London finally called after 29 short years, and when London calls… you go. You get the hell across that pond because what’s on the other side, just past Heathrow airport, is a city of complete and total wonder. If you’re a traveler, at some point in your life you’ve probably heard, “you have to go to London, you would love it.” It’s just something people in the know say, like “fruits and vegetables are good for you.” London is just one of those “duh”, “obviously”, must-go places. So finally as of 2 weeks ago I journeyed to the land of our forefathers’ fathers : the land of stunning architecture – both new and old. The land of the world’s best accents, greatest pubs, most rich history/culture, and arguably some of the absolute best *and and most fashionable* people. Whether your planning your very first trip or just looking for a little travel inspo, this here is my Angelenos guide to getting properly aquatinted with Londontown.
HOP ON HOP OFF BUS TOUR
I know, you’re like “way to point out the most obvious and embarrassing touristy activity in the book Caroline!”, but here’s the deal. I did the hop on hop off bus tour, and it ended up being my favorite day in London. I got to see E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! Stops included Harrods Department Store, The V&A Museum, Buckinham Palace, Picadilly Circus, The London Tower – and so much more. You do a lot of walking in London, prepare for that, so this is a great way to quickly see the city, get a little history lesson, and take a ride on that open air double decker bus.
Calling all foodies!!! Borough Market was the most incredible and incredibly fun stop we made on our hop on hop off bus tour. The market has actually been in the London Bridge area – in some shape or form – for over 1000 years, and to this day remains a beloved London fixture. The market has everything from flowers, produce, cheeses, baked goods, truffles, wine, meat, fish, handmade this-or-that, food stalls, and even sit down restaurants. It’s hard to decide what to buy or what to eat! I started with the mulled wine, wandered a bit, then found myself at Wheatsheaf where we sat down for some wine and curly fries. There are so many great places to stop for a snack, you honestly can’t go wrong, but Wheatsheaf felt particularly “local” – I loved it.
If you’re looking for that quintessential London stroll, a walk down Portobello Road in Notting Hill is just that. Think brightly colored townhouses… daily markets… vintage goodies… being surrounded by some of London’s most expensive properties… yeah. It’s all that and a bag of crisps.
Disclaimer: I didn’t not hop aboard the London Eye this trip. I’m still working up the courage, but I’ve heard from family members and friends that it IS actually very cool and worthwhile. For those of you unsure what the London Eye actually is, in short it’s that giant Ferris Wheel that’s situated along the Thames river, that makes an appearance in just about every movie filmed in London ever. You can buy general tickets ahead of time for £24, a fast track ticket online for £33, OR… it’s worth considering buying the ticket that comes with a glass of champagne for just £36 per ticket.
Another disclaimer… I only had time to visit the British Museum and the Tate Museum while I was visiting, but you bet I did my research. The great thing about museums in London is that all of them are free admission! A lot of them have galleries or exhibits that you can pay for, but in general it is free to enter.
The British Museum is more or less the LACMA of London – it’s full of global history, including most notably the Rosetta Stone.
The Tate Modern is kind of like our Broad Museum, or MOCA – it focuses on modern and contemporary art from the likes of Andy Warhol, Duchamp, Rothko, and more.
If I had more time I would have liked to visit the V&A Museum (they often have fashion designer exhibits), the Churchill War Rooms (I’m a WWII junkie), and I’m still kicking myself for not having visited the Tower of London (where King Henry VIII lived). There’s always next time at least!
It is MANDATORY that you have Afternoon Tea while you’re in London. It’s tradition, it’s an absolute blast, and its an experience you’ll never forgot. The good news/bad news is that there is an overwhelming amount of incredible Afternoon Tea services to choose from.
Some of the most quintessential and established Afternoon Tea services are at The Savoy, The Langham, Claridge’s, The Goring, Sketch, and The Dorchester – which is where I decided to have my Afternoon Tea experience.
The Dorchester – The Beverly Hills Hotel’s English sister – has been offering Afternoon Tea for 85 years, and to say they’ve perfected the art would be an understatement. The whole afternoon ended up being the favorite experience overall while I was in London with my family. We were celebrating my grandma’s 75th birthday and they could not have made the day more special. I’d love to eventually branch out and try more tea services but The Dorchester made quite the impression.
Another mandatory dining/drinking experience is the classic English Pub! Pubs are a dime a dozen in London, but it’s fair to say that like most bars/restaurants… not all pubs are created equal. My favorite pubs were in the Mayfair/Kensington/Notting Hill boroughs, namely:
The Punchbowl – best fish n chips and sticky toffee pudding, super classic and well known.
The Scardsale – probably my favorite in terms of decor and menu. Maybe favorite overall. Order the brownie and thank me later.
The Devonshire Arms – similar to The Scarsdale, just a bit bigger. Total local hang.
The Cow – Notting Hill, classic pub on the first floor, quiet adorable dining room on the 2nd. Seems to be a favorite of fashion girls. Great food, great wine.
Churchill Arms – I don’t even know where to begin with explaining this place. It’s a typical English pub on the inside. But they have a penchant for hanging plants. And they serve INCREDIBLE Thai food. The service is god awful and borderline rude, but – the food is to die for and the ambiance is just… something you gotta see to believe.
OTHER DINING OPTIONS
I always love leaving a little room for “stumbling” upon places.
Burger & Lobster – a very popular “Americana” type restaurant. While I wasn’t avidly seeking American food, actually quite the opposite, everyone raved about this place and it really was one of the best lobster rolls I’ve ever had. Not to mention the place was completely packed with a wait just 15 minutes after opening – so if you’ve got lobster rolls and burgers on the brain get there early!
Caravan – a great eclectic, “very LA” type restaurant in the Southwark area (near the Tate Modern, Borough Market and so forth) that had the most vegetables I could find on a menu. Despite the fact that every dish had about 100 ingredients, they all worked, and they worked really really well.
Dishoom – THE place in London to get your Indian food fix! I can’t tell you how many people told me to go here, it seems to be a global favorite.
Ottolenghi Bakery – Ottolenghi is a household name/chef in London and his bakery in Notting Hill is an absolute treasure. I can confidently say the breakfast and pastries I had there were some of the best I’ve ever had. The croissants were outstanding, and the quiche… absolute perfection. There’s a small communal table inside the bakery where you can sit down and enjoy the morning or afternoon, or you can pick up treats to go!
Outside of the pub life, London’s bar scene is pretty unparalleled, some of the standouts being:
Gordon’s Wine Bar – My one non-negotiable. It’s officially my favorite place in all of London, and I don’t see anything changing that any time soon. Gordon’s has been open since 1890, and it shows in the most beautiful way imaginable. It really is like stepping back in time, and it’s absolutely incredible – it’s an experience you can only have at Gordon’s. It’s an underground cellar or cave type space, only lit by candles, with barely enough room to stand tall. They serve incredible wine, they have the best selection of cheeses to enjoy said wine with, and it’s everything you’d ever hope and dream you’d get inside an old wine bar in Europe. Gordon’s is no secret though sadly, so get there early if you want a table in the cave – which trust me, you do!!!
The Shard – ok… it’s shishi, a bit uppity, a big Vegas-y… but the Shard is just plain awesome – especially if you’re an out of towner. I highly doubt I’d frequent the Shard if I lived in London, but if you’re visiting it’s a must. I had drinks with the most breathtaking views at one of the restaurants called Aqua Shard and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in fancy drinks.
American Bar at the Savoy Hotel – it was just voted best bar of 2017. In the world. Need I say more.
Nightjar – a crazy popular prohibition style craft cocktail bar in Hoxton. Make those reservations!
Sketch – I don’t even know where to begin with Sketch. Sketch is so many glamorous things, it’s all dependent on what you’re in the mood for. I went to Sketch for drinks and was sat in the Parlour… the more casual room in the complex… but drinks can also be had in the whimsical and more upscale Glade room, or the posh East Bar. Sketch is also known for it’s 2 Michiln star restaurant called The Lecture Room, but it’s probably most recognized by the blush pink room called the Gallery. The Gallery hosts lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea. See – it’s clearly just a place you have to see to understand. Don’t forget to visit the loo. You’ll understand once you get there.
THE DEPARTMENT STORES.
The department stores in London are legendary. Iconic. Downright fabulous. Even if your budget is tight, plan on just perusing! The favorites are by far Liberty (the coolest most beautiful department store that opened in 1875), Selfridges (C-L-A-S-S-I-C and conveniently located on Oxford Street near all the good shopping), Harvey Nichols, and Harrods – both of which are in Knightsbridge. And for my foodies… do not miss Fortnum and Mason!!!
You can get some great shopping done in Oxford Circus – flagship Topshop anyone? – or on Carnaby Street – which happens to be conveniently located right next to Liberty.
ACE HOTEL ($$)
ROSEWOOD LONDON ($$$)
THE SAVOY ($$$)
THE CONNAUGHT ($$$)
Guys… London has an insane amount of incredible and incredibly beautiful hotels. It’ll just all boil down to what part of town you want to stay in and what your budget looks like. If you go during chillier months – which I personally prefer – the rates for the really nice hotels are amazing. So are the flights. I know Spring is the ideal time to go, but I’m personally more partial to London in its truest form! Heavy coats, umbrellas and all!
A SHORT TRIP TO WALES? YES.
Wales? Wales. If you follow me on social you know that visiting Wales ended up actually being my favorite part of the whole vacation. We’d taken the 2 hour train ride from London to Cardiff because this is where my grandma’s grandfather was from. It was a trip about tracing history, but it ended up being everything I’d ever hoped and dreamed countryside in England would be. It had everything from rolling green hills, gorgeous little towns, Roman ruins, stunning mideval castles, a beautiful coastline, and wonderfully kind people. I’d highly recommend hiring help navigating though. Because I’ll be honest, when we first arrived in Cardiff I thought, “is this it?” I reached out to the Cardiff tourism board who put me in touch with my now friend Shan who runs private tours in the area. She helped us see things we never would have without a driver or car – let alone someone simply very familiar with all of the areas.
If you have the desire to get out of the big city to see some country, I’d highly recommend Wales. It’ll definitely surprise you.