Searching for some real non-touristy things to do in London? Here’s a Londoner’s guide to the best fun and authentic London experiences that locals enjoy just as much as visitors do. Add these to your itinerary and you’ll save some money and feel like you live here. Bookmark this post and enjoy your next visit to the UK’s capital city just like a Londoner. Updated 2023
This post contains affiliate links, this means that I may receive a commission at no cost to you if you click a link and make a purchase. As always all opinions are my own.
Ride on a London bus
The iconic bright red London buses are a cheap and efficient way to get around town and see the sights at the same time. Londoners use them every day so this is one of the most non-touristy things to do in London. But the bus timetables aren’t as straightforward as the London Underground map. Many tourists think it will be too difficult and so miss out on the chance to experience London transport the way Londoners do. But there are some parts of central London where a bus is best! Click here for the Transport for London website for bus timetables and leisure routes that take in popular London sights.
Walk across Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge is the grandest of the London bridges. It’s a bascule-operated roadway that opens to let tall ships pass up or down the Thames. And it was a symbol of the London Olympics in 2012 that was beamed around the world. Not only is it stunning in its own right but it stands right next to another London icon, The Tower of London.
You can simply cross Tower Bridge for free on the pavements that flank the road. It’s an everyday London experience for thousands of commuters making it a real non-touristy thing to do. Londoners and river users also know that the bridge lifts regularly, often several times a day. This makes for a great photo opportunity so don’t miss out – click here and you’ll find the schedule for bridge lifts during your stay.
For an even better view of London plus a fascinating exhibition, it’s worth paying to enter the Tower Bridge exhibition. Visitors who cross on the walkway 42 metres above the river also get a bird’s eye view through the glass floor panels.
While you’re in this part of town you can explore some of the sights south of the river. Follow the riverside walk to the west, passing London Bridge. In this area you’ll see the free to enter Tate Modern gallery which exhibits contemporary art from around the world. It’s close to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and Borough Market with its street food stalls. This South Bank district is very popular with Londoners and you’ll find lots of restaurants, bars and cafes here too.
If you continue walking west you’ll eventually reach Westminster Bridge with its fabulous view of Big Ben. The London Eye is stationed here too. The walk from Tower Bridge to Westminster Bridge on the south side of the Thames takes around an hour. Or you could take a boat ride instead! The Thames Clipper runs a regular boat bus service up and down the river. You’ll find piers at Tower Bridge and Westminster Bridge.
Like this post? Please pin this to save and share to Pinterest
Take afternoon tea
Afternoon tea is a uniquely British affair. It was invented in the 1840s by an aristocrat, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford. We can all identify with that peckish feeling around 4pm and we have Anna to thank for doing something about it. She invited her society friends to join her for light refreshments in the afternoon. It soon became a fashionable social event in London drawing rooms and an excuse for ladies to dress up in their best gowns and hats.
Nowadays it seems that every hotel and cafe in central London has jumped on the bandwagon. Some are excellent, some are not, so I’ve been carefully searching the most up to date reviews to find some excellent options. To help you choose here are two well-reviewed – and very different! – afternoon tea experiences in London.
The Rubens at the Palace hotel, is as the name suggests very handy for Buckingham Palace. It also does a traditional and elegant afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and pretty pastries. It gets excellent reviews. Click here to book the Rubens afternoon tea with an optional champagne upgrade!
Alternatively, consider taking afternoon tea whilst viewing the London sights from a Pedicab. These electrically assisted E-trikes are an environmentally friendly, fun way to get around town. Your driver picks you up from Brigit’s Bakery in Covent Garden and pedals you around the major sights of London whilst you nibble on delicious sandwiches, cakes and pastries. It has wonderful reviews: click here to read them and to book an Afternoon Tea bike tour.
For a super indulgent treat I love afternoon tea at the Hotel Cafe Royal on Regent Street. It’s welcoming, intimate and luxurious at the same time. You’ll want to dress up to match the gilded and mirrored Oscar Wilde Lounge, named after the playwright who once held court there.
Many of London’s free museums offer afternoon tea. At the British Museum it is served in the restaurant under the fabulous sweeping ceiling of the Great Court. Or visit the three gloriously decorated historic cafe rooms at the Victoria and Albert museum in Kensington. They are the perfect place to take tea and cake in a piece of living history.
Watch the King’s Guards change on the Mall
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the top tourist sights in London. And although I’ve lived in London all my adult life I still love to catch a glimpse of the marching bands and parading soldiers on horseback whenever I’m in the right part of town.
However it’s so popular that it can be hard to see through the crowds, especially in peak season. So take a tip from me and position yourself en route to watch the Guards approach or leave the Palace. At Wellington Barracks, St James’s Palace or along The Mall you can watch the marching bands or mounted Guards pass by. It will save you waiting for ages at the Palace gates. Check the official website here for more details.
Or, to be sure you don’t miss the best bits of this colourful, traditional ceremony, click here to book a walking tour that keeps pace with the soldiers as they march down The Mall.
Go shopping at Oxford Circus
Some people love to shop when they’re visiting a city – others don’t! But London does have some of the best shopping in the world. Londoners have a love/hate relationship with the area around Oxford Circus. It’s always busy, the tube is no fun at rush hour, but it is also home to the shops we love. The beautiful black and white timbered storefront of up-scale Liberty is just a few steps along Regent Street. I love its Arts and Crafts interior and imaginative edit of furniture, rugs and accessories.
Grand dame department store, Selfridges, with its world-class fashion and beauty floors, lies west along Oxford street. The John Lewis flagship store, every Londoner’s stand-by for stylish, reliable homewares, fabric, children’s clothes – well, everything! – is just a couple of minutes away.
With Oxford Circus as a base you can stroll along Oxford Street to Selfridges and Bond Street’s exclusive ateliers. Or head south down Regent Street and dip into the hip independent stores of Soho.
Visit a traditional London pub
The first inns arrived in Britain with the Romans. The British pub or ‘public house’ has been going strong ever since and for centuries has been licensed to sell beer and other alcoholic drinks. Popping into the pub for a ‘swift half’ (half a pint of beer or lager) is still a regular London experience for many office workers before the homebound commute. And a pint in a cosy pub is a quintessential city experience, especially on a London winter night.
London has literally hundreds of pubs and some are so old that Charles Dickens, even William Shakespeare, may have drunk there. For a glimpse of a real Victorian pub take a look at the highly ornate Princess Louise in Holborn. Or enjoy the grand interiors of The Punchbowl in Farm Street, Mayfair.
A pub is also a good place to try a traditional London lunch like bangers (sausage) and mash, steak pie or fish and chips.
Or better still, pick a pub that gets great reviews for its Sunday roast lunch. It’ll be packed with Londoners! You’ll find price points vary, from basic to gourmet, at pubs around the capital. This is one of the best non-touristy things to do in London on a rainy Sunday!
Take a Boat Ride
Thames Clipper runs a regular river bus service back and forth along the Thames between Barking in the east to Battersea or Putney in the west. You’ll spot the piers along the river sides where you can catch a boat. Commuters use the boats just as much as visitors and it’s a scenic way to get from A to B! Find out more about the river buses here.
Visit a World-class Museum for free
London’s museums and galleries are some of the best in the world. And there are plenty of them! Whatever your interests you’ll find a collection that catches your attention and even better, you can visit many of London’s museums for free.
From the mighty British Museum in Bloomsbury to the mysterious Roman Mithraeum in the City or the Big Three national museums in Kensington, you’ll find plenty of locals as well as visitors in the free museums in London.
Go for a walk in a London park
No matter where you are in London you’re never far from some mind-calming, leafy, free-access green space. Central London alone has no less than six major parks. Do try to visit at least one of them during your stay. Stroll through beautiful formal gardens, spot the ducks and geese on the lakes, rent a pedalo, or simply sit on a park bench with an ice-cream. These are the ones to look out for:
Regents Park The one with a zoo (although that does have a separate entrance fee) and bounded to the north by the Regent’s canal. See more than 12,000 roses in Queen Mary’s Gardens in early June, or hire a rowing boat on the lake.
Hyde Park One of the largest of the Royal Parks is also slap in the middle of London. Along with Green Park it is a venue for the Royal Gun Salutes on official occasions like the King’s birthday. You won’t always happen across the King’s Troop at full pelt, but don’t miss it if your visit coincides! It’s a little known ceremony full of pageantry and excitement as the Royal Horse Artillery gallop across the park and back to deliver the guns for the salute.
Kensington Gardens The one with all the associations with Princess Diana and my favourite of London’s parks. Home to Kensington Palace, the imaginative Princess Diana memorial playground, the Serpentine Gallery and the statue of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. It lies to the west and adjoins Hyde Park.
Holland Park Visit for its Japanese Kyoto gardens, the peacocks and open-air theatre in the summer.
Green Park A favourite lunchtime escape for office workers and handily adjacent to the Ritz hotel in Piccadilly. It was King Charles II’s hunting ground in the 17th century. Rumour has it that his wife banned flower beds after catching Charles picking flowers there for another woman!
St James Park Catch glimpses of the traditional comings and goings of the Queen’s Guard as they ride up and down the Mall for the Changing the Guard ceremony. Lovely stripey deckchairs to hire too.
Battersea Park Just south of the river from Chelsea, this is very much a local’s park and a favourite of mine too. Check out the Pear Tree Cafe by the boating lake, which is a great place for coffee on a sunny weekday and not at all touristy. It does get very busy on summer weekends though, especially when there’s live music. It’s a 25 minute walk from Sloane Square over Chelsea Bridge.
Enjoy a free view of London
The Sky Garden was a bit of a London secret when it first opened – but this is no longer the case. However, you can still get a free grandstand view of the Thames, St Pauls and the Tower of London as long as you book 2 or 3 weeks in advance. The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street is on the 35th to 37th floors at the top of the building known to Londoners as the walkie talkie, thanks to its peculiar shape.
Aim to go early to avoid the crowds or, to side step the advance booking altogether, reserve a table for breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants. This obviously adds an additional cost to the view but you can weigh this up against the price of views of London from tourist attractions like the London Eye and the Shard.
As an alternative you can enjoy another free view, loved by Londoners, from Primrose Hill. This is an particularly non-touristy thing to do in London as you’ll be sharing the hillside with locals from this very upmarket neighbourhood. Primrose Hill is a Grade 2 listed park and the top of the hill has one of the six protected viewpoints in London. You’ll enjoy panoramic views across Regent’s Park and out to the city skyline.
Browse the market stalls at Portobello or Camden
London’s famous markets are vibrant, colourful affairs much loved by film makers. In West London, Portobello road market became world renowned after Hugh Grant took a stroll through the stalls in Notting Hill. Visit it for quirky gifts and antiques as well as a delicious variety of places to eat. Saturday is the busiest when the Antiques Arcades are open, Friday is good for vintage clothing and accessories.
Hip and unconventional, the market in Camden Town lies to the north of Regent’s Park. It’s actually a collection of markets in the old stable buildings around the Regent’s canal. Famous for crafts, bric a brac, music and fast food, the Camden market complex can keep you entertained for hours.
Check out London’s Coolest Neighbourhoods
New generations bring new cool areas! Chelsea and Kensington were hip back in the 1960s, but nowadays are more luxury than arty. Today the coolest neighbourhoods in London are to the East as the new generations have pushed out from the centre of London in search of cheaper rents and warehouse spaces.
Hackney Wick with its canalside location, Dalston, Clapton and Walthamstow are all artsy areas to explore. You’ll find indie stores, drip coffee, craft beer, galleries and thrift shops aplenty. Shoreditch is the place for nightlife. These are all non-touristy neighbourhoods in London that’ll give you a taste of what it’s like to live here.
Watch a game of cricket
The rules may be obscure but there’s something quintessentially British about a cricket match. And where better to watch one than Lord’s Cricket Ground, the original home of the game. An all day match might be a bit much if you’ve never watched cricket before. But for a sports fan a T20 or Twenty20 is a shortened version, easier to follow and lots of fun on a summer evening. There may be a serious air about the rows of business shirted spectators in the Members’ stand but the rest of the crowd is family friendly and relaxed. Cheer for the batsmen when they heroically hit 6s, applaud the bowlers who craftily send the bails flying to take a wicket, then raise a glass of Pimm’s to a fine old British sporting tradition.
Explore London’s villages
If you have a half day to spare you might like to hop onto a train or tube and visit one of London’s suburban neighbourhoods. This is a particularly non-touristy thing to do in London and will give you a real sense of life as a Londoner.
Some of London’s villages are worth a day trip in their own right. In many cases they are centuries old and have grown and prospered around the edge of the metropolis.
North London Villages
Hampstead in North London has lovely urban lanes to explore with enviable period houses and pubs. Plus it has Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of woodland and meadows with swimming ponds too.
On the other side of the Heath is Highgate Village where you’ll find pretty historic buildings, lovely Waterlow Park and Highgate Cemetery, the resting place of Karl Marx.
Or, even closer to central London, pay a visit to Little Venice. This pretty canalside district has waterside cafes and pubs, houseboats and Regency villas and you can walk or take a narrowboat trip from here to Camden market.
South London Villages
Richmond to the south overlooks the river Thames. On a sunny day you could have lunch at a waterside pub like The White Cross. Afterwards go for a walk in Henry VIII’s Richmond Park where deer still roam the 2500 acres.
Or instead go to neighbouring Kew Gardens, a 300 acre botanical garden and UNESCO world heritage site. Explore the Victorian glass houses, climb the Chinese Pagoda or take a walking tour as an introduction to the vast collections of plants and trees. If you visit in November or December don’t miss the chance to see the Christmas at Kew evening light trail – a magical walk through the gardens with over a million lights twinkling around you.
Tennis enthusiasts will know all about Wimbledon, home of the Championships, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. But Wimbledon village in south west London is worth a visit all year round. Browse the pretty boutiques, visit a cafe, have a drink at one of the pubs – you could even stay the night – then set off along the leafy pathways to walk or picnic on the Common. This huge stretch of public land has woods, ponds, a cafe and even a historic windmill to visit.
If you don’t have time to explore further afield, areas like Mayfair, Soho, Islington and Notting Hill still have a ‘village’ feel. Take a guidebook – or a guide! – to dig deeper into the rich history of these centuries old communities.
LOOKING FOR HOTELS IN LONDON? To browse a selection of hotels and apartments in London from Booking.com click here. You can set the filters you prefer then scroll through images and reviews to find the accommodation that suits you best.
Please note that all visitor information here is for guidance only. Please check the venues’ websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
HERE’S A SELECTION OF LONDON TICKETS AND TOURS FROM GET YOUR GUIDE
What to read next
Visit London in Winter and enjoy it like a Londoner, with fewer crowds and plenty to entertain you.
For more inspiration on things to do in London read our post on 105 Things to Do in London with Teens.
And you must try our Itinerary for 2 Days in London.
Check out some of London’s fabulous free museums.
If you’re planning a visit to Kensington do factor in time for a quick drink or a bite to eat at a local pub.
If you’re looking for a day trip from London, Windsor could be just the ticket! Don’t miss the spectacular and free to visit Windsor Long Walk. Then afterwards stop off for lunch or a drink in an historic Windsor pub.
Like this post? Please pin this to save and share to Pinterest
All photos are all rights reserved. Please do not reproduce these photos without prior written permission