The Travellers’ Introduction to London: 6 mini itineraries to get you started
Nervous excitement fluttered in my belly as our plane soared over the green patchwork surrounding London. After a lifetime of media impressions, hours of reading about the sights and lots of tips from ex-pat friends, I was keen to get out there and explore.
But deciding where to start was a bit of a pickle. London offers so much to see and do; every culture and interest is represented. So how do you choose what to see first? What attractions are near each other? How do you mix museums and icons and authentic local experiences? Well, after about two weeks in the city, here are six mini itineraries that helped me to orientate, see the big sights and feel like I was getting to know the real London.
1. East side urban delights: Columbia Road Flower Market ~ Spitalfields Market ~ Shoreditch graffiti ~ Brick Lane ~ Sunday Up Markets.
This little itinerary made my favourite day in London so far – fragrant, colourful, quirky and chilled. Try to schedule it for a Sunday, when the markets are on, and use all day to cram in sights. You can start by walking east along Old Street from the tube, toward the flower market.
Some of my highlights were:
- Listening to sunny jazz buskers and the many accents at Columbia Road Flower Market as stall holders shouted their sales into the crowd.
- Devouring lentil soup and a strong coffee at Allpress cafe, near the Club Row squirrel.
- Wandering the streets around Arnold Circus, Club Row and Shoreditch High Street to see impressive, vibrant street art on almost every wall.
- People watching in Spitalfield Markets.
- Brick Lane Market(ends by 2pm) full of second hand clothing, random cheap bric-a-brac and all manner of the arty, colourful, weird and wonderful.
- Sunday Up Markets(ends about 5pm) where there are multiple levels of affordable fashion, art, jewellery and yummy market eats.
- Enjoying a pint at The Book Club, a popular space that also serves meals and hosts artsy evening activities (poetry, art, classes, music etc.).
2. Food and art by the river: Borough Markets ~ The Globe Theatre – Tate Modern ~ River Thames.
This is a shorter itinerary that involves eating a lot, walking slowly and staring at inside art. To start, London’s Borough Markets is a sense-saturating ode to food. Then, after short walk through cobble-stone lanes along the Thames, there is Tate Modern, which has rooms of lovely art… as well as some other weird contemporary stuff.
Highlights of this day were:
- Warm apple cider from Borough Markets at 10.30am to de-frost the hands (I’m on holidays, it’s allowed).
- Steaming, spicy Caribbean curry (from the guys who also sell paella).
- Piles of brownies, wheels of cheese, bags of baguettes. Oh yum!
- Having a moment by The Globe theatre next to the River Thames as I realised that Shakespeare was once here. History gets me sometimes.
- Standing in the echoing space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (go to the bottom level to see it).
By the way:
- Don’t underestimate the power of the food at Borough Markets – arrive hungry… and with a shopping list.
- Just follow the signs to Tate Modern from the market – it’s a delightful 15 minute walk under a bridge, beside a very old church and past a sailing ship.
- This is a pretty low cost day, with free museum entry (donations encouraged), markets eats for around £5 and just a tube fare to and from Borough station.
3. Walk the tourist walk: Hyde Park ~ Green Park ~ Buckingham Palace ~ Westminster Abbey ~ Big Ben ~ Houses of Parliament ~ River Thames ~ London Eye.
Even if you’re not into the touristy thing, London’s most famous attractions need a quick look-in. This itinerary is a big day of (causal) walking, so save it for fine, warm(er) weather and allow 4-6 hours, depending on how long you want to spend at Westminster Abbey. Ideally, you want to end up at South Bank (London Eye etc.) around dusk to get a view of the lights across the River Thames and make the most of London’s photogenic night scape. You can start by catching the tube to Marble Arch or Queensway station, at the top of Hyde Park.
Some of my highlights included:
- Wandering through Hyde Park,along The Serpentine (big pond) to see swans, ducks and squirrels and Londoners exercising in their natural habitat.
- Entering Park Lane from Green Park to warm up in a real British bistro.
- Spending a couple of hours in the echoing halls of Westminster Abbey, as I tried to wrap my head around the long and sordid history represented there.
- Playing with night-time photography near the London Eye and along the River Thames.
By the way:
- Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the guardstarts at 11.30 and finishes at noon , but arrive by 11.15 if you want to get up close to the marching men in funny hats.
- Westminster Abbey charges a whopping £16 admission fee for adults, but this includes an audio guide around the impressive history-rich halls. Allow a couple of hours to look inside (we took 2 hours and still skimmed some of it). Also note the Abbey is only open for worship on Sundays and visitor times change according to the day.
4. Notting Hill and Kensington: Portobello Road Markets in Notting Hill ~ Natural History Museum ~ Harrods ~ Victoria & Albert Museum.
If you’re after a little bit of shopping, a little bit of food and a little bit of culture, this itinerary will hopefully hit the spot. The more up-market suburbs of Notting Hill and Kensington exhibit some beautiful buildings, offer boutique shops and dining, and are filled with people who look like they just emerged from a fashion catalogue.
- Window shopping in Kensington Park Road and Portobello Road, and enjoying the funky fashion, touristy knick-knacks and vintage goods on display.
- Snacking on the wholesome delights at Muriel’s Kitchenon Pelham Street, South Kensington. (A little pricey but a lovely pit-stop right near the tube station).
- Gawking up at the amazing foyer in the Natural History Museum… oh, and learning about human evolution, the age of trees and dinosaurs.
- Getting a quick overview of history through design (everything from armour to textiles, tea pots and jewellery) and browsing the lovely bookshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
- Seeing the night-lit Harrods in Kensington and wandering the immaculate displays (while repeating the childhood mantra, ‘look but don’t touch’).
By the way:
- If you are even remotely interested in the natural sciences, don’t for a second think you will see the whole Natural History Museumin a couple of hours. Although presented in an easy-to-digest format, there is a lot to take in (and at times large groups of school children to avoid). Opening hours are 10am to 5.50pm daily and entry is free.
- The Portobello Road Markets are on Monday to Saturday, although market timesvary (always starting at 8am). Friday and Saturday are the big days, when “antique” sellers add to the mix and the crowds come by tube full, making the narrow little street a little squishy, but packed with personality. Watch your pockets.
- The V&A also has an impressive program of free evening entertainment, and offers art and design orientated classes (for a fee).
5. Vibrant suburbs tour: Brixton ~ Tooting ~ Clapham Common
This tour is a little off the beaten tourist trail and celebrates some of the many wonderful cultures co-residing in London. Along the way you may find dancing drummers in Rasta hats, intoxicatingly good Indian food and markets full of fun, random things. I recommend this one as an afternoon-come-evening trip with some dining and drinking involved. Some of the best bits included:
- Bopping to Bob Marley and African drums in Brixton’s Market in Electric Avenue while looking through racks of multi-coloured woollen tights and string singlets.
- Enjoying really yummy, really cheap Indian food in Tooting (commonly referred to as ‘Little India’) only a short way from Brixton.
- Eating to-die-for gluten free brownies from the Clapham Common street markets in Venn Street.
- Dancing to seriously funky funk covers in Venn Street Records (bar) in Clapham Common.
By the way:
- Getting to Tooting on the tube/bus will take you to zone 3, so if you’ve got a zone 1& 2 oyster card, you will need to put a little cash on it as well.
- There are also markets in Tooting every day of the week, which I didn’t get to, but am told are worth a peek.
- The Clapham Common Venn Street markets are on Saturdays from about 10am, selling food and flowers (two very good things).
6. Between coffee and cultures: National Portrait Gallery ~ China Town ~ Soho ~ Oxford Street ~ British Museum
This day grew from a desire to find good coffee and a need to stay warm, but it ended up providing so much more. It suits a rainy and/or cold day, with the little of bit of walking easily done from shop to shop if needed. Highlights of the day included:
- Seeing the amazing images in the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2011 exhibition. Haunting, humble and certainly something to strive for.
- Winning our own little treasure hunt for Flat White Cafe (which came recommended by the boys at my favourite Brisbane cafe, OneDrop Specialty Coffee – thanks guys).
- Being lost in Soho and stumbling across a little ‘red light’ district, textile quarter and food markets in Berwick Street.
- Sniffing hot pork buns as we wandered through China Town.
- Watching fashion override the cold in Oxford Street.
- Beholding the great hall of the British Museum; an inspiring entrance for an impressive collection.
- Just being in the reading room at the British Museum – all those books and cabinets full of things! My childhood fantasies of a Beauty and the Beast style library flashed before my eyes once again.
By the way:
- While the National Portrait Gallery is free to enter (donations encouraged), some of the exhibitions, such as the photographic prizes, charge an admission fee (we paid £2).
- Like the National History Museum, the British Museum is far too extensive to explore thoroughly in one day. Pick your highlights and/ or plan a return trip. Also, grab a bite before you get there as the food there seems generally over priced and not too flash.
A quick shout out to Elissa, Katie, Sarah and Rani – thanks for showing us the London good times and being such well-informed and accommodating hosts. Here’s to many more adventures.
*Also readers, check out www.Londontowntraveller.com to read more articles I’ve written about adventures in London. There is heaps there, like my top 10 cafes, suggestions for London photo walks and bookworm adventures, an article about the wonderful world of London markets, a list of my favourite Central London parks… and more.