England…when many foreigners think of the country, the old cliches spring to their minds of terrible weather, appalling food and warm beer. A curious wonder then, that its capital London was ranked as the no.1 most visited tourist destination in the world in 2014 with an estimated 18.69 million visitors!
The usual attractions on the tourist trail: Big Ben, Houses of Parliament etc. are all worth seeing. But if you want to scratch beneath that surface, get away from the crowds and experience a different, more authentic side of London – then this “insider’s guide” is for you!
The most important thing I tell my Business English students when they ask me for tips is “Less is More”. Don’t try and fit everything in. It’s impossible and you will just feel exhausted. Better to do just a few things and do them well. You can always come back!
First things first. Choosing the right location in London to stay is very important. Definitions of London’s population differ according to how you class London (E.g there is the city of London, Greater London, London Metropolitan area) but one thing most can agree on is its size. London is the largest city in the EU and more than twice the size of it’s nearest rival Berlin. This means a hotel somewhere on the fringes of outer London may seem good value but you could spend more time travelling than seeing the sights!
I would recommend something around Tower Bridge/Bermondsey in the South East of London. It’s an area I know well and in my opinion is one of the places in London that has a lot of character – from the cobbled streets of Shad Thames to the newly redeveloped More London area. It’s an ideal base for exploring London. Although London is sadly more expensive than other cities (and growing more expensive by the minute!), you can usually find a hotel to suit all budgets.
What to see
The Tate Modern is an art gallery located at Bankside displaying the best in modern art from Britain and around the world. It’s free (already a bonus in London!) and is always popular. The bottom level normally has a guest exhibition from different artists.
Insider Tip: The restaurant on level 6 and the cafe on level 3 offer some stunning views over the River Thames and St. Paul’s cathedral.
The East End
No trip to London is complete without a trip to the East End – the days of notorious murderer Jack the Ripper are long gone, but many of the old Victorian streets and pubs thankfully remain. Something I strongly recommend an “alternative tour around East London” given by a local street artist. Long before the street artist Banksy became famous, the walls lining the streets of East London were an ever changing art gallery, reflecting the kaleidoscope of East Londoner’s political and social views. Their transitory nature means that the scene is constantly alive and changing. A masterpiece may be on a wall for five years, one week, or just for one night before being altered or drawn over completely.
I can recommend the guys from Alternative London – they are very enthusiastic about their tours and there are no fixed prices. You just put what you want into a hat at the end.
Quick! Before the cops arrive! Some examples of the “mostly illegal” Street Art in the East End
A walk along the Thames towards Rotherhithe
Getting away from other tourists is probably the hardest challenge in London.
But this is a really nice walk for people who want to see the “calmer” side of London.
Starting off at Shad Thames, walk with Tower Bridge behind you along the River Thames on your left for about 25-35 minutes. During this walk you get a great view of the boats chugging up and down the river as well as see some nice buildings and normally some treasure finders sweeping the sand below for bits and pieces lost over the centuries. Follow the signs to a place called Rotherhithe which is a quaint little place to walk around. You can find a classic old London pub called the Mayflower here. The ambience is amazing and it is steeped in history – in fact this is where some of the English pilgrims who discovered America set sail (via Plymouth). The specialist ales here are great!
For anyone interested in Engineering the nearby Brunel museum is worth a look. And one of London’s most successful pop-up bars, the Midnight Apothecary, has just reopened for 2014 on the roof garden of the Brunel Museum. It’s a stunning outdoor space within sight of the Thames, with a central bonfire that leads to a sociable, festival atmosphere as night draws in.
One of the oldest Markets in Europe and certainly the oldest in London. It has a wonderful offering of food from around the world and plenty of fresh local produce. You can try everything and are never under any pressure to buy something afterwards. Go before ten am if you want to avoid tourists – most serious shoppers are gone by this time. The quality of food here is outstanding and represents the best and most innovative food from around the UK and the rest of the world – from Welsh lamb to German bread. It’s all here!
Tip: Look for a fishmonger called Applebees. Weather permitting they have a grill station outside where you can get a delicious mixed fish wrap (prawns and seafood) which is what many of the locals go for. Or if you are in the mood for something more British, try the restaurant Roast upstairs for a traditional English Roast meal. Not quite as good as my mother would make it, but pretty close 🙂
Arguably an even better alternative market is the nearby Maltby Street – beloved by hipsters young and old, it is only a few years old and is an offshoot of Borough Market (mostly traders who believed Borough Market had become too touristic). It is made up of a number of mostly street food stands underneath railway arches. At the time of writing it remains a bit of a well-kept secret with relatively few (if any) tourists but it’s getting more and more popular every year. Definitely worth looking round if you want to blend in with the locals and buy some nice food/ local beer as well as browse some interesting antique shops etc.
Tip: Monti’s Deli Pastrami sandwich at Maltby Street is rapidly gaining quite the reputation.
No visit to London is complete without a trip to London’s famous West End. My personal tip here would be Les Miserables. It’s an incredible piece – very moving and will leave you wanting more. Even though it is one of the longest running musicals in London (over 30 years old!) performances are PACKED every Friday and Saturday night. Therefore book tickets well in advance. Watch out for many ticket touts selling you tickets at inflated prices.
Insider tip: There is only ONE place Londoners buy theatre tickets and that is the reliable and non profit organisation TKTS at Leicester Square. Hundreds of discount and half price theatre tickets are available on the day of performance and often up to a week in advance.
A vast array of food types sold from small independent stalls is available ranging from familiar to the more exotic. Clothes, bric-a-brac and ‘antiques’ can all be found in the tightly packed network of paths next to the various markets around the canals. Camden market is quite ‘alternative’ and is known for it’s creative scene. A statue of the late English singer Amy Winehouse was recently erected here. If you follow the canals far enough you’ll reach a nice little area of London called Little Venice where you can go on a boat ride down the canal.
Jewish walking tour
Throughout the centuries, London has attracted people from all sorts of cultures and background. The first written records if Jewish people in England dates from 1070 and Jews have been living in London since at least 1656. This tour introduces you to some colourful London characters from the past and point out numerous sites of great interest and the personal stories attached to them. Even if you are not Jewish, it’s a fascinating look at the alleyways, back streets and main thoroughfares of some of London’s most interesting areas.
A quintessentially English activity for most visitors to the UK is to experience the grandeur of having afternoon tea. But whilst most visitors head to the Ritz, we think it’s much better value and much more enjoyable to combine a walk around Hyde park and lunch or afternoon tea in the at the Lanesborough hotel. The food and ambience is superb which you might expect from a head chef with three Michelin stars. Whilst still not cheap, it’s an unforgettable experience and perfect for a special occasion.
Despite popular opinion to the contrary, good restaurants are actually not hard to find in London – finding a cheap good restaurant, however, is a different matter altogether. One of the better restaurants that serves classic British food at an affordable price is called the Brigade and it is between Borough Market and London Bridge. As the name suggests, it used to be an old Fire brigade building from the 1920’s. Many of the chefs and workers who work there actually used to be homeless, but they were taken off the streets, given a thorough wash, and trained up by some of London’s top chefs. The restaurant has been heralded as one of London’s great social successes.
It’s a place I’ve been to many times and not only is the food great, it’s a nice feeling giving something back to the local community.
Indian food is Britain’s favourite cuisine, and anyone who lives in London knows that there is only one destination for Indian food. Brick Lane in the East end of London is home to over twenty Indian restaurants in just one small street – more than anywhere else in the rest of Europe!
Saving money when eating out….
The cost of living in England is stupidly high and for that reason England is the “land of the voucher”. Whilst I believe it’s better to eat in small, independent restaurants to get a real idea of a country’s cuisine, good restaurants in London can be expensive. Therefore many people opt for the often cheaper alternative of going to pizza/pasta chains. The golden rule here is: NEVER EVER PAY FULL PRICE! When English people go to to these chain restaurants, 95% of them pay between 30% to 40% less than the official price, simply by going to this website and printing off a voucher. Print off a dozen vouchers and have them in your back pocket and you’ll save a lot of money.
Who knows the streets of a city better than the people who live on them? Unseen Tours is a social enterprise which offers unique walking tours of London led by homeless, formerly homeless, and vulnerably housed tour guides. The tours take place in four different locations in London. I’ve personally done the London Bridge tour and the Camden Tour and found them to be great. The observations and stories told by the guides offered a fascinating perspective. Not only that, it’s a great cause and worth supporting.
For even more ideas visit Time Out London to see what’s going on during your stay: