How to be a tourist in London
March 18, 2015 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm English and moved to NYC in 2009. My boyfriend is American and in late August I'm taking him back home to meet my family/friends and to share my home country with him.

I'm from Norfolk but we're going to spend 2 days/nights in London (Friday morning - Sunday morning).
I've been to London many times but I've never done the touristy stuff so I thought it would be fun to do it together. What would you recommend we do there that's touristy but worth it? I've been on the London Eye but otherwise done nothing else there other than see bands/go shopping/eat/curry/go to museums. I'm sure it's also changed a lot since I left so I don't really have my finger on the pulse. I am curious about The Shard and wondered if anyone has gone up to the observation deck?
We'll definitely be going for a curry and down the pub but otherwise we have no plans...

Thanks in advance!
posted by shesbenevolent to Travel & Transportation around London, England (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'd actually ask him what his impression of "London" is, for starters. What I mean is - there are some Americans who, when you say "London," they think about the whole Royal-Family, changing-of-the-guard, tea-and-crumpets stereotype - and then there are some Americans who, when you say "London", they think of The Young Ones and Monty Python. And then there are the "Oh, London means theater!" Americans, and the "no, London means Sherlock" ones, and...and then there are also the Americans who have no impression of London whatsoever and are happy to just wander and explore.

My own first trip to London was similarly short, and I was able to avoid overwhelming myself by asking myself that exact question and sticking to what I thought of when I thought "London" - theater, museums, and writing. The only "touristy" things I did, therefore, were the British Library, the British Museum, and a West End show. (And visiting the site of 84 Charing Cross Road for sentiments' sake.) On a later trip, I did the same thing.

I'd check with him about his impression of "London" first; maybe some of the "touristy" stuff would leave you both cold if it's not something he'd be otherwise into.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on March 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

What does he like? Do those things. I mean, really, the last time I was there I spent a lot of time in cemeteries and flea markets, so it really does boil down to individual interests.

I do think there are some tourist-trappy things that make sense for most cities, regardless of interest - you want to find a place, either up high or across a body of water, where you can get a good view of the skyline and iconic landmarks. You want a museum of some variety, unless you really hate museums. In places with a lot of history, you probably want some sort of historical tour. And I feel strongly that you should partake of the local transit.

So, my suggestions:

- Somewhere tall with a view: I like the Monument because it's cheap and you get a certificate after climbing all those stairs, but any of the various observation decks or the London Eye would probably do. Alternately, going to Hampstead Heath for the view from up there.
- At least one of the big museums - I prefer the V&A to the British Museum, but pick whatever subject area or collection suits the two of you.
- Take a guided tour of at least one of the big historic/cultural sites, like Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London. Stick to what interests you both (although I think both of the aforementioned are great for people with no particular interest in anything, since they are such a hodgepodge of history and culture in one spot).

And if you get to ride in a river taxi or the top level of a double-decker bus while going from one thing to the next, all the better.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:49 AM on March 18, 2015

I totally agree about needing more specific interests but the one thing I always recommend if the timings work for you is Dennis Severs' House. You need to book well in advance as the hours are odd. I like evenings much the best.

Early Sunday morning Columbia Road Flower Market is great too, it gets a bit crazy after 10 though.
posted by tardigrade at 11:56 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I find London fascinating from above and so like the Shard viewing gallery but the new experience in town is the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street!

You have to book in advance but it is free and there is a bar & restaurant at the top! (Unlike the Shard which has its restaurants halfway up and you have to pay for the viewing gallery)
posted by Albondiga at 12:09 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Tate Modern is pretty impressive especially if you enjoy contemporary art and even if you don't the Turbine Hall is impressive.
posted by mmascolino at 12:12 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do actually have two "must see's" or at least "must walk by's" if he's sort of a geek:

* The blue police box outside the Earl's Court tube station. This is the one that Google Maps got silly with and lets you "look inside" and you see the TARDIS.

* The Hotblack Desiato office near Camden Town, which is the exact spot where Douglas Adams got the name of a minor character in one of his HITCHHIKERS' books. (I met up with some London Mefites and we were walking down a street in Islington, and they were all very amused when we passed by a Hotblack storefront and I stopped dead in my tracks, jaw agape, and took a picture.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on March 18, 2015

Best answer: My boyfriend and I are you guys, but country-flipped! We visited London last fall and I (the American one) had THE BEST time.

In our case, we had nearly a week together (and then I had a week on my own), so we got to see a lot more than you will. My boyfriend is also from London so he was able to navigate us and somewhat separate the wheat from the chaff of places to spend time. That being said, what I loved best:

+ The British Museum. I could have spent the entire two weeks just there, and standing in front of the Rosetta Stone was a surreal experience.
+ Seeing a play at the Shakespeare's Globe theater. We got the cheap and historically accurate "Groundling" standing tickets and it was wonderful.
+ Portobello Road Antiques Market (for a long, puttery Saturday, if you like antiques) and Borough Market (for a weekday lunch/'s all wonderful food; it's near the Globe so we stopped by for lunch on the way to the theater).
+ I, personally, was really excited to go to King's Cross and get my picture taken by (the alternate version of) Platform 9 3/4, but that is me. YMMV.
+ An afternoon tea. This had been a cherished idea of mine so we put some thought into trying to go to the (literally) ritzy places: the Ritz and the Savoy. We couldn't get spots at either and ended up at the Dean Street Townhouse. I have no regrets.
+ I enjoyed the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace but it would be really hard to enjoy them without spending nearly the day there, and you don't have the luxury. I would personally pass on those kinds of sites for this time if I were you, I think.
+ Let me quote a previous London-related note I made, regarding the London buses: "I found entirely by accident that the bus I chose out of convenience to my travel plans (the #12) crosses the Westminster Bridge, goes by the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus. It was neat to see all the tour buses on their routes and know that I was passing by many of the same locations for something like 1.40 pounds." I even have a video of this which I took while on the bus, so contact me if you want to see it or the custom Google Map I made of sites.

Actually, let me link to that previous comment, which is much more thorough and also links all the places I mentioned earlier.

Hope that helps! Have a wonderful time!
posted by spelunkingplato at 12:20 PM on March 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

YES, the #12 bus. I had forgotten about that. Riding at the front on the top of the #12 was SO much fun and absolutely a good use of time, especially since we were actually using it to go somewhere and not just idly riding around. Although that would've been fun too.

And if we're recommending markets, at one point I went up to Camden with the intent of visiting the street-level Camden Market, but I actually found I enjoyed the Horse Tunnel portion of it much more - it's underground, in the actual stalls of the stables used for the horses that used to tow barges on the canal. I also had a good time nosing around the Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets. If you have any mutual interest in shopping, I think devoting a few hours to a market would be a lot of fun.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:59 PM on March 18, 2015

The 11 route is better than the 12 I think.
posted by tardigrade at 3:05 PM on March 18, 2015

RV1 isn't a bad choice either...
posted by tinkletown at 3:20 PM on March 18, 2015

Best answer: If I understand your question, you're not looking to branch out into the more unusual London stuff-- you just want the cream of the traditional tourist itinerary. Is that right?

If so, I have always found the Tower of London to be a can't-miss attraction. Take a tour led by the Beefeaters if you can.

In terms of the museums, I particularly like the British Museum. If you have a limited amount of time, my advice is to head towards the left as you enter the main atrium from the Russell Street entrance, into Room 4. This contains Egyptian sculpture and the Rosetta Stone. Then you can continue onward from that room to see the big Assyrian sculptures, and the Elgin Marbles. In an hour or two, you'll have seen some of the most famous and some of the most impressive stuff in the museum.

That said, I am more interested in history than in design. If you and your boyfriend prefer design to history, you should prioritize the Victoria & Albert Museum instead.

The Tate Modern is my other favorite museum in London. A lovely day would be to see St. Paul's Cathedral, then walk across the Thames to the Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe. Get fish & chips at the Anchor Pub overlooking the water, and if the timing works, see a production at the Globe.

Finally, if you have limited time and neither you nor your boyfriend are obsessed with the royal family, I personally would skip Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard. If you happen to be in the area, you might as well spend five minutes to glance at the palace, but I have never understood why people will stand outside for an hour to get a good view for the Changing of the Guard. It's pleasant enough, and if you were here for a whole summer, it might be worth doing at some point. But if you only have a few days, it's far from the most interesting use of your time.
posted by yankeefog at 4:21 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: PS: I agree with spelunkingplato that the Tower of London is an all-day affair (or at least half a day). I just personally consider it to be worth spending a big chunk of your limited London time on it.
posted by yankeefog at 4:23 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wanted to clarify a few things that have come up.

- We both love history. Museums/art galleries are definitely our thing. We're not into pop culture stuff. He is really keen on WWI/WWII history and specifically war planes. We're intent on the Tate Modern (he said this is his one for sure place to go) and I love it there so I'm happy to go again.
- I only went to the Victoria Albert Museum as a kid so I don't know a lot about the museums. We definitely prefer history history. But the British Museum sounds right up our alley. Everything you mentioned sounds great.
We love the idea of St Pauls Cathedral walk! I'm in love with church/cathedral architecture and he's not familiar at all so that whole plan sounds perfect!
- I am REALLY anti the Royal family and he's a NH libertarian type so we definitely don't want to do any of that!
- We may do the Tower of London depending on what we get done during the first day. We can probably leave it as a tentative plan. We're actually probably going to be there most of Sunday day time so perhaps we can do it then.

Albondiga - I showed him the Sky Garden and he loved it so we're probably going to do that. Thanks so much for the suggestion! I really just love how The Shard looks on the outside so there's no point paying to go up the tower.
spelunkingplato - Thanks so much for all that info. Really helpful! We like the idea of the bus so we'll definitely do that!

Thank you so much everyone you've been SO helpful!
posted by shesbenevolent at 2:18 PM on March 19, 2015

Best answer: If he is keen on WWI and WWII history, I'd add two recommendations to my list:

  The Imperial War Museum and the Churchill War Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms are about a five minute walk away from Parliament, and from there, it's an additional 20 minute walk to the Imperial War Museum. So, you could work them both into a day's itinerary fairly easily.

Both are fascinating. But if you were only going to choose one, I personally would choose the Churchill War Rooms. They're a bit more central, so they're easier to fit in with other sightseeing. Also, it is the actual bunker from which Churchill ran the war effort, so you have the thrilling feeling of walking in Churchill's footsteps. But based on your boyfriend's interests, it sounds like he'd really dig the Imperial War Museum as well.
posted by yankeefog at 9:23 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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