As a little girl I became infatuated with London after being enchanted by the tales of Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, literary classics that still fill me with that same sense of magic and wonder. More recently Harry Potter further cast a spell over this muggle. My lineage may have sparked my obsession with everything British, but the world of books completely opened my world to a city I was desperate to see.
My love for this special country was so strong that even at the age of 10 I wrote to the Queen, in the hope of becoming pen pals…true fact. I still have the hand written letter I received back from Her Majesty’s Lady in Waiting. As a teenager my brother moved to the ‘Motherland’ and I vowed one day I would do the same. Until that time I begged my parents repeatedly to send me to boarding school there and even compiled a list of prospective institutions. To this day I still wished I had pushed a little harder for that outcome.
I think about London often and question what is it about this city that continues to attract close to 17 million tourists each year? Quite simply the buzz this city generates is matchless and for centuries created a magnet for visitors and expats alike. Masses past and present have called it home and walked her cobbled streets and as a very small fish in a very big pond, I love being part of this electricity, history and overall momentum. I moved to London at 19, visited several times in my twenties and at 30 divided my time between my professional life in Dublin and personal life in London for 13 months with my Australian partner. As I prepare to move to Dubai next month I can only pray I will be scheduled on many London bound flights.
Writing about what to see and do in London is a momentous task. There is always something on, a new restaurant to try, a burgeoning neighbourhood to explore and several monuments to visit. Because of its diversity and sheer size it is difficult to embody everything London has to offer in a mere article. We all have different tastes and the beauty of this city is its ability to cater to a boundless demographic encouraging those who visit to write their own story thus contributing to an ever expanding narrative. To pay homage to the city that has my heart and the Queen whom I have loved equally as much since I was little girl I have compiled a list of my favourite experiences that I encourage everyone to do.
As a truly remarkable monarch and woman celebrates her 90th year, I dedicate this post to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to not only celebrate her nation’s capital and her momentous birthday but is my way of thanking the Queen for writing back 21 years ago.
1. Quality dining atop the city
Feast your eyes over London from the capital’s tallest restaurant Duck and Waffle and further entertain your senses whilst you feast on their quality cuisine. Located on the 40th floor Duck and Waffle welcomes patrons 24 hours a day with an enticing menu inspired by both British and European gastronomy. Should you wish to see the city basking in the sun or moonlight, be sure to make a booking well in advance and for something really memorable book a table for midnight to bring new meaning to the term “midnight snack.”
2. Brunch with a difference
If you are passionate about brunch, quality food and eateries that source local produce, Piccalilli Café located in the grounds of Surrey Quays Farm will be a successful addition to your London itinerary. With eggs, milk and meat all sourced from the dear animals that live onsite, you cannot get any more local than what Piccalilli Café has to offer. Open every day except Mondays, if you find yourself waiting for a table pop into the onsite shop to purchase delectable breakfast spreads and peruse the grounds to visit the array of animals and volunteers who work hard to sustain this little haven. The home styled cooking is absolutely mouth-watering and having spent many Saturday mornings working through their menu, though it was a tough choice, the eggs benedict is my Piccalilli recommendation.
3. Get lost exploring Portobello Road Markets
With over 1000 dealers selling everything from books and art to antiques and modern creations getting lost along Portobello Road is more of a spiritual action rather than geographical. Open every day, but Sunday, schedule your visit for Saturday to experience the markets in full swing or Friday which is the second busiest day in terms of the amount of stalls available to peruse. Throughout the week, though you might find the occasional vintage store, Portobello predominantly caters to customers seeking to purchase fruit and vegetables thus is an excellent alternative food source for those staying in hostels in the area or catered apartments. Similar to everything in London the markets are busy so be encouraged to arrive at 9.00am or later in the afternoon during those endless summer days. Pop into Hummingbird Bakery for sugary sustenance as you venture near the half way point of this long commercial strip.
4. Experience the pomp and ceremony of the Changing of the Guards
For a quintessentially British experience a trip to England’s capital is not complete without experiencing the grandeur and military perfection that is the Changing of the Guards. The procession commences at 11.30am and arriving at Buckingham Palace well ahead of time is an absolute must no matter the season. Between April and July the demonstration is scheduled to take place daily and throughout the rest of the year operates on alternate dates. The crowds can be overwhelming as it is a popular attraction, but electing not see the ceremony I fear will leave you regretting that choice upon your return home.
5. Soak up British history at the Tower of London
Arguably one of my favourite places in the capital, the Tower is a true icon and a fascinating experience for old and young. Visitors trek through the Tower’s fortified walls under the guidance of the noble Yeoman Warders who share the history of the site in an engaging and entertaining manner. Adult tickets start at £25.00, so travellers might want to consider the rewards of purchasing the London Pass should they plan to see many of London’s sights. Be sure to give yourself ample time as there is plenty to take in within the walls and beautiful views of the Thames and Tower Bridge atop said walls. To read my personal experience of the Tower of London click here.
6. Indulge your inner chocoholic
Just off Soho’s famous Carnaby Street lies the deliciously decadent and quirky Choccywoccydoodah, made famous by the show of the same name. To sample what is undoubtedly the finest chocolate cake in London, arrive early on an empty stomach to make room for all the goodness that awaits you as the portion sizes are generous. The two storey venue has a café upstairs and patrons will typically experience a wait time of 50 minutes depending on season and number of guests in your party. The brilliantly eccentric staff operating this chocolate mecca work hard to get you seated as quickly as possible and amuse you with chocolate offerings as you wait. However, don’t venture too far as you might miss your name being called! Instead use the time to purchase gifts for loved ones (you will be spoilt for choice) and be inspired by the intricate chocolate creations that welcome visitors on the first floor.
7. Hop on a Big Bus Tour
With a city brimming with attractions and continually expanding the Big Bus Tour allows visitors to maximise their time, hop on and off as they desire, enjoy a scenic cruise along the River Thames or participate in scheduled city walks. Particularly if you are visiting London for the first time this is the most economic and time friendly manner in which to get around. In addition, electing to travel via over ground services instead of the tube will give you a better sense of the city’s layout and overall direction. Tourists have three passes to select from depending on their schedules with a 1 day pass starting at £24.50 for an adult, a 24 hour pass priced at £26.00 and 48 hours valued at £33.00 and inclusive of a city night tour.
8. Enjoy a picnic in Greenwich Park
London is a city full of different colours. Striking reds adorn the servicemen who guard the Queen. In summer pink flowers decorate the pubs inviting patrons in for a cool drink. Vibrant yellows from the city’s lights dance of the Thames and lush green spaces are found throughout London where one can escape the hustle and bustle of life. If you are timing your visit for the warmer months fill a small backpack with fruits, cheese and crackers from your local grocer and head to Greenwich Park in London’s south-east. Not only is this the capital’s oldest royal park but it is home to the Royal Observatory where visitors can stand on the renowned Prime Meridian line and enjoy spectacular views of London in the distance. For photography enthusiasts this is the place to be for those dawn and dusk shoots.
9. Sample everything and anything from Borough Markets
True foodies cannot leave London without experiencing the celebrated yet hectic Borough Markets located east of the city. With the full market operating Wednesday through to Saturday whether you’re a food lover, chef or photographer the quality and display will leave you wanting more and wishing something as scrumptious operated in your hometown. Borough Markets has a range of products and cuisines on sale and vivacious vendors contribute to the energy of the venue so no matter what your personal tastes may be you are bound to find something that will entice you. Just remember this is a place where diets cease to exist and no matter how hard you fight it the aroma of the custard filled doughnuts will win. Accept it. Embrace it. Should you wish to have lunch in the area, due to its popularity seating can be an issue and as such I would recommend visiting early for breakfast or brunch if you find crowds overwhelming. As the markets are sheltered, those rainy days in London are no excuse to remain indoors.
10. See artists at work on the London Millennium Bridge
Now given the extremity of the seasons in London, I can only assume this is an experience reserved more for those visiting during the summer months. The Millennium Bridge is an impressive structure that is a popular haunt for budding artists due to the sweeping views over St Paul’s Cathedral and the banks of the Thames on either side. I can appreciate why it is a source of artistic inspiration for those wanting to capture the beautiful surroundings and there is something quite peaceful seeing talented people at work. If you are looking for a gift or a unique memento I highly recommend purchasing something from these artists who adorn the path. Not only will you be supporting local talent but every time you look at your acquired piece you will remember the experience of crossing the bridge and the impressive backdrop that surrounded you, rather than just the inside of a standard gallery or souvenir store.
Now that you know a few of my favourite things what are yours?
*Note: Thank you to Yasir Badani for his assistance with the images of myself featured and for being my patient model. Follow his adventures around the globe @yasirbad*