It's always such a treat to visit London. My first overseas trip began in the grand city and this visit was my third. All I really remembered was how big it was and with only three full days to explore we wanted to make the most of our time. The last time we came to London we stayed with friends and our sightseeing efforts were thwarted by pouring rain. This time we hoped to see a few things and eat some good food along the way. We accomplished both.
The key to exploring London efficiently is to make use of the Underground trains (also known as the "Tube"). Tickets aren't cheap, but considering how far the distances can be, it's a better bet than trying to walk everywhere and wearing oneself out. Currently a one-way ticket within zone one costs £4. A better value is the £6.60 zones one and two travel card, which allows unlimited travel for one day. Travel one way to/from Heathrow airport and zone one costs £5. Get an Oyster Card and pay even less (see Matt's comment below - thanks, Matt!)
Visitors who want to go hard can opt for my alternate 'exhaustion itineraries' below, otherwise here is how we spent our time. Since we had so many nice meals, I've included the details of some great places to refuel along the way.
We began in the popular tourist area alongside the river at the Westminster stop. We've seen Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye before but it's always nice to visit these icons on a trip to London.
After lunch we took the tube to the SoHo shopping district for a look around (Oxford Circus or Tottenham Court Road stops). The area bordering Regent Street is packed with expensive shops but as we headed towards Covent Garden things got a little edgier with a red-light district and more independent shops. We had a pint at a pub featuring summer ales and watched the crowds go by.
In the early evening we met fellow bloggers, Christy and Kali of Technosyncratic and Christina of Jandal Road for drinks at Waxy O'Connors, a huge Irish pub near Leicester Square. For dinner we took a short walk to Covent Garden, which is full of nice places to eat. We chose Palm Court Brasserie (38 King Street, palmcourtbrasserie.co.uk, Covent Garden stop) for a delicious meal of lamb and chicken.
If you really want to tire yourself out, try visiting Westminster Abbey or take a ride on the London Eye (from £16.74, save 10 per cent by booking online). Afterwards, shop for something specific in SoHo and take in a West End show after dinner.
It may seem silly to spend precious sightseeing time in a department store, but Harrods must be seen to be believed. It's so big we had to take advantage of the store's information booklet, which maps the departments over 7 levels and 4.5 acres. We started at the gourmet food halls and then took the escalators to the pet department. This was a little disappointing because they had so few animals but checking out all the over-the-top pet accessories was interesting (four-poster bed for your cat or little dog anyone?) We moved on to the electronics department where we checked out 3D televisions and the latest gadgets. The toy department kept us busy as well. With 32 restaurants, the massive store is designed so a person could spend an entire afternoon there and it's fun to poke around in the departments if conspicuous consumption doesn't bother you too much (Knightsbridge stop).
Next we headed to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which don't compare to New York's Central Park for me but are still worth a wander. Afterwards we dined on yummy pizzas in Kensington at Da Mario (15 Gloucester Road, damario.co.uk, Gloucester Rd stop). The smells emanating from the kitchen of this busy eatery drew us in and the food and service did not disappoint.
Get to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard (arrive by 11.15 am on scheduled days) and then go shopping at not only Harrods but also the other posh Knightsbridge stores. Pick up a public bike and ride around Hyde and Kensington parks or go paddleboating in the former. Venture to Notting Hill for a walk around before dinner and then eat there.
We headed to the Camden Market area, getting off at the Chalk Farm stop so we're closer to the Stable Markets. Never mind the kitsch and crowds at the Camden Markets, this is the place to be for clothing, accessories, fun items for the home and a plethora of other lifestyle items.
We had trouble choosing from among the many international food options but settled on lunch at a fresh, delicious Lebanese cafe. We then made our way over to the more touristy part of Camden: the main street off the Camden Town stop is packed with souvenir shops and crowds but it's worth a quick look for the variety of things being sold and, if you're into alternative music, perhaps a look through the CD and vinyl bins.
We then caught the tube to the London Bridge stop for great views of the Tower Bridge. We happened to be there at the end of the business day as the post-work crowds covered the bridges and flocked to tube entrances around the city. But this area offers a great atmosphere any time of day with boats cruising along the river beneath. Just over the bridge we found a bar with Happy Hour specials where we waited out the traffic and worked up our appetite for dinner.
Some people might say the national dish of the UK is a nice bowl of curry. The Indian restaurants along the famous Brick Lane (Aldgate East stop) can be hit or miss with promoters hounding you every two steps with deals for their restaurants. We booked ahead before arriving, which makes it easier to focus and brush off the touts. Aladin relies less on touts and more on word-of-mouth referrals, which it deserves. The service was friendly and attentive, without being annoying and the staff seemed to be having as much fun as the patrons. As our waiter explained, "the customers are like family." We trusted their recommendations and had some of the best curry we've ever tasted, including what our waiter, Sam, promised would be a "mind-blowing curry." Known as the Chicken Tikka Blast, it was unlike any Tikka Masala we'd had before - Sam asked us how we liked our curry and then delivered perfection. We received a 20 per cent discount for booking our table online via their website.
Visit Camden early in the day and then head to Tower Bridge. Take in the Tower Bridge Exhibition and see the crown jewels at the Tower of London or visit one of London's outstanding museums instead (many are free!)
What's your favourite thing to do in London?
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