My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Promenading in London: A Sunny Stroll Through the Best of London

London boasts an enchanting abundance of iconic sights and neighborhoods: Big Ben, Soho, Trafalgar Square, West End, London Eye, South Bank, the River Thames. I just love simply walking through this grand city. And on this summer afternoon — with my guidebook-updating chores finished — I decide to slow down and take the very long way back to the Tube: three miles meandering through the heart of downtown, connecting virtually all of the major landmarks. It’s a Friday, the summer sun is shining, and Londoners are out enjoying their city…just promenading. So let’s join them. Come along with me on a sunny London stroll.

I begin near London Bridge on the South Bank, at Borough Market. One of the world’s great food halls is airy and elegant beneath its industrial green vaulting, despite being tucked unceremoniously between railway viaducts. Borough Market is a commotion of vendors, shoppers, foodies, and gawking tourists. I grab a quality flat white at Monmouth Coffee, a third-wave coffee roaster near the back of the market. Just outside the café’s front door, sun-worshipping office drones — just starting their weekend — lounge around on big green traffic barriers. Sunshine pours between buildings along Park Street, focusing a spotlight of summer cheer into the otherwise well-shaded market.

From here, I plunge through the heart of the market. Along the way, I pass a dizzying array of vendors: meaty roast sandwiches, diver-farmed oysters (bragging “from boat to Borough”), Spanish-style jamón hocks, venison burgers, cheesemongers, greengrocers, Turkish delight, honey, gooey Raclette sandwiches from Switzerland, cheesemongers, colorful chutneys, delicacies from Croatia and Calabria, dry-cured alpine deli meats from Italy’s South Tirol, cheesemongers, exotic teas, mushroom pâté, cheesemongers, sausage and bacon rolls, cheesemongers, and cheesemongers.

Reaching the end of the main market hall, I angle right, crossing a grubby street beneath a rumbling rail bridge (and passing the house where Bridget Jones lived) to reach the scruffier Green Market annex. Here, under naked viaduct girders rather than a genteel Industrial Age market canopy, are gathered yet more vendors: coffee, cheeses, hot sauces, licorice, rye bread, preserves, and much more. Nearby is a tempting row of street food carts: Bavarian bratwurst, Ethiopian injeras, pulled-lamb sandwiches, Balkan bureks (savory phyllo dough pastries), steamed bao sandwich rolls, soul food from the American South, Scotch eggs, and more.

Skirting past Southwark Cathedral, I leave the market bustle and head toward the Thames. Along the riverbank, moored between dirty brown modern office blocks, is a replica of the Golden Hinde — the 16th-century clipper that carried Sir Francis Drake on the second-ever journey around the world…bringing home untold treasures from distant lands, and earning the favor of Queen Elizabeth. From the ship’s masts, I carry on west along Pickfords Wharf, then Clink Street — named for the medieval prison now synonymous with doing time. My stroll reminds me that the South Bank — while architecturally humdrum — has more than its share of colorful English history.

Crossing under Southwark Bridge and rambling along the Bankside promenade, I turn my attention to the Thames itself. The brown water is churning with boats, carrying both sightseers and commuters. Downriver, I glimpse the iconic Tower Bridge. On this sunny afternoon, it seems all of London is out with me…just promenading aimlessly, in a highly weather-dependent northerly variation of Italy’s passeggiata.

Soon we reach the thatched roof of Shakespeare’s Globe. The original Globe Theatre — a circular, open-air, half-timbered venue where Shakespeare watched his own plays performed — burned to a crisp during a 1612 performance. Meticulously rebuilt by a visionary American theater lover in 1997, the new Globe provides one of travel’s best time-travel experiences.

While there’s nothing playing tonight, I reminisce about my first backpacking trip to Europe. I invested £5 in a “Groundling” ticket: standing-room-only in the crowded and convivial pit immediately in front of the stage. The show was Anthony and Cleopatra — with, as in Shakespeare’s time, both the male and female roles played by men — and it went on for three and a half hours. By the end, I was exhausted and footsore, but felt transported back to Shakespeare’s time.

Some 15 years later, I had another unforgettable Globe experience with my wife. Booking tickets several weeks ahead, I’d decided to splurge on the premium seats: at the very top of the theater, facing the stage head-on. Unfortunately, by the time the show rolled around, temperatures in London crested the 100-degree mark. On the evening of the play, my wife and I slogged through oppressive heat and humidity toward the theater, consoling ourselves with the thought that the open-air Globe should cool off after sunset. But when we reached our primo seats, our hearts sank: Thatch is used so abundantly in England specifically because of its impressive insulation properties. And our seats, immediately under the thatch roof, trapped every little bit of heat from one of London’s hottest days ever. We melted…despite being”outside.”

From The Globe, it’s just a few steps to the Millennium Bridge — the futuristic, blade-of-light footbridge that arcs gracefully across the Thames toward the stately dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I recall how, when first opened in 2000, the bridge wobbled and swayed like a latter-day Galloping Gertie. They closed it for two years to stabilize it, and now it’s a vital artery for pedestrians looking for a quick route across the Thames.

Facing the bridge, the Tate Modern fills a blocky former power station with world-class modern and contemporary art. Wanting to check out the new annex they just opened out back, I head inside the Tate (like many major London museums, it’s free to enter) and wait my turn to ride the elevator up to the 10th floor. Stepping out onto the terrace, I’m rewarded with exceptional views across sprawling London, with the Tate’s decommissioned smokestack in the foreground.

All across the skyline, brand-new skyscrapers are sprouting like tulips in the springtime. No longer clustered in just one or two modern business districts, it seems that all of London is open to developers. And Londoners have a penchant for clever nicknames. From up here, I can see buildings known as “The Shard,” “The Gherkin,” “The Walkie-Talkie,” “The Cheese Grater,” and “The Scalpel.”

Returning to earth, I carry on westward along the Thames, passing the Founders Arms pub — with happy après-work drinkers spilling out onto the walkway, tipsy from their pints and Pimm’s Cups. Just before Blackfriars Bridge, I turn back and look down to see little kids gathering on the riverbank below me. The Thames is a tidal river, and low tide reveals little “beaches” here and there — even in downtown London. On a hot summer day, Londoners huddle up on the sand and pebbles to sunbathe and pretend they’re in Brighton or Blackpool (if not Ibiza or Mykonos). Kids skip stones toward St. Paul’s, and the glittering forest of skyscrapers dubbed “The Square Mile” rockets up on the horizon — Oliver’s Twist meets The Jetsons.

Crossing under Blackfriars Bridge, I pass the OXO Building and a few more little beaches before reaching a strip of food carts under a leafy canopy of trees. Just beyond is the brutalist National Theatre building, a hulking eyesore that resembles a giant concrete game of Jenga gone catawampus — though, on this sunny day, even that building seems beautiful. (Almost.)

Out in front, I pause at the statue of Laurence Olivier emoting to the handle of a sword. Street performers — the spiritual descendants of Olivier — do their thing nearby.

Passing under Waterloo Bridge, I reach another London eyesore, the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Underneath the concrete stilts that elevate the concert hall’s terrace above the embankment, they’ve created a skate park, with ramps and rails slathered in wild graffiti. The soundtrack is grinding wheels and loud music spewing from a boombox. The London skaters who frequent this little postapocalyptic corner of otherwise idyllic waterfront — anarchists tucked under Queen Elizabeth’s skirt — coexist peacefully with families and tourists strolling past food carts just a few steps away. It’s a reminder of why I love London, where strands of every walk of life imaginable are woven together into a vital urban tapestry.

As if there hadn’t been enough street food on my walk so far, I detour a short block inland alongside the Queen Elizabeth Hall to reach the Southbank Centre Food Market. One of my colleagues recommended that I check out this hidden gem, which attracts some of the city’s trendiest food carts, filling an otherwise drab little concrete plaza between the concert hall and elevated train tracks. And once again on this walk, I find myself regretting that I have no appetite. You could quite conceivably spend two weeks in London, eat nothing but street food, and consider it an exquisite gastronomic experience.

Back on the riverbank, I cross under Hungerford Bridge. Until now, my stroll has been a reasonable mix of Londoners and visitors. But now I’m entering a touristy slog: the London Eye ferris wheel looms just ahead. Called the “Millennium Wheel” when it opened in 2000, today it has been rebranded, with great dignity and restraint, as the “Caffeinated and Carbonated Sugar Water from America London Eye” (or something along those lines).

The London Eye area is a round-the-clock tourist circus, jammed with visitors from every corner of the globe desperately trying to turn money into fun. Other corny attractions (most of them owned by the same company that runs the Eye) have sprung up nearby. The County Hall building next to the Eye now houses the Sealife Aquarium (showing off, I have to imagine, catfish and perch from the Thames); a second branch of the London Dungeon torture-and-gore shlockfest (as if one weren’t enough); and an attraction called “Shrek’s Adventure” (because the crack marketing team at Merlin Entertainments is nothing if not on-trend). The strip is salvaged only by the endearingly old-fashioned carousel that spins under the trees.

Trying to ignore the tackiness all around me, I belly up to the railing next to the London Eye and look across the Thames to where the towers of the Palace of Westminster rise up from the prickly Neo-Gothic headquarters of Britain’s government. Big Ben is covered in scaffolding, as if to emphasize the “work in progress” chaos that has characterized the UK’s once-noble system of government since the advent of Brexit — at one time so civilized, and today pure bedlam.

It’s time to cross the river on Westminster Bridge, which — when the Houses of Parliament aren’t scaffolded — provides the quintessential London tableau. Red double-decker buses rumble past, and souvenir stands sell Union Jack everything. But tonight, the reality is far less glamorous. It’s late in the day, and the bridge’s sidewalks are a traffic jam of tourists crossing between two of London’s prime sightseeing zones. Along the banister are stacked neat rows of coffee cups and empty bottles; as an anti-terrorism measure, London doesn’t have garbage cans in high-profile areas like this one. So, understandably, people improvise.

Along the bridge, con artists are making a killing with the classic ball-and-cup game, luring in an ever-replenishing supply of curious and gullible tourists. (Trying to win at ball-and-cup is approximately as foolish, from a personal finance perspective, as dropping $100 on taking the whole family to Shrek’s Adventure.) It’s a textbook scam: A vaguely Eastern European-looking guy kneeling on the sidewalk challenges random passersby to guess which of the three cups the ball is hiding under. Your first guess is free — and invariably correct. Then he suggests that you to put some money on the next one. Occasionally a very skilled player makes a killing, guessing the right cup again and again, and walks away with a wad of cash. This emboldens observers to become participants. And then, miraculously, the ball becomes impossible to track. (The chumps never seem to notice that the big winner bears a striking resemblance to the guy running the game. As if clad in the uniform for the lowest rung of the Macedonian Mafia, they even have the same buzz cut, the same faux-leather vest worn over a grubby sweatshirt, and the same gold chain.)

After watching a few suckers parted from their money, I continue across the bridge, passing under Big Ben and noticing protesters — both pro- and anti-Brexit — lining the fence just behind the Houses of Parliament. I turn right, up Whitehall, which is closed to traffic for the weekend. I take full advantage, strolling right down the middle of the UK’s majestic “government row” — lined with ministries and imbued with a certain grandeur.

Enjoying this wide-open space after the stifling crowds around the London Eye and Westminster Bridge, I breeze past the Cenotaph (a pillar honoring Britain’s World War I and II dead), the fortified gate leading to 10 Downing Street, and the poignant memorial to the women of the UK who died in World War II. I’m too late to see the Horse Guards — the animals have already been stabled for the night — but a dismounted soldier, wearing his “Charge of the Light Brigade”-style tasseled helmet, still stands at attention. He’s swarmed by tourists who take turns to squeeze alongside him for a photo op.

Whitehall culminates at Trafalgar Square — the main square of London, of the UK, and of an empire upon which, at one point, the sun never set. Standing at the foot of the square’s towering pillar (honoring Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar), I enjoy watching little kids flagrantly disobey the “please don’t climb on the bronze lions” signs.

At the top of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery. And hiding between the two wings of the National Gallery is a shortcut to Leicester Square — the epicenter of London’s West End theater scene. From the statue of Shakespeare in the middle of the square, it’s a five-minute walk to the left to Book of Mormon, a five-minute walk to the right to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a five-minute walk straight ahead to Les Miz, and a 30-second walk in any direction to rip-off ticket sellers offering bad-value theater tickets. (For the best deals, either book direct with the theater’s box office; drop by the official, freestanding “TKTS” kiosk at the bottom of Leicester Square for same-day discounts; or try to snag some cheap “day tickets.”)

With Shakespeare at my back, I angle left out of Leicester Square and up Wardour Street — instantly transported from glitzy theater-land to Chinatown.

Stepping under a colorful gateway arch, I emerge into a world of florid Chinese calligraphy, red lanterns, pungent spices, stone-carved lions, and naked ducks hanging from little nooses in store windows. Pausing at one restaurant, I watch through the window as an army of chefs lovingly hand-fold dumplings. I do a little lap up and down Gerrard Street, between gateways — savoring the illusion of being in the Far East while still in downtown London — before crossing Shaftesbury Avenue to Soho.

Another block, another entirely different London experience. Surrounded by West End theaters, boisterous Soho is the spot to have a drink or dinner before heading to a show. Consequently, it’s one of London’s culinary hotspots — a proving ground for new chefs attempting to make it big on the city’s restaurant scene. (On this trip alone, I scouted and added to our Rick Steves London guidebook more than a dozen Soho eateries — including Kricket, serving up modern, upmarket Indian dishes that go beyond the corner curry house;  Kiln, with a long open kitchen of sizzling kilns cooking up intensely flavorful northern Thai food; Hoppers, offering a delicious crash course in Sri Lankan fare; and Nopi, the upscale Soho outpost of Yotam Ottolenghi’s fast-expanding modern Mediterranean restaurant group.)

Spotting several rainbow flags, I’m reminded that Soho was also an early enclave of London’s gay scene. Of course, these days you’ll find openly LGBTQ people in all walks of London life. But homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. Back then, members of Soho’s clandestine queer community invented a secret code language of slang, called Polari. Some of these words — such as “togs” (clothes) and “naff” (tacky) — were eventually accepted into the English mainstream…much like the people who invented them. Today the rainbow flags of Soho feel less like war banners, and more like victory flags for the progressive values of today’s Britain.

Many Londoners don’t care for Soho — they find it touristy, crowded, overpriced, and tacky. But to me, Soho is a fascinating little slice of urban London. Anytime I’m in town, I find myself manufacturing excuses to pass through here. And I always wind up making my way a couple of blocks west of the core of Soho, to the rapidly gentrifying red light district (which barely qualifies as one anymore) — not for the red lights, but for ice cream. Tucked down a dead-end lane is Gelupo, with some of the best artisanal gelato I’ve had outside of Italy.

From here, I head northwest a few blocks past a strange mix of gritty old sex shops, top-end boutiques, and chic restaurants. I wind up at Carnaby Street — famous as ground zero of London’s “Swinging Sixties” scene. While today it’s been glitzed up and commodified, I can’t walk along Carnaby Street without conjuring mental images of Austin Powers-style day-glo flower power. (The big, glittery Union Jack they’ve suspended over the street eggs me on.)

Partway up Carnaby Street, at #49, I duck through an eye-catching doorway and follow the passage to Kingly Court, a new restaurant zone that stacks three floors of eateries — Japanese, Italian, Caribbean, Indian, Peruvian, and more — around a cozy courtyard.

It’s starting to get dark, and I’m pooped from my long London ramble. Time to head for the nearest Tube stop. I continue north along Carnaby Street to my favorite shopping facade in the city: The half-timbered, faux-Tudor-style Liberty Department Store. If you could imagine Shakespeare shopping at any store in today’s London…it’d be this one.

From here, it’s just a few steps to busy Regent Street, one of London’s most upscale shopping thoroughfares. Several vendors along here brag about their loyal royal customers. Turning right up Regent Street, I follow its stately, gently curving path up to where it intersects London’s other great shopping strip, Oxford Street — a bit more middlebrow than Regent, with outposts of major department stores and international fashion chains.

Descending through the twilight into the Oxford Street Tube station, I think back on how much of London I’ve seen over the last three miles and couple of hours. There’s a reason why this is one of travel’s great cities — and why, before I’ve even left town, I’m already plotting my next trip. (I’ll be back in October.)


I was in town updating our Rick Steves London guidebook for the upcoming 2020 edition. Any time I’m in London — whether for work or as a tourist — that’s my bible.

If all of these major attractions are too crowded and well-worn for your tastes, never fear — I also love exploring the less touristy corners of London, where you can become a “temporary Londoner.”

What’s New in Paris: Tips for Summer 2019

I recently returned from a visit to “The Big Three” of European travel: Paris, London, and Rome. This trio of great European capitals is better (and more crowded) than ever. It had been 10 years since my last visit to Paris, and I was struck by how it feels timeless — yet subtly better in so many respects. Here are some of my fresh-from-the-rucksack observations from the City of Light.

Reports of Notre-Dame’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The fire that engulfed the cathedral’s roof back in April was a grotesque and shocking thing to watch on TV, and priceless works of art have been lost forever. But — visiting soon after the fire — I was heartened to lay eyes on France’s most important church and see that its graceful stone structure is still intact. In fact, from most angles, little fire damage is evident. I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy; France faces a long, expensive, and exhausting rebuilding process to resurrect its Gothic masterpiece. But seeing Notre-Dame’s gargoyles still peering out from its prickly roofline made my heart glad.

That said, the harrowing sight of Notre-Dame in flames reminded me of the fragility of Europe’s cultural treasures. On this visit, I found myself making a point to slow down and savor Paris’ great sights. Just a short walk from Notre-Dame is Paris’ other great church, Sainte-Chapelle, with the most spectacular stained glass anywhere. I visited in a pensive mood — putting myself in the shoes of a medieval pilgrim, wowed by the swirling play of colored light in this majestic space. If you were saddened by the Notre-Dame fire, take it as a challenge to “be present” in the presence of Europe’s great art and architecture. Ignore the crowds and just take it all in. Because you never know when you’ll be back…or if, when you are, that wonderful sight might not be there anymore.

Once a thoroughfare for busy traffic, the Seine riverbanks have been reclaimed by Parisians. The city is converting more and more of its embankments to people-friendly promenades. In this otherwise congested city, I found walking along the Seine a relaxing way to connect my sightseeing. On a nice day, the riverbanks are filled with rollerbladers, skateboarders, cyclists, and people out strolling. A few pop-up bars and cafés have opened along the river, though to be honest, I was hoping for even more — this zone would be made-to-order for a food truck circus. (A Parisian explained to me that the city is heavily regulated and slow to adopt new ideas. I think maybe I’ve been spoiled by London’s food-truck explosion.) A local tipped me off that the stretch between the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame is, not surprisingly, quite touristy — but if you carry on farther east, the embankments become almost entirely local (check out the area around the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand).

Bonus tip: If you enjoy traffic-free Paris, be in town for the first Sunday of any month — when the “Paris Breathes” initiative forbids car traffic entirely in huge swathes of the city center, and along the Champs-Elysées.

Part of my assignment for this trip was road-testing the Rick Steves’ Europe Audio Tours for Paris. I used these tours to visit the Orsay, the Rue Cler shopping street, the Château of Versailles, and more — and they significantly enriched my visit. Download the (free) Rick Steves Audio Europe app, then download the (free) audio tours for the destinations you’re visiting. When you arrive, stick your buds in your ears and simply enjoy a thoughtfully curated, fully guided tour of Europe’s top sights. (This may sound like a gratuitous plug, but since we make absolutely no money doing these audio tours, I consider it more of a public service. Seriously…I just love these things.)

Paris is c-r-o-w-d-e-d. Smart line-beating strategies can make things easier. But even so, the major sights can be time-consuming and borderline-unpleasant to visit. So consider going light on the sightseeing, and instead, focus on enjoying Paris as a temporary Parisian. Sit on a bench in a park away from the crowds. For example, tucked just across the street from the Louvre (and a short stroll from the mega-touristy Tuileries Garden) are the free-to-enter courtyards of the Palais Royal. This pristine, manicured park — with gurgling fountains, geometric hedgerows, and stately sculptures — is where Parisian parents bring their kids to escape the urban intensity of the city, and where office workers come to unwind at the end of a busy day. And there’s barely a tourist in sight.

Paris is the birthplace of department stores. And these days, some of its stately old shopping halls are becoming virtual theme parks. At the Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann — perhaps Paris’ grandest grand magasin — they’ve built a “Glasswalk” observation platform that extends out into the sumptuous atrium, under the glittering Art Deco dome. At busy times, people wait in line just to step out and snap a photo (free; you’ll find it on the third floor, near the Starbucks). And down below, they recently suspended a bouncy trampoline floor for kids — hanging in the middle of the atrium, high above the perfume counters (this is now closed, but they’re likely to feature similar attractions in the future). Purist Parisian shoppers are put off by the very touristy turn their venerable old stores are taking…but visitors enjoy seeing the department store reach its ultimate expression.

Paris has an excellent public transit network — but it’s important to confirm your transit plans before heading out for the day. I noticed more interruptions on this visit than I ever had before. For example, the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) economic justice movement has been very active this summer — especially on Saturdays. Their M.O. is to disrupt local transit, occasionally closing down key Métro lines and bus routes. (When I was in Paris on May 1 — the “Labor Day” holiday — virtually all city transit came to a standstill.) While a few of these protests have turned violent, they are easy enough to avoid. (They are targeting institutions, not tourists.) But they can create headaches if you’re trying to move around the city. 

Beyond the protests are routine transit interruptions, closures, and changes. For example, Paris recently renumbered several of its bus lines, so a year-old map is no longer accurate. And, as with any big-city transit system, key stops can be closed for construction — for example, the Pont de l’Alma RER stop, handy to the popular Rue Cler neighborhood (and my hotel), was closed when I was in town. Public transport is still the cheapest and most efficient way to get around Paris, but keep an eye on the city transit site for changes and updates: www.ratp.fr/en. And, as always, hoteliers are a great source of up-to-the-minute information about transit closures, whether planned or otherwise. (Bonus tip: When in Paris — or any other city — I use the Google Maps app extensively for both realtime transit routes and walking directions. It rarely steers me wrong.)

I had many memorable meals in Paris, but some of my favorites were simply at neighborhood cafés, with classic menus of steak-frites and croque-monsieur. While I’m a bit of a snob about seeking out top-quality meals, here in Paris, even a fill-the-tank meal at a local dive would qualify as “high cuisine” in most countries. And the people-watching from al fresco tables is fantastique. I found myself choosing the sidewalk perch I liked best, without regard for the menu. And I always ate well enough.

Even as things change, Paris remains one of Europe’s top destinations. Doing a little homework to know what’s new can help you have a more savvy, more effortlessly enjoyable trip. Bon voyage!


I’ve also blogged recently about how you can beat the crowds at the major sights in Paris (and other European biggies). And last week, I described my favorite Paris hotel.

When I’m in Paris, in addition to those audio tours, my indispensable tool is the Rick Steves Paris guidebook. Rick, along with co-authors Steve Smith and Gene Openshaw, have done a formidable job of making one of Europe’s best and biggest cities engaging, fun, and easy to navigate.

Let’s Talk About Our Favorite Hotels

As someone who travels in Europe for three months a year, I have, by default, become a connoisseur of hotels. Not only do I sleep in hotels — I spend hours each day visiting and evaluating accommodations for our guidebooks. I’ve experienced the full spectrum, from “good enough” hotels that I forget the moment I check out, to unforgettably terrible hotels so bad they’re almost sublime, to transcendently great hotels. And, like any aficionado, I keep a mental list of my all-time favorites. (Full disclosure: While many travel bloggers do “sponsored posts,” we at Rick Steves’ Europe are never paid for our endorsements. The hotel raves below are all 100% unsolicited…I just geek out on awesome accommodations.)

On my recent trip to Paris, I added another hotel to my list of all-stars. Before my visit, I had asked the co-author of our Rick Steves Paris guidebook, Steve Smith, if he had any suggestions. With a glimmer in his eye, he said, “I know just the place.”

The moment I stepped into the Hôtel de Londres Eiffel, I knew I was in for a great stay. I was warmly greeted by Arnaud, who recognized me before I could say a word. (With just 30 rooms, the receptionists are able to know each guest personally.) Arnaud gave me a Paris map — custom-produced by the hotel for its guests, illustrating the staff’s top picks for where to eat and what to do — and sent me up to my room.

Knowing I’m a light sleeper, I’d requested a quiet room. And I got just about the quietest room I have ever had in a big city — tucked in their little courtyard annex building.

The decor was impeccable. I’m a cynic when it comes to hotels that try to gild the lily with dusty bouquets of fake flowers, generic artwork from IKEA, and pointless doilies. But the design of this room hit exactly the right balance of charming, tasteful, and practical. It had little personalized touches that so many hotels get wrong: Artful sconces providing a warm, even light throughout the space. A very comfortable bed with plush pillows. Playful French countryside scenes on the wall, with matching drapes.

The room wasn’t huge, but the space was designed so smartly that once I unpacked, I never felt crowded. The wardrobe door, when opened, automatically clicked on a light inside. An empty refrigerator was tucked under the desk, leaving just enough room to squeeze a chair alongside it. And individual USB charging ports were stationed right next to each nightstand. (How many times have you found the only available plug all the way across the room from the bed?)

Everyone who works at the Londres Eiffel is top-notch. Ninette and Jacqueline bring in fresh croissants and baguettes for breakfast. At the front desk, Arnaud and Cédric — who take turns on the day shift — are, as Steve Smith had told me (using an endearing French-ism) “hyper-competent”. They could handle any situation with aplomb.

Another key to a great hotel is great management. The Londres Eiffel is run by the Prigent family (who also own the Hôtel Signature Saint Germain des Près a mile away). Chatting with Delphine Prigent, I was reminded that conscientious, hands-on managers elevate a nice hotel to the top tier. She explained how they emphasize long-term relationships with both their staff and their guests. That’s why their team enjoys such longevity — Arnaud told me he’s gotten to know successive generations of loyal return guests.

I’m also big on location. And the Londres Eiffel has a handy one: a short walk from the Eiffel Tower in one direction and from the thriving Rue Cler market street in the other direction. Characteristic Parisian sidewalk cafés are just steps away.

Favorite Accommodations Around Europe

Staying at the Hôtel de Londres Eiffel got me thinking about my other favorite accommodations around Europe: The ones that stick out like a shining beacon when I glance over my itinerary. The ones that offer a port in the storm of travel — where I can recharge from a busy itinerary and recover from other hotels that have not quite been up to snuff. The ones that make me say, “Oh, yeah! I can’t wait to get to that one!”

In Tuscany, just outside of Pienza, Isabella and Carlo Moricciani run the best agriturismo I’ve experiencedCretaiole. And now Isabella has built her dream hotel, a country-classy splurge resort called La Moscadella. This May, I was one of the hotel’s first-ever guests…and I promise you, I’ll be back. The Moriccianis have a gift for combining comfortable lodgings with vivid, culturally rich Tuscan experiences.

In Brussels, I’ve always been charmed by the Hôtel Welcome. It’s not just because I enjoy thinking of the owner, Michel Smeesters, as “Meester Smeesters.” It’s also because Meester Smeesters is a great traveler whose tastes and life experience are apparent in every room of his hotel. Many years ago, he told me that he spends at least one night in each room in his hotel, every single year. That way, he personally experiences all 17 of his rooms — to understand the pros and cons of each one, and to fix what needs fixing. Recently on a return visit, I asked whether that has continued. Without skipping a beat, he said, “Absolutely — still do!” And it shows.

In Kraków, Poland, I’ve enjoyed the Donimirski Boutique Hotels since the days when the very first Rick Steves Eastern Europe tours stayed at one of their branches. The Donimirski hotels are elegant but not pretentious, historic but with modern amenities, and are run by a staff characterized by longevity. Several upper-level management positions are now occupied by receptionists I knew back when I was a budding guidebook researcher and they worked the night shift at the front desk, 15 years ago.

At Dubrovnik Gardens, Roberto di Lorenzo rents a couple of tidy apartments in a secluded garden, on a pebbly square in front of an ornate church facade at the top of a famous grand staircase. Staying here, you feel completely enveloped by the bustle of one of Europe’s great walled cities, yet a world apart. (And Roberto is a great guy, too.)

In Stockholm, I haven’t found a better place to stay than Hotel Wellington, in the heart of the upscale Östermalm neighborhood. While it’s big (with 60 rooms), the front desk staff is helpful and welcoming. And in this expensive city, guests appreciate the generous breakfast and dinner buffets — both included in the price. The wonderful Östermalms Saluhall market hall — one of my 10 favorite markets in Europe — is just up the street.

In Budapest, I’ve always been impressed by Hotel Victoria — where kind, thoughtful manager Zoltán is at the helm. This place is such a class act, it almost seems too good to be true. With each inspection for my Rick Steves Budapest guidebook, I find myself determined to find any imperfection. And I still haven’t found one. The front desk staff is warm and capable, and each of the 27 rooms looks out over the endlessly entertaining Danube. Zoltán even restored a 19th-century ballroom, which was tucked away unnoticed behind the reception desk for years. Now it hosts occasional chamber music concerts and gives guests an outrageously classy place to relax.

At Slovenia’s Lake Bled, I have several favorites. For rustic elegance, a quartet of woody chalets with modern comforts cluster on a bluff at the top of town, over the lake: Penzion Berc, Hotel Berc, Penzion Mayer, and Penzion Kaps. But for full-on, big-hotel, modern comfort, I also appreciate the Hotel Lovec. While it’s a big Best Western, it still has a personal touch. Be careful, or front-desk receptionist Tomaž might lure you into watching a video he’s made celebrating the wonders of Slovenia’s Julian Alps.

In Palermo, AdHoc Rooms is a peaceful, tidy oasis in the very heart of an intense, gritty city. On my first visit to Sicily, my flight was cancelled, forcing me to rebook to one that arrived around 1:00 in the morning. I apologetically called Natalia, who kindly assured me that it’d all work out. In the wee hours, her husband Luca met me — both of us bleary-eyed — and drove me to the B&B. As is the case with many small B&Bs in big buildings, I had to climb up several stories through a dingy, echoey stairwell. But when I stepped through the door, that very long day’s journey was worth it. The rooms are clean, bright, white, and smartly decorated with a sense of both style and whimsy.

I had a similar experience at Guest House Douro, in the Portuguese city of Porto. Arriving late, I found my way to the charming eight-room B&B, tucked right in the heart of the most bustling stretch of the Ribeira waterfront. Carmen offered me a warm welcome and an efficient orientation before showing me to a tight but cheery and well-appointed room with breathtaking views over the busy Douro River. I was a little concerned about the noise, but Carmen bragged that they’d gone all out for the most soundproof windows available. And she was right: I’ve never had a quieter room in such a busy location. The next morning, João served up a lovingly crafted breakfast with tropical fruit from Portugal’s remote islands.

In Warsaw, Chopin Boutique B&B is conscientiously run by Jarek Chołodecki. Like Jarek, the rooms are quirky but sophisticated. Feeling sympathetic that his guests couldn’t always find a decent concert here in the birthplace of Chopin, Jarek converted his drawing room into a small concert hall, hosting performances every night at 7:30. The B&B’s Chopin concerts have become one of my favorite activities while visiting Warsaw.

While some of these accommodations are on the pricey side, others are well within the budget of any traveler. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find a great hotel — it all comes down to whether it’s well-run and smartly designed for travelers.

What’s missing from my list? What are your favorite hotels in Europe, and why?


It goes without saying that all of these handpicked gems are enthusiastically recommended in our various Rick Steves guidebooks — and our tours stay at many of them, too…including the Hotel de Londres Eiffel, which hosts some of our one-week Paris city tours. (Lucky people!)

Postcards from Normandy — Remembering D-Day on French Beaches

The 75th anniversary of D-Day has me in a patriotic mood — and nostalgic for a time when America was doing good in the world, rather than alienating allies and burning bridges. This occasion has got me thinking about the place where the USA lived arguably its most stirring moment: in the northern French region of Normandy.

Here are a few “Postcards” from my recent visit to Normandy — starting with the beautiful, low-impact pastoral sights, and building up to the powerful places where the echoes of D-Day still reverberate.

Welcome to Normandy 

While best known as the site of the D-Day landings that turned the tide of World War II, Normandy is a sprawling, multifaceted region that’s a delight to explore. Even an impatient sightseer could spend a week here without getting bored. In addition to thought-provoking cemeteries and beaches still strewn with artifacts from that pivotal invasion, Normandy serves up a pastoral countryside of green rolling hills misted by English Channel storms, charming half-timbered towns, towering churches, landscapes and cityscapes made famous by the Impressionists, and a delicious, apple-flavored cuisine.

Honfleur

Honfleur wins the title for Normandy’s most charming town, with its historic harbor, half-timbered old town (pictured earlier), and a characteristic wooden church that feels like an overturned boat. With its unique “luminosity,” it’s no wonder the Impressionists found inspiration here. Honfleur is also a delightful spot to browse for typically Norman foods, many of which feature apples from the region’s orchards. You can graze on delicious edible souvenirs such as apple-wine vinegar, apple candies and cookies, hard cidre, and Calvados, the powerful local apple brandy.

Mont St-Michel

Normandy’s flagship destination is one of those great European sights that truly lives up to its billing. An island abbey that’s sometimes surrounded on all sides by water, and at other times high and dry in the middle of an expansive mud flat, Mont St-Michel strikes a dramatic pose. A new causeway provides handy shuttle-bus service (in high tide or low) from a park-and-ride on the mainland. Once at the island, you can wander the mud flat (inspecting temporarily beached sailboats), climb up the twisty lanes through town, and tour the historic abbey.

Rouen Cathedral

The city of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, clusters around the dramatic facade of its exuberantly Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral. The great Impressionist Claude Monet painted 30 different versions of this facade — depicting the same subject at different times of day, in different weather and different light. As a photographer, I enjoyed circling back past the cathedral facade every few hours to carry out a study of my own.

Omaha Beach

The main thing that attracts most visitors to Normandy — especially Brits, Canadians, and Americans — are the desolate beaches where the Allied forces staged Operation Overlord in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion provided the Allies with a foothold in Western Europe, while Hitler was distracted fighting Russians on the Eastern Front. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead.

Stepping onto Omaha Beach (the most famous landing site, thanks partly to Saving Private Ryan), you’ll trip over jagged Nazi fortifications that still survive 75 years later. Put yourself in the combat boots of the young grunts tasked with taking the beach, and notice how impossibly far away that scrubby, sandy bluff is. Now add relentless machine-gun fire. Standing here, I dare you not to get goosebumps.

Arromanches

Of course, D-Day was more than just Omaha Beach, and the brave souls fighting on those beaches were not just Americans. Canadians have their own museum and monuments at Juno Beach. And in the town of Arromanches — in the British landing sector — the beach is still littered with gigantic prefab harbor sections. In an astonishing feat of engineering, the Allies prepared for phase two of the invasion by building an entire temporary harbor in England, breaking it into 115 modular pieces (each the size of a football field), and then shipping each one across the English Channel to reassemble here as soon as the beaches were secured. This four-mile breakwater, called “Port Winston,” allowed the Allies to swiftly begin their land invasion before the Nazis could regroup. Arromanches is still stuck with its giant chunks of Port Winston — how could you possibly remove them? — and history buffs love wandering out and getting up close to history.

This is just a reminder that D-Day is a whole series of sights, scattered across a 54-mile stretch of coastline, each one illustrating a different chapter of the invasion: Juno Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the church at Ste-Mère Eglise, the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer, cemeteries honoring each nationality who suffered losses here, and on and on. (Our Rick Steves France guidebook outlines a driving route to connect all the major sights, and a long list of local guides you can hire to show you around.) Give the D-Day sights a full day. Better yet, two. Better yet, three.

American Cemetery

For Americans, the ultimate D-Day experience is visiting the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach — vast green fields speckled with 9,387 neatly arranged gravestones honoring troops who lost their lives in Normandy. (This is just one of many such cemeteries throughout Normandy. D-Day alone brought 4,413 Allied deaths — including 2,499 Americans.) Each cross and star of David is etched with the name, place of birth, date of death, and dogtag number of a young American whose sacrifice helped turn the tide of the war.

Walking through these fields, my heart swelled with thoughts of relatives who were ripped from the dairy farms and cornfields of rural Ohio and — at an age when most of us have the privilege of taking a “gap year” or going to frat parties — traveled half a world away to fight someone else’s war and die on an anonymous beach. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving this site with a dry eye.

Merci

Inside the Utah Beach Landing Museum, next to one of the landing craft that carried so many American troops to a premature death, someone had scratched a simple message into the sand: Merci. While I find French people, as a rule, extremely welcoming to Americans, I have rarely traveled somewhere where the locals were so genuinely appreciative of the part my homeland played in their history, and where I felt so proud to be an American. Throughout Normandy, French people of all ages tear up when talking about what we did for them.

At a moment in our history where America seems less sure about its role in the world than it has in generations, I’m filled with patriotic pride (and, I’ll admit, not a little sadness) as I reflect on a time — and a corner of France — where my country joined with its allies to do the right thing, at great personal sacrifice, and made a history-changing difference to people outside our borders who needed us. Now that’s global leadership. Merci. And God bless America.


I visited Normandy to help update our Rick Steves France guidebook. That book is, if I’m being honest, one of the very best guidebooks in our Rick Steves series  (thanks to a lifetime of expertise and hard work by co-author Steve Smith). There’s no better tool for visiting Normandy on your own; the book includes all the advice you need for visiting Normandy independently, as well as a list of recommended companies and local tour guides offering tours of the various D-Day sites. 

Or, to have someone else handle the details, consider our Paris and the Heart of France tour, which includes a guided visit to Normandy.

Become a Temporary Londoner: 10 Tips for Experiencing Untouristy London

London is the most entertaining city in Europe —  and the fun extends well beyond its famous sights. London is extraordinarily crowded these days, and escaping from the tourist hordes is more important than ever. Don’t forget to take a break from the sightseeing grind to actually enjoy London. Do a deep dive into the city, and become a temporary Londoner. Explore parks, markets, and neighborhoods where you’re the only out-of-towner.

I just returned from a two-week visit to London, updating our Rick Steves London guidebook. At my typical breakneck pace, two weeks sounds like an eternity. In London, it’s a sprint. Racing from sight to sight, I kept getting hit with waves of nostalgia for my all-time-favorite visit, when my wife and I rented an apartment here for an entire week. We had one goal: Live like a Londoner. Do nothing touristy. And never pass through a museum turnstile. We got tips from friends who lived or had lived in the city, and we read up on blogs designed for locals — not for tourists. (Thank goodness.) And it turned out to be one of the best weeks of travel we’ve ever enjoyed.

Based on that trip — and years of other London visits — I’ve assembled this collection of my 10 favorite ways to bust out of the tourist rut and settle into the real London. One caveat: London has so much to offer that another traveler might have an entirely different list, which would likely be just as good as this one. (I’d love to hear your suggestions in the Comments.)

1. Escape “The City” in the Inns of Court

The one-square-mile historic core of London — called simply The City — is a busy and intense commercial district, where third-wave coffee shops and glitzy skyscrapers with clever nicknames mingle with Wren churches and Cockney accents. The former stomping grounds of Shakespeare and Dickens, The City exerts a strong magnetism on travelers. Its narrow streets are an exhausting traffic jam of distracted, slowpoke tourists blocking the sidewalk and impatient office drones sprinting through their lunch break.

Thank goodness for the Inns of Court. While following The City Walk in our Rick Steves London guidebook, I was ready for an escape from congested urban streets. The tour told me to step through an easy-to-miss doorway at No. 17 Fleet Street…and instantly, I was swallowed up by tranquil gardens with chirping birds and mellow Londoners speaking in hushed tones — as if double-decker buses weren’t rumbling by just a few steps away.

The Inns of Court — a gaggle of professional associations for lawyers — occupies a sprawling chunk of The City, stretching from Fleet Street all the way down to the Thames. It’s the open-to-the-public stomping grounds of barristers and law interns who work at the Royal Courts of Justice across the street. This sprawling series of interconnected, higgledy-piggledy courtyards, parks, and lanes is a delight to get lost in. You’ll find gurgling fountains, inviting benches, pristine gardens, stately red-brick buildings, and virtually no tourists.

If that’s not enough to slow your pulse, several nearby historic churches offer free lunchtime concerts around 1:15 p.m., designed to provide office workers with a cultured break from a busy workday. Options include Temple Church in the Inns of Court (Wednesdays), St. Bride’s (usually Tuesdays and Fridays), and St. Dunstan-in-the-West (Fridays).

2. Browse Hipster Street Markets

On a sunny Saturday, the park called London Fields is filled with thousands of people — out enjoying the green space after gorging themselves at their choice of trendy food trucks. It looks like a hipster Woodstock. Strolling a world of tattooed new dads with coiffed beards and vintage eyeglasses pushing prams, I realized that Hackney is where London’s hipsters go to breed.

At the southern edge of London Fields begins Broadway Market — which is the name both of this area’s main drag, and of the lively open-air festival of foods and crafts that fills it each Saturday. This otherwise nondescript Victorian strip becomes ground zero for all that’s hip and trendy, with an edge of pretense: seasonal organic produce, designer creams and lotions, farm-fresh meat and eggs, creative jewelry,  handmade fashions, twee craft projects, “bespoke” anything and everything, and a staggering variety of food trucks and other pop-up culinary offerings. (Don’t miss the Schoolyard Market — filling a leafy primary school playground, tucked just off the main drag, near the park — with the highest concentration of food stalls.)

Broadway Market is just one of many such London markets that are a delight to explore. In a previous post, I wrote about one of my favorite weekend street food hotspots, Maltby Street Rope Walk Market.

On Sundays, Brick Lane — in London’s achingly hip East End — becomes one big parade of food vendors, live music, and happy young Londoners, all jammed into a street-art-slathered, post-industrial cityscape. Walking the length of Brick Lane, you can dip into the UK’s largest assortment of vintage vendors, a food hall devoted entirely to vegan and vegetarian street food, and hole-in-the-wall shops selling gourmet chocolates and traditional bagels. If you keep going north, you’ll wind up at the more sedate but equally appealing Columbia Road Flower Market — ideal for buying a bouquet to brighten up your dumpy London hotel room.

And those are just a few examples of the many street markets that enliven London. The list goes on: Portobello Road Market on Fridays and Saturdays in Notting Hill; the everyday, funky Camden Lock Market along the Regent’s Canal (see the next item); Brixton Market, which runs Mondays through Saturdays in the rapidly gentrifying multicultural neighborhood south of central London; and many others. On that one-week visit to London, my wife and I set a goal of visiting a different street market every day…and we never tired of them.

3. Cycle the Regent’s Canal

Slicing through the middle of North London is Regent’s Canal, a long-forgotten  industrial waterway built in the early 19th century. Today, some parts of the canal remain industrial and blighty, while others are being tidied up.

The most charming area along the Regent’s Canal is Little Venice, in the northwest corner of central London. This neighborhood feels more Amsterdam than London: mossy, murky, tree-lined canals lined with houseboats.

When my wife and I asked our expat friends in London for suggestions on where to go for a bike ride, they said that Little Venice would be a fine spot to begin a low-impact pedal through town. And we were glad we took their advice. We rode the Tube to the Warwick Avenue station, grabbed bikes from London’s bike-share system, and followed the narrow towpath about two and a half miles along the canal.

While this route requires an occasional detour into city streets, for the most part it stays along the tranquil canal, offering glimpses of little-seen-by-tourists facets of London: sleepy and cozy residential zones, heavy willow boughs dipping into the murky waters, forgotten industrial canals slathered with street art,  old barges used as garbage scows or floating homes, blocky modern residential developments, dreamy lily-padded eddies out of a Vermeer painting,  and the back edge of Regent’s Park and the London Zoo.

The occasional tour boat would trundle past, plying the still and brown waters — a reminder of the time when the Regent’s Canal was a virtual highway for transporting goods throughout the city.

Soon we pedaled our way into the sprawling, funky Camden Lock Market. Dropping off our bikes at one of the ubiquitous return stations, we explored the thriving food circus, enjoyed a great street-food lunch, then hopped the Tube back to the center.

If we’d had more time (and if it weren’t so hot), we could have pedaled around Regent’s Park a bit more, or even followed the canal farther east. The options are endless. Just be careful to stay on the towpath — inexperienced or distracted cyclists might find it all too easy to go for an inadvertent dip in the mucky water.

4. Get a Cheap “Day Ticket” for West End Theatre

I love the London theater (ahem, “theatre”) scene. But it can be expensive, and the big-name plays sell out well ahead. Fortunately, same-day tickets (called “day seats”) are a screamin’ deal for frugal procrastinators who enjoy being spontaneous. It’s a smart way for savvy Londoners to enjoy budget theater — and it works for visitors, too.

“Day seats” are sold only in person when the box office first opens  (typically at 10:00; for popular shows, people start lining up much earlier). These same-day-only tickets cost around £20 (about $25); sometimes they’re front-row seats, while other times they can be in the nosebleed section or have a restricted view.

Over the years, I’ve taken advantage of day seats to see several London plays — from big, bombastic musicals (Wicked, Miss Saigon, The Lion King) to lower-key plays starring well-known actors (Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists). I might not splurge on full-price tickets for some of those shows, but when you can get a great seat for little more than the price of a movie ticket, it’s hard to resist. In most cases, I was in the front row — where the only discernible downside is that you can’t see the actors’ shoes, and sometimes the singers spit on you a little bit when belting out a tune. For this, you pay a fraction of what the suckers sitting immediately behind you paid.

The best roundup of day seats is on the very low-tech Theatre Monkey website. Ignore the 2004-vintage graphics and skim the priceless list of which shows offer these cheap tickets — with recent reports from theater lovers of how early they got to the box office, and which seats they snagged. Each show’s website also has information about their own day seats policy.

This strategy works best for shows that have been around for a while and are no longer “hot tickets.” In fact, the most popular shows don’t bother with day seats at all. However, a few big-name shows distribute discounted, last-minute tickets in a fun way. For example, when I was in London a few weeks ago, The Book of Mormon had a lottery system for anyone who showed up between 17:00 and 17:30 for that evening’s performance. At 17:30,  they began a drawing, in which 20 fortunate theater-lovers won the opportunity to buy heavily discounted tickets. They turned the event into an entertaining little spectacle in itself, with a wisecracking emcee pulling each name to the cheers and jeers of the gathered crowd. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had not getting a ticket for a show.

Hamilton — currently the hottest ticket in town, with affordable seats that sell out months in advance — has a “lucky seat” lottery: Submit your information on their website for the chance to buy last-minute £10 tickets. (I entered this about 10 times during my London visit — and I was 0-for-10. Oh, well…worth a try.)

If you happen to be near a theater when the box office opens, try dropping by to see what’s available tonight. Assuming you go into it with that “worth a try” attitude, you may be pleasantly surprised.

5. Hike across Hampstead Heath (with or without Roger Ebert)

While I’ve had many fine strolls around London, my favorite was the time I had Roger Ebert as my guide through the sprawling North London parklands of Hampstead Heath. It’s the kind of place where bobbies ride horses as if they were Mister Darcy.

As a cinephile who loves movies as much as I love travel, I’ve admired Roger Ebert’s work since I was a teenager in small-town Ohio. When I discovered that he wrote a book called The Perfect London Walk, it was a marriage of two of my favorite things. I found a used copy online (for about $20) and devoted half a day to following its 30-year-old instructions through Hampstead Heath. By today’s standards, the book is endearingly low-tech; each step of the walk is illustrated with grainy black-and-white photographs that were clearly shot on the run. But it delivered on its promise: an unusually intimate and satisfying look at a corner of London most tourists miss.

With or without Roger Ebert, Hampstead Heath is well worth a visit. Ride the Tube to the Hampstead stop, wander through the village on Flask Walk — which becomes Well Walk — then enter Hampstead Heath near the mixed bathing pond. Winding your way through the park, you’ll pop out at Parliament Hill, offering grand (if distant) views of the London skyline.

Then walk up through the park all the way to Kenwood House — a stately manor overlooking the rolling hills (and familiar to eagle-eyed Notting Hill fans for an unfortunate “live mic” incident). Exiting the park behind the mansion, it’s a short walk to the Spaniards Inn, a classic London pub with a generous outdoor terrace.

Tucked along the east side of Hampstead Heath is the charming bedroom community of Highgate, home to Highgate Cemetery — London’s answer to Père Lachaise, with grand old tombs of VIPs silently aging in a tranquil wood. It’s a fine place wrap up your outing before heading back to town.

The striking thing about Hampstead Heath is the feeling that you’re fully out in nature, even though you’re just a short Tube ride from the center. I can’t think a better place to escape London’s urban intensity. Returning to civilization, you feel that you’ve had a rugged adventure.

6. Grab a Pint after Work and Drink It Outside

Britain is famous for its many pubs, each one a fine opportunity to tip a glass of a local ale while making new friends. And in London, pubs are an après-work mainstay. It seems that everyone who leaves their office heads straight to their favorite pub to catch up with friends. And when the weather’s fine, they do it out on the curb.

While “public consumption” is taboo stateside, in London it’s a social institution. Popular pubs have more people outside than inside — spilling out onto the sidewalk, unapologetically blocking the street, creating one big, gregarious scrum of happy drinkers. Walking anywhere in the city between the hours of about 5 and 7 p.m., I love coming across these convivial, civilized keg parties.

If you want to take part, navigate your way to the bar to order, then bring your pint out to the street. Strike up a conversation with a Londoner. Or introverts can just eavesdrop on the office gossip about people you’ll never work with, Karen’s latest dating drama, and football chatter.

7. Head to Shoreditch for Dinner and Street Art

Shoreditch, in the East End, is one of London’s culinary hotspots. It’s where talented young chefs transition from food trucks to brick-and-mortar, with lower rents and lower stakes than more central neighborhoods. (Many chefs test their mettle in Shoreditch before opening their second restaurant in central, high-rent Soho.)  On my latest trip, one highlight was scouting new Shoreditch restaurants for our Rick Steves London guidebook.

Right at the Shoreditch High Street train station is the Boxpark — a gigantic Lego-like stack of shipping containers filled with dozens of pop-up food and craft vendors. The lineup is constantly changing; this time around, I was especially tempted by the Korean BBQ burritos, vegan burgers, and bubble waffles.

A short walk away is a staggering array of tempting eateries: Brat, which earned a Michelin star in 2018, is this area’s upscale splurge, with a rustic-chic ambience. The cuisine is uncomplicated, ingredient-focused modern English with Basque accents — top-quality fish, meats, and seasonal vegetables cooked on an open fire. Just downstairs is Smoking Goat, a Thai barbecue bar promising elevated dishes inspired by Bangkok canteens: chili-and-fish-sauce chicken wings, whole fish cooked in Thai herbs, and smoked brisket and bone marrow curry. And around the corner is the sprawling, cacophonous, industrial-mod PizzaEast — a Shoreditch favorite for wood-fired pizzas.

Additional places are near Brick Lane, a short walk away. Smokestak feels like the classic East End eatery: a heavy-duty industrial interior of battered beams and steel (both rusted and stainless), all bathed in the rich smoke of the open fire. The barbecue menu includes dry-aged beef, brisket, whole grilled fish, and a few charred veggie options. And Gunpowder is an upmarket, modern alternative to the traditional curry houses on Brick Lane.

Shoreditch also has some of the best street art in London, and in Europe. Acclaimed artists (including Banksy and Shepard Fairey) have left their mark on remnants of the East End’s industrial heritage. If you’ve never really understood the difference between “graffiti” and “street art,” an open-minded walk through Shoreditch can be instructive and inspiring. (Rivington Street has some famous examples; closer to Brick Lane, I found myself doing laps on Hanbury Street and Fashion Street.)

8. Lounge on a Sling-Back Deck Chair (or Hit the “Beach”)

When the weather’s splendid, there are few cities with more enjoyable parks to relax in than London. On a sunny summer day, the city comes to life, and every public space is teeming with people enjoying life.

On recent visits, I’ve noticed that Londoners have a particular affinity for sling-back deck chairs — the kind that let you lean back and really lounge. In many major parks (including Regent’s Park, Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, and St. James’s Park) you’ll see green-and-white-striped chairs strategically situated under shady trees and next to idyllic duck ponds.

The truly “Londoner” thing to do is to bring your own blanket to spread out on the lawn. But if you’re packing light and taking a break from sightseeing — and haven’t had the foresight to B.Y.O. blanket — these chairs can be the perfect spot to take a load off. Be ready for an attendant to come by and ask for a small payment for using the chairs (less than £2 per hour).

I’ve started spotting these same types of chairs elsewhere in the city. On this trip, Paternoster Square — the urban people zone hiding a few steps behind St. Paul’s — had several of these (free) chairs set up for a little urban break.

Not that Londoners need a sling-back chair to enjoy a nice day. If you’re in London when it’s balmy, you’ll even see locals taking advantage of the very narrow sandy “beaches” that line the Thames. When it’s low tide in downtown London, you’ll see people splayed out on beach towels, toddlers splashing in the river, and kids skipping stones.

9. Seek Out Yellow Brick

After years of visits, it finally dawned on me: Most of my favorite, least touristy London memories come against a backdrop of yellow bricks. That’s because yellow brick was once used for industrial works, many of which have more recently been transformed into trendy hangouts. In today’s London, yellow bricks often accompany a vibrant, youthful, artist-stalls-and-food-trucks scene.

Several of the places I’ve already mentioned are surrounded by yellow bricks, including much of the Regent’s Canal and Camden Lock Market, and the Brick Lane Market at the old Truman Brewery in the East End.

On my latest trip, I discovered another yellow-brick fun zone: A five-minute walk behind St. Pancras and King’s Cross train stations, the Regent’s Canal has been developed into the glittering new Coal Drops Yard development of shopping malls, high-end restaurants, and office blocks. This was the place where coal would arrive on train cars, then be dropped onto barges along the Regent’s Canal for distribution around London. Long forgotten, this up-and-coming area is now being transformed into a lively people zone.

Arriving at day’s end at King’s Cross Station (after side-tripping to Cambridge), I followed my curiosity to the newly built complex. It turned out to be a relaxing place to unwind after a busy day of sightseeing. Anchored by a branch of Dishoom, London’s ultimate elevated Indian restaurant, Coal Drops Yard has a wide lineup of shops, eateries, bars, clubs, kid-friendly dancing fountains, relaxing places to stretch out, and much more.

The next time you do some homework and seek out a hot new London area, don’t be surprised if you see yellow brick when you arrive.

10. Have an English Breakfast or a Spot of Tea…with a Twist

The classic “English fry-up” — a massive breakfast plate stacked with eggs, bacon, “bangers” (sausages), grilled tomato, baked beans, and toast or fry bread — is a memorable part to any visit to Britain. (And underemployed cardiologists love it.) Of course, most Londoners don’t begin their day with such a huge meal. But the city has a burgeoning weekend brunch culture that offers a more modern (and healthier) spin on English breakfast.

This scene changes so fast, it’s hard to keep track of which brunch places are currently hot. But one good bet is to try restaurants that are already well-regarded for dinner. On this trip, I checked out Nopi — owned by acclaimed celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi — and the previously mentioned Smoking Goat and Dishoom, all of which also offer weekend brunch. There are also, increasingly, brunch-only hole-in-the-walls serving exquisitely composed eggs benedict, syrup-soaked waffles, and bespoke omelets. For the latest, check around online; good roundups include this one from TimeOut, this one from The Guardian, and this one from CN Traveler.

The other English custom adored by tourists is afternoon tea. And there are plenty of high-end tea rooms that will happily extract £50 (about $65) per person for the privilege of serving you a little tower of delicate finger sandwiches in opulent surroundings. They’ll even cut the crusts off for you.

Londoners also appreciate a spot of tea, but they steer clear of the touristy (and very expensive) places — except, perhaps, for special occasions. Instead, they enjoy a budget cuppa at a department store cafeteria or a humbler café. For example, one of my favorite longtime tips in our Rick Steves London guidebook is to assemble an affordable tea at the fifth-floor café at Europe’s biggest bookstore, the great Waterstone’s on Piccadilly…just a few steps from the famous Fortnum & Mason tea room.

Also, keep in mind that “Afternoon tea” (or the similar “high tea”) — which is essentially a small meal of sandwiches and cakes — is overkill for many out-of-towners. It’s easier on both your budget and your waistline to settle for the simpler “cream tea”: a small pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam.

Or try something different. For a twist on the classic high tea, consider the “Trader’s High Tea” at Cinnamon Bazaar — where the tea is India Masala Chai, and the sweets and sandwiches all come with an Indian spin.

Any Other Suggestions?

Samuel Johnson nailed it when he uttered his often-repeated quote: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” If you’re visiting London, challenge yourself to go beyond the big sights, break out of the tourist rut, and truly experience the city…as a temporary Londoner.

What’s your favorite “temporary Londoner” experience?


Stay tuned for more reports from my recent London visit. I’ve already posted about my favorite undiscovered street food market; viewing Brexit through the long lens of history; and tips for beating the long lines at major sights. And there’s more to come. (To be sure you don’t miss any, you can “like” me on Facebook.)

I was in town updating our Rick Steves London guidebook. Many of the tips in this post came directly from that book — and others will be added to the upcoming 2020 edition.

Our one-week London city tour is a great choice for those who really want to settle in to one of Europe’s greatest cities. The itinerary is designed to combine both the major sights and “temporary Londoner” activities like the ones described here — with ample free time to make your own discoveries.