Where do I begin other than by saying this is not a comprehensive London guide? I was only in London for two days and had to work for the first half of both of them. There is so much more I wanted to see and do, but I saw enough to know that London is super cool and I have a vague idea of how to explore the city. A return trip is necessary for this gal, innit?
My limited experience + some tips for how to really do London right
Tuesday, May 3, 2022
By the time our whole group landed and we made our way to the hotel, we had lost half the day. It was after noon by the time I could consider the day my own and I was on a mission. Most of my friends were going to nap but I couldn’t bear to waste the day so I checked into the hotel and immediately turned around to hop on the subway – ahem, the tube – and headed to Notting Hill. I particularly wanted to explore this neighborhood because it’s one I felt people actually lived in. With limited time I preferred to forego the monuments (I could get a good enough idea from the history books) and see the type of culture people live and breathe. No, I didn’t choose the neighborhood because of the movie, though I admit it’s a fabulous rom-com.
My first stop in Notting Hill was Portobello Road. It’s a well known street lined with cute shops and excellent people watching. Saturday is when it really comes alive as one of the largest vintage and antique markets with hundreds of stalls. I wish I could have seen the street in all its glory, but even a random Tuesday made for a nice stroll.
London is a bookworm’s HEAVEN. There are so many bookstores. I hit up three just in this little section of the city. Lutyens & Rubenstein was a cute one where I grabbed a book for Finn and perused the new releases to see how the UK covers differ from the US ones. It’s small, but nicely curated and felt very much like a neighborhood store. (More bookstore recs at the bottom of this post.)
I spent the next hour or two popping in and out of antique stores. I didn’t make any purchases, but I was certainly tempted.
If you’re into vintage/consignment (and you should be), Retro Woman is a must. I wish they had more bags, but the collection of shoes and dresses was impressive. Instead of trying on clothes, however, I did pretty much the most opposite thing: I ate. I had to try real fish and chips and The Fish House had a good reputation. At the server’s urging, I added the curry sauce to my order and I’m glad I did. The whole meal was amazing!
I knew I needed to have a traditional pub experience so I went to The Churchill Arms because go big or go home. With the facade completely covered in flowers (they were between planting seasons when I was there) it’s quite a presence on the corner. It has quite a reputation with Winston Churchill’s grandparents having been regulars and it’s been in the running for best pub for several years. You’ll see some tourists there, but you’ll also see plenty of locals like the group of eight 70-something year old men at their weekly meet-up sitting next to me. I gotta tell ya, getting hit on by a septuagenarian just hits different. I enjoyed a large glass of wine before being on my merry way.
From Churchill’s, it was just a quick subway ride to Oxford Circus. Overall, this neighborhood was meh to me. It’s super commercial and packed to the gills with every clothing chain you can imagine. It’s very similar to Herald Square, which is just not what I was looking for. One thing that stands out like a diamond in the rough, though, is Liberty of London. This iconic store is the reason I went to the area and it was worth it. The store itself is set up like Bendel’s (RIP), with the floors set up in rings. Their own designs are mixed in with high end designers and it’s just a beautiful store. [HOT TIP: scroll to the bottom of this page for some fun discoveries in the store.] Their proprietary fabrics are legendary and they have an entire wing of the store devoted to them. I bought a piece to bring back and frame because it’s essentially art and art is always my souvenir of choice when I travel. HOT TIP: I didn’t really realize it, but from The Churchill Arms, you could easily walk to Kensington. Then, you could check out Kensington Palace/Gardens, Hyde Park, Harrods, and the stunning mews to see how the other half lives. This would mean hitting up Liberty’s at a different time.
After 4 hours on my own, I was ready to hang with people so I didn’t complain that nobody wanted to leave the hotel area. I went to dinner at Darkhorse (there weren’t a ton of options in the area, but we were pleased with our meal here) with two other girls and then continued the party with a larger group at the hotel bar.
Wednesday, May 4, 2022
My team and I had to get some work done and between that, hangovers, and a lack of motivation on the part of people who had all previously been to London, we didn’t leave til 1:45 pm. Since I went exactly where I wanted to the day before, I was content to let somebody else steer and they took us to Borough Market.
Borough Market is a massive food hall with all cuisines represented. We shared some freshly shucked oysters and then each broke off and got something different. My pick was La Tua Pasta, where I had an artichoke tortellini with sage butter that was just pillowy and delightful.
From Borough Market we met up with some coworkers at John Snow Public House in SoHo. Was it what I would have chosen? Probably not, but the walk there from South London was nice and took us over London Bridge and through various neighborhoods where we could pass landmarks like St. Paul’s Cathedral. Once there, I admit, the pub was cute, especially the kooky half doors, and it was nice to not feel like a tourist.
There were so many more things I wanted to check out, but there was one item on my London bucket list that I refused to miss. I wanted to go to Brick Lane for Indian Food. Curry is the unofficial national dish of England and Brick Lane is the hub. It’s basically Indian restaurants, one after another, and employees will pop outside to beckon you into their establishment. It’s very similar to Little Italy in NYC. Brick Lane is located in the Shoreditch neighborhood, a quickly gentrifying area in East London that people liken to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg for its trendy and gritty nature. It would have been cool to explore the area a bit, but all the stores were closed by the time I was able to break away from the bar. I was planning on going alone, so determined was I to have this Brick Lane experience, but I was happy when two of my coworkers decided to join. We went to Bengal Village and ordered papadoms, onion bhajee, paneer tika, shatkora king prawn bhuna, garka lamb, and garlic chilli chicken. Everything was yummy and our waiter was a joy.
I was completely stuffed, but we were right by Beigel Bake, which I had heard of across Instagram and from British friends who love a late night Brick Lane sesh. It’s open 24/7 so it’s ideal drunk food. I got a salt beef bagel (which is basically brisket) with hot mustard and pickle. It was bomb.
There was a major football aka soccer match happening that night so we popped into Beechwood to watch the end of an exciting game. The bar felt like a standard post-work watering hole and watching soccer felt like a very British thing to do. Anytime you’re doing what the locals do, I feel like you’re doing travel right. Before I knew it, I was waking up to board the bus for the next leg of our company offsite and London was simply a place I knew I’d like to see again.
- Moxy: Our hotel was great (love a Moxy), but I wouldn’t recommend staying in Stratford. Talk to any Londoner and they’ll tell you they’re never in this area. It was home to the Olympics, which should give you an idea of how far out it is (since the games typically require lots of space). It’s also home to the largest Westfield mall so it’s where you’d go if you need to do some no-nonsense shopping…but you likely don’t care to do that on your visit to London. It was right next to a major subway station so we were able to get anywhere rather easily, it just took a bit of time. It felt very Jersey City.
- Other Options – Honestly, I would pick a hotel based on one of the neighborhoods you know you’re going to spend a lot of time in (see some favorite neighborhoods in Activities, below). Whatever is available, looks cool, and is priced right (since I rarely spend a lot of time in the hotel). That said, two spots that I’d consider are:
- The Zetter Townhouse: I’m dying to stay at one of these [two] boutique spots that looks like the antique home of someone filled with fabulosity. They’re located in pretty central neighborhoods and feature some great cocktail bars.
- The Hoxton: If you want to make Shoreditch home base.
- Fish and Chips: A British specialty! I ordered cod and loved, but apparently haddock is the real way to go. Douse it with vinegar and add the curry sauce for dipping. I loved The Fish House, but I hear Poppies is great too.
- Indian Food: Indian cuisine is THE thing in London. I highly recommend Brick Lane, especially late night for traditional curries and the whole experience. But if you can’t make it there, you’ve got options. Dishoom (several locations) was consistently recommended. It’s a modern take that’s hugely popular – so much so that the wait was too long when we tried to go. I heardddd they may be opening an NYC location and am keeping my fingers crossed. Brigadier’s is also supposed to be really good and serves a biryani pot pie thing that looks amazing.
- Street Food: Food markets/halls are popular, large, and incredible in London. I loved the sprawling Borough Market, but there are plenty of amazing food halls scattered around the city. After Borough Market, Boxpark Shoreditch, Camden Market (a close walk to the Vagina Museum, yes, the Vagina Museum), and Brixton Village were probably the most recommended.
- Pubs: The pub experience is also very British. Everyone seems to have their favorite local spot. Churchill Arms was great, but I say just pick whatever looks good along your travels. The beauty of a true English pub is that it’s not fussy. But in case you need someeee direction, keep your eyes peeled for these spots as you pass through various neighborhoods: Coach and Horses, The Harp, The George, The Lamb, Crown & Anchor, and The Three Greyhounds. HOT TIP: One of the best things about pub life is that you order drinks as small/medium/large.
- Pub Quiz: I gather the English love a good trivia night. If you’re in London on a weeknight, stumble into a pub for a game. Looks like The Lamb (mentioned above) is running one every Tuesday and I’m betting they’re not the only one.
- FYI: British food is exactly what it says. Mushy peas (often seen as a side with fish and chips) are peas that have been mushed. Salt beef is beef with salt. This is a great quality in a culinary destination.
- I like picking a neighborhood and going deep. This trip, I focused on Notting Hill and Shoreditch, but there are several others I’d love to explore. Bloomsbury is very high on my list because it’s a literary hub. It’s the home of authors like Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens, as well at the headquarters of Bloomsbury Publishing. I would probably follow this walk to get a feel for the neighborhood and focus on streets like Woburn Walk for the best window shopping. There are also a bunch of museums in the area, but I particularly like the niche ones like the Foundling Museum, which walks you through the Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned children. I would also love to walk through the famous King’s Cross train station (with a stop at Platform 9 3/4, naturally). Afternoon tea at Dalloway Terrace and cocktails at the Coral Room were both on my list as places to try in the neighborhood and both are located at the the Bloomsbury Hotel…perhaps this would be a good place to consider resting my head.
- Another neighborhood that might be worth exploring is Chiswick. It looks like they’ve got a cheese market and flower market (monthly, I believe), which would make for a fun excursion. There’s also a distillery so you can try some gin, arguably London’s favorite spirit. If I was going to this area, I would be sure to plan it around that cheese/flower market, obviously.
- Brixton is yet another neighborhood on my list. Originally working class, this South London area is the center of the Afro-Caribbean community and has some great nightlife and cool street art. It’s a little further out, so some planning would need to be involved if you also want to do the traditional touristy/highbrow things. That shouldn’t stop you because Ubers are around and the tube is very easy to navigate. It’s more centrally located than where I stayed so it wouldn’t be difficult to access.
- There are so many bookstores! I feel like you could build an entire London trip around bookstores. Some of the shops I’d love to check out are Word on the Water (a floating bookstore on a barge!), Hatchard’s, Skoob (largest secondhand collection), Heywood Hill, Nomad (lots of French language), and Books for Cooks. Ideally, I’d plot each of these bookshops on the map and work my way through, stopping to snack and perhaps meander through a museum as a way to see the city. (Persephone, Alice Through The Looking Glass, Gay’s The Word, Travis & Emery, and Gosh! are also all unique and specific shops you may want to include on your bookish tour.)
- Afternoon tea feels like a must, especially if you’re with Mom or a group of girls. There are plenty of versions – all the fancy hotels (The Dorchester, The Langham, The Goring, Claridge’s, etc.) have a service and the formerly all-pink Sketch is famous, but I’m most intrigued by tea with a twist. Hotel Café Royal has two options: one is an immersive experience in partnership with the Van Gogh exhibit; the other is a modern cake and bubbles service with a renowned pastry chef. High Chai at the Lalit seems like something fun and a bit different. Mr. Fogg’s is a group of Victorian style cocktail bars that offer tipsy tea so you can enjoy some Mad Hatter vibes. The Rosewood’s Art Afternoon Tea is inspired by the latest exhibition. Dalloway Terrace at the Bloomsbury would probably be my pick for a fancy, Insta-worthy tea (those flowers!).
- Take in a show at the famed West End (London’s version of Broadway). The best part is that their theater district is near neighborhoods that offer much better food options than Times Square.
- I’m told if you’re going to hit up one touristy/monument-y thing, the Tower of London should be it. It’s the site of Anne Boleyn’s execution and where the crown jewels are held. If you’ve had lunch at Borough Market (see above, in Food/Drink), you could easily walk to Tower Bridge in 10-15 minutes and cross it, taking in the amazing views and landing right at the Tower of London.
- I had no idea what people meant when they said something was on “the high street.” I thought it meant each area had a street that was physically situated higher up, like an access road. Nope. It just means the main street of a given area where you’ll find the majority of commerce.
- London has a very New York feel in that there are distinct neighborhoods, each with its own vibe. One might be super historic, another that’s mostly offices, one that’s posh, and one that’s gritty. That said, the neighborhoods seem much larger than those in NYC – makes sense since the city is physically larger than the island of Manhattan. I would just take that into account when you’re going from place to place.
- Take advantage of public transportation! The Citymapper app is super helpful.
- It will be more expensive, but the holidays are supposedly magical in London. As someone who detests the cold, I liked being there in May so I could walk everywhere without freezing, but I would love to be there in late November/early December to experience the Christmas markets.