Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Rather Non-Standard Tour of London

Hi ESB – meeting my fiancé in London for a long weekend at the end of October. He goes to school in Ireland, so we have been to London together before. Looking for some suggestions of things to do/eat outside the standards (we’ve already done Buckingham, London Eye, Westminster, etc.).

Thanks a bunch.


When this reader volunteered to tackle London, I had NO IDEA how far beyond the standard her write-up would be.

I hope you like taxidermy! And jars of moles! And olde-ass pubs! (Okay, I guess olde-ass pubs are pretty classic.)

Anyhoo. Without further ado, here's Patricia.....


The first thing to mention (which you already know since you've already been) is that London is big. Luckily the public transport is quite good – provided you don't have a great attachment to the idea of personal space – and you can get pretty much everywhere you'll need to by bus or tube. The tube is very easy to navigate with its iconic map, and it's quicker than the bus, but if you know which bus you want and where to catch it from, that’s a better way of seeing the city (from the top deck at the front) and getting a sense of how the areas bleed together.

On the basis that you will use at least some public transport, then the first thing to do is buy an Oyster card (a swipe card that you can charge up with money for individual tickets or purchase a day/week travelcard on) rather than buying paper tickets which are sold at such a premium I've heard it referred to as a 'tourist tax'.  The few minutes it takes to fill out the form is definitely worth it.

If you are a confident cyclist then give the Boris Bikes a go – it's a relatively new scheme introduced during the reign of our current mayor of blond absurdity, Boris Johnson, where you can pick up a bike at any station across central London and return it to any other docking station around town within the half hour for a small fee. They are fun, particularly in the park, but London is not the most cycle-friendly city and cab and bus drivers can be somewhat aggressive. That said, I am a notorious bike wimp, my husband cycles everywhere and you're probably braver than me.

That said, although London is not 'walkable' in the sense of walking all of it or across it, walking is really the best way to see the city. My favourite longer walk, to see old and new, industrial and fancy aspects that make up London, is along the Regents Canal from Canary Wharf, up through Hackney to Islington, stopping for a drink in Angel, re-joining the canal on the other side, through to Camden, then Regents Park including the zoo and then up past the massive mansions to Little Venice and Paddington (see route here).

Big ones worth doing:

One of the great things about London is the free museums. I know you probably want to avoid the over-touristed honeypots (and rightly so) but there are a few of the big ones that are totally worth visiting.

The British Museum in Bloomsbury is totally one of my favourite places in London and even if the massive collection of Roman, Greek… isn't really your thing, then take a walk through from Senate House to Museum Street as the Great Court is an awesome vaulted space filled with soft cool light and a real contrast to the wood panelling elsewhere.

(Great Court at the British Museum via Foster + Partners)

The Victoria & Albert Museum is one of the Big Three museums just south of Hyde Park (the others being the Natural History Museum, which is great but uncomfortably crowded, and the Science Museum, which has an awesome interactive area in the basement if you've a kid with you). It’s a gorgeous building, has a great collection of fashion, textiles and ceramics among lots more and there are usually some interesting exhibitions on. Also, have lunch in the V&A café with its lovely tiled rooms and pretty decent quiche.

The Museum of London and National Portrait Gallery are also great if you are nearby.  But please do steer clear of Madame Tussauds, the Tower of London and Harrods. Overcrowded and awful.

Bloomsbury – Holborn – The Strand:

If you are into zoology, animals or just taxidermied esoterica then The Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London in Bloomsbury is small but packed to the ceiling with around 67,000 specimens preserved in various ways, including my favourite jar of moles. For just £12 you can also adopt a specimen for a year and have your name displayed on a small plaque in front of the relevant animal (although most of the exciting big ticket items are already taken, we just adopted a lizard that sprays poisonous blood from its eyes for our son).

From the Grant Museum you can walk through Bloomsbury and the British Museum, down to Sir John Soane's Museum just off Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is the lovingly preserved home of architect and collector Sir John Soanes and was described by the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture as “one of the most complex, intricate, and ingenious series of interiors ever conceived” – it's crammed with so many paintings, statues, models and antiques that the house itself has been adjusted in order to integrate and display. Another high volume, small space experience.

A little further down on the Strand, Somerset House is a lovely neo-Classical building (now, incongruously, home to the Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) around a central courtyard which has fountains and cinema in the summer and skating in the winter and is an oddly quiet space to sit and have a coffee. It also has a terrace out back overlooking the Thames. And the Old Bank of England pub (which used to be the bank of England), right next to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, is quite impressive surroundings.

South Bank - The River

Everyone will tell you to walk along the South Bank and that's because they're right, it's nice. Start at St Pauls, across the Millennium footbridge to the Tate Modern (another big one worth visiting) along the South Bank and up past the British Film Institute, National Film Theatre and the Hayward Gallery to Waterloo Bridge and then Westminster opposite the Houses of Parliament. If you head across the footbridge after Waterloo Bridge to Charing Cross station, stop for a bottle of wine and an illicit affair at a candlelit table under the low stone arches of the cellar at Gordon's wine bar, the 'oldest wine bar in London'.

(Gordon's Wine Bar via Adventures in Pubs)

The Tate Modern has a good permanent collection (including glorious Rothko) and there is also a temporary exhibition, finishing this Sunday 28 October, using the underground spaces below the gallery called 'The Tanks' and designed by Herzog & De Meuron (they of, among other things, the Beijing Olympics Bird's Nest Stadium and this year's Serpentine Pavilion).

The River Thames is geographically and historically very much at the heart of the city – if you like outdoorsy type activities (and have brought waterproofs with you, which, if you haven't you really should – London in the Autumn can be WET) then a different way of seeing parts of the city is by kayak. I have done a sunrise kayak on the Regents Canal and it was an oddly peaceful experience – I haven't braved the Thames, but I want to do this one now.

Pro-tip: the 453 bus is a cheap alternative to a sightseeing bus. You can catch it from Lower Marsh after having an excellent espresso at the a lovely ex-scooter repair shop Scooterworks and it takes an absurdly touristic route from Waterloo, across Westminster Bridge, past the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Regents Street up to Regents Park where you can hop off and wander down Marylebone High Street which is fancy, but quite nice. Alongside all the organic bakeries there is VV Rouleaux for trimming shopping, Skandium for overpriced Scandinavian style, my favourite, lovely, woodpanelled, organised-by-geographical-area bookstore, Daunt Books, and Tracey Neuls for weird looking shoes. You'll come out onto Wigmore Street at the back of Selfridges department store.
(Bus route here.)

(The Tanks courtesy of the Tate Modern)

Clerkenwell – Barbican

The Barbican is a big arts centre and residential estate built in the 1960s and a famous example of brutalist architecture. It's pretty interesting and you can take an architecture tour on Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends, and, if you don't fancy the trek out to the glasshouses at Kew Gardens, on weekends you can visit the Barbican conservatory – the second biggest conservatory in London. The arts centre hosts many and various film, music and art exhibitions – currently including the London International Animation Festival.

Around Clerkenwell and the city there are all sorts of old da vinci code sort of stuff including the Temple Church built by the Knights Templar. Have a wander around inner or middle temple if you can – this is where barristers chambers are. Freemasons Hall is between Holborn and Covent Garden. This area also has some cool old pubs including The Jerusalem Tavern (current building dating from 1720) – it's really tiny, so get there well before 5pm if you want to get a seat up at the back. And Ye Olde Mitre built in 1546 behind Hatton Garden – another one to visit early in the day as later it gets full of chainsmoking lawyers in the alley outside.

Spitalfields – Brick Lane – Hackney:

If you're not interested in big museums and shiny things, then East London is the more interesting part to wander around – Broadway Market and London Fields are full of hipsters and nice coffee. Head to  Columbia Road flower market on a Sunday morning - it is packed full of people but quite fun. The Last Tuesday Society has a shop on Mare Street full of curiosities.

(Little Shop of Horrors via WorthPoint)

Spitalfields Market and the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane are great places to browse around and eat things – particularly curry and a salt beef bagel from the Brick Lane Beigel Bake.

A great aspect of London is the preponderance of parks, so you really should spend some time in one – I think everyone has their 'own' park and my latest greatest discovery is the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park near Mile End tube. If you're East in the daytime and like woodland and overgrown tombstones then it is definitely worth a wander.

Wilton's Music Hall in Wapping is the oldest surviving Music Hall in London and a good place to go for a drink in the cool old theatrey décor of the Mahogany Bar.

(Salt beef bagel from Brick Lane Beigel Bake by Rob Greig via Time Out)

Sad walrus

As an addendum, as it's waaaaaay South in Forest Hill SE23, but The Horniman Museum is a gem – it has everything from amazing aquariums, to a poor sad taxidermied walrus. [See photo at top]

[Editor's Note: Please feel free to offer more restaurant suggestions in the comments. Patricia shied away, freely admitting that most of the foods she likes "involve offal."]


  1. I do love Patricia and her jar of moles. Her blog post where she compared her newborn son to that manky dead lizard was one of my favourites ever.

    I also love London, which is gloriously full of weird shit.

    1. Thank you!
      Now THAT's a testimonial I'd like to put on business cards.

      (And I do love that jar of moles)

  2. Perfect timing! I'm going to London this winter for work!

  3. Food:

    Cheap eats:

    Brixton Village/Granville Arcade - an array of covered market pop-up restaurants near Brixton tube that have bedded in in the last few years. Franco Manca for pizza, Honest Burgers, Federation Coffee (for kiwi baristas and anzac biscuits) and Okan (for those Okinawa japanese pancakes)are favorites. ALso check out the website which gives up to date listing for the whereabouts of the newly growing London food truck scene (nothing like LA yet, but some excellent choices).

    If you're going to John SOames museum (which you should, for the evening candlelit tour) Fleet River Bakery is right nearby. Big cakes, salads etc. Also Beas of Bloomsbury on High Holborn is an excellent part of any Bloomsbury visit for high tea or otherwise.

    Also in the Holborn/Clerkenwell area is Lambs Conduit street - go to Folk for clothing/shoes and Ben Pentreath for house stuff. The Lamb is a lovely old speakeasy/pub.

    Other food of note: The Anchor and Hope on the Cut is I think the best gastropub - they only book for sunday lunch so if it's busy you can book at the same owners' other foodie pub, Great Queen Street.

    Moro (spanish) on Exmouth Market is a classic, the whole street is lovely (shop at Family Tree).

    Gosh, so many more suggestions but I think this comment is probably too long already.

  4. Food-wise:
    Gaby's Deli just off Leicester Square in theatreland. Has a dramatic history (see below), and does great falafels and salt beef sandwiches. If you're nearby, don't bother going anywhere else!

    Gaby's Deli in the news

  5. The Mahogany Bar at Wilton's is far and away my favourite place in London for a quiet glass of wine in the evenings. They often have live music too, and they've just started doing lunches, which could be an idea for cheap eats if you're in the area.
    My favourite restaurant in London is Cevice, on Frith Street in Soho. It's slightly pricey, round £80 for two including Pisco Sours, a bottle of wine and a tip, but seriously the best seafood in London, great Peruvian cooking. Whether you're into offal or not, I'd recommend the beef heart skewers- out of this world. And don't leave without at least one pisco sour, trust me.
    Another great museum for things in jars is the Hunterian Museum. It's inside the Royal College of Surgeons, just across Lincoln's Inn Fields from the John Soanes house.
    Again, if you're in that Holborn/bloomsbury area, another great pub is the Holborn Whippet. They constantly rotate their selection of unique beers and real ales, and do a phenomenal burger and chips at a great price. you can follow them on Twitter to find out what cask they've currently got on tap.
    One last thing- the Last Tuesday Society also host great costume parties... if you're into that sort of thing you could check their website to find out when the next one is.
    Have a brilliant trip!

    1. I actually met my now-husband at a Last Tuesday Society ball at the V&A so I have a real soft spot for them.

  6. I used to live in South Ken, it's worth a visit if you haven't been, especially if you are already in the area visiting the museum circuit (V+A, Natural History Museum, etc), which I encourage! You can find the delicious hummingbird bakery there.

    The Markets are great as well - Notting Hill, Borough, and Camden are all great to have a wander and pass some time.

    Since you only have a long weekend in the city, I would pick a couple areas and explore rather than running around trying to do loads.

  7. My husband and I went to London for part of our honeymoon. I experienced the best dish I have ever eaten in my entire life at Pizza East. It was a cold app on their menu: the Burrata, dried tomatoes, shallot bruschetta. It was so simple yet so luxurious. I highly recommend going there and getting this dish.

    Also, regarding the "Boris Bikes" (we referred to them as The Barclays, but we were tourists, so what do we know), we used this as our primary mode of transportation and I cannot recommend it enough. It was fantastic going from point A to point B above ground and getting to see everything along the way. I felt like I got a much better feel for the city. Walking around for hours made my feet hurt a lot so I loved hopping on one of the bikes and giving my feet a rest, while still getting to see London. Regarding safety, we found all the drivers to be very nice and accommodating (including bus and taxi drivers). They are exponentially more accommodating to cyclists than the drivers in NYC.

    If you are moderately comfortable on a bike, give it a try. I was nervous for the first 5 minutes, and then I was hooked. Just remember: bike on the left side (that took some getting used to)!

    1. Ha. I think Boris or Barclays bikes can legitimately be used interchangeably.

      and I am now suitably embarrassed at how I won't cycle in town!

    2. I really wish we had known they were referred to as Boris Bikes while we were there. I know nothing of your mayor's politics, but I was transfixed by him during the Olympics. And he was on The Daily Show once poking fun at our Mayor Bloomberg. He seems so giant and jovial, like a happy, goofy Great Dane.

  8. The Museum Tavern right across the street from the British Museum is a nice place for a burger and pint. Also in Bloomsbury is the Marquis Cornwallis, good for small plates and a wide beer selection. Fernandez and Wells on Lexington in Soho makes great, fresh sandwiches (and they have a bakery around the corner).

    Since your fiance is a student, you can get £4 best available seats at the London Philharmonic if you sign up ahead of time (

    And check out the Wellcome Collection on Euston Rd, very close to Euston Station!

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  10. My (American) husband and I make an annual pilgrimage to Borough Market when we're in London visiting my folks. We always stop at the stall run by Roast for the best roast pork & crackling sandwich and nicely ask for extra crackling. If we're still hungry we try fresh oysters or stinky cheese from the many different stalls.
    The full market is open Thursday-Saturday but closes by 5pm so go early for lunch.
    This year we rode a Boris bike from Parliament, crossed the River Thames to Borough Market. Scary (especially for those riding on the "wrong" side of the road) but amazing views.

  11. Offal! Can Patricia please share her favourite eating spots?

    1. Happy to! St John in Smithfields (which is the big working meat market) really is great - not cheap, but rightfully acclaimed. Chitterlings!

      The Anchor & Hope in Southwark (as alloallo mentioned above) is also good, but be prepared to drink a few tumblers of wine in the bar before sitting.

      For tripe (and really who isn't for tripe) I like the vietnamese soup in Song Que on Kingsland Road.

      And whilst it's not offal (or is it? mystery meat) the scotch eggs at The Coach and Horses pub in Clerkenwell are delicious.

    2. Just to add to that; I took my offal virgin boyfriend (now husband) for ox heart at St John Bread and Wine (St John's sister restaurant in Spitalfields) and he still describes it as the most romantic and best meal we've ever had.

      If you venture up to Hackney to visit Broadway Market here are a couple of recommendations:

      Railroad is a lovely inventive cafe restaurant serving locally sourced middle eastern inspired food. I have honestly loved every single thing I have ever eaten there and am still fantasizing about the braised fennel bruschetta I ate there last week.

      Also in Hackney is excellent vietnamese
      Green Papaya. Its a diffrent style of cooking to Song Que with lots of stews and hotpots. Try the braised belly pork with prawns and egg if you need serious comfort food.

      Finally, for a dirty wrong offal treat, Sichuan Folk's Dry Fried Pigs intestine is one of the best things I've eaten this year.

    3. Dry fried pig's intestine? well that's my weekend planned.

    4. Its awesome. They do it as a weekday lunch special at £5.50 with soup and rice.

  12. Hello! As a young expat (I came to the UK to go to Cambridge for undergrad almost 5 years ago and have since moved to London) here are a few of my recommendations:

    Definitely agree with the posters above: Lamb's Conduit Street is one of my favourite streets in the entire city (I recommend Ciao Bella for some cheap and cheerful Italian), and Borough Market is a MUST. My best advice is to go hungry and do a full loop of the stalls tasting samples before committing to just one place. Also, get some brownies. The best brownies come from the stalls at Borough.

    I definitely definitely recommend spending a lazy afternoon with a copy of the Guardian at Workshop Coffee a great Australian coffee shop that roasts their own beans on site. I go to their location in Clerkenwell, but I know that they have a few others. Their coffee is a welcome break from the AWFUL freezedried powder that so many Brits seem to love, and their panko-crusted goats curd salad is honestly one of the best things I've ever eaten. Around Workshop in a 5 minute radius is a literal glut of great food choices (including the famous St. John in case you want to splash some cash on some head to tail butchery) so it's hard to go wrong in case the line at Workshop is too long.

    If you're into contemporary art and are already checking out Spitalfields, which is such a cool area, it would be a shame to miss out on the Whitechapel Gallery. Yes, I am a former Intern of the Gallery, but this place is major (Picasso's Guernica, Mark Rothko and Frida Kahlo all had their UK premieres at the Gallery over its long and illustrious history) and they put on some great exhibitions, almost all free of charge.

    Finally: ride the DLR (sit in the front, its our driverless train and so you get to see all of the underground tunnels from the driver's perspective) to Maritime Greenwich if it's sunny. Don't waste your money seeing the Cutty Sark, but do walk up the hill to the observatory, check out the Greenwich Mean Line, and look back at a glorious view of the city. For bonus points, do this while sipping on some locally brewed Meantime beers.

    1. YESSS! riding the DLR from Bank station (on the Underground) through the evil empire (Canary Wharf, one of the two business districts) is my favourite thing. Definitely sit at the front of the driverless train - it's like being on a funfair ride designed by J G Ballard. Fun. When you've finished admiring Greenwich, take a Clippers boat up the Thames back into central London. it's a gorgeous way to see the city, and as it's public transport it's cheap (use your oyster card for a discount)

  13. You must go to Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street! Oh, I am jealous. I want to do everything listed above.

  14. A few more suggestions that came in via email:

    Monmouth - Best coffee in London, the queue goes around the block but don't be dissuaded, it moves quickly and it is heaven – Monmouth
    Covent Garden, 26 Monmouth Street, WC2

    Borough Market - SE1 (London Bridge or Borough Tube) - by far the best food market - only open Thurs - Sat. Must tries are the chorizo and red pepper sandwich, Ginger Pig sausage rolls, homemade cider, the amazing oozy raclette.... actually everything is delicious

    Franco Manca Brixton- best wood oven pizza for £5 - Unit 4, Market Row, Brixton, S9

    Ottolenghi - beautiful creative salads as well as mouthwatering desserts and pastries imagined by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. - 287 Upper Street (Angel tube)

    1. Ottolenghi is a must and a major stop for any self respecting foodie. But be aware - the flagship restaurant in Islington books up months in advance (I do an annual trip there on my birthday and have to schedule myself a reminder to book 2 months before) so that is probably no dice. BUT they have a couple other cafe style spots where you can get takeaway (and a few small tables in the back but they are usually filled). Don't let this deter you, go there. grab food to go, enjoy!

  15. I was in London in September and enjoyed walking around the city so much! I especially loved all the beautiful public parks. The squirrels in Hyde Park are very tame and you can hand feed them nuts.

  16. I actually worked at the Horniman Museum this summer (on a student internship) and am feeling suitably defensive of the Walrus.

    The Victorian taxidermist who stuffed him had never seen a walrus or a photo of one before he completed the task at hand. That's why he's overstuffed, has no blubbery bits and looks generally a bit sad.

    That said, the Horniman is lovely and a fascinating museum with the most enthusiastic stuff you've ever met. I can recommend it thoroughly.

  17. Some food options; Taro on Brewer St in Soho, great little japanese restaurant. I like sitting by the bar and watch the chefs. If you like Italian, try Mele Pere on Brewer Street (opposite Taro) It has a large glass corner front, filled with little glass ornaments.
    Polpo is another great place to try, they also have a restaurant in Smithfield area in Clerkenwell.
    For a great classic pub Sunday roast, try the Crown Tavern in Clerkenwell.
    As others have already said, if you're a foodie then Borough Market is a must and a coffee at Monmouth - don't let the long queue scare you off, it's worth waiting for. Or better yet, if you're in Covent Garden, go to their cafe on Monmouth Street and sit in one of their little wooden booths. Although personally my favourite coffee comes from Prufrock on Leather Lane (Clerkenwell area).
    I usually despise chain restaurants, but have to say that Busaba is a great place if you like thai food, need a quick, cheap bite, the food is very good. Try their thai calamari!

  18. I recently compiled something similar to this list for the out of town guests at my wedding. It was mostly made up of places to eat in the end because that's one of my most favourite things to do in London. In addition to all the excellent suggestions above try Duke's Brew and Que in Dalston for great ribs, burgers and house brewed beer. You could also do Vietnamese at Song Que or Viet Hoa on Kingsland Rd, cocktails at Happiness Forgets, Manhattans Project and Nightjar or dinner with a view over the whole of London at Duck and Waffle (on the 40th floor of a building in The City!). Have fun!

  19. gelupo gelato for the BEST italian ice cream and granitas this side of the continent. it's the sister to bocca di lupo, which is an AMAZING italian restaurant, although it's success means it can be difficult to get reservations on weekends and some evenings. both are on archer street which is parallel to shaftsbury avenue (about 2 minutes from piccadilly circus) in soho.