My Ultimate Guide to London

London quickly became my home away from home while living in Germany. I went three times in my first nine months alone and have now been a total of six times. While I’d like to think I know everything about the city, the truth is that it is so huge and ever-changing that I will never be able to see/eat/drink it all. But I’m okay with that because it means I always have a reason to go back, plus my friends from study abroad live there.

London felt as close to home as possible while still being in Europe. I loved being able to openly speak English, I loved the vast mix of cultures in each neighborhood, and I LOVED the food scene. I’m honestly overwhelmed by how many restaurants I still want to try there.

Ryanair made it easy for me to visit—my flights were never more than $130 round-trip and several were actually less than $50! Over my six different London “holidays,” as they call them, I came up with a list of activities and restaurants that I would recommend, as well as what I believe you should skip!

Worth the Money

A lot of the tourist attractions in London are costly, so I recommend picking and choosing what interests you most. These activities all come at a price, but I believe they are worth it! Two things I didn’t do that my mom did and loved are the Churchill War Rooms and the Houses of Parliament tour. If either of these interests you, I trust my mom’s judgment and would say go for it!

Tower of London

Consider this your ultimate London history museum. I loved exploring the different exhibits within the historic castle. There is truly something for everyone, from the famed crown jewels to the weapons collection in the White Tower. Hopefully you’ll get to see the ravens flying around (yes those are real in the picture below), and definitely do the beefeater walking tour—it comes at no additional cost and meets right at the entrance. Buy your tickets ahead of time online to avoid extra waiting and get there when it opens (9 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday and Monday) to avoid big crowds. Entry costs £24.70 for adults and £19.30 if you’re a student with a valid ID.

Big Bus Tour

I have mixed feelings about the super touristy double decker bus tours. Their quality varies from city to city, but I would say London’s was a pretty good one. It’s a huge city with landmarks spread out, so being able to see them from the bus is much easier than taking public transportation or walking between them all. Our main issue with it was that we did it in October, which they think is the “off-season,” even though there is no off-season in London in my opinion. This meant that the buses ran less frequently and ended earlier in the evening than in the summer. We went with Big Bus Tours, but I’m sure all the companies are similar. I would suggest the two-day ticket so you won’t feel rushed to see the multiple routes in one day. Plus you can use it as your public transportation rather than spending money on the tube! A two-day premium ticket costs £40.50 for adults.

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Boat ride to Greenwich

The Premium bus ticket also includes a round-trip journey on the river boats. You can do this with an Oyster public transportation card as well if you don’t take the bus tour. The Thames River separates north and south London, and as you cruise from Westminster Millennium Pier to Greenwich, you can see a majority of the city from the water while a guide points out the different buildings. You will even cruise right under the famous Tower Bridge! Spend some time in Greenwich (I recommend The Gipsy Moth for lunch), then hop back on the boat to return to the city center.

Camden Town Brewery Tour

As a beer lover, this was one of my favorite things I’ve done in London. You show up to the bar of the brewery and are immediately greeted with a pitcher of beer. Then, a brewer shares the company’s history and walks you through a tasting flight of five different beers: hells, pale ale, lager, stout and wheat beer. After you’ve explored all the wonderful flavors, you get to enter the brewery to see the production process. Oh and by the way, they give you a can of beer to take with you for this part so you don’t get thirsty! The tour ends with a coupon for a free beer of your choice (there are about eight different options including the ones from the tasting flight) and a coupon for a free beer within the next three months. Tickets cost £15 and should be booked at least a week in advance so you can get your desired date and time slot. If you decide to skip the tour, you can still taste the beer at pubs all over London.

Skip it!

London Eye

The view over London from this gigantic ferris wheel is great, and we were lucky enough to go on a nice day, but the standard ticket costs about £30, which I believe is incredibly steep. You don’t get the pod to yourself, which means you will most likely be elbowing the 10 to 15 other people in there with you for pictures or listening to the echoing screams of children treating it like a playground. Below you will see several free options for viewing London that I would recommend more!

Free things to do

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

Chances are, if you’re going to London, you will probably want to see where the Royal family lives and works. Though there will be a crowd, attending the changing of the guards ceremony is a great time to see a grand royal spectacle. Check online to see which dates and times it will be taking place, as it’s usually about three times per week. I recommend arriving at least half an hour early to get a decent spot, but people will be lining up much earlier.

See Big Ben

This is probably also top priority on your London list. After Changing of the Guards, walk over to Westminster to see the Elizabeth Tower and its resident bell, Big Ben (Londoners will judge you if you call the whole tower Big Ben). The best views of Big Ben are from Parliament Square Garden and across the river by the London Eye. But beware! The tower and bell are under construction until at least 2021 so if you go within the next two years or so, there’s a chance you won’t be able to see it. Right now it just looks like one big pile of scaffolding.

Walk along the South Bank

On a nice day, this is my favorite thing to do in London. Starting from the London Eye, the path wanders along the Thames through shops and restaurants with major landmarks like St. Paul’s Cathedral on your left. End the walk at Borough Market and find something fun to eat (see more about this in my food section).

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Observation Deck at the Tate Modern

While you’re walking along the South Bank, you will see the Tate Modern museum. It’s kind of an eyesore, but if you’re into art, entry is free. If you’re not into art, take the elevator up to the observation deck for a great view of the Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper, and the rest of the city. As an added bonus, the Millennium Bridge, which was featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is right outside.

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The Sky Garden

If you’re looking for another free view, the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie Talkie building is a must! Tickets become available online three weeks in advance, so make sure you have a date in mind and get tickets as soon as they open because this is a popular activity. The Sky Garden is exactly what it sounds like: an indoor garden with tons of plants on display, an observation deck, and several cafes and restaurants.

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Walk across the Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge is yet another icon that you can’t go to the city and not see. It’s right by the Tower of London so it’s a super easy stop before or after you visit the museum. The design is so different from any of the other bridges on the Thames that you will be in awe.

Visit the Museums

It’s almost inevitable in London that you are going to have a rainy day, so when the bad weather hits, head inside to a museum. The Tate Modern isn’t the only free museum! There are actually 23 options, including the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, both of which I have been to and recommend.

Stroll Through Hyde Park

Hyde Park is the closest thing London has to New York’s Central Park. It’s huge and full of surprises, including Kensington Palace and its reflecting pool, Queen Victoria’s memorial to her late husband, Albert, cafes, cute dogs, gardens, and more! I strongly feel that parks capture the local lives so well in any city, and this one is no different.

Organ Recital at Westminster Abbey

Want to get inside this famed church, setting of the coronation ceremonies and eternal resting place of Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, and many many royals? You can buy a ticket, but if you attend one of the free services held throughout the week, you don’t need a ticket at all! I attended the organ recital, which is held at 5:45 p.m. every Sunday. The concert is about 30 minutes long, and while some may find that much instrumental music boring, it is definitely worth it.

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Spitalfields City Farm

There are many “city farms” in London. This one I happened to go to is free to the public and run by volunteers, though I’m sure the others have a similar system. The highlight of this farm for me was the adorable, fluffy miniature donkeys, but there are also sheep, goats, cats, chickens, pigs, ferrets and more! Plus there are nice little gardens as well. It’s cool to step onto the farm and remove yourself from the urban jungle for a little bit—you’ll almost forget that you’re in one of the largest cities in the world.

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God’s Own Junkyard

My last trip to London, I was looking for something different to do, and this was definitely different. Although the borough of Walthamstow is pretty far out, I would recommend it if you’re out of ideas. The whole area of the “junkyard” has a cool vibe with bars serving craft beer, a cafe, and the main event: the neon signs. There is one house that stores all of them and you can walk through it almost as if it’s a museum. The signs are kept on display and rented out for events. It’s a fun kind of “art gallery” that I enjoyed strolling through. We went on a Sunday evening, but I could see how in the summer on the weekends the whole area could be a really fun drinking scene.

Climb the hill in Greenwich Park

If you end up in Greenwich on a nice day, after your river cruise perhaps, climbing the hill to see sweeping views of London is a must! It’s not too high, but the landscape is very rewarding. Also at the top of the hill, you can pay to enter the Royal Observatory, where Greenwich Mean Time was invented and the Prime Meridian divides the western and eastern hemispheres.

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Wander the shopping areas

I personally am not a huge shopper but love walking around in the hustle and bustle of a shopping district. London is expensive, so it may be just a window shopping kind of day. Covent Garden and Oxford Street are bound to be full of tourists, but the atmospheres there are really nice and there are tons of options for restaurants as well, especially if you branch into Soho. The flagship Harrods in Chelsea will make you feel poor, but its fun to walk through the gaudy rooms selling overly luxurious merchandise, and my favorite is their food hall! Liberty is another famous department store with a beautifully interesting interior.

Food

Camden Market

Hands down my favorite food spot in London is Camden Market. It is horribly crowded, but the number of options is bound to satisfy any craving. My favorite stand is The Mac Factory, where you can enjoy six different kinds of macaroni and cheese. The halloumi fries at Oli Baba’s are sure to tickle any cheese lover’s taste buds. And the fried chicken at Other Side Fried was equally delicious. Stop by after your Camden Town Brewery tour!

Boxpark Shoreditch

Similar to Camden Market, Boxpark Shoreditch has tons of great options but with much fewer tourists. I loved the shrimp tacos from EDu and the halloumi fries from The Athenian. There is truly something for everyone.

Borough Market

This food market is under London Bridge and yet again has lots of great stands and restaurants. Bread Ahead Bakery serves the best donuts I’ve ever had! This too can get very crowded but is a great way to end your walk along the South Bank.

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Old Spitalfields Market

This is the last major food market I’ve been to in London. It’s a lot more spacious and is indoors, which is good for a rainy day, but there aren’t as many food stands. We warmed up with some nice chai from The Chai Guys and then met one of my food Instagram friends at his business, Nosteagia, for my first ever bubble waffle!

Meat Pies at The Windmill

Meat pies are one of the most classically British dishes. I fell in love with them in Australia, so having one takes me right back to those study abroad days. I’ve never had a bad meat pie in London, but my favorite was at The Windmill in Mayfair. I had a lamb shepherd’s pie there and it was to die for. What stood out about this place was their variety of options—beef, lamb, chicken, fish and vegetarian! For some reason I didn’t take a picture of my pie so here’s one from The Queen’s Head, which I talk about more below.

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Scotch eggs at The Queen’s Head

So I’ll preface this by saying this is the only scotch egg I’ve ever had, but I was very satisfied with it! It’s another British classic: a boiled egg is wrapped in sausage meat and then coated with breadcrumbs and fried to be crispy. It is heavenly! I had mine at The Queen’s Head, but you can find them all over. I did really enjoy this restaurant, so I wanted to give them the shoutout, as they also had fantastic meat pies!

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Sunday roast

Next in the lineup for traditional foods in London: Sunday roast! It is available at most pubs and British restaurants every Sunday. It is the ideal comfort food, consisting of roast meat, potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, gravy and for some odd reason, cheesy cauliflower. I had mine at The Cyclist in Balham, where my friend lives, but you most likely won’t find yourself in that neighborhood so I suggest some research for this one. However, the two restaurants I mentioned above offer a Sunday roast, so they’re probably a good bet.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding

Best dessert ever!!! Hearing the words sticky and pudding probably throw you off but pudding is just British for “dessert.” Anyone who loves toffee (like me, for example) will be in love with the warm toffee cake, usually drizzled with caramel and topped with vanilla ice cream. You can get it at just about any pub, and I’ve never had one I didn’t like.

Dessert at Chin Chin

While on the topic of sweet things, Chin Chin is a dessert lover’s heaven. Not only do they have fun ice cream flavors made to order using liquid nitrogen, they incorporate their ice creams into delicious desserts like brownie sundaes and you guessed it, sticky toffee pudding! I’ve been several times, but my absolute favorite treat there is the griddled cookie dough—it’s basically raw cookie dough with that fresh-out-of-the-oven, gooey texture.

Brunching

The standout meal for me in London is brunch. There are endless options, so I was overwhelmed every time I was forced to pick out a spot to start the day. Nice coffee shops are something I really miss in Germany, so when I go to London, I treat myself. The ones I’ve enjoyed most are Apple Blue Patisserie and Milk in Balham, Attendant and Friends of Ours in Shoreditch, and Half Cup in King’s Cross.

Day trips from London

Cambridge

My friend Connie is from Cambridge, so I’ve spent a few days there. Because it’s the home of a world-renowned university, the town feels very young and has lots of nice coffee shops, including Bould Brothers and Hot Numbers (toast with poached egg pictured below). It’s cool to see the colleges and compare the campus to ones in the U.S. It’s about one hour north of London via train from King’s Cross. If you’re feeling adventurous, try punting on the river or hire a punter—it’s basically the Cambridge version of taking a gondola ride in Venice!

Oxford

The other major university town in England, Oxford, also has its own character. On a walking tour of the campus, we heard about how C.S. Lewis found inspiration for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the two pictures at the bottom of this collage, you can see the lamp post that inspired the lamp post at the entrance to Narnia from the wardrobe and a strange carved creature than inspired the faun, Mr. Tumnus. We didn’t have a ton of time in town because it was a part of a whole day tour that also went to Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. This was a great way to see three major sights, but you can also get to Oxford via train in a little less than an hour from Paddington Station.

Stonehenge

I wrote a whole post about seeing Stonehenge from the inner circle because it was the most incredible experience. The only way to have this privilege is to book an entire day tour. If you’re in a time crunch or don’t care as much about walking among the stones, you can still visit Stonehenge on a half-day tour or on your own if you have a car. Many people say it’s overrated, but I tend to geek out over mysteries like this one.

Windsor Castle

If you want to tour a royal residence, this is for you! This was the last stop on the organized day trip, and we happened to be there in the last month of the exhibit for Harry and Meghan’s wedding the previous summer, so I liked seeing the dress, tiara, and everything else involved in the big day. You can visit the castle as part of a day tour like I did or take a one-hour train to Windsor from Waterloo station on your own.

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Brighton

I had always wanted to see the British seaside, so I’m glad I finally got to Brighton on my last London Trip. It was a little over an hour from St. Pancras station on the train. The weather wasn’t the greatest, but I loved the old-fashioned pier with arcade games and rides. It took me right back to the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. I also got to indulge in the freshest fish and chips!

London Tips

Airports

London has six major airports, and I’ve flown out of three of them: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Most likely if you are flying to/from overseas, you will be going to Heathrow. This is by far the largest and probably the nicest, especially if you’re going to Terminal 5, the British Airways terminal. Heathrow is about one hour from the city on the tube, and the ride will cost about £7, give or take. Gatwick and Stansted are mostly for budget airlines flying within Europe. Trains take about 45 minutes for both (Gatwick trains depart/arrive at St. Pancras International or Victoria Station and Stansted trains go to Liverpool Street) and a round-trip journey will cost roughly £30. Buses are a cheaper option but take two hours, so I don’t recommend wasting time on them.

Where to stay

You will want to stay as close to the river as possible, and I’ve always stayed on the northern side except when I was staying with my friend. Ideally, you would be between Westminster and City of London. My best recommendation would be the Covent Garden area, as there is a ton going on nearby as far as activities and restaurants, and it’s also fairly central.

Bring an adaptor

There’s nothing worse than arriving in a foreign country and not being able to charge your devices because your plug doesn’t fit the wall. Great Britain and Ireland both use different plugs than the rest of Europe, so you will definitely want to stock up on adaptors ahead of time; otherwise you’ll be scrambling at the last minute to find one in the city. And once you’ve plugged it in, don’t forget to turn on the switch next to the socket or else you will leave your electronics for hours and come back to realize the outlet wasn’t on…trust me, I’ve learned this from experience.

Public transportation

I have a fear of public transportation because it differs from city to city, but in London, it is definitely your friend. As I said above, everything is spread out, and the London underground, a.k.a. the tube, is a quick, easy way to get around. All the signs are in English, which is a luxury I appreciate after living in Germany for so long, and Google Maps will be able to tell you the best route to get anywhere. Buy an Oyster Card at the start of your trip and load some money on it, and then you can top it up at any station when you need it.

Look up events ahead of time

One of the coolest things about a city so big is that there is constantly something going on. For instance, my latest trip happened to be during their big bonfires weekend (it’s a U.K. thing), so my friends and I went to a fireworks show. I also attended the Paralympic track and field world championships at the Olympic Park. There are always concerts, markets, and more to check out, and there are two ways I like to look them up. First, TimeOut is super helpful by putting together a monthly calendar of events, as well as sharing favorite restaurants and things to do in the city. Second, I use the Facebook events section to search. Go to Events, then Discover, and you should be able to put in a location and date or dates that you would like to search. You can also narrow it down by category, like Food, Theater, Sports, etc.

Budget!

As I mentioned before, London is an expensive city, and sometimes it’s easy to forget how much you’re spending because they use the British Pound as their currency. Everything I’ve done/seen/eaten in this post was over the course of six trips over three years—you most likely won’t be able to afford to see it all, money or timewise, so I encourage you to prioritize what’s most important!

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