Mastering London seems like a daunting task. I mean, is it even possible??
I stayed for about a week, but I found that I did constant sightseeing for only 4 out of those 7 days. Staying a week meant that I could take my time, head back to the places I liked, and also take some much needed relaxation. However, if you don’t have the pleasure of staying that long, 4 days will do you just fine!
After studying Google Maps for a while, I realized that most of the places I wanted to see could be divided into sections. I didn’t want to spend my time going from one end of the city to the other. And, since it was Easter weekend, I decided to start each of my days with a main attraction that I knew would require long queues. If anything, the British really know how to queue.
Here’s what I did:
Main Attraction of the Day – Westminster Abbey
Your ticket comes with a pamphlet and an audio guide by Jeremy Irons (a.k.a Scar from The Lion King). Since Westminster Abbey sees so many people each day, I don’t know if there’s a time when it’s not crowded! It’s a bit small in terms of open areas and corridors; I felt like a salmon trying to head upstream. But take your time because, sadly, photos are prohibited.
Poet’s Corner was my favorite. There, you can find the graves of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book), and Tennyson. There are dozens more memorials for Milton, Lord Byron, Shakespeare, and even the Brontë sisters.
The end of the tour drops you off in the cloisters. Here you can find the lovely College Garden and read more plaques dedicated to all kinds of people, ranging from war heroes to philanthropists.
Keep a look out for the oldest door in Britain!!
St. James Park to Buckingham Palace
St. James Park is easy to find from the Westminster Abbey exit. After you’re done taking photos of its beautiful facade, head left for a few streets and you’ll find yourself on Birdcage Walk. Buckingham Palace is right down this road, but I decided to take the scenic route and cut through the park.
Buckingham Palace was already very crowded by the time I got there (around 10:30am). I didn’t stay for the Changing of the Guard.
The Wellington Arch
Wellington Arch is a grand monument at the end of Constitution Hill and across from one of the main entrances to Hyde Park. Take a right at Buckingham Palace.
Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens
I started to run out of steam here and had to stop for tea from a vender along the water. It wasn’t the best day to be out in the parks; the sky was overcast and the wind was biting, but I went back a few days later and Kensington Gardens on a sunny day is a beautiful sight. London surprised me a lot, but its gardens were utterly amazing no matter the size.
The Peter Pan Statue & Speaker’s Corner
Peter Pan is one of my favorite books and the story behind the statue the Boy Wonder is just as captivating. J.M. Barrie wanted to keep the construction of the statue a secret so, sometime in the early hours of the morning on May 1st, 1912, it just suddenly appeared overnight as if by magic.
In the modern day, it’s tucked behind some tall trees and a bit difficult to find but very much worth the visit.
Speaker’s Corner was another 30 minute walk from the Peter Pan Statue, back in Hyde Park. Head through the lovely Italian Gardens Cafe if you’re feeling peckish. I had heard a lot about Speaker’s Corner, an area sometimes infamous for public speaking, so it was interesting to pass through on my way to my next stop, Baker Street.
Baker Street/Sherlock Holmes Museum
Baker Street is a must for any Sherlock Holmes fan. Everyone knows the address – 221b. I started at 1a. I won’t lie, it was a grueling walk and I stopped for some food along the way. However, I also found a few unexpected gems, including H.G. Well’s apartment.
Yo, Bandersnatch Crumplebutt, where you at??
Okay, nerd alert!!! I went to the Sherlock Museum – and then to the actual exterior where they film the BBC series Sherlock. The sandwich shop is totally real and I bought some crisps. It’s located on 187 N Gower St.
However, if the amazingly brilliant consulting detective isn’t really your thing, you can head south while still in Kensington Gardens, back towards the Thames, and see the Albert Memorial, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I recommend everything. And, better yet, all of the museums are free. So go as many times as you like.
West End Play
I couldn’t go to London without seeing a play. The Globe was booked for all of their showings of Othello and I was never going to get into Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (though you can go check out the exterior). I got extremely lucky and snagged a ticket for Don Juan in Soho, starring David Tennant (a.k.a Doctor Who). Wyndham Theatre was also very personal, so he was performing a mere 30 feet from me. I still wake up thinking I just dreamed it.
Don Juan in Soho is a modern retelling of a Casanova character who’s sexual desires cause trouble for the people around him, as well as himself. It was hysterical and brilliant, mixing humor with the supernatural, and the script was so amazingly beautiful it almost made me swoon. But that might have just been a gut reaction to being in the presence of David Tennant. Damn, is that man talented.
Don’t forget to hang around the stage door after the show if you want an autograph or two! Since I was alone, I almost walked away and back to the hostel. But, if I’ve learned anything, it’s to follow the crowd.
Seeing British celebrities perform on the stage in London is more common than you think. Daniel Radcliffe is doing another show that’s running right now. Stars such as Ian McKellen, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Garfield, and Billie Piper have performed or are going to perform this year . . . I just found out Andrew Scott will be headlining Hamlet in June . . . oh no . . . I don’t think I’m going home anytime soon.
If you’re looking for a unique place, stop by Postman’s Park. The park is famous for its memorial to the men and women, ages 9 to 61, who have all died by self-sacrifice. It’s was never completed – there are still blank spots where more plaques were supposed to go, but over 30 or so were put up. It wasn’t the exact pick-me-up for a Friday morning, but it’s a beautifully humbling place that was one of my favorites in London.
Main Attraction of the Day – Museum of London
The Museum of London ties for my favorite museum next to the V&A (Victoria & Albert). The gallery starts at pre-historic London, heading towards the Roman area. There are mock medieval parlors and kitchens with real artifacts. Glittering rings and faded mosaics sit behind glass. My favorite was the Victorian Walk, where you could wander through the streets of a Victorian style market, complete with dented cobblestones and musky barber shops.
There’s even an iron door from the infamous Newgate prison and one of the wooden cells. The walls are etched with quotes, drawings, and the names of past inmates. If you want to see the exact site where Newgate once stood, there’s a plaque on Newgate St. on the way to Postman’s Park. It was demolished in 1777. I think it’s a governmental building now.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
This cathedral dominates the London skyline. It’s visible from halfway down Fleet Street, across the Thames, and is the center of attention if you cross Millennial Bridge.
I passed St. Paul’s almost every single day, but I chose to go into Westminster Abbey. While all the museums are free of charge, admission to one of London’s churches can soar as high as 25 pounds. Eek!
It’s still beautiful to photograph from the outside though.
Fleet Street has everything from demon barbers to modern coffee shops. It’s also an interesting way to get from one side of the city to the other without taking the busy road along the Thames. There’s even a Twinings store if you’re looking to buy some tea. However, if you’re searching for an actual English Breakfast fix, I would recommend a small little shop called Press Coffee & Co.
Royal Courts of Justice
Head down Fleet Street and you won’t miss it. I don’t know if you can tour it, but there was a giant dragon statue out front that I would, without hesitation, put in my own front yard if I had one. Temple is also just a pretty area to wander, so get lost for a bit.
While lost in Temple, stumble upon Temple Church. It isn’t technically on Fleet Street, but the entrance to the courtyard is down an alley. It was built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters and also a set used in The Da Vinci Code. It’s small but quite lovely, with arching ceilings and a photography exhibit at the top of the original Round Church that you have to climb a narrow spiral staircase to get to. It’s 5 pounds for entry.
St. George’s Gardens
If you start around King’s Cross, this small graveyard-turned-park is a beautiful shortcut through the busy roads. Like Postman’s Park, a lot of the gardens in London are considered consecrated grounds and remained untouched pieces of green in the bustling grey city. The monuments and crumbling above-ground tombs stand crooked in the sinking earth while old headstones have been stacked up against the walls.
They’re not as creepy as you would think; in fact, they’re oddly peaceful. I always made sure my route passed through a park or two.
In 1713, St. George’s Gardens was originally two cemeteries for two different churches. The stones separating the two plots are still there.
Main Attraction of the Day – British Museum
What trip to London isn’t complete without a visit to the British Museum? The Egyptian exhibit is the best one I’ve ever seen, with sarcophagi, mummies, hieroglyphics, red granite and ebony statues . . . the main attraction everyone flocks to is the Rosetta Stone. But the British Museum is way more than that. There are rooms upon rooms with amazing stuff to see, from Korea all the way to Africa. I went the first time around noon, but returned a few days later when it opened so I wouldn’t have to throw elbows. It gets crowded. Very fast.
Oh Soho. As an American not very familiar with London, it was only after seeing Don Juan in Soho did I realize that Soho was indeed a real place. Soho is . . . London’s hip part of town, sort of like the red light district. There’s a ton of restaurants, boutiques, and theaters. Down of the streets, you’ll find a pub called John Snow (not Jon Snow, but so close). Outside that pub there was supposedly the original pump that Dr. John Snow eradicated Cholera with after discovering that the disease was spread through the water supply and wasn’t airborne as originally thought.
I like interesting and unconventional travel spots, so I tried to find that pipe along the road, but I ended up aimlessly wandering back and forth until I overheard an English family standing over a seemingly unimportant red stone in the ground. Turns out that’s all that’s left of the pipe and I was looking for something that didn’t exist anymore. It now jumps around museums.
That’s what I get for reading outdated travel blogs.
I sat on the stairs below the fountain and watched all the people hurry by for a few minutes. It’s a very busy part of town, with tour buses driving past and street performers soulfully singing to John Lennon’s Imagine.
Trafalgar Square/National Portrait Gallery
I fell in love with the National Portrait Gallery. It reminded me of the Louvre, with grand rooms of gold, green, and burgundy floral wallpaper. There you can find Van Gogh, Dot-Dot Seurat (as my fifth grade art teacher called him), Monet, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. And it’s all free, remember?
Plus, they have outlets to charge your phone. And fast complementary wifi. (All the museums do.) Just FYI.
Elizabeth Tower/Houses of Parliament/Westminster Bridge/The London Eye
Of course you have to visit Big Ben!! Did you actually go to London?? Be that tourist and take hundreds of photos. Selfies are also very much encouraged.
The Queen’s Walk
The Queen’s Walk is on the opposite side of the Thames. After crossing Westminster Bridge, turn right and take the tunnel towards the London Eye. Along the Queen’s walk you’ll see everything from restaurants to gardens to skate parks. Street performers strum guitars and the smell of coffee wafts from open cafe windows. You can take the Queen’s Walk all the way to Tower Bridge.
Follow the Queen’s Walk, passed Millennial Bridge, and you can’t miss it. Take a tour, see a play . . . however, the Globe you see now is just a beautiful reconstruction.
Main Attraction of the Day – The Tower of London & Tower Bridge
Not to be confused with London Bridge, which you can cross to get a wonderful view of the Shard and Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is the one in all of the postcards. The Tower of London isn’t as grand as Tower Bridge, but it still ominously looms over the Thames.
When it’s open, Leadenhall Market is a bustling place. I went on Easter Monday so it was full of locked doors and lost tourists like myself. But it was still fun to walk around underneath the red awnings and peer into the shops. Also, Harry Potter and Hagrid walked under the main archway in the first Harry Potter movie on the way to Diagon Alley. So, yeah, I won’t lie, that was my sole reason for going there.
Any Last-Minute Sights!
While the rest of my days were planned out pretty well, I woke up too late to go straight to the Tower of London and miss the rush on Day 4. I ended up doing everything backwards, which meant doing some backtracking as well (which wasn’t very smart on my part), and wandering around St. Paul’s before heading towards Tower Bridge. However, I’ll be back in about a month or so and it’s the first thing on my list but, if I had taken the underground straight to Tower Hill, that’s how I would have done it.
London is an ever-growing city full of culture and history. I stopped taking the Tube halfway through my week, just enjoying my time walking through the streets (but ohhhh did my feet have a say in that). I took a few wrong turns and got lost multiple times, but that’s what I love about urban travel, or just travel in general. One experience will always be different to the next. Most of the things on my list weren’t places I planned on going to, but rather places I found while on my way. Don’t be afraid to venture off on your own and take that other trail. You never know what you might find.
Other cool places definitely worth a visit or two:
Great Fire Monument
Charles Dickens Museum
King’s Cross Station/Platform 9 3/4
The British Library
Do you have any favorite London spots?