A Full Guide to London, History, Art, Food, and Views
You guys, I hope you like this post. Its the culmination of many visits over the past few years to London – one of my favorite cities. Two years ago, I wrote this post “Five Days in London” – that provides some ideas for things to do, see and eat in London, as well as day-trip ideas. It also provides some transportation basics such as taking the express train from Heathrow airport into central London. (I recommend a read if it’s your first time to London). I have been fortunate to get back to London several more times over the past two years and I thought it would be worthwhile to provide some additional tips on some of my favorite things I’ve seen, done and eaten. Here it goes!
If you like history…
I’ve been all over Europe and seen a lot of historical sights, churches and museums, but I love the history in London the best! Perhaps it’s because it has such rich and accessible history from ancient times, through the World Wars and to the present day. One of the great things about London’s historical sights is that many are free to the public and kid-friendly. Here are some of my favorite historical sights in London. (Note: I don’t have the Parliament building in here – its been under massive construction recently so I haven’t visited yet, but I hear it’s a good tour)
The Tower London
Time: Allot at least three hours – Admission Fee required
The Tower is not free, but it’s worth it! We bought tickets (21.5 Pounds a ticket – roughly $28) and spent a good half day exploring. There is SO much to see and hear about at the Tower. When you arrive, don’t miss the Yeoman tour. They guide you through the tower and its history with fascinating stories and the Yeomen actually live at the Tower with their families! You’ll hear about some of the famous people who lived and died at the Tower such as Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth the first and Henry the VIII. The Crown Jewels also reside here. Unfortunately, you’re prevented from taking photos but trust me, they are absolutely breathtaking. Finally, there is a lot to see in the tower building such as armor and weaponry including Henry the VIII’s armor from when he was a boy to a MUCH larger man. Don’t miss the famous Ravens who live on the site. Their presence is traditionally believed to protect the Crown and the tower; a superstition holds that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it”.
Churchill’s War Rooms
Time: Allot between 1.5 – 2 hours – Admission fee required
If you have any interest in WWII history, you can’t miss Churchill’s War Rooms. (This museum is also not free) These underground rooms were where Churchill and his staff lived and worked during the war. It was where they strategized, planned and ultimately helped defeat their enemies. The rooms are remarkable and look as though they were left completely intact when the war was over, and they could once again live above ground. I found the map room particularly intriguing. You will hear through an audio guide actual people who worked in the War Rooms and stories of their experiences. Additionally, there is a great museum of Churchill’s remarkable life from birth until his death.
The Imperial War Museum
Allot at least 1.5 hours (but you could stay for at least 3) – Free (with recommended donation)
I admit that this museum was further down my “must see” list. I visited only after I had seen the more popular museums. The Imperial War museum was a great surprise! I didn’t know what to expect, but what I loved the most was the incredibly in-depth exhibits of World War I. While I feel like I have a good understanding of “why” and “how” World War II happened, WWI has been somewhat of a mystery. This museum explains everything, simply and through interactive displays and timelines. After you leave the museum you will have a clear understanding about the political and geopolitical issues that spurred the first “Great War.” The museum boasts thousands of historical pieces including weapons, planes, tanks, uniforms, maps and propaganda and much more. I spent at least an hour walking through just the WWI part of the museum. There are several floors, and the museum has many other “War” exhibits including WWII – but it was the first World War history that I think really sets this museum apart.
The British Museum
Time: Allot as much as an hour or a full day – Free (with recommended donation)
This free museum is a gold mine of history. From the Rosetta Stone to collections of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese antiquities and more you could easily spend more than one day exploring. The entrance to this museum is famous for a reason and is almost worth a trip just to see the Atrium area with its glass ceiling. I will definitely make a trip back to this museum sometime soon.
Time: Allot 1-2 hours – Admission fee required
Hard to believe but I didn’t visit the great Westminster Abbey until my most recent visit. There are quite a few closures for church services and other things, so you need to be sure to book your tickets in advance. There is an audio guide tour for Abbey that reveals its history and covers the coronations, burials, and walks through many of the stories you have read about or seen on TV! In recent years they opened up an upper section of the Abbey called the Queen’s Jubilee Galleries. It contains more than 300 artifacts, spanning more than 1,000 years. I really enjoyed this part of the Abbey – there were maps, artwork, and effigy mask/statues (kind of weird and creepy). They are very strict about no photography including phones, so just be aware.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Time: 1-2 hours or less — Attend a service (free admission) – or do a sightseeing trip (fee required)
St. Paul’s Cathedral is nestled among modern buildings and skyscapers and is directly across the river from the Tate Modern (where you can get a great view of the Cathedral). Though the current Cathedral was built in the 1600’s there has been a church dedicated to St. Paul since the 600’s on the site (with three versions of the cathedral destroyed or burned over the years). There is some great history in this beautiful church. I went to the Evensong service on a Sunday and really enjoyed it – the sound of singing resounding through the church with its massive dome.
The Tower Bridge
Walking across the Tower Bridge that spans the Thames river is fun to experience. There is a paid exhibition you can do to learn about the history (built in Victorian era 1886) and a glass bottom floor. You may recognize this bridge if you watched the London Olympics in 2012. The Olympic Rings were hung from the bridge during the games.
If you like a good view….
One of the best things to do in London is see it from a bird’s eye view. The city is a mishmash of historical buildings, churches, bridges and ultramodern glass skyscrapers, best seen from high locations. Here are some great places to go and get an amazing view.
Duck & Waffle Restaurant – I can’t vouch for the food, but I have heart-eyes for watching sunset with a glass of Rose out the windows of this restaurant on the top floor of one of London’s taller buildings. A quick whoosh of an elevator on the outside of the building will have you up to the top in seconds.
The Shard – This is the one spot in my whole list that I haven’t been to, but many colleagues have told me that it’s a must see. The Shard, a triangle, kind of shark tooth-looking building towers over the city. It opened a few years ago and now has several restaurants at the top where you can get your fill of delicious food and the city skyline.
Madison (bar) – When the weather is nice (fair is ok!) head to Madison, an outdoor cocktail area. The views of St. Paul’s Cathedral are spectacular. https://www.madisonlondon.net/
The London Eye – Perhaps the biggest tourist trap of all of London. I scoffed at going on the London Eye for several years until I ran out of quick things to do that I hadn’t done yet on my last trip to London. A few work colleagues and I paid for the Fast Track entrance and boarded the oversized Ferris Wheel that I now admit is quite a bit more sophisticated than a mere Ferris Wheel. I was pleasantly surprised at the smoothness of the ride and the views of London truly are incredible. I will say that we went on an exceptionally beautiful day. The trip – one full loop around, is about 30 minutes long. The price is a bit steep in my opinion (37 Pounds/45 US dollars), especially if you are going with a whole family. But it is a very popular option in London and if you have the time and money to spare, it’s a fun ride.
Water Taxi –One of the ways you can get to different parts of Central London is by Water Taxi on the Thames. You can use your Oyster Travel card (purchase at any Tube station) or you can use a Touchless credit card. The trip isn’t super cheap about 7 dollars each way – but there is food available and on the boat you will find yourself winding down the Thames, going under some of the world’s most famous bridges and seeing some amazing historical sights like the Tower, Parliament and Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye and more. You can also jump off at any time.
Tate Modern – A glass of wine, modern art and a view of London? Yes, yes and yes! The top floor of the Tate Modern museum has great views. You can grab a glass of wine and look out over the river at sights like St. Paul’s Cathedral after you have had your fill of looking at Modern Art. The only caveat for this location is that it closes pretty early. Check the time tables for closing times.
This cable car (flight) extends from the Royal Docks to Greenwich Peninsula where the O2 Concert Venue (and our hotel the Intercontinental) are. We actually used this as a mode of transportation to get from our floating hotel at the docks to the Peninsula where the tube line into central London is. The fares are cheap and we just used our Oyster card to board. It was a fun and useful mode of transportation . I don’t know that I would ever suggest making a point to travel to ride the Emirates line, but if you’re in the area its a fun activity (as long as you’re not afraid of heights!).
If you like parks…
St James Park –
London has many beautiful parks, but St. James is a favorite. I have spent many an hour walking this park trying to beat jetlag. St James is bordered by Buckingham Palace and has beautiful bridges and a small lake with all kinds of birds including Pelicans and Swans. In the Spring the flowers are so gorgeous.
Hyde Park –
This beautiful park was established by none other than Henry the VII in the 1500’s. It includes a lake, walking trails and formal flower gardens. It also hosts concerts. When I am in the mood for a long walk, Hyde Park is my go-to. In the Fall, the leaves are turning, and in the Spring and Summer – you can’t miss the beautiful flowers blooming. In the Southwest corner of the Park you will find the Memorial fountain to Princess Diana. The long, flowing river-like fountain be accessible and to reflect Diana’s “inclusive” personality.
If you like art….
The National Gallery
What do Vermeer, Leonardo DaVinci, Raphael, Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, and Cezanne all have in common? Their work is featured in the National Gallery! A stunning collection, the [free!] admission museum is a must see for art lovers. It does get very crowded, especially at some of the more famous pieces. Also, some of the exhibits are paid. Additionally, the very popular tourist Trafalgar Square is right in front of the museum, so after you browse art, get a coffee and enjoy some street performers or people watching!
The Tate Modern
Across the river from St Paul’s Cathedral – you will find the Tate Modern – also free admission (with some paid exhibits). 78,000 artworks by more than 4,000 artists are found in this museum. I love modern art, and I haven’t had nearly enough time to go through this museum. As I mentioned in the above “views” section – the Tate has a great view café at the top, every time I’ve visited we have enjoyed a glass of wine and looked out over the city.
If you like to eat….(and who doesn’t?)
Dishoom (multiple locations – I have been to three and they have all be great)
Oh my goodness is this place delicious. If you like Indian food you will love Dishoom. Its served small plate style for sharing. My guess from the line out the door is that everything on the menu is good. We had the lamb samosas, the black daal, naan, veggies and a few other things and we were more than full. Tip: They don’t take many reservations so get ready to stand in line. Its good to get there really early when it opens for dinner.
Nopi (Close to Piccadilly and Regent Street)
Over the years I have purchased cookbooks Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, then I picked up Plenty [I linked to the cookbooks in case you’re interested]. Then YAY! I actually got to meet Yotam at a book signing for his latest book “Simple” (Which is a great book!) I am hooked on his take on Mediterranean flavors. One of the first things I did when I found out I was going to London the first time was to book Nopi. We ate downstairs at large group tables right by the kitchen where we could watch the chefs cook. What a treat! It was everything I hoped it would be. The Lamb Shwarma, the croquettes and the eggplant were incredible. We topped off the night with caramel ice cream with fudge and peanut brittle.
Ottolenghi (multiple locations, we went to the Spitafields location for dinner and I picked up salads for take away at the Belgravia location)
The food is similar in flavor profile to Nopi, in fact we ordered the Goat Shwarma again. It had different accompanying items but was roughly the same (and delicious!) The vegetable dishes were just outstanding. I am in love with the roasted cabbage. The desserts in the front bakery also looked divine! Unfortunately I was so full I didn’t have enough room in my belly to order any. But when I go back, I am saving room for dessert!
Bocca Di Luppo (SoHo)
This Italian food is so crazy good. The portions are small – and best for sharing. We had grouse lasagna that had so many layers of flavor we were oohing and aahhing every time we took a bite. Next time I’m in London I’ll plan to see a show (the theaters are just around the corner) and then head here for dinner again. I loved it so much.
If you like the Royals…
I have not been inside Buckingham Palace. I need to go – its on my list for next time. Buckingham Palace is where the Queen often resides. There are times it is closed, but if you plan it well, you can expect to see Staterooms, the Queen’s Art Gallery, and of course witness the famous Changing of the Guards (you can see this without a formal visit to the Palace). Be sure to check out the website in advance for tickets, closures and more.
There are definitely many more places to add — and I will! But, I hope this provides a good overview of the many great places to go and see. Please comment below on some of these, and any other London sights I missed!