London, Greater London Travel Guide
- Tons of historic sights including Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London
- Gorgeous Georgian, Victorian, and Gothic architecture
- Worldly megalopolis with a welcoming vibe; multi-cultural and LGBT-friendly
- Rich arts scene includes free entry to lots of museums, galleries, and libraries
- Diverse dining scene from tasty street-food markets to swanky fine-dining restaurants
- Top-notch drinking spots include quaint pubs, speakeasies, nightclubs, and pop-up bars
- Efficient transportation system includes underground, buses, black cabs, and Boris Bikes
- River Thames running through the heart of the city for riverside walks
- Even in the center, green spaces include Royal Parks and leafy squares
- Some of Europe’s best shopping, from buzzing markets to flagship designer stores
- Year-round calendar of live music, sports, and food-focused events
- Easy access to other European cities via the Eurostar and five major airports
- Extremely expensive, from food to hotels and transportation
- Central London traffic is unforgiving
- Super-touristy in spots and crowded -- particularly in summer months
- Spread-out attractions mean it’s not always walkable
- Gloomy and rainy days
What It's Like
England’s capital brims with charm and history. Founded by the Romans as Londinium, its centuries-old landmarks -- Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London -- are instantly recognizable the world over. At almost every turn, there are examples of the city’s traditional identity, like quaint pubs, beefeaters, and the omnipresent shade of fire-engine red that's everywhere from public phone booths to mailboxes and buses.
But this city, which began life as a square mile enclosed within ancient walls, doesn’t rest on its quintessential British traditions. Today’s London is a vast megalopolis of 33 boroughs, packed with enough to keep visitors busy for days on end. It’s one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities and a multicultural haven (one in three London residents hail from overseas). with a socially welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. And alongside the historic tourist areas there are urban and eclectic neighborhoods, trend-setting restaurants, and forward-thinking attractions. Sure, it’s super-touristy and busy, but for many tourists this adds to its vibrancy.
Travelers wanting to take in all of the main sights will need to travel on the city’s vast public transportation network. The underground is the most efficient way to get around, but it can be unbearably crowded (avoid rush hours when it’s packed with commuters) and expensive when compared to other world capitals. Overground, there are the classic London buses and black cabs, river boats, and a public bike-renting system (popularly known as Boris Bikes after the former London mayor that implemented the scheme). It’s easy to reach mainland Europe from London, too, via one of the five major airports, or the Eurostar from gloriously grand St. Pancras Station.
Gothic architecture dominates the most iconic attractions, but there are gorgeous examples of the Georgian and Victorian eras too (we'd prefer to skip the Modernist buildings on the Southbank -- though some travelers might find an austere appeal in them). The residential roads are equally photo-worthy, with grand Victorian villas, pastel-hued townhouses, and charming little mews houses sprawling in nearly every direction. Spring visits are particularly delightful, when the trees are in full bloom. England’s most exclusive addresses can be found in the Kensington area, with its regal millionaire -- and billionaire -- Victorian homes.
While London’s buildings have impressed for centuries, the same can’t be said for the food, with high-carb, low-flavor dishes dominating for years. However, in the past few decades the metropolis has worked hard to earn a reputation for superb cuisine. Today, London’s culinary scene is top-notch and diverse; visitors will find sprawling markets dedicated to tasty Asian and Mexican street food, excellent curry houses (check out Brick Lane for proof), and some of the world’s swankiest fine-dining venues. Afternoon tea in a landmark London hotel is a must. Drinking is also big business in London, with quaint pubs, speakeasies, rooftop gardens, and pop-up bars competing for coveted pounds sterling. As revelers pour out of these establishments at closing time, they often make their way onto one of the city's legendary late-night clubs. In fact, even the nightlife in London is diverse, and includes gay-friendly areas like Soho.
London has a rich arts culture and entry is free to many iconic libraries, galleries, and museums. From timeless pieces housed in landmark buildings like the Natural History Museum, to contemporary collections at the Tate Modern and cutting-edge exhibitions along the Southbank, art is accessible and appreciated in all forms. Even street art has its place. Live music is also a wildly diverse scene in London, with up-and-coming acts and big-name artists playing pubs and clubs in neighborhoods like edgy Camden. For the biggest concerts, there’s O2 Arena in southeast London.
The West End is England’s miniature Broadway. Victorian and Edwardian theaters are centered on The Strand and Covent Garden, showing the latest high-grossing musicals alongside independent plays. Though not the birthplace of Shakespeare, London is also home to The Globe -- a modern reconstruction of the original Elizabethan playhouse. Summer in the city brings a world of pop-ups; every outdoor space is occupied as urban rooftops and riverside gardens transformed into temporary theaters and cinemas. Just be prepared for the high chance of rain -- weather is not one of London's strong suits, after all.
For shopaholics, there’s Oxford Street; the most-visited shopping street in Europe, home to flagship branches of Topshop and Marks & Spencer. Around the corner, the mock-Tudor department store, Liberty London, is one of the capital’s loveliest shopping venues. Swanky Knightsbridge hosts Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, vintage goods galore can be bartered for in the offbeat markets around Camden and Portobello Road.
When it all gets a little hectic, breathing space comes courtesy of walks along the River Thames and through leafy parks. There are eight Royal Parks in the capital. Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, and St James’s Park can be found in the heart of the city, but it’s also worth venturing southeast to historic Greenwich Park, where you’ll find the Prime Meridian, Royal Observatory, and Greenwich Maritime World Heritage Site, as well as wonderful views over the River Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Londoners love their city, and you’ll likely be taking riverside strolls, watching the latest shows, and attending royal, sporting, and music events with just as many locals as tourists.
Where to Stay
A sprawling metropolis with a largely efficient public transport system, London’s choices of where to rest at night depend on the vibe that you're seeking -- and your budget. The central neighborhoods offer everything from modern skyscrapers to boutique townhouses, big-name chain hotels, and even a few hostels. The size of the city means that travelers should choose their location carefully -- a London address could well be more than an hour’s journey from the main attractions.
For many tourists and theater-goers in particular, the hotels around Covent Garden fit the bill. It's centrally located near great attractions, bars, and restaurants. Other well-regarded and especially scenic areas include Notting Hill and lesser-known Fitzrovia. If budget isn’t an issue, some of the world’s most exclusive grand-dame hotels are in Belgravia, Mayfair, and Knightsbridge, playing host to society’s finest over the years (including The Royal Family). Travelers wanting to be closer to the city's hip spots might opt for a hotel in Camden or Shoreditch, whereas if you’re traveling for business, check your options in The City or Westminster.