Over the course of the past five years, London has become much more than a stop between my university home and my home in Vancouver. Sharing some of my favourite experiences, spaces, and sights from the city, this guide will leave you feeling full of London's culture, and most importantly, its food.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Best time to go
Aim to visit during late spring and early autumn. Booking off-season will provide you with the best accommodation options, and you'll avoid the large tourists groups that crowd the broiling city during the height of summer.
How to get there
There are five main airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City). I always fly through Heathrow; it's accessible by bus, underground, train and the Heathrow Express which runs to and from Paddington Station.
*TO SAVE MONEY: if you're planning on taking the express, buy tickets in advance and save them onto your phone, if you book 90 days you'll pay less than half the price!
Packing for London
Visiting a big city is the best opportunity to be playful with your fashion—when I was at university, taking a day trip to London always meant wearing my favourite pieces. Having said that, weather in London is always unpredictable, so pack in anticipation of having at least a couple days of rain; I even tend to bring a light raincoat during the summer! As you already know, a comfortable pair of walking shoes is also essential when travelling. If I'm visiting for over a week, I usually bring three pairs of shoes, but if I'm being honest, I never take off my sneakers—which brings me onto my next point.
Best ways to get around
WALK. If walking around the city is accessible to you, do it. Some of my favourite days in London have been spent wandering around quiet neighbourhood streets—you wouldn't believe the amount of things you miss when you're underground on the tube! I love walking along the Thames, through Notting Hill's mews, and of course, in and out of London's parks. Alternatively, if you're tight on time, try getting off a tube stop early and take the shorter walk to your destination. Public transport in London is efficient, but can add up, so if you're staying in London for more than a few days, look into investing in an Oyster card to use on the tube and buses (they can be purchased at any tube stop).
WHERE TO STAY
Like I mentioned earlier, booking off-season offers more affordable accommodation options. Whether you're looking for a hotel, hostel, or airbnb, prices tend to double during peak seasons. Admittedly, if you're like me and can't help but want to mimic a lavish lifestyle while on vacation, be prepared to budget your funds in anticipation of paying over $100 (CAD) per night for an entire apartment on airbnb. During my most recent trip to London, we stayed on Curtain Road in the heart of Shoreditch. I was, at first, hesitant about staying in an area known for its hipsterdom and gentrification, however, I had a complete change of heart towards the end of my trip. Once you walk past the line of girls waiting to enter the pink ball pit bar, the rest of Shoreditch feels like a genuine neighbourhood unconcerned with temporary trends. Since London's composed of 32 boroughs, I've rounded up my three favourites areas to stay in, and just outside of, London.
Other great areas to stay outside of central: Stoke Newington, Hackney (Dalston), Clerkenwell, Peckham.
Treat yourself! Again, and again, and again...
Le Pain Quotidien
Little Portland Cafe
Flesh & Buns
10 Greek Street
Neil's Yard Dairy
Maltby Street Market
St David Coffee
The Monocle Cafe
Le Pain Quotidien
In my opinion, Le Pain Quotidien is a little overpriced, so go with a friend to split the bill and enjoy an organic breakfast! My favourite is the Angler with smoked salmon.
If you're in London, a full English fry-up should be on your to-do list. Stop here for a mouth-watering breakfast- if you're vegetarian, sub your bacon and sausages for bubble and squeak!
If Bao Soho is busy, don't skip out!! Fitz (which is only a short walk away) will usually have a seat or two free.
Every time I visit London I make sure to stop at Koya. I've been going here for four years now and the food is always delicious, clean, and comforting. Around lunch and dinner rush, there's usually a 10-15 minute wait but the meal is worth it. My go-to order is their ten hiya-atsu udon, along with one of their seasonal plates written on the chalk board.
Flesh and Buns
If you're looking for a more romantic meal, visit their Oxford Circus location. Covent Garden has a much more eccentric vibe, but can get really noisy since it's underground- great for late night dinners and cocktails. Get the chips and dip. You won't regret it.
Xu offers diners a creative take on a traditional tea ceremony. I booked a tea ceremony for my boyfriend's birthday. We were nestled in the window corner, and had the loveliest afternoon sipping and munching. Note: Weekends can get busy so book a tea ceremony ahead of time!
My favourite spot for some cheese and an afternoon glass of wine after a long day of shopping. They're also open from Tues-Sat for dinner which is always amazing and worth the stop.
You'll want to arrive here 10 minutes before they open. Lines start before opening and they don't take reservations. Most of the menu is in Spanish so don't be afraid to ask questions! Each location has its own unique character and menu so be sure to check them all out.
*Sunday lunches are what the UK is made of so find your local pub and order their Sunday lunch for a traditional British dining experience*
- Tourist attractions are admired best from afar, landmarks tend to get overcrowded, busy, and unpleasant. You can gaze at most of these sites along your walks, so don't feel like you have to visit the attractions up-close in order to make your trip worthwhile.
- If you want to take in London's cityscape, skip the queue and cost of the London Eye and instead, spend that money on an afternoon picnic at Primrose Hill or Greenwich Park.
- Try to skip the tube during rush hour between 7:30-9:30am, and 5:00-7:00pm, especially if you don't want your face in a stranger's armpit.
- Most restaurants include a 12.5% service charge at the end of the bill- so make sure you aren't accidentally tipping twice!
- If you're like me and have sensitive skin, London's pollution might cause some congestion. Always carry a bottle of water and bring an exfoliating mask to refresh your skin at night!
- Plan your day ahead of time- the busyness, seas of people, noise and constant stimulation can feel overwhelming at times- try planning the things you want to do based on their location. This way, you won't stress yourself out by tubing back and forth as a means to fit everything in at once.
Buy your weight in books
I always make sure to leave my suitcase half empty so I can fill it with all of the amazing books I manage to find in London!
- Persephone Books
- Artwords Bookshop
- Brick Lane Bookshop
- London Review Bookshop
- Magma Covent Garden
- Daunt Books
- Photographer's Gallery Bookshop
- Tender Books
- The School of Life
- Tate Modern's gallery shop
*If you have a love for second-hand bookshops, walking down Booksellers Row at Cecil Court is a must. Note: most shops close early (6 pm) and aren't open on Sundays.
Oxford and Regent Street are always busy and can be borderline chaotic. Once you've had a chance to admire the streets' grand architecture, make your way over to the neighbouring streets to do your shopping. If you're looking for more high street brands, Carnaby Street, Soho and Covent Garden are good places to start.
- The Modern Society
- Labour and Wait
- Pam Pam!
- Present and Correct
- Caudalie Boutique
- Space NK
- SCRT (they don't have a physical store...yet, but keep up to date with their IG and check out for pop-ups!)
*Must visit: Tucked behind King's Cross station, are Victorian brick viaducts which have been reimagined and built into Coal Drops Yard. The perfect place to spend a few hours shopping, eating and drinking.
Take advantage of the free museums. The best part about London (other than the food) is that 'high culture' is more or less accessible to everyone. My long-standing favourites are The British Museum, Tate Modern, and Tate Britain. Other honourable mentions:
- National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Natural History Museum
- Serpentine Galleries
- Whitechapel Gallery
- White Cube
- Royal Academy of Arts (entry is free but some exhibitions require purchased tickets)
- Photographer's Gallery (entry is £2.50-5)
*Rather than a traditional museum, the Barbican is a cultural arts centre which hosts contemporary exhibitions, concerts and film screenings. It happens to be one of my favourite spaces in London and is a great space for photographers who like to snap Brutalist architecture!