London Bound: A Guide to Planning Your Trip

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“Her enthusiasm for London is simply infectious.”

That’s what I hope that my currently-nonexistent husband lists as one of the reasons he fell in love with me in the first place.

Because I. Love. London. If you can have a city-version of the love of your love, then London is mine. I studied for a semester in that delightfully-dreary city and have been madly in love with the place since. Don’t ask me why I love London so—several Londoners have asked me quizzically, and I’ve yet to find adequate words to explain. And try as I might, I’ve not found a legal way to make London my dwelling place, though I’m currently accepting applications for a British beau. But if I can’t have a permanent London address, I can settle for an annual pilgrimage across the pond to the city that holds my heart.

Since those four months in the spring of ‘14, I’ve booked myself a transatlantic ticket on a yearly basis. Landing in London is an emotional event for me, and all my days spent there are collectively The Best Day of My Life (especially June 19, 2016, when I saw Coldplay at Wembley OH MY MERCY.)

Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, 2016.

Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, 2016.

I’ve broken down my suggestions into the following categories with photos along the way:

  • Food

  • Markets

  • Parks

  • Sights & To Do

Disclaimer: I have a tendency to return to the places I know and love in lieu of trying something new (how adventurous of me, I know), so the following recommendations are far from an exhaustive list of London to-dos. But perhaps you will find these suggestions helpful in your trip-planning process.

FOOD

Borough Market

Few things in life bring greater joy than a visit to Borough Market. Can I nominate this to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site? A food market can be an internationally-revered landmark, right?

“Dramatic, much?” – you, thinking I’m leaning a bit too hard into the hyperbole.

Visit first, and then get back with me. If you’re not a convert after, then fair enough; we’ll agree to disagree.

Borough Market is a food market with fresh cheeses, breads, fruits & veggies, truffle oils, fudges, cheesecake, handmade chocolates… you name a food, they probably have said food. They also have food stands with prepared food—dishes like Pad Thai, Paella, Scotch Eggs—that make for a great lunch. There’s even a stand that sells entirely gluten-free baked goods and pastries for all my gluten-free Celiac babes out there.

My favorite dish is the cheese raclette—it's boiled potatoes, salt and pepper, with the gooiest cheese melted right in front of your face under a special cheese melting contraption and then spread on top. Sounds super simple, but it's seriously delicious; I intentionally seek these out every year I visit.

This past year I faced the VERY REAL HORROR of not being able to find the cheese raclette booth. In that dark day at the market (Thursday, April 27, 2017, approximately 11 AM GMT), my greatest fear of never being able to enjoy a cheese raclette again was realized. But before I could sink too deeply into an unmanageable grief, I happened upon them accidentally during my return to Borough the next day. Turns out they had moved a few months prior to a storefront on the other side of the market rather than just a portable booth. PHEW.

For those who like Prosecco (so, everyone, yes?), get yourself a Prosecco spritzer, and then tell Patrick, the seller, hello for us. (We may or may not have gone to Borough three days in a row and we may or may not have gotten a Prosecco spritzer each time.)

Soz if this post just turned into a love letter to Borough Market. Moving on…

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Borough Market is on the south side of the Thames right next to the London Bridge station on the Underground; the Jubilee and Northern lines stop there. It’s also close to the Shard and the river, and within walking distance to St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, and the Tower of London on the other side of the river. Grab lunch and then explore the area!

Fresh foods from Borough Market. [Photo by  Katie Serena .]

Fresh foods from Borough Market. [Photo by Katie Serena.]

Thai Square

If you are a Thai food fan, then I have a Thai food restaurant for you. Named Thai Square, there are multiple locations throughout London. The only one I’ve been to is the intimate Kensington location across from the Natural History Museum. Another plus for my Celiac pals: the menu lists which dishes have gluten, and which ones don’t. The Pad Thai is top notch and my go-to. I have also gone to this restaurant multiple times per visit ever since stumbling upon it with a friend two years ago, because it’s THAT good.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

It is right next to the South Kensington Tube stop—the Piccadilly and District & Circle lines run through here. It’s within walking distance to Hyde Park, the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and about a 15 minute walk to Herrod’s. It’s also in the same square as my next suggestion: Kensington Creperie.

Kensington Creperie

One night many moons ago, I had a dream that I was eating a bowl of cookies & cream ice cream with SO MANY OREOS that it was life changing, so life changing in fact that I still remember this dream more than 10 years later. True story.

I can’t eat cookies & cream ice cream anymore (see above, re: Celiac), but I can drink the SO SERIOUSLY GOOD iced coffees at Kensington Creperie. These iced coffees are blended with ice cream. Ice cream! And then topped generously with whipped cream. A surreal iced coffee experience awaits.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Kensington Ceperie is in the same square as my previous suggestion, Thai Square. Hop on the Piccadilly or District & Circle lines and “alight here” (hello, automated Tube voice) at the South Kensington stop for iced coffee and crepe glory.

Kensington Creperie.

Kensington Creperie.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen

Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a U.K.-based burger chain with the most delicious milkshakes. Chocolate and (prior to my Celiac diagnosis) Oreo are my faves. They also now have gluten free buns—hoozah! Since there are multiple GBK locations scattered throughout London, it’s a good flexible dining place for whatever area of town you happen to be exploring that day.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Pull out your handy dandy Google Maps, and search which location is most convenient to your day’s itinerary. There are multiple locations in central London.

The London Grind

The London Grind is one of six Grind cafes and restaurants across London. I breakfasted at the London Grind location, and my mocha and sweet potato harissa cakes were on point. The website describes this location as a “a buzzing riverside espresso bar, cocktail bar and restaurant, housed in a former bank at 2 London Bridge, above Borough Market” and I think that’s a much better description than I could have come up with, so well done to the London Grind copywriters.

Since this is by Borough Market, we began our day with breakfast here before making our rounds through Borough, gathering breads, cheeses, sausage and Prosecco for an afternoon picnic in the park.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The London Grind location is by Borough Market, so the London Bridge tube stop is the nearest station.

The London Grind.

The London Grind.

Obica

Obica was recommended to me by my Italian roommate from my study abroad glory days, so if it’s got a Real Life Italian stamp of approval, then it must be actually good Italian. All of the dishes incorporate mozzarella di bufala, which is THE most amazing mozzarella to be found on God’s good green earth. The ambiance makes it a great place for a nice weekend dinner, but the prices are no higher than the usual £10 - £15 range. If you are sadly Celiac like me, there are less g-free options here, but the Caprese salad and eggplant lasagna are both good options. Do get a cocktail while here—the Bosco cocktail is amazing! The pubs around the restaurant are hoppin’ on the weekend, so you can always grab a post-dinner pint after.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

There are five locations around London, but I’ve only frequented the one on Poland Street. This is right off Oxford Street and within a few blocks walking distance from the Oxford Circus tube station (Central, Bakerloo, and Victoria lines). There are also several bus stops along Oxford Street, so the Poland Street location is quite accessible.

Duck & Waffle

Okay, dear readers. Things are about to get serious up in the club: Let me tell you about the life-altering dining experience that is Duck & Waffle.

Duck & Waffle is a dining spot on the 40th floor of 110 Bishopsgate, one of London’s tallest buildings. Dope, right?! This is the restaurant of your Fancy Night Out in London dreams. The menu consists of dishes to be shared among the entire party. Though you might shy away from the thought of spending all your travel budget on food, fear not: we ordered 5 dishes, dessert, and a bottle of wine and between the five of us, it only cost £30 each. Pricier than your usual fare, yes, but certainly not a break-the-bank dinner. The tasty food, views out the floor-to-ceiling windows of London at night, and attentive service (like...so attentive that waiters swarmed us the second my friend tried to reach for the bottle of wine herself) make it absolutely worth it. Reservations are recommended; you can do so online.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The Liverpool Street Station is the closest tube stop—only a block’s distance from Heron Tower. Several lines run through here: Central, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan, and Circle lines. Of course, the bus is also an option.

View from Duck & Waffle.

View from Duck & Waffle.

Duck & Waffle.

Duck & Waffle.

MARKETS

Borough Market

Please see my Ode to Borough Market in the food section above. Full market is Wednesday through Saturday. Monday and Tuesday the market is open, just limited. Closed on Sundays.

Portobello Market

This one is in Notting Hill, which itself is the prettiest little London neighborhood. Portobello Market offers street food (Crepes! All the crepes!), clothes, antiques—all the usual market things. The best day to go is Saturday.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The Notting Hill Gate tube stop (Central, Circle, and District Lines) will be your most convenient underground station. Follow the signs to the market.

Camden Market

Camden Town is a super edgy, grungy-punk area of London, and the Camden Market reflects that vibe. It's open always, but it’s particularly woke on the weekends.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Several bus stops are located along Camden High Street with multiple bus lines making stops. Chalk Farm and the Camden Town tube stops—both on the Northern Line—are at either end of the market.

Covent Garden

Covent Garden is a sweet little market square in Soho. It has a few cafes (but also restaurants throughout the area surrounding it), Ben's Cookies (the most delicious, chewy cookies ever), shops, and your usual market and touristy trinkets. You’ll also usually come find street performers a’plenty—comedians, opera singers, violinists, and the delightfully ordinary busker with his guitar. There's even a London Transport Museum because London’s public transportation system is so magical that it deserves its own museum.

PARKS

London parks deserve their own section because London KILLS IT at the park game.

Regent's Park / Primrose Hill

Regent's Park is my old stomping grounds from my study abroad days, and Primrose Hill is my straight-up JAM. The hill offers a view of the London skyline and serves as the perfect place for quiet contemplation of your life’s current trajectory. (Harry Styles would agree.) I’ve commandeered one of the trees as my tree, and it is where I continually return to sit beneath and reflect on the past year. (Hello, Harry, can’t wait for our meet-cute on Primrose Hill.)

The park itself is a charming reprieve from busy city life—a pond sports ducks and geese and swans, all eager to have a tidbit of any food you happen to be carrying with you. There’s also plenty of wide green space where you can find children playing and dogs romping. Springtime looks really good on the park, with the trees and flowers in full bloom. There’s also a couple of cafes to grab a bite to eat or a coffee if you’re feeling famished. You’ll also find the London Zoo here.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Regent’s Park is north of Westminster and Oxford Street, but still in Zone 1. The easiest tube stop to alight at is Baker Street; the Jubilee, Bakerloo, Hammersmith & City, and Circle lines run through it. Grab a coffee at Saint Espresso right outside the station on Baker Street—the perfect complement to a sunny day stroll.

Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill.

View from Primrose Hill.

View from Primrose Hill.

Regent's Park.

Regent's Park.

Hampstead Heath / Parliament Hill

Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill take a more indirect approach to reach, but the view from the top of Parliament Hill is absolutely worth the trek. BE STILL MY HEART, because Parliament Hill treats you to a stunning view of the London skyline—this time from a much higher elevation, the entire city spread before you. If you’re familiar with the Mumford & Sons album Wilder Mind, that cover artwork is taken from Parliament Hill. Iconic. The heath itself is a beautiful green space with ponds, grassy knolls, and wooded areas that will make you feel like you’re in the English countryside.

On our last trip, my friends and I brought our Borough Market cheese, bread, and wine to Parliament Hill and had ourselves a deliciously slow afternoon picnicking and people-watching (and learning that the British name their dogs absurdly-human names like Colin and Stephen). 10/10 WOULD RECOMMEND.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The easiest way to reach the heath is by bus, though the Hampstead Heath Overground station stop is at the southern base of the heath. However, Overground trains run less frequently than the bus or tube. Plus, bus fares are only £1.50 per journey, so definitely your better option.

Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath.

Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

Hyde Park

Hyde Park is perhaps London’s most well-known park, or at least the park I had heard of prior to my studies here. A couple of years ago when the weather was surprisingly sunny and warm, my friend and I rented a paddleboat on the Serpentine and spent a sunny afternoon on the water. If you happen to find yourself in similar weather conditions (a rare treat in rain-loving London), this is a good way to spend a slow afternoon. Kensington Palace is also in the park, so you can check that off your tourist to-do list, and you can also plan for a post-stroll afternoon of high tea at The Orangery (reservations recommended and gluten free options available). Royal Albert Hall is also located on the southwest side of the park—a beautiful concert hall, it’s worth it to catch a show here if you can!

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Hyde Park is large and in charge, so there are several stops at various corners of the park: Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Lancaster Gate, and Queensway. The corners of Green Park (the park aside Buckingham Palace) and Hyde Park nearly touch, so if you’re already giving Buckingham a looksie and are in the mood for a walk, you can easily reach Hyde Park by foot without feeling like you’ve just walked ten miles in snow uphill both ways.

Hyde Park. [Photo by Cassidy Brady.]

Hyde Park. [Photo by Cassidy Brady.]

Other

Other popular central London parks are Green Park and St. James’s Park—both serve as parameters to The Mall, the road with Buckingham Palace on one end and Trafalgar Square on the other.

SIGHTS & TO DO

The Tourist To-Dos

These are your obvious spots—the must-see-at-least-once destinations that are the familiar London postcard pics, imperatives for a London first-timer. I won’t go into detail (because goodness knows this post is already long enough); instead, a list:

  • Parliament and Big Ben
  • Westminster Abbey
  • The London Eye
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Trafalgar Square
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral
  • Tower Bridge
  • Tower of London

Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral: It is absolutely worth it to see inside these two centuries-old churches, but if you’re looking to save money on the admission fee, I suggest going to a service at the church. You won’t be able to meander around the church at whim, but you will be treated to a beautiful service (bonus points if the choir sings) while also having the opportunity to marvel at the church’s ornate interior.

Buckingham Palace: The changing of the guard is worth seeing at least once. It’s an over-the-top spectacle involving Britain’s finest, as well as horses and even a marching band. It takes place only a few times per week. I recommend getting there early to stake out as spot along The Mall.

Walk from Westminster to Tower Bridge

And might I suggest one of my favorite walks to catch some of these popular sites? You’ll begin the walk at the Pimlico tube stop on the Victoria line. Turn right down the main street outside the station (Vauxhall Bridge Road); it will take you to the river. From there you will cross the street and turn left, walking along a pathway next to the river; several benches line the path, great for a stop to take in the views. You will pass the Tate Britain museum along the way (it is across the street on the left). Not to be confused with the Tate Modern, it is a lovely art museum that’s a perfect stop-in on your riverside stroll (and, like all London museums, it’s free admission!).

You’ll reach Victoria Tower Gardens, a beautiful quaint green space on the south side of Parliament. This is the site of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and—crossing Westminster Bridge (might I suggest reading “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” in preparation for your jaunt?)—the London Eye on the south side of the river (aptly named South Bank). Take a left along here, crossing the river shortly again at the Golden Jubilee Bridge—white cables pointed high like sails hold the bridge up, and the bridge offers great photo opps of Westminster.

Take a right off the bridge and continue walking along the riverbank—it will eventually take you past St. Paul’s Cathedral (a few blocks away from the river path), the Tower of London, and eventually down to Tower Bridge. If you cross the river again by St. Paul’s, you’ll find Borough Market and the Shard. You can make this walk in an hour if you’re booking it—but why should you rush it? Take your time and enjoy to the fullest your Thames river walk.

View from Golden Jubilee Bridge.

View from Golden Jubilee Bridge.

View from Thames walk.

View from Thames walk.

High Tea

High tea is tea to the extreme—a pot brewed just for you with all the sugar and cream you could want, paired with delicate china and a tower of goodies: finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, and mini desserts. If you're feeling particularly fanciful that day, you can even add champagne to your high tea experience. Several hotels and cafes offer high tea; reservations recommended. On my latest trip, we had high tea at The Orangery, and my sad Celiac heart was overjoyed when they brought me gluten-free scones. And I thought I'd never be able to enjoy a scone again! What blessed deliverance!

An incospicously gluten free scone at The Orangery.

An incospicously gluten free scone at The Orangery.

High tea at The Orangery.

High tea at The Orangery.

High tea at The Orangery.

High tea at The Orangery.

High Tea at The Orangery.

High Tea at The Orangery.

Emirates Air Line (Cable Cars)

The Emirates Air Line are cable cars (“I never knew, I never knew that everything was falling through…” That song comes immediately to mind when you read cable car, right?) that cross the river by the O2 Arena in the North Greenwich area. It's a little more "off the beaten path" than say, the London Eye, but the line isn’t as long and the price is cheaper. Granted, you can't see Westminster from here, but the view of Greenwich and the surrounding area is still worth it. Pro-tip: a Gourmet Burger Kitchen is located inside the O2, perfect for a post-cable car milkshake.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The tube will definitely be your quickest and easiest route—take the Jubilee Line to the North Greenwich stop. There will be signs inside the tube station directing you to the Emirates Air Line; it is right by the arena.

Emirates Air Line cable cars.

Emirates Air Line cable cars.

Emirates Air Line cable cars. [Photo by  Laura Hughes .]

Emirates Air Line cable cars. [Photo by Laura Hughes.]

Emirates Air Line cable cars.

Emirates Air Line cable cars.

Museums

Museum (I’ve taken the liberty of using this as a verb) to your heart's content because all of 'em are free. As in, £0! Say wut! My personal favorites are the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Britain. Popular ones include the Museum of Natural History, Tate Modern, The National Gallery, and the British Museum. You’ll find these throughout central London.

Daunt Books

Daunt Books is the MOST MAGICAL bookstore in all of the land—a multi-level, books on books on books fairytale. There are a few Daunt locations, but the Marylebone High Street one is where the party’s at.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

The Baker Street tube stop is the closest location, though it still requires a few minutes walk. Exit the tube station on Marylebone Road and cross the street. Turn left and continue a couple of blocks (you’ll pass St. Marylebone Church) and then turn right on Marylebone High Street, where you’ll find Daunt Books, as well as several other shops and cafes. There is also a bus stop on Marylebone Street that is closer to Marylebone High Street than the tube station.

Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. [Photo by Katie Serena.]

Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. [Photo by Katie Serena.]

Theatre

If you're into theatre, London is on par with New York in its offerings (and all the better because British accents, right?). I'm not your deep cut theatre gal, I've just seen the usual—Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Mis. All great, all that I would see again. Here's a list of the latest West End shows.

An Aimless Wander

No, really. Put away the GPS and itinerary, and simply take an aimless wander. There are delights all throughout London—hidden cobblestone mews, tucked-away gardens, a coffee shop begging for your patronage. Exploring is always free, and a broody playlist makes the meander all the merrier.

Hidden mews in London.

Hidden mews in London.

A street in Hampstead.

A street in Hampstead.

"Take courage" near Borough Market.

"Take courage" near Borough Market.

Hopefully you’ve found these suggestions helpful in your London trip planning. Happy travels and give London a hug for me when you go! If you have been to London before, do you have any recommendations?

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