We’ve been planning our next holiday and to do our research we’ve been reading people’s travel blogs. I always like to read their blogs about London because it’s interesting to hear their impressions of somewhere I know. But they are all doing it wrong. Here are my top tips to people visiting London.
1. Why are you obsessed with “Mind the Gap”? I never realised it before but (mainly antipodean) travellers think it’s hilarious and one of the iconic things about London. I don’t get it.
2. The whole point about London is that it’s international. Go to a traditional British pub one night by all means. But go to a Japanese restaurant or a Brazilian bar as well. You’re visiting London now, not London in the 1950s.
3. Remember that the UK is part of the EU. It is therefore not hilariously incongruous that your hotel receptionist is Portuguese or your waiter is Polish.
4. The following are strictly for tourists and best avoided; Piccadilly Circus (sorry Jo), Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeons, the Trocadero, Harrods*. I’ll let you feed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square at a pinch, if you check out the fourth plinth and pop into the National Gallery while you’re there.
*If you must go to a big posh shop, then Selfridges is much better.
5. The following tourist things are worth doing; the London Eye and an open top bus tour. Most of time you’ll be travelling by tube, so these both offer a good chance to see the layout of the city and how it all fits together. Walking along the South Bank is also a good way to see lots of cool stuff - Tower Bridge, City Hall, HMS Belfast, the Golden Hinde, Southwark Cathedral, the Globe, Tate Modern, Royal Festival Hall, London Eye and a good view of Big Ben over the river. If you only have half a day or less in London between flights – spend it here.
6. London is expensive, but there’s also lots to do for free. Museums in London are generally free and generally brilliant. Because they are free you don’t have to spend the whole day there to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Pop into any one that you happen to be passing and have a nose around for 15 minutes. My favourite ones that are worth making a special effort to go to are Tate Modern, the Wallace Collection and the Natural History Museum.
7. London has great parks. My favourite view of London is from the bridge at St James Park with Buckingham Palace to one side and Whitehall and the Eye to the other. Hyde Park and Regents Park are also central and each has a different character. Further out are Richmond, Hampstead Heath and Greenwich.
8. Go to the theatre. The Globe theatre is a fantastically interesting building in its own right and to see Shakespeare performed there is a unique experience. But if Shakespeare’s not your thing then grab Time Out and find a play that interests you. If you’re not sure then the National Theatre or the Old Vic in particular usually have reliably high quality productions. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is another great building so if opera or ballet is your thing then try that (I’m presuming that if opera and/or ballet is your thing then having lots of cash is also your thing). Or there’s lots of musicals if that’s your bag, but of course these are generally international productions that you could see in any big city.
9. If you want to sample ”London” food then my top recommendation would be a curry from Brick Lane. Fish and chips and bangers and mash are all very well, but don’t spend your whole time eating this stuff, like I said above, London is international so eat noodles, pizza, dim sum, etc. If you’re the sort of person who likes to eat the weirdest thing they can find: dog, shark, snake etc, then the London equivalent is jellied eels. Very few Londoners actually still eat these, but they are a traditional London thing and they are disgusting, so fill your boots.
10. Don’t salute the Union Jack and think you are being British. I can’t think of anything less British. We don’t give a crap about our flag. We’re not American.
11. If you come from somewhere where a building from the 1950s is considered historic then check out the Tower of London, the Observatory at Greenwich and the Royal Palaces. If that’s whetted your appetite then check out other National Trust and English Heritage places.
12. Good places to visit on the outskirts of London (so you feel like you’re getting out of the big city, but still easy to get to on the train) are Kew Gardens, Windsor, Downe House and Leeds Castle.
13. People seem to like to spectate at a local sporting event. London is obviously big enough that virtually any sport you can think of is catered for, but the popular ones are football, cricket and rugby. Tennis is popular for two weeks every summer when Wimbledon is on. If money is no object, get a ticket to a venue (there’s loads of great stadia in London – Wembley, the Oval, Lords, Twickenham, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, Selhurst Park, Wimbledon), otherwise lots of pubs have sport on TV and this is also a traditional experience. If you’re going to watch the footie, then Arsenal play the most attractive game if they’re on good form. Cricket takes all day and is incomprehensible to the casual observer, so I’d only recommend it for those who are already familiar.
14. People also like to go to markets when travelling. In London we have Borough (food), Portobello Road (antiques, clothes) and Greenwich (food, clothes and bits and pieces). I’m not a fan of Covent Garden myself.
15. No native Londoner has ever been to an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse.
16. If you want to pose in an old school phone box, be prepared to face a wall full of pornography.
17. Under no circumstances buy anything with a Union Jack, I Heart London or a picture of Princess Diana on it.
18. It has been known to rain in London. Bring an umbrella / raincoat with you. Plastic poncho is not a good look.
19. Try to understand the difference between England and the UK. If you say England when you mean the whole of the UK then God help you if there’s a Scottish person within earshot.
20. If you go on the tube at rush hour, it will be busy. I repeat, it will be busy. Remember that your fellow travellers are probably commuters who do this every day, so they don’t really want to hear your complaints about how squashed you are. If you’re that precious, then pay for a taxi.
I’m off to New York in two weeks, where no doubt I will do all the equivalent cheesy tourist stuff. Picture of me in Times Square with I Heart NY baseball cap to follow.