Black cabs, red buses, grey skies… welcome to London

Covering over a thousand square kilometres with almost 8 million people, it’s hard to know where to start exploring a mega-metropolis like London. Taken as a whole, the city seems brash, noisy and impenetrable. But when you break it down, borough by borough, the real character shines through. From East End market traders on Roman Road, the oldest trade route in Britain, to the oh-so-chic (and expensive) fashions of Chelsea, every area – every street, even – has its own story to tell.

And it’s a story that’s constantly evolving. With the influx of immigrants from nations around the world – most recently, Eastern Europe – whole areas are taking on new and rapidly changing identities. Like Brick Lane, for example. Once a haven for Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France, the area became home to the Irish, then Ashkenazi Jews, before morphing again under the influence of today’s Bengali population. Each group left its mark through food, music and religion. It’s this delightful mish-mash of normally disparate cultures that makes London neighbourhoods so wonderful to explore.

London is a city in flux, a city whose population and culture is influenced by and, in turn, influences the world. You can almost feel the creativity humming as people from all over the globe mix to create an atmosphere unlike any other. Dive in and see!

Best of the Beaten Track

There’s no escaping it: when in London, you must see Big Ben. You can’t go inside, but you can hear the bells toll and see the tower to its best advantage just across Westminster Bridge on the South Bank (read our district guide here). Once you’re done, take a ride on the London Eye nearby, see the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, have a drink under Waterloo Bridge at the British Film Institute, all before trotting down the Jubilee Walk beside the Thames to the Tate Modern (the view from the 7th floor is spectacular – and the art isn’t half bad).

London eyeful
London eyeful

From the Tate you can cross the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, and test the acoustics of the famous Whispering Gallery. Make sure to hit the British Museum (free entry!), whose many treasures include the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles (on a controversial ‘long-term loan’ from Athens), and round off your tourist circuit with a visit to one of Buckingham Palace (Aug & Sept only), the Royal Albert Hall or Kensington Palace.

To get your fill of market mania, check out Portobello Road for antiques and trinkets, and Camden Market for everything from Gothic fashion to fried bananas. Foodies shouldn’t miss Borough Market.

A great way for first-timers to take in all the sights without losing their mind is via Big Bus Tours where you can whip around the city on a double-decker and hop on and off to your heart’s content. The more adventurous can escape London traffic and see the sights from the city’s main thoroughfare, the Thames, with London Duck Tours.

During winter you add some romance to your weekend break with a spin around one of the capital’s outdoor ice rinks, which spring up around Christmas in some gorgeous locations like Somerset House and Hampton Palace.

Hipster’s Guide

Forget the gentrified west; London’s East End is where it’s all happening. If you want to mix music with muesli, head to The Premises where breakfast is served all day long. A functioning recording studio, you might run into Little Boots or Lily Allen as you munch. Then drop into co-op Stoke Newington International Airport, where you can take a flight of artistic fancy without leaving the ground – concerts, shows, exhibitions abound. Browse the stalls in Spitalfields Marketfor food, jewellery and clothes or take your pick of crazy fashion on display at The Old Truman Brewery.

Food break at the Old Truman Brewery
Food break at the Old Truman Brewery

At 93 Feet East, just off Brick Lane, there’s burgers, beer, and dancing ‘til late. Or try out a new London trend with a ‘plub’ – a hybrid of club and pub – at the Horse and Groom. And if you need some carbs to keep you going, Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake is open 24 hours.

For more ideas check out our Top Five on alternative attractions in London, or our district guide to Camden Town, the home of punk rock.

Experience & Events

Let your senses be your guide at Dennis Severs House, where you’ll encounter ten rooms set to create ‘moods’ from between 1724 and 1914. Weave your way through the silent house by candlelight as you interrupt the invisible occupants, an eighteenth-century French Huguenot family of silk-weavers, at their dinner. If you want to look forward rather than back, go on a Cutting-Edge Green Tour. In the three-hour tour, you’ll see everything from London’s only floating gardens to recycled fashion – and make lots of other stops along the way. (On a similar theme find out what happened when Urban Travel Blog went guerilla gardening in London).

alternative London travel tips
Like Rio, but bring a brolley

Every August bank holiday weekend, almost a million people flock to the Notting Hill Carnival for music, food and the pinnacle of it all: the Parade, where hundreds of drummers pound out the beat as crowds line the streets. With smoke from jerk chicken clogging the air along with the booming bass from street-side sound systems, it’s hard to believe you’re still in London. Fans of dance and rare grooves should make an e-line for the Good Times stage, where king of the carnival Norman Jay keeps the party in full swing.

Fancy some firecrackers? Make sure you’re in town around the fifth of November for Guy Fawkes Day. Commemorating the day when Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the dark autumn sky is punctuated by the sharp pop of firecrackers culminating in one big annual blow-out at Alexandra Palace. If you’re more into water than fire, head to the river the first week of April for the yearly boat race between rivals Cambridge and Oxford.

For more weird and wonderful experiences in London, check out our articles on Street Wars, photo dating and ghost walks and scary attractions!

Pillow Talk

For travellers on a budget, the YHA Hotel in Holland Park provides a central London location in a beautiful setting – a former Jacobean mansion smack in the middle of affluent Kensington. If you want to keep the great spot without the hostel conditions, opt for the budget Eden Plaza Kensington Hotel, literally opposite the Natural History Museum, or the mid-range Kensington Close Hotel, just steps from the shop-packed Kensington High Street and around the corner from Kensington Palace. To really live large, book yourself into the Zetter’s roof-top rooms with private patios overlooking St John’s Square in trendy Clerkenwell, East London.

Fork Out

People from all over the world come to live in London – and they bring their cuisine along too. From Ethiopian to Egyptian, whatever you’re craving can be found here. Forget the curry hacks on Brick Lane and head over to Pakistani-Punjani restaurant Tayyab’s, voted Indian Restaurant of the Year in the London Restaurant Awards. If you’re after nose to tail eating – where no bits are wasted – St. John Restaurant can provide you with a taste of chitterlings with dandelion and bone marrow salad. For some brilliant Thai within a traditional English pub environment, Churchill Arms serves up steamy Pad Thai to die for.

Drop In

The Brits are notorious pub lovers, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to be had. Get your skates on and head back to the seventies every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at Roller Disco. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, go to Notting Hill Arts Club where the mix of great music, buzzing crowds and artsy locals always makes for a great night. Or pack it in under the railway arches at club Cargo, where entry on Fridays in free.

Rollergirls just wanna have fun. (Photo by Rollerdisco).
Rollergirls just wanna have fun. (Photo by Rollerdisco).

Getting There & Around

London is one of the most accessible cities in the world. EasyJet and Ryanair both fly in from a variety of European cities, although have a tendency to land in the likes of Luton and Stansted, so make sure transport into the centre is still running when you arrive (hint: if not you might want to check the rates of Book Taxi London – starting in 2015). Big carriers are more likely to drop you in the better connected Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Qantas and British airways both have the direct flights from major Australian cities, like Sydney and Melbourne: book flights to London early for best rates. Don’t like to fly? Eurostar also runs frequently from France if you are arriving from the City of Light, and Brussels, Belgium.

More Juice

Londonist keeps you up-to-date with news, reviews and general information about the city. For weekly listings, TimeOut provides an easily searchable online database. For interesting (and sometimes obscure) tidbits about local life, check out Diamond Geezer’s blog.

Hard Copy

The Rough Guide to London has everything you need to know to get you here and sort you out. If you’re looking for what’s on at any hour of the day or night, check out 24 Hours London. And to impress the locals with your depth of knowledge, get your hands on I Never Knew That About London.

Silver Screen

Notting Hill is probably the best film to be set in the capital… just kidding. Try Dirty Pretty Things, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Closer. If you must watch a cheesy rom-com then opt for Gwyneth and John over Julia and Hugh.

Soundtrack to the City

LDN – Lily Allen
West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
Weak Become Heroes – The Streets
A Foggy Day (in London Town) – David Bowie
God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols