When in London
The famed city of London is one that everyone has imagined themselves visiting at least once — standing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, marvelling at the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, walking past the Houses of Parliament and visiting the magnificent Westminster Abbey.
And indeed, London is a must-visit for these incredible sights. But it’s also so much more. The city is a massive patchwork quilt of different areas and neighborhoods, each with its own personality — and some so distinctly different, they feel like a totally different place.
Locals Weigh In
Being such a huge city, it can be hard to navigate London during your first visit, and especially difficult to seek out little-known local places the rest of the tourists don’t know about. So we’ve met up with two locals — Sarah Gibbons and Gemma Thompson — to let you in on some London secrets.
Sarah Gibbons is a London-based freelance editor and copywriter. She is also co-founder of the adventure travel blog The Two Travelled and can be found Instagramming @sarahtravelled.
Originally hailing from the northeast of England, Gemma Thompson has lived in London for 14 years. She is the founder of the solo travel website GirlsThatTravel, featuring solo female travel guides, honest advice and real life-stories from women on the road.
Read more for their insider tips.
Tourist Trap to Avoid
Gemma and Sarah both agree that Oxford Street can be missed. Gemma says “it’s long, congested, and full of hawkers selling emoji poop cushions and shops you could find anywhere. It’s a stress-inducing mix of drifting tourists holding up exasperated Londoners.”
Sarah would also give Madame Tussauds (the famous waxworks museum) a pass, due to the long queues. She suggests pottering around Notting Hill or Hampstead to look out for a real celebrity instead.
Tourist Trap That’s Actually Really Cool
Sarah admits that The Shard — the tallest building in western Europe, at nearly 310 meters (or about 1,017 feet) — is actually really impressive. “It’s definitely worth the trip to the top to see 360-degree views, especially at sunset," she says. "I’d choose this over the London Eye,” the city’s immensely popular city Ferris wheel.
However, she suggests you save yourself some pounds on the pricey ticket and visit one of The Shard’s six restaurants for a drink instead. “You still get an amazing view and you can enjoy incredible London views with a cocktail in hand.”
As for Gemma, she loves the tourist-friendly Natural History Museum. “The architecture of the building is just gorgeous, and the entrance is super impressive.” She also likes going in the winter for the magical outdoor ice rink, where you can sip wine and listen to live music.
Best Fancy Dining
Both Sarah and Gemma think that London has an amazing array of first-rate restaurants. Sarah recently visited Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden — one of London’s best new restaurants. “The food was absolutely spectacular and it’s got a great little cocktail bar downstairs. It’s definitely my new favorite.” Her tip is to look at websites like Bookatable Star Deals to get discounts from some of the top restaurants in town.
Gemma likes to go to Oxo Tower restaurant. She says “it’s a really special place with amazing views and excellent service. For me, the views and atmosphere are better than The Shard.”
Best Cheap and Greasy Dining
Gemma loves Brick Lane — famous for its Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. “It may be popular with tourists,” she notes, “but if you go on a weeknight you can always negotiate for a free glass of wine and some poppadoms, as the competition is so fierce between each of the restaurants.” Her favorite place on Brick Lane is City Spice.
Brick Lane is in the city’s East End, which Sarah singles out for superb cheap eats throughout. The area’s food, she says, is “great for when you’ve had a few too many the night before.” For a proper East Ender experience, she suggests E. Pellicci. “They once counted the famous gangsters, the Kray twins, as customers.”
Best Cup of Joe
Gemma and Sarah agree that there’s no shortage of amazing coffee shops around London.
Gemma says “Prufrock on Leather Lane is buzzing on a weekday with busy media folk getting their flat white fix.” She adds that this part of London, with its bustling street food market alongside hardware shops and clothes stalls, “still feels authentic to me.”
Sarah loves Aussie cafe Brickwood Coffee & Bread. In addition to an excellent assortment of espresso drinks and teas, “It does amazing banana bread with espresso butter." When she’s in Central London and in need of a caffeine kick, she makes a beeline for Monmouth in Covent Garden or Borough Market. The cafe serves a fine assortment of coffees from Brazil, Ethiopia, Costa Rica and beyond.
Best Glass of Wine
Sarah likes the wine bar at Bedales, which boasts branches in Borough Market, Leadenhall Markets and Spitalfields. “They have loads of wines from all over the world to choose from, and tasty platters of cheese.”
Gemma suggests getting tipsy at the highly Instagrammable East London institute, Sagar + Wilde, on Hackney Road. “There is such a nice atmosphere, you won’t want to leave. But luckily, they serve snacks too.”
Sarah doesn’t mince words: “London is easily one of the best cities in the world for cocktails.” Her favorite places to go are The London Cocktail Club in Leicester Square, prohibition-themed Nightjar in Shoreditch and espresso/cocktail bar Grind & Co in Covent Garden. She particularly likes espresso martinis, which can be found throughout the city.
Gemma’s favorite cocktail, "Death in Venice" — featuring campari with grapefruit bitters, topped with prosecco and a tangy orange twist — is mixed and served at 69 Colebrooke Row. At this tiny cocktail bar in Angel, “The waiters wear lab coats and the vibe is 1930s speakeasy. Sometimes there’s a pianist tinkling away in the corner. It’s the perfect date night spot.”
Best Spot for a Daytrip
Gemma thinks the historic genteel city of Cambridge, about an hour and a half outside London, is the best for a daytrip. She suggests wandering the pristine campuses of the University of Cambridge’s colleges, then hopping aboard a punt boat. Tours of the River Cam are often led by students, and you’ll learn the history of the Mathematical Bridge and hear tales of famous university alumni. “It's potluck as to how good your guide is,” she explains, “but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.”
Sarah, on the other hand, loves Brighton, also about an hour and a half away. “It’s a really colorful, coastal city that always has a great vibe.” She enjoys just wandering around the maze of shops in The Lanes and along the seafront. Her favorite part of the city is the North Laine, where “there are loads of nice pubs, quirky shops and independent cafes.”
Best Live Music Venue
Gemma likes to go to the Roundhouse in Camden, because “it’s small enough to feel intimate, but big enough to get some great bands like First Aid Kit and Lykke Li.” She also likes the Moth Club (part live music venue, part military veterans club) in Hackney. She says “it’s great for up-and-coming artists, such as Haley Bonar and Miles Kane.”
Sarah prefers Brixton Academy. “They always have great names and you can have a bite to eat at Brixton Village beforehand.” The best act she saw there was Chvrches. “Lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice is incredible and they put on a really good show.” She also likes to visit Piano Works in Farringdon — a non-stop live music bar where the audience decides the playlist.
Best Place for Perusing Art
Sarah really likes the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. “No matter how many times I visit, there is always something new to see,” she says. She also recommends exploring the street art around Shoreditch for something a little different. “It’s a great way to discover new areas and you can spot all kinds of colorful murals and graffiti art, including Banksy.”
Gemma thinks the Royal College of Art’s secret postcard exhibition, held once a year in Battersea, is an ideal place to check out London talent. “You register, browse the postcard designs, then buy your favorites for £45 each. You don’t find out who the artist is until you receive your card and look at the signature on the back.” Previous featured artists have included David Bowie, Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin and David Bailey.
Hippest Shop in Town
Gemma can’t get enough of the cute objects at the Triangle on Chatsworth Road in Hackney. It was set up by three friends and sells everything from clothing to candles. “It feels perfectly curated yet affordable. I personally love the simple necklaces.”
Sarah actually prefers London’s markets to its shops, if she’s looking for something unique. “The hippest places can usually be found the farther east you get,” she says. Her favorite is Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool St. Station. “It’s packed with independent designer and boutique shops. You can walk to Brick Lane from here easily too, which is great for vintage shopping.”
Best (and Worst) Month in the City
Sarah’s favorite time is summer. “Like most cities, London comes alive in summer. Suddenly, all London’s green spaces (and pub gardens!) fill up with people enjoying the sun.” She loves going to places such as Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, or biking around Richmond Park.
Gemma, meanwhile, loves London in May. “The city is finally warm after a long winter and everything blooms into life again.” Both women agree that their least favorite months are January and February, because they’re usually very cold, dull and rainy.
Best Place to Learn Local History
Sarah says the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum are must-sees, but she notes that you can also discover history by simply wandering the city streets and stopping at interesting buildings.
She also recommends taking one of London’s best walking tours — that of 17th century diarist and civil servant Samuel Pepys. “His firsthand accounts of the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666 still bring 17th century London vividly to life,” she says. And the gory Jack The Ripper tours to discover London’s darkest past are a chilling good time.
Gemma, meanwhile, thinks nothing beats The Museum of London for a comprehensive, tangible history of the city. “There you can sit in a medieval house, experience the Great Fire of London and walk down a street from during Charles Dickens’ day,” she exclaims.
Weirdest Spot in Town
“Take a walk around Soho,” says Sarah. “I’m sure you’ll come across something weird!”
Gemma says that one of her most unusual experiences was dining at Dans le Noir in Clerkenwell. “You eat in complete darkness, so that your other senses are heightened. Once is probably enough, but it’s definitely a unique, memorable experience.”
Why London is Objectively the Best City on Planet Earth
Sarah and Gemma agree that London has everything you could ever want, and enthusiastically list its culture, history, diversity, world-class restaurants and beautiful architecture as reasons they love it. Sarah says “there are so many different areas, each with their own distinct personality, and there is always something new to do — even when you’re a born and bred Londoner.”
Gemma says the people are great, too. While Londoners may have a reputation for being grumpy, she notes that “everyone is pretty friendly really, once you get to talking to them.”