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)
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."]