“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson, quoted (September 20, 1777) in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) by James Boswell
Samuel Johnson was right to celebrate London in such an enthusiastic way. London is famous worldwide for its energy and for the infinite variety of attractions. With its monuments, restaurants, pubs and museums, it is impossible to get bored of this fantastic city of almost 9 million inhabitants.
Greater London is huge: it lays in more than 1500 square kilometers; it is easy to go around because of good public transports. London tube is the oldest in the world and one of the most extensive in Europe (take a look at the tube map!) and, together with the buses lines and the suburban railway network, it makes possible to reach easily every corner of the city.
We love this city. It was not “love at first sight”, though: London could scare, for its size, people not used to big cities. Every day and night, it offers a huge variety of things to do, of monuments to visit, of different people from all around the world to meet; but, together with the most popular attractions and well-known city center highlights, we love the hidden corners, the small pubs in residential areas where you can have a chat with the barman, in front of a pint, the umpteenth little anonymous park that surprises for its coziness and beauty.
If you stay in the city for just few days, you have to select what you want to visit because of the countless things to do.
Furthermore, London is expensive! So expensive that you can easily overshoot your holiday budget. The city offers, anyway, many free attractions, museums, and low budget restaurants and accommodations.
Tips about the city
Arriving from the airport
There are 5 airports, located strategically: Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Stanstead, and City Airport.
By train: many trains are available to reach London. Gatwick Express is the fastest (around 30 mins) and you can buy the ticket on the plane, but it is also the most expensive and it goes straight to Victoria Station non-stop.
Southern Railway is a good option: the service runs from the airport to Victoria through East Croydon and Clapham Junction, very useful if your accommodation is in West London. It is less expensive than Express and fast anyway (35 to 45 mins).
Thameslink offers service to Farrington and St. Pancras station.
I advise you to check train fares on the websites of each company. There are often discounts and offers if you buy in advance. Be aware that discounts tickets are usually non-refundable.
By bus: EasyBus is really popular because of the low prices and of the regular 24h service. Check in advance to take advantage of huge discounts. You reach London (Earls Court) in one hour.
National Express is another great option but it takes a bit longer to reach the city.
By Car: you will find a Taxi Quote and Book section in the Gatwick Airport website. Or you can ask straightaway an estimate fare to the driver. At least ten companies close to the airport provide cars to rent. Use this useful tool to get the best deal for you.
By tube: the cheapest, easiest and fastest way to reach London from Heathrow is by tube, Piccadilly Line, and it takes around 50 minutes. If you want to save money, buy an Oyster Card at the airport; you will need it anyway to travel in the city.
By coach/bus: Easybus, National Express, and buses as well connect the airport to the city. Check Transport For London for tube and buses fares and timetables.
By taxi: taxi is available at each terminal of the airport. It takes around one hour to reach the city.
By train: you can reach the city by train from Luton Parkway Train Station; a shuttle bus will bring you there from the airport in ten minutes. The trip by train takes around 45 minutes.
By train: with Stansted Express, you reach Stratford, Liverpool Street, and Tottenham Hale.
By coach: National Express brings you to Liverpool Street, central London, Kings Cross and Paddington. It provides also links between the airports. Check here.
It is the most accessible: located in Newham district, it is close to the Docklands and to the City. It is served by DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and buses.
NB: most of the companies provide assistance to passengers in need of accessible transports. Usually, you have to contact them at least 36 hours before your trip. Check the websites for more info.
It’s renown that public transports in London are really efficient and you can reach any corner of the city without a car. You are spoiled for choice: 11 lines and 400 km of metro length (called “tube” because of the shape of the tunnels); buses run around 500 services; National Railway, Tramlink, DRL, boat service and bike sharing scheme.
It’s also really expensive but there are ways to save some money. Check Transport For London to discover more about Oyster Card and Travelcards; it’s a great website with a journey planner, major works and strikes updates and much more.
London is expensive and accommodation is no exception. You can try hotels that sometimes make special offers (kids pay less or weekends discounts) or Airbnb. If you travel alone, hostels are a great opportunity to save money; booking.com is a good site to book online and check reviews. Homestay is another great option.
Tip: if you can afford it, choose your accommodation in zone 1 or 2 (center), so you can reach places easily and without spending a fortune on public transports.
Considering it’s a metropolis, London is safe; sure there are areas a bit dangerous but, in general, you can walk around without being too worried about it. Be careful on public transports and pubs: pickpockets are very skillful!
Best time to visit
London is a city that can be visited all year-round. Despite the reputation of having a bad weather, the city’s average rainfall is low, less than 600ml/year. During the summer, the temperature usually doesn’t exceed 30 C° and in winter it will hardly fall below 0 C°.
In springtime, especially in March and April, the parks are full of flowers in bloom: a spectacular palette of colors and a bouquet of scents that you won’t forget.
During high season, from July to September, the city is invaded by tourists, but in Christmas holiday, the city is emptier. Public transports are closed on Dec 25th and many of the city’s attractions as well. On New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, the tube operates all night and the trip is free from 11:45 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. A focal point for locals and visitors is the London Eye, home to the city’s largest fireworks display.
Notting Hill Carnival is one of Europe’s largest street events, a celebration of Caribbean culture, with its colors, music, food, and drink. It occurs at the end of August. The streets of Notting Hill are taken by a crowd of revelers, dancers, steel bands and performers.
Top things to do
Monuments and museums
Tower Bridge: it’s one of the best-known symbols of the city. Built in 1886-1894, it’s owned by a charity trust, The Bridge House Estates, that manages with other four bridges (London, Blackfriars, Southwark and Millennium Bridge). It’s 240 meters long, with two towers 65 meters high; it’s both for pedestrians and vehicles.
It worths a visit: the panoramic view, the glass floor, the perfectly preserved steam engine in the Victorian Engine Rooms, once used to raise the roadways. You will be fascinated by one of the most known bridges in the world.
Buckingham Palace: it has been the official residence of the monarchy since 1837 but its history goes back to 1761 when George III bought it as a family home for Queen Charlotte.
The number of rooms is impressive: 775, counting State Rooms, royal bedrooms, staff bedrooms, and bathrooms. It’s open to visitors only during August and September and limited to the State Rooms.
The ticket is really expensive; we suggest to take advantage of under-17, over-60, families and students discount; children under 5 enter for free. Try offers and tours on the internet.
Westminster Abbey: it’s breathtaking in its architecture and history. The origin goes back to the I century A.D., when a benedictine monastery was founded by King Edgar and called the “west minster” opposed to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the “east minster”.
King Edgar was the first king to be buried there and many followed him through the centuries; not only sovereigns but also writers, musicians, and painters: Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Robert Browning among the others.
Click here to book your ticket with discounts.
Tower of London: its construction goes back to 1066, at the time of William the Conqueror. Through the centuries, it was used as a prison and also as a royal residence.
Included in the ticket are the admission at the crown jewels, the visit at the White Tower, a Yeoman Warder guided tour, the Fusilier Museum, and the ravens if you are lucky.
There are seven ravens living there, near Wakefield Tower; an old legend says that the kingdom will fall the day the ravens will leave the castle. You can imagine why they are spoiled and well fed!
Houses of parliament: it’s the central seat of the British parliament. Built in the 11th century as the residence of King Edward the Confessor, in 1265 it became the seat of the House of Lords, and in 1547, also of the House of Commons.
The oldest area, Westminster Hall, goes back to 1097 and survived a big fire in 1834 but the rest of the building was erected in 1860.
It’s possible to take tours. Click here for more info.
St. Paul’s Cathedral: what you see now it’s the fourth cathedral built in this very same area. The previous one was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.
It’s a masterpiece of Christofer Wren and the biggest in Uk after Liverpool Cathedral.
Many personalities are buried or remembered with memorials there, from Lord Horatio Nelson to Samuel Johnson, from William Blake to Duke of Wellington.
Trafalgar Square: it’s one of the most famous symbols of London. Impossible to miss it during your wanderings in the city, it’s surrounded by churches, museums, and historic buildings.
John Nash, the architect, had in his mind to develop a cultural public space thinking about the square, back in 1812. In 1838, Nelson memorial statue and the fountains were added and later on the bronze lions as well.
The square is surrounded by three major hotspots of the city:
- National Gallery: housed in Pall Mall from 1824 till 1834, it started with a small collection bought from John Julius Angerstein, insurance broker, and art lover. The collection grew over the years and now it counts 2.300 paintings.
- National Portrait Gallery: it’s one of the richest portrait collections in the world; 1300 British paintings, displayed in chronological order (Tudors, XVII and XVIII centuries, Victorian Age and XX century).
- St Martin-in-the-Fields: it’s a gem in the heart of London. The church you see now was built in 1726 but we have news of a previous one since 1222. We suggest to visit the website and check the scheduled jazz concerts in the crypt, where you can also enjoy a drink or a dinner at the cafeteria, or evening concerts by candlelight performed in the church.
London Eye: if you are not scared of heights and you like breathtaking panoramas, London Eye (or Millenium Wheel) is your thing. It’s the most visited attraction in Uk. Built in 1999, still the biggest Ferris wheel in Europe, it was first sponsored by British Airway, then by EDF Energy and, since 2015, by Coca-Cola Company. It’s not our favorite hotspot in London but it worths a try.
British Museum: located in Bloomsbury, it was founded thanks to Sir Hans Sloane, scientist, and naturalist. He donated his huge antiquities and books collection to King George II and the museum was opened in 1753. Since then, the collection grew considerably, counting now almost 30 million pieces. Free entrance. Unmissable!
Victoria&Albert Museum: walking around Kensington&Chelsea, take few hours to visit the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, with its almost 5 millions pieces.
Named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it was founded in 1852 and since 2001 the entrance is free.
Tip: afternoon tea at the V&A Cafè, with its luxurious rooms and decorations.
London Transport Museum: it’s housed in the former Covent Garden Flower Market Building. The Earl of Bedford established the market back in 1670 and the construction was built in 1871. 1980 saw its refurbishment and the opening of the Transport Museum.
The collection is formed by vehicles, posters, books and films. It’s lots of fun also for children (free entrance for under 18).
Natural History Museum: it opened in 1881 thanks to the donation of Sir Hans Sloane. Its collection was too big for the British Museum, so some of the items were exposed in a separate building, a breathtaking romanesque construction designed by Francis Fowke. It’s one of the best activities to do in London with children.
Museum of London: in 1976, Queen Elizabeth II opened it. It’s the result of the mix of two collections: from Guildhall Museum (opened in 1826 in the City of London) and the London Museum (founded in 1912 in Kensington Palace).
We think it’s one of the most stimulating museums in town if you are interested in the history of the city.
The collection is huge, starting with prehistoric archeology through roman, Saxon, medieval, Tudor and Stuart.
Science Museum: using the profit from the Great Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert established the South Kensington Museum where now you find the V&A. In 1909, new buildings were inaugurated and the museum changed its name to Science. Its collection is formed by 300.000 items related to western technology and medicine. It’s always good fun for kids thanks to its interactive spaces.
Tate Modern and Tate Britain: the first Tate Gallery (Tate Britain) was opened in 1897, thanks to Henry Tate who donated his collection of British art. Time passing by, more collections were added and in 1992 Tate Trustees wanted to open another gallery for modern and contemporary art. They chose the former Bankside Power Station that became Tate Modern since 1994. After the visit, go to the top floor for a coffee or lunch and you will be charmed by the nice view of the city.
Tip: there is a boat service that links Tate Modern and Tate Britain for few pounds. Check here timetables and price.
Considering it’s a metropolis, London is very green. Parks are an integral part of everyday-life of a Londoner. During weekends, they are crowded with people, enjoying the sun, having a picnic or just relaxing. Walking around, you can bump into green areas of any sort. There are eight royal parks (old possession of the royal family that became public and in 1851):
- Hyde Park
- St. James’s Park
- Kensington Gardens
- Regent’s Park
- Green Park
- Greenwich Park
- Bushy Park
- Richmond Park
As well as the royal ones, there is a great number of council parks, like Battersea Park, Crystal Palace, Victoria park, just to mention the most known.
Other more informal green areas are distributed all around. We suggest Wandsworth Common, Wimbledon Common, Clapham Common (really nice the neighbourhood as well) and Hampstead Heath.
Not to be missed Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Garden. Check here for ticket prices.
There are dozens of markets in London, weekly or daily: fruits and vegetables, street food, clothes, vintage, wholesale. It’s a pleasure to spend hours walking around, even if you don’t have anything to buy, just being captured by the colors and the vibe.
We suggest the most popular, like Covent Garden Market, Borough Market, Camden Lock and Spitalfields. If you like crowd and colors, Camden Lock and Brick Lane are for you; Brick Lane opens on Sundays and it’s one of the oldest in London (17th century).
Food and Drink
Being such a multicultural city, London offers the chance to try any kind of cuisine. Just to have an idea, chicken tikka masala, traditional Indian recipe, is considered a British national dish. There is an uncountable number of Indian restaurants, followed by Chinese, Thai, Italian, Spanish, just to mention some.
Things changed a lot since the 80’s when the city was famous for its low choice and quality food. Now you can eat in every corner, amazing food and quite affordable.
If you have a sweet tooth, enjoy the afternoon tea in a hotel. Read here to know more about it.
Public houses have old origins, back to the roman invasion of Britannia. Known at the time as ta Bernie, they used to sell wine and food. After the collapse of the roman empire, they started to be called inns: travelers and pilgrims could find ales, food, and accommodation.
In Uk, pubs are an important part of everyday English social life; any occasion is good to go to the pub: wedding and birthday parties, funeral receptions, after-work catch up with colleagues, Sunday roasts and meet ups. The atmosphere that you experience drinking a pint or having a bite in an English pub, is something different, especially if it’s an old one.
The number of pubs in London is estimated around 2300 and it’s impossible to make a list of the best ones.
Here a list of few, historic and particularly charming:
- Cittie Of Yorke, Holborn;
- Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, Holborn;
- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street;
- Old Bank of England, Fleet Street.