Confession: we had nothing planned the first time we visited London. We had some vague tips, a couple of wedding gift vouchers and a week before we had to be in Scotland.
Having a number of friends already living there helped, we were pretty confident in simply turning up and being pointed in the right direction. That might have been the Aussie in us with a classic “She’ll be right” attitude but boy did it work out.
Met at the airport by our friend Kit, we were soon whisked into the city on the infamous Tube. It was time to knock our jetlag right on the head by going on the most incredible one-day walking tour of London ever, which was completely ad-libbed by our guide Kit. Starting with The Tower of London and going all the way along the south side of the River Thames before crossing back at Westminster Bridge, below is the full list of all the sites we took in.
Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The Shard, London Bridge, Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square and finally Gordon’s Wine Bar.
We learnt a very important lesson on day one. ALWAYS take a camera.
We had the most amazing day of weather and light in London (which you will realise is a very rare thing) and like absolute idiots, we decided that on our first day we would go cameraless and just enjoy the walk. Since returning to each site we have rued that decision by being met with grey skies and flat light.
You may be thinking “well what’s left to see?” the answer is plenty. In our first week we averaged around 15km walking each day. Still full of the buzz of leaving our jobs and jumping on a plane we were so freaking excited to be in London that we overdid it, just a bit. That being said, London is such a fantastic city to walk around, and you see so much that you might otherwise miss being on the Tube.
Lots of people warned us that London could be expensive and we learned that pretty quickly. But one of the great things about England, in general, is there are heaps of things that are still free, luckily for us!
Our Free Things to do in London List
We managed to cram a lot of stuff in whilst visiting London and have listed our top (and free) picks below. This is just a snippet of what’s available to see and do, and we hope to add more to the list next time!
- Tate Modern
Tate Modern has a viewing tower with 360 degree views of London. Plus the main hall is pretty spectacular, as is the gift shop (suddenly it becomes not-so-free!)
- Thames walk
Wander along Southbank along the Thames to tick off a few major sights as listed above.
Borough Market, Camden Market, Old Spitalfields Market, Portobello Road Market, Columbia Road Flower Market, Brick Lane market – all free unless you’re hungry!
- Sky Garden
Free, but you must book in. Bookings only open 3 weeks prior so be quick. Also not free as soon as you buy a delicious cocktail to sip on whilst enjoying the view and the garden, but definitely spoil yourself this once!
- National Portrait Gallery
Free, but runs on donations. Well worth a few hours of your time to wander through the galleries and exhibitions here and get away from the bustle of Trafalgar Square.
- British Museum
This museum runs on donations, so not entirely free but cheap (the suggested donation is £5). The special exhibitions require a paid ticket, but the main part of it is enormous and full of fantastic things to see. We visited twice and still didn’t see everything.
- Brick Lane street art
Wander along Brick Lane if you love street art and a good curry as you’ll find both in abundance here.
- Parks and Gardens
Regents Park – walk along the Canal from Camden Market; wander through St James Park to Buckingham Palace; Hyde Park; Kensington Gardens lead through to Kensington Palace; Victoria Park hosts a market every Sunday; Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is home to the giant slide; take a picnic and spend the day in Richmond Park which is home to free roaming deer. As soon as the sun comes out in London these parks tend to get busy and always have a great atmosphere!
- St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Wander in here on the afternoon before a concert is taking place and you may find yourself treated to a rehearsal of classical music or opera.
- Explore the different suburbs
Bethnal Green, Notting Hill, Hackney, Chelsea, Soho – there’s plenty more to see!
- Royal Albert Hall
If you get a chance to see a concert here, absolutely do it. A gorgeous music hall on the inside and out.
Still on our London to-do-list
There is SO much to do in London and unfortunately we didn’t get everywhere we wanted to. Below are some places on our list for next time round. Some of these have entry fees, denoted by a £ sign.
- Natural History Museum
We’re lovers of natural history museums and are keen to see the gigantic Blue Whale skeleton in the main hall.
- V & A Museum
For lovers of art and design this museum is a must. Plus if you can’t get to Florence to the real thing it houses a full size replica of Michelangelo’s David.
- Tate Britain
Who doesn’t love art when it’s housed in a beautiful historic building? Mostly free, you pay for the special exhibitions though.
- Tower of London (£)
Home to the Crown Jewels and a grisly history.
- Kew Gardens in Spring (£)
Spending a whole day here probably still isn’t enough time to explore everything the gardens has to offer!
- Churchill War Rooms (£)
Explore this underground bunker where Churchill and his government sheltered from German bombing raids.
3 Essential London Travel Tips
1. Buy the right Oyster card
Whatever you do, don’t be sucked in by a Visitors Oyster Card before you leave, just buy a real Oyster card when you arrive. They only cost £5 but it’s more like a deposit as you can get that back from any Oyster machine when you leave. The regular card allows you to load up with cheaper weekly or monthly travel passes. The Visitors card only allows you to load a daily pass or use credit, which is fine if you’re not in London for long but you don’t get your £5 back when you’re finished with it.
2. Get discounted Theatre and West End shows
Cheap theatre tickets can be found at Tkts in Leicester Square. A word of warning though – you must line up at least half an hour before it opens to be near the front and have a degree of flexibility in your daily plans as tickets sell out. Some theatres run a daily lottery, such a The Book of Mormon. We were lucky enough to be successful in this lottery after trying a few times – meaning we had to be at the theatre 2 hours before to enter and wait around until they drew the ballot. This ballot is a show in itself, one unlucky person wasn’t present when they read out his name and subsequently had his entry ripped up (much to the amusement of the remaining hopefuls in the crowd).
3. Get up early to beat the crowd
Particularly in summer. There is so much to do in London, and the mornings can be some of the quietest times to move around and have the sights to yourself. After lining up at the Tkts booth one morning to secure Phantom tickets, we wandered around Leicester Square and watched it come to life. It was far more enjoyable walking around and having the streets to ourselves that bustling through crowds and tour groups later in the afternoon. The Markets are also far more enjoyable if you get there just as they open, plus you get all the good stuff before it’s been picked over or sold out!
Our favourite London memories
WALK along the canal from Camden into Regent’s park on a sunny day
INDULGE in all the tasty treats from the Borough Market
TREAT yourself to a ridiculously expensive cocktail at the Sky Garden whilst enjoying the view over London
WANDER the alleys and streets along Brick Lane for cool street art
STROLL along the Thames on Southbank, there’s so much going on here – Borough Market, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London Eye
London is an incredible city full of contrasts. Enormous with tight-knit communities in the suburbs, historic and ultra modern, grey-brown and colourful, homely but also overwhelming at times. It’s easy to see why it can be such a polarising city to its visitors.
We loved it, and will certainly be back during our time in Europe.
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