Planning a trip to London and looking for some fun and authentic things to do? In fact there are lots of attractions in London that the locals enjoy just as much as the visitors. So here are 10 quintessential London experiences, from riding a bus past world famous sights to chinking afternoon tea cups or popping into a pub. Make a note so that you can enjoy your next visit to the UK’s capital city just like a Londoner.
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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. 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. I’ve a confession here – I didn’t bother with buses for years and either walked, tube’d or taxi’ed around town. But there are some parts of central London where a bus is still best and I’ve resolved to do better. Click here for the Transport for London website for bus timetables and leisure routes that take in popular London sights.
Not only can it actually be fun to catch a bus, you might also find yourself on an historic and Instagrammable Routemaster. On weekends and Bank Holidays between April and September the classic old Routemasters ply their trade on Route 15 between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill. It just happens to be a great sightseeing route too.
Alternatively click here to book a tour in an open-topped classic London Routemaster bus .
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 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. But, for an even better view of London plus a fascinating exhibition, it’s worth paying to enter the Bridge buildings. Visitors who cross on the walkway 42 metres above the river also get a bird’s eye view through the glass floor panels. Try to visit when the bridge is lifting, click here for a timetable.
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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. You can take afternoon tea in an opulent hotel (with champagne included), in an historic museum, on a Thames river cruise, or even on a London bus.
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 in lovely rooms. But the Victoria and Albert museum in Kensington has taken it one step further by recreating the Victorian menu enjoyed by Queen Victoria. It is served in the historic Morris Room, by reservation only.
Watch the Queen’s Guards change on the Mall
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the top tourist sights in London. However it’s so popular that it can be hard to see through the crowds, especially in peak season. Take a tip from us 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. And right on the Circus itself is Topshop – fashion HQ for pretty much every London teen.
FOR INSIDER TIPS ON WHERE TO BUY THE BEST LONDON GIFTS AND SOUVENIRS THAT YOU’LL TREASURE FOR YEARS, CLICK HERE
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. Especially at the end of the day before the homebound commute.
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. You’ll find that versions and price points vary, from basic to gourmet, at pubs around the capital.
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 Queen’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.
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 became world renowned after Hugh Grant took a stroll through the market 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, Camden market 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.
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 a London village
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. Some of them are worth a day trip in their own right. In many cases they are centuries old villages that have grown and prospered around the edge of the metropolis.
Hampstead in North London has lovely urban lanes to explore with enviable period houses and pubs. 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.
Tennis enthusiasts will know all about Wimbledon, home of the Championships, possibly 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, have a drink at the Rose and Crown – 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.
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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.
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10 London Experiences
FOR MORE IDEAS FOR YOUR NEXT VISIT TO LONDON read our post on 105 Things to Do in London with Teens. Or try our Itinerary for 2 Days in London.
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