“You can find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson
Ever since Rachel and I both studied abroad in London, the city has been near and dear to our hearts and minds. Both of us had the opportunity to both live and work in this international metropolis for 4 months.
For me, the history lover, it was an amazing opportunity to live just minutes away from so many locations of impactful moments and museums filled with amazing historical artifacts. It was also my first time traveling to Europe, which I’m sure helped make the experience that much better.
For Rachel, the art lover, London offered endless opportunities to enjoy the world’s best music and art from around the world. For both of us food lovers, London offered never-ending choices for delicious cuisine from just about every culture.
Although London is filled with awesome things to experience, it can often be hard for those new to the city to find the best places to go. Often people will get stuck going to touristy restaurants or locations and get stuck with a sub-par experience. To help you make the most of your time in the UK’s capital city, here are our top 5 things to do and top 5 things to skip in London.
Top 5 Things to Do in London
Go to a market – One of the Best Food Experiences in London
Looking for a great souvenir to bring home to your friends or family? Then the markets of London will be a great spot to start. Markets can be a place where you can spend hours wandering while gazing at the stands manned by local artists and up-and-coming chefs. Markets offer a great opportunity to try food fresh from the many different nationalities that make up London’s population. But as with many other parts of London, be prepared for some serious crowds. These markets can be jam-packed on the weekends.
There are many markets around the city to choose from, but here are some of our favorite markets in London (in no particular order):
Camden Market: a funky market in an old horse stable located in North London. The market is filled with amazing food from all over the world and has many modern, hip clothing stores.
Borough Market: a beautiful market near Tower Bridge filled with food and goods from local farmers and vendors. Home of an amazing veal burger (though I believe that food stand has since closed).
Portobello Road: a charming market located in West London. More shopping-centered, rather than food-centered. Go there to gaze at the lovely colorful houses that line the streets of Notting Hill and check out some amazing street performances.
See a show in London’s Theatre District
London’s theater (or theatre) is among the best in the world, right up there with Broadway in New York City. There is an incredible amount of shows to choose from and an incredible amount of talent. Because of that, you really can’t go wrong when picking a play in London. Whether you are willing to shell out a little more money for an expensive show like Hamilton, or see a lesser-known show for cheaper, you should walk away from the show pleased.
Here are five shows that we have seen that we would highly recommend seeing while there (in no particular order):
- War Horse
- Book of Mormon
- Lion King
- Mamma Mia
Here is a good site to find tickets for theater in London: Click here
Go to a museum – they’re free!
One of the coolest part of London is that their major museums are absolutely free, and they are some of the greatest museums in the world. Whether you are a science nerd, a history buff, an appreciator of art, or someone who just likes seeing cool stuff, there is a museum for you.
Here are our top museums to check out (in no particular order):
The National Gallery: See the famous works of legendary artists, such as Monet, Van Gogh, and many more. An absolute must see for anyone even remotely interested in art.
The British Museum: See the ginormous amount of historical artifacts brought back from all parts of the British Empire. From Egyptian mummies, to Roman mosaics, all the way to ancient pottery from the Middle East. This museum could keep you occupied for days. It’s huge.
The Imperial War Museum: If you are a sucker for military history like Ben is, then this is your dream museum. Where else would you get to see a Spitfire plane or full size tanks sitting in the middle of a museum floor? AMAZING. Wander through huge exhibits on famous British wars like WWI, WWII, and battles from colonial times. The WWI exhibit is particularly impressive, featuring a full size landship (a WWI tank) in a recreated trench.
Natural History Museum: Want to see a tree older than Christopher Columbus? Want to see a full size skeleton of a whale? Want to see some of the biggest gemstones ever discovered on Earth? Well then this is your place. Besides being an absolutely beautiful building, the Natural History Museum is an amazing place to spend a few hours discovering some of the most amazing “findings” brought back by Britain’s scientists and explorers.
Grab a Pint at a Local Pub
Want to feel like a Londoner for an afternoon? Go hang out in a pub! Pubs have been a staple of British life since the Industrial Era. They have become the “living room” for many people in the city, especially since many apartments, or flats, in London are so tiny. Many Londoners will meet their friends at their local pub after work for a quick “pint” and a chat to unwind from their day. Many pubs also have food that is quite good, so going to a pub for lunch or dinner might be a fun choice.
Want a true English public experience? Check online for times when a Premier League soccer match is happening (a quick Google search for Premier League matches will do). Usually if one of the major teams is playing (Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, etc.), the pub will be filled with people cheering on their team. You may even be part of a crowd like this (but probably not):
Try a different type of food every night in London
While fish and chips are great (when done right), London offers a great opportunity to try cuisine from around the world. Whether you’re craving for warm Shepard’s Pie, some flavorful Chicken Tikka Masala, or a juicy Lamb Kebab, London will have the food for you. Take the time to do some research on Google Maps or other travel sites, like TripAdvisor, to find some restaurants near you with good ratings and try it out! But as I mentioned in tip #1, the absolute must-see food spots in London are the markets.
Top 5 Things to Avoid in London
Going into the first pub that you see and ordering food
Odds are the food is going to be pretty average, especially if that pub is in a pretty heavy tourist area. Check Google Maps or any other travel site with ratings, like TripAdvisor, to find a good pub near you. Try picking out pubs before going out for the day in the areas that you think you will be touring that day and mark them on your preferred Map app (Google Maps or Apple Maps). That should help avoid a below-average meal experience. Nobody likes that, especially when you’re hangry.
I’ve never had a problem with pickpocketing in London, but it is certainly a thing to be wary of when in the city. When in large crowds, just make sure you are aware of your stuff at all times. People who look like tourists tend to be a target for pickpocketing in any European city. You don’t have to be overly-paranoid about being pickpocketed, but just be aware of your belongings in big crowds by having your valuable things covered, whether in a backpack or a zippered purse.
Pro tip: One of the most common spots where people get pickpocketed is while they are watching a street performer. While you are busy watching the guys/gals in the middle doing some super sick dance moves or whatever, there sometimes will be someone roving the crowd looking for open pockets or vulnerable purses. Some street performers are worth it to stop and watch, but just be aware of your belongings while you do.
Overpaying for clubs
If you on going out clubbing in London (which is definitely worth it), be aware that the cover charge for clubs can be $40 USD or more, especially in central London. Add on top of that the fact that drinks are super expensive in London and you are looking at a pretty spendy night! There are many amazing night clubs to choose from in London, so don’t completely shy away from it. Just be aware of the cost beforehand so you don’t blow all of your travel money on one night.
Pro tip: try buying some drinks at a nearby grocery store (Tesco, Waitrose, or Sainsbury’s) to have before going out. That can save you a ton of money while still allowing you to have a good time out at the clubs. If clubs are too expensive for you, pubs are always free to enter and can offer a great time on their own!
Eating American food
This is addressed at my fellow American traveling to London: Come onnnnn people! You’re in London! Eat other food! Get your McDonald’s hamburger at home! At the very least, try one of the many burger restaurants in London. The burger market is absolutely booming in the UK right now. The Brits are all about the burgers these days.
Getting swindled into cheering for Arsenal
Skip cheering for that rotten team, become a Tottenham fan! We’re the best. Just kidding, you can cheer for any English soccer club you want. But if you choose Arsenal, just know that Ben will like you a little bit less!
Want to learn about some of the English soccer teams before you go? Check out NBC’s guide to the Premier League to see which team you most match with . You’ll be a true football fan in no time.
So those are our 5 things you should do and 5 things you should skip in London. Let us know what you think of my list in the comment section below!
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