Thanks to the countless films set in the city, everyone that goes to London wants to see the iconic sites, and they’re all unmissable. You can’t leave London without seeing the London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square… The list goes on, and any good guide book or Top 10 list will mention all of these attractions and more.
On the other hand, if you’ve got longer than just a few days in the city and you’ve got time to check all these off your list, you can then start really getting under the city’s skin. We’ve put together a list of a few special places that are a bit off the beaten track or off the standard tourist trail, to help you see London from a local’s perspective. In no particular order, from picturesque streets and vibrant markets to nighttime strolls and incredible food, these are all places that Londoners love, and we’re pretty sure you will too.
Things to do
- Buckingham Palace and the Mall by night
We know, we know. We said of the beaten track, and Buckingham Palace is one of the busiest tourist spots in London, especially at 11am when the Changing of the Guard takes place, so including it on this list might seem a little strange at first. What a lot of people don’t realise is that after dark, this area is completely deserted, and the palace is beautifully lit up. Stroll up from Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch and up the Mall, and enjoy the surreal feeling of having this iconic spot all to yourself. Magical, and a great photo opportunity.
- St Dunstan’s-in-the-East
This church, halfway between London Bridge and the Tower of London, in the City of London, was largely destroyed by bombs in the Blitz during the Second World War, and, rather than being rebuilt, it was decided it should be turned into a beautiful public garden. The tower, which still stands, was designed by Christopher Wren, and this is an incredibly tranquil spot right in the heart of the city, perfect for a bit of downtime away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist honey-pots.
- Little Venice
Little Venice is where a few of London’s canals, which the city used to depend on for trade, converge, and is a peaceful area full of waterside pubs and cafes, lovely at any time of year, but even more so on a spring or summer’s day. The houseboats that line the canals are a riot of colour. It’s an easy stroll, or a short boat ride if you prefer, up to Little Venice from Camden, another unmissable area well-known for its alternative market, quirky shops and the eclectic clientele they attract.
- Brick Lane
Brick Lane is a street in the borough of Tower Hamlets that’s home to a large proportion of the city’s Indian and Bangladeshi community, and it’s lined, almost exclusively, with hundreds of Indian restaurants. A good rule of thumb is, after you’ve wandered down the street and soaked up the atmosphere to your heart’s content, to pick the restaurant that looks the most questionable, as the worse the place looks the better the food is likely to be.
Brick Lane is also home to two competing businesses, just steps apart, selling amazing bagels, or ‘beigels’ as they call them, which can’t be missed. The best part is they’re both open 24 hours a day, so you can treat yourself to a late-night bagel after am evening out.
- A Stroll along the South Bank
You’ll find plenty of tourists in this part of London, but the locals love it too. Strolling along the South Bank of the River Thames is always spectacular, as it takes you past the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern museum, both of which are worth a visit if you have the time. Make sure you wrap up warm in winter as the wind really whistles along the river. Browse the second-hand book market under Waterloo Bridge in the company of tourists and locals alike.
- Borough Market
At Borough Market you can find incredible food from all corners of the globe. As you wander round, you’re offered tasters to help you make up your mind, as there’s so much choice. Make sure you’re hungry when you go. This is also a great place to window shop and people watch, as it’s always a riot of colour.
- Marylebone, Chelsea, South Kensington…
These are all great areas to stroll around if you just want to admire the architecture and soak up the atmosphere, and perhaps grab a coffee at one of the many cute cafes dotted about. Put google maps away and enjoy getting lost, who knows what new hidden gems you might come across!
Shoreditch is a very distinctive area of London, full of trendy bars and restaurants. It’s got a grimy look to it and is famous for its street art, which all creates a unique atmosphere and charm. To really enjoy the street art, we recommended walking up to Shoreditch from Brick Lane, possibly fuelled by a curry or bagel, and then exploring the Shoreditch triangle. If you’re still hungry, this part of London is also well-known for its street food, and Shoreditch is also a great option for a night out.
Most of London’s museums and art galleries are free, and Londoners take full advantage of them. Especially if it’s a rainy or chill day, there’s nothing better to do than stroll the halls of the British Museum or the Tate Modern. Other popular spots are the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Imperial War Museum. One museum that a lot of people overlook is the Museum of London, near Barbican tube station. Here, you walk through London’s history, from prehistoric times through to Roman London and right up to the present day. It’s really engaging and great for adults and children alike.
Bars and Restaurants
More and more quirky bars, cafes and restaurants are popping up all over London, and, in fact, a lot of them are in trendy Shoreditch. As well as the new places continually appearing, there are also lots of old favourites that Londoners have been frequenting for years. After you’ve spent all day exploring the hidden corners of London, you’re sure to have worked up an appetite. Here’s our hand-picked selection of a few spots that Londoners just love for a drink or a bite to eat with a twist.
This is a cocktail and ping-pong bar which has two locations in London, one on Old Street and one in Farringdon. They have 17 ping-pong tables but they can get really busy at peak times, so try and book ahead or just grab one of their delicious pizzas whilst you wait.
- London Cat Village
Has all this sight-seeing tired you out? Try sitting back and unwinding in the company of a ‘nuisance’ 17 beautiful cats. Yes, that really is the collective noun! They also serve snacks, teas and smoothies.
- The Breakfast Club
Brunch at The Breakfast Club is good enough as it is, but what really tops this place off is the secret bar called The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town that you get through by opening the door of what appears, at first glance, to be a Smeg fridge. In order to get in, you have to announce to a member of staff that you’d like to ‘see the mayor’.
- Sushi Samba
Sushi with a view. This place offers a fusion of Japanese, Peruvian and Brazilian food, and, being on the 39th floor, has incredible panoramic views of the city. The bamboo ceiling and lighting are really distinctive, making the whole experience unforgettable.
- Duck and Waffle
Whilst we’re on the subject food with a view, brunch at Duck and Waffle is another winner. It’s in the same building as Sushi Samba, but one floor up. It serves a fusion of British and European cuisine, and the best part is it’s open 24/7, so it’s a pretty spectacular spot to watch the sun come up. The best part is, if you go in winter you won’t even have to get up that early. Short days have their perks!
- Da Mario’s
This tiny pizza restaurant in Kensington was one of Princess Diana’s favourite haunts, and the food is fantastic. Why not wander around the charming area of South Kensington, recommended above, to work up an appetite, before treating yourself to an Italian feast.
This is the traditional English afternoon tea with an eccentric twist. It’s not cheap, but we reckon it’s worth it for the experience, and the food is divine. It’s hard to describe exactly what afternoon tea at Sketch is like, but trust us, you’ll love it.
London is a melting pot and is ever-evolving, so no matter how many times you visit you’re always bound to discover a new gem. With so much to see, you won’t regret taking a detour off the traditional tourist stomping path and trying out a few of these tips for experiencing London like the locals do.