When three days is all you have, what’s the best way to get a feel for how London really is?
- Accept that it’s unlikely you will run into Helen Mirren or Idris Elba or William, Kate and their adorable new royal babe.
- Don’t even think about riding the London Eye (you could be in line for hours, and honestly, it’s just a bloody Ferris wheel; take a dramatic background selfie and move on).
Now we’ve got that out of the way, ask yourself what you most enjoy doing when you travel. Walking and sightseeing? Taking in culture? Shopping? Meeting the locals? Exploring local history? Viewing beautiful gardens? Collecting unusual souvenirs or goods? Fine dining? Street food? London has a dizzying array of options.
First up, consider the weather. While London is a very walkable city with many fine outdoor sights, but it’s not as enjoyable in a downpour.
If you’re fortunate to have fine weather, or even just a cloudy day and no rain (yet), consider the Thames Walk. As the name suggests, this is a self-guided leisurely stroll (or brisk jaunt, if you like) featuring many of the city’s most famous landmarks, with some fabulous destinations along the way, where, if need be, you can duck in out of the rain.
A Westminster Walking Itinerary
The best place to begin is from Westminster station (Jubilee, District or Circle line), where the first thing you’ll see when you emerge is an enormous statue of the Celtic warrior Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe who fought the Roman invaders in AD60. Complete with horses and chariot, the statue was commissioned by Prince Albert and erected in 1905. As you continue walking, you’ll see the London Eye off in the distance (selfie time!), and soon on your right, you will come to Cleopatra’s Needle, a nice chunk of antiquity (1450BC!) guarded by sphinxes.
You’ll see some other famous and distinctive pieces of architecture across the river before you reach the Millennium footbridge (aka Harry Potter Bridge or Wobbly Bridge). It feels and looks more like a large metal jungle gym than a bridge, and it did have some, uh, wobbling problems when it first opened, but don’t worry, £2 million of work was done and now it’s very stable.
Walk across the bridge then turn left and follow the signs for the Thames Walk, meandering through the waterfront park. There will be plenty of tourists and locals, and on a fine day, you may see sidewalk vendors selling books, jewellery or other wares. There are pubs and shops along the way should want to wander off the path briefly and return.
On the Thames Walk are three of London’s most famous destinations for lovers of the arts. The tall and rather ominous looking stout-colored brick column fronted by slender birch trees was a former power station that is now a world class museum: the Tate Modern. Perhaps you’ve been to the other Tate museum, located a short walk from Pimlico station, which contains one of the world’s best collections of pre-Raphaelite paintings. It’s well worth a visit, too. At the Tate, you’re more likely to see works by Picasso, Monet, Modigliani, or Miro.
Next up you will come to the famous Globe Theatre, a historic building where some of London’s best theatrical performances occur. Currently under the artistic direction of Michelle Terry (her predecessor was Mark Rylance), the Globe’s offerings run towards Shakespeare and other period plays in experimental or historically accurate productions. If you time it right, you might catch a matinee for only £5! Okay, you have to stand the whole time, but you’ll probably be sitting on a plane again soon anyway, so enjoy.
Maybe you prefer film to theatre? The British Film Institute’s main location is here too, including their famous library where you’ll see film studies students and other cinephiles cooing over binders of film journals with awed whispers; it’s a bit like being in church with people praying over Kurasawa, Hitchcock, and Glaswegian icon Lynne Ramsay. There’s a nice cafe here too, and an excellent book and DVD shop. The Thames Walk can be done very pleasantly in the evening, too, if seeing a film is a way you’d like to end your day. The nice thing is, the Thames isn’t going anywhere, so you can spend another day exploring this route and its offerings if you like.
3 Days of London's Parks and Gardens
Can’t get enough of English gardens but couldn’t get tickets to the Chelsea Flower Show? Lace up your walking shoes and head over to Kew Gardens, a glorious botanical oasis where you could easily spend an entire day. There are flowers, vegetable gardens, historical structures, paths through forests, and a dangerously delightful gift shop where you can buy books, seeds, postcards, tools and every garden-themed bauble imaginable.
The neighbourhood of Richmond is nearby with a number of fine restaurants, including traditional pubs like The Tap on the Line, right at Kew Gardens Station, a rambling yet cozy place with a leafy seating area, cask ales and humble, delicious English fare (try the sardine starter).
London has many other green spaces to explore. The Royal Horticultural Society is a useful resource for finding gardens to visit and special events. The Royal Parks offers information about London’s 5000 acres of green space, including Kensington Gardens, with many formal and ornamental gardens, Richmond Park (there are red and fallow deer!), and Green Park, if you fancy a relaxing picnic (you can rent chairs) and some people watching.
72 Hours in Central London
Perhaps it’s a bustling urban vibe and eclectic shopping experience you’re after? You can’t go wrong walking ‘round Covent Garden, in London’s West End. The original flagship Lush store is still here in all its fragrant, floral glory, and Neal’s Yard Remedies is nearby too, in its tiny picturesque courtyard, for your botanical grooming needs.
Covent Garden is chockablock with restaurants and pubs, some of them historic, like the Crusting Pipe, a Victorian style wine bar and pub where you must catch some live traditional music.
Another fine centrally located neighbourhood for exploring and artistic activities is Trafalgar Square (originally known as Charing Cross), not far from St. Martin in the Fields, the National Gallery and the English National Opera. That very tall gentleman perched atop the stone column is none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson, and the landmark is known as Nelson’s Folly, built to honour his sacrifice in the Battle of Trafalgar.
This is hands down one of the most bustling spots in London, with many residents and tourists in any given day (the tourists are the ones posing in front of the giant stone lions; the residents are eating sandwiches or salads at one of the four Pret a Manger locations in the square).
Across the way in St. Martin’s lane is the Chandos, a quaint pub and restaurant with upstairs seating known as the “Opera Rooms” with stained glass, dark wood decor, and maybe a few actors hanging about (enjoy the Samuel Smith’s bevvies on tap in any case).
Have your three days run out yet? If not, you might want to check out Picadilly Circus, or Hyde Park where you can walk or maybe even go boating along the Serpentine, or perhaps one of London’s beautiful cemeteries (if that’s the sort of thing you like).
London has something for everyone: take a guided tour, plot your itinerary months in advance, or just walk, with no plan but plenty of curiosity and an open mind. One thing is sure: you won’t have a dull moment (unless you somehow take a wrong turn and end up in Milton Keynes), and there will be art, beauty, history, nature and sensual delights around every corner.