Going to London? Don’t forget to read on what you should eat during your visit!
I know what you’re thinking, “why is there yet another guide to London?” And to be fair, I found myself wondering the same thing coming up with this post. I mean, I read a lot of guides planning my own trip and took a lot of them into account when picking where to go! I enjoyed most of the places I visited, but there were some that I felt were underwhelming or only worth it for a quick stop.
That being said, London is a huge city—it’s over 1,500 square kilometers—and there are so many things to see and do, and frankly there are things like God’s Own Junkyard that I was dying to get to and didn’t have time for. Just think of this as your friend telling you what was worth going to, what was better avoided, and what was a touristy first-time visitor thing to check out! (All things related to food, like cafes and markets, will come in another post!)
Make sure you hit…
Something I was super excited about from the get-go were the free museums in London. I would have to say my favorite was the British Museum, which is essentially a collection of artifacts from around the world. Given British history, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the artifacts were stolen during colonial rule or forcefully “borrowed,” though some of the artifacts are either on loan from other museums and collections. This is a pretty big museum, but I found that it offered a glimpse into many global cultures and histories which I appreciate. The architecture is also pretty cool.
Another museum I really enjoyed was Tate Modern. Do I understand modern art? No. Do I think a lot of it is cool? Yes. There are many mixed media pieces as well as paintings and drawings in the free exhibitions. There was a text-based piece by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, presented in English with sporadic Korean which I found interesting as a bilingual person. The one bummer was that there was a ticketed Yayoi Kusama exhibition that I would have loved to see but was completely sold out through April 2023. If interested, make sure to book ticketed exhibitions well in advance.
What about the outdoor stuff? Hyde Park was the first place I went to when I arrived in London, and it was the loveliest outdoor space. Maybe it was the brisk fall weather and clear skies, or maybe it was the fresh air after a long flight, but I loved being in the park. It’s a big park, however I didn’t find it nearly as overwhelming as Central Park in New York. There are tourists and locals, though it’s not too crowded, and you can enjoy coffee or a drink by The Serpentine, ride in a paddleboat, or just take a long stroll. While I didn’t cross into Kensington Gardens, spending an afternoon in the park is a wonderful way to relax in the middle of a bustling city.
London has many great parks, and in the middle of Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian. This is a great chance to take the light rail and see some of the city from above ground, and you can also visit Greenwich Market and check out some very cool small businesses. At the Royal Observatory, you can learn about British astronomers and see some of the facilities and tools they used, but in my opinion the real attraction is getting to stand on the Prime Meridian. I mean how cool is that? Additionally, right outside the observatory is a stunning view of the Queen’s House and the London skyline.
It’s hard to pick where the best view of the city is, but I would argue that the Sky Garden might take the cake. Admission is free, meaning tickets run out quickly, but the view from the observation deck is incredible. From there, you can see the Thames River, multiple bridges including Tower Bridge, the Shard, the Gherkin, and more! Go around sunset if possible, and enjoy golden hour, with a drink if you so desire. Sky Garden is in fact a garden, and it has a restaurant and bars on the upper and lower floors. I found this to be most worth the wait and the crowd—it took a while for all ticketed visitors to go through security and the elevator, but you forget all about it once you’re at the top.
Last on my hit list, though not the least, is Trafalgar Square. Everyone goes there—no, I mean everyone including street artists, the local teens who just got released from school, and people on first dates—because it’s one of the most “London” places to be. Dare I call it iconic? You see old-school buildings, Big Ben, Nelson’s Column, and this huge intersection with red double decker buses passing through. I say grab a cup of coffee from nearby and sit on the steps and watch the people walk by.
You can go ahead and skip…
I had heard a lot about the Natural History Museum and was very excited to visit, but the museum visit fell a bit flat for me. There’s quite a bit to see, and while I thought the gemstone and dinosaur exhibits were cool, I do think the museum is best suited for children and youth. If I had come here ten to fifteen years ago, I’m sure I would have loved it—and lots of school groups on field trips seemed to be thrilled! If you’re traveling alone or your group is adults-only, I would pass on this one unless you’re particularly interested in natural history. I would recommend walking around the outside of the building because it’s quite beautiful.
Another touristy spot I was a bit disappointed by was Piccadilly Circus. A few people described it as Times Square-esque, and while I’m not a Time Square fan, it’s one of those things that I think visitors should just cross off their list at least once. Maybe I just didn’t go at the right time, but Piccadilly Circus was literally just a big intersection. For something more fun and still touristy, walk down Regent Street and go shopping, or down Piccadilly and purchase some tea and other goods at the famous Fortnum & Mason.
The last item I would suggest skipping is the Churchill War Rooms. To preface, I don’t think this was a bad museum by any means. There’s a self-guided audio tour and you learn about Churchill and WWII, but admission is around $30 USD and personally, I don’t think the price was worth it. It’s also more of a “deep cut” than the other sights I’ve mentioned, so it could also be saved for a second trip to London. Similarly to the Natural History Museum, it’s probably worth it if you have a specific interest in history, especially war history, but otherwise I think your time is better spent at places like the British Museum.
If you’re a first-timer, drop by…
There are several landmarks that take a short amount of time, but are quintessential first-time visitor spots. Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and London Eye are all very fun to see, particularly because they are so recognizable and well-known. They’re heavily referenced in pop culture, and there’s something special about seeing things from films, TV, and other media. The three are also mere minutes from each other, so it’s very easy to tag them all in one go.
Buckingham Palace is another great pitstop. In the mornings, you can see the changing of the guard, but plenty of visitors come by at other times of day. I also spotted guards doing training a block or two away, so keep your eyes peeled for that as well! The Tower of London and Tower Bridge are also must-see landmarks. I definitely recommend catching a bus that crosses Tower Bridge and sit on the second floor for a unique view!