I will tell you the truth. My first visit to London was so awful that I hated it. I despised the city so much that I swore I will never come back again. But there is the reason for that. I visited ONLY most popular tourist destinations and the busiest streets (Like Oxford (a.k.a. Panic Attack) Street, which I would never suggest to do if you’re coming to London as a tourist.
In the present, I lived in this city for almost four years and this has become the city I love wholeheartedly. I can’t tell you for sure that I’ll stay here forever, but I will certainly long for it wherever I am in the future.
What has changed? My own attitude and the knowledge of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a permanent tourist – I still love the view of Big Ben and would happily walk all main tourist locations, whilst being frustrated at the crowds. I got used to it, and I actually like being a tourist at heart. But in order for you to avoid disappointment and frustration on your first visit, I’d like to tell you about a few things you should bear in mind when visiting London.
When is the best time to travel to London?
If you can plan your trip in advance, I’d say plan for the end of March to beginning of May. London weather is like a lottery, so you will never guess what kind of weather and temperature will greet you as you arrive. More than that, the weather can change three times throughout the day, and I’m not even talking about the difference you can encounter throughout the week.
However, if I had to choose, I’d definitely come to London in April. Normally April in London would greet you with sunshine and beautiful blooming trees, which are perfect for beautiful (instagramable) photos that you will take away with you from your trip. Cherry blossom trees start blooming by the end of March, and they turn completely green by the end of April. You’ll also enjoy the sight of gorgeous magnolias, daffodils, tulips and other flowers that fill this city with colour. As April comes to an end, you’ll be fascinated by the beauty of wisterias that cover London’s houses, especially in Kensington and Notting Hill areas. Even if you’re not the biggest flower fan, there is no way you wouldn’t admire the beauty of London in bloom.
The only disadvantage is that you can’t predict the weather, so the blooming season can get delayed by a couple of weeks if the colder weather stays in London all the way through February and March. This year wisteria season began around the 10th of April, however, a year before it began to bloom only in the beginning of May.
If you’re not afraid of a rainy season, I’d also recommend visiting London in November. Wether in the beginning or the end of the month, there is the beauty in November at any time. In the beginning of the month you can still encounter the beauty of autumn colours and fallen leaves. By the end of November (from around 20th onwards) London is ready for Christmas, which means gorgeous lights, decorations and festivities will lift your spirit up and give you a taste of the most magical Christmas (before it’s even close to Christmas). Bare in mind that crowds are inevitable, but if you want to experience London’s festive mood, I’d suggest coming in November at the start of the festive season, because the later the date and the closer it is to Christmas – means bigger crowds and huge traffic on the streets.
Also, the earlier it is in the week, the less crowded the streets and restaurants will be. Thursday to Saturday are the busiest times in the city.
How to move around:
The best way to travel around London is by public transport. You’d need to buy an Oyster Card (which costs 5 pounds), and you can return it at the end of your trip and get a 5 pound refund. I’d suggest getting an Oyster Card if you’re traveling to London for 5-7 days and top it up with 7 days travel card for zones 1-2. It will cost you around 37 pounds. If you are travelling for 1-3 days, then it would be best to get a daily travel card at the tube or train station.
Of course I would suggest to skip public transport completely, and move around on foot. London is best discovered when you wander the streets and explore its beauty by walking around the city. There are a lot of hidden alleys, mews and streets where buses won’t go, so you have to put on your comfiest shoes and walk, walk, walk. If you get tired or want to travel between destinations that are further apart, I’d suggest using a bus. Although there are so many options for public transport, an iconic double decker will not only take you to the desired location quite quickly, but will also provide you with a mini excursion. If you’re lucky, you can get the front seat at the top and enjoy the view through the large front window.
Also, download Citymapper app on your phone to get directions arounds London.
Must see places:
No matter how long you’re going to stay in London, there is NO WAY you’d be able to see the whole city all at once. This is the city where you’d want to come again and again, and each time you’ll discover something new. I’ve lived in London for four years, and still I find so many new places, restaurants, shops and museums each time I walk around.
I will leave the iconic Big Ben, London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Tower Bridge and Hyde Park from this list. Just be aware that if you’re visiting them on the weekend, apart from these iconic sights you will also encounter a view of loads of heads as far as you can see.
If you happen to be in London Eye area south of the river, I would suggest taking a walk to the right (when facing the river), along the area called Southbank. There are notably less people than on the London Eye side, and the walk along the river becomes a much more pleasant and beautiful experience. There are a few nice cafes as you walk further down the river, where you can sit down over a meal and enjoy the view.
St Paul’s Cathedral is another popular destination, however it is definitely less known than the iconic ones I mentioned above. If you happen to be in the area, take a turn to the left (again, if you’re facing the cathedral from the river side) along Ludgate Hill entering Fleet Street, known for the establishment of press industry at the start of 16th Century. Along the way you’ll see a lot of beautiful buildings which look as if they came from the pages of classical novels. The street ends with the beautiful view on The Royal Courts of Justice, which is an impressive building completed in Victorian Gothic style.
Spend the day wandering the streets of South Kensington up to Notting Hill (or in reverse). When you are in South Kensington, you should definitely pass by the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert museum and Science museum. The first two are impressive inside out, however both are currently undergoing some exterior construction. Natural History Museum gets super busy on Saturdays, however, there is a side entrance on Exhibition Road where the lines are usually much shorter even if you are visiting on the weekend. Victoria & Albert museum is located right opposite, with entrances on both Exhibition Road and Cromwell Gardens. If you get tired from admiring beautiful art and sculptures from all over the world, head straight to the cafe which is located in the building across the open air gardens on the museum territory. The cafe interiors are super gorgeous, so you won’t only enjoy your meal, but also the beautiful surroundings.
From here you can either take a bus, or, if you’re not afraid of a bigger distance, walk up towards Notting Hill. The route I would suggest to take is up on Exhibition Road, until you face the split road between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Cross the road and enter the park on your left. On your way you will see the amazing Royal Albert Hall and The Albert Memorial. Enter the little gate to the Flower Walk on the left side from The Albert Memorial, and immerse yourself in a beautiful tranquil garden, where you’ll have a chance to see squirrels and parrots (and feed them if you wish). There’s relatively less people than on other alleys in the park, which is surprising, considering how beautiful this garden is. Walk all the way towards the left side of the park and exit on High Street Kensington. There is also an option to take a turn to the right and walk past Kensington Palace towards the north west exit of the park, then taking a turn to the left until you reach Notting Hill Gate station. This is a shorter walk than the one I’m about to suggest.
High Street Kensington offers a big range of restaurants and cafes where you can stop for a quick or more relaxed meal. I would suggest going to the large Wholefoods Market store and grabbing a quick meal from their food counter, or going upstairs to one of their restaurants (choose between Japanese ramen, sushi, Mexican, pizza…). From here I would suggest either taking a bus for about two stops, or continue walking to the west side of High Street Kensington until the entrance into one of the most beautiful parks there are in London. It is Holland Park I’m talking about.
If I had to suggest 3 parks in London that aren’t the famous Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, then I would definitely choose Holland Park, Hampstead Heath and Greenwich Park. All three are uniquely beautiful, however it does get busy in Holland Park and Greenwich Park as more tourists find out about these two.
Enjoy walking in the gardens of Holland Park whilst watching beautiful koi fish and peacocks roam freely. Take an endless walk in Hampstead Heath and don’t forget to get some street food and fresh fruits and vegetables from the market on Saturday. Make sure you get up to Parliament Hill when you’re in Hampstead Heath and enjoy a gorgeous panoramic view of London. Take beautiful photos in magical cherry blossom alley in Greenwich Park in April and walk up towards the observatory, where you can also enjoy an alternative view of London’s Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf with its tall buildings piercing the sky.
When it comes to Notting Hill, there is really no one place I can suggest to you. To me Notting Hill is all about wandering and exploring. Roam the colourful streets, take photos of beautiful buildings, wisterias, magnolias and cherry blossoms which are enveloping the area in spring. Head over to Portobello Road to explore its endless collections of antique everything – from jewellery to clothes, from vintage cameras to furniture. Enjoy delicious coffee and a cardamom bun in Fabrique bakery, or head to the northern side of Portobello road and get a delicious brunch at Bluebelles Of Portobello cafe. Try the delicious street food during the market day (on Saturday), or enjoy a nice meal at any Italian restaurant on Kensington Park road.
However, I often tend to avoid Portobello Road Market on Saturdays as it gets just too crowded for my liking. If you are a huge antique fan then you will definitely enjoy the experience, but if antique doesn’t mean too much to you then it’s better to come on any other day except Saturday. Bare in mind that not all of Notting Hill is as crowded as Portobello Road. Take a turn on adjacent street and you will enter a more tranquil and less crowded environment.
Panoramic views of London:
- Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath or a slightly smaller Primrose Hill near Regents Park – both are amazing places where you can enjoy the view outdoors.
- Greenwich Park offers a spectacular view on Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers.
- Sky Garden became one of the popular destinations when visiting London. It opened quite recently and gets busy on the weekend. But it is so much worth the visit, as it offers an amazing view on all sides of London! You have to book your free tickets three weeks in advance.
- Definitely visit the roof terrace in One New Change shopping centre, which is completely free and offers and amazing view on St Paul’s Cathedral. Although it’s just on the 6th floor (Sky Garden is on the 35th), but the view is very unique and beautiful. Surprisingly not too many tourists are aware of this location, so you will be able to enjoy a view in a relatively calm atmosphere even on the weekend.
- Alexandra Park is located slightly further away from the rest of my suggestions, but if you fancy a quieter place to enjoy the view, this is one of the best locations to go to. The viewing terrace near Alexandra Palace is remotely located and is visited mostly by the locals.
Other Points of Interest:
- Kings Cross St Pancras station – although its super popular amongst Harry Potter fans, it is still worth a visit as this is probably the most gorgeous station ever. There’s also a market right in front of the station, where you can find the most delicious Crosstown Doughnuts (they are SO good)!
- If you are into the alternative fashion and music, head over to Camden Market and enjoy the stroll in one of the most alternative part of London. You will not only see quirky buildings and fashion stalls, but also people dressed in every style you can imagine.
- If you find yourself near the northern side of Tower Bridge, I’d suggest paying a visit to the place called St Katharine Docks which officially opened in 1828 and are now a quite popular leisure destination. You will find a few popular restaurants here, as well as some nice art galleries and shops. This is a nice place to visit on a warm day and sit down for a cup of coffee at White Mulberries.
- Take a street art tour in East London and enjoy exploring London’s graffiti scene.
- Walk the streets of Shoreditch and admire the beautiful London’s architecture. Whilst you’re here, head over to Leadenhall Market for another Harry Potter themed destination, admire the tall glass buildings including the famous Gherkin, visit Columbia Road Flower Market on a Sunday, shop for some unique goods ranging from art to jewellery and clothing at Old Spitafields Market… There is so much to do in this part of London that you can spend the whole day just admiring its unique and quirky culture.
Where to shop:
If you like the bustling atmosphere of shopping centres, then head over to Westfield Shopping Centre either in Shepherd’s Bush or Stratford. Stratford centre is a bit bigger and is located further away from the city centre, however Westfield one is a bit less busy and also has the Village where you can find high end brand boutiques if that’s of any interest to you. Both have a nice selection of restaurants and cafes.
If you are interested in high end fashion, then I’d recommend checking out Selfridges rather than Harrods. In my opinion Selfridges has a more welcoming atmosphere and you can find better goods in here rather than in Harrods, which is more like a museum of branded clothing.
I’d recommend visiting Oxford street ONLY for the large Top Shop, large H&M and Nike Store, because trust me, everything else can be found on other, less crazy streets.
There are two other shops near Oxford Street I’d recommend, and it is & Other Stories and Liberty store. The first one is of similar quality and fashion as the above mentioned Top Shop, and Liberty is another designer store where you can lay your hands on more unique finds. It is worth walking up towards Liberty anyway, as this store is absolutely gorgeous from the outside!
After that, head over to Soho and Covent Garden, and explore endless small boutiques and shops which you won’t find elsewhere on the high street. There are a lot of British designers who have their shops on the narrow streets of these two areas, and you can find truly unique and more affordable designs there.
A few suggestions for breakfast/ lunch/ dinner:
First of all I’d like to mention Wholefoods Market, where you can find good food for a smaller price if you don’t feel like spending too much money on restaurants.
Chain coffee shops such as Pret and Eat offer sandwiches and hot food as well, so you can find anything from breakfast to lunch there too for a cheaper price. As well as that, there is Leon restaurant for a healthier fast food option, where you can get hot lunch boxes full of rice, your choice of topping (from veggies to meatballs to chicken curry) and a salad on the side.
I would suggest avoiding other chain coffee shops such as Cafe Nero, Costa and Starbucks, because lets face it.. their choices are small and boring! Instead, look for independent coffee shops and restaurants in the area. Foursquare is a good app to use if you’re looking for good restaurants, however it’s not always accurate.
For breakfast I’d recommend going to Daisy Green restaurant not far from Oxford Street, Grind restaurants that are conveniently located in various parts of London or Brown&Rosie in South Kensington. These three places are good for brunch too! Other few favourite coffee shops/ breakfast+brunch spots are Monocle, Fabrique, Attendant, Ozone and of course Monmouth with their delicious coffee and the best almond croissants I’ve had so far.
For a quick lunch visit Timberyard or Tap Coffee, where they serve soups, hot sandwiches, salads, quiches and frittatas as well as a very good coffee and teas. Bare in mind that all central restaurants in London can get very busy, so it’s really a hit and miss sometimes.
There are so many different dinner places you can go to for dinner, as London has a wide variety of flavours and cuisines. Some of my favourites are Franco Manca pizza and Pizza Pilgrims, Dishoom indian restaurant, Eat Tokyo or Shibuya for some Japanese flavours, Wagamama and Banana Tree for more asian food. If you fancy trying British food, I’d suggest going to any traditional pub, as the city is full of them!
Finally, just be open to new experiences, long walks and people as far as you can see. London is a truly unique city and it doesn’t really matter when you come here. Every season has good things about it, so it’s best to enjoy it with an open mind. I really believe that as soon as you leave this city, you’d want to come back. So don’t worry if you can’t do all of the above mentioned things in one visit. London is the city where you have to come again and again in order to learn all of the best things about it.
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* Now looking back at this guide, I want to add that it’s a good idea to visit the City of London on the weekend, as it tends to be much quieter than the western part of London. Whereas on the work days it’s completely opposite.