If you’re an avid traveler, you might’ve had a layover jaunt or two at Heathrow. Venturing out during this layover rarely works out, so you might find yourself needing a dedicated London trip. Whether it’s your first or 100th time in the city, exploring London itself shouldn’t consist of the typical tourist-trap attractions. We’re pushing the boundary beyond guidebooks to take you through a swanky tour of London and its surrounding areas courtesy of the locals.
These boots are made for walking.
Your journey begins in the neighborhood you’ll be staying. Don’t inundate yourself with careful spreadsheets filled with top attractions. Contrary to how it may look on the map, London is a large city, and you won’t conquer it in a day anyway. Instead, enjoy the way the locals do: with a stroll. I chose the South Kensington area for our stay, opting for the Radisson Blu Edwardian Vanderbilt.
If you choose the same hotel, make sure to look up at the ceilings in the lobby! The gilded wood paneling harkens back to Vanderbilt opulence. Check out the original imported stained glass windows in the hallways! While many consider the rooms to be on the small side, I found the twin, standard room, to be quite spacious! If you’re sensitive to noise and you’re staying in a room facing busy Cromwell Road, make sure to bring some earplugs for the night. I appreciated the fact that I could open the windows instead of cranking the A/C all day.
The hotel’s location borders chic Chelsea while enjoying a spot a stone throw’s away from Hyde Park. That makes Kate Middleton and Prince William, your neighbors. You’ll want to conquer your London visit by neighborhood rather than by attraction. Keep the top sights in mind while choosing a cluster and its area for the day. It’ll keep your exploration manageable and fulfilling.
To give you an idea of the walking, my first day of exploring South Kensington netted 20,000 steps by the time my head hit the pillow. The jet lag made it an early night for me, and I fell asleep by 9 PM. This meant I started the day at 7 AM in a 3-inch block heel only to find myself downgrading to a flat slingback pair of shoes by noon. Do yourself a favor and opt for comfortable walking shoes for the first two days of London. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a bevy of pain.
1. South Kensington
What you’ll find here: This high-end neighborhood is one of the wealthiest zip codes in London. It’s home to the impressive Natural History Museum, Royal Albert Hall, V&A, Hyde Park, and of course, Kensington Palace. Its posh avenues offer a glimpse of stately Victorian mansions.
First time visiting London? Best to stay in a central location with access to London’s top attractions nearby. This ensures you have ample time to visit tourist-draws nearby and use the extra time to explore local haunts. Staying at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Vanderbilt meant I was a stone throw’s away from the world-famous Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). The museum houses one of the best decorative arts and design collections in the world. Do not miss a visit!
If you’re a natural history buff, the Natural History Museum, which is right next door to the V&A, is a must-visit. While you may wander its halls during daytime hours with the rest of the tourists, I would suggest looking into its events. The museum frequently hosts ‘sleep-overs,’ crime scene investigation games, night-time tours, and silent discos. While these aren’t free like regular admission, they’re a new and novel way to experience a tourist institution.
2. Camden Town
What you’ll find here: The punk birthplace houses plenty of live-music event spaces and pubs. Amy Winehouse famously started her career in Camden Town, calling it home until her death in 2011 at Camden Square.
Head over to Camden Market and load up on some delicious foods before you stroll the streets for an insta-shot. With all the street art around, it’s easy to take it easy and still see something. Catch a live show at The Hawley Arms where Amy Winehouse not only played but frequented at the start of her career. You’ll see plenty of memorabilia and walls full of star-studded and signed photos.
What you’ll find here: Colorful graffiti speckles the ultra-trendy neighborhood’s walls. This is the Silicon Valley for London, with big tech companies like Google and Amazon calling it their London home.
This neighborhood is full of top-rated restaurants and bars, so it makes sense all the tech money flocked to this slice of London. Walking around, you’re bound to hit amazing restaurants and pubs. Take a look at two Banksy artworks while you’re here called ‘Graffiti area’ and ‘Helicopter.’ If you’re here on Sunday, make sure to stroll through the stalls of Columbia Road Flower Market. If you’re feeling like a kid and want something for the gram, make sure to stop into Ballie Ballerson where you can roll around in thousands of balls and feel like a Chuck-E-Cheese kid.
4. Notting Hill
What you’ll find here: Colorful mansions, Portobello Market, vintage shopping and high-end restaurants aptly describe the neighborhood. The annual Notting Hill Carnival in August harkens back to the area’s Caribbean roots.
If you’re a ’90s kid, you’re probably very familiar with Notting Hill from the eponymous rom-com flick starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. You’ll obviously want to stroll the Portobello Market and check out the trinkets ranging from costume jewelry to antique clocks. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop into the Museum of Brands for a quick tour of marketing history. You’ll find all your favorite brands on display with packaging dating back to when they first started.
What you’ll find here: A sweeping skyline view of London graces this historic neighborhood chock-full of restaurants and old converted warehouses. Must-see sights include Borough Market and Tate Modern.
Southwark is the site of the largest and oldest food markets in London. The Borough Market dates back to the 13th century, packing a dizzying array of gastronomical delights into its London Bridge location. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll be delighted by the Market Porter Pub, which appears as a bookshop in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.’
In between tasting your way through Britain’s culinary history, stop into Tate Modern, which houses the likes of Warhol and Dali. The entrance admission is free, so don’t miss a chance to soak up the artworks.
The Notable Tourist Musts
Of course, a visit to London wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Buckingham Palace. Tick it off your list as you head toward Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. If you’re a history buff, Winston War Rooms are worth a stop to get a glimpse of the Prime Minister’s quarters and thought-chambers during WWII. You can take a stroll over Westminster Bridge and take a ride on the London Eye for a great view of the city.
This is a packed day for you, so step into Manetta’s Bar at Flemings Hotel in Mayfair for some artisanal cocktails. While the cocktails tend to be pricey, the friendly bar staff and way swanky decor is well worth a splurge after a long day of walking. You’ll find notable names like Agatha Christie, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas adorning the walls and cocktail pages. The art and literary society are known to have frequented the space to discuss world affairs in the 20s and 30s.
Try their signature cocktails which comes with a delicious chocolate truffle on the side- the perfect accompaniment to the cognac kick.
Walking a lot means packing appropriately. While you may want to pack in some dressy outfits and high heels, plan out your outfits ahead of time for your length of stay and double up on the low-heeled shoes for comfort. With 14 years of frequent travel under the belt, I’ve perfected the art of the carry-on. I’ve checked my bag a grand total of one time during my years of getting on the plane, where I dedicated a suitcase for a beauty haul from Japan. Otherwise, all my outfits and essentials stay in one overhead-bin approved bag.
London weather is pleasantly warm in the summer months, with temperatures often hovering around 75 degrees in the daytime and dropping to mid-50s at night. You can opt for light layers if visiting in the summer, with one light sweater or jacket ensuring you’ll stay cozy most days.
Take a cue from Kim Kardashian and pack complete outfits for your trip. This may seem tedious, but a little extra planning allows you to spend more time exploring. Grab all essential accessories you might need for every outfit and take photos if you think you’ll have trouble remembering.
Don’t Confine Yourself to London
If you’re in London for more than four days, choose a day to visit outside attractions. The Warner Bros. Studios Harry Potter tour is a must-visit for fans, but make sure you book tickets ahead of time as they tend to sell out quickly!
Nataliya Ogle is the editor of YouBeauty.com and an avid explorer of the world. She visited 31 countries so far and plans to visit all 197 in her lifetime.