An urbanist travels to London
December 11, 2011 10:03 AM   Subscribe

What urbanist/transit/maps/architecture/local history-related attractions should I hit up in London?

I just booked a trip to London from Feb. 25 to March 4. I'm incredibly excited -- while I've traveled to the Continent before, this will be my first trip to London/the United Kingdom.

I'm planning on hitting up all the tourist spots of course (Westminster Abbey, British Museum, Hyde Park, palaces, etc.). However, I also wanted to ask Metafilter to suggest some London attractions in interests, which run along the lines of:

- transit
- urbanist/smart growth/city planning
- maps/cartography
- architecture and local history

If this question seems familiar, I asked it about New York in August with great results, so I thought I'd hit up the hive mind again!

For example, I loved the New York City Transit Museum in Brooklyn and had a blast during Open House Chicago, an event where they opened up lots of city buildings normally off-limits to the public and let you venture inside. Here in Chicago, where I live, I'm a fan of the history museum and the parts of the Science & Industry where you can walk inside old trains, etc. I've taken a quick look at the London Transport Museum, which would seem to be right up my alley.

I'll be staying with a friend, I'm not sure exactly where she lives but it's accessible to Tube and busses. I live in a big city now so I'm totally comfortable with public transport (and conversely I will not have a car). Although I'm going to try to maximize my time in London, since I'm also planning on hitting up Paris and Brussels*, I'm also up for day-trip suggestions.

So I welcome any and all suggestions! Also this is my first big international trip alone since I've started working, so if you want to reassure me that it will be a blast I'd welcome that too. ;)

*If your alarm went off of "too many countries! too little time!" not to worry. I've been to these places before and am going strictly to visit friends who are there, to experience the Eurostar, and not to go see touristy sites (as opposed to London, where this is my goal!) This is by no means a "London on Monday, Paris on Tuesday, Brussels on Wednesday" kind of tour.
posted by andrewesque to Travel & Transportation around London, England (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Museum of London is wonderful. They used to advertise with the slogan "Glamour, Grandeur, Sleaze, Disease".

I think you'll like the London Transport Museum too. Have fun!
posted by lukemeister at 10:12 AM on December 11, 2011

Inside the Museum of London, which is fabulous in its own right, DO NOT MISS the Booth Poverty Map exhibition.

Also: walk! The center of the city is exceptionally easy to stroll through, deceptively compact, and there are maps for walkers posted on signposts all along major thoroughfares. I didn't even need a map the last time I was there.
posted by mdonley at 10:15 AM on December 11, 2011

N'thing the Museum of London. I thought it was fantastic. The Imperial War Museum is great, too.

The Tower of London is kind of stupid expensive, but I thought it was entirely worth it.
posted by phunniemee at 10:25 AM on December 11, 2011

You might be interested in getting into London's disused tube stations. You might also find the tower bridge museum interesting if you are keen on architecture.

Something else to look into would be guided architecture or history walks.
posted by Laura_J at 10:34 AM on December 11, 2011

You definitely want to visit The Building Centre in central London.

They have a scale model of central London and also usually have exhibits on how the London urban landscape is changing, details on current urban projects and even speculations about the future.
posted by vacapinta at 10:43 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could combine a trip to the and - be aware of the opening days of the market though.
posted by TrinsicWS at 11:17 AM on December 11, 2011

If you're interested in urban design and transit, I have a slightly left-field suggestion:

Stations on the Jubilee line extension, from Westminster eastward - quite remarkable architecture (sometimes I'll go out of my way and come home via Southwark station if it affords me the opportunity to change at Westminster, for example).

You could go to Canada Water, go up towards the remarkable ticket office but before you get to the gate turn around and go down again. They seem to be iffy about people taking photographs (or were a few years ago - despite the fact that it's not against a law or a rule). You probably wouldn't want to go outside there, though you might be interested in Canary Wharf - the new financial district: the scale and feeling of the city is completely different from the rest of London (quite New York-y around Canary Wharf, almost German further east).
posted by Grangousier at 11:40 AM on December 11, 2011

It might be a bit outside your remit, but I'd hit up the Geffrye Museum. It features recreated interiors from the 17th to the 21st centuries, and the museum itself is housed in an 18th century almshouse, surrounded by gardens that recreate English gardens of various times.
posted by droplet at 11:52 AM on December 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you for all the wonderful answers so far! This is exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for.

Tangentially related, but if anyone has suggestions on books, related to London on the subject, I'd also be interested in it. I enjoy reading about places I visit. (This is a YouTube video, but it's about the unfinished Northern Heights Tube line and is exactly the kind of thing in subject matter that I like. Incidentally, it was also brought to my attention by Metafilter!)
posted by andrewesque at 1:38 PM on December 11, 2011

If you have an iDevice or a Droid, there are some great apps to play around with, many from the Museum of London. (It's free, but they have a great shop and handily-placed donation bins, along with the wonderful archaeological displays of Roman London and later...okay, it's one of my favorite places in London, so I'm biased!) One of these is Streetmuseum, which is linked to hundreds of photos from their archives, along with additional info. There's also one on Roman London which lets you "dig" objects and move through the city as it was during the Roman period.

Other apps include Pepys London which lets you move about through his London, though it's brand new and has no ratings yet. And the quite awesome, quite cool History Pin may be worth a look, even if you're not using it on an mobile device. Lots of cool pictures and stories.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:45 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields is a lovely place to spend a few hours.

The house and Museum of Sir John Soane, R.A., architect.
Soane was born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, and died after a long and distinguished career, in 1837.
Soane designed this house to live in, but also as a setting for his antiquities and his works of art. After the death of his wife (1815), he lived here alone, constantly adding to and rearranging his collections. Having been deeply disappointed by the conduct of his two sons, one of whom survived him, he determined to establish the house as a museum to which ‘amateurs and students’ should have access.

posted by Flashman at 2:09 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Excellent suggestion, Grangousier. I commute through Southwark station every day, and sometimes forget how beautiful the architecture is. All those Jublilee line extension stations (at least as far as North Greenwich) have a very distinctive style which is quite beautiful.

If you're really interested in transit, why not ride the Jubilee line out to Stratford - stopping to take in some of the station along the way - then ride the DLR back to Canary Wharf? The DLR is an excellent above-ground light rail system with some fantastic views of the Isle of Dogs financial district - especially at night.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:24 PM on December 11, 2011

Tangentially related, but if anyone has suggestions on books...

I can't list titles, but if you fancy picking up books on London while you're in London, I recommend sticking your nose in at the St. Pancras branch of Foyles, perhaps en route to the Eurostar. It's a small but interesting branch, and in particular, it's got a very enticing section of London- and Britain-centric train-related books.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:37 PM on December 11, 2011

Definitely check out the Museum of Docklands.
It's an area that has been in constant use for centuries, and has undergone a lot of reconstruction/regeneration. The museum is one of London's more neglected attractions but is really excellent. If possible, go at least a few stops on the Docklands Light Railway ( DLR) to get there as well.

Also you might enjoy the Thames Flood Barrier.
posted by KateViolet at 3:56 PM on December 11, 2011


Can't believe no-one has suggested straddling the Prime Meridian.

Also, get on the DLR for cool driverless train experience.
posted by pompomtom at 6:55 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

With those interests, get yourself an Oyster card and just ride the London Underground some. Go to some of the oldest stations (e.g. Baker Street, which dates to 1863) and just look around at the way successive additions have been built and how much you can see of the historic stations. Look at how buildings interact with open-air stations, and at the station entrance facades that sometimes reference long-gone railway companies.

Go on a London Walk - I quite enjoyed the one on subterranean London.

Ride a Boris bike (if you dare, in London's traffic). Definitely ride the double-decker buses; marvel at how many of them are packed into the streets and how different routes are run by different companies. Take a black cab. Watch for the awesome spider maps posted at every Tube exit.
posted by parudox at 7:23 PM on December 11, 2011

Also, though I don't know how feasible it is, you might be interested in a day trip to a New Town.
posted by parudox at 8:00 PM on December 11, 2011

Also, though I don't know how feasible it is, you might be interested in a day trip to a New Town.

Very feasible, provided you pick your town carefully.

The two Garden Cities, Letchworth and Welwyn, are highly accessible from London - 30-40 minutes out from King's Cross - and visibly different from other English towns of similar size, with their wide streets, fountains and consistent building styles. I think Letchworth is the more distinctive of the two, and it's got a museum (open Mon-Sat). Mind you, Welwyn's got some Roman baths - even our New Towns have ancient history...

The first-wave new towns in Hertfordshire and Essex are similarly close to London, but most people (including me) wouldn't regard them as interesting day trip destinations. You could stop off briefly in Stevenage on your way back from Letchworth; check first, but I believe a day return train ticket lets you break the return part of the journey without incurring extra costs.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 11:17 PM on December 11, 2011

Check out the Greenwich Victorian pedestrian tunnel under the Thames while you are in east London.
posted by monotreme at 11:46 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

And with all the talk of transit - you can walk between a lot of places. For example, it's possible to walk all the way from Vauxhall (MI6 building) to Shad Thames (just the other side of Tower Bridge - as featured in Resurrection of the Daleks). I'd also recommend walking across at least one of the bridges (perhaps Millennium Bridge between Tate Modern and St Pauls) after dark.
posted by Grangousier at 8:02 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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