London is a city of hyperbole. As the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom, London is very much open for business. We’ll welcome you with open arms, despite the impression our recent politics might suggest. You’re probably well aware that London is a leading global city in the areas of arts, culture, fashion, tourism and media and is home to the best museums in the world. You might not know that it’s the world’s most-visited city (when measured by international arrivals).
Its streets are packed with history; some of the world’s greatest writers, artists, designers, craftsmen and thinkers were born here. We have lots of open, green space to enjoy, in all weathers (yes, the weather is as dramatic as our politics) and we have over 7,000 boozers. What’s not to love?
The city centre, from Marble Arch to Monument, offers enough entertainment for thirsty culture vultures to last 48 years, never mind 48 hours. But things are changing and the most exciting developments (like many other global cities) are in the suburbs. East London is well documented as a hipster’s paradise, where you can find films screened under motorways and cafés catering for cats, but put the silly aside and there is an evolving food, drink and culture scene to please any palette.
You don’t need me to tell you to visit Tate Modern, the National Gallery or the V&A, but I’ll try and aid those who’ve ticked off London’s biggest attractions and are looking for a more local experience.
Day 1: 09:00 – 14:00
Wake yourself up with a stroll in Victoria Park, the ‘People’s Park’, in the heart of the East End. All year round, it is a paradise for nature lovers, with a variety of pleasing pathways and a grand lake. Take a selfie in front of the recently restored Chinese Pagoda and totally fool your friends into thinking you’re on holiday somewhere far more glamorous.
Have a coffee at the Pavilion Cafe if you fancy – but don’t be tempted by their delicious bacon butties, because you’ll want to save yourself for breakfast/brunch at Bistrotheque. This is one of the stalwarts of the London restaurant scene, serving one of the best Full English breakfasts in the capital. Wash that down with a Bloody Mary if you’re a happy-go-lucky type – it will help if the weather isn’t marvellous.
Then make way to the Museum of Childhood – an offshoot of the V&A. Here you’ll find toys from the last century from across the globe. Spend an hour pointing to examples you owned; be transported to a time when you’re biggest worry was when the arm fell off your favourite Ninja Turtle (genuine story).
Day 1: 14:00 – 19:00
From the Museum of Childhood, take a stroll to Broadway Market, a mere ten minutes walk away. If you can fit anything else in your gut, there are tens of stalls that cater for all types of food fancier – a donut from Crosstown Donuts is a must.
From here, take a walk towards The City or Brick Lane; the roads around the market are packed with street art and lots of interesting architecture, from twee Victorian terraces to Brutalist behemoths like Keeling House. Have no agenda, just soak in the atmosphere and pop in anything that takes your fancy. Surely it’s time for a beer? Pretty much any of the boozers in this area will serve you a decent pint – go traditional at The Marksman or for a more hipster experience, sink a few at Mother Kelly’s.
Day 1: 19:00 – ???
Like any city, London comes alive at night, and places you’ve already visited in the daytime can feel like totally different venues at night. With that in mind, you can try the pubs I’ve already recommended if you didn’t get chance in the day. You’re probably due another meal by now though, and East London has so much to offer for every palette and every purse.
I don’t even know where to begin to be honest, but On the Bab and Duke’s Brew and Cue are worth a visit. The former serves delicious Korean street food, like tasty sticky pork buns and fried kimchi pancakes; the latter serves the best smoke meat in town. As I type I’m craving their ‘Greatest Hits’ – a combination of ribs and pulled pork.
When you’re full, head up Kingsland Road. Try a cocktail at Rotorino. Then: for live music fans, the choice is epic – but The Shacklewell Arms is definitely worth a look. Its back room (or ‘Dance Hall’, as the sign suggests) offers free live gigs. If you just want to dance the night away to pop, R&B or disco classics, try Dalston Superstore which plays host to some of London’s best club nights. Here you can try a ‘Terrible Muriel’ cocktail and try your luck with a local. If you’re looking for something truly unique, try The Glory, which offers cabaret and drag and anything goes.
Day 2: 09:00 – 14:00
Only a fool would write off Central London as tourist hell: there are lots of interesting things to do if you know where to find them. Start early and you’ll avoid the rampant crowds (although beware that London doesn’t really get going until mid-morning if your second day is a Sunday). A cup of tea at Yumchaa is hard to beat – say no to tea-bagging with their range of loose leaf teas and brews. The blends are presented in jugs on the counter, so you can sniff your way to your favourite before ordering.
From Yumchaa, try one of Soho’s galleries: The Photographer’s Gallery is home to some of the city’s best photography exhibitions; previous highlights have included Edward Steichen and William S. Burroughs. It’s also home to the unmissable Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. If photography’s not your bag, head down to the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on the Mall, where there’s a rolling programme of art exhibitions on offer. For lunch, try Spuntino, an Italo-American gem in the heart of Soho. Sit at the counter and get your lips round their heaven sent sliders or aubergine fries.
Day 2: 14:00 – 19:00
Head north to Modernist Hampstead. The area has long been a draw for some of London’s mast famous exports, such as the author Agatha Christie, Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer and artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
There’s lots of information online about the various Modernist properties in the area, but my favourites are Two Willow Road and the Isokon Gallery. Two Willow Road was designed by Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger (who built the mighty Trellick and Balfron Towers) and you can tour his former home restored to how it was when he lived there. The Isokon building is a beautiful example of the period and is one of the most architecturally-significant Modernist residences in London. The gallery, which explores the history of the building, is free!
After, you can explore nearby Hampstead Heath – walkup Parliament Hill, which affords stunning views of the city. Take Josh’s advice and converse with the colourful locals – there are sure to be many. As always, there are plenty of fabulous pubs in the area – The Bull is not too far away in Highgate.
Day 2: 19:00 – ???
By now you’ve surely earned a good rest. But in London, there’s always something to do, day or night, which explains why I always look exhausted. If you can muster the energy, have a glass of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar, considered London’s oldest wine bar. They have an enormous selection of old and new world tipples – red, white, rosé, port, sherry – you want it, they’ve got it. The building dates back to the 1680s and its dark underground arches are the perfect place to spend a quiet Sunday evening.
For a quieter evening, you could check out one of London’s independent cinemas. The Prince Charles Cinema screens films from the last few decades – you never know, your favourite 1980s gem might be on.
To finish your trip, take a stroll along the South Bank: a tourist haven, yes – but the view from the Thames bridges at night is one the best views in the city – if not the world.