London is one of the most exciting cities in the world to visit, but the sheer size of the place can overwhelm even the pluckiest of sightseers. Sure, there are the excellent guidebook highlights, such as the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace and the list of amazing (free!) museums is endless. Viewing the many sites in isolation, however, will not get you far in truly getting a sense of the city. The best way to see London is to think of it as a collection of villages rather than a unified mass – this is the key to the capital’s diverse and sprawling charm.
If you want to get to grips with some of what makes the city tick, a good place to start is Soho [link to Soho guide] (closest tube stop is Leicester Square). Seedy? Yes. But dispersed among the adult bookshops and neon signs advertising girls, boys and everything in between are some true gems frequented by tourists and locals alike (not that those bookshops aren’t, mind).
Check out the Riflemaker Gallery for some exciting contemporary art, or wander over to artrepublic Soho, a boutique space on New Compton Street. These are just two of many galleries – a great afternoon can be spent getting lost among the narrow streets and alleys, discovering more.
Soho is also known for its vast selection of restaurants and bars. It’s the centre of London’s gay clubbing scene, with The Green Carnation and The Edge hitting most “top ten” lists. The Endurance in Soho’s fashion district is a lovely pub, as is The French House, which is steeped in history: after escaping to London during the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle had many meetings here and the exiled government is said to have met in the rooms above.
Soho’s also a great area for Asian food lovers: try Busaba Eathai for Thai, Cay Tre for Vietnamese or try your luck in one of Chinatown’s many eateries.
Blurring into Soho from the east is the relatively calm Covent Garden (closest tube stop, you guessed it, is Covent Garden). Tourist-tastic, yes, but for good reason: it actually is quite charming. Street performers abound and the Covent Garden Piazza contains some interesting market stalls that are worth fighting the crowds for a looksie.
St. Paul’s, also known as The Actors’ Church, is a peaceful haven just off the main square and Neal’s Yard, north of the Piazza, shelters a lovely cheese shop and cosy cafés. A great family highlight in the area is the London Transport Museum, which we’ve also included in our Six of the Best: London for Toddlers.
There are also a few decent bars in Covent Garden. Alongside cheap-ish bottled beer, Pearl serves Chinese-inspired tapas (Peking duck quesadillas anyone?), while the Porterhouse is best for buzzy, Irish-themed fun.
If you walk south from the Piazza, across the river, you hit the famous South Bank (closest tube stop is Waterloo). Call me corny, but this is my favourite place for a wander (dare I say, 'stroll'?) in the evening. The city lights are golden along the Thames (Parliament’s a knock-out at dusk) and the London Eye is actually quite pretty from here.
If you plan ahead, the National Theatre has many shows with tickets for a tenner, as well as tours, and the Hayward Gallery is a hot spot for contemporary art (though beware the hefty entrance fee).
For families, the London Aquarium is a nice stop (sometimes they let you feed the sharks!) and movie buffs can enjoy classic and indie films at the British Film Institute (BFI). The BFI Southbank also houses two excellent bars/cafés, but make sure to get a seat before the post-workday rush.
Just next to the London Eye, there's a pier where a number of riverboat tours launch out to Greenwich. City Cruises is a good one, offering commentary along the way, or you can get the speedier commuter favourite, the Thames Clipper. You can also hop on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and hop off at the stop called Cutty Sark.
Greenwich, in the far east of London, is an idyllic haven in the capital, with historic buildings sitting on stretches of open green space. The Old Royal Naval College is a must-see for architecture buffs, while everyone can have fun geeking out at the Royal Observatory within the National Maritime Museum (who knew clocks could be so interesting?). The Cutty Sark, which almost burned to the ground in 2007, has been rebuilt and revamped to include an excellent museum about the historic boat.
The temptation to chill out on the grass with an ice cream can be overwhelming on sunny days, though a number of cosy Greenwich pubs offer plenty of relaxation spots during more wintry months. The Trafalgar Tavern, with its river views and excellent food, is definitely a winner, as is Meantime, a pub run by London's Meantime Brewing Company.
For those who are more inclined to head up to north London, Highgate is full of family-friendly charm (closest Tube stop is Highgate). This is the home of Hampstead Heath, which covers an astounding 790 acres, offering ample space for picnics, ball games and walks. If you’re not up for a picnic, the Red Lion and Sun pub is a stone’s throw from the Heath and offers good food in a comfortable atmosphere.
The Heath also features Kenwood House, an English heritage site that houses artworks from the likes of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Turner and Gainsborough.
Another Highgate highlight is its famous Highgate Cemetery, featuring Victorian chapels and catacombs, as well as the resting places of Karl Marx, George Eliot, Douglas Adams and many more notable figures.
Not far from Highgate tube station, perched on a hill in the centre of the village, is a lovely pub called The Angel Inn. Or, if you’re partial to a more old-mannish drinking scene, The Wrestlers is a cosy spot on the North Road.
Hop on a bus heading south from Highgate and land in Camden Town [link to Camden guide] (the 134 towards Tottenham Court Road goes direct, or Camden Town is the closest Tube stop). Shoulder your way through the hoards of moody teenagers that frequent the area and enjoy what seems like miles of market stalls that offer vintage clothing, handmade jewellery and quirky home decor. Camden also hosts an extensive food market where you can enjoy anything from Caribbean curry to Turkish meze.
The live music scene is also great in this area, with the Electric Ballroom and Jazz Café, among many hosting an eclectic variety of shows. The Cuban, located in the centre of the market area, is a quiet café by day, but later transforms into a bar where, with the help of a lively Cuban band, you can dance the night away.
These are just a few of the many villages in London – if you have a favourite area in the city, or we’ve missed a place in the listings above, let us know in the forums!