Playing tourist in London – my top 10 things to do for a city first-timer
Whether you’re more of a homebody or you’re travelling every opportunity you get, there’s something we’re all guilty of in the UK and that’s not seeing enough of our home turf. The UK has so much to offer in the way of travel and better yet, it’s all just waiting to be discovered right on your doorstep. I’m definitely one of these people who has so much left to discover in my own country instead choosing sunnier climes in far off lands, but being back in the UK has really got me excited about making the most of this time before jetting off again. Better still, this time I come with my German boyfriend in tow and while he’s travelled all over the world, he had never been to the UK before visiting me. Cue the perfect opportunity for me to discover my home country all over again and enjoy playing tourist and tour guide as I show him around. As soon as I knew he was coming over to visit, I started excitedly planning a trip that would give him the chance to see all the major landmarks as well as squeezing in a visit to some of my favourite places along the way.
I’ve always loved London – it’s a great city to visit and explore – and ever since I was a kid I’ve spent endless weekends there with my family and friends visiting the sights, going to gigs or theatre shows, and partying it up. But it has been a long time since I visited and actually just played tourist instead of heading there with a packed schedule and no time to just experience London. This trip would be different as all I was planning for us was to experience London and all it’s charm in just 48 hours for my boyfriend’s first taste of England. Now sadly, the trip wasn’t quite what we had hoped for but due to unavoidable circumstances – we were both sick with that horrible flu/cold bug that was going round and the trains back to Norfolk faced huge delays due to a storm. Despite this, we both still had a good time and loved exploring the city – it was a great first visit for boyfriend who got to see all the sights with his own eyes, and for me it was a lovely chance to rediscover the charm of the city.
My top 10 things to do in London:
1. Tube-hop and tick off the sights
Of course it wouldn’t be a visit to London without riding the tube and ticking off the major sights – pick up and Oyster Card, a day travel card or just use Paypass on your bank card and tap your way around the city. Most of the main sights are centred around the Circle Line and it is pretty easy to navigate if you know where you want to go. There are lots of maps/tourist suggestions for sightseeing tours and you can either do it yourself, join a tour or try one of the hop on/hop off buses. We chose the tube and started with Buckingham Palace, then ticked off Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, London Eye, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Kensington Gardens and a few others along the way. We also took the time to stroll along Southbank, Embankment and around Oxford Circus/Carnaby Street and around Camden and a few other areas.
Top tip: Pick your route to see the highlights in their best light – seeing Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament can be lovely at night when they’re all lit up, and Soho is a great area for the evenings.
2. Eat your way around the markets
My favourite thing to do when I’m in London – to indulge my foodie side – and while there are endless amazing restaurants to visit, I’m also a street food girl at heart. There’s nothing I love more than going to the markets – my favourites are Camden Market and Borough Market – and indulging in delicious, freshly prepared foods, cocktails, smoothies and much more. We visited both markets while in London and gorged ourselves on pasta dishes, burgers, vegan and Caribbean inspired meals and lots of juices and hot mulled cider. Definitely not a good place to start a new year’s diet, but if you feel like really treating yourself, it’s possible to do it on a budget and pass a morning by browsing the stalls.
Top tip: Go early to Borough Market and beat the crowds, plus get your food at its freshest! Then head to Camden Market later in the day to browse the amazing stalls, pick up some food and then indulge in a cocktail at the bars.
3. Shop around Oxford Circus
Let’s be honest, London is quite the fashion mecca and there is no end of shopping to be done. Whether it is boutiques, high street brands, quick vintage stores or the high end stuff you’re after – London has it all. Personally I’m much more interested in the high street shopping around Oxford Circus or the vintage stores which can be found scattered all over the city. I’ve found my favourite shops around Camden, Shoreditch or Brick Lane areas but there really is something to suit all tastes so it’s worth spending some time doing a bit of research before your trip and exploring while you’re there to discover the greatest treasure troves.
Top tip: Wear comfortable shoes and have patience – London shopping comes with a lot of walking and a heck of a lot of people, you should be prepared and a bit of pre-planning could really help fill your shopping bag.
4. Get discount tickets for one of the big attractions
One thing we didn’t have time for but is always a bit of fun – spend a few hours doing something a bit cheesy and seeing a different side of London. If the weather is a bit rubbish or you’re looking for something else to do, why not take a ride on the London Eye, or head to the London Dungeon? It’s a bit of fun and great for entertaining kids of all ages – even the ones that never grew up. I remember visiting the London Dungeons with my family when I was a kid and having so much fun, it was brilliant! The best thing is that you can always get discount tickets and money-off vouchers online so don’t pay full price – I actually got sent money off vouchers through Booking.com when I booked a hotel for us to stay in.
Top tip: If you don’t fancy one of these attractions, why not look on Groupon or other money-saving sights for cheap deals for afternoon tea at one of the fancy hotels, or boat tours along the Thames?
5. Grab a drink at one of the gorgeous old pubs
Any excuse for a beer! One of the things I love most about the UK is a good, old English pub. I missed then when I was away – the smell of ale, the heavy, dark wood furniture, the huge beams inside and the roaring fires during the winter months. Pubs are a huge part of English culture that you don’t get elsewhere, so there’s nothing better than huddling by the fire to warm up with a local ale, a warming red wine or whiskey when you visit. I always try and play a few pub stops into every trip and always like to try different ones – this time we popped into one near Carnaby Street and a few around Camden and Kensington where we were staying.
Top tip: If you have a day free, a good crew of mates and fancy a challenge, why not try a pub crawl? We used to do a great one when I was at university all around the Circle Line with lots of games along the way and a drink at every stop.
6. Ice skate at the Natural History Museum
This was without a doubt the best activity we did while we were in London – despite both of us being ill and exhausted we both turned into little kids once we climbed on to the ice. I love ice skating and during the winter London has some fabulous rinks in beautiful settings to enjoy. I’ve seen the one at the Natural History Museum in previous years and always wanted to give it a go, so when I was invited along to try, I couldn’t wait to get out on the ice. In the shadow of my favourite museum, the trees surrounding the rink are dotted with fairy lights with a beautiful carousel in the background. Truly magical. Sadly the rink has now closed until October, but there are others in London to check out if you fancy a skate.
Top tip: Although we went in the afternoon, I thought the evening would have been even more magical when the lights were more visible in the trees. Be sure to wrap up warm against the wind.
7. Head to Soho for a show
Whether you love musicals, theatre, comedy or dance – London will have a show to delight and entertain you. Over the years my family have ticked off so many musicals and we always love heading to London for another. We actually went to the city just before Christmas to see the new Aladdin show which was amazing and an absolute dream come true. Previously we’ve seen the likes of The Lion King, Mamma Mia, The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and many more. There are always new shows opening and we’ve also seen The Woman in Black which was very spooky and had the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s worth getting tickets just to check out some of the beautiful theatres and I highly recommend booking an evening’s entertainment.
Top tip: Look online and ask at ticket vendors for last minute seats for discounts, or even visit the theatres just before the shows to see if any tickets are being resold – you might get a bargain! Plus online, you can often find cheap “dinner and a show” tickets.
8. Visit one of the amazing FREE museums
After travelling all over the world and sometimes paying a small fortune to visit museums and sights in new cities, I can tell you we really are very lucky to not only have such incredible museums in London but that they are all free! So often people hear the word museum and think of something boring but London really takes education and puts a whole new spin on it. Think exciting exhibitions that really ignite your imagination and bring science, history and culture to life. get bored looking at displays? Head to the Science Museum for a truly interactive experience where you can take part in experiments and become a scientist. Like animals and a sucker for David Attenborough? The Natural History Museum is my fave one to visit and is filled with awe-inspiring sights, amazing history of both animals and people and some really cool exhibitions – even ones about dinosaurs! And if you love a bit of culture, fashion and art, the Victoria and Albert Museum is for you – think beautiful, epic and amazing exhibitions that will make you see art in a whole new light.
Top tip: Arrive early to beat the queues and to give yourself plenty of time to explore – it’s easy to spend all day in these museums!
9. Head to a gig at one of the amazing venues
I love live music and no matter what your taste, London has a vibrant and exciting music scene just waiting for you to explore. I used to arrange my visits to the city around gigs and have previously seen some epic artists perform life from Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx to Major Lazer, various jazz and acoustic performers and even a ska band. There are countless venues all over the city, so it’s best to look online for tickets and to find something that you love, but my favourite venue for gigs is definitely Brixton Academy. Elsewhere, I’ve loved DJ sets at clubs like XOYO and Fabric, and found great random little gigs in bars around Camden.
Top tip: if you find yourself at a loose end one night in London, look online and find tickets to any random gig, I did that and ended up at a ska gig at Dingwalls in Camden – it was an amazing night!
10. Explore some of the quirky, cute neighbourhoods
Sometimes it’s nice to just have a mooch around some of the cuter little areas, to get some nice photos and to see how some of the locals live. I always really love wandering around Notting Hill, Camden, Shoreditch and Portobello Road Market – grabbing a coffee here, or brunch there, taking in the cute little houses and sights. It’s also worth checking out Hampstead, Greenwich and Hoxton for cool areas to explore that offer a bit more of London’s unique personality.
Top tip: Make your way from one neighbourhood to the next, coffee in one, brunch in another head to the markets in the next – it’s a great way to see what London is all about – diversity.
Whats your favourite thing to do in London? Is there anything else first time visitors should try and squeeze into their trip?