The home of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Spice Girls, red telephone boxes and black cabs has a colourful history stretching back to Roman times. London has swelled over two millennia into a cultural melting pot with nine million inhabitants speaking more than 300 distinct languages. And you better believe it boasts all the sights, flavours, sport, theatre, music and museums to prove it. Sample but a smidgeon of this iconic city with this guide.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be struggling to move the UK out of the EU, but at least he has found an innovative way to move tourists off public transport as they explore London. The former Mayor of London introduced a bike-hire scheme called Santander Cycles in 2010 and its iconic red bicycles (pictured) have been dubbed “Boris bikes” in his honour. These offer a fun, often faster, alternative to cramming in with hordes of commuters on the underground “tube”.
Unlike the many failed share bikes that have been dumped in scrap heaps around Sydney, users must return Boris bikes to one of 780 docking stations to end a hire period and stop their credit card being charged. There’s also no need to use a phone app or mobile data to hire the bikes (a win for Wi-Fi-trapped tourists); just rock up to a docking station and plug in your card. The first 24 hours costs just two pounds, so long as you dock each ride within half an hour.
The ubiquitous London tube (the underground train) is a good fallback when it rains (every third day on average, according to the Met Office climate data). Maps and clear signage make it easy to navigate between familiar place names on a real-life Monopoly board. If you need a taxi, take an iconic black cab. Drivers have to pass a stringent test called “The Knowledge” that involves memorising more than 300 routes, 20,000 landmarks, and every street in the capital. (Uber, meanwhile, had its licence to operate in London revoked in November 2019.)
First-timers will need a week or more to tick off London’s long list of attractions. If you’ve only got a few days, don’t miss the Tower of London (allow a half to full day), St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster. It’s easy and fast to ride a Boris bike (see “GET AROUND”) between these central highlights and snap some Insta-worthy photos.
More than 170 museums in London means you’re never far from a history lesson. The best of these is arguably the British Museum, which opened in 1759 as the first national museum and displays more than eight million global artefacts. It offers a lot of bang for your buck considering entry to the main areas is free. A lesser-known gem is the Museum of London – also free – which takes visitors through plagues, fires and world wars to reveal how the modern city developed.
“Football” refers to only one code in the UK – the round ball one – and it’s a totally different game watched live. Seats usually sell out to members but if you can get your hands on a ticket through official resale site Stubhub.com, try for an Arsenal or Chelsea game. Finally, even sports fans will love the atmosphere of a West End theatre show. Snap up last-minute deals (the equivalent of about AU$30 per ticket) from lastminute.com or londontheatredirect.com. Billy Elliot, Wicked, The Book of Mormon and The Lion King are some of the regular highlights.
Hearty British pub grub is the perfect antidote to London’s chilly and overcast climate. There are more than 3,500 pubs in London, and you can’t go wrong ordering classics like golden, crunchy fish and chips, or roasts with Yorkshire puddings swimming in gravy. You’ll find some of the world’s best pies (winners of multiple Great British Pie Awards) at The Windmill pub (pictured) in Mayfair. Generous chunks of meat and gravy are encased in a thick suet pastry, which owes its deep flavour to heart-stopping mutton fat as a replacement for butter.
Borough Market on the southern side of London Bridge is the largest and oldest street food market in the city, with the site dating back to at least the 12th century. You’ll have to needle your way through bustling crowds, but it’s well worth the effort to sample the array of international foods ranging from vegan burgers to cured meats, fancy cheeses, oysters, paella, cakes and curries.
At the upper end of town, the May Fair Kitchen serves exquisite Spanish and Italian share plates alongside classy cocktails. Many dishes are a sophisticated nod to British classics, such as proper chips (patatas bravas) that are fried and re-fried to achieve radio advertisement-worthy crunch. The beef brisket tacos and panko-crusted king prawns are standouts on a competitive menu.
It takes some getting used to drinking the extra 143ml of beer that comes in British pints compared to Australian schooners (things can get messy quickly). Fortunately, there are plenty of charming (some might say dark and dingy) London watering holes that have masked alcohol-induced indiscretions for centuries. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of the oldest and most typical – established as early as the 1500s and rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. “The Cheese” has served famous regulars including Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Its central location on Fleet Street means it still plays host to the who’s who of London’s banking and lawyering elite.
Dizzying Sky Pod Bar is the best place for a sundowner. This is a swanky, light-flooded hall set in lush man-made gardens on the 43rd floor of 20 Fenchurch Street, with views over the Thames and The Shard building. You’ll need to reserve your time slot in advance to head up the elevator; the place is deservedly popular.
Finally, afternoon tea is a quintessential London experience. What better place to indulge in it than the English Tea Room of the city’s oldest luxury hotel? Brown’s Hotel has been perfecting recipes for cucumber sandwiches and coronation chicken since 1837. Penguin-suited butlers will start you on a glass of Moet and thereafter ensure your tea pot – or stomach – is never close to empty.
First-time tourists should choose a base within walking distance of a tube station in Zone 1 of London’s underground network. This will make travel between attractions markedly cheaper and faster, and will also mean you have restaurants, theatres and bars within walking distance of your bed. Brace yourself for the cost, though. London is renowned as one of the world’s most expensive cities and even a night in a central Travelodge can seem exorbitant for Aussies swapping our weak dollars for the sky-high pound. Airbnb offers a growing number of cheaper, self-catered options.
If you’re prepared to splash out, The May Fair Hotel (pictured, and see this review) has arguably the best location of London’s five-star hotels. It’s a two-minute walk from Green Park station, which puts you on the Jubilee Line direct to Heathrow international airport in just 45 minutes. It’s also across the park from Buckingham Palace, a short walk from London’s West End Theatre district, and a stone’s throw from the designer shopping boutiques of Bond Street.
The hotel was opened in 1927 by King George V and Queen Mary and still offers guests a royal treatment. The buffet breakfast is a vast smorgasbord that includes champagne, smoked salmon, avocado and coconut water infusions. The rooms are unusually large by London standards. There is also an impressively equipped in-house gym, spa and sauna to melt away those touristy aches and pains.