With history in the pale loads, a gherkin piercing the city skyline, achingly trendy neighbourhoods and hipster infiltration like the plague, there’s plenty of reasons why London has long been on the world’s bucket list.
Last year, the husband (his name is Jude Lamb, but let’s just refer to him as Jude Law) and I spent three weeks acquainting ourselves with Paris and London. A few weeks ago, I shared the incredibly comprehensive, 2000-word travel itinerary I’d spent hours curating for the Paris leg. So, I figured, it’s only fair I also bore you with the London leg’s program of activity, which attempted to capture the best of the city in one elongated week. CTRL-C away.
Where to stay
Depending on what you want to spend and what you want to experience, London really has everything when it comes to head-resting places of sleep. From historic hotels and luxury apartments to Airbnbs and budget motels, the choice is a hard one. However, I will warn you, accommodation is pricey in London. Actually everything is pricey in London. So best to sort this one out stat.
So where did Jude Law and I stay? We spent eight nights at the circa-1898 Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury, which reminded me of the castle cake in The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book. While it wasn’t adorned in chocolate and confectionary or have turrets made out of ice cream cones, it did have plenty of old worldliness, a chandelier-clad lobby and a lovely leafy view of Russell Square.
Day 1: Buckingham Palace, the West End and London shopping
If I’m honest, after elbowing my way through an AFL Grand Final-esque crowd, watching Buckingham Palace’s ‘changing of the guard’ was a little bit of a let-down. But also a holiday-in-London-mandatory. To be able to get direct line of sight into the marching ground, you need to get here 90 minutes early (not 15 like we did) to stake out a spot by the palace’s fence. That or borrow some stilts from a circus clown. Fortunately, I had some alternative entertainment in the form of some fascinatingly-adorable squirrels chomping on their acorns, which was way more entertaining than marching men in big furry hats.
Afterwards, a walk around the West End is a distracting affair, not to mention weirdly makes you feel like you’re playing Monopoly. There’s Convent Garden Piazza, Leicester Square, Chinatown, Piccadilly Circus, St James Park (stop here and hire a deck chair, weather permitting), Trafalgar Square and Saville Row. Now you just need to pass go and collect $200.
Despite the fact that cashing in your Aussie Dollars is like peddling potatoes in Russia, you can’t come to London without trawling the shopping strips, particularly Regent and Oxford streets. The shopping highlight for me was definitely Harrods, if nothing more than to gawk at the gaudiness. I’ve never seen so much indoor sunglass-wearing in my life. UK department store monolith Selfridges is another must.
Day 2: Day trip to Brighton Beach and dinner in the West End
Departing from St Pancras Station (you know, the one with Harry Potter’s 9¾ platform), it takes about 90 minutes via train to get to London’s famous beachside town of Brighton and costs about AUD $25pp return.
A day is easily spent in this colourful town. Stroll the pebbled beach, wander Brighton Pier’s crumbling-yet-quaint amusement arcade, hole up in a pub listening to some live music, learn the history of the Royal Pavilion and get accosted by some intimidating seagulls.
Down Brighton’s cobbled, skinny laneways we stumbled upon Riddle & Finns and proceeded to have one of the best meals of the trip. This cute champagne and oyster bar, with its fancy marble tables and candelabras, serves up some of the freshest fish you’ll ever taste. Just be warned, the accompanying green mush is not guac, as we foolishly thought, it’s pea mash puree. Duh! We’re in the UK, not Sydney.
We ended the day back in London’s West End with a mad burger from Spuntino and a warm beer at the character-filled and oddment-adorned pub The Cross Keys. Other places of eating around the Soho/Chinatown/West End area that come highly recommended to me and I’m happy to share are:
- Hakkasan – for modern Cantonese.
- Burger & Lobster – as the name suggests really.
- Koya – simple Japanese served at communal tables.
- Bone Daddies – a ‘rocking ramen joint’, I quote.
- Yauatcha – Michelin-starred yum cha and cocktails.
- Chotto Matte – Japanese and Peruvian fusion that’s on the expensive side but worth it.
- Garlic & Shots – everything’s laced with garlic, including the beer. Vampires and garlic haters be warned.
- Nopi – Middle Eastern and Asian-inspired sharing plates.
Day 3: East London
Day three was spent leaning on my UK-born, London-living family to play tour guides and show us the city beyond what you read in Lonely Planet. They did a damn fine job.
Cousin Martin and his wife Dawn took us on a 12-hour walking tour of East London that involved a lot of drinking. While most of the time I had no clue where we were (yep, I’m a dumdum for not paying close attention for the purpose of writing this post), I do remember learning about the city’s history at the Museum of London, trawling the Spitalfields Market, admiring the The Old Truman Brewery, drinking ciders at Boxpark and contemplating having cocktails at The Shard, but instead having cocktails at Sushi Samba, which has one of the most amazing bathroom views on the planet.
Finally, other recommended eats in this end of town circle around these guys:
- Singer Tavern – booze and all-day food.
- Bad Egg – brunch and booze diner-style, and lots of eggs.
- Pizza East – well it’s not sushi that’s fo sure.
- Lounge Bohemia – no eats but plenty of drinks at this ’60s underground Czech speakeasy.
Day 4: the Tower of London, other tourist attractions and afternoon tea at The Ritz
You can’t come to London without dragging your filthy hooves around all those tourist attractions that have been immortalised on every postcard exiting the Kingdom. You know, the Tower of London (including the eye-popping crown jewels and a Yeoman Warder’s tour), the London Bridge, the Thames, the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral, HMS Belfast and the Monument.
We bought a two-day London Pass (for £85 or AUD $138), which was the quickest and most economical way of ticking these bad boys off.
Then that evening, accepting that we were already coming home as poor people, we decided to splash some serious cash and have afternoon tea at The Ritz (with a price tag of AU$140pp it’s not for the faint-hearted). But. Best. Decision. Ever. They may be the most expensive egg sandwiches we’ve ever had in our life but they were worth every cent. You need to book well advance for this one.
Day 5: Hampton Court Palace and Ministry of Sound
If there’s a history nerd hiding anywhere inside, you’ll love transporting yourself back to Tudor-time and walking in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace, which is 35 minutes out of London via train. And if the palace and its 500-year-old history aren’t enough to blow your bun off, the 60 acres of gardens, complete with a hedge maze, are hard not to be impressed by. Pleasingly, I left with my head (and bun). However, if you’re hoping to run into Eric Bana or Natalie Portman, you’re fresh out of luck. Scarlett Johansson on the other hand…
With some of the biggest dance clubs in the land, you can’t come to London without getting a lesson from the locals on how to party. This is how I found myself at Ministry of Sound. Where instead of getting a lesson on how to party, I got a lesson on how to dress. Learning from the locals that heels are out and Converse are in. Hallelujah sister.
Day 6: Borough Market, museums and galleries
If you’re hungover from dancing the night before away, Borough Market is the perfect place to spend the morning. Now you just need to choose between the egg and bacon roll with HP sauce or the chorizo-loaded paella. I consider myself a market know-it-all and this all-things-food market in Southwark is deeply impressive.
Day 7: Notting Hill and Hyde Park
On day seven, head to Notting Hill and have a gander through the Portobello Road Markets. When I was here, I forgot I wasn’t in Paris anymore, bought a crepe and somehow ended up with cream down both arms. And, of course, you can’t leave the famed suburb without visiting the book shop where Julia Roberts fell in love with Hugh Grant (142 Portobello Road).
Weather permitting spend the afternoon in Hyde Park commanding the high seas of The Serpentine from the wheel of a paddle boat. If the sun is shining, expect there to be enough paddle boat traffic to warrant a congestion tax. Alternatively, you can also pull out your roller blade licence and join the cool kids pulling fishtails and barrel rolls throughout the park.
Dinner was back in Bloomsbury at the Japanese okonomi-yaki restaurant Abeno, where you cook your own Japanese pancakes on the hot plate in the middle of your table. Bellissimo! Oh wait, that’s not right…
Day 8: Camden Market and the British Museum
Before we set sail for London, we promised a friend we’d buy him a hat from Camden Market (to replace the hat that Jude Law tore in two one drunken night). So, on our last day in London, there we were racing out to Camden Town. Glad we owed him a hat because the eclectic Camden Market was worth the tube ride and then some.
Next stop, with its giganormous collection of world art and artefacts, you can’t leave London without visiting the British Museum. No excuses, it’s free.
Before catching the train to Heathrow, we had one final lunch, London-style, at the pub across the road from the British Museum, the Museum Tavern. Here we ate our weight in fish and chips, bangers and mash, pork pies and warm beer.
Quick tips for visiting London
- Bring money, lots of it, because everything is bloody expensive. When you spend $150 at Sushi Train on the first night you know you’re in a world of bank pain.
- Invest in a Visitor Oyster Card – it makes navigating the tube and double decker bus network that much easier and economical.
- Pack for all weather scenarios. In October, I packed long-sleeve everything and ended up buying a bulk pack of H&M t-shirts.
- Embrace the fried breakfast. In London, the first meal of the day is fried eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato and toast. I was craving avocado like a pregnant woman by the time I got back to Australia.
- Book your accommodation well in advance – we waited until we were two weeks out from departure and paid the price.