A couple of weeks ago, I published a post called How to Be a Tourist in London. It was all about – you guessed it – all the fun, albeit touristy things to do in London. This is the opposite of that – this is the Alternative Guide to London.
London is a huge city with endless things do, people to meet, and food to eat. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited four times now (with another trip planned for this summer), and in those times, have ventured outside central London. I have a few friends that live in the city, and because of that, I’ve gone where no (wo)man has gone before, I’ve gotten a taste of local London. Now I’m sharing all these fun places with you in my alternative guide to London.
Where to explore:
Located in Northeast London, Shoreditch has become a bit of a hipster artists hub. The best way to describe it is gritty chic – which makes it a perfect place for your inner grungy side. Some Londoners claim that Shoreditch is overly gentrified, but I would argue that that’s part of its appeal – here you can find everything from awesome pop-up shops (like Box Park) to street art (below) to the Shoreditch Food Village. When I visited over the summer, I ran into a pop-up mocktail bar sponsored by a juice company. The possibilities are endless – this part of London is not to be missed!
2. Brick Lane
Although Brick Lane is technically part of Shoreditch, I think it deserves a section all to itself on this alternative guide to London. You may have heard of Brick Lane – it’s home to rows of South Asian shops and restaurants. While this is still a great place to “go for a curry”, the gems in Brick Lane stretch far beyond food: the bustling Brick Lane Sunday Market, the ultra-hipster Cereal Killer Café, and the nearby Old Spitalfields Market are just a few of the places worth visiting in this trendy East London area.
I know I briefly mentioned Camden in my other London post, but I have to reiterate just how awesome it is. It’s a premier artsy destination and much more established than Shoreditch and Brick Lane. Located in North West London, it has shops for every kind of shopping. Vintage? Check. Arts and crafts? Check. Souvenirs? Check. If you aren’t a big fan of shopping, there are also tons of delicious restaurants and even some historical landmarks to check out. Did I mention there are canals and waterways too?
4. Neal’s Yard
Funnily enough, Neal’s Yard is hidden in a popular and touristy area of Central London called Covent Garden. Despite its location, Neal’s Yard is pretty easy to miss, which is why I included it in my alternative guide to London. It’s actually an alleyway that expands into a courtyard with a few cute shops and organic eateries. While I wouldn’t recommend you make a special trip just to see Neal’s Yard, you should definitely check it out if you’re in the area. It’s conveniently located near Covent Garden Market, a large covered market with specialty shops, restaurants, and fresh goods. So don’t despair, there are plenty of things to see nearby!
Honorary mention: I hear great things about Portobello Market although I’ve never been myself.
Where to Eat and Drink:
Who would I be if I didn’t list all my favorite places to eat and drink? I’m embarrassed to admit that the quintessential fish and chips are not on my alternative guide to London – although they can be found virtually anywhere in London. They’re not exactly alternative, are they? Rather, I’m listing my favorite lesser-known locations (as well as my favorite chain restaurants as well).
Borough Market: Funnily enough, my family and I discovered Borough Market on our first trip to London, back in 2008. I was on a desperate quest for the market I saw in What a Girl Wants (I was a teenager. Deal with it.), and instead stumbled upon Borough Market. Located in Southwark, it’s every foodie’s dream, with rows and rows of cafes, fresh meats and cheeses, vegetables and more. Come here for lunch, food shopping, or just a bunch of samples – either way, you will not be disappointed. I still remember the Thai curry I ate here as well as the Grecian olives we took back to our hotel. TLDR: Don’t miss this spot!
Yumchaa: Despite its global reputation as a tea lovers’ city, I’ve found that London doesn’t have a lot of tea shops where you can go for a cuppa without partaking in the full blown fancy afternoon tea. For those of you who want to stop for a casual pot, you’re in luck. Yumchaa has a huge variety of fresh tea – both for in-shop consumption and for sale. The employees are all tea aficionados and are very well-versed, ready to answer every question you could have about tea, so you’re guaranteed to get a good cup. Their pastries are pretty spectacular as well.
The Breakfast Club: The Breakfast Club is one of the few places in the city where you can get an All-American breakfast, so of course I had to add it to my alternative guide to London. It has everything, as in pancakes, benedicts, huevos rancheros, and breakfast burritos. ‘MURICA. I recognize the ironic fact that I came here after being gone from The U.S. for a whopping 24 hours, but this “diner” definitely gets the Sally stamp of approval. Plus, you get to see the British interpretation of an American diner, which is amusing in and of itself.
Cahoots Bar: Set in a disused Tube station, this is easily the coolest London bar I’ve ever been to. I don’t drink, but that didn’t stop me from gawking over the 1940s Underground-themed décor and fun, jazzy music. Have you ever been to a place that has executed a theme so well that you can’t help but be impressed? That was Cahoots. How could I not add it to the alternative guide to London with a theme like that? Supposedly the drinks here are delicious as well. The bar is on the smaller side and quite popular, so I highly recommend making a reservation here.
Sketch: How do I even begin to describe Sketch? In the simplest terms, it’s a tearoom that transforms into a lounge in the evenings. But this isn’t your fancy, queen’s tearoom. Sketch is eclectic, artsy, and straight-up weird. It has several rooms operating as separate restaurants (one of the rooms is all-pink), offering everything from tea to lunch to dinner. If you’re in London for a limited time, you should definitely make a reservation to guarantee entrance. The basic tea with scones starts at £10.50 (at the time of writing), with fancier versions being more expensive.
The Roof Terrace: I’m going to be honest. I wanted to see cool views of the city and I didn’t feel like paying to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. So instead, I walked across the street to the mall and went up to the Roof Terrace. And got excellent views of all of London – for free! You can get a drink here too if you’d like, but if you’re just after a cool view – here’s your spot!
Namak Mandi: If for some reason you’re staying out in Southwest London (I was, thanks to my friend Nancy who kindly let me stay at her place), then skip eating at Brick Lane in favor of Tooting. According to my foodie friends, this is where you get the real, local South Asian cuisine – free from all the touristy frills. That’s exactly what I got at Namak Mandi; the most amazing Afghani food I’ve ever had, served to us in a traditional seating area (on the floor with pillows). Well worth a try if you’re out in this area.
I know, I know. How dare I recommend chain restaurants in an alternative guide to London? In my defense, if you’re exhausted after a long day exploring, sometimes you don’t want to seek out the fun trendy restaurant in some other part of the city. That’s where these three staples come in Busaba Eathai, Nando’s, and Wagamama’s.
Busaba Eathai: Thai food, with a hint of fusion. Tons of options, family style seating and reasonably priced. They have 12 locations in London.
Nando’s: African chicken and the one place I insist on visiting every time I go to the UK. For some people, it’s just chicken. For me, it’s amazing chicken. Plus they have a bunch of sauces you can hoard and use to spice up your meal. And prices are reasonable. You can probably find one in any London neighborhood.
Wagamama’s: The ultimate definition of Asian fusion. I’d call it Japanese-Asian. Either way, there’s something for every Asian food lover here, and you can find Wagamama’s all over London.
So there you have it. My favorite places in London that most tourists don’t know about, all put together to make my alternative guide to London. The great thing about the city is that there is always something cool to do. If you’re ever at a loss, check out TimeOut London for some great recommendations. And if you’re looking for the tourist guide to London, you can find one here.