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January 4, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

3 Days in London, England in April 2012. My wife has never been before. What should we not miss?
posted by blue_beetle to Travel & Transportation around London, England (29 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on where you're staying but, I recommend one day for a walkabout. I usually stay on Minories by the Tower of London, but jump into the loop wherever you're staying;

Doing this from memory - haven't been back in a couple years, but...

Tower of London, then walk along the Thames to the Millenium bridge (stop at the Cathedral before going over), will bring you over to the Tate museum. From the museum, you walk over to the Eye. Over London Bridge to Big Ben, through the park to Buckingham Palace. From there you can walk up to Picadilly, and then back through the streets to Liverpool station, then down to Tower Bridge and St. Catherine's Warf.

It gives you a good overview of the city, and is doable in a day to get a taste of everything.
posted by rich at 10:28 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, if you're short on time and are set on riding the London Eye, I would recommend booking a Pimm's or Champagne flight, it's not that much more expensive, and you get escorted straight on board (skipping the normal folks line), AND you get some Pimm's or Champagne!

Other stuff she should probably see: Tower of London (crown jewels), Big Ben/Westminster Abbey/Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Borough Market, maybe a show? My wife and I saw Rock of Ages over the holidays in London, and it was fantastic.
posted by Grither at 10:30 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: So, a lot of the obvious suggestions are good ones:

- The Natural History Museum (a temple to science)
- The Tower of London (great piece of history, and the Beefeaters give great tours)
- Harrods (just for the look of the store and the food court downstairs)
- Tower Bridge (eye-candy)
- Actually, the whole walk along South Bank from Waterloo to Tower Bridge takes you past the Tate Modern, Globe Theatre (rebuilt) , London Assembly, and the replica of the Golden Hind. Lots of eye candy. You might want to catch a play in the round at the Globe or step inside the Tate for a huge space.
- British Museum (for the plunder of an empire, unfortunately the old British Library inside is still closed)
- Greenwich (check out the date line, look at the Naval museum if you wish, the Observatory museum is a bit so-so depending on current exhibits)
- St Pauls (big old church)
- Westminster cathedral (ditto)


- The London Barrier
- High tea (ask for advice on this, the one at the British Museum is fairly pedestrian)
- Check out a market (Borough or Smithfields or Camden)
- Catch a boat from the city to Greenwich


- Madame Tussauds (really)
- Buckingham Palace (probably won't be open, but no loss anyway, although the changing of the guard may interest you)
- The Millennium Dome (nothing to see)
posted by outlier at 10:32 AM on January 4, 2012

The Victoria and Albert was definitely our favorite. Less crowded than the British Museum.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:39 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Covent Garden is a great place for window shopping and people watching, and sometimes they have interesting bands/entertainers performing. In that same area, I'd recommend Porter's Restaurant as a good example of traditional British food, with a variety of pies & puddings. My Brit-born husband enjoyed their Steak & Kidney pie when we went the last time, although I played it safer and got the Steak & Cheddar pie.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 10:39 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: I'm going to say no on the London Eye: your experience really depends on the weather and I'm not persuaded that the view is that good. But you should look at the Eye itself.

Also possibly miss:

- The (new) British Library: there's not a lot to see there, without a readers card, although if you were in the area you could walk into the foyer for a look
- Leaving town: it'll take you a few hours to get to (say) Stonehenge and you've got a limited amount of time and there's plenty in London to see.
- A lot of the galleries: unless you're a real art buff or are starved of major galleries, you could skip Tate Britain, the National Gallery, etc. Yes, they have major, impressive collections but so do many other galleries around the world.
- Similarly, maybe you might want to skip the theatre. Yes, there's a lot of shows, but many of them have been playing for years and can be seen much closer to home (e.g. Chicago). Conversely, it is something for the evening.
posted by outlier at 10:42 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The (new) British Library: there's not a lot to see there, without a readers card, although if you were in the area you could walk into the foyer for a look

Strongly disagree. The Treasures room is amazing and they have great exhibitions.
posted by vacapinta at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the V&A museum, the cast galleries are astonishing! Also, catch evensong at Westminster, it's quite a beautiful and contemplative experience.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2012

Sorry, I should have added that I do not necessarily endorse actually riding the Eye, just that if it's something that your wife is set on doing, or you are set on doing for some reason, then the Pimms or Champagne flight is the way to do it.

And probably not your wife's kind of thing, unless she's a big fan of war stuff, but the Imperial War Museum is pretty awesome, I could've spent hours in there (as opposed to the 50 minutes we had before it closed), and it's free!
posted by Grither at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: Day 1: Tower of London*, St. Paul's, Tate Modern, show at the Globe
Day 2: Harrods, Hyde Park*, V&A and/or Natural History
Day 3: Trafalgar Square, Shopping (either Regent St, Oxford St, Covent Garden or some combination, British Museum*, Theater in evening if so inclined.

* Do not miss. Other things can be substituted if interests lie elsewhere or time is pressing.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:01 AM on January 4, 2012

Yeah, we really need much more to go on here, London is too big to sum up its best points here and without knowing more about your interests or location we can't be much more helpful than google.

Here's a few ideas...

John Soane's Museum

Breakfast at Kenwood House (also, swimming in Hampstead Heath ponds - even in April!)

Afternoon Tea in one of the usual suspects: The Ritz, Claridges, Brown's Hotel (book in advance)

The Imperial War Museum and HMS Belfast are both cool.

The British Library is my favouritest place in the entire world.

Honestly, though, if your 3 days involve the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the National Theatre and one of the Tates you can't go wrong. Unless you don't like history, or theatre, or art, or dinosaurs...

IMHO, skip the London Eye and London Zoo - both overpriced and underwhelming.
posted by dumdidumdum at 11:02 AM on January 4, 2012

Honestly...and I know this is going to sound super cheesy...those open-top, hop-on/hop-off bus tours are awesome. I lived in Brighton for about five years, and every time someone would come visit, they just had to have a day trip to London. The bus tour lets you see everything, it lets you learn about everything, and when you travel by something that you want to investigate further, you just get off the bus, take in the sight, and then get on the next bus.
posted by AlliKat75 at 11:03 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in April are pretty unbelievable. Take the District line on the Underground, plan on four hours for out and back and walk around. Several exhibits there are being closed at the end of April 2012, so your timing is exceptional. Chance to ride the Underground on the Overground Line.

Bigs ups for Covent Garden as well. Very cool, very trendy shops. Pretty people.

Take your camera everywhere in the daytime. London is the most photogenic city in the world.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 11:05 AM on January 4, 2012

Skip Harrods unless glitzy Eurotrash is your thing.

Seconding Kew Gardens (have tea at The Kew Greenhouse, halfway between the Tube and the garden gates). Borough Food Market takes place Thursday/Friday/Saturday and is well worth visiting for breakfast or lunch.

Buy a Time Out for theatre and music listings, and see at least one show or gig while you're here.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:00 PM on January 4, 2012

My position on visiting London is that you should do the things that you absolutely can't do in another giant metropolitan city. To me, that means:

The War Rooms, which even. non-history buffs enjoy for the fun, underground bunker, pretending-the-Blitz-is-going-on-overhead feel. Serious war nerds can then proceed to the Imperial War Museum and have the most awesome day ever.

The John Soanes Museum is probably the single most awesome super-tiny-awesome-personal-museum experience in the world, especially if you follow their tips for avoiding crowds. It's tiny, it's a gem, and pretty much unique.

If you want to see a show in the West End, don't go to see a musical or a Broadway show if you have access to them elsewhere. Instead, try for something at the National Theatre, the Old Vic, or one of the other theaters along those lines.

And I'm a big fan of Fortnum's and Mason's. Yes, it's more than a little ridiculous, but I can't hear you over the amazingness of all the jams and marmalades and preserves and tiny little bottles of delicious relishes and ridiculously excellent teas.

Not a fan, though of the V&A, unless there is something specific there you want to see. Its strength is breadth, not overall excellence. For just about any collection, you can go and see a better, stronger version of it elsewhere (sometimes, even in London). And the Tower was -- well, the Tower. Big, expensive, and you ride past the crown jewels on a little peoplemover escalator. Afterwards, I wished I'd spent the time at the British Library or the Tate, or any one of the places mentioned here instead.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:16 PM on January 4, 2012

Oh, and Trafalger Square, if you're doing the walkabout. People are either hot or cold on the Eye. I did it, and it was somewhat novel, but nothing you'd miss other than saying "I rode the Eye."

A day trip out to Windsor is nice, too.

And Kensington is nice - you can get a proper tea service there, if I'm remembering correctly.
posted by rich at 12:18 PM on January 4, 2012

Seconding AlliKat, do the bus tour your first *morning*. Just boom, get up, sit on a bus for a few hours, and see the main stuff. Now you can get lunch and decide if you want to go back to any of it.

If you cross Tower Bridge for the Tate, the Design Museum is right there as well.

Full Breakfast in the south east, like Brixton or Clapham.
posted by rhizome at 12:19 PM on January 4, 2012

I'd suggest the following:

Get the Docklands Light Railway out to Maritime Greenwich. You'll get some cool views of Docklands on the way. When you get to Greenwich, there's a great market (Fri, Sat, Sun) where you can buy small presents for friends/family. Also in Greenwich, there's the Royal Observatory, and you can walk up the hill to there and see even more amazing views across London. I'm not sure how much of the park will be open next year as it's an Olympic venue but hopefully it should still be fine in April.

If you're film fans, take a walk around the Royal Naval College, which you see in films all the time. The Meridian line in close by. I don't know how fond you are of creepy Victoriana, but if you like it the Greenwich Foot Tunnel is fabulous -- just get off the DLR at Island Gardens (one stop before Greenwich) and walk across. There are also some really nice pubs around there, some of them with microbrewery connections.

Once you're done with Greenwich, take the boat back to Westminster and you'll get a unique view of the City, from the old Victorian/Edwardian docksides and warehouses to the Tower of London, HMS Belfast, Tate Modern, St Paul's, etc. I can't remember the company but the red boats often have the captains offering colourful commentary on what you can see. I wouldn't rely on it being 100% factual, but it's a lot of fun.

I'd second all the recommendation to take a bus tour around the main part of London to get your bearings.

A second great walk is from Embankment tube station to Tower Bridge along the South Bank of the River. On a sunny day it's beautiful, and you can see the Globe, the National Theatre complex and its booksellers, the Eye, Southwark Cathedral, Vinopolis and Borough Market.

If you want to try the theatre, go to Leicester Square and go to the TKTs booth. It's not a scalpers, unlike the other ticket places, and it has some amazing discounts on big and small shows, from stuff at the National to the musicals. You can just read the board outside the booth and see what you fancy. From Leicester Square, it's a piece of cake to walk to Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus.

Anyway, have a terrific time.
posted by finisterre at 1:06 PM on January 4, 2012

Some things not mentioned:

- Chelsea Physic Garden and Royal Hospital Chelsea
- A pint at the Jerusalem Tavern
- a proper British curry or a meal at St John (the bar is great, and cheap)
- A guided walk -something like Dickens' London
- A drink up Tower 42
- A canal trip from Little Venice to Camden

But you know what? Just wander into the British Museum. It's free. Walk past antiquities of various sorts and go and have a look at the Rosetta Stone. Just because you can.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:43 PM on January 4, 2012

The Victoria and Albert was definitely our favorite. Less crowded than the British Museum.
posted by JoanArkham

Depends on when you go. Most tourists show up at the opening time or the afternoon. It is actually pretty quiet in the evening. This is what it looks like on Friday night (link to pictures of mine)
posted by vacapinta at 2:53 PM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

V&A, yes, but I cannot think of anything more beautiful than Kew Gardens in April.
posted by jeather at 5:23 PM on January 4, 2012

I agree with everyone else and also wanted to recommend buying an AtoZ to help you find your way around if you'll be wondering around a lot (although I suppose with a smartphone and online maps and such, those are no longer necessary, but it was really, really helpful 15 years ago!). Also, I really liked the walking tours found in the Eyewitness Guide to London.
posted by echo0720 at 5:57 PM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: Last thought: Oysters. Purhase before leaving Canada.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:57 PM on January 4, 2012

I'm going to say skip the museums if you only have 3 days. Better to concentrate on a few really cool things and giving yourself the chance to see them then running around all over the place and just making yourself tired.

If you've never been there and aren't really sure what you'd fancy then I suggest doing one of the "hop on hop off" double decker tours. These can take anywhere between a couple of hours and a full day depending on how much you hop off. The bonus of this type of tour is that it gives you the lay of the land and if you are interested in a certain place you can always go back on another day. You could also just spend a couple of hours on the bus and listen to the guided tour and get a good sample of London in a few hours.

I'm a huge fan of Camden Market and always dedicate at least 4 hours every time I go to London to visit. It's eclectic and if you do things right you can end up with really good cheap eats as well as buying some really cool stuff all in that time.

In one afternoon it would be very easy to walk from Charing Cross to Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Covent Garden then up to Piccadilly Circus and finally on to Oxford Circus. All these places are pretty close and can be easily walked but if you don't feel like it you can also just pick up a day pass for the tube and busses and find your way to these places.

For my money I think you should take a peek at Fortnum and Mason and have afternoon tea there. F&M opened in 1707 and has the most lovely tea, biscuits and treats. The afternoon tea comes with an option of champagne and you can receive it in one of a few restaurants in this beautiful store right on Piccadilly.

Another place I drop in on is Harrods - I'm a fan of the Food Hall and always find something nice to bring home to friends somewhere in the store. Keep your eyes open for deals as they do exist. Often you can pick up nice candies or preserves buy two get one free!!

Almost all of the museums in London are free but I would say have them on the agenda only if you are a huge museum fan or if it is raining on one day when you are there. The V&A is lovely as is the Museum of Natural History. The Tate Modern is on the south bank and worthy of a visit.

You can always get pretty good deals on shows in London. I almost hate recommending a show as they are so personal and everyone looks for something different. I've seen a ton of shows in London and liked them all for different reasons. Phantom set is neat and it's a classic but the music kind of got on my nerves. Grease was loads and loads of fun, Mousetrap - long running and sort of ok, Miss Saigon - meh not so much for me. I have heard that "Wicked" is very good and "Betty Blue" is timely given the current austerity measures in place - plus you can get cheap tickets.

If you are going to do the Millennium Wheel then make sure you make reservations as you could end up spending a lot of time waiting and pay more than you need.

I like Greenwich and especially the Naval Museum but it is a bit of a trek from central London.

There are so many lovely places to eat - look at Chowhound London or Trip Advisor to get a sense of what is popular at the moment. When you get there you will see a number of free newspapers that will let you know what is on during the week entertainment and food wise - pick one up at any of the major tube stations and have a bit of a read to get yourself started.

If eating out isn't big on your list then make sure you pop into Pret aManger or any of the many health fast food places that offer great sandwiches and salads.

memail me if you have specific things are areas you'd like to see and I could narrow down suggestions. London is a great city - have fun.
posted by YukonQuirm at 8:29 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of great suggestions, and while I respect the OP for not threadsitting, I don't think it would be amiss to pop back into the thread and let us know your particular interests!

For my own personal tastes, I second Outlier's suggestions as well as Rocksteady's. I would make one modification to Rocksteady's advice, though: I would mark a Shakespeare production at the Globe as a must-see, can't miss London experience.

Other comments: I think the V&A is decent, but I would DEFINITELY rank the British Museum much higher. Personally, I also prefer the Museum of London to the V&A, but that might depend on your own particular interests.

Finally, since you have a few month before you come here, you have time to track down my all-time favorite London guidebook, which I always recommend when people ask what to do here: Londonwalks. It's been out of print for a while, but you can buy a used copy for a few bucks on Amazon (or you can download an audio version via Audible, if you prefer.) It consists of five really detailed self-guided walking tours around London. It will take you through some of the major tourist areas, but it will also take you down fascinating little side streets you'd never have found on your own, and it will tell you great details about everything you see. Because it's out of print, all the restaurant reviews and museum opening times will be out of date-- but you can get a more traditional guide book for all that stuff, whereas you can't get a better walking tour book.
posted by yankeefog at 3:27 AM on January 5, 2012

I don't think anyone has mentioned food tips in-depth yet, so here's some advice on places to stop and eat:

If you're planning on walking the Southbank anytime from Thursday to Sunday, make sure to stop in at Borough Market for amazing seasonal and locally sourced foods. I'd recommend a pork belly sandwich from Roast to Go, and also a cup of coffee from Monmouth Coffee, famed to have the best beans in all of London.

Nearby in Southwark, if you're looking for a great place to have a pint/get a traditional pub meal, go eat at Southwark Tavern. The food is great and the atmosphere of the pub is really cool (they've converted old cells into dining rooms).

For traditional afternoon tea you should swing by The Orangery in Kensington Palace. The Palace itself is under construction, but if you're in the area of hyde park, the Orangery is beautiful and the tea is great.

For traditional pie and mash, visit any East End pie and mash shop, and if you're close to Brick Lane/Brick Lane Market, make absolutely sure you have a salt beef beigel from Beigal Bake. I would recommend this a thousand times over.

The best curry house in London is in Whitechapel and is called Tayyabs, but make sure you book a table because the place is always very busy every single night. Even if you don't book a table, the food is totally worth the wait.

For a pub with a view, and also amazing fish and chips, stop by Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich. Th pub is right next to the Royal Naval College and also overlooks the Thames.

I think the best place for a traditional english breakfast is The Table in Southwark, although I've heard that the Quarterly Cafes in the West End are equally fantastic.

If you're adventurous you could try Dans Le Noir, but I think you'd have to book a table like, now.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by _superconductor at 4:17 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most tourists show up at the opening time or the afternoon. It is actually pretty quiet in the evening.
posted by vacapinta

I totally agree! And we managed to stumble across a Friday Late event, and it was pretty much the best thing ever.
posted by JoanArkham at 6:55 AM on January 5, 2012

I live in Los Angeles, but London is my favorite city in the world. I've been four times and never less than a week each visit, but sadly not since 2005. I think the suggestions so far are great, but I always point people to London Walks. Each tour is cheap, easy, and fun with knowledgeable guides and it being the UK, most of them end at a pub where you can choose to hang out or not. I've been on a dozen or more, including the Jack the Ripper tour, the Beatles walk, and a day trip to Bath. I wish all major cities, including LA, had such well organized walking tours. Even if I was there for a short time, I'd try to fit in a couple. Have a great trip, I'm kinda jealous.
posted by love is a murderer at 7:43 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just read yankeefog's suggestion for a self guided tour also called londonwalks, here's the link for the guided tours that I was referring to: http://www.walks.com/
posted by love is a murderer at 7:50 AM on January 5, 2012

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