No city in the world is quite like London. At once historic and cutting edge, stately and scandalous, hoity-toity and low-brow, gritty and manicured, the teeming British capital has such a complex (some might say split) personality that it almost defies description. Indeed, as Henry James once said, “It is difficult to speak adequately, or justly, of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.”
Part of London’s undeniable magnificence stems from its megawatt royal, arts, and nightlife pedigree. After all, this sprawling city by the Thames is home to the world’s most-watched monarchy, some of the globe’s finest cultural institutions, and many of the planet’s oldest pubs and best DJs. And that’s before tipping our hat to its celebrated theater scene and role as international arbiter of all things deemed to be of proper good taste. In any other city, these qualities alone would justify a visit, but London ups the ante by offering visitors the opportunity to experience a multitude of unique local customs as well – from posh high tea to fire-engine-red double-decker buses – that always manage to captivate even the most jaded of world travelers, never mind the city’s many repeat visitors.
Indeed, more people return to London than to other cities of its class, in part because it’s next to impossible to see and experience everything this metropolis has to offer in one single foray. London only fully unveils itself to newcomers over time, making each subsequent trip one of new discoveries and familiar places.
With its tourist landmarks scattered all over its vast urban landscape, the city can be a challenge to explore. In a quick three-day visit, you should focus your time on the West End, the royal enclaves of Westminster and Whitehall, the elegant residential zones of St James’s, Mayfair, and Marylebone, the happening neighborhoods Soho and Covent Garden, and the high-brow academic retreat of Bloomsbury. If you have five days, add on the many remarkable neighborhoods of central London: the ancient quarter known as The City; the gentrified East London enclaves of Hoxton and Clerkenwell; the museum-packed area of the South Bank; and the swanky neighborhoods of Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge and Notting Hill. Finally, if you have a week, tack on visits to the well-heeled areas of Hampstead and Islington and the market-filled Camden to the north; in the southeast, the main attraction is the famous Greenwich; all the way out west, another wonderful day can be spent strolling through the picturesque enclaves of Kew and Richmond. See them all, and you’ll have experienced the best and most diverse of London’s history, culture and local way of life.
No matter how long you intend to stay in London, it’s best to take an introductory hop on-and-off double-decker bus tour that runs the circuit of the major highlights, leaving every 20 minutes from several pick-up points in the city center; Original Tour is the agency that organizes these outings.
Note that if you plan on a lot of sightseeing, you’ll get the most for your money if you buy a London Pass that gets you free entry to over 50 attractions, plus perks like jumping the line at busy sights and receiving discounts at local restaurant (£29–£34 for one day, £42–£55 for two days, £52–£71 for three days; lower price doesn't include transit). While in London, we also recommend buying a copy of Time Out magazine for the most up-to-date theater, art, restaurant, and nightlife listings; you can also read them online in advance of your trip, at www.timeout.com.
Any visit to London should start with a tour of the city’s historical landmarks. After all, the nearly 2000-year-old city is the seat of the British monarchy, and packed with must-see ancient sights. Begin your wandering in the royal enclaves of Westminster and Whitehall, making the Houses of Parliament (Old Palace Yard) the first stop on your itinerary. This grand Gothic-Revival edifice sits on the Thames, with the iconic Big Ben and its 13-ton bell striking the hour from the tower at the building’s eastern end. You can admire this living bastion of Britain’s democracy from the outside, or catch a debate (on select days) in the public galleries of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords; if you want to visit both Houses, you can do so on a guided tour from August through September only (£7), but book well in advance.
Right across Abingdon Street you’ll find the next major highlight, Westminster Abbey (Parliament Sq.; opening hours vary; closed Sun; £8), a splendid Gothic abbey chock-full of plaques, statuary, and memorial reliefs honoring dozens of famous British luminaries, many of whom who are also buried here – look for Charles Dickens, Laurence Olivier, and Rudyard Kipling, among others, plus the plaque commemorating Thomas Parr, who lived to the ripe old age of 152 years and 9 months.
You mustn’t leave the area without paying due respect to the Queen – a short stroll to the west will bring you to the monarch’s official residence, Buckingham Palace (Buckingham Palace Rd.), a colossal 600-room residence where you can experience the pomp and fanfare that attenuates the Changing of the Guard ceremony (weather permitting daily at 11.30am from April through July, and on alternate days the rest of the year). If you want to check out the palace’s interiors, visit in summer, when the Queen is on holiday, and 19 palace rooms and the 39-acre royal garden are opened to the public (Aug–Sept daily 9.45am–6pm; £14).
For an essential slice of ancient London, you’ll have to venture to The City and visit our favorite local landmark: the 900-year old Tower of London (Tower Hill; Mar.–Oct.: Tues–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun & Mon 10am–6pm; Nov.–Feb.: Tues–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun & Mon 10am–5pm; £15), a haunted medieval fortress overlooking the Thames, with a long history of murders, tortures, executions (two of Henry VIII’s wives were executed here in the 16th century), and other macabre goings on. It’s best seen on a Beefeater guided tour (several times daily); you’ll learn about the tower’s various roles as armory, royal palace, fortress, prison, place of execution, mint, and, even, menagerie. And don’t miss the Tower’s pièce de resistance, the Crown Jewels, an extraordinary collection of precious stones with a 2868-diamond Imperial State Crown as the star exhibit.
Finally, don’t leave the area without seeing St. Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul’s Churchyard; Mon–Sat 8.30am–4pm; £9, £3 extra for guided tour), the magnificent opus of famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. The cathedral is especially noteworthy for its superb dome, which survived the bombings of World War II virtually unharmed.
Museums & Galleries
With over 200 museums and galleries, London is a delight for art and culture buffs. What’s more, many of the major institutions allow free entry to their permanent collections – a boon in a city that can otherwise be quite expensive – and some also allow free access to their temporary exhibits. While it could take a couple of weeks to visit all of the museums this city has to offer, you can get an excellent sampling by visiting our must-see list.
Start with the mammoth antiquities collection of the British Museum in Bloomsbury (Great Russell St.; Sat–Wed 10am–5.30pm, Thurs & Fri 10am–8.30pm; free), a world-famous museum with two-and-a-half miles of galleries and over seven million exhibits covering everything from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through to China, India, Japan.
As the next stop on your museum tour, check out the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square; daily 10am–6pm, Wed until 9pm; free), one of the world’s most impressive collections of Western European paintings housed inside a gigantic Neoclassical building on Trafalgar Square. With over 2000 pieces on display dating from 1250 to about 1900, you’ll find a veritable who’s who of Western European masters here, including Botticelli, Titian, da Vinci, El Greco, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and British noteables Turner and Constable.
You definitely shouldn’t leave the city without visiting one (or both) of the terrific Tate museums. Tate Britain (Milbank; daily 10am–5.50pm; free), located in West End’s Whitehall, has an outstanding collection of British art dating from the early 16th century to the present day, including the world’s largest collection of Turners. Its sister museum, the Tate Modern (Bankside; Sun–Thurs 10am–6pm, Fri & Sat 10am–10pm; permanent-collection free) occupies a converted power station in Southwark, on the other bank of the Thames, and ranks as London’s top destination for anyone interested in modern art, with a wide-ranging collection that includes Rodin, Giacometti, and Warhol, among others.
Finally, a good reason to wander beyond the West End is the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington (Cromwell Rd.; daily 10am–5.45pm, Wed & last Fri of the month until 10pm; free), better known as the V&A, a colossal place with a striking collection of applied arts from around the globe and different eras, its exhibits ranging from a 16th-century Italian harpsichord to a 15th-century altarpiece from Spain and a golden throne that belonged to one of the last Sikh emperors.
Parks & Gardens
You might not know that 30 percent of London is covered by open green spaces, including 143 registered parks and gardens which, unlike their show-offish Paris counterparts, have a more natural and less-manicured look and feel. These retreats are so precious that Londoners spend much of their free time here, and no visit to London would be complete without at least strolling through one of the city’s verdant gems.
Our favorite of the lot is Hyde Park, once famous as the hunting playground of Henry VIII and nowadays a sprawling stretch of marvelously landscaped greenery, complete with flowerbeds, ponds, scenic trails and a 41-acre lake. If you visit on a Sunday, do make a point of stopping by Speakers’ Corner, at the northeastern end, to catch a local standing on a soapbox and exercising his or her right to freedom of speech by ranting about everything from religion to local politics.
For a more serene slice of the park, wander through the adjoining 275-acre Kensington Gardens. It’s home to 178 bird species, a quartet of four fountains known as the Italian Gardens, the Victorian-inspired Albert Memorial and, the main draw, Kensington Palace (Mar.–Oct. daily 10am–6pm; Nov–Feb daily 10am–5pm; £11), the official residence of Princess Diana until her death in 1997. You’ll be able to visit the State Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection but not the late princess’s private rooms – they’re closed to the public, alas.
For a unique way to admire London’s cityscape, take a ride on the hugely popular London Eye (South Bank; Oct.–May. 10am–8pm; June–Sept. 10am–9pm; £13), a slow-moving Ferris-wheel-like contraption with 32 passenger pods; the 30-minute ‘flight’ on this sleek structure (which happens to be the city’s sixth-tallest and weighs more than 250 double-decker buses) affords outstanding panoramic views of London. While you don’t have to, we nonetheless highly recommend that you book your ticket in advance – you won’t have to line up and you may also get a discounted rate. You can book online at www.ba-londoneye.com.
For a quirkier cultural stop, we particularly like Dalí Universe (Riverside Building, South Bank; daily 10am–6.30pm; £9.75), an homage to the celebrated surrealist maestro. You’ll find over 500 of Dalí’s lesser-known works on display in a labyrinthine space that does a pretty good job of being as out-there as the artist himself.
If design’s your thing, we urge you to visit the Design Museum in Southwark (28 Shad Thames; daily 10am–5.45pm; £7), considered to be Europe’s best. It’s housed in a converted 1950s warehouse and hosts changing exhibits that showcase consumer objects ranging from cars to household items and furniture.
History buffs can also learn about London’s vibrant past by visiting the engaging Museum of London (London Wall; Mon–Sat 10am–5.50pm, Sun noon–5.50pm; free). Close to two million artifacts can easily distract you here, including a 5100-year-old skeleton and the Lord Mayor’s Coach, an impressive 1757 horse-drawn carriage that’s still paraded around the city once a year as part of the Lord Mayor’s Show.
If you’re traveling with children, we suggest a trip to the London Aquarium on the South Bank (County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd.; daily 10am–6pm; £11.75) home to one of Europe’s largest displays of global aquatic life, with over 3000 underwater creatures and 350 marine species. The London Zoo (daily mid-Feb to early-Mar & late-Oct 10am–4.30pm, early-Mar to late-Oct 10am–5.30pm, late-Oct to Feb 10am–4pm; £14) in Regent’s Park, is also a hoot: the 36-acre animal kingdom here dates from 1826 and contains 5000 animals in a delightful landscape of gardens, tunnels and bridges. For some scary fun, we recommend the London Dungeon (28–34 Tooley St.; daily 10am–5.30pm; £11.95), a Gothic extravaganza housed inside creepy underground vaults, with blood-curdling wax figure displays of murders, hangings, and tortures, and multimedia recreations of horrific event like the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague and Jack the Ripper murders, with well-executed special effects.
As the top tourist destination in the UK, London boasts an array of lodging options for just about every budget. It is also known as one of the world’s priciest lodging scenes, with a staggering number of exclusive hotels and fancy boutique properties. For visitors with more restrictive budgets, moderate and bargain options are plentiful, too. To help you choose the right overnight address that will place you within easy reach of most attractions, we’ve outlined our central London favorites in each category. For a full list of our favorite London hotels (and current deals), see our Shermans Top London Hotels directory.
For top luxury in the West End, we recommend The Savoy (The Strand), a legendary five-star hotel on The Strand, boasting 263 gloriously decorated rooms, a stellar health club, several outstanding restaurants, and even a couple of famous bars (including the American Bar). Another good high-end choice is One Aldwych (One Aldwych, Covent Garden), a swanky designer 105-roomer housed in a 1907 Edwardian building in the heart of Covent Garden, with plush rooms featuring all the four-star trimmings; two top-notch restaurants; two funky bars; and an 8000-sq-ft health club. See more luxury hotels.
Of the moderate options, our favorites include The Colonnade (2 Warrington Cresc., Little Venice), an elegant boutique hotel in the tony area of Little Venice, west of Marylebone, where 43 antique-filled rooms feature a bevy of deluxe bells and whistles, and Durrants Hotel (George St., Marylebone), a singular Georgian-style property around the corner from Oxford Street with all the period trimmings, 92 well-appointed rooms decked out in English-country style, a fine restaurant and the snug George Bar. See more moderate hotels.
If you’re looking for budget accommodation, you don’t even have to leave the West End; your best bet lies in the upscale academic enclave of Bloomsbury – the historic Crescent Hotel (49–50 Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury), a delightful B&B housed in an elegant Georgian building overlooking a private garden estate, with 27 tastefully spruced-up rooms, a pleasant lounge, and real-deal (and complimentary) English breakfasts. See more budget hotels.
London provides a wealth of dining options for every palate and every budget, from nouveau British to country French, and creative Indian to home-style Cantonese. You’ll find celebrity chefs cooking up delicious gourmet storms at pricey destination restaurants, several moderately priced dining options, and downright bargains eats.
Our favorite upmarket restaurants include the Chelsea flagship of the Gordon Ramsay (68–69 Royal Hospital Rd.) gourmet empire, where you can sample Britain’s star chef’s creative French-inspired concoctions; the Soho-based Lindsay House (21 Romilly St.), where Irish master chef Richard Corrigan conjures up trailblazing nouveau British dishes; and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia (10 Lincoln St.), an intimate Chelsea newcomer with the Michelin-appraised chef Vineet Bhatia creating innovative combos of traditional Indian cuisine with a modern twist.
Best mid-range restaurants include Notting Hill’s Cow Dining Room (89 Westbourne Park Rd.), an atmospheric gastropub (read: traditional pub offering upscale pub grub) dishing out superbly fresh and flavorful staples prepared with a creative touch; Al Duca (4–5 Duke of York St.), a good Italian standby in the heart of Piccadilly, with well-priced and wonderfully reliable food running the full gamut of antipasti and piatti; and the trendy Moro (34–36 Exmouth Market) in East London’s hip enclave of Clerkenwell, where you can dine on a fantastic combo of Spanish and North African cuisine.
For best cheap bites, head to the Bloomsbury flagship of Wagamama (4 Streatham St.), the Japanese noodle chain popular for its tasty ramen dishes and other Japanese treats, or Soho’s Masala Zone (9 Marshall St.) where you can enjoy authentic Indian ‘street food’ appetizers and a variety of curries at super-low prices.
Of course, you absolutely must partake – at least once – of the quintessentially British tradition of afternoon tea – scones, jam, clotted cream and all – served daily between 3pm and 5.30pm. For the classiest high-tea experience, we recommend two legendary Mayfair hotels above all others: the sophisticated lounge at Claridge’s (Brook St.), with an exceedingly elegant British atmosphere, an upper crust clientele to match, and soothing piano and violin music, and the plant-filled lobby of at The Dorchester (Park Lane), with a menu of 20 exotic teas and gourmet scones and pastries conjured up by a dedicated tea-time chef. If you want to tell your friends you had tea at Harrods (87-135 Brompton Rd.), the legend among the afternoon tea-taking spots, try their Georgian Restaurant but be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for the experience; the less-expensive Terrace Bar also does afternoon tea in a more downmarket setting with Knightsbridge views.
A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a proper pub crawl around at least a couple of the city’s ubiquitous drinking holes. This is a quintessential pastime for Londoners, and you should make it yours, too, at least for an evening. Note that you’ll have to down your drinks by 11pm, when the bar staff announces the last call at every single pub in the city. But don’t let that distract you from checking out at least two of our favorite pubs: The City's snug Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (145 Fleet St.), one of the oldest pubs in London, complete with nooks, crannies, fireplaces and dark-wood paneling, and London’s best-kept pub secret, Ye Old Mitre in Holborn (1 Ely Court), an ancient, rickety, and dark watering hole with a variety of ales, good olde pub fayre, and an eclectic clientele.
For late-night owls, life doesn’t end after last call – London is the nightclub capital of Europe, and home to some of the world’s most famous mega-clubs and ultra-trendy bars. For the most serious boogying action till daybreak, we recommend South Bank's legendary Ministry of Sound (103 Gaunt St.), a mega-club institution with several dance floors, bars and chill-out rooms, a rocking sound system and celebrity DJ guests practically every night of the week. Bloomsbury's The End (18 West Central St.) is another favorite, with cutting-edge house music, star DJ residents, sleek décor, a stylish crowd – and steep cover. For detailed listings of all club events in London, check out the frequently updated clubbing section of LondonNet.
With over 200 venues and a dizzying range of productions – from West End hit musicals to off-West End dramas and experimental fringe plays, London is undoubtedly the world’s most happening theater scene, only rivaled by New York. If you fancy catching a play in the West End, be prepared to dish out about £70 if you want to secure your seats in advance; otherwise, you can save up to 50% by getting same-day tickets at the Society of London Theatre tkts booth in Leicester Square (note there’s a £2.50 service charge).
Just like New York’s off-Broadway shows, off-West End productions are the cheaper alternative, with tickets starting at £10, while the fringe shows usually make the best bargain, at under £10. For more information about what’s playing in London’s theaters, including a daily list of shows for sale at the tkts booth in Leicester Square, check out the Society of London Theatre’s online London Theatre Guide. On the ground, as mentioned above, refer to Time Out magazine.
While visiting London’s cultural heavyweights can easily occupy an entire trip, make sure to leave some time for some consumer pursuits here, too – the city does have some of the best shops in Europe.
In fact, London distinguishes itself by proffering some of the best menswear in the world – Jermyn Street is the address for bespoke tailors and superb shirts, ties, suits, toiletries, and shoes. Nearby, you’ll also find another world’s best in the multi-storey Fortnum and Mason (181 Piccadilly), where you can stock up on rich British foodstuffs, sterling silver, fine porcelain, and more. Another superlative one-stop shop is, of course, the legendary Harrods (87-135 Brompton Rd.), where you can pick up a ubiquitous Harrods bag from £11.95. Also in the vicinity are High Street, known for its streetwear shops (think Diesel, Miss Sixty, etc.) and Sloane Street, the shopping address frequented by the late Princess Di and Fergie when they were still known as Sloane Rangers and wore pearls and tweeds – not gowns and tiaras; Harvey Nichols (109–125 Knightsbridge), is our favored one-stop shop here. Of course, no London shopper should miss out on Oxford Street, home to most local and international chain stores. Those looking for vintage or unusual togs, used records and CDs, tattoo parlors, and more should head to Camden Market, the city’s terrific alternative shopping address.
When To Go
Summer is the best time to visit London, not only because of the relatively stable weather (not as much rain as the rest of the year!), but also because it’s the only time to tour some of the city’s major attractions such as the Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. It’s also the season of many festivities, including the quintessentially British celebration of the Queen’s ‘fake’ birthday (her real one is April 21) known as the Trooping of the Colour (second Saturday in June). The renowned Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships are also held at this time (late June/early July), as is the music extravaganza known as the City of London Festival (late June to mid-July). Later on, you can experience the internationally flavored arts celebration of Greenwich & Docklands Festival (early to late July) or the colorful Notting Hill Carnival (late August).
If you want to avoid summer crowds and hiked up prices, visit any other time of year and, as long as you’re willing to deal with a capricious climate (read: lots of rain and fog with sporadic sunny spells), you’ll enjoy shorter lines at most attractions and plenty of special events to check out. That said, you’re most likely to get the best bang for your buck and most manageable off-season weather, by going between late-February and early May; spring hits London early and the sight of yellow crocuses and violet hyacinths perking up parks and walkways go along way to dispelling any rainy-day blues.
Best bang for your buck
Late-February to early-May
London is a breeze to get to from the U.S., with all the major airlines offering direct flights several times a day. Of these, the two British airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways offer regular deals. That said, all major American airlines also make the trip, so check fares on your preferred airline, too, whether it be American Airlines, United, Continental, Delta, or Northwest. Flights from the East Coast make the non-stop flight in about seven hours; flights from the Midwest and West typically require connecting in New York, Chicago, or DC.
For heavily discounted packages, we recommend Go-Today and Gate1Travel. You'll also find good deals through Virgin Vacations. For a more upscale air-and-hotel package, check Globus.
Getting Into & Around London
You’ll most likely fly into Heathrow Airport, which lies 15 miles west of the city center and has excellent bus and subway connections. The cheapest way to get into the city is the 50-minute ride on the Underground (Piccadilly line) subway (£3.80 one-way), but our preferred option is the speedy Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station (a 15-minute ride, every 15 minutes; £13 one-way, £25 round-trip). If you happen to fly into Gatwick, London's secondary airport, take the Gatwick Express train to Victoria Station; the trip takes about 30 minutes and trains depart every 15 minutes between 6am and midnight (£12 one-way; £23.50 return). Note that taking a cab from either airport is prohibitively expensive and you'll risk getting snarled in traffic.
As for getting around London itself, the city’s Underground subway is known colloquially as the tube and is extremely user-friendly; there’s an excellent aboveground bus network, too. Purchase a Travelcard to save on unlimited travel by tube and bus; it’s available from any tube station (£6 for a one-day card around central London; £15 for a three-day card).
For any additional tourism information once in London, visit the walk-in Britain and London Visitor Centre (1 Lower Regent St right, Piccadilly Circus).