A friend asked me for London travel advice. I’m storing my reply here so that I and others can use it and add to it in the future…
To me the special thing about London is that it is the most cosmopolitan city I know, dig at New York fully intended. How to experience that? You’ll see people from everywhere and encounter a huge variety of restaurants just wandering in the center, but I’d also recommend poking around in, for instance, the Turkish neighborhoods northeast if King’s Cross Station. Kilburn, a rougher neighborhood snuggled against posh West Hampstead, has a Caribbean community. Might be worth checking online to see about any festivals–I once went to one in south London with Brazilian dancers, Jamaican jerk chicken, and some kind of unexplained drum group.
The city is imperial and rich so it’s also filled with world-class cultural institutions like the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert, and the National Gallery. It’s also got funny little populist touches, like not charging for entry to those museums, though they often ask for a reasonable donation or charge for special exhibits. That means you don’t feel like you have to spend all morning or day there to justify going in. Find yourself near Russell Square? Pop in to the British Museum and admire the stunning glass-covered central courtyard and reading room surrounded by Neo-Classical galleries filled with mummies, the Rosetta Stone, and Victorian knick-knacks. Getting rained on near King’s Cross Station? Stroll over to the British Library and learn that the Magna Carta ain’t what it’s cracked up to be and see other early manuscripts and rare books spanning religions, cultures and even scientific disciplines.
Near the center you also can’t move without tripping over a park. I’d recommend Primrose Hill, which is a pleasant jaunt along a houseboat-filled canal from King’s Cross, for its views over the center. If you have more time or are in Hampstead already, Hampstead Heath is even higher and makes a nice picnic ground.
Half-day excursion, Greenwich: A boat ride down the river to Greenwich is a great way to see the mixture of traditional and adventurous architecture that makes London so special. You can get tourist boats which will include commentary and so on but there are also commuter boats. I poked around the Greenwich Observatory and you can straddle the Prime Meridian, see some huge brass telescopes, and then stroll around the pleasant green grounds. There’s also a maritime museum.
Half-day excursion, Southwark: the Tate Modern Art Gallery has great free exhibits and because the old power station it’s in is so tall, you can have a coffee high up with tremendous views across the river toward St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, which is a bizarre square-mile of antiquated legal practices which put finance on a pedestal: http://www.newstatesman.com/economy/2011/02/london-corporation-city. Then back down to the surface and stroll over to Borough Market, (W, Th, Fr last I checked) for pretentious but delicious food and international farmer’s market atmosphere. You’re also not far from the open-air Globe Theatre where you could catch a Shakespeare play; standing tickets are very cheap.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, at Embankment, a nice walk from Southwark, is great for a drink and after-work atmosphere in what looks more or less like a wine cellar.
Smithy’s on Leeke Street near King’s Cross had a great half-price lunch deal and a respectable selection of wines into the evening. Was doing modern British cuisine, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, back when I used to go. Even if you don’t go here, it’s worth trying one of what they call “gastro-pubs” which are pub-restaurants trying to serve a slightly more ambitious type of British food.
There are a couple of Aussie places over in Farringdon which serve exquisite breakfast/brunches and give you an insight into one of the odd sub-cultures of London: young Aussies who come over on a work-stay visa and move around the city in packs. The two I’ve tried are the Caravan on Exmouth Market and one that used to be called St Ali but might now be Coffee Workshop at 24 Clerkenwell Road.
Buy an Oyster card to use the Tube and bus system or you’ll pay about 3 times too much for paper transport tickets. Public transport in London is fabulous, though of course if there are 4 of you the cabs may be worth it from time to time.