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I am often asked for suggestions as to what to see and do in London. You could spend a lifetime in London and not see it all (I am proof of that, still finding new things!). However, here are a few recommendations, and a handful of excursions outside central London. I haven't visited them all recently, so please do not rely on the information below; please check before visiting!
Places to Visit
Sir John Soane’s museum
A decidedly quirky little museum, set in a fine old townhouse, and crammed from floor to ceiling with objects, the personal collection of a 19th century architect, untouched since his death. Once seen, never forgotten!
Free admission. Not open every day. Nearest tube Holborn
National Portrait Gallery
Tucked away behind the National Gallery (on Charing Cross road) and often overlooked. The top floor is a particular favourite of mine, with many excellent portraits of the Tudors and Stuarts with their lovely lace ruffs and collars.
It also has a restaurant with excellent views across the London skyline.
Temple of Mithras
In the City of London, not far from Bank Station, is an intriguing slice of Roman history. First discovered in 1954, the remains of a small Roman temple can now be seen in the basement of a modern office building. There is a large glass wall display at ground level, containing many fascinating Roman artifacts, plus the chance to go down to the ruins, which are mainly foundation stones, but presented in a multi-sensory (as they describe it) way, with atmospheric sounds and lighting. They call it a temple, but my suspicion is that it was a men’s drinking den in Roman times!
Entry is free, but it is best to book a ticket in advance.
Dennis Severs house
Not so much a museum, more an art installation! An 18th Century silk weavers house, dressed as if the various inhabitants over the centuries had just stepped out of the rooms. Strange and fascinating. Book early if you are visiting at Christmas, as they dress the rooms for the festive season, and tickets quickly get booked up.
Admission fee applies.
Dennis Severs house is near Spitalfields Market, which is also worth a browse. Some days are busier than others with stalls, so you are never quite sure what you will find there.
See the 'Learning about Textiles' page for information on where to find two buildings associated with Morris.
When in London, don't miss the opportunity to get on the River Thames and see London from the water. As well as a variety of cruises, there is a regular timetable of river buses that frequently travel back and forth throughout the day, often used by commuters. Hop on in Westminster and go to the Tower of London or Canary Wharf (to see the modern heart of the financial city), or travel as far as Greenwich. There is even a hop on hop off day ticket available.
See London from the Above
A few suggestions of places where you can see London from on high. Of course there is always the London Eye and The Shard, but here are some other options.
Admission free. But generally advance booking required. They only allow you to book 2 weeks in advance. Sometimes they let additional people in on the day, so always worth asking if you are in the area. Alternatively you can go up to have drinks or a meal in the evening, at one of the Sky Gardens restaurants after public access is closed. A great place to watch the sunset.
Wren and Hooke’s 17th century monument to the Great Fire of London. Small admission fee applies, payable only in cash. Climb the 311 steps to see the views. And if you do decide to go, read this article first, to discover how these 2 ingenious men secretly designed the building so that they could use it as a laboratory for their scientific experiments.
Spectacular 360 degree views can be seen for free from this viewing platform at Tate Modern, during opening hours only. Popular with visitors, but maybe not so popular with residents of a nearby, glass panelled block of apartments, whose interiors can clearly be seen from the viewing platform!
Walking along the south bank, you may spot this landmark tower (with a large Oxo sign on it). It hosts an interesting selection of small shops and galleries on the first two floors. On the top floor there is also a brasserie with excellent views over the river. Cocktails anyone?
In actual fact there is a small public viewing gallery right next to the restaurant, which is not really publicised. Just take the lift up to the 8th floor restaurant, and there is a small balcony in front of you, before you enter the restaurant. However, the Tate Modern view is better if you have the time to get there.
A few Miscellaneous tips-
The ‘go to’ site for working out how to get to your destination-
TFL journey planner
Many phone apps are available for London. This is one I use-
Of course, London has many of the privately-run tourist Hop-on, Hop off, buses, with commentary. But if you are feeling a bit more adventurous (and want to save some money!) act like a local and buy a bus and tube pass, which allows you to do your own hopping on and off public transport (but not the tourist buses). Zones 1 and 2 cover central London. This can be in the form of a Travelcard, but if you are staying in London for more than a day or two, then it is even cheaper to purchase an Oyster card (£5 refundable deposit), charge it up with some cash and use it when you need to.
One of the best bus routes for sightseeing is the number 15, which covers the area from Charing Cross, east to St Paul’s and Tower Bridge.
A few suggestions for trips outside central London.
1. Kenwood House and Hampstead Village
A stately home and an interesting ‘village’ suburb of London, all within 5 miles of central London. I would suggest visiting Kenwood House first and then walking down to Hampstead Village.
Take the underground to Golders Green on the northern line. Immediately outside the station is a bus stand where you can take the 210 bus to the entrance gate to Kenwood House. Ask the driver to let you know when you reach the correct stop.
Kenwood House is a beautiful historic house, set on a hill overlooking Hampstead Heath, and with a very fine art collection. Used as a location for very many tv costume dramas and films over the years! Interesting coach house cafe with attractive seated area outside, if the weather is fine.
Free entry, due to a bequest (and some free tours if you time it right).
Getting from Kenwood House to Hampstead by public transport is not very direct. If you don’t want to walk it, you could retrace the bus route to Golders Green and then take 1 tube stop to Hampstead.
To walk from Kenwood, you can either walk along Spaniards Lane (past the historic 16th century Spaniards Inn)https://www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk
and down Heath Street to the village (about a 20 minute walk) or take a footpath across Hampstead Heath, a very pleasant walk on a fine day, particularly as it is a mainly downhill walk!
If you get lost there are always plenty of people out taking exercise, who will point you in the right direction!
Hampstead village is an area full of fine old houses, several streets of shops and cafes and lots of literary and historic connections. A good place for a wander before heading back to central London from Hampstead Underground station (which is right in the centre of this area). Hampstead is a popular place for a walk, so there are quite a few guided or self-guided walks to follow, if you search online.
A few of the main features of the area include-
Fenton House a 17th century house now owned by the National Trust. Admission fee applies. Particularly nice in springtime when the garden is full of daffodils and snakeshead fritillaries.
And if you are a Mary Poppins fan, you can spot the top of the Admiral’s house from the gardens-
Famous old pubs abound in the area. The first one in particular is very atmospheric and close to the Tube station-
Keats lived here for a year or two, and is said to have written ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the garden.
Admission fee applies.
The painter John Constable is buried in the local church, and many of his paintings of Hampstead are to be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
A few miles to the east of central London, and with lots of historic sites, Greenwich makes a nice excursion.
Greenwich can be easily reached by public transport. Take the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) to Cutty Sark (for Maritime Greenwich) station. The DLR is a mainly overground line, that is part of the London tube network. It meanders through Docklands (the new financial city area) offering excellent views of this relatively new (1980s) area of the city as it crosses the river on its way to Greenwich.
Another way to reach Greenwich is by taking the boat. As mentioned above, regular services operate between Greenwich and central London. A return ticket offers good value, but my personal preference would be to go there via the DLR and return on the boat. Nice to relax on the boat for half an hour, have a drink, and watch the scenery go by, after a hard day’s sightseeing!
I am not giving detailed instructions here as to all the attractions of Greenwich, as the above website has already done it for me.
The Cutty Sark is impressive, as are the Royal Naval College (the ceiling is a must see!) and the Maritime museum. Tucked away between these buildings there is also the Queen’s House, which is a tiny jewel of a building with some fine paintings.
The Royal Observatory (with the Meridian line) is at the top of a hill overlooking Greenwich, but even if you do not intend visiting the Observatory, I would highly recommend climbing the hill, as the view over London is spectacular.
Back in the town is the Fan Museum, a small private museum in a lovely old building, with a charming collection of fans. It also has a little Orangery tea room at the rear of the building where you can get afternoon tea (but the tearoom is not open every day, so do check ahead!).
There is also a little covered market right in the centre of town, hidden away between the shops. It is open most days, with a mixture of general, craft and vintage stalls, varying day to day. Lots to see and do!
All of these sites that I have mentioned are within walking distance of the DLR and boat pier.
If you are looking to spend a full day out of London, but do not want to travel too far, one of my favourite places to take visitors is St Albans, in Hertfordshire, approximately 25 miles to the north of London. Quite a typical English town, with lots to offer visitors.
To get there take a local train from central London to St Albans. It normally takes 25 - 30 minutes. Book in advance and off-peak to get the best deals on price. Click below to see options for travel.
When you arrive, the railway station is about a 10 minute walk into the centre of town. It's not a large town, so nothing is too far away. Here is the route I generally follow. -
Walk along Victoria street from the station, to the Town Hall, where there is a tourist information stand.
The Town Hall is also the location of a new museum (only opened this year) which I have not yet visited. https://www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/visit
Might be a good place to start. Free admission.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a general market in the street directly outside the Town Hall. Always good for a browse. This area also has a selection of shops and restaurants.
Walk south a short distance past the medieval Clock Tower (which is also occasionally open I believe) down to the Cathedral. This ancient Gothic cathedral has been a site of worship for over 1,700 years and not to be missed.
Leaving the Cathedral, head further south along Abbey Mill Lane until you come to the park, and the lake. Take the path along the south side of the lake, walking through the park until you come to the Hypocaust. It's a small building in the middle of the park. Only open at certain times. Free admission.
It’s right in the middle of the park, and not the easiest place to find, so you might need to ask a local!
From the hypocaust head directly north across the park to the Verulamium Museum. St Albans was a large Roman settlement and this is an excellent museum of Roman life with many artefacts and mosaic floors. Sometimes there is even a Centurion outside welcoming visitors!
Nearby there is also a small Roman theatre earthworks. Only open at certain times. Small admission charge, or combined ticket with museum.
From the museum follow St Michael’s street,which then becomes Fishpool Street and finally George Street, an attractive long and winding road with some nice medieval and Georgian properties along its length. This street has a number of old, characterful pubs that sell food, and an ancient mill that now operates as a Waffle House.
Eventually this road brings you back behind the north side of the Cathedral, and to some shops which lead back to the Clock Tower and Town Hall, from where you can explore further, or take the walk back to the railway station.
I hope this information is helpful. Please do update me if anything is incorrect.