The best things to see and do in London
I spent one year living in Kingston Upon the Thames during university. But I’ve never been very acquainted with London. Yet it’s the city that everyone talks about, the one that everyone wants to live in, and the one where most Europeans tend to flock to for university or work (at least till now). I hadn’t been in London since 2012, and to be completely honest, I had little interest in visiting it. My friend Claudia still holds a grudge against me for never visiting her after I left! So you can imagine her reaction when I told her I’d visit in July, exactly two weeks after she had moved away!
But there’s a reason! In the past year, my boyfriend Luca and I have been giving each other weekend getaways as gifts. And since his mother had rented a house in London in July to brush up on her English skills, he decided we should go ahead and tag along. And tag along we did! He got me tickets and we flew off to London on the 19th of July. We were supposed to leave on the 22nd, but left on the 23rd, more on that later… So if you’re a first-timer to London, or you’ve been there a couple of times and want to have a great experience, keep reading. Here’s what to see, where to eat and where to drink in London!
What to see in London
London is one of the biggest and most densely populated cities on the planet. It’s a great thing that its transportation network is so extensive! I prefer not to spend too much time on buses or on the underground, but get closer to where I want to go and explore the city by foot! We walked on average 15km per day. So definitely pack a pair of comfy shoes to walk in! So, what are the must-sees in London? For a city that has changed so much in terms of new areas in the last 6 years, I can tell you there’s plenty to see.
It’s not just the monuments or the museums that are interesting to see, just walking through London’s neighbourhoods is something you should be doing. From Gothic Revival and Victorian architecture to Art Deco and skyscrapers, London’s eclectic architectural styles are surely one of the reasons it makes the city so diverse. As you probably know, London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, meaning you won’t find just one predominant architectural style in the city. So each area is different! Definitely don’t miss out on Covent Garden, one of those fairy tale like places that you see in postcards and just can’t wait to visit them. It’s located in London’s West End and it’s famous for its theaters, the Royal Opera House, restaurants and market. Just stroll by and breathe in that laid back atmosphere and see what you’re most interested in. For something super cute, head to Neal’s Yard, this secret garden inside Covent Garden filled with eateries and buzzing with people. You’ll surely fall in love with it.
If you’d like to get a glimpse of some of the richest neighbourhoods of London, then Kensington and Chelsea have got to be on your list. They’re known for their beautiful Victorian architecture, luxury cars and great upscale restaurants. If you want to grab a bite to eat for lunch or dinner, Bluebird (recommended by my friend Claudia) or The Ivy with its beautiful courtyard are a safe bet. Afterwards, head to Saatchi Gallery to explore their interesting art collection which frequently changes throughout the year.
For a “new piece of London” head to Cannary Wharf, which used to be the docks area of London. Now it’s been completely transformed, housing skyscraper offices, canals with restaurants, outdoor movie cinemas, tropical gardens and more. It’s really a great place to see the eclectic London I was talking about before. Another area to admire sckyscrapers and contemporary buildings like The Shard by Renzo Piano and City Hall by Norman Foster is the area close to London Bridge. For some of London’s most iconic and historic buildings, Southwark is where you need to go. From Borough Market – which is a foodie heaven – to Millennium bridge and the Globe Theater, there’s lots of that “old London” atmosphere that mixes with the “new London”.
Soho is definitely a must see with its charming Soho Square. It’s a bustling area with bars and restaurants, definitely a great place to grab drinks. For instagram-friendly pictures, Notting Hill and its famous Portobello market are not to miss! For a more hipster feel, Shoreditch is the go-to neighbourhood. Food, flowers and vintage markets, musicians playing and artists. But these are just some of the neighbourhoods. London is so vast and filled with different styles, not to mention its beautiful parks perfect for picnics, reading or just relaxing.
London’s must-visit museums
London’s museums are also spectacular, and most of them free. If you’re into modern and contemporary art, you can’t miss out on the Tate Modern on the South Bank. Just cross the famous Millennium Bridge and you’ll be right there. From Pollock and Warlhol to Picasso, Dali and Zmijewski, there’s plenty to see. It’s located in a former Bankside Power Station that opened in 1994 for the first time and is divided into seven floors. The main collection is displayed in four wings, each wing representing a specific theme. Two to four hours at this museum is a must if you’re into art!
Another must-see is the National Gallery, located in the heart of London in Trafalgar Square. It houses one of the greatest collections of paintings in the world. Exciting, right? It was founded in 1824 and holds a collection of over 2,300 artworks extending from the 13th century to the 19th century. Fun fact … the collection belongs to the people of the United Kingdom and is free of charge. In the collection you’ll find all of the most important traditions of Western European, from the late Italian medieval and Renaissance artists to the French Impressionists. Some of the most famous paintings on display include Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and one of Van Gogh’s four Sunflowers.
One that I haven’t visited on this trip but that I recommend is the British Museum. Situated in the central Bloomsbury area, it’s one of the oldest and most visited museums in the world showcasing more than 8 million works or art, artefacts and objects from different countries around the globe. The huge collection of the British Museum illustrates and documents the history of human culture from the very beginning to today. Since its opening in 1759, the collection has grown through the centuries as a result of the expanding British colonization. The whole collection is divided into continents but If you have limited time, a must-see is the Ancient Egypt wing on the ground floor, which houses the world’s third largest collection of Egyptian antiquities after the Museum of Cairo and the Museo Egizio of Turin. Displayed in the Ancient Egypt wing is the famous Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
London’s must-visit monuments and sights
I’m obsessed with British history, I find it so intriguing and fascinating. And like probably most people, I’m extremely interested in the Tudors – especially Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. Not to mention in the Windsors and modern British history from WWII and Churchill. Which is exactly the reason why I’ll be suggesting the following sights. If you’re a history lover, you’r going to like what you read!
The Tower of London is one of those places you have to visit. I had read so much about it, seen it in so many movies and documentaries that I just had to see it. The place is enormous, so give yourself at least a couple of hours to visit it. Plus, it also houses the Crown Jewels, and there’s a pretty lengthy line to see those! But apart form the Crown Jewels, I thought it was so interesting to hear the whole story of the Tower of London through its different buildings. From life in the Tower to the story of Anne Boleyn to the infamous prison, it’s a must-see. The audio guide definitely helps and it’s included in your ticket. I highly recommend you purchase your ticket online as to skip the line!
Just a stone’s throw away from 10 Downing Street you’ll find the Churchill War Rooms where Churchill and his inner circle directed WWII. It’s an underground bunker found just beneath the streets of Westminster where Churchill and his war cabinet plotted their victory. You’ll find corridors of rooms, kitchens, meeting rooms, map rooms, everything that you can possibly imagine. And the audio guide in this bit is essential. But before you get to see where all of Churchill’s war cabinet lived, you have to visit the Churchill War Museum, a spectacular collection of videos, photos, audios and letters that will take you through the different stages of Churchill’s life. I highly recommend this museum, as well as purchasing tickets online beforehand!
A sight I really wanted to see, but that was unfortunately booked all through the week, was Buckingham Palace. I’m sure the Queen’s official royal residence where you can visit the spectacular State Rooms is something that’s worth seeing. It’s recognized as the main hub of national and royal celebrations. I guess next time, for me! Just keep in mind that the State Rooms are open to visitors for 10 weeks each summer and just a few dates in winter and spring, so tickets are sold fast, best to plan way ahead! On the same note, plan ahead to see Westminster Abbey as well, where royal weddings, coronations and funerals take place.
Where to eat in London
Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack Soho
British cuisine with an Italian twist is what you get at this delightful seafood restaurant in Soho. Luca discovered this restaurant, and I can’t tell you how cute and what an amazing time we had! We went to dinner with Luca and his parents, and the minute we stepped foot inside we fell in love. As you walk in, a long marble bar awaits you (definitely the place to indulge in happy hour oysters)! The mood is trendy yet laid back, and the shack has lovely light tones with blue accents that remind you of the sea. After the bar, a small room with just three tables greets you, cozy and intimate. The service? Super! We had one of the managers wait on us, turns out he was an Italian from Sardinia. What to order? We started with a range of native and rock oysters from the UK, which were offered to us, the Porthilly Rock and Jersey Rock oysters to be exact, sublime. To continue, the tempura cod cheeks were spot on, the batter was just perfect, light and crunchy. But the smoked langoustines were my favorite dish of the evening, they were so fresh and had this smoky taste which just left you craving for more. To continue, the charcoal grilled seabass with a smoked anchovy sauce was absolutely delicious. And dessert also surprised me, I can’t quite remember the name, all I remember is how yummy the cornflakes ice cream was! Drinks? While we didn’t know most of the wines, we went for the Damien Pinon from France which was wonderful. We had such a great time at this restaurant, the food was amazing, the service great , and the company spot-on! If you’re searching for a place in Soho to indulge in fresh seafood coming from local fishermen, get yourself a reservation at Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack Soho!
📍 22 Bateman Street (Soho)
📞 +44 20 7734 6676
⏰ Monday – Saturday 12pm – 12am, Sunday 12pm – 10pm
Zuma doesn’t need much introduction. It’s a guarantee for amazing contemporary Japanese cuisine. And of course, the London-based Zuma – which just so happens to be the first of Zumas – could only be located in the chicest of neighbourhoods, in Knightsbridge, just a stone’s throw away from Chelsea. Walk inside and a large Zuma-style bar greets you, and just a few meters away you’ll find the restaurant section with a large open kitchen where you can see the chefs in action. While I’ve been to Zuma Rome and Zuma Istanbul as well, I had never tried the exquisite spicy beef tenderloin. And let me tell you, it was the dish of the night. I’m seriously dreaming of it. Another spectacular dish and a must-order is the tuna and salmon tartare with caviar and crispy rice crackers. Just spread the tartare on the rice crackers and you’ll get a culinary orgasm. The sashimi selection was also as fresh as it gets, and the sliced yellowtail with green chilli relish, ponzu and pickled garlic is a Zuma classic. The experience was great, just a heads up, there’s loud music all around, so I wouldn’t recommended it to big parties. Other than that, definitely get yourself a reservation (quite in advance) for this amazing culinary experience.
📍 5 Raphael Street (Knightsbridge)
📞 +44 20 7584 1010
⏰ Monday – Friday 12pm – 3pm, 6pm – 11pm / Saturday 12pm – 3.30pm, 6pm – 11pm / Sunday 12pm – 3.30pm, 6pm – 10.30pm
Rock, Sole and Plaice
If you’re in Convent Garden and feel like a bite to eat, stop at this fish and chips joint established in 1871! But Rock, Sole and Plaice isn’t just any fish and chips place, it’s London’s oldest chippie! Perfect for a bite to eat before the theater, or just to relax, this place is perfect to sit back, relax and enjoy a British classic. I definitely recommend sitting outside during the good season! What to order? The menu includes different types of fish, so there’s something for everyone. The server, who was very friendly, recommended the Lemon Sole, but unfortunately they had run out! So I had the haddock, which was very tasty! Just a heads up, you can order regular portions or large portion, definitely go for the regular one, portions are super generous at this chippie! And of course, a cold beer is the perfect way to accompany it!
📍 47 Endell Street (Covent Garden)
📞 +44 20 7836 3785
If you’re in the London Bridge area, you’ve just finished visiting the Tower of London or Tate Modern and don’t mind walking 10 minutes, this is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat. Borough Market is a vibrant food market in Southwark that dates back to the Viking area. But it’s not till recent years that it has become a foodie heaven. Walk inside and you’ll find hundreds of different stands selling everything you could possibly imagine. From oysters and burgers, to paellas, truffles and cheeses, you’ll find pretty much anything at this thriving market. You can either buy the food and eat it at one of the benches, or purchase fresh produce and cook something at home. There’s also plenty of restaurants where you can sit down and enjoy a yummy meal. It’s not just the food that’s delicious, the whole atmosphere is vibrant and fun, it definitely deserves a visit!
📍 8 Southwark Street (Southwark)
⏰ Open for lunch: Monday – Tuesday: 10am – 5pm; Full market: Wednesday – Thursday 10am – 5pm, Friday 10am – 6pm , Saturday 8am – 5pm, Sunday closed
Villandry Grand Café
Since we were staying at a side street of Great Portland Street in Fitzrovia, Villandry became our go-to place for breakfast! If you’re searching for a yummy place for breakfast or brunch, definitely put Villandry on your list! The food is so yummy, the place is charming and the service is friendly and efficient. What to order? PANCAKES! Their pancakes are delicious, I had the ones with bananas, and Luca the ones with berries. If you like porridge, they also make a yummy porridge, and if you’re more traditional and like eggs for breakfast, they have an egg menu for you to choose from. Drinks? Freshly squeezed orange juice is the way to go! Funny story, on Saturday, we went there for breakfast and they were serving brunch. I saw all of these people having drinks so when the server asked us “drinks?” I said “no, no, no, no drinks for us!” because we were so hungover from the night before… but what he meant was drinks in general… he started laughing and said “no worries, I know what you mean”, it was hilarious! It was also Luca’s birthday that day and I asked one of the servers if he could put a candle on his pancake. He and two other women brought the pancakes and sang happy birthday to him! Great place for breakfast or brunch in Fitzrovia!
📍 170 Great Portland Street (Fitzrovia)
📞 +44 20 7631 3131
⏰ Monday – Friday 7.30am- 11pm / Saturday 9.30am – 11pm / Sunday 10.30am – 6pm
Wasabi Sushi & Bento (chain)
I love sushi, and my boyfriend loves it more than I do … and he’s obsessed with this chain. If you want a quick takeaway sushi or bento box because you’re heading to the park for a picnic, I suggest Wasabi! The price is great and the quality good. My favorite ones are the salmon nigiri and the salmon hosomaki! You’ll find this chain pretty much everywhere.
I know, I know. I shouldn’t be talking about chains but Wagamama is just too good. Plus, we don’t have it in Italy, except for in Milan, so sue me if I crave it! If you’re in the mood for noodles, go to Wagamama! There’s lots of them around the city, so it shouldn’t be much trouble finding one. The Yaki Soba is my absolute favorite!
Where to drink in London
Archer Street Cocktail Bar Soho
Both my two friends Claudia and Kate recommended this amazing cocktail bar in Soho. Spread over two floors, where the underground floor hosts a bar with karaoke and the ground floor is for partying till late, Archer Street is the place to go if you’re searching for a great time. We started off getting a couple of cocktails downstairs in the beautiful tropical vibe bar. They play great commercial music that alternates with karaoke singers. The best part is seeing the waiters dance and sing karaoke, such fun people! You can also have your drinks at one of the tables if you need to chit-chat! They close the downstairs bar at 1am, so afterwards we went to the ground floor where we kept dancing till the afterhours! I loved that they also played 70s and 80s music like Dancing Queen! I really recommend this place for a fun night out, it’s a great combination of drinks and dancing all in one place!
📍 3-4 Archer Street (Soho)
📞 +44 20 7734 3342
⏰ Downstairs: Thursday – Saturday 6pm – 1am, Ground Floor: Mon – Thur 4pm – 1am, Fri – Sat 2pm – 2am
💰 Cocktails £15, Entrance £10
Experimental Cocktail Bar
After our dinner at Zuma, it was pretty hard finding a bar that would stay open past 12am, that didn’t include dancing. Sometimes you’re not up for clubbing, and that was one of those nights. We walked and walked and everything was closing, until I read my list of recommendations and saw “Experimental Cocktail Bar”, a speakeasy in Chinatown. So we headed to Chinatown where next to the four seasons we found a door that lead to the three-storey Experimental Cocktail Bar, buzzing with people. I couldn’t even spot the entrance at first until I saw a group of people standing outside! So we stepped inside and the whole place was really cool, with loud music – although not very speakeasyish – completely dimmed lights, nice design. They have a sweet but short cocktail list, as well as some champagnes. If you’re looking for some experimental cocktails in a trendy setting, this is the place to go!
📍 3-4 Archer Street (Soho)
⏰ Monday – Wednesday 6pm – 2am / Thursday – Saturday 6pm – 3am / Sunday 6pm – 12am
💰 Cocktails £12-14, Entrance £5 (after 11pm)