Undisputedly one of the world's greatest cities, London is simultaneously the heart of the United Kingdom and a truly global city with influences gathered from around the world. It is both historic and modern, sprawling and diverse -- full of cozy corners, neighborhood pubs, and British charm, while remaining an international center of commerce and culture.
Whether you're a frequent visitor or it's your first time in the English capital, you'll find a mix of both UK character and global urban life that strike the perfect balance for a well-rounded London experience. On this last trip I was both exploring new neighborhoods on my own, as well as showing family around the main sights. I came to think of beloved London as both classic and contemporary -- and I adore both sides of this vibrant city.
If a contemporary experience is what you're after, look no further. Allow me to take you to...
Shoreditch: Unexpected East London
For my first couple of visits, I hardly knew a place like Shoreditch existed in London -- with its edgy street art, specialty shops, and alternative, gritty, creative vibe. You won't find East London in many guidebooks -- and it's true, there aren't any "must-see" sights there. That is precisely what makes a visit to this neighborhood so fascinating. It's the modern London and counterculture that many of us don't associate with the city when we think only of royals and red phone booths.
London's Modern Markets
For my father's first visit to London, he asked me, outside of the obvious, what I love most about London.
My answer: the markets.
Best on the weekends but operating throughout the city daily, the markets of London are a treat for all the senses and, to me, an expression of London's character. You've got well known markets such as Portobello and Camden, and then you've got some emerging trendy spots (which have become my recent favorites.)
The best? I found Broadway Market out in Hackney, along with the Columbia Road Flower Market, to be the most fun, especially for food. Speaking of food, if you don't hit Borough Market (London Bridge tube stop,) please just lie to me and tell me you did.
Did you know London has canals? The waterways were yet another hidden spot that took me several visits and conversations with locals to find. A leisurely stroll along the canals of London on an Autumn afternoon quickly became a highlight of my entire time there. Lined with homes both brick and boat, the area is not only beautiful, but, for me, also completely unexpected. A bike ride from Broadway Market down to the river Thames was the perfect way to while away an afternoon in London.
A Day Trip Across the Channel
Why, when there is so much to do and see in London, would I ever recommend leaving it for a day?
I would've asked the same, but I completed my first round trip journey to Paris on this last trip and it was so easy and comfortable I found myself wondering what took me so long.
Especially if you've yet to make to Paris, it couldn't be simpler to get there -- if only just for the day. Eurostar runs as frequently as every half hour, and if you've got a day to spare, you won't regret taking yourself over the Channel to see Paris. The journey time is a mere 2 hours, 15 minutes and leaves from St. Pancras station.
And Where to Stay?
London has its share of beautiful, full-service hotels. What it doesn't have are many affordable options. I opted for a stay at the Ibis Euston St. Pancras for the convenience of popping over to St. Pancras Station early in the morning, where I caught my train to Paris.
Ibis is known for its budget accommodation, and this property in particular was clean and well-located. For me it was a step up from a hostel without the price tag of an average hotel.
Though amenities are basic, it's well-designed and well-run and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better spot to stay.
It's quite simple really: you just can't come to London and not have a curry.
You thought Indian food was good where you're from? I'd venture to say London has the best Indian and Pakistani food outside of the countries themselves. To add to that, chicken tikka masala has become affectionately known as as much of a national dish as anything, even arguably more than fish and chips or Sunday roast.
There are a couple of ways to go about the ideal London curry experience: you can go with an acclaimed spot serving up inventive twists on classic dishes, or you can venture to Brick Lane, which is as straight to the source as possible.
(My favorites? For contemporary I like Dishoom (three locations throughout London) and a classic Brick Lane favorite for me is Meraz Cafe on Hanbury Street.)
Dine in a Garden in the Sky
Everyone knows about the London Eye and most recently, the Shard, but the Sky Garden (located in what is known to many Londoners as the "Walkie Talkie building") is still relatively a local secret. You can dine at the cafe (Darwin's Brasserie,) have a coffee and a pastry in the coffee shop, or simply take in the views and wander through the greenery.
There's no better (free) way to see the sweeping urban sprawl that is modern London. You've got views on each side as far as the eye can see (pending fog or rain!) You've got the Shard directly in front as you, with a bird's eye view of the historic Tower of London and Tower Bridge just below.
You can book free tickets on the website in advance, and you'll need to bring your passport and go through security to enter.
And because I wouldn't want you to leave without seeing the classics...
Strolling through one of London's grand public parks is, to me, one of the greatest joys to be found in the whole city. These aren't your average parks -- sprawling green spaces with mature trees towering over pristine walkways, elegant benches, and often fountains and outstanding vistas. They're a relaxing oasis in a busy city, but they've also been the pulse of London life for hundreds of years. It's a particularly great place to sit and watch the world go by, and I love simply absorbing the natural environment as people walk past. Hyde Park, Green Park, St. James's Park -- take your pick (and perhaps a picnic!)
(Tip: Primrose Hill has one of the best views of London and is my personal favorite.)
Tower of London: Living History
I almost refrained from yet another visit to the Tower of London on this last trip. At £22/person, it's not a cheap attraction -- especially when nearly all of London's spectacular museums can be entered free of charge.
What makes the Tower of London worth it, time and time again? For me it's the true sense of history here. Everything from the structure itself to the stories of monarchs and even a viewing of the crown jewels -- it's iconically English and continues to stand the test of time. You'll feel a true sense of London's maturity standing on the ground here.
That, plus, the Yeomen's (the Tower guards) tours are full of impeccably-timed British humor along with history, and the views of the iconic Tower Bridge can't be beat (and those both are free!)
Standing tall over centuries of rich history -- from royal weddings, to coronations, to the resting place of some of Britain's iconic historical figures, it's tough to imagine a more moving national monument. Ornately decorated both inside and out, here you can pay your respects to some of the world's most important moments and individuals and take in Britain's contributions to world history.
There is an entrance fee (except during Evensong service at 3 pm), but is always worth seeing, if only the exterior. The sense of place here is overwhelming; I never miss a chance to walk by.
Big Ben: A Classic No Matter How Many Times You've Been to London
Still my favorite London memory (and it never gets old,) I can't recommend taking the Tube to Westminster enough. Why? You emerge from the Underground and just as you look up Big Ben, the iconic clocktower of English Parliament, appears dramatically -- standing tall and elegantly regal. It's a must for first-timers to London of course, but I find myself still looking up in awe no matter how many times I return.
At 19 years old, on my very first trip to London, the main piece of research I completed in full was...where to find the best fish and chips. I love fish and chips -- they're iconically British, but they're often done in a mediocre manner. Yet when the fish is fresh and the frying is light, it's one of my favorite meals in the world.
Ten years later, the Covent Garden spot Rock and Sole Plaice (open since the 1800s) remains my favorite place to get my fill. Whether you sit inside, outside on their patio, or take it to go in a bit of paper, it's a classic London experience and I have yet to find a more classic establishment. It is all they serve. (Personally, I love the haddock most and I get a side of pickled gherkin and mushy peas!)
If I had to choose just one experience for anyone to have in London, I'd tell you to head straight to a true English pub.
While there are many that appear authentic, there are chains of impostors with the same menu -- so you'll want to do a bit of research. A few tried and true: The Victoria (Paddington,) Churchill Arms (Kensington,) Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Fleet St,) and the Prospect of Whitby (Wapping.)
Go for the decor, stay for the conversation, the ale, and the pub grub. A uniquely British social experience, I could happily sit for hours near a cozy fireplace with a pint. It's a place to be social, certainly, but I have yet to find another public space that feels as comfortably like home.
And there you have it, London in all its glory. Enjoy, and be sure to stop by and let me know which of these recommendations was your favorite!