Sunday, 28 May 2017

London Guide - for tourists

As I am often involved in advising friends and family on what to do and what to see, here's a quick handy guide on some of the must-sees and must-dos.


Get Oyster cards for each member of the family (see below *).

You can either buy a season ticket (I'd suggest weekly travel card initially), or just put money on the card and use it for 'pay as you go'. Pay as you go capping allows you to make a number of journeys in a single day or week, but limits the amount you pay for your travel. It is calculated automatically based on the zones you travel in and the type of transport you use (rail, bus, and tram).

*Children under 11 travel free on buses and trams, Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and some National Rail services when they are with a fare-paying adult. If you’re travelling with children aged 11-15, you can ask a member of staff to set a Young Visitor discount on an Oyster card, allowing them to pay as you go at half-adult rate for up to 14 days. Staff can do this at most Tube stations, TfL Rail ticket offices, Visitor Centres (excluding Gatwick) or Victoria National Rail station ticket office.

More information here:

This includes a London attraction bus map, which can be useful to get a handle on the city. Grab a free tube map from the first station you come to, as it can be useful to map out your transport every day.

Where to eat

Pret a Manger is your best bet for a coffee and a decent sandwich. If you're looking for a quick lunch on the go, or a snack, find a Pret. They're everywhere and are much better than a Starbucks or Costa or Caffe Nero or Eat.

Paul is better for a slightly upscale version of coffee and a snack on the go. Their chocolate beignets are to die for.

In terms of affordable chain restaurants that are scattered all over London, these are some I can swear by:

American: The Diner
British: Canteen
Dim Sum (Chinese Dumplings): Ping Pong
French: Le Pain Quotidien or Cafe Rouge
Greek: The Real Greek
Italian: Vapiano or Caffe Vergnano 1881 or Carluccio's
Mexican: Wahaca
Pan-Asian: Wagamama
Spanish: La Tasca
Turkish: Tas

Then there are interesting places like:

Roti Chai (off Oxford Street) or Chai Ki (Canary Wharf) for Indian street food,
Red Fort (Dean Street) for the best biryani I've ever had,
Drunch (Woodstock Street) for an eclectic menu and good shisha,
Addis (Caledonian Road) for Ethiopian food,
Pham (Whitecross Street) for excellent and affordable sushi,
Yauatcha (Broadwick Street) for possibly the best Chinese meal in town,
Big Easy for a good surf and turf menu, inspired by the 'South' (as in, the southern states in the US).

For desserts and the like, I can suggest:

Amorino, where you get the best accessible and affordable gelato,
Laduree, which has the best macarons in the world, freshly made and transported from Paris everyday,
The Orangery at Kensignton Gardens is the best option for afternoon tea if you can't get a booking at the Ritz or Savoy or Dorchester. It is far more affordable and is also far more likely to have a table available. Otherwise, try Fortnum & Mason, but again getting a table may be difficult. If no one has a table available, then Richoux is always an option - it's cheap and yet delivers a bit of the old school ambience.

Must-see Shops

Hamleys -Founded in 1760, it has been at its present Regent Street location since 1881. 257 years of history and 7 storeys of toys and games for all ages.
Nearest underground stations: Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus

Fortnum & Mason at Piccadilly was founded in 1707 and is the classiest of all departmental stores in London. It's very close to the Ritz. The teas, coffees, jams, biscuits and confectionery at F&M makes for excellent gifts.
Nearest underground stations: Green Park, Piccadilly Circus

Liberty at Regent Street is another luxury goods store, opened in 1875. They used to be famed for their upholstery and fabric, which they used to design and only have very limited prints for. Princess Di was sometimes clothed in dresses made from Liberty prints. Worth a peek.
Nearest underground stations: Oxford Circus

Selfridges is a famous departmental store that opened in 1909. Favoured by Indians and Pakistanis alike, most celebrity sightings of Bollywood stars seem to take place there. I really don't know why people love it so much, but it's on Oxford Street so easy to access.
Nearest underground stations: Bond Street, Marble Arch

Harrods is my least recommended departmental store, but no tourist's trip to London is complete without it, it seems. Opened in 1834 in Knightsbridge it has a huge shoe floor, a Godiva cafe, 'Egyptian escalators' etc that people have to go and see. Please note, I hate it.
Nearest underground stations: Knightsbridge

Must-do Markets

Camden Town - This is absolutely my favourite market in London. There are 6 market places in there, but the best is Camden Lock Market and Stables Market. Everything from leather to silver to handmade crafts and bric-a-brac, to prints and records, nothing compares to the feel of this place. A couple of decades back it used to feel way edgier, a hub for goths and punks, and is now definitely more hipster, and kinda touristy, but it's still very cool. You can get lost in those stalls for hours. Must take cash, as most places don't take cards. Definitely visit Tribu, the coolest silver/stone/wood/bone ethnic jewellery shop. Best time to visit is the weekend.
Nearest underground stations: Camden Town, Mornington Crescent.

Borough Market - Very popular with tourists for its associations with Bridget Jones's Diary and Harry Potter but is essentially a fresh food market selling breads, olives, cheeses, meats, fish etc. I've never understood the fascination, but there you go. If you do make it there, stop by at Rabot 1745 (Bedale Street) for the richest cup of hot chocolate ever.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge, Borough

Portobello Market - I personally don't get the attraction of this place, but it's known to be the best place for antiques, vintage items and art. It got super popular after the film Notting Hill, because Hugh Grant's shop was in this area.
Nearest underground stations: Notting Hill

Must-do Museums

British Museum - Opened to the public in 1759. Make sure to enter from the main huge entrance, admire the main hall (award winning, glass ceiling opened in 2000), Rosetta Stone (Room 4a), Mummies (Rooms 61-63), Islamic World (Room 34), and Japan gallery (Rooms 92-94).
For a full list of galleries, check here:
Nearest underground stations: Russell Square

Victoria & Albert Museum - Established in 1852. Make sure you see Tipu's Tiger (Room 41), the Asia / India / Islam galleries, the Cast Courts (and Sculpture Gallery) plus the Fashion Gallery, Ceramics & Glass Gallery, Jewellery Gallery, as per your interests.
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Natural History Museum - Established in 1881. The building itself is one of the most beautiful structures in London. Walk in from the side entrance on Exhibition Road to avoid the huge queues at the main entrance. Take the escalator up to the Earth Galleries (goes through a model of earth and makes for great pictures), make your way quickly to the Central Hall (you'll pass through various galleries of volcanoes / earthquakes, reptiles, birds, creepy crawlies etc.) to get to the Diplodocus skeleton in all its glory in the Central Hall. This is where the ceilings and floors are also worth full admiration. Visit the dinosaurs and mammals in the Life Galleries. Make sure you see the Giant Sequoia on the 2nd floor staircase wall.
For a full list of galleries, check here:
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Science Museum - Established in 1857. For adults and kids interested in science. Explores innovation from earlier days (air / road / rail and water vessels), but also has 3D technology exhibits and always simulations of something interesting and also a motion-enhanced 3D film of the moon landing.
Nearest underground stations: South Kensington

Must-do Galleries

National Gallery - Founded in 1824. It houses a huge collection of art and sculptures from 13th century to the 20th century. Pick your sections by artist or era, otherwise it may be a bit overwhelming.
Nearest underground stations: Charing Cross, Leicester Square

National Portrait Gallery - Opened in 1856 (and was the first portrait gallery in the world). It's laid out chronologically. Take the escalator to the 2nd floor, and work your way downstairs, from the 16th century to present day of British luminaries, in paintings, prints and sculptures.
Nearest underground stations: Charing Cross, Leicester Square

Tate Modern - Founded in 2000, it is housed in a former power station that was in use from the 1940s to the 1980s. It mainly holds paintings from the 1900 onwards. Often has massive installations and exhibitions by living artists.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge, Southwark, Blackfriars

Must-do Attractions

Buckingham Palace Change of Guard Mostly taking place at 11am, lasts 45 minutes, get there at least 45-60minutes before start time before it gets so crowded you won't be able to see anything if you're late and at the back of the crowds. Check schedule here before heading out:
Nearest underground stations: Green Park, St James's Park or Victoria.

Tower of London To do this fully, you need at least four hours. It is of interest for all ages - has swords and artillery, Crown Jewels, prison cells, dark and mysterious stories, etc.
Nearest underground stations: Tower Hill

Westminster Abbey is the location where all major royal events take place, from coronations to christenings to weddings.
Nearest underground stations: Westminster

St Paul's Cathedral is possibly the most beautiful church in London. It is where Princess Diana and Prince Charles got married and it is considered one of the greatest works by architect Christopher Wren. Make sure you go up to the dome; it's hard work but the views are a fair reward.
Nearest underground stations: St Pauls

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is a unique open-air theatre, just a few hundred yards from where the actual theatre stood where Shakespeare wrote and staged his major plays. This is the closest possible replica of the original, and was conceived by an American philanthropist Sam Wanamaker, opened in 1997. The season takes place mainly in spring in summer (May to October) and the audience is exposed to all weather elements. From its opening 20 years back, it has always sold roughly 700 yard (standing) tickets per performance for £5, while 700 seated tickets cost from £15-40. Inside the complex is also Sam Wanamaker Theatre, based on the indoor Jacobean theatres, and is entirely lit by candles.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge

London Tombs is the place to be if you want a real scare in the middle of the day. Half of it goes by and you think it's the lamest place you've been to. Then the scares begin - and you just want it all to end. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
Nearest underground stations: London Bridge

London Eye the huge ferris wheel that completes a circle in 30minutes and gives a good view over London at the very top.
Nearest underground stations: Waterloo

London Dungeon takes you through the horrible and scary stories of London. Good for kids who want a light scare.
Nearest underground stations: Waterloo

Ripley's Believe It or Not is suitable for all ages and is quite a fun couple of hours, with its never-ending array of weird facts and displays at every corner.
Nearest underground stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square

Madame Tussaud's is very popular for tourists and houses a large number of wax figures, some good and some terrible, of celebrities from all over the world.
Nearest underground stations: Baker Street

London Zoo is one of the best kept zoos I have been to. With lions, tigers, bears and the usual fare plus penguins and butterflies, it is quite special.
Nearest underground stations: Mornington Crescent, Great Portland Street

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