Look beyond London’s most touristic sights and live like a local in London during your vacation, with all the insider tips from Londoner Sasha Arms.
We all love a good city break, especially when it’s in one of the world’s global cities that has enough going on to keep you entertained for decades. But more often than not, you’ve only just ticked off all the must-do tourist sites when it’s time to go home again. Here’s how to get the best of both worlds from your next London trip.
London is not short of accommodation options, of course, and all the big hotel brands can offer you a piece of the action. If you love your hotels to be grand and typically British, opt for The Landmark. With lavish but traditional rooms and the impressive interior courtyard housing the Winter Garden restaurant (perfect for dinner accompanied by the lilting sounds of a pianist), The Landmark offers a little more “rule Britannia” to your London stay.
If classy and discrete is more your thing, Ten Manchester Street is the hotel for you. Luxurious and modern London city apartments are the order of the day here, and you don’t have to venture far for a classy night out to match either. The restaurant, under the helm of Italian chef Cristian Gaimarri, is one of the most up-and-coming in London’s restaurant scene, while the humidor, cigar terrace and cocktail bar out back is one of London’s best kept secrets.
For those who like to go all out in their hotel choices, Shangri-La at The Shard is the one for you. The tallest building in the whole of the European Union, the Shangri-La at The Shard occupies several floors and offers all-encompassing views of London. Stay here and you’ll also save the £25 entrance fee other tourists pay to climb The Shard!
If you prefer quirk to quintessentially English, see if you can book a stay in the random boat-like structure perched above the Southbank Centre on the River Thames. Called A Room for London, it comes complete with portholes, a pull-down ladder entrance to an inbuilt library and a logbook for you to note your observations during your stay.
A global capital of food, you won’t go hungry in London; what’s more, you’ll have amazing foodie experiences if you choose wisely. The area around Covent Garden and Leicester Square is one of the most touristy, and you’re bound to want to go there to catch one of the West End shows. Veer off the main streets and check out St Martin’s Courtyard for dinner one evening. A surprising find in the middle of the sometimes manic London streets, you can find some of the city’s best Italian foods and wines in Dalla Terra (the burrata with artichokes and truffle oil is melt-in-the-mouth), or classy Mexican cuisine in Cantina Laredo (together with a signature margarita of course).
Get even further off the beaten track in the shadow of The Shard and other tourist havens and check out The Rooftop Café. It’s in the Old Exchange building (basically an office block for creative types), and you have to wend and weave through a series of corridors to find the haven that is the Rooftop Café at the top. It’s well worth it, and the daily changing menu by Chef Magnus Reid is lip-smacking.
Looking for a bit of deviant fun in your evening meal? La Bodega Negra is a Mexican street food restaurant with a difference…it looks like a sex shop from the outside. Found in the heart of Soho, it’s even more fun if you don’t tell your dinner companion the joke until you arrive.
If you like dinner to be even more aloof than that, pop-up restaurants are still all the rage in London. Restaurants appear in unlikely locations for a day or two, and then disappear again without a trace. To get in on the action, sign up for updates from pop-up providers such as Gingerline or Art of Dining. And if you fancy attending a clandestine supper club in a Londoner’s house, check our MsMarmiteLover.
Londoners love a good drink – (cue: cockney accent) “dahn the pub” – and the city has more than 7,000 watering holes to choose from. Avoiding the chains and obvious options along the main streets will secure you an altogether more pleasurable London drinking experience.
With the London Eye, Aquarium and Tate Modern nearby, you’re bound to be at Waterloo at some point during your stay. Head away from the overpriced bars by this stretch of the river and wander down to Ev, a Turkish bar and restaurant with its own courtyard and mood-filled bar under the railway arches.
Head farther west along the River Thames between Hammersmith and Chiswick, however, and you’ll find picturesque pubs filled with local Londoners. It’s one of the prettiest and most chilled out spots along the river – especially at The Old Ship W6.
Rooftop drinking experiences during London summers are sought-after occasions, in a city where every spot of land is at a premium. Try Kensington Roof Gardens for a high-end and luxurious drink, or the much lesser known Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden up the yellow staircase by the Southbank Centre. For something much more alternative, Frank’s Campari Bar can be found on the top of a multi-story car park in the slightly rough-around-the-edges neighborhood of Peckham. The tapas-style food is tasty, the drinks flow in abundance and the views over London are immense.
If being a proper adventurer on the bar front is more your thing, The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is the only place for you. You’ll need to secure a booking via email first, after which you’ll be given an address. Simply enter the premises, ask for Henri, and watch a Smeg fridge door open up a whole new world of speakeasy bars…
Your London guide book will rave about the gothic alternativeness of Camden Market, the foodie thrills of Borough Market, and the cutesy vintage-ness of Portobello Market. This is only the beginning of your London market experience.
Broadway Market in Hackney has everything from handmade cupcakes to secondhand vintage guitars and deck chairs to read the weekend newspapers on. It’s full of Londoners rather than tourists and has one of the friendliest vibes in town.
If you’re a foodie looking for the market where London’s top chefs go, look no farther than Maltby Street Market. A stone’s throw from Borough Market, it’s smaller and more selective, selling carefully chosen British ingredients that are fresher than fresh.
If vintage and alternative is the name of your market shopping game, make your way over to the area around Brick Lane and the Old Truman Brewery. Officially the center of the universe for London’s vintage trendsetters, you’ll find small shops and market stalls everywhere selling one-of-a-kind items.
And for a village vibe in the heart of London, head over to Greenwich Market. Cool but down-to-earth Londoners hang out here, and you’ll find everything from vintage trinkets and old cars to inventive food stalls.
Alternative sights and activities
So you’ve seen Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, got up high in The Shard and the London Eye, walked the River Thames, watched a West End show and pottered around St Paul’s Cathedral. Now it’s time to see the other side of London.
Head up to north London, walk through the local neighborhoods of Neasden and you’ll come across a magnificent Hindu temple — the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir — like a beacon in an industrial landscape. It’s huge, ornate and gives a glimpse into the multiculturalism of London that makes the city shine.
London may be a city of internationally acclaimed theatre and movie premieres (head to Leicester Square if you fancy watching the stars arrive on the red carpet), but there are many other options for play and film buffs than meet the eye. Secret Cinema is one such event – you book tickets online for a given date, are informed of a fancy dress theme and a London underground station to meet at…and the rest is revealed on the night. It typically involves a screening of a classic film in a mind-blowing set that’s been constructed especially for the occasion – such was the screening of Arabian Nights, complete with camels, a desert scene and actors playing the part of Arabian sheikhs.
Actors, literary heroes, music stars and many other famous names from history have stomped London’s streets for centuries. Don’t just visit their waxwork reincarnation at Madame Tussauds, go and see where they lived too. The Blue Plaque scheme by English Heritage has attached the name, date and short biography on blue plaques on residential buildings across the city and gives you a real feeling of the lives they once led in London.
And finally, if you’re looking for a little romance during your London stay, take part in one of London’s latest speed dating trends – silent dating. It works just as speed dating tends to work, except you’re not allowed to speak. Think wild hand gestures, obscure facial expressions or any other form of communication you can think of.
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Fly.com Expert Tips
How To Get There: London has several airports to choose from. Travelers from the United States who want a nonstop flight are limited to Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW). The other airports, Stansted (STN), Luton (LTN), London City (LCY) and Southend (SEN) are primarily served by budget airlines, which can save you money if you are able to get a cheap fare to other parts of Europe.Heathrow is located about 15 miles west of central London and the easiest way to get into London is by taking either the 15-minute Heathrow Express (£39 for a roundtrip) or 30-minute the Heathrow Connect (£9.90 each way). Both trains stop at London Paddington Station. More information about area transportation for Heathrow is available at here.
Gatwick is approximately 30 miles south of central London. The fastest way to get into town is on the Gatwick Express. For £34.90 roundtrip, you’ll get to Victoria Station in about 30 minutes. A cheaper, but longer option, is the bus. The National Express also stops at Victoria Station, takes between 1.5 to 2 hours and prices start at £8 one-way. easyBus is even cheaper, with one-way tickets starting at £2, and takes a little over an hour to get to Earl’s Court/West Brompton in central London. More area transportation information for Gatwick is available at here.
Best Time To Visit: The cheapest time for airfare and hotels is from autumn to spring. While London is typically chilly and wet, temperatures rarely drop below 30°F in winter; and in spring and autumn temperatures hover in the 50’s. Like the rest of the U.K. and Europe, summer is high season, so airfare and hotel rates will be higher, up to double the other seasons in some cases.
Sample Fares: Calendars display lowest roundtrip fares over the next 90 days to London from:
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