I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been to London four times. Three out of the four times may or may not have been in 2016, but it’s obvious I can’t get enough of this city. From the history to the nightlife to the culture to the accents (I fell in love with every Brit I met. I’m a sucker for British and Australian accents.), I can say with #noshame that I am an anglophile through and through. Since I’ve spent so much time in this magical city, I’m going to split London up into four separate posts: Typical Tourist, A Very British Christmas, That One Time I was a Foot Model, and Harry Potter (obvi).
This post is about being a typical tourist, but I highly encourage you to not be one. As a traveler, I try to avoid tourists. This doesn’t mean don’t visit Big Ben or go to Piccadilly Circus or take a ride in the London Eye – by all means, PLEASE do these things. You really haven’t been to London if you haven’t done these things (but only kind of, because I’ve never actually ridden in the London Eye – budget traveler, guys). What I mean is that you should savor these moments with the naked eye, not take a million photos then move on to the next attraction. If you have a chance to visit, remember that you are very lucky and in the minority to have this opportunity. Love it, cherish it, remember it, and don’t be like the crowds around you.
Okay, now that my completely biased opinion is out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. First things first, get yourself an Oyster Card. This card is your transportation lifeline, letting you use all forms of public transportation (including the Overground, the buses, and the tube [Underground]). Depending on your length of stay is how much you add to your card. There are options for you to pay as you go or purchase a Travel Card, which is only for a certain amount of time. If you opt for the Travel Card, you’ll only need to purchase for Zones 1 and 2, as those are the main areas of London where you’ll spend the majority of your time. If you pay as you go (which I’d recommend for less than a week stay), start with £10 and top up when necessary. I’ve never been a fan of the hop on hop off bus tours, but if that’s something you’re interested in and are dying to ride in an open double decker, have at it!
There are numerous apps you can download to help you navigate the tube, but the most popular are Citymapper and Google Maps. I used both, but ended up just sticking with Google Maps at the end. The cool thing about Citymapper is that it has all the major cities and is really user friendly, and is updating itself for other big places where even Google isn’t a great resource. It doesn’t hurt to have a printed version of the tube map handy, as it can be a little tricky navigating it if you’ve never done it before. And also, STAND ON THE RIGHT. When going up and down the escalators, if you’re not in a hurry, stand on the right. The easiest way to get a Brit mad is to stand on the left, blocking those who are in a hurry.
Say hi to my little friend, Big Ben! The history of this guy is pretty cool. A fire destroyed much of the British Parliament’s headquarters, the Palace of Westminster. When it was redesigned, a large tower with a clock atop it was added to the design, thus the addition of Big Ben. He has a bit of an identity crisis, though, as he could be named after either Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the London commissioner for works at the time, or Benjamin Caunt, a super popular heavyweight boxer. I vote for the latter.
You can see this clock from all over, and the easiest way to get there is to take the tube and get off at Westminster (the Jubilee, Victoria, District, and Circle lines all make stops here). When you walk out of the station, BAM. Big Ben and Parliament.
You can walk across Westminster Bridge that goes over the River Thames to get to the London Eye. The world’s largest observation wheel in the world, it costs about £30 (cheapest, but you’ll wait in line) to take a ride in the transparent eyes. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never actually done this as I have to pick and choose what I can spend my money on, but it’s definitely worth getting up close and personal with it. There are benches on that side of the Thames where you can get amazing views of the London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, the River Thames, and more.
And of course, Buckingham Palace. When we got there, there was a crowd of people at the car entrance and lots of scary looking British guards with really big guns blocking the entrance. In the hopes of seeing royalty, we waited a bit. We’re pretty sure we saw Prince Charles. Even though the car windows were completely darkened and he was too far away when he got out of the car for us to distinguish him, it was definitely probably maybe him.
Okay, but when my cousin came to visit, HE SAW THE QUEEN. I didn’t happen to be with him when he went exploring, so he got lost and wandered to a bank where there was another crowd of people and then OUT WALKS HER ROYAL HIGHNESS. Proof below:
It’s not like I’ve been here for a few months without any royal sightings. Whatever. I’m not bitter.
But it’s a great segment to the Tower Bridge, Tower of London and The Crown Jewels, which are nothing short of spectacular. These jewels and all of the royal family’s possessions are absolutely gorgeous. The history of the Tower of London is a bit gruesome, but makes it all the more interesting. There are free Yeoman Warder tours every day at certain times, which is a great way to learn more about the building and have a taste of British humor.
Ever heard of Camden Town? This giant maze of eccentric shops, the most amazing street food, CyberDog, cheap clothes, Cereal Killer Cafe, Amy Winehouse’s statue, and hidden tea shops is definitely worth visiting. It’s a great place for souvenir shopping and buying fake designer pieces.
If you want to do a bit more of high end shopping, head to Piccadilly Circus. During Christmas, this place is gorgeously decorated and lit up, which you can read more about here. It’s a bit like Times Square, but you can wander down different streets to China Town, Trafalgar Square, check out free The National Gallery, and cheer on the street performers. Continue walking on over to Covent Garden, a gorgeous building filled with more high end shopping, as well as great restaurants and live elegant music being performed.
Want to see a play in the West End? I was fortunate to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (see separate blog post about that!) and Aladdin, and you can score some cheap tickets for most productions at the TKTS booth, but be prepared to wait in line and go the same day of purchase.
Neil’s Yard is probably the most colorful place I’ve ever been, and I LOVE IT. Seriously, make this a priority to get to. You can get a giant pizza at Homeslice Pizza. Monty Python used to live there. Do you need more motivation?!
Try and get to Notting Hill, which I
HIGHLY recommend because it’s adorable (go see the blue door). If you’re a Whovian, the TARDIS is located just south of Notting Hill out of the Earl’s Court tube station, which you can get to by hopping on the District line from Notting Hill Gate. For all of my Sherlock Holmes fans, head over to 221B Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes has been my homeboy since I could read, as well as my girl Nancy Drew. I was insanely excited to visit this place and I may or may not have written my name in the shop in between some cabinets. If you’re also SHERlocked like me, the BBC series door is located at 187 North Gower Street, Camden. You can locate Speedy’s Cafe and the door is to the immediate left of the real sandwich shop. I have a whole separate blog post for Harry Potter, so check that out if that fancies your interest.
As a nature lover, I spent a good amount of time exploring the parks. You can rent a city bike or walk through any of them. I loved Regent’s Park where I made my foot modeling debut, Hyde Park (you can find Peter Pan here), St. James’ Park, Holland Park and Wimbledon Common (seriously looked like we walked into Pride and Prejudice).
Don’t forget to check out Shoreditch and Brick Lane! You can get some awesome curry here and a bit of international culture, or check out the Sunday Up Market, which is from 10 AM – 5 PM on Sundays and features a ton of cheap, delicious international food. If you go at 4:30 PM, they cut their prices in half and you can bargain down even more since they have to get rid of their leftover food before closing time. Brick Lane is also home to the infamous salt beef bagels. This place is most crowded at 2:00 AM with all the drunkies and party animals. From what I remember, it’s really good. I cannot confirm or deny that I’ve only ever had these bagels after having a few bevs.
My number one recommendation: GET TEA AND SCONES. Or have High Tea. Or Clotted Cream. Actually, do them all. You’re in England, it’s pretty much mandatory. I’ve done a lot of relatively cool things, but some of my favorite memories are sitting with my friends at a tea shop drinking amazing tea and debating whether it’s cream then jam or jam then cream. If you’re American, you have no idea what I’m talking about. If you’re Australian or British, you have a very strong opinion about this and I just want to be a typical American and give my unwanted opinion and say it’s cream first, then jam. If you want to check out some of the really quirky places I visited for tea or just need a good recommendation, ask me!
And that’s London as a tourist! I’ve spent quite a good amount of time in this city, and I’m still in love with it. I was so fortunate to make a lot of great friends in the city and will definitely be back.