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.