Suggestions for low-key things to do in London?
September 2, 2010 6:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be in London on business for a week, and I may wind up with a couple of afternoons to myself. I don't have a burning need to do lots of sight-seeing while I'm there -- I'll probably be quite jetlagged during that free time, since it will occur at the beginning of my trip -- but I'd love any suggestions of absolute must-sees, quiet spots where it would be nice to sit and read, or lovely bookstores or coffee (tea?) shops.

I've been to London before, but not since I was a child.

I'll be staying at the City Inn Westminster, which is near Pimlico Station.

Thank you!
posted by cider to Travel & Transportation around London, England (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Cafe in the Crypt is a pretty unique and mellow experience. Weather permitting, you might also want to hang out in Hyde Park.

During the day, you can have a nice relaxing read and decent, cheap coffee at any Wetherspoons/Lloyds/Moon Under the Water pub (they're all owned by the same company), but they get pretty rowdy in the evenings.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 6:37 AM on September 2, 2010

The first thing we did when we arrived in London from California (after checking into our hotel) was to walk around in the sunshine. We were jetlagged as all get-out. We walked to the Tate Modern...and you know what, seeing the exhibits there when jetlagged was revelatory. If your usual response to modern art is to overthink it (or not grok it at all), I highly recommend seeing it when your filters are lowered by jetlag.

They also have free wifi and a nice cafe and a restaurant. In the cafe, at least, they don't seem to care if you just hang out. And the view is wonderful. Have a good time, whatever you decide to do!
posted by rtha at 6:42 AM on September 2, 2010

British Library is wonderful as is the Chruchill War Rooms walk through.
posted by Freedomboy at 6:51 AM on September 2, 2010

You are right next to Tate Britain; seriously, about a two-minute walk. Admission to the museum is free, though some exhibits have a ticket price, but it's a lovely art museum. There are lots of benches and quiet areas around where you can sit and read.
posted by Polychrome at 6:52 AM on September 2, 2010

wetherspoons?! argh no! stay away from wetherspoons. they are horrible chain pubs.

not sure where you are flying from - somewher in the USA I presume but anyway I really think people exaggerate how bad Jet Lag is. Its not that exhausting to wander around and do some things. even when a little jetlagged.

Afternoon activites:
- Tate Modern is open Late Friday Nights at the moment and I think the restaurant is pretty good.
- Wander around Soho in the Evening and grab a pint of lager or Ale somewhere.
- get a curry on Brick Lane.
- theatre / music (not sure where you are from / availability of "arts and culture" normally)
posted by mary8nne at 6:52 AM on September 2, 2010

Take a stroll through the Royal Hospital Chelsea's gardens, and if you wish, go on into the Chelsea Physic Garden (you have to pay to enter this one, and the opening hours are limited). They are both quiet, beautiful, restful places, and easily accessible on foot from Pimlico. The Royal Hospital also has the odd Chelsea Pensioner wandering around, and guns from various imperial battles.
posted by tavegyl at 6:59 AM on September 2, 2010

I used to live in Pimlico.

Yes, Tate Britain is quite close and worth a visit.
If you walk down to the river, you can see Battersea power station from there (made famous by the Pink Floyd cover) and Battersea Park is a quiet place to sit and read by the river.

What I suggest you do is hop on the 24 bus. This is the best secret tip for free sightseeing. The 24 bus stops right next to where you are staying.
Get on and go sit on the top of the bus and relax. After going through Victoria, the bus will take you by:
- Westminster Abbey
- House of Parliament
- Whitehall and the Prime Ministers offices
- Queen's horse parade
- Trafalgar Square
- Then, up onto the edge of Soho where you can see Foyles bookstore, look to your right then and see Denmark st, the famous music street.
- Then you go up Tottenham court road where you can see all the crazy electronics shop. Get off here if you want to walk east to the British museum.
- Then you head up through the sea of Camden town and all the wacky 60's era-funky stuff there. The bus also goes over the Camden locks.
- Stay on the bus until it ends at Hampstead Heath, one of the more beautiful, wild, parks in the city. It feels like being in the countryside. Head to a bench and spend the day reading.

When you are ready to go back, hop back on the 24 to go home.
posted by vacapinta at 7:05 AM on September 2, 2010 [14 favorites]

Your hotel is just around the corner from Tate Britain so that should be an easy trot off when you have a few minutes (come out of the main entrance turn left and left again). On weekdays it is very peaceful and laid back.

A few yards away (turn right walk 10 meters turn right in Page Street) is St. Johns Garden, really peaceful and quite place to sit, read and reflect.

You are also a few minutes walk from St. John Smith Square which also has a cafe which is open from 10am to 3pm on weekdays.

If you cross the river on Lambeth Bridge you will find Lambeth Palace which also has the museum of gardern history if you are interested.

On Marsham Street (parallel to John Islip Street away from the river) there is a nice Caffe Nero (caution: chain store) which is comfortable and peaceful except weekday lunchtime.
posted by london302 at 7:06 AM on September 2, 2010

Royal Festival Hall (South Bank) opens its foyer spaces to the public during the day. Popular place to simply chill, or there are galleries, museums, bars, cafes, etc all around if you feel a burst of energy. There's also a second hand book sale just outside sometimes, not to mention a range of street performers, although I'm not sure exactly when - these may be weekend/seasonal specific so don't sue me if they aren't in evidence!

Weather permitting, you obviously can't beat a park, and why limit that to Hyde Park - St James is closer (walkable), for example.
posted by Slyfen at 7:06 AM on September 2, 2010

Adding to vacapinta: You have both 87 and 88 buses going past you. Both go to Parliament Square and 88 goes to Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Regents Park and then Camden (full tourist route planned for you here). 87 goes to Trafalgar Square, Strand and then Aldwych.
posted by london302 at 7:08 AM on September 2, 2010

Response by poster: You guys are terrific -- thank you!
posted by cider at 7:17 AM on September 2, 2010

Most of the museums in London are free, and many have good cafes. If I have a spare hour or two I sometimes like to quietly wander around them for a while, then people-watch with a coffee and some cake. Just pick a (small) section at random and have a look at the exhibits.

Specifically, I'd recommend the National Gallery (and the portrait gallery), the British Museum, and the Wellcome Collection.

Another little museum that I can't recommend too highly is the wonderful Sir John Soane's museum. John Soane was an architect who collected pretty much everything. As a result, his museum in his London home is jam-packed with interesting antiquities and art (including Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress"). No cafe in this one I'm afraid, but well worth a visit.

Kew Garden
is worth a visit, if the weather is nice. Even if it's raining, you can enjoy the stuff in the greenhouses.

Hampstead Heath is an oasis of calm with several small lakes, some woodland, and fantastic views over the city. If you head up in that direction you should also pop in to Kenwood House which has an excellent cafe, and some great art: there are Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore sculptures in the grounds, and works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Turner inside. Highgate Cemetary, just down the road from there, might also interest you.

How about strolling along one of London's canals? Regent's Canal is my favourite. It passes through some interesting areas and is quite picturesque. Here's an example route.

Many visitors to London just take the Tube around. This is a mistake, riding the buses is pretty straightforward and you get to see more (especially if you ride up top)!

Lastly, there are a huge number of historic old pubs in London, just about any of them will serve you coffee/tea/chocolate (or indeed a pint of beer). Avoid the soulless chain pubs and pick one of these instead.
posted by jonesor at 7:18 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing the number 24 bus! Don't forget to buy a ticket before you get on - there are machines like this by many bus stops and you can get tickets from local shops too. They can explain all this at the hotel in more detail, but get a one-day bus pass and the city is yours until midnight.
posted by cromagnon at 7:20 AM on September 2, 2010

Bunhill Fields is a city-centre cemetery that is really peaceful and relaxing - it's more central than Highgate (but do go to the latter if you can). William Blake is buried there. Brompton Cemetery is also fairly central.

St James' Park is my favourite park and has pelicans.

Be aware that pubs in Soho tend to be small and expensive. I likeGordon's
posted by mippy at 7:35 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My favorite quiet walk in London is to start at the Tate Modern and walk along the south side of the river past the Globe, stopping for a beer at the Anchor and then past Southwark Cathedral and ending up at London Bridge.
posted by pointystick at 8:01 AM on September 2, 2010

wetherspoons?! argh no! stay away from wetherspoons. they are horrible chain pubs.

Not that I want to get into a slanging match, but there's nothing wrong with Wetherspoons (bearing in mind low-key hassle-free places to hang out were requested).

I could have recommended any number of achingly cool indie pubs, but those can be very subjective and not especially relaxing. Wetherspoons are a good all-rounder and easy to find.

No, I don't work for them. They wouldn't have me ;_;
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 8:16 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Avoid the soulless chain pubs and pick one of these instead.

Correct, with one exception. If you're of a literary bent, I highly suggest visiting The Fitzroy. It's a Sam Smith's chain pub, and not overly special inside except the fact that it was frequented by Dylan Thomas and George Freakin' Orwell.

Worth it for the ability to say that you had a pint in Orwell's local.
posted by generichuman at 8:20 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The British Library is free to enter and has a Treasures section where you can see some awesome old real artifacts including Shakespeare's original handwriting, Jane Austen's writing, manuscripts from Pinter and Heaney, and old religious volumes from hundreds of years ago.

It's a couple of minutes' walk from Kings Cross or Euston..
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:27 AM on September 2, 2010

I was really taken aback by the Imperial War Museum when I was in London. It's a bit off of the beaten path, but has one of the best presentations of 20th-century history that I've seen.

And I'm not a military junkie. The exhibits make a pretty strong case for pacifism. The holocaust exhibit is gut wrenching.
posted by schmod at 10:09 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are also a few minutes walk from St. John Smith Square which also has a cafe which is open from 10am to 3pm on weekdays.

And can also be fun (of sorts) for people-spotting: it's a popular lunchtime venue for people who work in/around Westminster, and while you might not know that you're dining near to a newly-elected MP or a parliamentary hack, you'll get a faint whiff of politics being done. The College Garden of Westminster Abbey is also a lovely secluded spot on the days when it's open.

Pimlico gives you the option of the Tate-à-Tate boat. While river trips may sound a bit touristy, the river has been part of London's transport network forever, and it's a nice 20 minute trip that lays out the heart of the city.
posted by holgate at 11:10 AM on September 2, 2010

If you visit the British Museum, Russell Square is a short walk away and is a very nice place to read a book. There's also a cafe with decent grub.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:02 PM on September 2, 2010

Hey. In the past year, I've been thrice to London for business for a week, and each time stayed at City Inn. For days when you're exhausted from working and could care less about going out, the hotel's restaurant is actually pretty good.

Also, ask the Indian guy at the concierge what the local Italian restaurant is that he recommends- and go eat there. I'm pretty sure it starts with 'Osteria' the food is fantastic and only a couple blocks away. Also that guy is really nice. I feel bad for him that him being really nice only means that I ask him more questions than anyone else (i.e. he has to work harder)

Get some strawberry flavored black tea from ahmed tea to take home with you. It's incredible. AS you can see, this post is food focused.

If you go to the marble arch area, you will find every type of middle eastern food you could want- lovely tagines, lots of standard fare like shish tavuk, and interestingly enough a restaurant that is specifically Iraqi Kurdish food (although honestly this was more interesting for novelty's sake, didn't like the food itself so much) If you walk there from the hotel it'll take you some time- an hour? And on the way is lots to see, good shopping

The closest subway takes you directly to the stop closest to Brick Lane, which is more of a South Asian neighborhood with South Asian food....mmm...I hope you like food cause all I really bothered to do was eat an interesting dinner and call it a day most nights. But this is a fun/young/trendy neighborhood with cute bars and restaurants.

hope you have fun! tell that indian guy i said hi. I think his name is Arvin or something. He's really tall. Believe it or not, I'm pretty sure he's the only Indian guy so you shouldn't have trouble spotting him. (also, if he's not actually indian, apologies...anyway this is another topic altogether)


Of course also wander around the London Eye area...right next to the hotel and has a fair-like atmosphere.
posted by saraindc at 1:07 PM on September 2, 2010

Ahmed tea is kind of a tourist shop brand (though I'm sure it is nice) - go with Whittard's (chain, but good tea) or The Tea House in Covent Garden for your tea needs.

Brick Lane also has an excellent bagel shop!
posted by mippy at 4:13 AM on September 3, 2010

Also, if you do head over to Chelsea, stop at William Curley the chocolatier, and John Sandoe the best bookshop in the area.
posted by vacapinta at 4:45 AM on September 3, 2010

Ahmed tea is kind of a tourist shop brand (though I'm sure it is nice) - go with Whittard's (chain, but good tea) or The Tea House in Covent Garden for your tea needs.

Ahmed isn't bad at all, especially for expats: it hits the sweet spot of quality and cost. But you have better options in London: on top of those mentioned, Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street is worth a visit, Monmouth in Covent Garden is deservedly renowned; for coffee shops, Flat White on Berwick Street is antipodeantastic. (The Blue Room on Bateman Street, an old haunt of mine, is now Milk Bar, part of the Flat White empire.)
posted by holgate at 11:15 AM on September 3, 2010

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