After telling you about how much I love London, I decided it’s time to get a bit more specific. I wrecked my brain long and hard to decide on 10 places or attractions I want to introduce you to in more detail. There are lots of others I could have chosen, but all of the places in this list have managed to somehow leave a lasting impression on me. Some are long time favourites of mine, others are recent additions that I only discovered after already having checked off all the typical tourist places. I tried to pick at least some spots that are a bit off the beaten track, as well as those that are free or cost only little money.
Even though it’s a very subjective list, I hope you find something of interest in it. And if you completely disagree with my choice, or have some additions to offer, feel free to share it in the comments. I would love to get more recommendations and for my next visit! But first, here are my 10 favourite London spots, in no particular order:
1. Sky Garden
Finding a lookout with birdseye views over London is a must-do when you visit the city. There are several places where you can do that The most famous is probably the London Eye, but there are others as well. However, the disadvantage of most of these spots is that they cost a lot of money. This is where the Sky Garden differs.
It’s on the top floor of the “Walkie Talkie” building (actually 20 Fenchurch Street, but Walkie Talkie fits so much better), in the City of London. It includes a restaurant, a bar and a café. In the evenings you need a reservation to get up, but during the day you can access the viewing platform for free. It’s recommended to book your visit online to avoid waiting times. If you turn up without reservation, you might have to wait for a later time slot before you can get in. The panoramas are no less spectacular than that of any of those places you pay for. Especially the view of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge is amazing.
2. Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street
If you are a fan of the famous sleuth, you need to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It’s on Baker Street (obviously), and holds a replica of Sherlock’s famous lodgings. An exhibition on the top floor depicting scenes from the stories completes the museum. Here you also find some original props from past film versions. The exhibition aims more towards the original stories, but fans of the TV version can still enjoy the apartment and appreciate the fact that it looks almost exactly like the one used by the BBC series. When you take a photo of yourself sitting in Sherlock’s chair, there’s even a deerstalker and a pipe put out to add the right touch.
There’s a shop attached to the museum that sells all kinds of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. While the shop is free to enter, the museum takes a small fee. How crowded it is can vary a lot. The first time I came to Baker Street, people queued up half the street to enter the museum. Then on my next visit there was no line at all. So if you don’t want to wait, it might be worth just checking again at another time.
3. Platform 9 3/4 and House of MinaLima
While we’re on the topic of locations for fans, here are my two favourite places to visit for Harry Potter related activities. First, obviously, there’s Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross. You can have your photo taken pushing the trolley through the wall. You get equipped with the Hogwarts scarf of your choice, and if you’re with friends you can also take a group picture with props such as wands and an owl. The photos are sold in the Harry Potter shop right next door, together with all kinds of merchandise.
If you don’t want to spend money, there’s no pressure to buy anything. The photographer was happy to wait for everyone to finish taking pictures on their own cameras, or even to do that for you if you are there on your own.
The other spot which I’m going to include here, because it also relates to Harry Potter, is the House of MinaLima. Minaphora Mina and Eduardo Lima are the team of graphic designers who worked on all eight movies, and now on Fantastic Beasts. They created an exhibition of their Harry Potter related work, including some original props. It’s in Greek Street, right around the corner from the Palace Theatre where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently playing. Entry is free. Only it doesn’t usually open until 12, so don’t turn up too early. It’s a must-do for every fan and I absolutely loved it.
4. National Portrait Gallery
The first time I came to the NPG it was because I had some time to kill, and the weather was bad, and it was free. I expected to have a look around for one hour and be done with it. Instead, I found myself totally engrossed in the exhibition, and had to tear myself away an hour later only to come back the next day with more time to look around.
Besides varying temporary exhibitions (some of which you have to pay for), the permanent collection follows the history of England by displaying portraits of its prominent citizens from the late Middle Ages up until today. Those citizens include of course the Kings and Queens, but also members of the military, aristocrats, or artists like actors and writers.
The paintings are accompanied by explanations of who they depict, and the artist who painted them. They also give short insights into the lives and times of the people portrayed. Thus you get a history tour through England accompanied by the faces of the people who shaped it most. I’m not generally into paintings or galleries, but I loved this one. I highly recommend giving it a go, even if it’s not usually your thing. You might get surprised.
5. West End
This is definitely my favourite part of town. Of course I’m a theatre addict, so it’s not surprising. The heart of West End is Leicester Square. It hosts not only the half-price ticket booth for all the West End shows, but also cinemas, cool shops (M&M store anyone?) and restaurants. Twice I have walked across Leicester Square and casually ran into a movie premiere at Odeon cinema, including red carpets and Hollywood Stars. In how many other places does that happen?
From here you can go on exploring the West End, which extends through the area of Trafalgar and Piccadilly, including Chinatown and Soho. Here you find a theatre at literally every corner. In between there are pubs and restaurants for your pre-theatre meal or after-show drink.
Every time I visit London I try to fit in as many shows as I can, and still it’s not nearly enough time to see all that is on offer. There is something for everyone here, and you can get good prices for last-minute tickets either directly at the theatres or at the ticket booth on Leicester Square. London is a heaven for theatre fans. Just walking through West End and looking at the theatres and the productions currently showing is enough to make me happy.
6. Shakespeare’s Globe
There is one theatre outside of the West End that I need to point out specifically. The Globe is a replica of Shakespeare’s original theatre, trying to stay as close to the 400-year old model as possible. Naturally it presents mostly Shakespeare plays, although you can also catch other playwrights there on occasion.
The atmosphere in the Globe is unlike any other theatre I’ve been to. That’s mostly due to its unusual nature. It’s an outdoor theatre with most performances taking place during day time, using only natural light, as they would have in Shakespeare’s time.
While there are seats in the circles, the majority of the audience forms the so-called groundlings. That means they stand in the yard, right before the stage. If you ever go to the Globe I absolutely recommend getting one of these tickets. First, they are only 5 pounds. Second, the yard is where you get the true Shakespeare experience. The actors often interact directly with the groundlings, incorporating them in the play by various means and encouraging them to take part. The atmosphere is more involved, more part of the action than in other theatres. It will make you forget your tired feet, I promise.
7. South Bank and Queen’s Walk
When you exit the Globe, you’re not far from one of the most beautiful parts of London: South Bank. It reaches from the London Eye all the way down along the river until it reaches Southwark. Walking along the Thames on a nice summer’s day is probably one of the most relaxing things you can do in London. Well, as long as you’re not bothered by the multitudes of tourists who had the same idea.
When reaching Southwark, South Bank turns into Bankside. You have to leave the waterfront for a short while to pass Borough Markets. But there are some cute little cafés on the way. I can highly recommend the hot chocolate at Rabot1748. You also pass Southwark Cathedral, which is worth a visit especially for the literary inclined among you, because of its Shakespeare window and monument, and the windows dedicated to other writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer.
When you return to the waterside you can follow Queen’s Walk all the way to Tower Bridge. The whole way you get beautiful views over the river and the skyline of the city on the other side.
You can discover all kinds of little treasures along the walk. There are restaurants and food trucks, the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre, a second-hand book market, street artists, a little fair, and some hidden streets going off the walkway with cute shops.
Everybody knows of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral. But have you heard of All-Hallows-by-the.Tower? While it’s much smaller than its famous siblings, it is nevertheless well worth a visit. As the name implies, it’s situated right next to the Tower. It is the oldest church in the City of London, founded in the year 675. Unlike the big cathedrals, this one is free to enter. You can even take free guided tours, or visit the underground crypt museum which is part of the original Saxon church. Besides Southwark Cathedral, which I mentioned above, this is probably one of the most interesting among London’s smaller churches.
9. St James Park
I always like cities that have a lot of water, and a lot of green. London scores high on both counts. I mentioned my favourite Thames walk, now let’s move on to my favourite park. This was a tough one, because London just has so many, and all of them have something to offer. In the end, I went with St James Park. First, it’s very central, stretching from Westminster to Buckingham Palace, so you get there quickly if you need a short rest from city life. Second, you get beautiful views of the Household Guards and the London Eye on the one side, and Buckingham Palace on the other.
And third, St James is full of adorable animals. There are the pelicans whose ancestors have once been given as a present to the royal family about 400 years ago, and who now life on a small island in the lake. Apparently, they are all mad and have been known to occasionally eat pigeons or ducks. The squirrels are less murderous in their diet and instead take to begging the human visitors for treats. You’re not supposed to feed them, but they are just so cute!
10. Foyles and Forbidden Planet
London has a reputation as a shopping capital. I have friends who make a point of hitting the shops every time they visit. I do the same thing, though a bit different. I’m not looking for clothes or shoes when I’m in London. I’m looking for books. So I thought I share with you my favourite book shops.
Number one on my list is Foyles on Charing Cross road. It’s an independent bookshop with over a hundred years of history. Their collection is huge. The shop covers five floors, and it includes a café for when you need a break from all that book browsing. Honestly, if you can’t find something to read in this place, there must be something wrong with you. They have a lot of specialty collections as well if you look for something outside of the box, and a big section for foreign language books. I always have to use my entire self-control not to buy more than I can carry home. Oh, and just in case you need another reason to visit, there’s free wi-fi, too.
A shop I only discovered on my last visit to London is Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, near Covent Garden. It’s specialised on the fantasy and sci-fi genre. On the ground floor you can find all kinds of merchandise from all your favourite films and TV shows. The lower floor, though, is completely filled with comics and books. They probably have the biggest collection of fantasy and sci-fi novels in London (as far as I’m aware), so if that’s your genre, check this place out. Just be careful not to get carried away…
I’m curious now. What are your favourite London spots? Do they include some on this list? Or are they completely different? Tell me in the comments!