London is one of the world’s great cities and is almost impossible to sum up in 15 points, but let’s do our best to point you in the right direction.
Get on your bike
London’s bike sharing scheme (known as Boris Bikes despite being introduced by Ken Livingstone) is a cheap and easy way to get to know the geography of London. You can pick them up and drop them off at thousands of points around the city, so if you feel like walking is a bit of a drag and you fancy a change, this is the perfect way to do it.
Have a walk in the park
One of the best ways to not spend any money in a very expensive city is to make use of London’s huge green areas. It really can be a remarkably spacious place. So what is there to see and do? Well, you could go and bother the deer in Richmond Park, play a spot of tennis on Clapham Common, take a romantic walk across Hampstead Heath or, amazingly, visit the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. Either that or just take a picnic, sit around and hang out with other Londoners taking advantage of some of the capital’s best features.
Take in a show
Sure, it can be kind of pricey and it’s not necessarily for everyone, but London’s theatre scene is one of the finest in the world. Book early to get tickets to one of the big West End shows and you’ll be guaranteed an utterly spectacular time, that’s for sure. Fancy something less bombastic but still fabulous? Try one of the smaller classics: Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the longest-running production in the world and is still surprising audiences, or alternatively be prepared to be scared half to death by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
If theatre really isn’t your thing but you’d still like to catch a live show of some sort, stand-up comedy is London – and Britain’s – food and drink. Even small, local pubs will have comedy nights, and it’s a chance to see three or four different acts in one night, all for a small cover charge and the price of your drinks. That’s not to be laughed at…
Shop for both new and second-hand
Of course, London is famed for being a shopper’s paradise.There’s the consumer battleground more commonly known as Oxford Street, and the it’s-fun-the-first-time-but-then-becomes-quite-annoying-ism of Camden, and if you’ve never been to London before, then sure, you’d be silly to miss them. But what of more interesting shopping opportunities?
The Columbia Road flower market is a treat for the senses even if you’re not buying anything. The huge covered market of Spitalfields is home to everything from shoes to music to cheese. Maltby Street Market is foodie heaven, with street food from around the world, cakes, desserts, cocktails and more, and Alfie’s Antique Market is somewhere between a junk shop and a high-end antique store. Add to these the more famous names like Borough Market and Portobello Road, and you’ll have to make sure you’ve got some spare room in your suitcase.
Feed your soul for free
One of the great things about London is how many of the city’s world-class museums and galleries are still free to enter. Where else can you see some of the world’s most iconic and best-loved works of art for nothing? Well, the unparalleled National Gallery is home to more masterpieces than you can shake a stick at (the curators would like me to remind you not to shake sticks in the building). You can discover the history of great civilisations and ancient creatures at the British Museum. The interactive joy of the Science Museum never gets old. And it’s all for free. Naturally, donations are welcome, and I’d urge you to do so, but it says something about the city that these treasures are on display for anyone and everyone. The way it should be.
Follow in the footsteps of your favourites
Because it’s so recognisable, and due to the fact that film and TV is one of Britain’s most exportable cultural commodities, there are hundreds of places around the city that have, at some time or another, appeared in your favourite shows (or in some cases simply been the inspiration for them). A great way to discover the city is by finding these locations.
You could go to King’s Cross station and queue for ages to have your picture taken at the Harry Potter blah blah blah and so forth, or you could head to Leadenhall Market, one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley, for example. Bridget Jones, Sherlock, Black Books and many more are often just places you can wander up to and photograph instead of having to resort to paying for stuff, and are sometimes in parts of London you might not normally visit. Which leads us on to…
Discover the villages
London is really a collection of villages. That’s how it grew, how it expanded, and why there’s a lot of irregular roads and wiggly lines, unlike, say, Paris.
It’s these different areas and their characters you need to explore if you want to say you really know London. Islington is totally different to Golders Green, which is different to Camden, which is different to Clapham; they really are stories unto themselves, each told by its history, residents and geography.
Take a place like Stoke Newington. A lovely part of north London, but oddly inaccessible by Tube, it has a high street full of independent shops and cafes, some great pubs, a beautifully calm and atmospheric cemetery, and residents that are so proud of living there, there’s a booming trade in “I ♥ Stokey” t-shirts and mugs. Everywhere is London, but nowhere is… not precisely.
Catch the next big thing
A million bands have come to London thinking they’d be the next Rolling Stones, or the next Chemical Brothers, or the next Libertines, and a million bands have been disappointed. It’s one of the great cities of the world for live music, no matter what style you’re into. From classical to death metal, you’ll find something to interest and impress you, whether it’s in a Victorian concert hall, or a grimy, sweaty pub basement. Do what I used to do: find the listing page – even in a local borough newspaper – close your eyes and jab your finger down. That’s who you’re going to see tonight.
Take advantage of the Olympic legacy
Sporty types, look no further. Following on from the spectacularly successful Olympic Games in 2012, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has transitioned into a multi-sports facility where, even if you’ve not brought anything with you, you can still take full advantage.
The Lee Valley VeloPark includes the velodrome, mountain bike and BMX courses, and bikes for all ages are available to hire if you fancy tearing up the tracks.
Drink somewhere with a history
English beer has a reputation problem in countries that don’t know about it. It’s to do with the way it’s made and the fact that means it doesn’t travel well… but let’s not get into that here.
Britain is a country built on pubs, drinking and socialising. Some of the oldest surviving buildings on the entire island are pubs, so central has their role been to every aspect of British society. Everyone has a number of stories to tell. So exploring London’s social history through the medium of beer is… an educational way to dress it up, no?
Graeme Greene and Dylan Thomas used to drink at the Dove in Hammersmith. The George in Southwark was supposedly a favourite of Shakespeare, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was where you’d find Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, who famously said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” The Blind Beggar was the hangout of notorious 60s gangsters the Kray Twins, and the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden used to host bare-fist fighting in its courtyard and was the place where, in 1679, John Dryden was beaten up by thugs hired by a rival poet!
A lot of people come to London with the view to seeing some football. Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham and Crystal Palace are all – at the time of writing – Premier League sides, as well as being home to slightly lower-key sides such as Queens Park Rangers, AFC Wimbledon, Brentford and the like. You could take in the bucolic delights of Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground, a beautiful Victorian pile by the Thames, or give Charlton Athletic some much-needed support. Alternatively, you could go even further down the leagues and get a truly grass-roots footballing experience.
Hipster favourites Dulwich Hamlet will keep you fuelled with micro-brewed beer and bratwurst while you cheer them on, Clapton FC have a vibrant, socially-conscious Ultras support and Hanwell Town has an inviting, friendly clubhouse. Corinthian Casuals were so stunned when the penalty kick rule was introduced in 1891 that one player called it: “A standing insult to sports men to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to tip, hack and push opponents and to behave like cads of the first kidney,” so shocked was he that anyone would question a gentleman’s spirit of fair play. I can assure you that things have moved on.
Explore the waterways of London
Everyone knows that the Thames is the artery that has kept London going all these centuries as a passage for exploration, trade and, often, warfare, but there’s a massive network of smaller rivers and canals that permeate the city and remain pretty much unused and unknown, even to locals. So why not take advantage?
Moo Canoes, based at Hackney Wick and Limehouse Basin, can hire you sturdy canoes and kayaks to try out a range of routes to see London from a duck’s eye view. They vary based on length, difficulty, things to see, and portages (i.e. the number of times you have to hoik your craft out of the water and carry it around things). It’s an unusual but inexpensive way to see London – and I guarantee people will think it was a pretty fun thing to do!
Take an afternoon tea bus tour
Combine two of Britain’s most iconic things – the Routemaster bus and a nice cup of tea – and see the capital in a leisurely way. Five times a day, Brigit’s Bakery runs a 90 minute tour of London in their renovated double-deckers, where you’ll pass all the main sights of the city while sipping on delicious tea and nibbling on the mouth-watering selection of cakes, sweets and sandwiches on offer. They’ve even got vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and halal options. Marvellous.
See some ever-changing art
Under Waterloo Station is Leake Street tunnel, which in 2008 was home to renowned graffiti artist Banksy’s Cans festival. He invited 29 other street artists who were each given a section of the tunnel to decorate in their own style, and since then it’s become what’s known as a hands-off graffiti area. This means that anyone is free to create their own art without having a police officer’s hand on their shoulder asking them what they think they’re doing. In effect, you can now walk down there every week and see new stuff, as artists come and go, leaving examples of their work.