 11:30 in the morning. There is a little park just across the street from the clock tower, so I find an empty bench and wait for “Big Ben” to strike 12!

  11. Check out:

    1. The Museum of London has some of the most interesting and well presented displays that I’ve ever seen.

    2. Dennis Severs’ House for the night tour – It’s a living museum where each room has been “left” as if the residents just left.

    3. Geffrye Museum – see living rooms from 1500’s to the present

    4. Hampton Court Palace is a must do!

  12. It’s been since 2006 since I was there but I still consider it to be my favorite trip! I loved the usual things, Tower of London, St. Paul’s, British Museum, National Gallery, Westminster Abbey. I took an Abbey Road tour which I loved since I’m a huge Beatles fan, but a friend had told me about the Churchill War Rooms, which I really enjoyed! Wow was that something to see, if you’re at all interested in Britain during WWII. Took a boat tour down the Thames after the Tower of London tour. It was just an awesome trip. I want to go again!! There is so much to do and see!!

  13. We visited a Wonderful Pub in Kensington called Churchill Arms, the outside us filled with flowers all over the building, the inside quaint and cozy. The people are warm and friendly and treat you as like you are like family and the drinks are good. Very lovely establishment.

  14. There’s also the possibility to get a free walking tour in London, highly recommended! Even if it was a paid tour I would recommend it.

  15. I absolutely love the Ceremony of the Keys! The Tower of London is my favorite place, so to see it at night was just amazing! Windsor and Hampton Court are also well worth a visit!

  16. My husband and I went to London a few years ago. I can’t remember where we left from but we took a gondola ride to Camden Town. Highly recommend.

  17. We did several walking tours with London Walks, all were exceptional and well worth the 10GBP per adult. These gave us a chance to see some not so well known places and hear some excellent stories.

    I would also highly recommend the Verger Tour in Westminster Abbey. It is so amazingly vast we would have missed some really interesting and exciting corners had we tried to navigate it on our own.

    We had a fabulous four days in London and two in Liverpool in March, but there was so much to see I’m already planning to go back as soon as I can. (Just don’t tell my hubby)

  18. If you want a really neat pub, first go to Borough Market on a Saturday morning and feast on all real and imagined street foods available. Then head down Borough High Street from the market and on the right you’ll see an alley leading to The George, a 15th/16th century Coaching Pub frequented by Shakespear. Or, if you want to see something different, head east from the market and see Southwark Cathedral, the remains of the Palace, and the Clink.

  19. Sam, when my parents and I went to London in 2012, we hit everything in your Passport to Europe show, I got us all Oster cards for the Tube, first pub we went to I went to order at the bar, the host was so nice he said I was doing it correctly but most pubs he said have started using a wait staff the Olympics were that same year and with all the international guest that were coming they wanted to make it easy. we rode in a London Black Cab, its so much fun and yes they do know every place in town and how to get there 😉

  20. Wagamama and Ceremony of the Keys: Yes!! And Yes!! We also enjoyed Westminster Abbey evensong:gorgeous. Tea at Kensington Palace’s Orangery: sumptuous, elegant yet casual and delicious. And the St. Martin-the-Fields’ Café in the Crypt: awesome atmosphere, tasty budget-friendly meals PLUS the Brass Rubbing Centre located in the Crypt, where, for 5£ you can make a cool rubbing off replicas of ancient brass plates and have a wonderful keep sake.

  21. I had spent this spring in London and it was my first time.Amazingly great experience of my life, but tough days. Friendly guide who treat me a part of their family and make my every moment wonderful. I definitely recommend.

  22. A fabulous list of tips that everyone should read before leaving for London. I would like to bookmark this post for my next visit to London, thanks!

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The Low Down On London
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