Living reasonably close to London most of my life I quite frequently pop into the city, usually for pleasure as it’s an absolutely awesome place to visit for a whole host of reasons. Personally, I wouldn’t like to live in London myself, not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s a great city, I just prefer to live in a quieter place, but have the convenience of living close enough where I can drop in whenever I like either to shop or to have a good time.
A few years ago I travelled the world after I finished uni and I was often asked by other travellers and locals to the places I was visiting; ‘So what’s London like?’ I’ve stayed in touch with many of the cool people I meant from my travelling days, a few of which have visited since, and of course, I took them out around the city as it was so close. From hanging out with them in London and listening to what they enjoyed the most, I got a really good insight into what people from outside the UK seemed to enjoy most about the city. So here’s my concise, ‘A local’s guide to London’ for allworld.com.
Getting Around London
First of all, when you visit any big city, it’s always wise to familiarize yourself with the local transport first. Personally, I recommend and much prefer taking the underground. It’s just such an easy way to get about the city. However, I’ll also tell you a bit about a few other ways to get about the city so you have some choice.
By far the easiest thing for visitors to do is to grab an Oyster card and load money onto it for travel or get a Travelcard. Here’s everything you need to know about getting and using an Oyster card or Travelcard.
In most cases, you’ll want to do this because not only does it make travel much easier, some forms of transport only accept payment with one of these two methods.
For me, I generally prefer to get about using the underground as there’s a stop pretty much anywhere you need to go across the city and the trains are very frequent. It can get a bit hot and stuffy down there, especially in the summer, but it’s still my prefered way to get around. Since the underground was built so long ago (taking 21 years from 1863-1884) there is, of course, no air conditioning. It would likely be too much of a disruption and expense to try to install it now. Even so, it’s still my prefered way to travel in London.
Once you get to any tube station, grab yourself a free pocket underground map as you will definitely be needing it if you’re travelling this way. Don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as you might think. The different lines are colour coded and clearly marked. If you’re in doubt of exactly where you should be getting off when visiting certain attractions that you’re aiming for then there is always an abundance of underground staff at each station answering questions from tourists. The staff are really helpful and know London like the back of their hands.
I don’t take the bus in London much, but there are certainly plenty of them and riding on the top deck of an iconic London bus is a great way to see the city. Be aware that you can’t pay for a bus fare in London with cash. Instead, you’ll either need to have an Oyster card or a Travelcard. See above for more info on how to get one. When you do get one, make sure you get one that is for visitors, not residents of London.
So, when travelling by bus, check the bus routes before you travel. If you do get on the wrong one then there are bells on the handrails to signal to the driver that someone wants to get off so you will be able to jump ship if you need to.
If you’re stuck, then the drivers will give you info if you ask them, but try to find out for yourself which bus goes whereas these guys are very busy and don’t really have too much time to talk so any answer you get may be brief, which could still leave you scratching your head. If you’re still set on taking the bus then grab a timetable from any tourist information office. Here’s a list of the tourist info centres for your convenience.
If you don’t mind familiarizing yourself with the bus routes before you travel then the bus is probably the cheapest way to travel around, at £1.50 for a single bus fare.
Besides just getting about, if you’d like to take the bus primarily to see the city then don’t take the commuter bus for this. There are great sightseeing bus tours that operate in the city. If it’s a hot day, go for one that has an open deck on the top. This is a really enjoyable and relaxing way to see the busy city without having to deal with all the hustle bustle. Tours run at specific times from designated areas and come with a tour guide to tell you all about the sights and the history of London. Here’s a guide on the top twelve bus tours in London.
The iconic black cabs of London can be found on pretty much any street corner, with 22,500 registered cabs in operation. Just stick your hand up if you want to hail one down. London bus drivers have an amazing knowledge of the city, they actually have to learn EVERY street and attraction like the back of their hands; amazing! Most of them are pretty friendly and are open to a bit of chit-chat if you’d like some insider info along the way. Not the cheapest way to get around the city, but not too expensive either. Having said that, the London cabs are usually more expensive than those outside the city.
Expect to pay around £9 – £14.60 for 2 miles, which should take you between 10 – 20 mins, depending on the time of travel.
Over the recent years, the beloved rickshaw has emerged in London, mainly to cater to tourists. I wouldn’t recommend taking one in the day because the city streets are just far too busy. However, they’re a really fun way to get around in the evening, especially if the weather is nice. The rickshaw drivers also have a good knowledge of London so they’re another good source of info if you need.
Now we’ve got the travel out of the way, here’s my rundown of the top London attractions.
Insider tip: While there are a few attractions in London that are free, most can be pretty expensive. If you’re in a group of larger than one and you’re planning on doing a few things while you’re here then visit daysoutguide.co.uk for two for one entry on most of London’s top attractions. All you need to do is visit this website, download your vouchers and travel in by rail.
Once at the attraction show then your voucher and your rail ticket. If you’re already staying in London and don’t need to travel into the city then grab yourself a one day Travelcard from any train station and use that to present your vouchers with. You can then use your travel card to get about the city for the day via bus, train and underground.
Top Things To Do In London
The London Dungeons
Previously located next to London Bridge train station, The London Dungeons recently moved and are now located on Westminster Bridge Road. The London Dungeons is one of the most fun ways to spend a couple of hours in the city. Basically, it’s a walk-through experience that guides you through different time periods in London’s history. You’ll be lead by actors dressed in medieval attire, who put on a theatrical performance to take your mind back to the times of the great plague of London, the great fire of London, the Jack the Ripper walk, Guy-Fawkes and the gunpowder plot and even a Sweeney Todd experience.
The whole atmos is dark, creepy and generally quite funny. It’s fun for all ages. However, if you have very little ones then check with the Dungeons first if it’s suita.ble for them. That being said, I have seen families with kids as young as about eight in there. I visited the Dungeons the first time when I was a kid and loved it!
For more info go to www.thedungeons.com
The Tower of London
The Tower of London is also one of my favourite attractions in the city. Full of history, the Tower of London dates back almost 1,000 years when the first part of the tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 after he conquered England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. Since that time, the rest of the fortress emerged around it and is now home to the Crown Jewels, which are definitely worth seeing.
Throughout history, the Tower of London has been a place of many gruesome occurances. Part of it was used as a prison where the inmates were tortured in the dungeons. There were also many executions at the tower, including the famous beheading of King Henry VIII wife, Anne Boleyn.
Tip: Pay the extra £4 on entry (per person) to get the audio guide to the tower. Definitely worth it. You can easily spend 2-3 hours in here, so give yourself plenty of time. Best to visit in the morning just in case it’s very busy.
For more info, visit www.hrp.org.uk
Built in 1998, the London Eye is now one of London’s most famous tourist attractions. Basically, it’s a giant Ferris Wheel in the centre of the city. Situated on the river Thames next to Westminster Bridge, the London Eye gives a great panoramic view of the city, 443 feet up, from its peak.
It’s certainly worth doing once, but at £27 for adults and £22 for children for a 30-minute flight, it’s not cheap! Try to go on a weekday to avoid the big queues.
Tower Bridge, often mistaken by the tourists as London Bridge, is London’s most iconic bridge. Built in 1886, Tower Bridge is a combination of a suspension and bascule bridge, which is still in operation today.
People love getting their picture taken with their friend on the bridge. However, you can also go inside it for a history tour, visit the engine rooms to see how the drawbridge works and now even go on the top of the bridge to walk on the glass bottom floor that has recently been installed for visitors. From here, you get a great view of the city and also look down to see the cars passing underneath your feet. If you’ve timed your trip right then you can be on the top of the bridge looking down as the drawbridge is raised to allow a passing ship through. They have times of drawbridge raises on their website.
Take a look at the Tower Bridge official website for more info.
Home of the Queen of England, parts of Buckingham Palace is open to the public between 9:30am–7:30pm, seven days a week. As you’d imagine, it’s an impressive building with staggering 775 rooms!
If you’re planning a visit to this amazing palace then take a look at their official website to get all the info you need to plan your trip.
The Changing of the Guards
The famous changing if the guard’s ceremony happens daily outside Buckingham Palace at 11 am daily in the palace’s forecourt and is the process of the guards changing for the next shift. These are the guys with the big, black fury hats that stand statuesque on guard at specific locations around high-value places such as government buildings and state residencies in London. If you’ve never seen the ceremony performed by these soldiers before then it’s worth seeing.
Here’s a video of the changing of the guards if you’re curious to see what it’s all about. This is kind of a weird tradition in that at the end/beginning of each shift the guards have to do a ceremony which goes on for about 30 minutes. I can’t imagine any other profession requiring you to march and play a trumpet or bang a drum for thirty minutes at the end of each shift, but it’s cool to see.
Big Ben & The Palace of Westminster
Big Ben is probably the most famous clock tower in the world and is a part of the Palace of Westminster, now known as the Houses of Parliament. Located in Westminster, it is easy to find and in the vicinity of the London Eye and also the London Aquarium.
While I’ve passed by Big Ben countless times, I found out while writing this article that it is actually possible to get a tour inside the clock tower if you really want to, but it’s not easy. You’ll need to contact a member of the House of Lords (don’t ask me how you do that) and you’ll also need to meet a ‘strict criteria’, whatever that means. If you fit the bill and you’ve put in your request, you may then also need to wait up to six months.
I don’t know anyone who has been inside, I just know that it’s possible so if you really want to be one of the few to take this tour then you can find out more info here.
Top Museums of London
Natural History Museum
Open to the public since 1881, the Natural History Museum is easily one of my favourite museums. Located in Kensington, if you’re travelling by tube then get off at South Kensington. Be prepared for about a 7-8min walk under cover. Admission is free and is a great place for all ages to visit.
One of the biggest attractions is the dinosaur exhibit with an impressive collection of bones, skeletons and life-sized models that move and growl.
Visit their website for more details: www.nhm.ac.uk
Also in Kensington (get off at South Kensington tube station), the science museum is home to an array of interesting attractions explaining science’s most important discoveries.
This is a great place to take the kids as there is a play area with a collection of games that help them learn about science as they’re playing.
For more info, visit: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk
The British Museum is located on Great Russell St, Bloomsbury (take the tube to Bloomsbury) and has all kinds of interesting artefacts and relics to explore, including the biggest assemblage of Egyptian artefacts outside of Egypt. Two of my recommendations to see in the museum are the famous Rosetta Stone and a mummy dating back around 5,000 years!
Shopping & Eating Out
Camden Town & Camden Market
Camden Market is a brilliant place to visit for shopping, great bars and restaurants and nightlife. A very trendy hot spot for youngsters and hipsters, Camden Market actually has things to offer people of all ages and interests.
Located on Camden lock, the market is a bustling shopping haven for bargains. Anything from food to trendy clothing to jewellery and handmade ornaments can be found at the market.
If you’re going there for the day I’d recommend to check out the market in the afternoon and have lunch at the food market section and then in the evening visit Shaka Zulu for dinner. Shaka Zulu is a South African themed restaurant with great food and a cocktail bar. You’ll need to book ahead if you want to get a table. Occasionally the restaurant has discount vouchers you can find online so it’s worth doing a quick Google search before you book.
After dinner, you can head out into Camden Town and visit one of the bars in the local area.
Being London’s tallest building at 301 metres (1,004 feet), it often attracts tourists and locals to the restaurants, bars and lookout points housed within.
If you’re going for the view then you will be able to enjoy London’s tallest viewing platform, which is almost double the height of other lookout points in the city. The viewing platforms are on the 68th, 69th and 72nd floors and will cost you between £25-£30 depending if you book in advance.
Within the Shard, there are six restaurants to choose from, which are;
- Aqua Shard
While they all have a great reputation, I have personally eaten at Aqua Shard and the food was great! My girlfriend has also eaten at the Chinese restaurant, Hutong and said the food was amazing. The picture to the right is the view from Aqua Shard. Notice the famous Tower Bridge in the background!
If you’re wanting to get a table then you’re advised to book in advance.
Here’s their official website: www.the-shard.com
Night Out In London
If you’re looking for a night out on the town then London has a great bar scene. Most pubs will close at 11 pm. However, recent laws have now allowed some bars to apply for a twenty-four-hour license. Chain pubs and bars typically close between 12:30 am – 1:30 am.
Typically, most tourists will head for famous areas such as Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and The Strand. While these are great places for eating and drinking, you will often find more authentic British pubs in the not so touristy areas of London. However, if you’re looking for busy nightlife then the aforementioned areas are great places to head to. Covent Garden also has several nice restaurants with outside seating area on their cobbled streets. It’s a really nice experience to sit outside in the evening with a beer or a glass of wine with friends or family, listening to the background music of buskers (who are usually pretty good in this area) playing away.
Once you’ve finished your meal there are plenty of bars and pubs in the area or you can easily take a rickshaw or the underground to another part of the city.
There are so many cool places to visit in London, I just can’t list them all here. However, these are some of my top attractions and ones that people I know visiting from abroad have also really enjoyed. Hope this article is helpful and enjoy your trip! If you have time to explore the UK further south then I also recommend visiting the costal city of Brighton. It’s a great place to visit and is also known as ‘London by the sea’. You can see my article on Brighton here.