There are so many things to see and do in London that doing research on them tends to turn rather quickly into travel planning quicksand. The secret, they say, is to not even try to do everything in one visit. This list is less about ticking off the “must-sees” and more about immersion — trying to live like a frugal local, experiencing time-honored traditions, and indulging in personal whimsies (like seeing MI6 and Scotland Yard headquarters, just because!).
Hampstead Heath‘s magnificent views of the London cityscape, coupled with extensive grassland and ancient woodland, has everyone singing its praises.
Hyde Park, considered one of the greatest city parks in the world, is centrally located and boasts magnificent trees, a royal palace, and a chance to go boating. Also, the beautiful Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens are right next door.
Richmond Park is “home to 650 deer” and has a “pastoral landscape of hills and woodlands set amongst ancient trees, with plants, animals and butterflies.” (Visit London)
Bushy Park is a “parkland with grassland, ancient trees, woodlands, ponds and streams” that is “home to around 320 free-roaming deer.” (Visit London)
Markets / Shopping
Borough Market, a gourmet food market with numerous stalls selling meat, cheese, bread, coffee, cakes and other prime eats, has become a little too crowded and touristy in recent years but is still probably worth a visit nonetheless.
Maltby Street Market is a less-known, cozier version of Borough Market and is beloved by locals.
Portobello Road Market — antiques, secondhand clothes, and whatnot.
Camden Markets — bric-à-brac, food, clothes, and, yes, whatnot.
Primark, a well-known budget department store, had seriously good wares in Zaandam — to be honest, it was one of the highlights of my Amsterdam trip — and I really want to visit the London branch, as this may be the only store in London where I can afford to buy something. (Or maybe not even?)
Fiction in Real Life
221B Baker Street — home of the greatest detective that ever lived.
King’s Cross Platform 9 ¾ — the closest us Muggles can get to Hogwarts.
Cambridge Circus — the intersection that lent its name to John Le Carré’s fictional nickname for MI6.
MI6 — actually, the Secret Intelligence Service — headquarters is at Vauxhall Cross, a mile or so from Big Ben down the Thames, and is known as “Legoland” or “Babylon-on-Thames” for not-so-secret reasons.
Scotland Yard — that is, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service — is now known as New Scotland Yard, after the Met moved from its headquarters’ previous location, which was known as Great Scotland Yard. In 2015, the headquarters will move to another location on the Victoria Embankment, where it will then be known as just Scotland Yard, and the current New Scotland Yard will, I guess, be known as the old Scotland Yard. #It’sComplicated. Trivia: New Scotland Yard houses the Met’s crime database that “uses a national computer system developed for major crime enquiries by all British forces, called Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, more commonly referred to by its acronym HOLMES.”
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The old cathedral was burned down during the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Filming and photography is not allowed inside the cathedral. Admission £16.50.
These attractions are so iconic, they don’t really need further description.
At the risk of sounding like a hick, I’ll go ahead and admit it: I’m not a museum person. I’ve been to a number of them and genuinely enjoyed the experience but I usually don’t have the attention span required to fully appreciate everything inside. That said, museums are weatherproof and many London museums are free! Here’s a quick list:
- National Gallery — Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, Claude Monet’s The Water Lily Pond, Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Seated at a Virginal, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and A Wheatfield with Cypresses
- British Museum — Round Reading Room, Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles
- Tate Modern — Monet, Picasso, Dali, Warhol
- Victoria & Albert — “The greatest museum of applied arts in the world”
Other items in my personal London bucket list
- See the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (or Windsor Castle).
- Join a free tour by the Yeoman Warders (known as Beefeaters) and attend the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.
- Walk along Regent’s Canal.
- Have high tea at the Ritz and/or buy food/stuff from Fortnum and Mason. (But, um, I have to check if I can afford it. Which means I probably can’t?)
- Listen to a free lunchtime concert in St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.
Day trips to consider
- Windsor & Eton
- Dover Castle
I’m pretty sure this list hasn’t covered even half of the sights worth seeing and things worth doing in London. For a traveler with limited time and an even more limited budget, though, this will probably have to do. (In fact, for the same reasons, I don’t intend to go up the London Eye or go inside St. Paul’s or the Tower Bridge. I’m just going to take a look at them and — alright, I admit it — take the requisite selfie.) Do you have a personal favorite that hasn’t been included here? Let me know what and why in the comments section.
Next up: let’s try looking for accommodations. Couchsurf at Buckingham Palace — ah, there’s one for the bucket list.