Last year, I started off January of 2020 with a trip to London. While that's crazy to think about now, I thought it would be nice to write this post both to look back on and give us hope for 2021, with hopes for travel to return in the future. With London under a tough lockdown and going through a rough time with COVID, I thought I'd write this as an ode to one of my favorite cities in the world.
I've visited London a few times, though most of those have been when I was a child. While this city holds a sense of nostalgia for me, it was a very different experience visiting it as a 22 year old and viewing it through the lens of a young adult rather than a child. Everything felt new but familiar at the same time, and it did feel a bit like I was exploring London for the first time again.
London is an incredible city, and it doesn't feel as though it really needs a preface. There were some things I noticed about London though, that I hadn't when I was younger. For one, it felt much more modern and advanced than most major US cities. It's a huge metropolis, but unique in its own way and very different from the rest of Britain in that it is very progressive and fast-paced (not to say that other places in the UK aren't progressive, just a generalization I've noticed). There is obviously no shortage of things to do here, so make sure to take the time before your trip to prioritize what you'd like to see. London's food and drink scene is one of the best in the world, so if that is a priority to you then take the time to research where you'd like to go beforehand and make your reservations early. London has so much to offer, don't limit yourself to just the tourist areas! I stayed at the Duke's Room & Bar in Marylebone, which was a very traditionally British, old bed and breakfast. I recommend staying somewhere central, preferably in Zone 1, especially if you're staying for a short amount of time.
You'll probably fly into London, and which airport you fly into definitely matters. If you're coming from the States you'll most likely fly into Heathrow, but if you're coming from Europe, you'll have plenty of options for cheap London-area airports to fly into (I believe there are 7?). Most of these airports are pretty far from the city, and unless you're down for a 2 hour bus ride into London, I highly recommend flying into Gatwick. Unlike some of the other airports that are further out, Gatwick has a train station inside the airport with a train that will take you directly to London Victoria Station in 30 minutes. This just saves you a ton of time and effort, and it's worth the few extra pounds. Flying into Stansted may seem cheaper, but once you factor in the transportation to and from the airport, it's not. London is a massive city, so you're going to want to take the Underground a lot. I recommend getting an Oyster card when you first get there and filling it up, since this will allow you to travel all over the city cheaply and see everything. Taxis can be quite expensive, and the London Underground is just genuinely really good and efficient (especially if you're coming from the US). If you're coming from another UK city, there are plenty of great high-speed trains that will take you there quickly.
London Eye. This iconic London attraction is probably on everyone's list, but when in London I think it's a great experience! Buy tickets online ahead of time to save time, and get a skip-the-line ticket if you can! They come with extra perks and only cost a little bit more. Price: £24.50.
Trafalgar Square. This iconic square in front of The National Gallery is a must-see. The fountain and statues create a nice atmosphere, and it's a great place to hangout on a sunny day.
Tower of London. To get a real feel of the history of old London, plan a visit to the Tower of London. The name may be deceiving though, instead of being simply a tower it's an entire palatial complex with multiple towers and outposts, an old fortress. As you wander through the grounds and climb up the towers, you will continue to learn more about the history of the place, which is always good to know when visiting a new place. Plan to spend plenty of time here - the place is big! Buy tickets ahead of time. Price: £25.
Tower Bridge. The iconic "London Bridge" is just outside the Tower of London, and a great place to visit after you go to the Tower. You can get a great view of it from just outside the Tower, and you can walk across it to the other side for excellent panoramic views of the city. There are some nice restaurants on the other side of the Bridge, so walk across here before your next meal!
Buckingham Palace. This one is obviously a bit self-explanatory, but a visit to the Queen's working palace is essential part of any London trip. I have never been inside, but I have seen the changing of the guards, which is a classic London experience. It is expensive to schedule a visit inside and I don't know how difficult it is to get tickets, so I don't know if I'd recommend it or not. Just stop by outside the palace and take a look! Price: £26.50 (for a tour of the inside).
London has an incredible food scene, and you'll never run out of places to try here. You can get food from almost any country in the world, and it's a great city for vegans and vegetarians. Where you eat will probably depend a bit on where you're staying, so if you're trying to spend more time in Shoreditch, I'd recommend staying somewhere nearby. The city is really big, so if food's a priority, stay somewhere not too far from the places you want to try.
Mews of Mayfair. This cozy, upscale brunch spot is located in Mayfair, a trendy neighborhood in SoHo. Great for brunch or nice cocktails, the food is excellent quality. *Make a res*.
SushiSamba Heron Tower. This upscale sushi spot is well-known for it's incredible views over London. It's definitely got more of a club-y vibe, if that's your thing. It's at the top of the Heron Tower, so the views are insane, which is part of what you're paying for here. The food is great, and they had plenty of options for legitimately good vegetarian sushi that I loved. *Make a res*.
Daisy Green Food. While I only came here for a quick coffee and a pastry, I've heard incredible things about this place. It's a highly recommended brunch spot, which I've been told is amazing. Great atmosphere and great coffee.
Sketch Gallery. You may have heard of Sketch, it's THE place to go for the ultimate afternoon tea experience. And an experience is what it is, the entire restaurant is beautiful and unique, filled with interesting art. I would describe the vibe as Alice in Wonderland? It's become very trendy though, so make a reservation a month or two in advance for the full experience. I stated that I was vegetarian and they were super accommodating. *Make a res*.
Inamo. Cool Asian-fusion restaurant with tapas-style dishes. The tables are basically an interactive touch-screen menu, so you can order your food that way and keep ordering as much as you want, which is pretty cool! The food is great too.
Farm Girl. This breakfast and brunch spot is on the healthier side, which is always great while traveling. They have a few locations throughout the city, so it's easy to get to depending on where you're staying. Great coffee, and great toasts and breakfast bowls.
Comptoir Libanais. Some of the best food I've had in London (like, ever), this Lebanese spot has incredible food. They have a couple different locations, so make it a point to come here if you're a fan of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food like I am. Get one of their sharing platters and share with your travel buddy!
You can find a bit of everything in London's nightlife. Whatever you're looking for, they probably have it. While the UK is well-known for it's pub culture, and that's absolutely something you should experience, London has plenty of different and interesting experiences. I was only here for a weekend, but I'm hoping to be back soon (once travel is safe again) to create more of a guide specifically to London nightlife. Here are a few of my recommendations for unique bars that will give you a sense of the city's history and culture, but again, this is absolutely not exhaustive and there is so much more to experience.
Churchill Arms. This old pub is modeled and decorated after London's Churchill War Rooms, which makes for an interesting and historical drinking experience. It's located in Notting Hill, and is a great spot to have a pint and experience the local pub culture.
Gordon's Wine Bar. Established in 1890, London's oldest wine bar is located in an underground cave. Quite an awesome experience. The entire cave is lit solely by candlelit, which makes for a cozy, intimate experience. The wine and cheese is all incredible, just ask the bartender what they recommend. Great place to come on a date.
The Alchemist. This creative cocktail bar creates potion-like drinks. Each drink is named after a chemical element, and the drinks are fully artistic presentations, each with specific instructions. Super cool experience that I can't recommend enough!
Booking Office at St. Pancras Hotel. Built inside of an old train station, this upscale hotel features this incredible cocktail bar with amazing architecture. Once the original St. Pancras Station ticketing office, it's been transformed into a really cool spot.
London has so much to offer, and it really does have a bit of everything. It can be quite expensive to visit, but is absolutely worth it if you get the chance. Like I've said before, this is absolutely not an exhaustive list of things to do. These are just a few things to do based off of my own recommendations, since I only spent a weekend there most recently. Seek the advice of your friends who've been/lived there, and ask them for recommendations! This guide is great for if you have very limited time in London, but if you have more time, there's so, so much more to see. I hope you enjoyed, and here's to a brighter 2021!
For more pictures of London, check out my Flickr.