London travel guide
Top 5 attractions
Top 5 hotels
Top 5 restaurants
Bars & cafes
Our essential guide to what to see and where to sleep, eat and shop in the capital. By Norman Miller.
As Europe’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city – nearly 8 million people, 300 languages, 600 square miles – a visit to London is often a mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion. It is, quite simply, impossible to see everything the city has to offer, even if you’ve lived here for years.
The West End is, of course, a popular place to start, offering bustling bars and restaurants, world-class theatres and galleries, glorious parks and classic monuments.
Venture beyond the tourist heartland, and you’ll find places where the city’s pulse beats strongly. Chat over a pint in a classic local pub, admire a 1,000-year old church in the lee of a striking 21st-century skyscraper, or browse markets selling the best of London’s booming design scene.
London has everything – you just need to know where to look for it.
1. Tate Modern
With its single towering chimney and a roof that glows at night, this former 19th-century power station beside the Thames is one of London’s most famous cultural icons. The vast Turbine Hall hosts huge headline-grabbing installations to complement several floors of gallery space that rise to a top-floor restaurant/café with a fabulous river view.
Bankside, SE1 0044 (0)20 7887 8888
Sun-Thu 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 10am-10pm
Permanent galleries free – charges for some special exhibitions
2. St James Park
London’s smallest central park is also one of its most enticing. Running from Trafalgar Square along The Mall – the closest London has to a broad Parisian-style boulevard – it’s a peaceful green haven that belies its rakish past as a place for various kinds of wickedness. Buckingham Palace and the parade ground at Horse Guards provide historic bookends, complemented by St James Palace and grand government edifices such as The Admiralty and Foreign Office (which you can’t visit) and Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms (which you can). On the park’s northern edge, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) provides one of London’s smallest but coolest modern art centres.
3. The London Eye
It may not be as tall as the Eiffel Tower, but the London Eye shares with the Parisian icon the fact that it was built as an observation structure that was never intended to be permanent. But so beautifully does this 135m-high Thameside wheel break up the perpendiculars of the London skyline that it has been left to become one of the city’s most popular sights. Offering 40km panoramic views on a clear day, the capsules take 30 minutes to complete a "flight", providing the perfect insight into the layout and sheer scale of Europe‘s largest city.
Southside Westminster Bridge, SE1
0044 (0)870 990 8883 www.londoneye.com
Jun-Sep 10am-9pm, Oct-May 10am-8pm
Standard flight £14.50; Discovery flight £18 including a guide.
4. St Paul’s Cathedral
Designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, this is one of the world’s great cathedrals. Some of Britain’s most historic moments have played out here – from royal weddings to heroic funerals – and this dazzling space has a host of superb vantage points, including the famous Whispering Gallery. It also serves as one of London’s most evocative art showcases, with décor provided by everyone from medieval craftsmen to modern masters such as Henry Moore.
St Paul’s Churchyard
0044 (0)20 7236 4128 www.stpauls.co.uk
5. Hampton Court Palace
Perched on the Thames far from the city hubbub, this royal palace seamlessly blends Tudor and baroque styles. See England’s greatest medieval hall, where Shakespeare and his company performed in the 1600s, before enjoying the gardens and the twists and turns of the famous maze.
Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court, Surrey
0044 (0)870 752 7777 www.hrp.org.uk
Apr-Oct 10am-6pm, Nov-Mar 10am-4.30pm
Avoid the undiscerning masses milling along Oxford Street – the streets south and north are much better. In Soho, Berwick Street has the buzz of a market and London’s best independent record shops. Fashion lovers, meanwhile, should check out the roads around Carnaby Street, perhaps popping into Liberty at its northern end, arguably London’s prettiest department store. To the north, the shops and boutiques along St Christopher’s Place lead nicely up to the classy outlets on Marylebone High St.
While the piazza at Covent Garden is thronged with tourists and street performers, discerning shoppers head for Neal Street, Floral Street and the little roads radiating out from Seven Dials for designer goodies.
Bond St and offshoots such as South Molton Street pull together a host of top couture shops, while the art dealers on nearby Cork Street provides a free chance to browse some of the best in contemporary art.
Charing Cross Road remains a bibliophile paradise, though many old dealers have been replaced by book chains. Cecil Court (near Leicester Square Tube), however, is still home to a cluster of beautiful small bookshops.
Of London’s street markets, Camden retains little of the buzz from its 1980s heyday, while Portobello also trades on past glories. Instead, get up on Sunday morning and join savvy Londoners heading to Spitalfields (Aldgate/Aldgate East Tube) and Brick Lane, where some of London’s best young designers sell their latest creations. And as the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community, there’s also dozens of good curry houses for lunch if you don’t fancy one of the brilliant cafes, such as the Story Deli (3 Dray Walk).
London City Airport is the most central, but is served only by a small network.
Heathrow, to the west, is linked to the city by the Piccadilly Tube line (45 minutes, £4 single) or the quicker (15 minutes) but expensive Heathrow Express (£15.50 single).
Gatwick to the south, has frequent train services to central London (30-45 minutes, £8 single).
Stansted and Luton airports are north of the city, with various train and bus links into the centre (£11 train single from Luton, £15 single from Stansted). A taxi to central London from any airports is £40-70.
Eurostar services 08705 186 186 (UK) or 0044 1233 617 575 (abroad), www.eurostar.com, arrive at Waterloo Station (Paris fares from £60).
UK train information: 08457 48 49 50 (UK), 00 44 207 278 5240 (overseas), www.nationalrail.co.uk.
Main tourist office
1 Regent Street
phone - 020 7808 3808