Ever since studying abroad friends and family turn to me for advice on where to visit in the English capital. I always struggle to answer this question because London is just so vast. You could live in London your entire life and still not experience everything there is to do and see. After spending four months in the city I still have a laundry list of things on my London Bucket List that were left uncompleted. (Which I view as a positive because hey, now I have an excuse to go back!)
To try and simplify the task of making suggestions I usually ask my friends and family what kinds of things they enjoy doing on vacations. Are they someone who likes soaking in history at museums or are they the type of person who wants to spend all day outside in luscious parks or markets? Furthermore, are they someone who views vacations as a time to indulge or do they like feeling like a local and spending their days in grungy local pubs? By narrowing down their interests I feel like I can better recommend a trip that my friends and family will truly remember and love. And see that’s important to me, I want everyone who visits London to love the city as much as I do. That’s part of the reason I feel so much pressure when answering this question- I don’t want to be the reason they don’t enjoy the city I hold so close. London is truly a thousand cities in one, a place where anyone can find their niche, it just takes a little searching to find it sometimes.
However, if you only have a few days in London and want to see the highlights, I believe there are a few things anyone should do. Below are six of my favorite “tourist attractions” that I believe will give you a well-rounded crash course in The City.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of fashion so Harrods was always on the top of things to do in London. But after visiting the 5 acre building I realized Harrods is more than a department store to go to and gawk at Alexander Wang dresses you’ll never be able to afford. With over 330 departments, 32 restaurants and 1 Disney Bimpty Boppity Botique, Harrods has everything a person could every imagine wanting. Honestly, you could probably spend your whole London trip in Harrods and be satisfied.
Even if you don’t like shopping or think that Harrods is too posh, you should visit the department store just to experience its uniqueness. There is something magical about riding an escalator as women and men sing opera and something exciting about walking through the Food Halls where you could fulfill every craving you have.
Bonus: If you are in London over Christmas, Harrods is famous for their decadently decorated windows, and those along are probably enough of a reason to visit. (like Macy’s in NYC).
2.) Tea at Fortnum & Mason
When in London, you must experience high tea and in my opinion Fortnum & Mason, the most luxurious department store in the World, is the place to do so. The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, opened by Her Majesty The Queen offers a traditional tea that is absolutely exquisite. While definitely pricey, the experience is absolutely worth it. The $70 I spent on High Tea was absolutely worth it because over two years later this afternoon spent like royalty is one of my fondest trips of my study abroad experience, and those memories are priceless.
It’s rare that you will ever experience a meal quite like it anywhere else in the World. The food is absolutely amazing, and even better, they do not skimp on the portions. The highly-trained wait staff was constantly refilling our trays of scones and pastries and at the end of the meal asked us if we wanted to take anything home. At that point, we were way to full to even imagine doing so.
I would also like to stress that while they encourage a classier dress code, it is totally cool to dress casually. They are used to tourists here and will not treat you any differently depending on the way you dress.
So dress up (or down) gather up your friends and family and act like royalty for an afternoon at Fortnum & Mason!
3.) Victoria and Albert
It’s no secret that London has hundreds of (mostly free) museums to visit and the sheer number of them can make it hard to pick one or two to visit on a short trip. While most people would default to visiting The British Museum and The National Gallery (both amazing museums), I recommend a trip to the the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V & A is not only the World’s largest museum of decorative art and design (and almost the biggest museum of any kind in the World) but also houses a collection that spans over 5,000 years of history.
I visited multiple times and don’t think I even made a dent in seeing everything this museum has to offer. Usually, I stay away from maps, but in the case of the Victoria & Albert I think they are extremely useful in absorbing the layout of the museum and figuring out what you want to see. My must-sees for anyone visiting the museum for the first time are the Fashion exhibit, the Cast Courts, the Jewelry exhibit, and if it’s open, the Theater and Performance exhibit. Additionally, the glass work in the lobby by an artist named Dale Chihuly (who also has an installation at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh) is worth a visit alone.
In my opinion, the Victoria and Albert is such a unique museum because it covers a lot of areas of art that other museums do not. It highlights art forms that we may take for granted in everyday life, like books and textiles, and proves just how amazing and artistic they really are.
4. Camden Market
If you’re looking for something a little more “alternative” to do in London, Camden Market is the place for you. Stepping off the tube one of the first things you will see is young men dressed like “punks” and posing for pictures with tourists who are in awe of their spiked hair and over-stretched ears. Wander past all the tattoos shops, and you’ll be in craft, clothing, bric-a-brac, and street food heaven. Composed of six distinct markets along Camden Lock, the Camden Markets house hundreds of vendors peddling their wares. Wandering through the different markets you will find unique gifts to bring home, incredible street food to eat, and a fair share of cheap, mass produced rip offs. My one major tip: Don’t buy food or gifts right when you enter the markets, dig a little, because the hidden gems always have the better food and knick-knacks. The markets can be a bit of a sensory overload but they are a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, especially if you are someone who likes to experience culture in a more organic way.
5.) Buckingham Palace
It doesn’t get more English than Buckingham Palace. This is probably the most obvious attraction on my list, however I strongly encourage you to visit Buckingham Palace during the changing of the guard. I was going to skip the ceremony but during my last week in the city my friends encouraged me to go and I am so glad they did. I would have regretted not seeing it. No where else in the World are you going to see royally dressed guards playing Top 40 hits on their instruments as they perform a stately ceremony. Even with the large crowds, the whole ceremony is kind of surprisingly fun to watch. It’s quintessentially British and one of those tourist attractions that is actually worth experiencing.
6.) St. James’s Park.
This list would not be complete without mentioning one of the eight Royal Parks London has to offer and St. James’s Park is my personal favorite. Smack dab in the middle of the city and surrounded by three palaces St. James’s Park is a reprieve from the hustle of London. Business people often come here on their lunch break to enjoy the greenery and lake. The park is also a common date destination for couples during the Spring and Summer. From the park you can see the London Eye and other famous London landmarks.You could easily visit the park after seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace because the park and the palace overlap.
While all of the parks have something special to offer, St. James’s Park holds a special place in my heart. While Regent’s Park is more like Central Park, St. James’s feels more like a hidden treasure. One could spend a day in the park and forget that they were in one of the largest cities in the World.
Hopefully, with these suggestions in mind you are ready to conquer London. It’s a special city that has the power to change you, so arrive with an open mind.
Have you ever been to London? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Let me know in the comments, I could talk about London forever.
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“A bad day in London is still better than a good day anywhere else.” – Unknown