London is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. You can spend a solid month exploring the city 24/7 and still not have enough time to get through it all. A few days will hardly do justice to all there is to see and explore, but you have to try! So here is a rundown of my highlights – the things you absolutely have to do when you find yourself in London next.
As much as London is fascinating, it is also a very expensive city for us Saffers to visit. Planning your daily trips ahead of time will ensure you spend less on transport costs, food and sightseeing. You will also be able to squeeze as much as possible into each day spent in London. It is well worth researching all the places you want to explore, before heading out.
For an up-to-date source of information on the London scene, check out timeout.com. You can literally search anything and you will find it there: from unmissable events taking place, restaurants and pubs in the area you’ll be staying, current shows, the best markets to visit, as well as slightly more unusual features, such as a silent disco in an aquarium. (think I shall pass on that one).
Get your Oyster
As soon as you land at Heathrow, it’s time to bond with your new best friend: the rechargeable Oyster card! You can use an Oyster card to travel on the tube, bus, London overground trains, as well as river bus services and most National Rail services within the London fare zones. Having your Oyster card handy makes criss-crossing London cheaper, quicker and more convenient.
All you need to do is tap your Oyster card at the turnstile at the underground station and when you hop onto the iconic red buses. The bus route system in London is incredibly complex and confusing, but follow my lead and jump onto the first bus that more-or-less goes into the direction you are heading, and enjoy the ride! I make my way up to upper deck, get a front row seat and revel in the hustle and bustle of London below. When it’s time, I simply jump off at the next tube station, which I know will eventually take me home.
No emotion please
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Whilst on tubes….please don’t do the polite thing of making eye contact, greeting people or initiating a conversation on the tube, or for that matter, most public spaces. They will think you are a stalker/loony or just another annoying tourist. The upside to this is that you can pop in at a corner store in your pyjamas anytime you like, and no-one will look twice. It’s the done thing in London to never show reaction to anything! It truly is the city where you can be anyone you want to be.
Do the tourist thing
When you get back, people will inevitably ask you whether you went to Buckingham Palace, Harrods, Trafalgar Square, London Bridge, the National History and V&A museums, Piccadilly Circus, the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, etc. So you might as well get your fill of these amazing and historic landmarks of London all in one day. Not possible? Indeed it is, if you make use of the Hop-on-Hop-Off Red bus tour, which takes you around central London.
The Red Route route includes most of London’s key landmarks and their guides are really knowledgeable on London’s fascinating history, culture and architecture. You get ample warning about the next stop, giving you ample time to gather your stuff and hop off and explore the next particular landmark. It’s a brilliant way to get an overall impression of the city and to orientate yourself as to which landmark is where. The commentary also gives you a good idea of what to expect, so whilst on the bus you can earmark the places that you would like to explore at leisure, during your stay in London.
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A must-do is a visit to some of the best museums and galleries in the world – many of which are free. Spend a few hours in the British Museum, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum or the Science Museum, where you can browse the permanent collections at no cost. The Saatchi art gallery in Chelsea is well worth a visit for contemporary art.
Once you have dealt with your FOMO and settled into London’s unique rhythm, it’s time to start getting to know the real London, the way Londoners experience it. Take time to have fish & chips with mushy peas at a corner pub; and connect with the locals (same people as one tube, but here they are a lot friendlier). My best time to make new acquaintances is when there is a soccer match, as everyone piles into the pub to watch and suddenly become very chatty.
Visit Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s or if you can, Wholefoods; and stock up on some yummy wholesome snacks for an impromptu picnic at Kensington Gardens, or my all-time favourite Green Park.
My other favourite activity is people watching. Find a window seat at a coffee shop or deli and while away an hour or two just watching Londoners go about their daily lives. As mentioned earlier, London defines inclusivity – a recent study showed that London is home to people of more than 270 nationalities and 300 languages. It is the ultimate melting pot and it’s fascinating to observe the idiosyncrasies of it all.
Another brilliant way to enjoy London is to walk along the Thames River. There’s something magical about walking from Westminster Bridge all along the Southbank. Take in the smells, the people, the street performers, the views of St Paul’s Cathedral, the pubs, the rattling of the trains that go over the bridge – all very unique experiences that endear the city to you and allows you to feel like you belong. That’s what I love about London – in an ironic, and sometimes grumpy kind of way, it always makes space to accommodate one more.