One of my favorite things about having spent the past few months in Europe? How easy it was to hop on a train or plane for a city break in another country! I could be in Prague, Barcelona, Copenhagen or Rome within a few short hours, soak up some sun in Lisbon for a couple of days, indulge in Italian gelato in Rome or stroll along the canals in Amsterdam.
But after traveling around Europe for nearly three months, I came to the conclusion that London was still my favorite European city. I might be biased, having lived there for so many years, but I’ve also traveled to enough other places to be able to say that I don’t think any other European city can rival London in all the things it has to offer, in terms of culture, food, nightlife, markets, shopping, green spaces, things to do, theater, and areas for urban exploration.When I stopped in London this year I had the opportunity to show a first-time visitor around town – something I did on a regular basis when I was living in London, which is why I felt comfortable playing tour guide for my friend – and which is why I thought it was time to share my recommendations for the perfect fall weekend in London with you. Of course this itinerary also works at any other time of year. Here is my suggested itinerary for three days in London – including the must-see London landmarks, afternoon tea, my favorite museums for some culture but also some cool street art spots, the best walks and my favorite green spaces, delicious food and evening activities.
Day 1: Royal London and London’s most iconic sights
I usually start my London explorations with a walk from Victoria Station all the way to St Paul’s Cathedral, or if I’m not too tired yet, a little further into the ‘City of London’ to take in the views from the Monument and to finish with a pint in Leadenhall Market.
From Victoria Station, follow the signs to Buckingham Palace. If you’re really into the royal family, you can visit the palace during the summer months (tickets start at £20.50). But for most people it is enough to glimpse through the fence and snap some pictures of the guards in their fancy uniforms. The ‘Changing of the guards’, which takes place at 11.30am (daily between April and July, every other day the rest of the year) is a great spectacle to catch, and it’s free, so you might want to time your visit so that you can see it.From Buckingham Palace, walk over to Green Park and follow the lake until you reach the Horse Guards building, where you’ll encounter another typical London sight: the Horse Guards, as the name implies. From there, walk down Whitehall, past Downing Street, and you’ll reach Big Ben and the Houses Of Parliaments, across from Westminster Abbey. Cross Westminster Bridge and turn left onto the South Bank, where you’ll follow The Queen’s Walk along the river.
Here’s where you can stop for a ride on the London Eye (£19.35) or continue on towards Millennium Bridge, a pleasant walk that’s just over a mile long. Before crossing the bridge, make sure to check out the current exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London’s most famous contemporary art museum, which is housed in a former power station. It is one of my favorite contemporary art museums in the world. Heading up to the cafe is a good idea no matter if you’re a fan of modern art or not, because the views from up there are fantastic. Once you’ve crossed Millennium Bridge you can decide if you want to pay St Paul’s Cathedral a full visit (tickets from £18.00) or just peek inside (well worth a peek, I say, even if you don’t want to pay for full access). If you’re not visiting the church, head further east until you reach the Monument, a freestanding 202 ft (62 m) tall column that offers probably the cheapest views over London at £4. The catch? You have to climb 311 steps to get up there, there’s no elevator to be found. However, for your effort you get a neat certificate that confirms that you successfully climbed to the top.And now you definitely deserve a pint – and a short ten minute walk from the Monument, you find Leadenhall Market, a beautiful covered market dating back to the 14th century (and representing Diagon Alley in the first Harry Potter movie!). Unless you’re heading there on a weekend, you’re also likely to encounter dozens of ‘suits’ there – people who work in London’s finance sector. Most banks have their offices in this part of the city, and bankers, like most other people, tend to enjoy an after work pint (or two). Mingling with them makes for an interesting experience though. There are also some restaurants in Leadenhall Market – if you’re looking for a typical British pub dinner, head to the Lamb Tavern.
Day 2: Notting Hill and Central London
I’d start Day 2 with breakfast in Notting Hill – Walk up Portobello Road and pop in to some of Notting Hill’s antique shops along the way, or simply admire the neat Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian architecture. If you happen to be in London over the weekend, I’d recommend heading here on Saturday when the famous Portobello Road Antiques Market takes place – but come early, it gets pretty crowded around noon.Two of my favorite breakfast places right on Portobello Road are the Electric Diner and Lowry & Baker (also great to just pick up a coffee). Two more breakfast spots worth mentioning in the area are Granger & Co (by Australian celebrity chef Bill Granger – but reasonably priced) and the cozy Wildflower Cafe. For an extended Notting Hill walk, I recommend turning right onto Westbourne Grove. Head back south on Garway Road until you reach Kensington Gardens, and go for a stroll in this beautiful park which is basically an extension of Hyde Park. If you are into art, I recommend stopping at the small Serpentine Gallery right in the park which has always interesting exhibitions (free admission). Walk eastwards through the park until you hit Marble Arch, the giant arch on the northeastern corner of Hyde Park.
You might begin to feel hungry again, and now it’s time for afternoon tea! During my last visit to London I tried something different: Street Food Afternoon Tea at The Arch, a small boutique hotel in the fancy Marylebone neighborhood (just a short walk from Oxford Street), which has an interesting twist to it: instead of your usual mini sandwiches and scones, they serve mini burgers, mozzarella risotto balls, vegetable skewers and quesadillas, followed by scrumptious eclairs, macaroons, rice pudding and fruit tarts – all combined with tea, of course, which you can select from an exquisite tea menu. I tried the vegetarian version of the street food tea, but of course there is also one for carnivores. If you’re heading to London before Christmas, you’re in luck: the Arch currently has a special Christmas-inspired street food afternoon tea (check out the menu here).I loved the elegant yet cozy ambiance at the restaurant, and it is just the right thing to do before hitting Oxford Street for a little shopping spree. After some shopping on London’s most iconic (and busiest) street, you might want to get away from the hustle and bustle here. Turn right (southwards) onto Argyll Street (just after Oxford Circus) which leads to the pedestrianized Carnaby Street. Here you’ll find more independent shops, different from the big High Street chain stores, and plenty of options for a quick bite or drink.
Follow Carnaby Street all the way down to the end and you’ll find yourself right in the heart of Soho, which really comes to life after dark. If you’re a theater buff like I am, I suggest ending the day with a West End show. Comparetheatretickets.com is a good place to start looking which plays have good deals, and you can find a comprehensive guide to finding cheap Westend theater tickets here.
If you’re not into musicals or plays, end the day with a drink or dinner in Soho. Places I recommend are: Franco Manca for pizza, Oka for sushi, Bao (to-die-for Taiwanese street food), Fernandez & Wells for tapas and wine, Princi for tasty Italian food, Busaba Eathai (Thai), and Yalla Yalla for Lebanese food, to give you just a few ideas. For drinks, check out the French House (great beer selection), the Lyric Tavern for a solid British pub experience, Mark’s Bar (underneath the Hix restaurant) for sophisticated cocktails, the Experimental Cocktail Club if you’re looking for a speakeasy experience (good luck finding it). If you want to fancy it up, head to Milk & Honey (reservations obligatory).
Day three: Markets and street art
Day 3 is all about East London. If you’re visiting over a weekend, I’d plan to do this day on a Sunday. Start with a stroll through Columbia Street Flower Market (only on Sundays), or begin right in Brick Lane, where a massive flea market takes place every Sunday. Take your time and take in the street art around here, the flea market stalls, head into the Old Truman Brewery which is now filled with artsy shops and galleries.
On the southern end of Brick Lane you’ll find plenty of Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants which is what the area is famous for. Make sure to be hungry enough for a curry – here you’ll get the best curry in London. You may be overwhelmed by the large number of restaurants – I recommend consulting Tripadvisor or Foursquare before you decide which one to go to, or check out this rating of every curry restaurant on Brick Lane.After lunch, head over to Pettycoat Lane Market if you’re into fashion – you can find some amazing bargain deals here (note: also only on Sundays).
If you love street art, I suggest checking out some of East London’s cool graffiti scene (you will have seen some in Brick Lane already), but it’s a bit tricky to find all of the colorful pieces, which is why I recommend taking a free London street art walking tour (tipping mandatory!) with a local guide who will also give you some insights on the artists and East London in general. The tour runs five times a week at 2pm, online reservations are necessary. If you can’t make the tour, here’s an excellent self-guided street art walk through East London which includes brilliant pieces by famous street artists such as Banksy, Roa and Stiks.Since this day is all about markets, you can’t miss Camden’s famous markets, which can be an all-day activity – it’s easy to get lost in the giant maze of different markets, all set around the locks of Regent’s Canal. Since I moved to London for the first time in 2005, the markets have become a major tourist attraction and some of them have also seen a revamp. And yes, it is crowded, but it’s still one of my favorite things to do in London, and the food stalls alone are worth the trip to Camden. If you’ve still got stamina after all the market strolls, head south along Regent’s Canal until you reach Primrose Hill. It’s a lovely walk and the views over London from the top of Primrose Hill are unbeatable (on a sunny day, that is!).
Tips for visiting London with little time and little money:
– Pick up an Oyster Card, London’s transportation card. It is much cheaper to travel on public transportation with an Oyster Card – with it, a day ticket will cost you £6.50. If you simply buy a day ticket without Oyster card, it’s a staggering £12.10 (US$18.30)!
– If you are planning to visit a lot of the attractions that aren’t free, such as the Tower Of London, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace, consider buying a London Pass which is £75 for two days and 89 for three days. Here’s a good article that explains when it’s worth buying a London Pass and when it’s better to skip it.– There are two local buses that pass most of London’s major sights and landmarks, such as Tower Bridge, Hyde Park, Tafalgar Square and Oxford Street. If you’re pressed for time, get an Oyster Card with a day ticket – at £4.50 (buses only) much cheaper than the hop-on hop-off buses that cover pretty much the same route. You can find a list of the best bus routes for sightseeing in London here.
– If it’s raining, head to the museums. The great thing about London is that most of its fabulous museums are free! My favorites include the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the National History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, but have a look at this list for more free London museums.