City break in London
Explore London's rich culture, shopping delights and eclectic gastronomy
Discover the excitement of London on your next city break
Vibrant, vast, thrilling and surprising: London is a capital city like no other. Its successive kings, queens and rebels have shaped the world for centuries. These days, its palaces, regal parks, markets and double-decker buses still take centre stage in countless books and films.
London may seem so familiar, in fact, that you might even feel at home from your first visit. But no two London breaks are the same: you might binge on musicals and theatre one weekend, for instance, or shopping and museums on your next visit. Whether you’re in the market for food, culture or nightlife, there’s a city trip to London just right for you. And the best part? This fun-loving, ever-changing city is just a train ride away.
Things to do in London
Ask a handful of locals what their top things to see and do in London are, and you’re bound to get a handful of different answers. In a city so vast and so diverse, it helps to keep to one neighbourhood a day, even if the extensive public transport system makes getting around easy.
Things to see in London
Whether you’re a history buff, an art-and-design fan or a shopping fiend, there’s no shortage of interesting things to see in London. If you’re travelling with kids, the London Zoo and the Natural History Museum’s jaw-dropping dinosaur displays should be top of your list. For green spaces, it’s hard to beat Kew Gardens, with its grand palm house and tree-top walk. Buckingham Palace is mostly closed to the public, but visitors can explore the regal residences of Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace – sites of royal dramas past and present. For urban buzz, it’s hard to beat local markets: try Camden for fashion, Columbia Road for blooms and Brixton Village for music and street food.
The London Eye
If you’re pinched for time, hopping onto the London Eye’s giant wheel will give you an unbeatable view of London’s most well-known landmarks. From some 135 metres above ground, you’ll be able to spot Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.
Bring your binoculars (or buy a pair on site) and download the London Eye Guide app to fully take advantage of your 30 minutes up in the air. If heights aren’t for you, a nighttime stroll down the Thames is a vertigo-free way to enjoy the iconic wheel and its colourful, shimmering reflection on the water.
London may be a city that’s constantly changing, but it’s still worth visiting the classics. Officially named the Elizabeth Tower, London’s most iconic tower goes by the nickname Big Ben, after its 13-tonne bell. This master stroke of Victorian engineering – and some say symbol of democracy – looms over the Houses of Parliament. After surviving the Blitz, Big Ben has gone quiet for the last few years, while it undergoes restoration. Just as well, as the 334 steps up to the belfry are a bit of a trek – and you’ll get much better snaps from nearby Westminster Bridge anyway.
Known for generations of over-the-top royal festivities, Westminster Abbey has more to it than meets the eye. Behind the glorious gothic façade lie the resting places of generations of great thinkers, from Stephen Hawking to Newton. There’s also the curious Poets’ corner, with memorials to literary legends such as Byron, Austen and CS Lewis. Another firm favourite is Elizabeth I’s tomb, where the Virgin Queen eerily rests clutching her sceptre and orb. Climb to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries – an attic turned museum – for a bird’s-eye view over the nave.
The British Museum
Take a round-the-world trip without ever leaving the comfort of central London. Within a collection spanning two million years of human history, the British Museum holds some of the world’s most precious cultural treasures. Get up close and personal with Ancient Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone, Anglo-Saxon finds, Roman and Grecian art and countless other relics. Best of all, entrance to the galleries is still free for all ‘studious and curious persons’, though you’ll need to book ahead. Don’t miss the seasonal exhibitions – intriguing shows worth the ticket price.
If you’re in the mood for thought-provoking art, make the Tate Modern your first port of call. Converted from a former power station, the huge structure now has a newer extension in the Blavatnik Building. Entrance is through the Turbine Hall, a vast space where contemporary artists are given free reign to showcase large-scale interactive pieces. And that’s just a teaser for the wonders within, a remarkable collection of modern art including works by Pablo Picasso, Jenny Holzer and Yayoi Kusama. Remember to look out the windows for another unmissable view – that of the London skyline.
Tower of London
If you thought constables, Yeoman warders and ravenmasters were straight out of a Shakespearea comedy, think again – you’ll find them all at the Tower of London. The fortress, castle and prison has seen many a plot and tragic end over the centuries. Peculiar traditions are still going strong behind its thick, imposing walls. Catch the 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys (during which the Crown Jewels are locked away at exactly 9.52pm every night) and meet the six guardian ravens that, legend has it, would make the Kingdom fall should they ever leave. Don’t worry – they keep extras.
If the crowds gathering at the gates of Buckingham Palace every day are anything to go by, the monarchy still has bags of appeal. Happily, the royal residence opens its doors in the summer, so knights and commoners alike can take a peek inside its Throne Room, Grand Staircase and White Drawing Room. Also impressive are the masterpiece-filled Queen’s gallery, the 11am Changing of the Guard and the Royal Mews, where the Queen’s fairytale carriage is kept. Once you’re done reenacting your wildest royal fantasies, visit St James Park’s pelicans or grab lunch at the nearby Market Halls
Where to stay in London
Though skyscrapers keep popping up in the City, London is more about width than height, with trendy up-and-coming neighbourhoods growing ever further from its historic city centre. Finding the best area to stay in London depends on your interests. Bear in mind it takes less than an hour to cross from the hip East End to bustling Covent Garden and the West End’s theatres and restaurants. Genteel Baker Street and Marylebone are within easy reach of both Hyde and Regent’s Park, and within striking distance of the high street and luxury shops on Oxford and Bond streets. A cool hotel scene is emerging around King’s Cross – worth considering if you’re wondering where to stay in London for a weekend break.
Kensington, Knightsbridge, and Chelsea
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea may be London’s smallest, but it packs a whole lot of luxurious punch. You’ll find the V&A art and design museum, Natural History Museum and Science Museum here, as well as the Royal Albert Hall for spectacular concerts and performances. The Harrods department store in Knightsbridge is arguably the glitziest shop in town, and its food hall particularly show-stopping. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, head to Kensington High Street for accessible British brands, or make time for a picnic in genteel Hyde Park.
Westminster and Southbank
Linked by several postcard-worthy bridges, Westminster and the Southbank are must-sees for first-time visitors. Many of London’s important landmarks lie on either side of this stretch of the Thames. You’ll find Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and Westminster Abbey north of the river – a trio of sites summing up much of the country’s history. Cross the river to find some of its heart and soul: take a peek inside the Hayward Gallery’s concrete halls, catch a show at the impressive National Theatre, or test your skills on the Southbank Centre’s skateboarding ramps.
Camden and King’s Cross
Joined by a tranquil footpath running along Regent’s Canal, the neighbourhoods of Camden and King’s Cross have had something of a makeover. Sure, you’ll still find vintage stalls, street performers and late-night bars in Camden, but new street-food spots like Buck Street market means it’s even more of a budget-friendly dining destination. King’s Cross has been given a new lease of life by the swish Coal Drops Yard development. Take your pick from indie designers at Wolf & Badger, man your own barbecue at Parrillan, then let your inner child run wild at the Granary Square fountains.
The best places to eat and drink in London
When it comes to great dining, few capitals can compete with the sheer range of cuisines on offer. London’s food scene has truly exploded in recent years, with food halls, neighbourhood joints and rooftop bars seemingly launching every week. It’s worth sampling the whole spectrum if you can, from humble street stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants. Markets are some of the best places to eat in London on a budget: head to Brick Lane for street art and Indian restaurants, or Borough Market for superb produce a stone’s throw from the Thames. If you’re after more traditional food, gastropubs often rustle up a good Sunday roast. Looking for those classic experiences? Here are the best places to eat in London.
London's best afternoon tea
Cream or jam first? This is the sort of very important question you’ll ask yourself during afternoon tea, a refined tradition dedicated to taking snacking to new heights. It’s an indulgent treat that deserves to be served in one of London’s best tea rooms – think finger sandwiches, tasty savouries, tiny pastries and, of course, scones served warm with jam and clotted cream. Fresh from a makeover, Sketch in Mayfair may get all the Instagram posts, but it’s hard to beat The Goring’s old-world glamour and delicate tea blends. As for that tricky question? The Queen prefers jam first.
London’s best fish and chips shops
Street-food fever may be running high in London, but sometimes nothing hits the spot like fish and chips. The fish should be fresh and the chips fluffy, golden and topped with salt and vinegar; order mushy peas on the side for the full experience. The best fish and chips shops in London stay true to this winning recipe. Poppie’s in Spitalfields has a wonderful retro vibe, and still serves jellied eels as well as skate, lemon sole and mackerel suppers. Mini-chain Sutton & Sons is a firm favourite: opt for grilled fish or seafood paired with ales brewed locally in Hackney.
The best pubs in London
Going to the pub is a way of life in London, and picking a favourite quite the commitment – one which might need a few repeat visits. The best-loved pubs in London have great beers on tap, interesting decor and bags of personality. Tucked away near Hyde Park, The Grenadier is said to be haunted, which doesn’t deter its many fans. Gay-friendly The Glory runs disco nights and cross-dressing parties; expect a night to remember. Wood-panelled The Blue Posts has a secretive cocktail bar upstairs and a Michelin-starred restaurant downstairs – just the thing when you’re trying to impress.
When to visit London
London’s drizzly reputation is ill-deserved: whatever the weather, the city always has something going for it. The best time to visit London depends on what you’re planning on doing. Summer may be a great time for sightseeing, but you’ll have to contend with bigger tourist crowds. London’s historic monuments look equally good in the autumn, as do the royal parks dressed in their gold-leafed finery. Get in the festive spirit with a pre-Christmas visit: it’s ideal to get your present-shopping done, and a good excuse to take a spin on one of many beautiful open-air ice rinks. London in bloom is perhaps at its prettiest: wander to Notting Hill and indulge your inner romantic.