Famed for its red buses and post boxes, as a truly leading world city, London appeals to tourists the world over. The appeal to Hong Kongers is even more pronounced as we crave layers of culture, wide-open parks and perhaps a respite from our own tropical heat. But unlike our own city, London’s boundaries are sprawling, a city very much made up of districts. That means navigating it with no plan can be daunting… So, as a born and bred Londoner, I’ve taken it on as my duty to equip you all with my Ultimate City Guide to London.
TO GET YOU STARTED
Some basic tips behind a successful city break in London:
– Get yourself an oyster card when you arrive! Like our Octopus card, it will give you access to all public transport and is an essential item; London cabs are extortionately expensive and only for use in emergencies!
– London’s streets can be confusing, download City Maps 2 Go on your smartphone before leaving HK. You’ll have an offline map that tracks where you are to help you around.
– Check out Time Out London – both the website and monthly magazine – for up to the moment tips on the hottest new restaurants, events and exhibitions. Another useful website for more off the beaten track things to do include The Nudge, which is focused on London’s pop-up scene.
– London’s hotels are notoriously overpriced, so be prepared, do your research and book in advance. Suss out which area you like the sound of most from the list below and and stay there. Check out some great affordable, luxury and somewhat quirky finds on The Escape List.
LONDON’S DIFFERENT AREAS
With so many things to do, see and eat both North and South of the emblematic winding River Thames, the best way to approach the city is by district. Each has its own vibe and signature style and is worthy of an exploration of its own. Check out below which ones should be checked in your sightseeing boxes.
Oxford Street and thereabouts
Oxford Street itself is a shopping mecca, but also hideously crowded. Seek some respite in the grandeur of Selfridges; a wonderful and varied department store. Explore the winding alleys of Soho, home to coffee shops, boutique stores and some great dining options. Venture into some celeb favourites like Dover Street Market to really get a feel for what’s hot in London right now or hit Carnaby Street for a more classic London fave.
Covent Garden and Embankment
The piazza in Covent Garden strikes a more European chord with a wide-open square, full of street performers and a convivial atmosphere. There are restaurants for all tastes and some great boutiques hiding along Neal Street. This is theatre land’s heart, so research what you want to see before you go and book a night at the theatre; Book of Mormon and Les Miserables showcase completely different sides of what’s on offer. Grab a quick dinner at one of the area’s super trendy restaurants, a personal favourite of mine is Polpo, for wonderful Italian cicceti.
Just South of Covent Garden is the miraculous winding Thames. Embankment and the South Bank on the opposite side has some of the best spots to enjoy it from. There are multiple riverside restaurants and bars and a lovely riverside walk on the South side of the river, which you can use to get between areas and really get your bearings. In summer, book yourself into Shakespeare’s Globe for a glimpse into Olde world London.
The City and London Bridge
The area around Bank station is London’s financial core, so there aren’t sights to see as such but some of the most impressive architecture in the city. Swing by St Paul’s Cathedral and soak up the depth of history. Then cross South of the river to the area around Tower Bridge and Shad Thames. With a more gritty, industrial feel and cobbled streets, it’s a marked contrast. Satiate your hunger with a browse around Borough Market and get a real bird’s eye perspective by heading up London’s new tallest building, The Shard (our tip is to avoid the fee at the viewing platform and book in for a drink at the Shangri-La instead for the same view and a cocktail!).
Trendy East London
London’s East End has seen something of a revival in the last decade and is now the true hipster haunt. Shoreditch, Brick Lane and Hoxton are full of art galleries, bang-on-trend fashion stores and wonderful markets selling homemade wares and vintage finds. Check the best day of the week if you’re wanting to head to a market in this handy guide.
Literary North London
Regent’s Park is a delightful, vast swathe of green space. To its South is the super fancy boutique obsessed Marylebone. Coffee shops, pavement dining and people watching are obsessions on this quaint but stylish street. To its North lies Primrose Hill, worth the slight climb up for a fantastic and free view of London’s skyline. Take your own picnic or amble along Primrose Hill high street where you’re sure to spot a celeb or two. Further North and with a wonderful Dickensian feel is Hampstead. A gorgeous high street is one appeal, but save some time to head down to Hampstead Heath, a favourite walking ground for literary greats like Keats.
The posh South
South West London has a reputation for being rather posh and rightly so. Knightsbridge, Kensington, Chelsea etc are full of well-heeled folk and designer stores. The Kings Road, Harrods and High Street Kensington are great shopping destinations in the area but if you want a respite, head to Hyde Park and laze by its lake. Some of London’s finest museums like the Natural History museum are in South Kensington, so head indoors and broaden your horizons. Then head a bit further West to Notting Hill for a bit more edginess and a wander down Portobello Market for some vintage and antique finds.
DESTINATION BARS & RESTAURANTS
After all that walking around, you’ll be in need of a drink. To assess the city at its best, there’s nothing better than a bar with a view. Some of the best are Gong in the Shangri La, Paramount in the Centre Point Tower and Sushi Samba in the Heron Tower. If the sun miraculously shines, you may want to eschew the view and follow the hoards of post-office drinkers lazing around with a jug of Pimms in some of London’s best beer gardens. Better still, mix up your own and have a picnic in one of London’s many parks.
As London is famously drizzly, the bar scene offers up so much more than just weather reliant options. Famed for historic pubs, thriving bars and a whole host of new pop ups, there’s something for every taste so scour Time Out for the one which suits you best.
As for restaurants, London’s restaurant scene is as varied as they come. Our pick of the top fine dining ones has to include the quirky and unforgettable Restaurant Story, the infamous Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and for something a bit more classic, The Ledbury down near Notting Hill. If you’re more of a casual diner then one-trick ponies are all the rage at the moment so head down to either Burger and Lobster, Meat Liquor or Bubbledogs. International food is as well represented with a Middle Eastern revival going on at the moment so try your hardest to get a table at Palomar or Honey & Co.
MUST SEE SIGHTS
Whilst ambling around and soaking up the vibes of different areas is the best way to get to know London, there are certain things every tourist should do. This is what’s on our must-see list (PS. avoid Madame Tussauds – I promise you’ll regret going!):
– The London Eye, a giant ferris wheel in the middle of the city!
– A tour around the Houses of Parliament – an incredibly beautiful gothic building and great insight into British history
– Catch Royal fever with a glimpse of how the UK’s monarchy live. Catch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace (be prepared for crowds), see what used to happen to traitors at the Tower of London and immerse yourself in the world of Henry the Eighth at Hampton Court Palace.
– A trip to the theatre. London’s West End has everything from art-house plays, to sing along inspiring musicals. Either book before you come or take your chance with last minute tickets. If you’re visiting in summer don’t forget to check out Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for an unforgettable night under the stars.
– A cultural exploration through London’s best museums and galleries. Some, like the National Portrait Gallery, are free, whereas others such as the Tate aren’t but they’re all worth visiting and play an important role in weaving London’s cultural fabric.
So, there you have it. Our comprehensive guide to making the most out of your trip to London. Final tip; wear comfortable shoes – this is a city best explored by foot – save your dancing shoes for the evening!