Arguably the world’s most interesting and unique city, London needs time to get to know it, even after several visits. For those frequent visitors (or even first-time visitors) on a London vacation, here are suggestions to consider to enhance your next stay in this amazing metropolis.
I have lived and worked in London and thought I knew it pretty well. But, to be honest, every time I return there, I always find something different to enjoy and experience. The following are just a few places that I find outstanding and, in many ways, so typical of London.
The Southbank Centre
Sitting right on the edge of the River Thames is the Southbank Centre. It is UK’s largest arts centre with concert halls offering theatre, dance, and classical and contemporary music. More than 5,000 events take place each year featuring world-class performers from across the globe. Head here on a London vacation if only for the stunning and panoramic view of not only the river bank but of the skyline of the city, night or day. After spending time realizing just how majestically vast London is, you can then relax in one of the many venues offering everything from a cup of tea to a full meal. The best part of the centre for this is the Royal Festival Hall.
Covent Garden is well-known, I agree, but I never tire of a visit here on a trip to England. This is a place for shopping, dining, or just wandering around. You will be amazed at how much is on offer here presented in, to me, an unusual setting. I have never come when there hasn’t been at least two or three street entertainers performing to the delight of the visiting crowds. If you are a serious shopper, surrounding the heart of Covent Garden, known as the Piazza, are streets with any number of boutique shops. Immediately north and adjacent is an area called Seven Dials (the name derives from seven streets intersecting at a small circle). Here you can find a myriad of small but interesting shops with unusual names such as Tatty Devine (a jewellery store), Poste Mistress (for shoes), and Cybercandy (for sweet treats). At night, this is a haven for foodies looking to dine well on every imaginable type of cuisine. Then, not to be forgotten, is the impressive and beautiful Royal Opera House, which presents regular performances of both opera and ballet.
On the corner of Trafalgar Square is a different kind of church. It is not only a place of worship but is also an events centre offering both classical and jazz performances, plus it has all manner of tasteful items for sale in the crypt which serve well for presents and souvenirs to bring home from a London vacation. If hungry, there is a pleasant buffet-style cafe to spend time in. There are daily church services and free music every weekday as well as ticketed evening concerts.
This could be one of London’s best-kept secrets. Directly behind Paddington Railway Station is a series of canals and waterways along which you can walk for miles past colourful moored houseboats, Regency-style houses, old churches, and attractive greenery. It is a picturesque neighbourhood with waterside cafes and pubs as well as pleasant restaurants. This is part of a network of canals that connect throughout the whole country. If you have the energy, you can walk as far as the London Zoo at Regents Park or Camden Town. You can also take a boat trip for an approximate 45-minute ride. Walking along the towpath, you feel that you must have left the big city as the atmosphere is decidedly serene. I recommend a cup of tea or coffee at a small houseboat turned into a cafe which you can’t miss. If you want to treat yourself to fresh seafood, have lunch or dinner at The Summerhouse, an elegant canal-side restaurant.
The British Library and St. Pancras International Railway Station
The British Library is well worth a visit. It is located next door to St. Pancras mainline station. It is a major research library with print and digital books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints and drawings. It has 640 kilometres/400 miles of shelves with an estimated 200 million items including 14 million books. The library receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including a significant proportion of overseas titles distributed in the UK. As a casual visitor, you can see the exhibits of original items such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (King Arthur), Captain Cook’s journal, Jane Austen’s History of England, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, hand-written lyrics of Beatles’ music, and a room devoted solely to Magna Carta. Apart from the permanent exhibition, there are frequent temporary exhibitions.
You might find this a strange suggestion for a London vacation, but if you happen to be in this neighbourhood or if taking the Eurostar train to Paris or Brussels, have a look at St. Pancras Station. There isn’t a station anywhere else that I have seen that is as striking as this one. It is fronted by a very Victorian building which actually happens to be an ultra-deluxe hotel, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The station lies behind it and in contrast to the hotel’s architecture, it is extremely modern. The station concourse has a number of upscale boutique stores and cafes. Try a snack or buy artisan tea at Fortnum and Mason, stock up on goodies from Marks and Spencers, and stop in at Europe’s longest champagne bar.
The Serpentine Galleries
These are two exhibition galleries situated on either side of the Serpentine Lake in Kensington Gardens (which adjoins Hyde Park). One is the Serpentine Gallery and the other the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, both free of charge. The Serpentine Gallery shows art, architecture, and other forms of culture. Every year next to the gallery is a temporary summer pavilion which is designed by a leading architect. Past pavilions have been designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who designed much of the city of Brasilia, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, and Frank Gehry. The Sackler Gallery has a gallery with exhibitions by leading artists, architects, and designers.
Hitting the Heights for Bird’s Eye Views of London
There are two relatively new skyscrapers in the city of London. One is the Shard, which was designed by Piano Renzo and is 244 metres/800 feet high with 95 floors. You can head to the observation deck and, on a good day, can see as far away as 64 kilometres/40 miles and of course, London. The building contains two hotels and a restaurant. The other is the Gherkin, as it is popularly called, which has a round vegetable-like, spiral design. The building is 180 metres/590 feet tall with 41 floors and can be seen from most of central London, illuminated at night. There isn’t an observation deck but there is a panoramic bar and restaurant on the top floor.
The Saatchi Gallery
The Saatchi is a free gallery in the heart of Chelsea off the famous King’s Road. Its innovative contemporary exhibitions are by largely unknown young UK artists or international artists whose works are rarely or never exhibited in the UK. It works as a springboard for young artists to launch their careers. The last time I was there on a trip to London, one of the exhibitions was of unusual and quirky selfie photographs, including one taken by Queen Elizabeth! The very different gift shop has amazing items which make for perfect presents or souvenirs. If, after visiting the Saatchi Gallery, you want to do a bit of shopping, right next door is the very contemporary-looking Duke of York Square which has 33 fashion and lifestyle stores as well as 7 restaurants and cafes. On Saturdays, there is an open-air fine food farmers’ market.
One of my favourite locations outside the heart of London is the nearby Hampstead Heath, located 7 kilometres/4 miles north of the centre of the city and easily reached by bus or the Underground. The Heath, as it is known, has some of the best views and is one of the highest points in London. It consists of gardens, woodland, sports pitches, playgrounds, and swimming ponds. The 17th-century Kenwood Estate and House boasts a lake, a fine collection of trees and some of the most beautiful rhododendron gardens in London. The house itself has a collection of old master’s paintings including a Rembrandt self-portrait, one of only five Vermeers in the UK, and works by such popular British artists as Turner, Gainsborough, and Reynolds. Lakeside concerts of classical music are held in the summer.
London Viewed from the River
If you want to enjoy a different perspective on your London vacation, take the one-hour boat trip from Westminster to Greenwich. Highlights to be seen include the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the innovative residential and business development at Canary Wharf. On arrival at Greenwich, you can spend quality time at some of the venues here. These include the interesting National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory where time begins (Greenwich Mean Time), and the Queen’s House art gallery.
This is a small park aimed at families with small children, tucked away in Bloomsbury. It is a 7-acre playground for children and young people under 16 living in or visiting London. No adult can enter Coram’s Fields without a child! Apart from playground equipment, there is a small animal farm. There is also staff organizing daily activities. I suggest finding a child if you don’t have one, checking out this haven for the young.
Camden Passage in Islington is a picturesque car-free cobblestone London street filled with antique, vintage, and contemporary shops, outdoor markets, cafes, restaurants, and bars. All the good things in life! There is fashionable clothing, modern designer jewellery, and antique stores selling objets d’art. You will find everything from the old to the very new here.
You may well find other gems in the wonderful city of London. I am still, after many, many visits, discovering something new and exciting to add to my enjoyment of a London vacation.
Enjoy the Scenery and Greenery While on a Trip to London, UK