There is something about London that makes it special. It’s a city I never get tired of. And every time I visit, I learn different sides of her, new hidden places or little secrets that may be frequently overlooked.
A funny story is that I didn’t actually like London on my first time there. It probably had to do with me arriving into the city with a food poisoning that was annoying and stopping me from enjoying whatever was happening around me. But truth to be told, a few months later I decided to give London a second chance. And I am so glad I did! During that trip I had the chance to really discover this beautiful city. This place that is historical and modern at the same time, this London that dazzles everyone who visits, and that I couldn’t understand why wasn’t dazzling me as well.
Planning a trip to London can be a little tricky. There is so much to do, that it can get overwhelming. That is why I thought on writing this guide as a series of posts. Not many, I promise, as my idea has always been about finding everything in one place. But, lets start by learning how to get there, where to stay at and what are the main attractions to walk and see. Then, we will talk about the extras I recommend to do if you have time for. Does this sound ok with you?
How to get to London.
From Buenos Aires, you can fly to London with British Airways straight to Heathrow Airport, or you can travel with Norwegian non stop as well, but in this case to the airport of Gatwick.
From inside Europe, you can either book your trip with British airways, or you can check the variety of low cost companies that fly in the area.
A very important piece of information: London has several airports (if not too many) so be aware of that when purchasing your tickets. Heathrow is one of the main ones, at to which most of the international flights arrive to. At the same time, it offers the easiest way to get to the city, as there are metro stations from the Picadilly line at the Heathrow’s terminals. A second good option is Gatwick, although the trip from here to the city center is a little longer and will depend on the Gatwick Express trains.
Knowing all this, the best tip I can give you when looking for ticket fares and comparing prices is to take a few extra minutes to also compare the costs of getting from the airport to your final location. Why? Because when booking your trip, you may find airfares that are 20 pounds less, but that flight arrives to Gatwick, and from there you have a 20 pounds’ train ride to main London, and maybe you may also need to add a bus ride to your hotel. When you take into account the one hour ride and the costs that it takes, then there wasn’t such a difference on the airfares, right?
Where to stay in London.
Before my first trip to England I remembered calling one of my aunts, the expert in all things British, to ask her everything. When we were talking about accommodation and hotels, and even though she recommended me some establishments, she also gave me a tip that I found to be super useful: any option close to a metro station is a perfect place to stay at! The famous London Tube is magnificent and you can get to the other side of the city in just minutes. So for me, the hotel near a tube station is a must.
Possible areas on where to stay at are Kensington, Convent Garden and Bloomsbury (near the British Museum). All of them are great accessible choices. The last two options are the most centric ones, ideal if you are looking to walk the city more than using the public transportation.
One hotel I can recommend, where half of my family had stayed at in different occasions, is the Holiday Inn Kensington High St.
What to do in London.
Londinium, as the romans used to call the city many many years ago, is full of history, traditions and things to do! Of course, what to prioritize will strictly depend on your personal taste and the available time you will have during your visit.
Some places, like the Tower of London, are fascinating and should be on top of the list of any traveler. This castle, situated next to the Thames, was built in around 1078 by William the Conqueror as part of the Norman conquest of England. By that time, the real purpose of the Tower was not only to stop foreign invasions, but to intimidate and scare the Londoners as well.
For years, the Tower of London was a resented symbol of oppression. A place for confinement, torture and executions, in which the most famous character to find her undoing was Anne Boleyn, one of the many wives of Henry VIII.
Today, this castle holds many stories about war, rivalry, power and treason that are very interesting for the history lovers out there. The Tower is also a trusted keeper of the Crown’s Jewels; which collection is exhibited daily for our delight.
No visit to the Tower is complete without taking the time to walk the Tower Bridge. There are many bridges upon the Thames, but for me there is no other like the Tower Bridge. This one has always been my favorite. Extra info here: the Tower Bridge hosts an exhibition that showcase how the bridge used to function back in the day, but do not consider it significant to visit. In my opinion, I would skip it and walk straight to another one of my favorite spots, Borough Market!!!
Located in Southwark, Borough Market is London’s oldest market and its believed that it has been functioning there for more than a thousand years.
If you consider yourself a “foodie”, then Borough Market will be heaven to you! The place offers mainly specialty foods, with a variety of products that goes from organic and locally produced at british farms, to options from different countries as well. For us touristing the city, the market is an ideal place to try local delicatessens and to enjoy a quick lunch on the go. My favorites? Deer burgers and fresh calamari, prepared right there at one of the big stalls at the center of the market.
While you are in the area, do not miss the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral. While St. Paul’s is actually an Anglican Cathedral, it is still considered the third biggest Christian temple of Europe, coming right after the Vatican and the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.
Its magnificent architecture and look wasn’t always the same as we can see today. St. Paul survived several fires, being the Great Fire of 1666 the last time the Cathedral had to be rebuilt.
Without having to hesitate, I think every person that visits St. Paul would agree that the Cathedral’s main attraction is its dome. Consisting of three rounded galleries, the first one, at 30 meters high, is famously known as the Whispering Gallery. The name takes after the amazing acoustic this place has, that allows to even the slightest of sounds to be heard at the opposite side of the dome. Don’t be afraid of the stairs and go up and try it yourself.
Another temple that you shouldn’t miss is Westminster Abbey. Built as a Benedictine monastery church, the Abbey is one of the United Kingdom’s most notable Anglican religious buildings and the oldest one in London. Back in the day, during the monastery’s dissolutions, the Abbey was seized by Henry VIII and it was probably thanks to this that the Abbey survived.
Westminster is famously known, not only for its beauty, but mostly for the events she hosts within its walls. Since William the Conqueror, all coronations of English monarchs have been in Westminster Abbey, and still today, they use the same medieval throne from the 11th century, King Edward’s chair.
Several well-known characters are buried under the dome of Westminster Abbey. Among them you can find: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Mary I of Scotland and some British monarchs.
Exiting the Abbey, you will find another notorious building and probably the most photographed spot in all London, the Parliament (Westminster Palace), and its famous clock, the Big Ben.
Originally, the palace was built as a royal residence. Inside, you can find more than a thousand rooms, being the most important ones the Lords’ Chamber and the Commons’ Chamber. Not many people know that the Parliament can be visited. Guided tours can be schedule, or if you are lucky enough that your trip matches the open sessions, you might be able to be part of one. For me, this is still on my bucket list and makes for a great excuse to visit London again (not that I really needed an excuse for that matter).
Another palace to keep on the itinerary is Buckingham Palace. Today’s official residence of the Queen of England, once belonged to the Buckingham Duke and was known as Buckingham House.
Touring the inside of the Palace is only allowed a few weeks a year, and depends mainly on the Royal Family’s schedule. Now, what you can’t miss here is the traditional change of guards’ ceremony that happens every day, and is a spectacle on its own. People from around the world gathers at the Palace’s gates to see this ceremony that takes around 30-40 minutes. Usually, the change of guards is schedule at 11 am, but it may suffer from modifications, so it’s best you check the timetable at the Palace’s website before planning your visit.
If you are into all royal stuff, among the list of places you can visit you will find the Kensington Palace. This is the official residence of the Dukes of Cambridge and the Dukes of Sussex, and part of its premises and the gardens can be visited from 10 am. If you decide to add Kensington Palace to your itinerary, do not miss to enjoy a traditional English Tea at the Royal Gardens Tea Room.
For art lovers, London offers a huge variety of museums, some of them are free to visit and the collections they hold would leave anyone sighing. The British museum is one of the oldest museums in the world and the keeper of one of the biggest and most famous collections of antiques that there is. The Tate museum is Britain’s National Art Gallery and it includes the Tate Britain (the first museum from this brand) and the Tate Modern, which gallery is exclusively destined to modern art.
There is no doubt that the public transportation London offers is amazingly good. But, despite the fact that I love the tube, London is a city that is worth the walk. Neighborhoods like Chelsea, Kensington, Convent Garden and Soho are gorgeous. But if I had to pick one it would be Notting Hill.
With its Victorian architecture, Notting Hill used to be one of the most elegant neighborhoods in the London area. Still today, the fanciest streets are Blenheim Crescent and Landbroke Grove, although the area that attracts everyone would probably be the one full of color houses.
No visit to Notting Hill is complete without walking the Portobello Market. Relying mainly on the reader, Portobello Road can take you from 30-40 minutes to a whole afternoon. Although this market started as an antique’s shopping spot, today you can find almost anything among its shops. Open every day, I recommend going on Saturday Mornings to see it at its best.
And talking about markets, another one I can’t leave outside of this guide is Camden Town. I once read that Camden was the nightmare of any architect. And probably if I were to take my sister there, she would run out of it and into the opposite direction without even hesitating. The thing is that, comparing Camden to the rest of the London neighborhoods, Camden is chaotic and grubby. But in that chaos, there is a certain charm that attracts every visitor to its streets.
Ideally, I would recommend taking either a morning or the afternoon off to go to Camden. Visiting Camden with a tight schedule is nearly impossible, because even if you would like to walk fast and seeing the area quickly, the amount of people will make it difficult to achieve.
By taking Camden High Street, you will get to Camden Lock. There, at the Camden Market, you will find street stalls with food and products you can try, similar as Borough Market. If you ask me I will never, ever, admit having the best Danish Nutella pancakes there. But I would so go back to that stall again.
Lastly, as the person behind this guide is a woman, I can’t leave the shopping department unattended, can I? To keep in mind, Oxford Street is the commercial avenue where you will find all major affordable brands as H&M, Marks and Spencer, Forever 21, Primark and so on.
If you are more into exclusive, luxury stores, then Bond Street, at Mayfair, is the place you want to head to. Brands like Burberry, Chanel, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and so on have their houses there. In my personal opinion, even if you are not thinking on shopping, Mayfair area is worth the visit. Its elegant, refined, delicate, a pleasure to walk around its streets.
We can’t talk about shopping at London without mentioning the famous, very exclusive department store, Harrods! Located at Knightsbridge, close to Hyde Park, this commercial building is visited not only for its shopping but also for its décor, fountains and theme rooms.
As I said before, London has so much to do that it can be overwhelming. I hope this guide so far helps you plan your trip, and I promise that coming next I will share a few extra places you can keep in mind, and the London itinerary I made for my parents with the Google map I customized for them.