Caroline in the City Guide to London

London, England is one of the oldest cities with the most history. It’s where Shakespeare performed his plays, where Henry VIII executed his wives and where Jack the Ripper terrorized locals. It’s a city cut in half by the river Thames and one that benefited greatly from the arrival of the summer Olympics. The Tube is one of the world’s best public transportation systems for visitors, so it’s easy to explore the lesser-visited neighborhoods where you’ll find up-and-coming restaurants. While many visitors stay within the confines of Westminster and the northern end of the city, you’ll have a more local experience if you venture out.

The Neighborhoods

London’s neighborhoods are vast and overlap in places. Turn one corner and you could be in a totally different borough. Many of the major tourist attractions are in Covent Garden, Knightsbridge and Earls Court. Once you’ve seen all you want to see, take the Tube to one of these neighborhoods to wander the shops and dine in one of the cafes.

Soho is perhaps one of the most well-known neighborhoods in London, once home to farms and then the city’s red light district before becoming the chicest area. Here you’ll find flagship stores from top designers like Stella McCartney and award-winning restaurants. But you’ll also find hip coffee shops and boutique hotels. Spot celebrities at places like Pix Pintxos or wander into Chinatown for authentic Asian cuisines from beyond China.

Across the bridge in Southwark, look at the public art displays at the Southbank Centre, grab a coffee or Pimm’s Cup from one of the pop-up restaurants and watch the skateboarders at play. There are also a number of stalls lining the river selling everything from clothing to books. It’s also a popular area for buskers. Make time for lunch at the nearby Borough Market.

The newest hip London neighborhood is Shoreditch, where warehouses have been converted into lofts and shipping containers have been turned into a shopping center. Spend the afternoon tasting chocolate samples at Mast Brothers and admiring the street art. Neighboring Brick Lane has some of the city’s best ethnic food, so stop at Beigel Bake for bagels before checking out the vintage shops that line the street.

Another one of my favorite neighborhoods is the one that I’ve spent the most time in, Swiss Cottage. This area borders Hampstead and is within walking distance of Hampstead Heath. It’s close to The Freud Museum, where the famous psychiatrist once lived, and Abbey Road Studios.

Restaurants and Cafes

It can be rather expensive to dine out in London, but there are a few places where you can eat for relatively cheap. Seek out the ethnic foods in neighborhoods further out like East London as well as the famous pub meals. And for even more delicious eats in London, check out the Eating London Food Tours.

Tonkotsu is an authentic ramen restaurant in Soho that almost always has a wait. Grab a bowl of noodles and a Japanese beer to wash it all down with.

Masala Zone Covent Garden is a chain of Indian eateries around town that won’t break the bank. The authentic fare offers favorites like thali and modern interpretation like chicken tikka masala wraps.

Royal Albert is a local pub that I ate at a few years ago when staying in Deptford. I was pleasantly surprised at their upscale menu, including the Sunday roast of lamb with a classic Yorkshire pudding.

Benito’s Hat is London’s version of “fast Mex,” with locations around town. We happened upon their Oxford Street location after a day of shopping. I was pleasantly surprised with their burritos and selection of Mexican beers and margaritas.

Bone Daddies is a more modern interpretation of ramen shops. Choose from Japanese snacks and ramen with all ranges of toppings. They also offer sake and other distilled Japanese spirits.

The Golden Hind is a classic fish and chips place in Marylebone that I try to go to on every trip. It’s a low-key establishment that goes straight for the good stuff: battered fish, chips, mushy peas and malt vinegar.

For more on the best London cafes, check out my friend Beverley’s post on the best cafes to work from in London.

Bars and Nightlife

London has every type of drinking establishment imaginable from the classic British pubs that serve mostly one brand of beer to the upscale cocktail bars serving variations on gin to the nightclubs that created some of the most well-known DJs in the world. I’m not that into partying all night anymore, but still love a casual beer with friends.

The London Gin Club is a place we visited on our Soho tour that specializes in (surprise!) gin. It’s been open since the 1920s and carries small batch gins made locally. Take one of their classes to learn more about the classic spirit.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of the oldest pubs in the world, serving customers ales since 1538. The current building was created after the Great Fire of 1666. Women weren’t allowed in here for many years but legends like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle frequented the pub. Today you can get pints of Samuel Smith beers here.

The Crown & Two Chairmen is a pub in the heart of Soho popular with the after work crowd. Here you’ll find pints from both the classic breweries and smaller craft options from Camden Brewing.

Barrio Central is a Latin American-themed bar and restaurant in Soho. The basement bar has a reasonably priced happy hour and serves up cocktails to share, including some in buckets.

Things to Do

There is no shortage of sightseeing in London. You could spend a week alone wandering around the public parks and museums. But once you’ve done the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Hampton Court once, you’ve pretty much seen it. There are, however, a few places I like to see over and over again.

Tate Britain and Tate Modern are neighboring museums with classic and modern art. Best of all, both are free to visit! Britain focuses on only artists from the British Isles. Modern has a regularly changing exhibition of artists from around the world.

London Eye has the best views in the city. It’s rather expensive and the wait can be long, but you really should do it at least once. You’ll be placed in a slow moving pod and given thirty minutes to admire the views.

National Portrait Gallery was a pleasant surprise on my first visit to London. Here you’ll find paintings of famous Brits like the Brontë sisters as well as a video installation of David Beckham sleeping. Entry is free, but you may have to pay for special exhibits.

The British Museum is the mecca of all London museums. It is a history geek’s dream, boasting moai from Easter Island, the

Sandeman’s New Europe also runs free tours of London, providing information on the city’s history and taking guests to significant landmarks like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament. I also enjoyed my food tour in Soho with Eating London and have heard great things about the Urban Adventures tours of the city.

Shopping

No matter what your budget, London has you covered. Check out the big box stores like Topshop and H&M on Oxford Street, the department stores known worldwide and the funky boutiques of Brick Lane.

Daunt Books is heaven for book lovers, especially for their massive two-level travel section organized with both fiction and nonfiction by destination. Spend an hour or more wandering around.

London is also known for its markets, each specializing in something different and unique. Camden Market sells the outrageous and funky like Doc Maartens and wall tapestries. Borough Market, the oldest in the city, sells gourmet food while Old Spitalfields Market sells lots of handmade and designed clothing and gifts. And don’t forget about the Brick Lane vintage boutiques where you might find a vintage Barbour jacket or that record you’ve been searching for.

For more on London’s best markets, check out this guide from Time Out.

On the other end of the spectrum is luxury stores like Harrods, perhaps the most well known in the city. Spend a few hours wandering around with stops at the food hall, the Princess Diana memorial and the official Harrods gift shop. Selfridges is one of the more approachable of the department stores, opened by an American. They have a large section of designer goods and toys. Liberty specializes in fabrics and has the best displays around. They are housed in an old Tudor style building.

Where to Stay

I’ve stayed in many places over my last five visits to London, including luxury hotels, budget-friendly hostels and apartment rentals that are ideal for groups.

Palmers Lodge is my go-to hostel, as it was my first upon visiting, for its location and amenities. A number of new hostels have opened since I last stayed there, including Generator London and Clink Hostels.

If you have more than two people, I recommend staying in an apartment rental. I’ve stayed with a few different companies, but this time around we stayed in Earls Court with FG Properties. They manage vacation rentals all over Europe and partner with local management groups to make it easy for you to pick up your key and pay. We had plenty of space for me, my mom and two sisters and were able to cook ourselves breakfast in the mornings to save money.

Transportation

In my experience, London has one of the easiest to understand transport systems of anywhere I’ve visited. In my first few visits, I only took the Tube and walked and didn’t even bother with buses. But more recently, I’ve learned which buses to take.

If you’re visiting for a week and taking multiple forms of transportation, I recommend getting an Oyster card, which you can reload. They also have a new contactless program where you can simply scan your credit or debit card with a chip and it will charge as you go. I didn’t try it, but it seemed like a straightforward way to go without having to top up with money.

When it comes to getting to and from London’s airports, I’ve done it all, literally. I’ve taken the shuttle buses, taxis, express trains and the local Tube stops. While taking the Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express is easy and quick, it can get expensive if you’re traveling with more than one person. This time around, we took the Heathrow Express to Paddington and jumped on a train to Oxford. But on the way back, we booked a car with Blacklane. They picked us up a few minutes before our requested time and offered us bottles of water on our short and smooth ride back to Heathrow. It cost the same as it would have for all of us to get back to Paddington and onto the Heathrow Express!