The Original Guide to London
From Dickens to dim sum, high treason to haute couture, London’s multitude of layers has been attracting and astonishing visitors for centuries. Our guide offers a truly original tour of High Life’s hometown, even serving up recs on the song, book and film to savour before you board, to rainy-day activities, should downpours blight your day on the town, and so much more...
Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, gives a lyrical view of life in post-WWI London
London music artist and rapper Stormzy
Paddington Bear visits the Natural History Museum
Your pre-trip culture checklist
READ Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel is a snapshot of 1920s London: a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, set against the thrum of urban life and soundtracked by the strikes of Big Ben.
LISTEN From his breakout track ‘Shut Up’ (“I’m so London, I’m so south”) to the swagger of ‘Vossi Bop’, rap polymath Stormzy remains the king of this city.
WATCH All kind of London landmarks make a cameo in Paddington, as our hero – a polite Peruvian bear – becomes acquainted with the city, with a nail-biting rooftop finale at the Natural History Museum.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
“For me, the food and drink scene is the best way to experience the city like a local: it’s very immediate, and open to everyone. What I love about London is its diversity, which gives it a different energy to anywhere else on the planet. There’s a wonderful layering of different cultures and perspectives, which you’ll find at places like Bibi, Kol and Smoking Goat. Hop between different addresses trying a single dish or bar snack – there’s so much to enjoy in this city and, this way, you get to try more. My other tip? Go out on a Sunday. There’s such a different energy to a Saturday night, with time to chat to the people behind the bar and get their recommendations.”
For first-time visitors
In situ for almost 30 years, St John is an institution. Head to Fergus Henderson’s pared-back Smithfield HQ for a masterclass in Modern British dining, even if it’s simply roasted veal marrowbones with toast (above) or a Guinness-laced Welsh rarebit at the bar.
If you’re a regular
Tiny F.K.A.B.A.M is the latest incarnation of the cult Black Axe Mangal. Run by St John protégé Lee Tiernan, it’s loud, irreverent and unmissable. Cooked on the mangal grill, the sharing menu is big on bold flavours – a lamb offal flatbread, say, or pig’s cheek and watermelon salad.
The original view
Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the Shard punctuates London’s skyline: the glass skin of this tapering 306m tower reflects the ever-changing colours of the sky. Try to capture it at close quarters and you lose its jagged outline, so instead stroll across the Thames to the City of London. The best vantage point is from Lovat Lane, just off Lower Thames Street – a narrow, cobbled alley that offers up a beautifully framed perspective. It’s a throwback to the mediaeval city of twisting, narrow lanes: follow it north to Eastcheap, past St Mary-at-Hill Church and its tiny, hidden churchyard.
Rainy day saviours
The obvious place to head on a damp day? Museum-filled South Kensington. Instead, make for Bloomsbury, swerving the British Museum for the lesser-known Wellcome Collection. Set in a marble-fronted mansion on the Euston Road, it explores ‘health and human experience’ via artworks, objects and changing exhibitions. Its first-floor Reading Room is also a delight on a rainy afternoon, with beanbags and sofas to lounge on, and all kinds of books to browse. When the rain eases up, make a break for food critics’ favourite Café Deco, whose kitchen is headed up by former River Café chef Anna Tobias.
The original underground
Below the city streets, the London Underground, aka the Tube, is an essential part of daily life, with all its quirks and design flaws (when they say, “Mind the gap”, they really mean it). All of which is unsurprising, considering it started life as the world’s first underground railway. The first stretch opened in 1863, with gas-lit wooden carriages pulled by steam locomotives – which was every bit as smoky and unpleasant as it sounds. Trace its evolution at the London Transport Museum and remember the first rule of the Tube: always stand on the right on escalators so impatient commuters can squeeze by.
Flying into Heathrow, approaching from the west, the big one to spot is Windsor Castle, with its crenelated battlements and oak-lined Long Walk. Approaching from the east on a clear day, there’s a succession of landmarks to tick off, from the Tower of London to the Houses of Parliament. Heading to City Airport instead? If conditions are right, the views are just as epic, from aerial vistas of the Thames to Canary Wharf’s gleaming skyscrapers and The Shard. If your destination is Gatwick, set to the south of London, the views are more bucolic: a patchwork of green fields and the gentle curve of the south coast.
Hugh Grant smoulders in Notting Hill
The adventure begins for Harry on platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station
As seen on screen
When it comes to capturing the city on screen, director Richard Curtis excels, with romcom Notting Hill being an excellent case in point. It’s impossible not to fall for his vision of W11, from its sequestered garden squares to the bustle of Portobello Road. Grab a coffee – try Hermano’s at no.127 – and try not to spill it over any passing movie stars. London’s also pretty magical in the Harry Potter films, with cameos from all kinds of landmarks and locations. Aside from King’s Cross Station, with its luggage-trolley photo op, head for Leadenhall Market, whose glorious, glass-topped arcades doubled up as Diagon Alley.
Access all areas
At the best museums and attractions, accessibility is a priority. Take the Natural History Museum, where provisions include free companion tickets, wheelchairs to borrow, and pre-opening ‘Dawnosaurus’ visits for neurodivergent kids. Shakespeare’s Globe also offers a slew of initiatives designed to make everyone feel welcome, including audio-described performances with pre-show ‘Touch Tours’ – a chance to go on stage, meet the cast and get up close to props and costumes. Its South Bank neighbour Tate Modern takes an equally considered approach, offering everything from accessible parking and ear defenders to visual communication cards.
THE SENSORY SIX
Awaken your senses with five of the most evocative experiences that London has to offer, plus an eerie sixth...
Follow your nose to Dalston’s Allpress London Roastery & Café, which serves up single-origin brews in a light-filled former factory.
Kids can get their hands on everything at the Science Museum’s Wonderlab, from giant bubbles to giant slides.
Take Lift 109 to the top of Battersea Power Station for wraparound skyline views from the northwest chimney’s summit.
The sixth sense
Surrender to the magic of Dennis Severs’ House, a theatrical time-warp back to 18th-century London.
The one thing
It’s impossible to pick just one thing to eat in this city, but breakfast at Ottolenghi must be a contender. Head to the Chelsea outpost for the biggest breakfast menu, running from thyme-laced shakshuka to plump Dutch pancakes. Our must-see sight, meanwhile, is Hampstead Heath – a rolling expanse of ancient woodland and meadows. Swim in its ponds, climb Parliament Hill, then stop at Kenwood House for tea and cake. Finally, don’t leave London without sipping a cocktail in Soho. Head to tiny Bar Termini for a note-perfect negroni or sip a superlative rhubarb sour at Swift.
If you liked London, try Berlin – another cultural powerhouse that’s always ahead of the curve. Swap Hyde Park for the equally-enormous Tiergarten, with its verdant lawns and tree-lined avenues, or explore the city’s powerhouse museums, clustered on Museum Island. As with London, it has history at every turn (don’t miss the Berlin Wall Memorial) but looks to the future when it comes to music, art and fashion. Its food scene, meanwhile, is inventive and globally inspired, whether you’re snacking on a köfte sandwich or in search of Michelin stars – at the small, strictly seasonal Faelt, perhaps, or astonishing, three-starred Rutz.