The title of this post, “How to Be a Tourist in London,” is a bit tongue-in-cheek. You see, London was the first city I ever visited in Europe (not counting any time spent there under age 3). I arrived with my Top 10 London guidebook*, ready to take the city by storm, and leading the expedition like Christopher Colombus with my family trailing behind.
I look back and laugh at my eager 18 year-old-self. I mean, I was determined to visit every single London landmark. And for the most part, I did. I was the epitome of a bad tourist – running from landmark to landmark, starting the day way too early, and never really taking the time to appreciate local London. (And apparently taking bad photos. Stock photos FTW).
Luckily my travel habits have relaxed significantly since then. I’ve become, as my friend fondly says, a type A- traveler, rather than a type A traveler. Relaxing beach vacations, more often than not, annoy me to no end but nowadays I visit cities and sometimes miss a couple of places here and there. And I’m okay with that.
So, now that I’ve gone on a sufficient tangent, I want to offer you this London guide. London through the eyes of 18-year-old über tourist Sally. I’ve since returned to London three times, so I promise to write an alternative / local guide to London for you all in the next few weeks, but let me just say: the places listed below are actually a LOT of fun if you’ve never been to London and totally worth seeing!
1. Take pictures at Tower Bridge.
Oh, London, you’ve managed to fool us all. We all thought that London Bridge was the impressive one, but alas, it turns out that Tower Bridge is what makes an appearance in all the movies and TV shows. You have to admit, that architecture is pretty spectacular, though, so we can forgive the Brits this time.
2. Ride the London Eye.
So, the London Eye is, in a nutshell, an overpriced Ferris wheel. BUT, it does offer amazing views of the city and you get to observe from an insulated capsule, which makes for cool pictures.
3. Brush up on history at The Tower of London.
A world heritage site, the Tower of London has served both as a prison and as a castle in the past. You can see things like the Royal Armories, Traitors’ Gate and much more. My family and I had a great time here, despite the fact that we almost never visit museums while we travel.
4. Take a shot every time you hear “Mind the Gap.”
Every time you ride the London Underground, aka “the Tube,” they warn you to mind the gap between the train and the platform. Because apparently, people trip all the time. For some reason, I found “mind the gap” to be hilarious (probably because the gaps weren’t that big), but please don’t take a shot every time you hear it. Otherwise, you might actually trip over the gap. Side note: day passes or multi-day passes are the best way to get around. Single trip tickets add up really fast.
5. Explore Parliament Square.
This area houses three key buildings in London: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and of course, Big Ben. The five of us decided that just taking pictures around here was enough, but if you’re interested in medieval architecture, then Westminster Abbey is right up your alley. I know this thanks to both pictures and other travelers, but if it sucks, well…I never went inside.
6. Shop at iconic shops and local markets.
*British accent* Harrod’s, darling. I mean, it doesn’t get any more iconic than that. If you want to do proper British / European (window) shopping, check out Oxford Street for all the fancy brands. It’s a shopaholic’s dream. If flea markets and eclectic shops are more your scene, then head over to Camden Market: it has everything from vintage to arts and crafts to alternative fashion.
7. Go to Hogwarts.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Harry Potter, you have to admit that you’re secretly dying to go to Hogwarts via Platform 9 ¾. No? Just me? Okay, fine. For the Harry Potter fans out there, rejoice! You can get a picture just like this one if you head on over to King’s Cross.
8. Ride a double decker bus, or ten.
I mean, hello. Those double deckers are the bomb, and never lose their thrill. Plus, they’re the coolest way to see the city hands down. We redeemed ourselves by not taking the double decker bus tour and frankly unless you’re seriously pressed for time, you shouldn’t either. It is ridiculously easy to navigate the London Public Transportation system…and it’s kind of fun, too!
9. Feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
If you ever see a picture of London that includes a ridiculously large amount of pigeons in one place, you’re probably looking at Trafalgar Square. There are totally signs that say “don’t feed the pigeons,” but what’s life without a little risk? PS The National Gallery is on the north side of the square, in case you don’t think feeding pigeons is as cool as I apparently do.
Edit: According to one Londoner, doing this will put you on the London sh*t list. Told you I was a bad tourist on this trip!
10. Go to Hyde Park
On the off-chance that you catch some good weather in London, then you absolutely have to spend it outside. What better place to soak in the (rare) sunshine than in Hyde Park, where you can rent boats, swim, or even picnic near the gorgeous lake?
11. Catch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
Thanks to a law that passed in 2014, guards are no longer stationed outside the gates of the palace. Sad times for people
like me who make fools of themselves trying to get those guards to laugh. Either way, definitely come here for the changing of the guards. It’s really official-looking and stuff. The ceremony schedule is available here.
12. Take a boat to Hampton Court
Located a bit outside the main city, this palace is giant and has gorgeous Tudor architecture. Not only does it have cool exhibitions, but it also has a fun garden maze that you can get lost in. On a nice summer day, you can turn this into a leisurely day trip by taking a boat from Kingston or from Westminster. Otherwise, the train is always at your service.
13. Take a walk along the River Thames
Stroll around the area called the Southbank and you’re guaranteed at least a few hours of entertainment and leisure. Funnily enough, this area is both a business / commercial district and an entertainment district, so it’s always packing with people. Depending on the season, there are plenty of changing pop-ups, markets, and art exhibitions, but come here year-round for access to delicious restaurants, beautiful art galleries, and fun people-watching along the Thames.
Lastly, if you want to be a real tourist, there are three things you must do. The first is buy ridiculous souvenirs and actually wear them around town. My brother wore this hat* on the Tube and near Buckingham Palace. I’m sure the Brits were not amused. The second is to, of course, take a picture “talking on the phone” at one of the red phone booths. I’m not ashamed to admit I have one. And lastly? Laugh really hard when you spot the Cockfosters stop at the Tube. Because that’s what mature people do.
Honorary mentions (aka cool places I didn’t go): St. Paul’s Cathedral and a bunch of museums and galleries (British Museum, Natural History, Science, the London Dungeon, the Tates…).
All in all, I do have to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with visiting tourist attractions. They’re popular for a reason – because they’re cool and / or have some historical significance. The point I was making earlier is that there is always more to the city than these top ten lists (yes, I recognize the irony of writing this in this post) so be sure to branch out and explore outside of your guidebook. To help you do so, check out this guide to alternative London.
Have you ever been to London? What were your favorite sites? Let me know in the comments below!