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!).

Parks

Hampstead Heath‘s magnificent views of the London cityscape, coupled with extensive grassland and ancient woodland, has everyone singing its praises.

Hampstead Heath
Hampstead Heath | VisitLondon.com

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.

VisitLondon.com
Hyde Park | VisitLondon.com

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)

Richmond Park | Airwolfhound / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Richmond Park | Airwolfhound / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Bushy Park is a “parkland with grassland, ancient trees, woodlands, ponds and streams” that is “home to around 320 free-roaming deer.” (Visit London)

Bushy Park | VisitLondon.com
Bushy Park | VisitLondon.com

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.

Borough Market | travelstay.com
Borough Market | travelstay.com

Maltby Street Market is a less-known, cozier version of Borough Market and is beloved by locals.

Maltby Street Market | Graham Jepson / homesandproperty.co.uk
Maltby Street Market | Graham Jepson / homesandproperty.co.uk

Portobello Road Market — antiques, secondhand clothes, and whatnot.

Portobello Road Market | Cristian Bortes / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Portobello Road Market | Cristian Bortes / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Camden Markets — bric-à-brac, food, clothes, and, yes, whatnot.

Camden Market | Misterzee / CC-BY-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Camden Market | Misterzee / CC-BY-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

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?)

Primark | VisitLondon.com
Primark | VisitLondon.com

Fiction in Real Life

221B Baker Street — home of the greatest detective that ever lived.

221B Baker Street | Cezary p / CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 / Wikimedia Commons
221B Baker Street | Cezary p / CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 / Wikimedia Commons

King’s Cross Platform 9 ¾ — the closest us Muggles can get to Hogwarts.

Platform 9 3/4 | Bert Seghers / Wikimedia Commons
Platform 9 3/4 | Bert Seghers / Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge Circus — the intersection that lent its name to John Le Carré’s fictional nickname for MI6.

Cambridge Circus | Stephen McKay / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Cambridge Circus | Stephen McKay / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

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.

SIS HQ | Peter Trimming / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons
SIS HQ | Peter Trimming / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Scotland Yard | ChrisO / Wikimedia Commons
Scotland Yard | ChrisO / Wikimedia Commons

Churches

Westminster Abbey
The site of royal coronations, funerals, and weddings, including that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Admission £18. Free to attend services.

Westminster Abbey | Wikimedia Commons
Westminster Abbey | Wikimedia Commons

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.

St. Paul's Cathedral | jedyooo / Wikimedia Commons
St. Paul’s Cathedral | jedyooo / Wikimedia Commons

Landmarks

These attractions are so iconic, they don’t really need further description.

London Eye
Admission (standard ticket) £20.95 (£17.96 if booked online)

London Eye | Lee Kindness / I, Wangi / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
London Eye | Lee Kindness / I, Wangi / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Big Ben

Big Ben | Karrackoo / GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Big Ben | Karrackoo / GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Tower Bridge
Admission £8

Tower Bridge | Myrabella / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL / Wikimedia Commons
Tower Bridge | Myrabella / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Tower of London
Admission £20 (with voluntary donation: £22 / £20.90 if booked online)

Tower of London | IncMan / CC-BY-SA-2.0 and GFDL / Wikimedia Commons
Tower of London | IncMan / CC-BY-SA-2.0 and GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Museums

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”
British Museum | Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0
British Museum | Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Other items in my personal London bucket list

  1. See the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (or Windsor Castle).
  2. Join a free tour by the Yeoman Warders (known as Beefeaters) and attend the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.
  3. Walk along Regent’s Canal.
  4. 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?)
  5. Listen to a free lunchtime concert in St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.
Ceremony of the Keys | SpitalfieldsLife.com
Ceremony of the Keys | SpitalfieldsLife.com

Day trips to consider

  • Rye
  • Oxford
  • Bath
  • Windsor & Eton
  • Brighton
  • Canterbury
  • 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.

The London List” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.

49 Responses

  1. So many things to do! A day trip to Brighton is only 10 pounds on the train, and vintage clothes heaven exists at Spitalfields Market and the shops around Brick Lane like Blitz (even if it is a bit pricey). Also, even for non-museum people, the Victoria and Albert was one of my favourites 🙂

    1. Thank you for the recommendations! I initially wrote off Brighton because I’m surrounded by the sea where I live but now that I think about it, it’ll probably have a different atmosphere and worth visiting. I’ll have to add Spitalfields Market to my list too. Thanks again. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I have just been over to your blog. I loved The Little Drummer Girl and A Delicate Truth too. TTSS is a favorite, of course, and I find I get more from it with each re-reading. And I also love The Secret Pilgrim. 🙂

      1. Thanks for dropping by my reading blog. I haven’t updated it for quite a while. I’ve got seven or eight novels that I want to write about but I just haven’t got around to do it yet. LeCarre is definitely one of my favourite authors.

  2. Thanks for this list! I head to Europe in 6 days and have two days in London. I know I can’t fit in half of what I want to do but I’m determined to try!

      1. Thank you! I’ll definitely blog about it, I hope I’ll have interesting things to report! =)

  3. I like all the emphasis on the parks. London is a bit grimy and crowded so it’s nice to direct travelers to the greener bits. Lovely trivia and commentary.

      1. Actually that’s what I would search out. I grew so tired of cathedrals and museums while in Germany and joyfully embraced our time in the country. There is only so much architecture a person can absorb.

      2. Right?! Paris was near the end of our last European trip and when we got there, we were like, “I don’t really feel like seeing another church or museum.” If it hadn’t rained we might never have stopped by Notre Dame at all.

  4. Baker Street and Borough Market. Awesome! I think you should include West End. I know watching play is a bit expensive, but for me is an experience.

  5. I wanted to do an afternoon tea while I was there but no one wanted to go with me. I believe it costs about $50 a few years back.

      1. Yes exactly. How long are you there for? Do you live in the Philippines? You have an interesting life traveling around. Buti ka pa 😉

      2. Actually, I’m just kind of wish-planning right now hehe. I’ll work on a budget next and see if I can afford the trip. My travel fund got burned through on the last trip, so I’m still here in the Philippines, reminiscing-writing and wishing-planning my travels instead of actually doing it. Uy ikaw ang may interesting life ha! 🙂 You’re always somewhere and you go to such interesting places! 🙂

      3. Saan ka sa Pinas. I know you’ve written about some places there. I need to know the Philippines better so in two years I plan to explore it. Naku I’d love to travel more internationally but for now we are exploring the USA and glad that we are. I love what you write about! I enjoy reading them. Ingat!

      4. Ah wait sorry Cebu pala. I forgot so I had to reread your about lol! One day we will meet there. I have never been to Cebu!

  6. I would definitely recommend Brighton as well, it’s not your typical seaside town and a must see if you’re in the UK, if you decide to go to Dover you should stop at Canterbury on the way, the cathedral there is spectacular and the town pretty special too 🙂

    1. Ooooh yes, I totally remember that Canterbury photo of yours that I loved! Okay, I’ll add both to the list. There’s this book I found that outlined a 2-day walk from Charing to Canterbury — do you think that’s a good idea?

      1. I haven’t heard about that walk before but anything that takes you through the kent countryside will be pretty spectacular and so very English haha

  7. Oh my goodness, I cannot get enough of your blog 🙂 The pictures are amazing and it sounds like you are quite adventurous! Love all the tips too! I am still looking forward to the day when I end up in Europe but you just gave me plenty to add to the bucket list!

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