Visiting London for the first time or looking for fresh ideas for a family or romantic visit? Msafiri presents three great ways to see the UK’s capital both on and off the beaten track
The largest city in western Europe, London is big, busy and not a little baffling, packed with far more attractions and activities than even the most energetic visitor could hope to experience in a single trip. If you need a bit of help making sense of the megalopolis, or are looking for ideas for new or unusual places to go, check out the ideas below. We’ve put together a trio of two-day tours, one for first-time visitors, one for families, and another for couples, all covering sights both famous and slightly less familiar – although many of the attractions are interchangeable and could do equally well for a fun family day-out or a romantic date.
London for first-timers
If this is your first visit to London, there’s no better to place to start than Trafalgar Square. Here you’ll find the iconic Nelson’s Column, along with great flocks of municipal pigeons and (flanking the north side of the square) the superb National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk), home to one of the world’s greatest art collections.
The area south of the square is the undisputed heart of the country’s spiritual and secular power, full of pomp and circumstance and with a series of headline attractions. Walk down Whitehall, past the home of the British prime minister at 10 Downing Street, to the stately Houses of Parliament (www.parliament.uk/visiting), best visited during one of the (sometimes rowdy) debates in the House of Commons. Right next door is historic Westminster Abbey (www.westminster-abbey.org), one of country’s most venerable churches and last resting place of many British monarchs and other world-famous figures in the arts and sciences. Memorial plaques to poets and writers such as Jane Austen and John Betjeman can be seen here.
Stroll across St James’s Park, the prettiest of central London’s many green spaces, and finish your day by dropping in to Buckingham Palace (www.royalcollection.org.uk) to tour the magnificent royal state rooms and picture gallery.
London wouldn’t exist without the stately River Thames, and day two explores just a few of the city’s most famous attractions on or near the water. Begin with a spin on the London Eye (www.londoneye.com), offering unrivalled views of the city centre. From here, it’s a superb half-hour ramble along the pedestrianised South Bank, with marvellous views of both sides of the water, to the Tate Modern (www.tate.org.uk), the world’s most-visited modern art gallery, located in the dramatically converted Bankside power station. Close by, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (www.shakespearesglobe.com) is a lovingly crafted recreation of the Elizabethan theatre in which many of the great playwright’s works were first performed. Head finally to the far side of the river and end the day by visiting the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral (www.stpauls.co.uk), one of the world’s largest churches, whose vast dome dominates all views in this part of the city.
Tours aboard London’s open-top tourist buses remain as popular as ever, although for something a bit more authentic (and a lot cheaper) hop on any of the city’s classic red buses and see where it takes you – sit on the upper deck for great bird’s-eye views of the streets below.
If you don’t fancy the crowds and inflated prices of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, hunt out some of the city’s superb collection of Renaissance churches built in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666, many designed by London’s greatest architect, Christopher Wren.
The world’s largest botanical collection, and a perfect escape from the city, magnificent Kew Gardens (www.kew.org) was founded in 1759 and is now home to over 30,000 plant species along with numerous other attractions including a pair of magnificent Victorian greenhouses, Japanese pagoda, and a superb treetop walkway.
Travelodge Waterloo Hotel One of thirty-odd Travelodges spread across the city, all offering simple but adequate lodgings at super-competitive rates. Doubles from £70
• 195 Waterloo Rd SE1 • Tel: 0871 984 6291 • www.travelodge.co.uk
1 Masters Super Fish Classic No-nonsense British fish and chip shop – a real taste of the capital. 191 Waterloo Road SE1 • Tel: 020 7928 6924
2 Simpson’s-in-the-Strand One of London’s oldest restaurants, with heaps of time-warped character and dependable (if pricey) British culinary classics. 100 Strand WC2 • Tel: 020 7836 9112 • www.simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk
London for families
Start your tour at the Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon) exploring the castle’s extraordinary history and admiring the stunning crown jewels.
Next, head over to the landmark Tower Bridge (www.towerbridge.org.uk) nearby, where you can admire the view high above the river while standing on the bridge’s stomach-churning glass floor.
From here you can take a fun half-hour walk along the river. Attractions en route include the Millennium Bridge and a pair of famous boats: HMS Belfast (www.iwm.org.uk), a perfectly preserved World War II light cruiser, and The Golden Hinde (www.goldenhinde.com), a replica of the Elizabethan galleon in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577–1580. The gory London Dungeons can also be found close by. Further down the river, take a ride on the London Eye or finish the day at the nearby Sealife London Aquarium (www.visitsealife.com/london. Book ahead if you fancy snorkelling with the sharks in their Pacific Reef display.
Spend the morning exploring two of London’s finest, and most family-friendly, museums. The huge dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk) are guaranteed to appeal to children of all ages, while the adjacent Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk) is crammed with fascinating interactive exhibits.
Catch a tube up to beautiful Regent’s Park – brilliant for a picnic lunch in good weather, with perhaps a quick paddle on the lake before or after. Then take a walk on the wild side at the London Zoo (www.zsl.org), the world’s oldest zoo and home to almost twenty thousand animals.
One of a dozen or so ‘city farms’ scattered around London, Hackney City Farm (www.hackneycityfarm.co.uk) offers a fun taste of rural life in one of the city’s grungiest and most left-field inner suburbs, with a farmyard full of pigs, sheep, goats, donkeys and more.
The city has plenty of creepy history and attractions. Everyone knows the famous celebrity waxworks of Madame Tussauds, but for something different try the kooky mannequins and displays of the creepy London Dungeons (www.thedungeons.com), highlighting the more gory side of British history. Brave souls might try one of the city’s many ghost walks, such as those led by Richard Jones (www.london-ghost-tour.com), London’s self-proclaimed ‘master of the macabre’.
Slightly out of the way but well worth the effort, the outstanding Horniman Museum (www.horniman.ac.uk) has won innumerable plaudits for its brilliant interactive displays and eclectic exhibits ranging from rare musical instruments to stuffed animals, including the museum’s famously fat, one-tonne walrus. Take the overground train to Forest Hill, 13 minutes from London Bridge station.
The Nadler Kensington Large, competitively priced and family-friendly rooms, all with mini-kitchen, in an attractive converted townhouse in upmarket Kensington. 25 Courtfield Gardens, SW5 • Tel: 020 7244 2255 • www.thenadler.com. Family rooms from £170.
1 Bodean’s Popular ‘BBQ smoke house’ serving up burgers, steaks, ribs and pulled pork galore. Branches close to the Tower of London at 16 Byward St EC3 • Tel: 020 7488 3883 in the West End at 10 Poland Street W1 • Tel: 020 7287 7575; www.bodeansbbq.com
2 Wahaca Lively Mexican chain with tempting tacos, moreish quesadillas and sharing platters of Latin-style street-food.Branches citywide including Soho, Covent Garden and the South Bank • wahaca.co.uk
London legends and urban myths
London has more than its fair share of urban myths and loony legends. Some of the most popular include:
MYTH Wherever you are in London, you’re always within six feet of a rat.
FACT In fact, research suggests that, on average, the nearest rodent is likely to be at least 50m distant.
MYTH The first person born on the London Underground was given the initials T.U.B.E.
FACT The first baby was born on the Tube in 1924 – several newspapers reported that she had been christened Thelma Ursula Beatrice Eleanor, although her actual name was Marie Cordery.
MYTH The huge lion statues at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square will come to life when Big Ben strikes 13.
FACT Although if they do, they might at least finally get rid of all the pigeons.
London for couples
Hop on a boat and ride the river down to Greenwich (www.visitgreenwich.org.uk) – far and away London’s most memorable journey, with unrivalled views of the city waterfront en route. Greenwich itself is one of London’s most historic areas with attractions including historic Greenwich Park, the world-class National Maritime Museum, the magnificent old nineteenth-century Cutty Sark sailing-ship, and the Royal Observatory itself –location of the prime meridien, with an iron bar set in the pavement marking degree zero of longitude. Few visitors can resist the opportunity to have their photo taken standing astride the bar, with one foot in each hemisphere.
Begin the day amongst the boats of Little Venice (Warwick Avenue tube) on the Regent’s Canal, home to a colourful collection of old houseboats and barges. From here it’s a fascinating walk of around an hour along the canal, skirting the northern edge of Regent’s Park (with views of the enclosures of London Zoo) and then on to Camden, one of London’s funkiest suburbs, particularly famous for its eclectic market selling anything and everything from retro clothing to secondhand grandfather clocks.
Finally, hop on the tube and ride north a few stops to visit the marvellously atmospheric Highgate Cemetery, last resting place of numerous notables including Karl Marx, George Eliot and Michael Faraday, with some magnificent old mausoleums buried amid lush woodland – at once faintly spooky and strangely romantic.
Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard (www.the-shard.com) has swiftly become one of London’s most recognised landmarks since its completion in 2012. Views from the 72nd-floor observation platform (www.theviewfromtheshard.com) are as stunning as you’d expect. Alternatively, hunker down over a drink on level 52 at Swanky Gong, the highest bar in London.
Get a unique view of the city from a hot-air balloon on one of the flights run by Adventure Balloons (www.adventureballoons.co.uk. A true once-in-a-lifetime experience, Flights run only for a few months each year, and only when weather and wind conditions are just so.
Explore the beautiful parkland around Hampton Court Palace on two wheels with Mind the Gap (www.mindthegaptours.com) – a gentle eight-mile ride aboard vintage bikes, and with plenty of time to explore one of Britain’s most absorbing royal palaces (www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace) before or after.
Hotel 41 Gorgeous little hotel close to Buckingham Palace, mixing quirky charm with 5-star facilities and impeccable service. 41 Buckingham Palace Road SW1 • Tel: 020 7300 0041 • www.41hotel.com • Doubles from £310.
1 Clos Maggiore Shamelessly romantic restaurant, serving upmarket French cuisine in its intimate wood-panelled dining room and pretty patio. 33 King Street, WC2 • Tel: 020 7379 9696 • www.closmaggiore.com
2 Hakkasan One of London’s most spectacular restaurants, with lavish Chinoiserie-style decor and Michelin-starred Cantonese cooking. 8 Hanway Place W1, • Tel: 020 7927 7000
Doing business in London? Here are a few tips for ensuring that you give the right impression:
1 Brits are essentially quite formal and a casual attitude may seem out of place in a business meeting.
2 Small talk is acceptable, keeping to safe subjects such as your journey and the weather. Most meetings will begin with an informal chat.
3 Meetings are usually well structured and it is generally expected that participants will be punctual and stick to the schedule.
4 It is polite to shake hands when meeting people. Always stand up when someone new enters the room.
5 At a business lunch remember not to start eating until everyone is served.
6 It is fine to promote your company and services, but British people tend to be self-deprecating rather than boastful.
Crowne Plaza London – The City This smart, contemporary hotel is situated perfectly for both business and pleasure. Ideally located in the heart of London’s historic Square Mile, the Crowne Plaza London – The City is a stylish hotel offering deluxe accommodation and light relief to business travellers away from their hectic schedules.
Almost opposite the smart Blackfriars underground station, it is possible to combine a business meeting with a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral, or a short stroll will take you to the heart of the West End with its theatres, restaurants and department stores. Frequent bus and underground services connect you to all the major sights.
But you don’t need to venture too far for some fine cuisine. Dining options at the hotel include the Chinese Cricket Club for some authentic oriental treats or Diciannove for excellent service and a delicious and varied Italian menu. Particularly recommended are the sharing dishes including artisan Italian meats and cheeses, homemade pickles, freshly baked breads and fritti dishes that include prawns, calamari and zucchini.
The Crowne Plaza London – The City hotel offers a host of state-of-the‐art conference facilities and meeting rooms for groups of all sizes. Choose from theatre-style meeting rooms for up to 180 delegates to smaller sized executive boardrooms. There is also a dedicated business centre for guests to use at their leisure.
Crowne Plaza London – The City, 19 New Bridge Street, London EC4V 6DB • From £199 per night • www.cplondoncityhotel.co.uk
Fast facts & travel tips
1 London’s antiquated underground railway (the ‘Tube’) remains far and away the fastest means of getting around, although trains get packed during morning and evening rush hours. Fares are steep, too – save money by buying a Travelcard or Oyster card rather than individual tickets.
2 Arriving at Heathrow you can catch the tube or (much faster but more expensive) take the Heathrow Express direct to Paddington Station. Taxi fares into town can be exorbitant, and the journey slow.
3 Admission prices to major attractions are generally high, and queues long. Many places allow you to pre-book online, saving time, and sometimes offering discounts and special offers too. The London Pass (www.londonpass.com) can save you money and help you jump the queues.
4 London’s museums are great news for cash-strapped visitors, and entrance to many of the city’s finest (including the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Imperial War Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A Museum and Museum of London) is absolutely free, although you may have to pay charges for some temporary exhibitions.
5 London Planner magazine has heaps of event listings and other London essentials – download a copy for free from www.visitlondon.com, which is also a useful source of information
6 Overseas visitors can sometimes claim a twenty per cent VAT tax refund on shopping and business expenses. See www.premiertaxfree.com for full details.