Exploring London: Things to Do & Travel Guide
Originally published on Friday, August 26, 2022
London needs no introduction. I’ve now been to this city three times and it was actually my first international destination ever. I have to be honest: when I went for the first two times, I was a little put off since I was expecting something different, maybe something a bit more cohesive or something that felt older. I most recently went back to London in 2022 with the hopes of knowing the city better. Armed with a travel blogger mindset, I made a list and visited a lot of fantastic places.
Since London has so much for tourists to do, I’ve divided this post up accordingly. I hope it helps!
Essential London Sites
There are lots of iconic places to visit in London. Most notably, you’ll go to the Westminster area and see Westminster Abbey. The entrance fee is steep but the exterior and interior are both incredibly beautiful. The Abbey is also filled with important graves like that of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Isaac Newtown and Charles Darwin. Whether or not the graves are worth the steep price is up to you.
Nearby is the famous Big Ben (which, yes, is just a clock) and the Parliament Buildings. Even though you can enter at certain times, the buildings themselves are remarkable examples of English gothic architecture. I was awed to come up close to the buildings and see how intricate and detailed the stonework is. If you don’t go in, the aforementioned buildings are at least worth a walk by to see incredibly architecture dating back almost one thousand years.
A lot of people go to see Buckingham Palace, the world’s most expensive residence, from the outside. You can also go inside the State Rooms and the Queen’s Gallery on select dates. I didn’t get to go so I can’t speak to the quality of the displays. Select rooms at Kensington Palace can also be toured. If you’re in that area, the Sunken Garden has a relatively new statue of Princess Diana to see, as well.
When you’re in the Westminster area, you can also head up to Trafalgar Square, which has a lot to see in the area. Also in the area is the London Eye.
Moving eastwards is the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, London’s architectural pride completed in 1710. You can worship there for free but visiting will cost you. I haven’t been inside myself.
Two of my favourite parts of the Tower of London were the old chapel and graffiti.
I recently got to visit the Tower of London, famous for its many prisoners like Anne Boleyn and its ravens that haunt the tower. Of course the Tower has an extremely fascinating history but I felt it was overpriced at £30. I don’t want to say you should miss it because you get to see some really cool things; for example, Henry VIII’s armour and centuries-old graffiti carved by Tower prisoners. You also get to see the interior of the Palace that was once at the Tower as well as a chapel English kings have prayed in since William the Conquerer. But I also felt that for the amount of history, there was a shocking lack of information available. So again, whether or not you want to pay the hefty entrance price is up to you.
Nearby you can also see the iconic Tower Bridge. This is not to be confused with London Bridge, which is the next one over. The Tower Bridge dates to the Victorian era and was a technological marvel in its time. Now it’s one of London’s landmarks.
If you just walk and see the outsides of these places, you can probably do so in a day. But London definitely deserves more than a day and exploration beyond the tourist areas.
London has so many museums that it’s a bit overwhelming! I listed quite a few here that I thought would be of interest to my readers and it’s still a large list.
London hosts some of the world’s most renowned art museums. Of course there’s the Victoria & Albert Museum but I honestly found the collection on display underwhelming considering the quality of their temporary exhibition work. Perhaps I just had big expectations.
However the gallery is free to visit and I thought the jewellery collection was worth a visit on its own.
London’s National Gallery is another free museum and it houses an amazing collection of masterpieces. If you’ve taken art history, you’ll see lots of works you’ve studied before. It’s absolutely worth a trip in, as is the Tate Britain (which is also free). The Tate Britain houses purely British artwork. It’s also the home of Ophelia by Sir John Everrett Millais, an absolute favourite of mine. For art fanatics, I’d say all three are absolute must-sees.
For more art, you can go to Somerset House. It’s now a small art museum called the Courtald Gallery and there seem to be frequent events there. Most notably for me, it was Queen Elizabeth I’s home for some time! It’s free to walk by and go into the courtyard. There’s also the Wallace Collection which houses a lot of less known 17th-19th century artwork (discounting Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing of course).
Places I haven’t been to but are still on my list include Sir John Soane’s Museum, Leighton House and the William Morris Gallery. Tragically the National Portrait Gallery was closed for renovations when I was most recently there. I did see an exhibition at the Design Museum, which was excellent, but not the collection itself.
I have no desire to visit the Tate Modern but it is free and has a viewing platform over the city that I hear is magnificent. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to go.
I’d also love to go to God’s Own Junkyard which is a museum (if you will) of neon lights. It sounds like a cool experience but it’s quite a bit outside the city center.
There’s still a lot to see on my next trip to London.
Other London Museums
If I had to guess, the most popular museum in London is the British Museum (which is mostly not British). Though its ethics are debated, I have to say their collection is incredibly impressive and one can spend all day exploring what the museum has to offer. Visiting is free so if you want to pop in and see things like the Rosetta Stone and incredibly ancient Egyptian artefacts, you can do so without monetarily contributing.
However I personally recommend a visit to the Museum of London which gives an expansive look at London’s millennia-long history through an impressive collection of artefacts. It is free as well and probably my most highly recommended museum in London. A lot of people miss this museum but it’s incredible and very appropriate for a trip to London.
I also recommend a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe, which is actually a recreation of the Globe Shakespeare would’ve attended. However it’s incredibly informative and they also do performances outside in the warmer months. Winter plays are also done in a reconstructed theatre called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
There are some other places that I still want to visit but unfortunately haven’t yet. The British Library is one. They’re known as a fantastic place for research but they also have a collection on display for visitors. Another is the Churchill War Rooms. I’d also like to trek out to the Horniman Museum and Gardens. The Charles Dickens Museum is another place I haven’t been to.
Obviously the Harry Potter Studio Tour is another London essential for Hogwarts students but it’s quite outside the city center. You definitely need a day set aside for the tour.
Other London Experiences
If you’re fascinated by certain figures in history then one of them is probably from London or lived there at some time. What I find so fun about the city is being able to walk in the footsteps of some of the world’s most impactful people. I don’t know who your favourites are but look up sites related to your favourite people in London and definitely seek those out! Some of my favourites are Sylvia Plath and Amy Winehouse, so I visited some London places that were significant to them. I didn’t know before that they died within walking distance of one another.
London’s not known for its nature but there are some outdoor places certainly worth a visit. Little Venice is an area of London that’s cute and has a selection of restaurants. It’s certainly a more unique place in London. There’s also famous parks like Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park, and Kew Gardens.
There are also lots of markets to stop by and browse (which I mention again below). Some places to visit for shopping are Camden Town Market, which is really cute as it was once a stable. Camden Town is the heart of London’s alternative scene so you may have already heard of it. There’s also Portobello Market which mostly has handmade and vintage goods, and well as Covent Gardens (which I haven’t been to yet). Markets are a quintessential part of London culture and you should definitely visit if you have the chance.
Of course I also had to seek out some pre-1666 Fire buildings, too. Some notable places I got to see were Staple Inn which dates to 1585. It’s not completely intact so you’ll want to see the facade on High Holborn Street to get the effect, else you’ll be confused as to why you’re there. Another is St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse which was a modest Tudor home built in 1595. Not only is it a rare surviving Tudor building, but it’s also really cute! A third place to visit is Prince Henry’s Room which can also be seen only from the outside. The building probably wasn’t related to any Prince Henry but dates back to the 16th century.
If you’re in the area, you’ll probably notice a much later but incredibly gorgeous building, the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s an amazing work of architecture I fell in love with and just had to share with you!
Eating and Drinking Like a Brit
Eating and drinking is a big part of British culture. I found a bunch of really old places to have a pint, including but not limited to the George Inn (from Shakespeare’s time); Seven Stars (I went there and it was just OK); Ye Olde Metre (I liked the atmosphere of this one); and the Spaniard’s Inn (this one of rumoured to be haunted!). Lots burned in the Fire of 1666 but these are four places that remained.
London also has a lot of food markets that are quite popular (and delicious!). Camden Market is quite famous and has a bunch of food stalls alongside its many shops. I also ventured to Borough Market and think that was my favourite, and the number of options was quite overwhelming. Another place to visit is Leadenhall Market which is quite popular since it’s also a Harry Potter filming location, as well as Covent Garden.
In the U.S., we usually call this “high tea” even though that term means something even more extravagant in England. For tea accompanied by finger sandwiches and sweets, the proper term is Afternoon Tea. Afternoon Tea is taken, shockingly, in the afternoon between 2:00 and 5:00 typically. It actually costs a lot more per person than I’d expected; it might be fair to say £20-30 per person is considered on the cheaper side? So it’s not probably not something you can do every day. In London, it’s also not something you can just walk into a restaurant and ask for. Most places I looked at required at least 24 hours’ notice for tea bookings, if not 48 hours. However, most places do have options for dietary restrictions such as vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, etc. so the options are several.
There’s actually a very handy website called Afternoon Tea that allows you to search for, you guessed it, tea and sort by location, price, etc. It was incredibly useful in trying to find a place within budget.
If you like tea like me, an Afternoon Tea is definitely something you should try and get. Definitely look up and make tea reservations in advance.
Brits also enjoy a Sunday Roast which is eaten on – you guessed it – Sunday. It’s a roast served with carrots, potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding. However, London’s a very vegetarian-friendly city so there are lots of places that serve vegan and vegetarian Sunday Roast. I was able to walk in and get a seat for the Roast when I was there, so depending on the restaurant, reservations may not be required.
My London Round-Up
This past trip, I got to know London a lot better and like it a lot more than I used to. It’s not the most cohesive or elegant city but I really like the variety and the amount of things to do there. There are also so many areas of London that I got to look at briefly, but the city has 1000 places with their own personalities, so there’s still so much to explore.
London makes an excellent tourist destination with its world-class museums, but it’s obviously worth a lot more time to really get a feel of the city. I’d definitely recommend spending at least a few days in London and staying outside the city center to get to know the area a bit more. It’s absolutely worth the trip to see one of the world’s most historic cities.
What is your favourite thing to see in London? Is there anything you’d add to my list?
Tags: england, europe, london, united kingdom