London Tourism Advice Offered and Sought

by Harry on December 16, 2007

People regularly ask me advice on what to do when they visit London, so I thought, since a bunch of you are probably visiting in the coming year, that I’d put my advice up for general consumption. It falls into two categories; places to visit, and general “being a tourist” advice. It all assumes that people have limited budgets. If you don’t have a limited budget, stay at the Savoy, ignore most of what follows, and really enjoy yourself. Please feel free to disagree (anyone willing to defend MT?) and to add your own advice.

Places to visit: There’s lots to visit, and it would be silly to elaborate too much. Here are some simple ideas:

1) Don’t go to Madame Tussauds. This advice has been given out for decades and still, amazingly, London is full of people who regret they haven’t taken it.

2) The Imperial War Museum currently has an exhibit on childhood on the Home Front during WWII. I regret that I may never see it, but several friends have recommended it, and the book is terrific. Go, for me.

3) There’s a reason that absolutely everyone tells you to go to the British Museum. That reason is simple. It’s fantastic. Something for everyone. If you haven’t seen the Great Hall, you’ve missed one of the great benefits of the national addiction to gambling.

4) St Paul’s is a marvel. But watch episode 6 of The Invasion first.

5) If you can get out of London for a day (not worth it unless you have at least 4 days in England) take your kids to the Roald Dahl Museum in Wendover, and Bekonscot in Beaconsfield. If you can manage the transport, one takes a morning, the other an afternoon.

6) The single most moving tourist attraction I’ve ever been to, more moving even than the fields of dead strewn across Northern France, is the War Cabinet Rooms. Read 5 Days in London, May 1940 first; and make your children think about what it was like living in a dungeon week after week. Show them the closet in which Churchill had to sit while talking to Roosevelt on the phone, and admire the courage of the young woman assigned by MI6 to listen in and, occasionally, restrain this drunken oaf her grandfather’s age on whose shoulders sat the fate of civilization, from saying what he wanted. Ask your children whether they think the perpetrators of our current war would put up with such privations.

7) Tea at the Ritz is very expensive indeed. Teenagers, I’d guess, would enjoy it, though. My dad says that in the seventies a friend of his used to have breakfast at the Savoy regularly and leave without paying. Unfortunately you can’t try it because they’re under construction.

8) Fortnum and Mason, not Harrods.

9) The Museum of Childhood .

10) If your trip is far enough off, try the BBC ticket office to see if you can be part of a Radio 4 studio audience; more distinctively English, and usually more fun, than a West End show.

General advice: If your stay is short (under a week) stay as close to the centre as you can afford, preferably Bloomsbury. Better to stay in a crappy place in the centre, than to enjoy luxury 10 miles out. Organize your day so that visit things that are close to each other, or so that you start in one part of London and work your way gradually to another part. If you are physically capable of walking, walk. Walking in London is much more pleasant than going by Tube and often faster. It’s not worth learning how to use the bus unless you are going to be there a while, and are staying far out. For lunch: always, always, always, go to one of those little Tescos or Sainsburys or the Marks and Spencer food places (or the Waitrose on Marylebone High Street is nice), buy sandwiches etc, and take them to a park to eat. This is much cheaper, and much better, than eating in a café or restaurant. In the evening splash out with Indian food, or somewhere non-Indian that has been highly recommended. Don’t eat at McDonalds or Burger King – if you were going to do that you might as well have stayed in Peoria. If you have children who want to eat at such places, I believe that spanking is still legal in the UK as long as you do it in private. Child abandonment, unfortunately, is not. I haven’t been in a London pub since the smoking was ban was introduced, so I can’t say how much less unpleasant they are; there’s no smoke any more, but remember you still have to deal with the clientele. I always disliked pubs, and my advice is to find a good gay pub, if they still have them, where at least you can assume that one of the more unpleasant aspects of English maleness is more or less absent.

Now, advice sought. A friend is going to be in London over the Christmas break, and wants a good central London church (the nearer to Bayswater the better) to go to for a Christmas service. Protestant prefered over Catholic, and happy clappy, preferably (I gather from googling that “happy clappy” is a derogatory term, but I’ve only ever heard it used approvingly (of St Aldates, by congregants) so that’s my excuse).



Luther Blissett 12.16.07 at 9:00 pm

Harry, thanks for this. I spent on the happiest years of my life in London, and I agree with you across the board. A few other specific things I loved while there:

1. Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden: beautiful vegetarian take-out, delicious cheese shops, and a small Rough Trade Records outpost

2. Pret a Manger chain: As Harry wrote, do take out for lunch to avoid the tax on eat-in. Pret’s sandwiches, yogurts, and coffees are brilliant.

3. Get yourself a full English breakfast at least once. My local cafe was Cafe Rossi’s, across from London Bridge station. 3 quid and you didn’t need to eat again until the late evening.

4. Go to the markets. Borough Market had beautiful cheeses, meats, teas, coffees, fruit adn veg. But you can also get a delicious meal from some of the vendors. Liverpool Street Market is brilliant too.

5. Foyles Bookstore, which I believe is near the corner of Oxford St. and Tottenham Court Rd. The greatest travel writing section ever, and where a kind clerk introduced me to Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Colin Thubron, Freya Stark, and others.

6. London Walks: sure, it’s a touristy thing, but in my experience, they were cheap, well-organized, and took you on fun walks through parts of town you might not see otherwise. The Jack the Ripper Walk is often run by a great writer on the murders, and the Jewish East End walk, which is basically the same route as the Ripper Walk, is interesting.

7. Brick Lane Indian restaurants and 24 hour bagel bakery: cheap, delicious, fun, and the perfect place to head after a few too many lagers.

8. Tas Restaurant (Borough High Street and another location in Waterloo): affordable Turkish food, delicious, stylish atmosphere. Gorgeous red lentil soup and couscous

9. Record shopping: Rough Trade East and West, Ray’s Jazz in Foyles Bookstore, Sister Ray, etc. For a great list, go to this Guardian website:,,2217815,00.html

I recommend reading Iain Sinclair’s *Lights Out for the Territory* or Peter Ackroyd’s *London: A Biography* before going. Then you’ll see weird, gothic details everywhere.


Andrew Brown 12.16.07 at 9:05 pm

St Peters’s, Kensington Park Road on the Eastern side of Ladbroke Grove. If a happy clappy church can be good, that would be the nearest to Bayswater. My wife was once the secretary to the vicar in the non happy-clappy church of the benefice, St John’s, which is how I know this.


Andrew Brown 12.16.07 at 9:08 pm

The LRB bookshop, just down a side street from the BM, has a smaller stock than Foyles, but is a wonderful place.

The Monmouth Street Cafe, in Monmouth Street. Best coffee in England

The Camera Cafe, another side street off the BM. Good second hand film cameras in the front. Good coffee, tea, vietnamese snacks, and free wifi in the back.


Matthew 12.16.07 at 9:08 pm

Unless it’s because you don’t like the owner, Harrods is a much more rewarding shop to visit than Harvey Nichols (which is basically an ultra-expensive clothes shop) – the food halls and if you have children, pet shop and toy section.

Of course what is good in London depends a lot on whether you are with children or not – I think the various markets are worth a visit but probably children would get a bit bored. For children the Science/Natural History museum combination (next door to each other) remains hard to beat, and their free. The V&A museum across the road is less children-friendly, but also excellent.


Chris Bertram 12.16.07 at 9:14 pm

I’d recommend “Sir John Soane’s Museum”: in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the “Leighton House Museum”: as well as the V&A (of course).

The south Indian places behind Euston (in Drummond Street) are good places for an evening meal.


Stu 12.16.07 at 9:21 pm

I must definitely agree on Sir John Soane’s Museum, more for adults than for kids, but it is a fascinating place in it’s own right. And it’s just around the corner, more or less, from the British Musuem. Good to do them both in one day, for two similarily related but very different experiences.


Nick L 12.16.07 at 9:26 pm

I recommend spending some time ambling through Spitalfields market, which is conveniently close to the Indian restaurants and bagel shops of Brick Lane.


digamma 12.16.07 at 9:28 pm

The Imperial War Museum is the best non-art museum in the world, bar none.


harry b 12.16.07 at 9:28 pm

Well, I somehow got Harvey Nicks in my head when I meant Fortnum and Mason (assuming that few tourists, especially Americans, would want to buy non-food items). I’ll fix it. Bizarre.

Second to CB’s recommendation of Drummond Street restaraunts.


Kaveh Hemmat 12.16.07 at 9:31 pm

I was in London for about 2 weeks, and I got some of my best, tastiest food deals on local foods like English breakfasts (eggs, beans, etc.), regular black tea with milk, and English desserts like bread and butter pudding. I can’t recommend any specific place for this, I had it at a cafe a ways north of the center of town. Also, fish and chips are cheap and delicious. London seems to have much better potatoes than I get in the US. The other thing I had great experiences with was Middle Eastern food, relatively close to the British museum. I live in Chicago, and I didn’t find London’s Indian food or coffee to be anything special, compared to what I get here, plus they were more expensive.


Jasper Milvain 12.16.07 at 9:32 pm

The British Library’s permanent Treasures exhibition is astonishly rich – and astonishingly empty. Maybe people think you need a BL card to get in. (You don’t.)


dsquared 12.16.07 at 9:39 pm

The Bank of England museum is always winning awards for “Best Industrial Museum” or whatever and is a jolly good museum. Also, don’t forget to try out the famous echo in the British Library reading room, and remember that black cabs double as bureaux de change if you get stuck without pounds sterling.


Eric Rauchway 12.16.07 at 9:49 pm

The Louise Bourgeois exhibit, still at Tate Modern till January 20, is outstanding. (The big crack in the floor, on the other hand, is silly. But it’s fun watching people play around with it.)


Matthew 12.16.07 at 9:52 pm

Re: Bank of England museum – If you’re lucky and find a branch of Northern Rock (there’s one near Holborn, I think) you might get to see an old-fashioned bank run too.


sharon 12.16.07 at 10:05 pm

While I tend to agree with the takeaways for lunch idea, fucking supermarket sandwiches? These are not better than anything, except possibly what your cat dragged in for a snack at 3 o’clock this morning. London is full of decent sandwich delis (chains and local shops) where you can get a freshly made sarnie with interesting ingredients – why are you directing people to the worst of all possible worlds?


notsneaky 12.16.07 at 10:07 pm

I second 2) and 3) and daniel’s recommendation of the Bank of England. Also I liked the book market by the Museum of Film on the banks that was there every… Saturday I think. I didn’t care much for Tate. The Globe Theater also looked goofy but I didn’t do it. The National Gallary in Trafalgar Sq. was also worth a couple of visits though there’s plenty of comparable or better collections elsewhere.

Also worth taking are a trip out to Cambridge, the whole Salisbury thing (really cheap lodging) and probably plenty of other places.


Richard J 12.16.07 at 10:49 pm

There’s a rather good second-hand classical/jazz record store (along with a wonderfully old-school second hand bookstore) on Lower Marsh just behind Waterloo station.

Greenwich/Blackheath is worth a potter, too.

But not Lewisham.


Chris Bertram 12.16.07 at 10:51 pm

Oh, forgot – Kew Gardens.


Kaveh Hemmat 12.16.07 at 10:58 pm

I’m going to be a rebel and recommend the Victoria and Albert museum of decorative arts over the British museum. Their stuff is just so much more interesting, maybe because decorative arts are things people used, rather than paintings that just sit on a wall, or sculptures that just stood inside a tomb.


harry b 12.16.07 at 11:06 pm

Well, Sharon, really, most of the chains where I’ve had sandwiches aren’t noticably better than Tesco and Sainsburys, and are worse than M&S.

But, recommend away. I forgot to include Villandry on my list, which has good sandwiches, but better bread and cheese, and just amazing pastries. (Great Portlnad Street).


hellblazer 12.16.07 at 11:12 pm

I’d agree with a lot of the recommendations above (in particular, Sir John Soane’s Museum is a true gem). Avoid Picadilly Circus and Leicester Square if possible, I’d say.

If you happen to be nearby, St. James’ Park in Westminster is worth ambling through, and contrasting with the nearby eyesore that is Victoria Street.


Gdr 12.16.07 at 11:15 pm

What about St Martin-in-the-Fields? It may be rather high church, but it is a beautiful building, the choral evensong is excellent, and it is just across the road from the National Gallery.


Iain Coleman 12.16.07 at 11:21 pm

Pubs are fucking great. Get a copy of the Good Beer Guide, and find a quality boozer near you. If you’re visiting from outside the UK, take this opportunity to try some proper British real ale. The real thing is only available in good pubs on draught, it’s uniquely British, and it’s lovely.


Chris Williams 12.16.07 at 11:48 pm

Iain’s right about pubs.

If you do go to the IWM, head straight on all the way to the cinema (you need to take a slight shimmy to get round AC2 Shaw’s Brough Superior), where they show an utterly random selection of propaganda and training films. Then go to the top of the building and find ‘Gassed’, which is in a room of its own often half-hidden by a travelling exhibit.


novakant 12.16.07 at 11:53 pm

Some nice tips, Harry, but I feel obliged to correct some of the more eccentric advice:

It’s currently somewhere around 4 Celsius over here, so I’m not sure I’d really want to advise people to wolf down a godawful Boots Meal Deal or similar on a park bench somewhere – there are plenty of cheap cafes or sausage and mash shops where lower management types, old grannies, builders and other non-rich people sit together having non-expensive lunch.

Also, unless you plan on staying in the tourist centre around Leicester/Trafalgar Square/Strand, taking the tube is an absolute must, since you wouldn’t really want to walk from Bloomsbury to, say, South Kensington or Shoreditch. Also avoid Oxford Street at all costs and especially this time of year. Unless you know were you’re going, be wary of being ripped of at Brick Lane Indians, the same goes for Chinatown.

As for museums not yet mentioned, the Wallace Collection is an absolute gem and largely ignored by the masses, therefor never crowded and very peaceful, but please don’t tell anyone so that it stays that way. And you have to go to a pub: for a traditional english experience in a great location I can recommend the Holly Bush in Hampstead after a walk on the Heath, also the Volunteer is nice to warm up after a walk through Regent’s Park or, slightly posh but comfy, the Landsdowne if you’ve made it up to Primrose Hill.



robertdfeinman 12.17.07 at 12:55 am

I suggest walking across as many bridges as you have time (or energy for). Here are some panoramas I took on my last trip:

London Panoramas

A boat ride to Greenwich is nice if you have time and the weather is good.


notsneaky 12.17.07 at 12:56 am

Also make sure to play pinball in Soho, then take a trip down to Brighton and do the same.


Dan Simon 12.17.07 at 1:13 am

Pret a Manger chain

My first time in London, during the mid-80s, I found this neat little shop near Victoria Station called “Pret a Manger”, where a budget-constrained student like me could get inexpensive prepared food to eat on a park bench somewhere, in lieu of restaurant food in the evening. The assortment was a bit odd, and the food was, well, okay, but it was cheap and very convenient, and the proprietors were very friendly, so I went back several afternoons in a row to pick out my dinner.

About a decade later, I found myself near Victoria Station with a couple of hours to spare while waiting for a train elsewhere, and I decided to see if I could find the place again. Needless to say, the shelves full of sandwiches and salads in sealed plastic didn’t quite match my sentimental memories. But the food was still, well, okay…


Jonquil 12.17.07 at 2:08 am

We could get out of London for a day with a car. We hit Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. Our kids are still talking about both of them. (We lucked into a misty November day.) Couldn’t hit both of them by public transportation, I don’t think — the buses to Stonehenge don’t get in early.

1. Restaurant meals are horrifically expensive. At first glance, you’ll think prices are okay — then you’ll realize they’re in pounds. Double them to get dollars, then gasp. There’s a reason the locals are fond of takeaway. The single best meal we ate, and surprisingly moderately priced, was lunch at the top of the Tate Modern. Magnificent view over the Thames, exquisite food, and art afterward.

2. If you’re at all a foodie, Harrod’s food hall is wonderful; our children (then 16 and 13) adored it. I don’t think we even bought anything, just walked from place to place, eyes wide.

3. Must-sees, warhorses or not: the Tower, British Museum. Our son was grumpy about the British Museum until he came nose-to-nose with the Rosetta Stone. He still wears the T-shirt.

4. If it’s still playing, go see “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The Alfred Hitchcock movie, done word-for-word by four actors. Only it’s funny. A tour-de-force of mime and stagecraft.


Jonquil 12.17.07 at 2:13 am

Oh, and my entire family and I adored the Tube, treasure our Oystercards, and love spotting the stations we used on British television shows. “Look! It’s the Jubilee line!” What’s unpleasant and unreliable to live with is exciting and historical when you’re a tourist. (I loved seeing bits of Victorian and ’30s architecture in the various underpasses and tube stations.)


Nabakov 12.17.07 at 2:19 am

And following up dsquared’s handy hints for foreign visitors, here’s a few more.

London cabbies also provide shoeshines at no extra charge.

Prostitutes only work the streets in early November. They can be easily recognised by the little red flowers they sell from trays.

It’s customary to shake hands with everyone on entering a Tube carriage.

If you are visiting the Tower of London, please be aware they have a serious raven infestation. The locals will be most grateful if you do your bit to scare off any you see.

If you are “caught short” and need to “spend a penny”, there are some magnificent public conveniences on Pall Mall. Make sure you tip the attendant.

The English take great delight in the high spirits of their antipodean cousins. So if you re attending a match at Lords and an Australian scores a boundary, feel free to run onto the field and shout “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” A large white screen on wheels is thoughtfully provided as a backdrop for such activities.

Aside from that, yep the Sir John Soane’s Museum is good value (and make sure you check out all the enourmous Hogarth colour prints in the back room) and I also recommend the National Portrait Gallery.


Crystal 12.17.07 at 2:25 am

This is a wonderful thread, as I’m saving my money up to visit my dearest friend who married an Englishman and emigrated. She lives in Cornwall, so I’d spend some time with her and then go spend a week-ish in London.

Any special (inexpensive) lodging hints or caveats for a woman alone who is also a very light sleeper? (Meaning that if I get a room with thin walls next to a bunch of drunk frat-boy types I will not get ONE WINK all night.)


vivian 12.17.07 at 2:27 am

Everyone has their own favorite pilgrimmage site. For me it was the British Museum of Natural History – aka, the temple to evolution. After reading lots of Steven J Gould, it was a must, and it lived up to its billing. Seeing Jeremy Bentham on display would have been my second pilgrimmage, but alas, everyone I knew refused to go with me.

In general, walking around London in sensible temperature-weather is fantastic, and always serendipitous: Lee Ho Fouks, and St. Martin in what was once fields but is now paved were delights to stumble on.

And while I woudln’t go there for them, the couple of hours I spent at the planetarium and Mme T’s were definitely pleasant. And far less embarrassing than someplace reeking of royal-worship-touristy.


vivian 12.17.07 at 2:28 am

Selfridges, not Harrods. Can you not remember Paddington? For shame…


Slocum 12.17.07 at 3:03 am

I second both the Imperial War Museum and British Museum. Along the same lines, we thought Greenwich was well worth a stop (read “Longitude” and maybe Conrad’s “Secret Agent” first). The Maritime Museum was great, too, but my memories of that are colored by an Antarctic exploration special exhibit going on at the time. For some reason, the James B Caird was just sitting out by itself on a cart — mind blowing to see the tiny size of it, the jury rigged canvas ‘decks’ and the little hatch, and think of the voyage. Real drag about the Cutty Sark, though.

The Tate and Tate Modern are both well worth visiting. The contribution based admission is nice if you don’t have a lot of time, since you can stop in for a quick visit and leave a donation of an appropriate size.

The Tower — the Tower is odd. It struck us as highly Disneyfied, with the Beefeaters taking great pleasure in relating all the blood-and-guts execution stories, and it all sounded like such great scary, ghoulish fun, that I began to wondering why they don’t do it up right with historical re-enactments of the condemned being marched up Tower Hill with all attendant pageantry and festivities of a ‘ye olde’ public execution.

If you have any little Potter fans in tow, a pass through King’s Cross might be included in the itinerary. The pubs — I disgree on the pubs. We enjoyed them for lunch, even with kids. And if the weather’s decent, yes, do a lot of walking.


John Protevi 12.17.07 at 3:29 am

New Tayyabs in Whitechapel (Fieldgate Stree) for excellent plates o’ grilled meat at very cheap prices. Decent hotel in Bloomsbury: Tavistock Hotel in Tavistock Square (62 pounds a night for single, en suite). And the Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern is indeed fantastic.


a 12.17.07 at 6:18 am

The London Eye gives a great view.

Green Park is a good place for a picnic lunch (supermarket located a little ways up Berkeley’s Street, which sells sandwiches, or plenty of take-out opportunities near-by).

St.James Park is worth a stroll.

Westminster Abbey.

Everyone should try to get a look at Parliament and Big Ben, if not visit.


Neil 12.17.07 at 8:40 am

What’s unpleasant and unreliable to live with is exciting and historical when you’re a tourist.

In my – reasonably extensive – experience, the tube is extremely reliable. It’s not unpleasant (too crowded for comfort, but that only matters on a long journey). Even when a destination is walkable, it is often far quicker to take the tube than fight with the crowds.

M&S and Tesco’s sandwiches are actually better than most cafe things. You will not get a table at any cafe in central London between 12 and 2, unless you are prepared to wait. But some M&S’s have tables inside (eg, the one in Tottenham Court Rd), where you can sit. They also do coffee. Look, if you’re really concerned with good quality food, don’t go to London unless you’re seriously rich. That said, it’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago.


magistra 12.17.07 at 9:05 am

On churches – All Souls Langham Place used to be the London equivalent of St Aldate’s Oxford for bouncy evangelicalism and big name preachers. Holy Trinity Brompton is where the Alpha Course started and I think is also a big name in outgoing Evangelical circles.

Things to do – the National Gallery is wonderful, and as it’s free, you can just pop in for a room or two at a time. The Rembrandts alone are worth it. They also do free lunchtime talks, as do several of the other big museums. If you’re into art, the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House has a lot of Impressionists and is not too expensive.

I’d also recommend the Museum of London, which has 2000 years of amazing and bizarre London artefacts (though I think at the moment some of their galleries are closed).

For events, it’s very useful buying a copy of the weekly Time Out, which will tell you about fringe theatre shows as well as the West End and details of all sorts of different things going on: talks, free concerts etc.


Tracy W 12.17.07 at 9:08 am

I second the Walking Tours. Especially the ones with ghost stories. (Actually the best ghost walk we did was up in York, but the Original London Walking tours are great value).

I highly recommend cornish pastries instead of sandwiches, much more filling and hot. There are a couple of chains selling them.

Also if you are feeling deprived of flat whites, there is a Flat White cafe in Soho and a place in the Borough Markets that does them. (I never drink coffee, but my husband was suffering greatly until we located some).


Valuethinker 12.17.07 at 9:19 am

For stuff that you want to buy, at a price you want to pay, and selection, John Lewis on Oxford Street beats Selfridge’s and Harrods hands down. Middle England shops at J. Lewis, and you’ll quickly see why. Hot tip: it opens at 9.30 and most people don’t realise that.

(the Peter Jones branch in Sloan Square is an Art Deco gem, but it doesn’t have quite the selection. Brilliant cafe)

Pizza Express is probably the best of the chain restaurants: the original one is on Coptic Street by the British Museum and has friendly staff. The food is reliable and there are lots of branches.

Wagamama is a Japanese noodle bar which is good (eat at long tables). Also Taro on Brewer Street and Old Compton Street (round corner from Foyle’s) in Soho.

Of the coffee chains, Nero has the best coffee, Cafe Republic probably has the best toasted sandwiches– there’s a handy one on New Oxford Street, just south of the BM. Starbucks is awful.

The British Museum Great Court, now, has the Terracotta Warriors from Xian. You need to queue up about 8.15 am (tickets start selling at 9.30, and are timed) on the south side of the BM. You will not regret having seen these, despite the crowds.

Oyster Card is a must. The card costs £3, and you charge it up when you buy it (and can recharge) and it gives you 30% off on Tube Fares and many buses don’t accept cash in the central area. Buy one at a News Agent or Tube Station. Remember to tap in and tap out on the Tube, and tap in (only) on a bus.

I disagree with you entirely about buses. They are easy to figure out from the representative maps at the bus stops. They are 90p with an Oyster Card. And you actually see London from the top deck, whereas from the Tube all you see is armpits. They work better in the centre (where everything is slow) than in the suburbs (where the traffic is just tedious and there is less to see). For trips to Zones 3-6 I use the Tube, for trips close in, I use the bus whenever possible. Traffic on Oxford Street is horrible, but it is Oxford Street.

Trafalgar Square is now a delight. So is the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The cafe in the latter (in the basement) serves excellent food.

In the Bloomsbury area, if you can find it (tucked inside University College London on Gower Street) is the Petrie Museum, which has one of the best collections of Egyptology in the world, hidden in dusty old display cases, including the oldest garment in the world

Tuesday to Friday 13.00 – 17.00
Saturday 10.00 – 13.00

It’s off Mallet Place, which is off Torrington Place, opposite the large Waterstone’s.

Despite the crowds (watch your wallet!) Covent Garden is always a treat, particularly the streets around 7 Dials ie the upper half of Covent Garden (funky shops: everything from the very upmarket erotic shop coco-de-mer, to funky clothes shops).

Stamfords books and maps on Long Acre has a great travel selection over 3 floors.

St. Paul’s is one of the greatest churches in Christendom, and you can walk from there across the Millennium footbridge to the Tate Modern, which is free, and worth it just for the Turbine Hall (former power station). The modern shopping precinct around St. Paul’s is now quite pleasant.

You can actually take a river bus from the TM to the old Tate, the Tate Britain, in Pimlico (past Westminster and Parliament) which has a fabulous collection.

A walk through Green Park and down to the Serpentine is always nice. There is a deluxe restaurant at the Serpentine, where you can have a nice coffee or glass of wine.

Waterstones on Piccadilly is the largest bookstore in London, if not in Europe– a former department store. Lots of space to browse (unlike Foyles). And it has a great cafe on the 5th floor.

This also gives you time to visit Fortnum and Masons, a few doors down, St. James Piccadilly (liberal Anglican), next door, one of the nicest churches in London (not so much the architecture as the feel of the community there) with a handy Cafe Nero down the side and to walk through the Burlington Arcade (see Harrison Ford in The Patriot Game– the long Victorian shopping arcade). The Royal Academy is not free (unlike every other London museum)

Agree with others re Foyles, and the London Review Bookshop.

Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street is probably the best independent bookshop in London– focusing on travel books. That whole area has been systematically upmarketed (eg the Conran Shop opposite) and is very pleasant (although not particularly well endowed with nice cafes) and makes a nice change from the hugamugg of Oxford Street.

The walk along the South Bank, from the London Eye either upriver to opposite Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, or downriver to the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is well worth it. Keep going and you get to Butler’s Wharf, a redone warehouse area of shops and restaurants opposite the Tower of London and Tower Bridge (not to be confused with the less remarkable London Bridge, which is one stop back).

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London is easily accessible by train from London Bridge (takes about 25 minutes and a 10 minute walk) and has a fine smallish collection (including Rembrandts) in a lovely building.

Camden Market in Camden Town is hell (go early) in terms of crowds but has the most amazing array of funky shops and tacky shops in and among the former yards.

Portobello Road (Ladbroke Grove) also has a large market under the Westway (freeway) and along Portobello Road: antiques, retro clothing etc.

You can walk along the canal from Paddington to London Zoo and on to Camden town. The canal is safe in the day, and London Zoo is fabulous, especially the new Gorilla compound and the new rainforest bit. Or boats run (but probably not on a weekday in the winter) all the way to Little Venice (canal boats where people live on the canal).

As always watch your wallet, especially around Christmas. The particular problem is snatch gangs which overwhelm police resources. Bag and wallet snatching is a real problem, best to leave most valuables in the room if you have a safe or with the desk. That said, 99% of visitors to London never have a problem.

Outdoor bank machines are also a risk– better to use one inside the bank, if possible.


Valuethinker 12.17.07 at 9:26 am

On museums, note the Imperial War Museum, British Museum, at least, are open every day except Christmas I believe.

Christmas Eve everything shuts *early*, I think the Tube stops at 8pm. Most stores by 5pm.

Except for some local pubs, maybe restaurants in tourist areas and a handful of corner shops (often run by moslems) *everything* is shut on Christmas day (including all public transport). London can be spooky and a bit lonely it’s so deserted, although a walk in a major park like Hyde Park can be nice (families).

Boxing Day a lot of the stores start their sales. I don’t think the Tube is running, though.


Katherine 12.17.07 at 10:02 am

My favourite walk (not walking tour) in London is to start at Waterloo/the London Eye and walk all the way down the South Bank to Tower Bridge. You’ll go past the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the South Bank Centre, the British Film Insitute, the Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre, the Golden Hind, Southwark Cathedral, the GLA building, a couple of nice nooks and crannies for (expensive-ish) eating and shopping, a few pubs, Tower Bridge at the end, and you get a full view of the Thames and the north bank to boot.

It requires occasional navigation of foot tunnels and some fumbling around at London Bridge/Southwark to get up and back down again, but altogether very worth it.


Thom Brooks 12.17.07 at 10:13 am

As an American in England (and formerly in London), here is my two cents on what you should do:

(a1) The one museum you really should visit is the British Museum. It is absolutely terrific. I never tire of visiting.

(a2) The Tower of London is fantastic. I disagree with what was said above and really enjoyed it. The grounds are sizeable and there is much to do, such as visit the Queen’s jewels. Thus, it is not all blood and guts nor did I find any of it overdone. Highly recommended. Plus, a brief walk around the area will lead you to the Dickens Inn, in St Catherine’s Dock, my former local.

(a3) Westminster Abbey, etc. is well worth seeing, although I never tire of visiting Parliament. If you can get a tour, get a tour.

(a4) If you can stomach a further museum, then I highly recommend the “V & A” (the Victoria & Albert Museum). Reasons against: not so exciting if you don’t like rare china, etc. coins, etc. I really like it, but nowhere as good as the British Museum.

(b1) A definite must is the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square. The Gallery is the best collection of (traditional and classical) paintings in the country. Like the British Museum, I never tire of visiting it.

(b2) A great plus of going to the Gallery is that it is both easy to get to and in a wonderful spot. You will find yourself off Charing Cross Road: walk north to find scores of wonderful used book shops and the theatre. Head south and find yourself (in about 20 mins if memory serves me right) in Westminster. You can see Big Ben from the Gallery’s steps.

(c1) You *could* get sandwiches and the like from supermarket chains, but beware: they will all almost uniformly be smothered in butter and/or mayonnaise. (All of which I find absolutely disgusting so, although I am a sandwich lover, I avoid pre-packaged British/Irish sandwiches like the plague.) Small cafes can be affordable if you poke around a bit for a great lunch. Or you could start the day with an English Breakfast, moving onto a snack in the afternoon: I can often skip lunch comfortably.

(c2) For dinner, Tas is decent for Turkish food, although not my favourite Turkish in London. Indian restaurants on Brick Lane are terrific, as are Chinese restaurants in China Town. Finding good restaurants is easy: often the best are found by accident. Play it by ear.

(d1) I disagree slightly with the need to find cheap/cheerful in Bloomsbury area and take it from there. I am actually a big fan of the subway/underground. It is truly not too inconvenient to hop on from Swiss Cottage (more quiet, scenic) and head into town. I wouldn’t stay anywhere less than 3 stars if avoidable: I’ve stayed in at least two fairly dodgy hotels in Bloomsbury over the last couple months. If they serve nothing more than breakfast, be wary is a good rule of thumb…

(e) The wildcard is getting out of the city for a day or two, if this would of interest. Here I’d recommend a trip to Oxford (just an hour away)…although I am always willing to promote the wonders of Newcastle three hours north by train…

Either way, have a great trip!


chris armstrong 12.17.07 at 10:37 am

Spanking children, even in private, is only legal if you don’t leave a mark. Anyway, the spankability of children is not a prime reason for visiting the UK, I wouldn’t think!

It’s true that gay bars are friendlier and less aggressive than many ‘non-gay’ bars, and offer more interesting people-watching. If you’re in Neal’s Yard for the veggie sandwiches anyway, then there’ll be one very close to you. And you’ll be very close to the excellent book-shopping on Charing Cross Road (although I was very sad yesterday to find that Silver Moon, the self-proclaimed largest women’s bookshop in Europe, had disappeared. Rising rents no doubt).

Someone did mention Brick Lane for the curries, to be sure, but I’d want to at least second the idea that a trip to London is incomplete without a walk around one of the major ‘multicultural’ areas – take your pick from Brick Lane, but also Southall, Peckham, Hackney etc etc…


chris armstrong 12.17.07 at 10:38 am

Oh, and go to a football match, if you’re lucky enough to know someone who can get tickets for you.


sanbikinoraion 12.17.07 at 10:49 am

Marks & Spencer and Pret do the best takeout sandwiches of all the chains in the UK, but you’ll find a small lunch department in loads of places you wouldn’t expect: Boots and Superdrug almost always have them, BHS is likely to.

On the other hand, I find M&S and BHS cafés to be universally disappointing.


Tim Worstall 12.17.07 at 10:59 am

Nabakov @ 31: you’ve been reading Gerard Hoffnung again, have’t you?


notsneaky 12.17.07 at 11:17 am

“as are Chinese restaurants in China Town”

This is a lie. There is no decent Chinese food to be found anywhere in London. Avoid it. The Chinese people there admit as much. Indian food of course is another story.


notsneaky 12.17.07 at 11:26 am

While we’re at it, don’t even think about sushi.


Katherine 12.17.07 at 11:40 am

Maybe not Chinese food, but you can find some damn good Vietnamese food around Kingsland Road/Dalston.


ajay 12.17.07 at 11:55 am

51 is right. The Vietnamese area is minute (Tiny Saigon) but the food is excellent. Also, wander into Hoxton Square and sneer at the Hoxton Twats.

And I thought this was hilarious…

I’d want to at least second the idea that a trip to London is incomplete without a walk around one of the major ‘multicultural’ areas – take your pick from Brick Lane, but also Southall, Peckham, Hackney etc etc…

Yes, London has brown people. Try to restrain your excitement.


Bob Duckles 12.17.07 at 11:59 am

I always make a pilgrimage to Speakers Corner. I always find it entertaining, and it is an important shrine of democratic heritage.


chris y 12.17.07 at 12:32 pm

Crystal @32: Unless you’re looking to drop $200 a night most hotel rooms in London have walls made of tissue paper and the furniture is arranged so that when you lie down the television in the next room is directly adjacent to your head. Sorry to sound negative; your best bet is probably a smallish no frills place that doesn’t attract parties. There are plenty.

Iain @23. One pub in twenty is fucking great. The rest of them are sheds for watching Sky Sports or worse. The trick is to know which one in twenty, which is a bit hard if you’re a tourist.


Maurice Meilleur 12.17.07 at 12:54 pm

A second recommendation for the Museum of London. Even with the lower galleries closed (says their website) the upper level has among many other things a wonderfully detailed set of displays retelling the story of the Great Fire.


Christopher Phelps 12.17.07 at 1:03 pm

Last time I was there, I really enjoyed wandering around Hampstead Heath, which cost nothing except the tube ride.


Dave 12.17.07 at 1:28 pm

My penny’s worth

1. The best ground level view in the city is from Waterloo bridge (You could even do it at sunset and hear various people muttering the Kinks under their breath)

2. Never (ever) attempt to get a bus up Whitehall, your kids will grow up and go to university before you get to your destination.

3. Pubs that tell you they’re traditional british aren’t.

4. The tube is great, but as londoners we’re going to complain about it anyway.

5. If you visit before the end of March 2008, visit the Henry Moore exhibition at Kew Gardens , it’s fantastic.


Prufrocky 12.17.07 at 1:49 pm

How is it possible that no one has mentioned the theater? London is the only city in the world with a mind boggling variety of affordable theater. Discount tickets at the box office in Liechester (sp?) Square make it even more irresistible.


Stuart White 12.17.07 at 1:54 pm

One thing I would add to Harry’s list is Freedom Books in Angel Alley off Whitechapel High Street. As you enter the alleyway, the right-hand side is Whitechapel Art Gallery, the left-hand side is Freedom Books/Press, anarchist publishers/booksellers with a history dating back to the 1880s. The wall of the Freedom Press building has a set of great portraits of famous anarchists, designed (I think) by Cliff Harper. The bookshop itself has a lot of interesting (and some not so interesting) stuff. I have particularly enjoyed a recent purchase there, a short comic utopia called THE LAST CAPITALIST by Steve Cullen. Its a great place to go to browse and come away with a few, very reasonably priced good books you won’t find in most other bookshops.


Christopher Phelps 12.17.07 at 1:55 pm

Another thing I liked a great deal (maybe because I was solo and discovered it quite accidentally) was walking up the narrow ancient stairs in St. Paul’s cathedral to the top of the dome. Superb view of the city. Not for those who fear tight spaces, heights, or exercise, though. Quite a walk up.


chris armstrong 12.17.07 at 2:17 pm

[And I thought this was hilarious…

I’d want to at least second the idea that a trip to London is incomplete without a walk around one of the major ‘multicultural’ areas – take your pick from Brick Lane, but also Southall, Peckham, Hackney etc etc…

Yes, London has brown people. Try to restrain your excitement.
Posted by ajay]

And I thought your response was puerile, insulting, and deliberately misconstrues the point I am making. But I guess we can agree to disagree on that.

Born and bred in London, by the way, have met ‘brown people’ before, including, according to the census, my children…


Nabakov 12.17.07 at 2:43 pm

tim @ 48: Actually I nicked most of those lines (as did dsquared with “try the famous echo”) from a legendary New Statesman competition “Misleading Advice for Tourists” – ‘cept for the ravens gag which I did make up.

Back OT. Second the recommendations for the Imperial War Museum – damn it’s gotta lot history to draw on. Of if the ladies in your party aren’t taken by the thought, send them to the V&A – an ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached.

Also I second katherine @ 43 re the South Bank walk. The Golden Hind is so cute (and small). But start at the other end so you can rest your dogs in the MI6 waterfront piazza before heading across Vauxhall Bride to MI5, Tate Britain and the Palace of Westminster then up into St James.


Nabakov 12.17.07 at 2:46 pm

for “Vauxhall Bride”
read “Vauxhall Bridge”

read “hostage”


richard 12.17.07 at 3:08 pm

Out of London: Leeds castle. Foolish, gorgeous, indulgent – but it suffers from the bad restaurant experience that dogs most heritage sites in England. Oxford’s always worth it, but much better in summer. Both can be done by train. If you go to Oxford go to the Pitt Rivers Museum, even if you have kids with you. Tell them it’s haunted.


Heloise 12.17.07 at 3:08 pm

I’d skip Harrods/Selfridges etc. and just go to Liberty. No, you probably won’t buy anything but the shop itself is eccentric and beautiful – even the lifts!

The Wallace Collection cafe is absolutely superb – perfect spot for afternoon tea. I’m not so keen on the paintings though. Museum of London is worth a trip and St James’ Park is lovely to walk around at any time of year.

If you have the time, take a day trip to Oxford and visit the Pitt Rivers Museum. York is also a good city to visit, although further away.


ajay 12.17.07 at 4:10 pm

61: so you’re OK with a list of London attractions that basically goes: 1) The British Museum 2) St Paul’s Cathedral 3) the V&A 4) The Brown People 5) Waterloo Bridge? Fair enough. To be honest, most of the hilarity was your suggestion that tourists should regard Peckham as a London must-see.

I was also amused by your suggestion of “people-watching in a gay bar”, which falls more or less into the same Human Safari category.

Someone mentioned the James Caird upthread – it isn’t permanently at the NMM, but lives at Dulwich College, Shackleton’s old school, which makes it reachable fairly easily by train from central London.

Cutty Sark would be a terrific visit if some idiot hadn’t set fire to it a few months ago; they’ll have it restored in a year or so.


spencer 12.17.07 at 4:15 pm

I repeat the advice to take the organized walking tours. they are great.

If you go to Kew Gardens — my wife a gardener loved it — be sure and take the boat back. At the end it gives you a fantastic water view of Parliament. My best photos of London and especially Parliament are the ones I took on that boat trip.


dsquared 12.17.07 at 4:24 pm

Out of London: Leeds castle

Yes, and remember that the trains to Leeds go from Kings’ Cross every hour on the half-hour.

A useful tip for Americans on a European tour is to go to London via Edinburgh and get your money changed there, as the Scottish pound exchange rate is particularly favourable at present.


spencer 12.17.07 at 4:27 pm

The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London is a little known event that is well worth it. It is a nightly event that runs from 21.30 to 22.05. The tower looks very different at night.

You must apply by snail mail at least two months in advance at:

The Ceremony of the Keys
Hill Tower of London

and include a stamped self addressed return envelop. You can get the correct international postage at the post office.

My info on this is several years old so it would be best to double check.


harry b 12.17.07 at 4:40 pm

What do you mean “even if you have the kids with you”? I used to take groups of primary school kids to Pitt Rivers and never have I seen such delight as when they see the shrunken heads. It is one of the great museums of the British Empire.


chrisc 12.17.07 at 5:09 pm

London Eye is fantastic – go as early as possible otherwise queues can be long, and book in advance over the internet.
Afterwards walk to Tate Modern/Globe theatre and thence take boat to Greenwich.
Take boat back to Tower Hill and wander back through the City via Bank of England to St Paul’s.


Neil 12.17.07 at 5:15 pm

Agree about the Pitt Rivers. Also, kids will love the Museum of Natural History next door (or actually same door). I go there just for the building. It’s the apotheosis of the Enlightenment: a cathedral of science.


Laleh 12.17.07 at 5:25 pm

For a proper sense of what London living is like check out one of the local markets (Dalston, or Brixton, or Whitechapel) or walk around those neighbourhoods (including Hackney – and while there have the lovely food at the Hackney City Farm). Or Notting Hill for a taste of posh/trendy living.

For cheap Vietnamese food check out Shoreditch high street (also for super-trendy bars).

For excellent Turkish food much cheaper than Tas but with terrible decor, try Dalston, Stoke Newington, or Green Lanes.

Edgware Road is fab for Middle Eastern (mostly Arab) food; but the best Iranian restaurant anywhere outside Iran (includes all the restaurants in Los Angeles) try Mahdi in Hammersmith. Owned by pious sufis (which means all alcohol is banned), it serves very very very good food very cheaply.

And I am surprised no one has mentioned a pilgrimage to Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate. Both the older and the newer Highgate cemeteries are FABULOUS and full of dead writers/thinkers/ revolutionaries of note.

There is also a pretty cool little guidebook called The Leftie’s Guide to London (or some such) which has all sorts of interesting things including location of major riots, assemblies, and other events having to do with popular political mobilisation.


Laleh 12.17.07 at 5:29 pm

“There is no decent Chinese food to be found anywhere in London. Avoid it.”

Not true. A new restaurant in Chinatown called Haozhan has been getting HUGE kudos from all sorts of critics and it is usually full of Chinese people.

Bar Shu in Soho has EXCELLENT Szhechwan (sp?) food.


Jen Birren 12.17.07 at 5:35 pm

Chris @45: When Silver Moon closed (yes, it was a huge rent increase), Foyles took it in as a separate room on the top floor. AFAIK it’s still there. (I think the famous bulletin board didn’t make the move.)
The Soho Theatre on Dean Street has some interesting offbeat theatre and comedy on- have a look at the coffee and chocolate store on Old Compton Street as you make your way there.


Chris Williams 12.17.07 at 7:15 pm

NB – I few months ago, I counted the Jack the Ripper tours.* There are at least eight of them, all run by different people. They can’t all be equally brilliant.

I second Freedom Press. Also, if going up east, take your camera to the Thames Barrier, one of the most photogenic things on the planet.

I suppose Oxford’s cute, but I’d go to Beckonscot if I had the choice. Or Brighton.

*A work thing.


Marl 12.17.07 at 7:22 pm

Was great to read these, since I visited London for the 1st time last spring. Great memories. Nice gay bar? How about the City of Quebec.

Also, see a play while there. London Theatre is phenomenal!


Rob Breymaier 12.17.07 at 7:34 pm

When in London, I always enjoyed walking on Hampstead Heath. there is a lot of great stuff to do in the center of London. And, see a football game if you can!


Chris Bertram 12.17.07 at 8:09 pm

Another thought, though it might be out of date. When I lived in London, I used to enjoy going to Columbia Road Flower Market.


novakant 12.17.07 at 8:43 pm

Peckham and Southall? I think that’s taking the idea of an ‘authentic travel experience’ a little too far. The flower market is still going strong, Chris. My office is in the area and ever so often on a Sunday I see people walking down Shoreditch High Street carrying huge flower pots, which is quite a charming sight.


nick s 12.17.07 at 9:04 pm

walking up the narrow ancient stairs in St. Paul’s cathedral to the top of the dome.

That tickles me: St Paul’s is 300 years old. It’s a spring chicken of a building, and I’m always struck by its modernity — the light and space — even the Victorian Westminster Cathedral seems made to feel older.

novakant’s right about the Wallace Collection: like Soane’s house, it’s one of those central museums that is rarely too crowded for comfortable visiting, and offers a perfect escape from the hell of Oxford Street this time of year.

More scatterdash: if you’re near the Bank of England, then head across to St Mary Woolnooth, for your TS Eliot checklist and Hawksmoor fix.

They run a boat from Tate Modern to Tate Britain now, don’t they? I suspect that’s worth doing, especially for the James Bond experience of pootling past MI6.

Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell is likely to be packed this time of year, but it’s a lovely little pub. And Gordon’s wine bar near Embankment tube is a gloriously shabby-genteel drinking hole. I’d imagine they’re serving mulled wine right now, too.

In that part of town, the view east at night from Hungerford Bridge is very special. And of course, who needs Rockefeller Plaza when there’s ice skating at Somerset House?


dsquared 12.17.07 at 9:20 pm

The Fleming-Wyckold Collection of Scottish Art, round the corner from the Royal Academy, houses a collection of Scottish art that was bloody good when I was working for the Flemings in the 1990s and presumably has got better rather than worse. Also worth an excursion is William Shakespeare’s house in Stratford, at the end of the Docklands Light Railway.


Christopher Phelps 12.17.07 at 9:34 pm

That tickles me: St Paul’s is 300 years old. It’s a spring chicken of a building.

“Ancient” is relative. Actually it crossed my mind that might be contested, esp. in European context, but… I’m a Yankee born and bred, plus a twentieth-century American historian–and the premise of the thread is advice for tourists from the U.S. Three hundred years? Hell, our country isn’t even that old. The stairs do feel ancient when you’re in them.


Luther Blissett 12.17.07 at 9:48 pm

Chris, I was talking about the London Walks Ripper Haunts tour:

Donald Rumbelow guides it a few times each week. He’s an acknowledged (and sane, historical) expert in the case, author of *The Complete Jack the Ripper*. I believe he’s a former cop.


Chris Williams 12.17.07 at 10:38 pm

Yeah, he’d do it OK. Not the best Ripperologist, but close.


DAvid 12.17.07 at 11:13 pm

The Hunterian Museum opposite the Soane Musuem is in the Royal College of Surgeons, and although full of medical curiosities is not at all gruesome and extremely well presented. Shamefully empty, and not particularly promoted, in Lincolns Inn Fields.


Alan from Chicago 12.17.07 at 11:50 pm

Just took a family trip to Britain last summer, had a few days in London at the beginning and end, for about a week total. (Rest of trip was Wales, Lake District, Edinburgh, Yorkshire.) Children were 16, 13, 11 at the time; first time out of N America for all of them. We actually skipped most museums and even the Tower in favor of walking around. Probably a mistake to miss the British Museum, but oh well. Budget was definitely an issue for us, but we had a great time without breaking the bank too badly. Favorites for us were:

Shakespeare’s Globe: cheap standing tickets, rousing productions (Loves’ Labours, Merchant), enjoyed by all.

Dennis Severs’ House: looks like a small museum dedicated to the history of a family of Huegenot weavers in Spitalfields, actually is something much more interesting. Best seen by candlelight. Children usually not welcomed–but ours loved it.

Weekend markets at Spitalfields (though it is being renovated) and Camden Lock. The latter was an especially big hit despite the crowds. I think what looks overcrowded and tacky to adult eyes was fascinating and maybe even exotic to the children. We did a walk from Little Venice to Camden along the canal path, passing the houseboats…a great morning.

We never were on the S Bank on a Friday or Saturday for the Borough Market, which I regret as I love it.

King’s Cross Station: a must for the HP fans.

London Walks: We did several, a great deal and a lot of information packed into a short jaunt. The ‘Haunted London’ one was a big hit with the children.

Walking along the South Bank: we did this most evenings.

Meals at Pret a Manger, Wagamamma, Eat: all good advice as above. Decent food, relatively cheap.

Pubs: Really liked The George in Southwark and Blackfriars near its eponymous bridge. Good simple fare, good beer, nice atmospheres, families welcome. On my own I’d second the Holly Bush up in Hampstead, wish we had gotten up there.

The Tube: Frequent service outages meant it was sometimes not as convenient as we’d like, but it’s an old system in need of repairs. Trains themselves were fast and clean. Best bet for short stays were the 3-day passes.

Son (11) and I went to the Imperial War Museum while the girls went to Kew Gardens. The IWC was fantastic, including the Home Front exhibit.

Cabinet War Rooms: Wow. Just as described—a must-see, and can be combined with the IWC for a discount ticket.

Walking through The Temple.

Museum of Childhood is kind of interesting–but I think the children were paradoxically not old enough to be nostalgic about all the old toys on display.

We had a great experience with a small hotel near Paddington Station run by a lovely Greek/Korean couple; not a fashionable area but convenient, quiet and cheap for London.

I also have to mention the ‘Green Knowe’ house at Hemingford Grey, near Cambridge, the home of children’s author Lucy Boston and the setting for her renowned childrens’ books. Anyone familiar with those books would love this site, occasionally open for visitors.


phil in seattle 12.18.07 at 2:18 am

The London Eye is great – be first or last, but make a reservation (good idea for all tourist haunts).

Take advantage of the hop on, hop off tourist bus, cause walking will wear you out.

The London School of Economics residential halls are more expensive than they used to be, but many are centrally located and available during the holidays.


Marc 12.18.07 at 9:43 am

Borough Market, if you like food. Go on a thursday for the best experience – it’s about 75% open and not crowded. Eat the toasted cheese sandwiches (from the guys who also sell raclette) or the cassoulet or a nice chorizo sandwich or the pork-belly sandwich from the Roast stand or just gorge yourself on whatever you find. Drink Monmouth coffee. Buy Neal’s Yard cheese. &c &c.

Greenwich is a nice afternoon out, and only a 15-minute train ride from Charing Cross or 12 minutes from London Bridge.

Someone above mentioned the buses as being in some way good. Al I can say is that the bus is _invariably_ slower than walking in central London, especially including the amount of time I spend waiting for the bus. That said, if you want to take a bus, they still run old Routemasters (the ancient red double-deckers) on whichever route it is that runs from St Paul’s to Charing Cross.

Museums: the British Museum, the National Gallery. The V&A if you have an attachment to junk – it’s like your Grandmother’s attic if your Grandmother were the richest person in the world. The Imperial War Museum if you feel too happy about life. The Courtauld if you like that sort of thing (I do). The Tates, esp. the Tate Modern.


Ken 12.18.07 at 12:15 pm

For decent fish and chips when in the middle of town try the Rock and Sole Plaice on Endell Street. Quite close to the British Museum and the LRB bookshop.


amb 12.18.07 at 1:40 pm

Take a boat up the Thames from Westminster Pier to Greenwich, or on to the Thames Flood Barrier. London looks fantastic from the river.

Go to the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, on Lincolns Inn Fields in Holborn. It has an amazing mix of human and animal anatomy and pathology specimens, wax teaching models, surgical and dental instruments as well as paintings, drawings and sculpture. Perhaps not good for young kids. I is also just five minutes walk from the oft mentioned John Soames museum, see them both in one afternoon.

Walk from St Pauls to the Tate Modern, then along the south bank of the river to the Royal Festival Hall.

William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh at the Tate Britain [which is a different gallery from the Tate Modern

Don’t at any point buy a supermarket sandwich. That would be foolish.

Spend an hour eating cake in Pattiserie Valerie on Old Compton street

Read Ian Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory before you do all of this. You’ll understand London better


harry b 12.18.07 at 2:31 pm

Oh Ken, thanks, on the rare occasions I go to London I never get out of the centre, and I long for good fish and chips, but always assume that its out of the question. Worth the whole thread.


Valuethinker 12.18.07 at 2:37 pm

Chris Armstrong

Silver Moon (and the jazz bookstore) carry on inside Foyles, across the road.

re dsquared

This was a Private Eye column, giving famously bad advice to foreign visitors. So just to be clear: Leeds Castle is nowhere near Leeds, and notes issued by Scottish banks are not legal tender in England (Marks and Spencer may honour them, but otherwise you have to take them to a bank and exchange them for English pounds), ditto Northern Irish notes.


What bus routes do you take? I never spend more than 10 minutes waiting for a bus in Central London. And it can be faster than the Tube.

*if* you walk fast *and* you avoid the busy thoroughfares (which isn’t as easy as it sounds, because the roads ain’t logical) then you can beat a bus. But you can get from Islington to the West End faster by a 19 or a 38 than you can by Tube, with a fair wind. And the problem with the Tube is you never ‘connect the dots’– it’s never clear how the different villages relate to each other.


Remember sunset in London is around 4pm in December (latitude 51 degrees N v. NYC latitude 40 degrees — who knew?).


ajay 12.18.07 at 4:12 pm

Should also add for those who may be still taken in by dsquared that Stratford in east London is completely different from Stratford-on-Avon. The latter is where Shakespeare was born. The former has little to recommend it. Stratford (L) has a regular stream of very confused tourists turning up looking for Stratford (o-A). Many of them survive.

Near Columbia Road Flower Market is also Broadway Market – also worth a look for extremely good (if pricey) food.

Kings Cross is worth it if you are a Harry Potter fan, I suppose, but otherwise to be avoided – it’s crowded and grim. Paddington is a much nicer station if you’re into Victorian railway architecture (and who isn’t?)


Chris Bertram 12.18.07 at 4:17 pm

#94 re Kings Cross is baffling. It is almost as if ajay forgot that St Pancras is right next to Kings Cross.


Richard J 12.18.07 at 4:19 pm

(Marks and Spencer may honour them, but otherwise you have to take them to a bank and exchange them for English pounds), ditto Northern Irish notes.

Most places do in fact accept Scottish notes (and NI notes too, though with more trouble as about three or four banks issue them (or did, the last time I had any)). It just takes a bit of polite negotiation (and the odd bald-faced lie to the shop assistant.) You may have trouble in a corner shop, but most big shops shouldn’t quibble.


Jason 12.18.07 at 6:40 pm

I second Rock and Sole Plaice. I dug the Steele’s up in Chalk Farm for a pub, Jin Kichi is up the hill for Japanese (sushi is only half the menu there).


Andrew 12.18.07 at 8:48 pm

Ditto to prufrocky yesterday–does no one go to the theater anymore? And in London? It’s one thing that’s actually cheaper in the UK than elsewhere, and often better.

1. the National–good deals on tix, and they have a cafe where you can get a reasonably priced meal beforehand; plus you’re on the water (also can check out the film center, which often has great stuff on).

2. Riverside Studios and the Lyric in Hammersmith–slightly more adventurous fare than you’ll see in town, and less expensive and better, in general–plus more foreign companies come through, so more variety

3. The Bush, Gate, Royal Court theaters–small places, lots of new plays by young & upcoming playwrights

And any of these could be great for kids depending on what’s on. It’s winter, go sit in a dark room for a couple of hours and be entertained. You can drink before and after (and during, of course). And ice cream at the interval…somebody buy me a ticket, I need a vacation.


lindsey 12.18.07 at 9:28 pm

So if anyone is still following… What can you do on Christmas Eve, other than go to Church, since everything looks to be closed?


andy 12.18.07 at 11:00 pm

Too cold right now I suppose, but my wife and I enjoyed a bottle of wine and the beautiful night view on the walking bridge that takes you over to the Globe Theatre. Quite romantic after about 9 pm.


gmoke 12.18.07 at 11:09 pm

Yes to visiting Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. When I did, I even got a chance to speak!

The difference between English debate and American debate is clear at Speaker’s Corner. In England, there is give and take, heckling and argument between the speaker and the crowd. It is taken for granted. In the US, the speaker is the only one who gets to speak and any interruption is unheard of and likely to get you reprimanded, removed, or, now, tasered. And during the time set aside for questions, please no speeches or comments but only questions. It’s a kind of reverse Jeopardy because we seem not to be adult enough to have a conversation and are thus unable to reply to comments that don’t include a question mark.


MSS 12.19.07 at 1:57 am

I’ll second, or make that third, the Rock and Sole Plaice. Especially for the skate.


harry b 12.19.07 at 2:10 am

Lindsey — if everything really does seem to be closed this is what I suggest. Go to Covent Garden and hang out with the Christmas shopping crowds, and amble from there to Charing Cross Road. Walk down CCR to Trafalgar Square and, following the advice above, go to a service at St-Martins-in-the-Fields. Is everything really closed?


Linkmeister 12.19.07 at 6:32 am

Are there no engineers here? The London Transport Museum has (or had) marvelous exhibits of the excavations for the Tube.

I enjoyed walking under the Thames to Greenwich, coming up the steps to see the Cutty Sark directly in front of me.


Valuethinker 12.19.07 at 1:52 pm

Lindsey, Harry b

The Tube closes about 8pm from memory, ditto the buses check . The streets empty after 4pm, most bars and restaurants will be closed by 6pm (not sure about right downtown in the tourist areas).

So make sure you have a planned way home (the taxis won’t be out either). If you need a minicab on Xmas day, you need to book in advance (a minicab that will pick you up on the street without prebooking is 1). committing a crime and 2). an invitation to a ripoff– don’t get in without negotiating a fee beforehand to your destination). In fact don’t take any minicab without agreeing the fare beforehand.

There is nothing to do in London on Xmas Eve than go to church– which is itself a magnificent experience if you can get in: both the Catholics and the Anglicans put on their best (Brompton Oratory for the Catholics– huge queues but it’s a choir school, so lovely music). St. Paul’s on Xmas Eve would be fantastic (and has more space than Westminster Abbey)– again be prepared to queue. England may be a secular country, but not on Xmas Eve. For traditional liturgy (but massively liberal congregation and priest) try St. James’s on Piccadilly (Wren Church). Any Anglican church in the country will bring down a rousing hymn: I dare you to keep a dry eye if they sing our unofficial national anthem ‘Jerusalem’ with words by William Blake*. Your local pub *might* be serving locals, but I wouldn’t count on it– check.

You could walk around the streets, and marvel at how such a great city could fall, for a moment, silent. From the Millennium Bridge (St. Paul’s) or the Hungerford Bridge (Waterloo) it will look quite magical.

Xmas Day there will be almost nothing open (some pubs, perhaps). Check with your hotel about open local restaurants. Time for that walk along the Thames or in Green Park/Hyde Park or, if you can get there, Hampstead Heath.

Boxing Day life (and the sales) returns. That which decides to pay the fine and open for sales on Boxing Day eg on Oxford Street, is hellish. Not sure which (if any) museums open Boxing Day, but the British Museum is.

New Year’s Eve is of course the reverse problem. Everything is open, everything is charging an admission charge, everything is booked. Again you need to make plans in advance, or join the drunken crowds in Trafalgar Square. My experience of Hogmanay (New Years) in Edinburgh was of being swept off my feet by the screaming crowd– not pleasant. Again you need a ticket to get into Central Edinburgh–they have barriers. The Scots take NY so seriously that they have 2 days off, not one day, to sleep off the hangover.

* (the myth referred to in the hymn is the West Country tale that Jesus, in company with Joseph of Arimithea, paid an incognito visit to Cornwall and Devon before the events chronicled in the New Testament)
Jerusalem Hymn

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.


ajay 12.19.07 at 2:33 pm

95: oops, well caught, sir.

And I’ve never had problems with Scottish notes in London – maybe taxi drivers would be awkward. They generally are.
Avoid black cabs unless you are very rich. Even then, you won’t be after the ride finishes.


Valuethinker 12.20.07 at 8:59 am

95 & 106

Kings Cross is an austere bit of early Victorian railroad architecture and quite lovely (seen from the top deck of a bus outside) *except* there is this 1960s extension on the front which is quite quite ugly– but you can see the symmetric trace of the Victorian building if you look up. But platform 9 3/4 is in at the back to the left (ie west).

St. Pancras is across the street to the West, newly restored, and includes Gilbert Scott’s incredible piece of Victorian wedding cake architecture, the St. Pancras Hotel. Which is worth a look (from the outside, the hotel isn’t reopened yet). And inside has been hugely opened out to accommodate the Eurostars from Paris.

There is something very special about Paddington’s arches though, one of the many reasons Brunel is in the top 10 of the ‘Greatest Britons’. My father stood at the back and watched a German V1 bomb fly over, one day in 1944.

No London rail station, to my knowledge, has either the sort of greasy spoon cafe they used to have, with egg and chips for 2 and 6 pence. Nor a really nice cafe, with proper coffee and a sense of peace. Instead they are terribly chain-stored and cafed, commercial and dirty.

To contemplate London from a cafe:

– Waterstones Piccadilly, 5th floor
– National Portrait Gallery, roof cafe (but Gawd are they up themselves)
– cafe at the Tate Modern, South Bank (4th floor?) you can see the whole city from there

any other thoughts?

Yes cabs are expensive. But they do get you there, as fast and efficiently as possible, and depending on the driver, quite entertainingly.

I’ve had trouble with Scottish notes in several places, but maybe they are more widely accepted than I believed. Don’t try it in Essex (E. of London), though– the locals will delight in telling you they are not accepted.

One problem is simply the fear of fakes. The shop staff get punished if they accept fakes, and Scottish notes are unfamiliar, particularly to the Polish girls who man (woman?) our cafes these days.

Ulster notes would be even trickier.


chris armstrong 12.20.07 at 10:37 am

66 says “so you’re OK with a list of London attractions that basically goes: 1) The British Museum 2) St Paul’s Cathedral 3) the V&A 4) The Brown People 5) Waterloo Bridge? Fair enough. To be honest, most of the hilarity was your suggestion that tourists should regard Peckham as a London must-see.”

Ajay, since I never mentioned any of these places, I can only presume that trying to misinterpret people is the only way you get your kicks. The simple point I was trying to make – albeit perhaps not clearly enough for you? – is that it would be a shame if someone trying to get a sense of London only went to the familiar spots on the tourist trail, many amongst which are typical of London’s bourgeois colonial past. Whereas visiting one of the more diverse boroughs (or going to a football match) would do something to broaden the experience they had. Visiting London ISN’T just about looking at bricks; it IS also about observing ways of life, right? But this conversation of ours isn’t working very well, so I should give up I guess.

Thanks for those who provided the pointer re: Silver Moon – I’ll know where to catch it next time.

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