London is a world in itself. Spanning over 13,000 square miles the English capital has 7.8 million inhabitants, 2.8 million of which live in the city centre. The City of London, only one square mile, is the business epicentre of the capital, although part of London's financial district is now in Canary Wharf, south of the city. London was divided up into 32 boroughs in 1965 and each borough is further subdivided by area usually referred to by Underground station.
London contains so much to see and do that it is impossible to cover everything over a long weekend, which is how long tourists tend to spend exploring the city. Visiting as much of London as possible requires efficient planning prior to getting there; reading up as much about the different areas and choosing a handful to visit is the best way so you don't end up missing out, but beware: London is enormous and travelling between the different areas takes time, so don't try to pack too much in at once or you will need to take another week off just to recover after your trip.
The main areas that draw large crowds of tourists are the West End, the entertainment district (Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Oxford Circus), East London (Spitafields, Brick Lane, Shoreditch), North London (Camden Market), Kensington, where most national museums can be found, Knightsbridge, where the high-end department store, Harrods, is located, which is close to Hyde Park and Notting Hill (Portobello Market, Westbourne Grove), and of course, the Thames area where the city's major landmarks line the murky waters of the river. The main draws here include Westminster (Big Ben and Westminster Abbey), the City Hall (designed by Foster and Partners), the London Eye, St Katharine's Docks, the Saatchi Gallery, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and so much more. London is an extremely fast-moving city, on par with New York, meaning there is always a real of new things to do - exhibition openings, new bars and restaurants, new shops, so don't be disheartened if you don't manage to see everything; It is hard to keep up, even if you are a local.
London is an extremely fast-moving city, on par with New York, meaning there is always a ream of new things to do - exhibition openings, new bars and restaurants, new shops, so don't be disheartened if you don't manage to see everything; i's hard to keep up, even for the locals.
How to live it up just like a local? There isn't really a single formula to feel like you belong, especially in London as it such a cosmopolitan city that you can pretty much pick and mix bits from a wide-ranging choice of cultures. However, the things that won't budge and that our team of writers from the big bright city loves going home for are enormous English breakfasts at The Breakfast Club, having a beer (always order a pint for authentic Britishness) along Camden Loch on a sunny day, shopping on Neal Street in Covent Garden, taking an entire day to explore the ins and outs of the Tate Modern, revisiting the Natural History Museum, which has one of the most impressive collections we have seen in Europe, going for a curry on Brick Lane or shisha and a kebab on Edgware Road, going for long walks in Hyde Park after exploring the Serpentine Museum, the Notting Hill Festival in August, partying at the city's best nightclubs including Fabric (Farringdon), or 93 Feet East (Brick Lane) or Proud (Camden) for the trendy socialite crowds. You won't have trouble finding an event any night of the week in London. Our favourite place to find out what's on is Time Out London.
The best thing about London is its diverse atmospheres - every area has its own distinct feel. Our favourite way of seeing the city is walking right through and getting lost in its tiniest cobbled streets, which are where the real London lies; lurking in 18th century pubs and inns that are rumoured to be haunted and covered markets like Brixton Village (South London) and Leaden Hall Market (the City).
Hard to know where to start with London and it's not just what the locals say to boast about this thriving metropolis, we assure you! Try to plan your trip either according to the areas you want to see or according to theme - for example, by museums, galleries, food, shopping, monuments, parks...once you have figured this out, everything will fall into place on your trip.
Exploring London is a very subjective matter, so we address the first-time visitor on a long-weekend. The very first thing any visitor (and local) should do is hop on a red open-roof double-decker bus tours - and this is an attraction not to be sneered at! As cheesy and touristy as it looks, this is the very best way of seeing the city as it helps you get your bearings. After getting an overview of this sprawling city, it is then a lot easier to narrow down your list of places to see (or add things you left off).
For the first-time visitor, must-sees include the Thames area. From West to East: take a couple of days to stroll around Westminster's buildings (there are organised tours of the different government buildings) and snap away at the Big Ben and the various protests that take place daily in Parliament Square. Then cross over and see the Tate Modern (London's highest profile and only large contemporary art museum), flick through the reams of books at the market under Waterloo Bridge, and take the Underground to Tower Bridge. Across the river, you will be able to see the Tower of London. There are tours of both, but allow at least half a day for these.
The Thames is the most emblematic of London's 'great city' status, so the best way to see it is on foot - you will discover picturesque cobbled clusters along the quays like Saint Katharine's Docks, as well as the latest in contemporary architecture, like the glass and aluminium-clad City Hall, that looks like its layers are sliding out of place. There are other buildings that feature in most guidebooks but that you will probably want to leave off your list - but do try to visit the OXO Tower between Waterloo and Blackfriar's Bridge. Its history and entire renovation is symbolic and represents London's development style - based on gentrification rather than a 'replacing old for new', means that the city still has all the character it would have had before the Great Fire of London in 1666.
After a thorough exploration of the Thames' banks, a spot of shopping and long tea-drinking sessions in the West End should be up next. Visit Covent Garden, the prettiest of the areas due to its covered market square and cobble shopping streets lined with the latest in trendy brands and independent labels (after looking around the main square to the right of the station, retrace your steps and take Neal Street, which is left of the station as you come out, for the real London West End vibe). Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square are probably London's most overrated attractions - when tourists get to Piccadilly Circus they usually don't quite know what to do with themselves apart from sit around the fountain and watch the traffic pass by, the large digital screens flashing from one advert to the next - Piccadilly Circus is the equivalent of New York's Times Square, but with less grandeur. Trafalgar Square must also be visited for its general atmosphere (it is also here that you will find the National Gallery). For travellers feeling brave and wanting to shop, Oxford Circus has all the mainstream brand, but one megastore that every traveller yearns to have open up in their town is Topshop. One of Europe biggest retailers, it is a temple for mainstream trendy prêt-à-porter.
For another side to London, but which is just as authentic as the big famous sites, is the north of the city. Calmer and a little further out, Camden Market is where you will find absolutely anything you could possible imagine, from psychedelic trance outfits to tattoo parlours and shisha stands. Plan to spend a sunny day here; walking along the Camden Lock (another name for a canal) and stopping at various trendy bohemian cafés along the way.
A must-visit is also the famous Notting Hill market with its streets of quaint coloured terraced houses.
Last but not least on our 'London for beginners list', is East London. Walk through Spitafields Market (make sure you read up on its history to truly appreciate it), head to Brick Lane, an Asian expat community with some of London's trendiest bars, clubs, shops and an impressive line-up of Indian restaurants, before walking out to Shoreditch, the place to be seen in London. Shoreditch High street is where the main cluster of activity unravels, but don't hesitate on exploring its side streets for an eyeful of that London charm, before heading to Hoxton Square's fashionable galleries (White Cube) and cafés (The Breakfast Club).
When visiting London it is important to plan your time efficiently, especially if you are there for a short time. Make sure you read up on all the places you are interested in visiting and make a selection before arriving. It is also worth planning to buy an Oyster card as this will allow you to get discounted rates on transport (not negligible in London). If you are a bit of a night owl, make sure you are aware that last orders at most pubs are at 11:00pm, 2:00am in bars and that tubes stop running just past midnight, but make sure you check this at your station.
An essential point to think about is accommodation - getting accommodation in the city centre (zones 1 and 2) is well worth the extra spend, or you could end up spending most of your time in London on the tube. And last but not least always carry an umbrella on you!
- Travelling by car in London. The congestion charge (about £10 per day) isn't the only cost of having a car. Parking is not only expensive but also extremely difficult to find.
- Avoid buying underground tickets for individual journeys. Buying a travel card or an Oyster is far better value for money. Even if you're only staying for a long weekend, you will travel about a lot so it is worth spending the extra £5 on.
- Although many websites will say that accommodation is in London, remember that London is enormous, so to avoid travelling great distances just to see the sites, make sure you choose accommodation within the city centre (zones 1-2). As the city is so vast, you will spend an hour or more per trip on public transport.
- Other things you might want to avoid is shopping on a Saturday, especially on Oxford Circus.
- Also to be avoided in the rush-hour in the mornings (7:00am-9:30am) and evenings (5:00pm-6:30pm).
If you're looking for traditional British food, head to a pie and mash shop where you'll be served copious amounts of different pies and mash potato, often served with liquor and jellied eels (it's better than it sounds!). Otherwise any English pub or fish and chip shop will guarantee an authentically British gastronomic experience.
Being such a cosmopolitan city, London's food scene is very diverse. Countless different world cuisines can be found across the boroughs. With every ethnic group comes a whole selection of different flavours. If you're in search of something spicy head to Brick Lane in search of Indian or Bangladeshi curry houses. Alternatively China Town, just off Leicester Square offers all the Peking and Cantonese food you could ever want. Make sure you explore one of the Asian supermarkets too. For a taste of Jamaica head to Brixton to try one of their famous patties.
Travellers not from the UK should bring back jars of mango chutney, ginger beer, Battenberg cake, scones, Cadbury's chocolate puddings, Ambrosia custard, ginger nut biscuits, salt and vinegar crisps, Yorkshire puddings, gravy powder, baked beans, and of course, English Breakfast tea (PG Tips or Tetleys).
Apart from food and drinks, you will be tempted to shop till you drop, so bringing back suitcases full of clothes is a given.
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