Recommendations from a German living in London
I moved to London in 2011 and during this time, I have had quite a few visitors. It always gives me pleasure to show them around for it makes me see London through the eyes of a tourist again. For those of you who haven’t visited yet, here is a taste of what a perfect weekend in London looks like in my humble opinion!
So first of all, the weather in London is really not as bad as people say, and I think a lot of my visitors can confirm this. The best time to visit is summer, from May up until September. For a visit in winter, I would really recommend coming late November / early December, because London is very beautiful around Christmas time. Read more about things to do in London before Christmas in the following blog post. In this post, I will focus on activities that can be done all year around.
Walk around to see the sights
One of the things I really like about London is that most of the main sights are in walking distance. By now I actually have a trail that I do with most of my visitors. You have to be willing to walk quite a bit to do all of it or you can also choose to split it over a few days. I usually take the Underground to Hyde Park Corner to walk through the Rose Garden and to the Albert Memorial. Going back along the Serpentine, the pond in Hyde Park, I head underneath the Wellington Arch and meander through Green Park. In summer, the park is flocked with those blue and white striped deck chairs and lots of people are chilling out, reading a book or having a beverage in the sun. If you make it in time (I never have), try to be at Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards ceremony which is usually happening at 11 am – times can be checked here.
From Buckingham Palace, I make my way through St. James Park towards the River Thames. It’s a lovely walk along St. James Park Lake, with lots of cheeky little squirrels trying to scrounge some food of the passers-by while the lake is abundant with ducks and other wildlife. Straight ahead, the road leads to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and to the right is the beautiful Westminster Abbey, where all of the important royals get married. I usually don’t bother going into the cathedrals. As beautiful as they are, I find the entry fee quite expensive and if I really want to, I can just attend a mass there rather than pay to visit.
Crossing Westminster Bridge, I then turn left to get onto Southbank and the London Eye. Southbank gets really busy, especially on a weekend, but it’s a lovely vibe down there, with lots of street artists doing their tricks and buskers performing live music. I meander towards Jubilee Bridge and cross the Thames again, which brings me to Embankment.
Villiers Street is the little alley that goes up past Charing Cross Station from Embankment Station and I really like that street (not only because it has Herman ze German, a bratwurst shop on it – for real!). It features little coffee shops and restaurants, such as the amazing Gordon’s Wine Bar, established in 1890 and thought to be the oldest wine bar in London. It not only offers great wines but also a pleasant outside space and an even cosier, almost dishevelled interior with tables and chairs squeezed into every corner. It’s always rammed but really worth a visit – but maybe later in the day.
The walk from here takes me past Trafalgar Square and up to Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Soho, for me still THE place for pubs, cafés and restaurants – even more so than the hip Shoreditch in the east. Both are great for going out although Shoreditch is more of an evening and night location whereas Soho is usually more active during the day and up until before midnight. I usually stop in Soho with my guests for some well-deserved pub food and a pint during the day, the Brewmaster Pub is right next to Leicester Square Station and serves great food. But more about pub food later. Now it’s best to jump on the Underground and to go further east towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, probably my favourite landmark of London.
If you don’t like the idea of navigating the city all by yourself, there’s always the possibility to do a free walking tour, e.g. with the following companies:
Some of these tours have a theme such as the Jack The Ripper tour, others focus on a certain area of London and people are usually asked afterwards to donate as much as they deem appropriate. This is also a nice way to meet people when you’re travelling solo. Of course there are plenty of standard bus tours for those that don’t like walking, or if the weather is bad, as well as themed bus tours such as the London Ghost Bus Tours.
Enjoy (free) views over the city
Another thing I like about London is that you can do really great things here for very little to no money. Yes London is a really expensive city and if you really want to, you can pay a lot for e.g. taking a ride on the London Eye or going up to the viewing platform on the Shard, the tallest building in the UK and the European Union – but you can have the same or even a better effect for no money at all. My favourite place to do this is the Skygarden.
The Skygarden is located on Fenchurch Street near Monument Station (right next to the Monument, erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666) in a building which, due to its shape, is affectionately called the “Walkie Talkie”. Tickets to go up to the top must be booked in advance but they are free. The Skygarden is, as the name suggests, an interior space with plants and trees on top of the Walkie Talkie and it also features two restaurants and a bar. The terrace can be accessed to get better views into one direction – towards the Thames and the Shard – but you can also walk around the inside to get a 360 degree view of London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the London Eye in the distance.
If you haven’t managed to secure tickets beforehand, you can still go up to the Skygarden after certain times or you can go to one of the two bars in the Shard, if you’d rather have a fancy (albeit pricy) gin cocktail and enjoy the view from a lower level than the expensive viewing platform (18 GBP when booked in advance / 30.95 GBP on the day). Another approach to getting a view of London altogether is to head to Hampstead Heath, a park that offers really nice views of London from the Parliament Hill Viewpoint.
Visit a London market
My friend and former flatmate Pablo used to make fun of my habit to take all my visitors to the Stables Market in Camden. There are numerous markets all over London and even in Camden but Stables just happens to me by favourite. It’s a huge market especially for clothing, souvenirs and all kinds of homeware and it’s located in former stables, making it very rustic. A large food court provides dishes from all over the world, my favourite being Marrakech, where you can enjoy a very tasty tagine in an authentic setting (and smoke a shisha if you’re so inclined). Old bronze statues of horses and horsemen add to the flair. I only end up buying something on every third visit or so but it doesn’t matter; I really enjoy the buzzing atmosphere and the grungy vibe that is all over Camden. This part of London is very colourful, featuring a lot of alternative clothing shops.
Other markets in London that are definitely worth a visit are:
- Covent Garden Market near Leicester Square for souvenirs and also to check out the plentiful small cafes and shops in Covent Garden
- Spitalfields Markets near Liverpool Street Station for very similar purchase to Stables
- Borough Market, mainly for food, near the Shard and London Bridge. The area around London Bridge Station is by the way also really worth a visit, with good pubs along the riverfront
- Portobello Road Market in the fancy Notting Hill area in London’s west
When in Camden, I definitely also recommend going to the Camden Town Brewery, one of London’s multiple craft breweries, to sample some local brews – which brings me to my next point:
Go to a pub and have a pint
If you meet me these days, you wouldn’t believe that I didn’t actually used to be a beer drinker at all. Back home in Germany, I used to be more of a wine-drinker and I do miss our lovely Riesling in England, but what I like about beers in English-speaking countries like Great Britain or Canada is the variety of different tastes. I’m not a fan of Ales at all, but the various microbreweries manufacture a nice range of diverse, tasty Lagers, Pilsners and Stouts and it’s just fun sampling the different beers available in different pubs and breweries and comparing them. Click here for an overview of the best craft breweries in London.
If you really don’t like the taste of beer at all, you can always have a gin instead. Gin and tonic or cocktails made from gin with all kinds of astounding ingredients can be found in every bar or pub – at pretty much any time of the day. However, the pubs in England aren’t merely waterholes to get drunk in (although it does happen quite regularly). Most of the pubs in England are actually gastro-pubs and a lot of the social life here is happening in the pub – the drinks with friends just as well as the family dinner. I love this about England and it’s an element of being here that really shouldn’t be missed. Which again brings me to the next point:
Have a fry up and some pub grub
The English cuisine might not have the reputation to be the most sophisticated in the world – but then why would I care, coming from the home of Schnitzel and Sauerkraut. So maybe it comes as no surprise that I actually am a big fan of pub food, or pub grub, as it’s called here affectionately. On a typical pub menu, one usually finds burgers and the classic fish and chips but also pies (savoury pastry filled with meats, vegetables and gravy (sauce) – e.g. chicken and leek pie or steak and ale pie (my favourite)) as well as meals with funny names such as bangers and mash (sausages on potatoes mash with gravy). When I moved to England, I think I had fish and chips at work every Friday for a whole year until I was well and truly over it, however I just can’t seem to get enough of some other local delicacies, namely:
- The fry up – the classic English breakfast including eggs, baked beans, bacon, sausage, grilled tomato, mushrooms, hash browns and sometimes black pudding (“gebratene Blutwurst” in German) – is available in a lot of cafes and pubs all day long.
- The roast dinner. This is usually served in pubs on Sundays between 12 and 4 pm (or until they run out) and consists of roast potatoes, vegetables, and a choice of oven-roasted meat, e.g. beef, pork, chicken or lamb, with a matching sauce (e.g. horseradish for the beef, cranberry sauce for the chicken, mint sauce for the lamb, apple sauce for the pork).
Working at Canon, we had fry up in our company restaurant every Friday morning and roast every Wednesday and as much as I sometimes tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t have a roast every week (and sometimes twice – Wednesdays at work and then Sundays in the pub!), I just couldn’t help myself: The roast dinner still is my favourite meal here in England and potentially even beyond.
Where to stay
People often ask me for hotel recommendations in London. I really have to say, I find the value for money for hotels in London quite bad. Good hotels in London are usually expensive and they look just like everywhere else in the world. I’d recommend going for a Bed and Breakfast instead, if you’re looking for a nice, comfortable and more authentic stay. Another great alternative to find accommodation cheaper is Airbnb, and I happen to know a lovely family who are renting out a room in their house in West London via Airbnb. Check it out here.
Also, as you know I’m a big fan of hostels. I have only staid in one hostel in London, St. Christopher’s Inn in Hammersmith (St. Christopher’s Inn runs eight hostels in total all over London) and I was very positively surprised. It’s very decent and low-priced. There isn’t any communal space in the hostel so I didn’t meet any people apart from in my dormitory but if you’re just looking for a cheap and decent place to crash during the night, I definitely recommend it.