London is one of those cities that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. I know for me, it has always been on the list. My dad and uncle lived in the city for a few years after serving in the Army, so I’ve grown up with them telling me stories of the “good ‘ol days.” I also have second cousins who live there now that I wanted to visit since meeting them at a wedding nearly ten years ago! In case I needed more reasons to want to visit London, it’s probably the most affordable European city to fly into from the East Coast of the U.S. I also had many friends tell me, “YOU would love London!” Needless to say, London was at the top of the list.
In This Guide:
- When To Go To London
- What To Pack for London
- Getting To London
- Getting Around London
- Where We Stayed in London
- Where We Went in London (by neighborhood)
- Notting Hill & Kensington
- South Kensington, Chelsea & Belgravia
- Westminster & St. James
- Marylebone & Fitzrovia
- Mayfair, Covent Garden & Soho
- South Bank & City of London
- Camden & North London
- Shoreditch & East London
- Trip Highlights
When To Go To London
London was the first destination on our three-week European adventure, which began in the middle of September. As previously noted, it was the most affordable city to fly into. It was also a great transition city for an American traveler — everyone speaks fluent English (but it sounds way better with their accents, of course)! It’s clean, it’s safe, and it feels familiar. Having lived in New York City for 3.5 years, I was surprised how similar it felt to London. Large neighborhoods all jam-packed with amazing places while still having their own vibe and character, and having to rely on public transportation to get around.
The weather was gloomy and grey some days, which is very common there, and beautiful blue skies and sunny other days. I think we got very lucky with the forecast, averaging in the 60s most days.
What To Pack for London
If you’re traveling to London in September, I would plan on wearing a light to medium-weight jacket every day. My go-to outfit was a black faux leather or military green jacket, any top/light sweater, jeans, and either sneakers or short booties. Keep in mind that you’ll inevitably be walking a lot, so comfortable shoes is a must. The style of the locals is very on-trend and fashionable — don’t be afraid to pack your coolest online shopping finds! Read about how I packed for 3 weeks in Europe.
Getting To London
In planning our trip, I was incredibly torn and confused as to the best time to book our flights. We ended up booking them in mid-June for a departure in mid-September, and I would not recommend booking any later than that. Prices started to jump $20-$50 in early June, and I never really saw them go back down. Fortunately, I still think we got a great deal of $670 round-trip per person given both ways were direct, Orlando to London Gatwick, and it was on Virgin Atlantic instead of a budget airline.
I had flown Virgin America three times before to Las Vegas once and Los Angeles twice, but it was my first time flying Virgin Atlantic. Maybe it was an older plane, but I found it to feel a bit more standard than the ultra-cool and modern Virgin America planes. On the way there, my boyfriend and I were able to snag the row of two seats instead of three in the very back of the plane. While it was nice not to have to worry about sitting next to a stranger for 9 hours, there was a large space to the side of the seat by the window so you couldn’t lean on the window to sleep as many people like to do.
Unlike some other international flights I’ve been on, they gave us a menu of three dinner choices to choose from with descriptions. The food was okay, but very alarming if you looked at the nutritional facts for anything in a package. For example, the sweet “granola bar” they gave us as part of the breakfast had OVER 60 GRAMS OF SUGAR and it was no larger than the size of the palm of my hand. Yikes!
I was also unsure about the use of TSA Pre-Check for international flights, and at what point we would go through customs. In recent years, I had only flown to Canada. We were able to use our TSA Pre-Check on the way there in Orlando, and went through customs upon arriving in London. On the return, we went through customs in Orlando, where I learned something that has held true in my experiences traveling internationally for work since. If you fly on an American airline, the customs line returning to the U.S. will likely be longer. However, if you fly on an international carrier, the customs line will most likely be longer for non-U.S. passport holders. I kid you not, there must have been 5 people in the U.S. line and 200 in the non-U.S. line!
Once we arrived in London Gatwick airport and went through customs, we took the Gatwick Express train into Victoria Station in the city. We bought the train ticket in advance, which I recommend. It was very quick and easy at about 30 minutes.
Getting Around London
After too many hours of travel and not enough sleep, we made it into London! At Victoria Station in Chelsea, we bought pay-as-you-go Oyster cards, which are easy to re-fill as needed and never expire like a NYC Metrocard. They feel more like a gift card than a piece of paper. We learned you can also use Apple Pay on your iPhone, but we never tested it.
Some basic but useful information I learned about the tube is that you swipe your card as you enter AND as you leave the station. This is because the tube map is broken up into zones, and traveling to or from the farther away zones costs more. Some tube stations are underground, after the longest escalators I’ve ever seen, and some are at ground-level and outside. Speaking of escalators, it is proper practice to stand on the right or walk on the left. This should be followed more strictly everywhere like it is in London.
Did you know the first tube line went from Paddington and Farringdon and started in 1863, which makes it the oldest rapid transit system in the world?
Compared to NYC, there are no local and express trains. Instead, find out which line you need to take and in what direction, then look at one of the many maps on/before the platform to make sure that line doesn’t split before your stop. On the platform, it shows how far away the trains are, but like NYC, each train is labeled by its LAST stop. We figured this out early on by getting on a train that split and never went to our desired stop. After that, we didn’t make the simple mistake again. In general, I found the tube to be faster, more reliable, and easier to figure out than the subway. We used Google Maps to figure out what station to get on or off at. Just make sure you check before you go underground where you likely will not have any signal!
Our second most used mode of transportation were the bright red double-decker buses because sometimes it was easier to get to/faster than taking the tube, especially for short distances or areas away from the station. We used Google Maps again to determine which method of transportation was best. When you enter the bus, you swipe your Oyster card at the entrance at the front of the bus, and then you depart the bus from the middle doors. We had fun going upstairs, hoping to get those front row seats in front of the big windows for a free scenic tour of the city.
The most popular alternatives to the tube, bus or walking are cabs or Uber. We learned that most locals avoid cabs, which are more expensive than Ubers. We found the tube so easy, and walking so lovely, that we only took an Uber once late at night.
The currency in London is the Pound, which has a higher exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar than the Euro. It’s quite expensive! For the best rate, I recommend going to an ATM machine in the airport or once you’ve made it into the city versus going to one of those touristy currency exchange desks or getting it at your local bank before you leave for your trip.
Where We Stayed in London
While booking our flight was the first big commitment in planning our trip, the accommodations were up next. We stayed in all Airbnbs throughout our trip (except Rotterdam), which you will see in my Prague, Vienna, and Budapest travel guides. The cost was more affordable than hotels and the homes were in just as good of locations within each city. However, in London most of all, we struggled to find the right one. Our favorite places were suddenly gone by the time we went to book, over and over again, leading us to constantly re-think our preferred neighborhoods to stay in. We ended up in Notting Hill staying at this Airbnb that no longer seems to be taking reservations. I’m not surprised though because our tenant was having trouble with a neighbor who did not like the concept of him renting out his unit to new people on a regular-basis. Fortunately, we still had a positive experience!
The pros of staying in Notting Hill were that we were within a short walking distance from the popular Notting Hill Gate tube station with many lines, while also having plenty of nice places in Notting Hill and Kensington within walking distance. It was not very lively at night, which can be a pro and a con in my opinion. The con was that Notting Hill is not very centrally located when you consider the neighborhoods you’ll most likely want to visit during your trip, rather you will always find yourself heading in the same direction.
Another neighborhood we looked at staying in was Marylebone, which would have been a little more centrally-located while still being pretty quiet at night. We also looked at staying in Chelsea, which I would not be opposed to for a future trip. In my opinion, any other neighborhood is either too far, too expensive, challenging to find an Airbnb, or a little risky (some streets are nice, others not so much). To each their own!
Where We Went in London (by neighborhood)
Much like New York City, London is a very large, busy and spread out city broken up into distinctive neighborhoods more than Prague or Budapest. Therefore, like many of my neighborhood guides, I’ve organized this one by neighborhoods so that you can walk to each place listed within each section.
Notting Hill & Kensington
Considered West London, Notting Hill is a charming, affluent neighborhood known for its picturesque pastel-painted homes, beautiful gardens and hidden side streets, quirky shops and trendy restaurants, Portobello Road Market, and the chick-flick starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill, of course. It’s an area you can stop in for lunch and some walking around the shops, or spend a whole day. Allow at least 2-3 hours.
South of Notting Hill is Kensington, home to royalty over the years at Kensington Palace. It’s a very upscale area with stately Victorian buildings, chic boutiques on Kensington High Street, antique shops on Kensington Church Street, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum. Walking from our Airbnb in Notting Hill through the local neighborhood, I kid you not, every single house had a Range Rover parked out front and impeccable landscaping. Quite nice!
This popular bakery & cafe was constantly busy despite a whopping 43 locations within the city. They bake fresh, handmade bread, pastries and cakes every day, serve house blend coffee, and focus on using seasonal ingredients for their breakfasts, lunches, and afternoon teas. I ordered their courgette (what the Brits call zucchini), goat cheese and olive quiche, which was delicious! I could not have picked something more fresh, flavorful, and comforting as my first meal in London after a long night of traveling, snacks, and processed plane food. Expect a line and little to no seating available if you go at peak times.
Home to the world’s largest antiques market with over 1,000 dealers selling every kind of antique and collectible, this is where most tourists will go in Notting Hill, especially on Saturdays for the main market. We decided to stroll through on a gloomy weekday instead after hearing from friends how uncomfortably crowded it becomes. It’s quite a narrow street and that’s before all the tents are set up!
In addition to Gail’s Bakery, some other places we stopped in or walked by on (or just off of) Portobello Road were The Notting Hill Bookshop (from the movie), Biscuiteers boutique, and Books for Cooks.
The Churchill Arms
You’ve probably seen this famous pub on Instagram because it’s completely covered in brightly colored flowers. The majority of pubs in London do have some flowers outside, but no one does it quite like The Churchill Arms. To my surprise, it seemed to be an equal mix of tourists and locals in the bar area, and the bartenders were very friendly. What wasn’t a surprise was their great selection of gin and beer – an introduction of what was to come during our time in London. Check out my 19 Things To Know Before Traveling To Europe for tips about ordering gin and tonics! The pub also serves Thai food randomly if you’re hungry. It actually looked pretty good! If you’re going to go to one pub in London, make it this one.
The Ladbroke Arms
This pub is tucked away from the hustle and bustle on a residential street a few minutes walk away from our Airbnb. It was packed with an after-dinner crowd of locals and I’m not surprised, the food menu looked amazing. We enjoyed a couple G&T’s on the front patio and felt sad to be leaving the next morning, but it’s not somewhere I’d suggest going out of your way for.
One place I would skip based on our experience was Electric Diner on Portobello Road. After being seated, we waited for more than 15 minutes while servers walked back and forth past us without ever receiving any service ourselves. We felt completely ignored and sadly walked out.
Other Places To Consider
- Farm Girl Cafe – I really wanted to go this girly, Insta-worthy, Aussie-chic cafe but it never worked out. Tucked away on Portobello Road, they serve a mostly vegan menu and signature lattes like rose and lavender. They also have locations in Chelsea and Soho.
- Daylesford Organic – An all-day cafe/deli serving seasonal organic plates such as quiche, salads, and items great for takeaway.
- Granger & Co. – Another popular, no-reservations Aussie cafe with multiple locations that’s very highly rated. They’re especially known for their brunches!
- Caravan – I’m really not sure why, but Notting Hill seems to have great cafes! This is another highly-rated, popular one in the city with multiple locations.
- Egg Break – We tried to go to this popular breakfast shop a few times but the line was at least ten people out the door.
- Wild At Heart – One of the most celebrated British florists, Nikki Tibbles, has a beautiful flower shop perfect for an afternoon stroll or a photo opp.
- The Kensington Wine Rooms – This stylish wine bar serves fresh, seasonal, local menus to complement wines by the glass.
- Maggie Jones’s – I made a reservation for dinner here before our trip, but sadly had to cancel it. It’s a hearty farmhouse-style British menu in an upscale restaurant themed like an old barn.
- Kensington Palace & Gardens – As much as I wanted to visit some of the royal monuments in the city, they all require advance booking and payment. I love flexibility while traveling, so I didn’t make it on this trip but would still like to go in the future.
- The Distillery – This four-floor mecca has a working distillery, a specialty gin bar, and Spanish tapas.
South Kensington, Chelsea & Belgravia
South of Hyde Park are upscale neighborhoods including South Kensington, Chelsea and Belgravia. The area is home to fantastic restaurants, high-end shops, renowned museums, and celebrity sightings. We saw GORDON RAMSAY our first day outside his restaurant Petrus. I honestly cannot even explain to you how big of a deal that was for us. My boyfriend had been following him for years and got me addicted to his shows, especially Master Chef and Master Chef Junior. We could not have seen anyone more exciting! Anyway, you could easily spend days in these three neighborhoods alone. We spent our first late afternoon/evening here exploring before crashing of jet lag at 8:30pm, then came back the next morning for the museum and Harrods.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design as well as sculpture, housing a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. We decided to go here because it was free, and were glad we got there first thing in the morning before it got too crowded. We spent an hour or two leisurely browsing, but didn’t cover it all. Like most museums, you could spend four hours exploring on your own, an hour or two on a tour, or quickly pop in and out like we did. Whatever your personal preference is! I wanted to save some of my walking energy for a long day of exploring ahead and was happy with the variety that we saw. It was beautiful, as you can tell in the photos, and offered something for everyone.
Harrods is the world’s most famous department store with the latest men’s and women’s designer fashion, luxury gifts, food and accessories. It is a must for anyone, of any age, with any interests. I may be biased, but the food hall is the best part. It’s the perfect place if you’re looking for gifts or if you are traveling alone. You could spend an hour there at least, even if you don’t sit at one of the specialty counters to eat. We went around peak lunch hour so it was a little overwhelming, noisy, and crowded, but that didn’t take away from it’s magnificence. Anyone would appreciate the history, architecture, and old school London glamour that fills up the ambiance of this bustling store. Ladies, it doesn’t hurt that you have to pass through the handbag collections on your way there…dreamy!
The Fine Cheese Co.
Located on a lovely block in Belgravia is this small cheese shop and cafe, which was quite a diversion from Harrods. There were four outdoor tables to enjoy people watching, as well as a more seating inside at the back of the shop. The waiter was very nice and charming, even bringing me a bug swatter to scare away the bees who wanted to enjoy the fantastic meat and cheese board and glass of red wine as much as I did. Good food, good wine, good service, good atmosphere… I ask for nothing more in an outing! If you’re looking for a relaxing stop in your day out in London, or are looking to bring some local hors d’oeuvres back to your hotel/airbnb, I highly recommend this spot. You can find some of their crackers here in the U.S. too. My dad’s gourmet shop sold them in Palm Beach!
Within the Chelsea Cloisters apartment building on Sloane Avenue is this quirky speakeasy cocktail bar. Enter through the lobby, pass the doorman on the left and look for a black door. If you are allowed in based on the current occupancy like we luckily were, you’ll be given a menu in the form of a comic book with very clever, creative, tasty cocktails. Once we ordered our drinks and sat at the bar for a little bit, we headed back to their cute patio in the back with eclectic furniture, flowers, and an open-air roof overhead. A hidden oasis in the middle of Chelsea. As much as we enjoyed our break here, it wouldn’t be my top recommendation for a cocktail bar in the city. Keep reading for more of our amazing local bar finds!
For dinner on our first night in the city, we went to this romantic, cozy, farm-to-table restaurant in Chelsea on Kings Road. They serve an ever-changing menu of all things wild, foraged, and locally grown, including sustainable livestock from the Gladwin’s own family farm in West Sussex. They also have a wide range of English wines from their own vineyard. The dishes are presented as small plates designed for sharing. We were impressed by how filling each one was!
We sat towards the front, and would recommend requesting that if you make a reservation. The back got a bit noisy. We loved the sweet cured grouse with filo, the aged chorizo, and the onion squash gnocchi. We would skip the vegetable marrow and liver dish next time. I would definitely come back here!
Although discovering the very old Kevin Moran/Nag’s Head pub was cool to see with all of its mementos, I would probably skip it as it was quite small inside and fairly quiet.
Other Places To Consider
- Saatchi Gallery – A free gallery in Chelsea featuring up-and-coming and established contemporary art exhibited in 19th-century Duke of York headquarters.
- The Ivy Chelsea Garden – This long-standing, very popular restaurant was near the top of my list after being recommended to me numerous times. The modern British menus are served in a refined indoor space or a flower-filled garden terrace, which you should make a reservation for.
- Duke of York Square Market – Every Saturday from 10am until 4pm, this open-air fine food market offers artisanal and locally produced meat, game, fish, bread, cakes, cupcakes and much more! Unfortunately, our timing didn’t work out to make it back to this neighborhood a third time as we had planned to spend our last full day in East London instead. At the very top of my list for next time!
- The Botanist – This airy, all-day Chelsea restaurant serves simple modern British food and yummy-sounding cocktails.
- The Orange – Multiple floors make up this bustling bar and casual dining rooms serving fresh, seasonal, yet modern European dishes. It looks great for a cocktail, small plates, or wood-fired pizza.
- Peggy Porschen – This chic bakery is famous for their creative cupcakes, fancy cakes and other sweet treats, plus tea and champagne.
- Les Senteurs – London’s oldest independent perfumery that looks like a beautiful shop to explore, find gifts, or treat yourself to a fragrance that will remind you of your trip to London.
- La Poule au Pot – A classic, candlelit French bistro with an outdoor terrace. It’s the sister restaurant to Maggie Jones mentioned above.
Westminster & St. James
Many of the iconic London tourist attractions are located within Westminster. Unfortunately, Big Ben was under construction during our trip, but we did stroll around Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park for a couple hours. As you can see, we lucked out that it was the most beautiful day!
We decided to skip any tickets or tours during our stroll, but some things to consider are:
- If you happen to be at Buckingham Palace on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, stick around for the Changing of the Guard at 11am!
- If you visit between July 20, 2019 – September 29, 2019 when the royal family is on holiday, you can tour the State Rooms that the Queen uses to entertain guests!
- It costs £25.00 for an adult ticket that you should book in advance, however the ticket requires a specific date and time slot. Don’t wait until the last minute!
Marylebone & Fitzrovia
On my next trip to London, I’d like to spend more time in or even stay in an Airbnb in Marylebone. There are so many great places to eat and drink (see a list below) but not as much to do. As a result, we only managed to hit a few this time. It was on the more quiet and residential side, but still very charming and luxurious.
The Golden Hind
A must on our “foods to try” list in London was traditional fish and chips with mushy peas. Like any local cuisine in a specific place, everyone has their favorite spot that they think is the best. In my research, I liked what I read about The Golden Hind and its location in Marylebone. The restaurant was packed full with tables and stayed busy the whole time we were there. We tried both options but preferred the cod fish & chips over the haddock. The mushy peas were surprisingly good too! It was a small restaurant so the seating felt a bit crowded but it’s in a great area for strolling around before or after.
Bourne & Hollingsworth
Located on the south end of the adorable Charlotte Street, this quirky basement cocktail bar was designed to remind you of a whimsical yet luxurious living room. From patterned pink walls to velvet couches, it would be perfect for a girls night out. However, even for my boyfriend and I, it was still an enjoyable cocktail bar.
I would say this Fitzrovia-based bar is not a must-visit, but I would recommend this street/neighborhood for an evening stroll. It was lively without feeling too crowded or touristy. There were many cute shops too!
This exotic meats restaurant is quite possibly the strangest dining experience I’ve ever had. Since I’m an adventurous eater, I was open to trying some different things.
We started with the zebra, alpaca, crocodile, and python carpaccio. They were all delicious, well prepared and not too visually obvious. That was, until we got to the dessert, which is where I drew the line! Chocolate covered scorpions, caramel mealworms, and a python absinthe… I tried everything, but after one bite/sip of each I just couldn’t continue…
The service was fantastic, and the ambiance filled with unusual things from around the world. You definitely won’t feel like you’re in London here! It’s safe to say I will never forget this meal.
Other Places To Consider
- Iberica – A modern and highly-rated Spanish restaurant
- Artesian Bar – An award-winning cocktail bar in the Langham Hotel decorated in a modern oriental style.
- La Fromagerie – A cheese shop with a wide variety sourced from local and artisanal producers. They also sell meats and fine food products, host tastings and master classes, and feature all-day food menus for dining in.
- Aubaine – Chic French restaurant located inside of Selfridges that is Instagram-famous for the lavender wisterias dangling from the ceilings.
- Opso – A traditional meets contemporary Greek tapas restaurant in a lively atmosphere.
- The Providores – Downstairs is a tapas room and all-day cafe, and upstairs is a formal innovative fusion restaurant known for their extensive New Zealand wine list.
- Chiltern Firehouse – A 5-star luxury hotel with a restaurant and bar in a former firehouse. It’s very popular, so reservations far in advance are highly recommended. They’re known for their brunch and celebrity-spotting, if you’re into that.
- The Wallace Collection – A free art gallery located in the former townhouse of the Seymour family featuring beautiful art and a more pleasant experience than some of the more popular and crowded London museums.
- Daunt Books – A gorgeous bookshop that began as a travel bookshop, but now sells all kinds of literature. It claims to be the first custom-built bookshop in the world!
- Purl – A brick-lined, 19th-century cellar bar serving multi-sensory cocktails.
- Saint Aymes – Another Instagram-famous, floral-filled coffee shop serving trendy, colorful desserts. A cute place for afternoon tea.
- Hoppers – A popular family-style Sri Lankan restaurant that doesn’t take reservations but is supposed to be amazing and is something a little different!
- Marylebone Farmers Market – Always worth mentioning, although it takes place on Sundays only! We weren’t in London on a Sunday unfortunately.
- The Churchill Bar & Terrace – An upscale hotel cocktail bar in the Hyatt Regency with a Churchill theme, art deco details, a cigar humidor and a terrace.
- Carousel – A foodie’s go-to restaurant that’s less publicized than some of its neighbors. It plays host to a number of guest chefs who rotate every couple weeks, so you’re guaranteed a different experience with every visit.
- Clarette – A art-deco style French wine bar. I’d love to go here for a nice wine flight.
Mayfair, Covent Garden & Soho
If I were to stay in a hotel on my next visit to London, I would try to find a reasonably priced room in any of these three neighborhoods. Unfortunately, there aren’t any reasonably priced Airbnb’s available.
This quaint home store meets plant shop is a great place to stop by if you’re looking for a gift or something to take home. The skylights and Victorian-style building with a courtyard is pure bliss, and a perfect escape from the crowds of Covent Garden.
On my next trip, I’d absolutely love to visit the Petersham Nurseries Richmond location. It is so beautiful! There’s a cafe within a glasshouse serving fresh, seasonal dishes, and also a tea house. I first heard about it from popular blogger Gal Meets Glam. Her photos are so incredibly dreamy and reminds me of the English countryside even though it’s only a 20-minute drive away from London’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Tucked away near Seven Dials is this colorful courtyard lined with restaurants and shops, such as the popular Neal’s Yard Remedies health and beauty store. We didn’t spend much time here, but you could easily have lunch, pop into the shops, and of course take lots of pictures! It’s a cool spot if you’re nearby, but I wouldn’t go out of your way for it.
Fortnum & Mason
Another one of my London musts was afternoon tea. Unless you don’t like tea, it should be yours too! Fortnum & Mason proved to be the perfect spot for our first traditional English afternoon tea service. It’s a multi-level, upscale department store with the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on one of the top floors. Everything about it feels really special, except all the tourists unfortunately. The dishes are beautiful, the tea variety extensive, and the food exceeded expectations. Don’t be fooled by the small bites – it was super filling! We got one “tower” per person – sweets, scones, and tea sandwiches. Would return!
Mr. Fogg’s House of Botanicals
Any cocktail lovers like myself should look into visiting one of the many famous Mr. Fogg’s “adventurous bars” located around the city. Although I had a few on my list, the only one we made it to was House of Botanicals. It’s a bright space filled entirely with flora and fauna collected from all over the world – pretty incredible if you ask me, not to mention very Instagram-friendly. We loved the Gully of Ferns and A Fever-Grass Dream cocktails, but I’m sure they’re all top-notch. As I’m sure the same applies for all Mr. Fogg’s locations, it was very busy around the after work happy hour time of day. We were lucky to walk-in before it got too busy but we didn’t stay after one drink.
If you’re looking for a laidback, approachable but still cool cocktail bar, look no further than Freud. It’s located in a minimalist concrete cellar with outdoor stairs in front of the entrance and could easily be missed! We went at an off-time and chatted with the friendly bartenders over some well-made classic cocktails. It felt like a very local spot, which I always love to find when I travel.
Opium Cocktails & Dim Sum Parlour
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Freud is this unique, Asian-style speakeasy cocktail bar in Chinatown. We ended up at the Peony Bar specifically, which is the hidden den within Opium behind the red curtain. It’s dark, exclusive, and romantic yet really fun and exciting. I loved the Beijing cocktail (pictured), which came with a sugar cookie, edible strawberry “paint” and a paint brush. Talk about presentation! Very cool spot.
Another memorable cocktail bar and speakeasy we went to was Cahoots in Soho. It mimics a tube station and transports guests back in time to post-war 1940s, with everything from live jazz, swing, and rock music to drinks served in old mugs, hip flasks, and vintage milk bottles and tins. I loved how the menu was in the form of a newspaper, as you can see in my photo to the left. It reminded me of my daily morning commute on the NYC subway. The bar itself was very loud, so I’d only recommend going as a small group or as a couple.
One of my trip highlights was going out a few nights in the Kingly Court area in Soho, where Cahoots is located. More pictures above!
Around the corner from Cahoots is this small and cozy yet very hip speakeasy. It reminded me a lot of the crowded, dark, underground bars you’d find in NYC. There is either seating at the bar or on the couches on either side of the bar. They had great, creative and custom cocktails and are known for offering an extensive collection of luxurious spirits and wines.
If you have to choose between the two, I think the cocktails are just as good at Cahoots where there is a more interesting environment. It’s also much easier to get into only because the space is much larger. If neither work out for you, there are many more casual bars and restaurants inside Kingly Court.
Other Places To Consider
- Dean Street Townhouse – A townhouse turned hotel built in the 1700s popular for their brunch, Sunday roast, afternoon tea or pre-dinner drinks with one of their signature house tonics.
- Yauatcha – Upscale, contemporary Chinese dining with expertly-crafted dim-sum and handmade sweets.
- Yumchaa – A tea house in Berwick Street Market
- Nopi – Middle Eastern and Asian-inspired sharing plates at famed chef Ottolenghi’s all-day brasserie. Downstairs is communal seating overlooking the kitchen; upstairs is more formal.
- Shopping at Selfridges and Liberty London, among many others!
- Temper – A stylish basement bar with an open kitchen for tacos, mezcal & barbecued meats.
- Dishoom – This extremely popular Indian restaurant with multiple locations was recommended to me more than anywhere else. I did try to go to the Kingly Court location but the wait was just too long, sadly. They’re supposed to have an awesome brunch as well.
- Sticks’n’Sushi – A popular, casual but authentic Japanese restaurant.
- The Shop at Bluebird – An upscale boutique selling a curated selection of fashion, beauty, art and homeware pieces from around the world.
- Bob Bob Ricard – An iconic Russian meets British restaurant serving caviar alongside a “press for champagne” button at every table.
- Mr. Fogg’s Tavern, Gin Parlour, Residence – More Mr. Fogg’s bar locations!
- Sketch – Most known for their afternoon tea in the all-pink Gallery room, Sketch is definitely somewhere to book far in advance! The Glade side is reminiscent of an enchanted forest with expensive cocktails and small plates.
- Sabor – A tapas bar specializing in seafood that has three different areas for dining with different menus and vibes.
- Elan Cafe – A trendy cafe popular for their flower wall in the basement, lattes and cakes.
South Bank & City of London
If you are in London for more than a few days, I’d highly recommend spending at least half a day in the South Bank beside the River Thames to visit a few key spots, then make your way over the Tower Bridge into the City of London neighborhood. Walking map below for reference! The South Bank is the heart of London’s cultural scene where you can also admire iconic landmarks like the London Eye ferris wheel and Big Ben. The City of London however is quite the opposite. It’s the historic financial district, home to both the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England, and filled with modern corporate skyscrapers.
The Tate Modern is an interactive modern art gallery with panoramic river views, and best of all, it’s free to visit! The museum features modern and contemporary art from 1900 to present day with special rotating exhibitions. It is by far one of London’s most popular destinations for tourists and locals alike. Fortunately, the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge makes it very easy to get to and literally lets you out right in front of the museum’s entrance. For reference, it’s a 10-minute walk from St. Paul’s Cathedral over the bridge to the Tate Modern. Like any museum, you can spend as little or as much time as you want. We strolled around self-guided and made our way up to the rooftop for the views. Even though I’m not a huge museum person, I did enjoy the Tate Modern and think it’s worth visiting for an hour or two in your day.
Another London staple recommended to me by pretty much everyone was Borough Market. It is one of the largest and oldest marketing in London that is open Wednesdays through Saturdays. It’s a foodie mecca filled with local vendors for sampling, shopping, or even lunch. Since the market is completely covered, it’s ideal rain or shine. My top suggestion is not to go at peak lunch hour like we did – oops! It was VERY crowded!
Flour & Grape
Although we did wander around Borough Market sampling little things, we were anxious to escape the crowds for an easy-going sit down lunch. Flour & Grape was the perfect place! You don’t have to say anything more than “homemade pasta” to spark my interest. We were lucky to snag two seats at the bar, but I would recommend making a reservation. The pasta was incredible, and they had a great wine selection too!
To walk off our delicious pasta lunch, we walked over the Tower Bridge to make our way into the City of London neighborhood. Even on a gloomy day, this famous bridge built in 1886 is spectacular! You can get a great photo from the City Hall and Potters Fields Park area on the Southbank side. It was here that I gave walking/tube directions to another tourist, which after four days in the city felt pretty amazing, haha!
On the City of London side, Leadenhall Market is a covered market that was established in 1321 and is home to little shops, restaurants and pubs. Appearance-wise, it was one of my favorite markets I’ve ever been to. We didn’t stay very long however, as we honestly weren’t drawn in by anywhere in particular. It felt more like an area where finance guys would go out for lunch or after work drinks.
Other Places To Consider
- 214 Bermondsey – A relaxed, underground bar beneath Flour & Grape (see above!) offering a wide selection of gins and even gin and tonic flights!
- Maltby St. Market – A miniature version of Borough Market that takes place on weekends only in the up-and-coming Bermondsey neighborhood. The rail arch warehouses on Maltby Street, used during the work week by various factories, distributors, and businesses, turn into pop-up spaces for quality coffee shops, wine bars, smoked salmon vendors, cheesemongers, and more. It sounds much less touristy, but rather filled with mostly locals.
- Aqua Shard/Gong Bar – Panoramic views and modern British food from a dining room and bar on the 31st floor of The Shard, the tallest building in London. My friend recommended to go on a week day a little before the normal happy hour to avoid a long wait for a table by the window.
- The Ship – An old 1786 gastropub with a wood-burning stove, riverside terrace and outdoor barbecue kitchen, if you’re in the mood for something a bit more casual.
- Masters Superfish – Long-established, no frills, traditional fish and chips restaurant.
- The Mayflower – A traditional English pub surrounded by cobbled streets with an upstairs restaurant and wooden deck overlooking the river. Check out their meat & cheese boards and weekly events like quiz night, pie night, and fish & chips night!
- Little Bird Gin Residency – A small batch gin distillery, for any fellow gin lovers or gin connoisseurs.
- Tower of London – I really wanted to see the Crown Jewels including Queen Elizabeth’s crown! I’ve read they put you on a conveyor belt to look at them probably to keep the crowd moving, haha. Definitely arrive right when they open and buy your tickets online in advance. I have also read their gift shop is surprisingly quite nice and worth a stop in.
- The Merchant House – A tucked away, luxurious cocktail bar with a mercantile history theme and expansive selection of over 350 gins and 350 rums.
- Bounce – A 1950s-style cocktail bar and pizza restaurant with red leather booths and ping pong tables.
- Coq d’Argent – An all-day French brasserie-style restaurant with a rooftop garden.
- City of London Distillery (COLD bar) – A retro, speakeasy-style cocktail bar that overlooks the copper stills of the distillery. Reservations recommended!
- The Ned Hotel – Even if you don’t stay there, the hotel is in an old bank and houses multiple restaurants and bars.
- Swingers Golf Club – This place looked so fun if you’re traveling with a group or kids, or if it’s just a rainy day. It has two indoor miniature golf courses, multiple food vendors, a bar, etc.
- Coppa Club – You may have seen this one on Instagram, known for their special seasonal rooftop tables in the shape of igloos in the winter or Tulum-themed “paradise pools” in the summer. Space is super limited, so book as far in advance as possible. The rooftop is said to have an amazing view of the Tower Bridge and river.
- Duck & Waffle – An upscale British and European restaurant open 24/7 that’s located on the 40th floor with floor-to-ceiling windows.
- Sky Garden – Known as the walkie talkie due to its unique shape, this skyscraper features multiple restaurants & bars. It is free, but you have to make reservations in advance for a specific time. It’s called the Sky Garden because it’s filled with plants and floor to ceiling windows all around looking over London.
Camden & North London
Many of my close friends loved Camden when they visited London and would tell me, “you have to go.” If I’m honest, it was not my favorite. It’s what I expected Shoreditch to be like, however I liked that neighborhood in East London much more. That said, I’m always happy to go anywhere or try just about anything once.
The Camden markets are a number of adjoining large retail markets broken up into Camden Market, Camden Lock Market, Horse Tunnel Market, and more. It’s located in the historic former Pickford stables north of the Hampstead Road Lock of the Regent’s Canal, giving it it’s names. The shopping is more flea market and hipster vibes than luxury antiques or contemporary boutiques.
The World’s End
On a busy corner in Camden is this two-story traditional pub drawing quite a mixed crowd from nearby Camden Market. It offers a cool atmosphere housing two bars, a mezzanine balcony seating area, and Staropramen Lager delivered directly from the Czech Republic that is served from a special tank you won’t miss behind the bar. It’s unpasteurized, brewery fresh tank beer – fresh from Prague!
This popular Scottish craft beer bar chain with frequent guest brews is an awesome spot to hang out and try some different beers. They had a great selection of bottles, cans, and draft beers, as well as friendly service and a casual, welcoming atmosphere. I’m usually not one to go out of my way to try a chain restaurant or bar, but this one is an exception. Especially while traveling abroad, it’s fun to try different beers, wines, and liquors that aren’t as easily found or as affordable in the U.S. After visiting BrewDog, I kept noticing their beers throughout Europe and admittedly did a little happy dance saying, “I’ve had this one, and that one, etc.”
Instead of exploring more of Camden on my next trip to London, I’d love to check out more of the small Primrose Hill neighborhood. I did walk around a little bit on my way to my cousin’s house for dinner, but didn’t stay in the area after. The Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill itself is supposed to be beautiful, especially in the change of seasons, and Lemonia is the cutest family-run Greek restaurant nearby.
Shoreditch & East London
Because I love a good New York City comparison to any city in the world I travel to, Shoreditch and East London in general are the Brooklyn to Manhattan. A bit quirky, edgy, hipster, and also somewhere no one used to go but in recent years has become all the rage. We all know the type.
I saw this bright and cozy breakfast spot within the Town Hall Hotel on Instagram and figured we would check it out. It was very tucked away and tricky to find, making it even better before we even ordered our food. The breakfast was delicious too! We both went with a fairly classic English breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, spinach, tomato, beans, potatoes, and avocado toast. The interiors were on point – kitchen/dining room goals!
Mother Kelly’s Bottle Shop and Tap Room
This industrial beer bar and bottle shop located beneath railway arches in Bethnal Green had an incredible selection of beers to choose from. They work with independent breweries all over the world and have every style of beer you can imagine from the affordable and familiar to the more esoteric, limited editions. If that’s not enough of a draw for fellow beer lovers, the patio is an amazing weekend hang out spot. We loved the local, laidback atmosphere, and would recommend it to just about everyone… well, except people who don’t like beer! When I travel, there are few places I want to go back to if I revisit the city, but this is one of them that I totally would.
The Last Tuesday Society
While walking around the neighborhood, we stumbled upon this cocktail bar and couldn’t resist the sign outside saying, “The World’s Most Award Winning Absinthe.” Although we have seen absinthe options at a few speakeasy cocktail bars, they tend to be more high-end and formal, whereas The Last Tuesday Society was the opposite — casual and quirky. They call themselves “the world’s most curious cocktail bar” because of their cabinet filled with the most unusual spirits from the old world and new. They had a huge selection of absinthe to choose from, as well as some more approachable and more day-time appropriate absinthe cocktails. Despite the unpretentious vibe, they still served the absinthe with an elaborate presentation.
Broadway Market is a Victorian street market that has been operating since the 1890s. It’s situated in the Hackney neighborhood between the Regent’s Canal and London Fields. The slogan is ‘quality, speciality, variety,’ which holds true amongst the fresh produce stands, authentic street food, unique arts and crafts, and more. In addition to the thriving Saturday market, there are over 70 shops, cafés and restaurants open seven days a week.
Unlike your traditional farmers market like Broadway Market, Netil Market has more of a focus on built-in street food shacks and clothing, jewelry or art boutiques. They also host pop-ups, live music, and offer seating in the center and up some narrow wooden stairs, almost giving it a rooftop feel. It’s a diverse and very local crowd. After all, this area is not touristy at all.
Old Spitalfields Market
Another popular market in East London is Spitalfields Market, which is more of a flea market with surrounding restaurants. Given its location in Shoreditch, you can expect a more hipster vibe with street art, quirky shops, and trendy bars. Most of the retailers in the market are local and independent artists, but there area few more well-known retail shops mixed in too. It was cool to see but we didn’t spend more than ten minutes here.
One of the most popular destinations within the Shoreditch neighborhood is Boxpark. It’s the “world’s first pop-up mall” fusing the concepts of a modern street food market and a pop-up retail mall. It is made out of repurposed shipping containers, a popular trend I have seen lately in Orlando and Austin specifically. The goal in creating BOXPARK was to make it a place where customers can shop, dine and unwind. It is exactly that — a cool but chill outdoor hang out spot for any time and any occasion. However, be warned that it does get quite busy! We went on a Saturday evening, and unsurprisingly found it to be pretty crowded at any of the bars or seating areas. The nice part was that despite all the people, it was easy to walk through from one end to another. I would not go here if there is bad weather, even though some parts are covered.
St. John Bread & Wine
Located across the street from Old Spitalfields Market is this modern restaurant featuring rotating menus of traditional British fare and a diverse wine list. Within the white-walled, minimalist digs is incredibly creative food, great service, and upbeat music. If I’m honest, it exceeded my expectations! We ordered a few different plates to share and loved smoked eel, smoked cods roe, beef mince on duck fat toast, and crispy pigs cheek the most! Each dish was a large portion with rich flavors, so it’s definitely best to share. Do go here if you want to indulge and try different preparations of familiar foods. Don’t go here if you prefer simple foods or if you’re a vegetarian/vegan.
Other Places To Consider
- Sager + Wilde Restaurant – Located next door to Mother Kelly’s, this bar and restaurant is located under a railway arch serving modern British fare.
- Sager + Wilde Wine Room – A second Sager + Wilde location serving fine wines in an urban bar.
- Satan’s Whiskers – A compact, top-rated cocktail bar that isn’t stuffy like you’d expect, but rather a laidback hangout playing hip hop music with taxidermy on the walls.
- The King’s Arms – A local Bethnal Green staple pub with a great selection of local and international beers, and locally-sourced specialty cheese and meat boards.
- The Gibson – The Gibson is a pre-prohibition cocktail recipe published in 1908 made with gin and dry vermouth, often garnished with a pickled onion. This highly-rated cocktail bar pays homage to the cocktail’s journey.
- Bourne & Hollingsworth – The restaurant location by the same Bourne & Hollingsworth team as the cocktail bar mentioned above in Marylebone. The highlight is the beautiful greenhouse-style dining room. Reservations are recommended.
- Moro – A North African and Spanish restaurant serving all-day tapas. It sounds like a unique fusion that would make for interesting dishes.
- The Gin Bar at Holborn Dining Room – Inside The Rosewood Hotel’s elegant, chandelier-decked restaurant is a copper-topped gin bar featuring London’s largest collection of gin — over 500 gins and 30 tonics, making for more than 14,000 gin and tonic pairing possibilities. I love an elaborate selection!
- Scout – Awarded number 28 in the World’s 50 Best Bars, I was very sad to have missed the opportunity to experience a cocktail here. They focus on minimal waste to ensure it’s a conscious sustainable operation. The menu changes daily adapting to seasonal produce from local foragers, farmers and growers alike. It’s at the top of my list for my next visit.
- The Nightjar – Another very highly-rated, popular speakeasy cocktail bar with live jazz and blues and rare spirits.
- Friend of Ours – A contemporary Australian coffee shop with a full menu of elevated brunch and lunch dishes, and Instagram-friendly, colorful plate presentations.
- Dishoom – Also mentioned above, Dishoom is one of the most recommended places to dine in London. Their Shoreditch location is equally as popular as the next. Consider it for brunch!
- Columbia Road Flower Market – I was so excited to visit this famed flower market until I realized my train out of London was too early Sunday morning. On Sundays only, there are fresh blooms for sale from dozens of vendors on a street lined with adorable shops and cafes.
I could visit London ten more times and still not come close to trying everywhere I’d like to. In the meantime, these are my top recommendations that I have since shared with friends and family. They are also places I would be happy to go back to.
- Harrod’s – walk around, and don’t miss the food hall!
- Afternoon Tea – we loved Fortnum & Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon
- Fish & Chips – a must-try in London
- Buckingham Palace – at least to see it from the outside
- Tower Bridge – another must see
- Pubs – The Churchill Arms is a memorable one!
- Kingly Court in Soho – an awesome area filled with great restaurants and bars at night
- We loved our meals at Rabbit, St. John Bread & Wine, and The Fine Cheese Co. (only if you can sit outside on the front patio).
- For drinks, Mother Kelly’s was a fun hangout spot for beer. For cocktails, we enjoyed Opium in Chinatown, or Cahoots in Soho, or any of the Mr. Fogg’s bars.
Cheerio! Until next time, London.