What is a "MUST BUY" in London?
April 3, 2016 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I am taking my family to London for two weeks this summer.....what is a MUST BUY?

Hi all....I thought we were going to Italy and you were all awesome with travel help...but I found out that baby girl wants to see London....this is her 16th bday trip so we are booked!! We have a great hotel, a great tour group...a good plan....but what is a must BUY for an American while in London? A Real Burberry Trench coat? I know the dollar still isn't great....but I'm big on getting a souvenir that will mean something. Something that she can share with her children. This is probably our last big trip before she heads off to college. All suggestions welcome....Also, where to shop, how to get deals..any tips... and any favorite places!! We are so excited!!! Me 44, love purses and sparkly things....baby girl, will be 16, loves Doctor Who and Supernatural, makeup and SFX, thinks Misha Collins needs to run the world...amazing oboist...baby boy, 9, wicked smart....up for anything!! No budget but can't get super crazy.... Thanks guys!!
posted by pearlybob to Shopping (36 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Does it have to be a thing, or can you get a smaller souvenir and travel outside of London to go to the Doctor Who Experience? They'd outgrow a coat but would probably remember visiting that forever.
posted by wintersweet at 11:52 AM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Perhaps a trip to Carnaby Street to shop for fashion she can't get elsewhere?

This one is hard because everything is so global now. You can get Burberry everywhere, perhaps on your way back in the Duty Free shop.

I got a Liberty print scarf for WAY too much money, but I've had it for 25 years so far. I'm also not a youngster and I don't see a 16 year old wearing a scarf.

If she's into jewelry perhaps a nice Tiffany necklace or bracelet in silver. Price here and there to determine which makes sense more.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:55 AM on April 3, 2016

For a Doctor Who fan, you'll want to visit one or several of London's Doctor Who merchandise/collectible stores. The Forbidden Planet London megastore will have all the multifloor British geekery you can handle. The Stamp Centre on the Strand is small and more likely to carry true collectibles (signed things, things they don't make any more). It's all a bit less impressive in this day and age where Who is much more popular in the US than it used to be and the internet can delivery anything to our doorstep, but it's still really amazing to see all that stuff in one place and in person. At Forbidden Planet I picked up a signed copy of The Writers Tale (book about the making of Doctor Who by the then-showrunner) that's one of my prized possessions. It was just sitting there on the shelf! There's also The Who Shop, but it's a bit more out of the way, near Barking.

And yeah, the Doctor Who Experience is rad and the gift shop there also has a ton of merch from the current incarnation of the show (don't expect much in the way of merchandise from Doctors-previous).
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:57 AM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sometimes you can get actual TARDIS set tours along with the Doctor Who Experience, by the way. I have no idea whether those are likely to happen in the summer, or how much advance warning is given on availability, but that is definitely something you can't get from Amazon!
posted by wintersweet at 12:03 PM on April 3, 2016

One thing I always try to do is see if any of my favorite British (or often Canadian) authors who have books out in the UK that haven't been published in the US yet. I scored a great one this spring I've been waiting on for a year, four months ahead of the US release.
posted by something something at 12:05 PM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you would love the Conran Shop. Lots of quirky, designy, otherwise fun housewares, gizmos, books and jewelry.

I could spend all day in Liberty and you'll find a lot of upscale UK brands there (Stella McCartney, Mulberry, McQueen) as well as their own line of products, gorgeous kitchenware, toiletries, and on and on. If anyone sews or crafts, a meter or two of cotton lawn makes a great souvenir.
posted by mama casserole at 12:06 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

BTW, the dollar is good against the pound at the moment, about $1.35 to the £ (a few years ago it was about $1.90, and it held at around $1.50 for a while but the pound has tanked lately and so you'll get more for your money than this time last year).

What makes prices in the UK seem expensive compared with the USA is that VAT (sales tax) is 20%, but it's built into the price, not added on at the till.

I think something from Brick Lane or Spitalfields Markets is likely to be more to the taste of a 16-year-old - lots of independent designers with quirky, cute clothing. And remember our sizing is different - add 4 sizes to the US number to get the UK equivalent - e.g. US 8 = UK 12.
posted by essexjan at 12:09 PM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

If they're into football (soccer), touring Arsenal's home, Emirates Stadium, had my son freaking out in happiness for weeks. And he bought some club gear that you can't buy in the US.

It's so true that most of the things you can buy in London are readily available elsewhere, but here are a few stores where they don't have US presence:

Marks and Spencer
Primark (but they're coming to the US)
John Lewis
Sports Direct

I got a beautiful duvet set and super yummy candy that you can't buy at other stores or in the US at Marks and Spencer.

Must do specific to older kids: see whatever's on at the Globe Theatre, rent bikes, tea at the Orangery, Dr. Who Experience, see a play, eat at Nandos, boat ride on the Thames, eat at a pub, Camden Lock Market, Southbank and eat at Yo Sushi!
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:11 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just jumping in.....Doing experiences is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of our trip.... our tour is set up for it. We are going to do the Doctor Who...The Happy Potter... Do the Day trip to Stonehenge....Do the museums....we have 7 days for day trips and experiences. Give me all your advice and tips but that's a given. I was just looking for something to buy that would always be "we bought this during our trip to London".
posted by pearlybob at 12:14 PM on April 3, 2016

Oh also!! Tiger Shops are a less expensive version of Ikea, if you can believe it. Items are so inexpensive and of really good quality. My son loved it and they're not in the US.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:16 PM on April 3, 2016

A beautiful Mulberry handbag? A Bayswater...class, elegance, cool, useful.
posted by mrmulliner at 12:19 PM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'll chime in for shoes and/or Liberty's because a 16yo may have her adult-sized feet at this point. I have a pair of red suede embroidered shoes my brother gave me as a present in London in 1989 or '90. They still rock the house and there's no way I could have found something like them in the U.S. Liberty's fabrics are also amazing, and she could easily get a shirt that would last her decades, or fabric by the meter that could be made into something once home.
posted by cocoagirl at 12:25 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want a pvc harrods shopping bag, I think they are super cool!
posted by catspajammies at 12:30 PM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would suggest something she can use, rather than a 'thing' to share with her children, for the big souvenir- a Filofax, perhaps, or a nice handbag? And then a few small cheesy things- magnets etc to stick on the fridge.

You could also use this to start a collection- I have a Christmas ornament from every place I've been.
posted by Tamanna at 12:37 PM on April 3, 2016

Mason and Pearson hairbrushes for all -- will last a lifetime. You can find them at a few places in the US but they're much cheaper in the UK.
posted by The Giant Rat of Sumatra at 12:39 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh and remember that you can get the VAT you've paid (typically 20%, always included in the purchase price) refunded back to you when you leave for most significant purchases.
posted by The Giant Rat of Sumatra at 12:46 PM on April 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Was just in London this weekend and came to recommend both a trip to Borough Market and through Spitalfields Market. Everyone can eat themselves silly in the first and find something cool, functional, and memorable in the second.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:51 PM on April 3, 2016

If she's a Harry Potter fan , the warner brothers set tour is a must.
posted by brujita at 1:09 PM on April 3, 2016

If you find yourself in a Sainsbury's, pick up a box of ice cube bags. They are bags that you fill with water, which then break apart into ice cubes. It's hard to describe, but they're cheap, fairly small for a souvenir, and they'll be at a place you'll probably already be going to.
posted by rhizome at 1:23 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed the vintage market at Spitalfields Market (I got this awesome vintage French school poster, which I've now carried with me to two states).

If your daughter is a ModCloth type, try The Laden Showroom and Joy the Store. I liked them a lot. And I know it has yummy mummy connations in the UK, but I loved the dresses at Cath Kidston. People always ask me where I bought mine.

My mom loved the hell out of Marks and Spencer's clothing. I liked the food there. And they sell a lot of food that makes good presents for folks back home (tea, biscuits, candy).

Other fun, low-key experiences: Riding the bus and reading Un Lun Dun; going to Tesco and trying all the candy and looking at all the premixed, canned alcoholic drinks; going to a little hole-in-the-wall bakery in Hoxton called Anderson's and getting a bakewell tart; going to a local pub called The Fox and eating surprisingly delicious pub food; watching the BBC; and visiting the British Transport Museum.
posted by topoisomerase at 1:31 PM on April 3, 2016

posted by fordiebianco at 1:50 PM on April 3, 2016

I agree that most things are super global now, and this might not be what you're looking for, but something that can be trickier to get outside of the UK and tips its hat to Dr. Who: a sleeve of Jammie Dodgers! They don't even taste that great, but the thought might make her grin. :)
posted by gemutlichkeit at 1:59 PM on April 3, 2016

I concur with the Liberty suggestion. Being blunt, these days there are very few durable items outside of a very expensive class that you can't also get in the U.S. with modest effort. For instance, Mulberry bags are an appropriately long-lasting and high-quality gift, but there are two Mulberrys in NYC alone. But there aren't many places that stock the full run of Liberty fabrics and tchotkes. Fabric can be, e.g., made up into a nice scarf without excessive work. (On a related point, if she's a knitter, it may also be possible for her to pick up some locally-made yarns, which can be prohibitively expensive, at the London yarn stores.)

Caveat: Liberty is stiflingly feminine. Your description of your daughter suggests she might not be.
posted by praemunire at 2:32 PM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mother bought me an antique ring on Portobello Road when I was in college (it helped that the person we traveled with worked at Cartier and made sure we were buying a real antique with real components and the price was appropriate). 20 plus years later, I still wear it and think fondly of our trip.
posted by cecic at 2:39 PM on April 3, 2016

I agree with Liberty. I bought a beautiful Liberty wallet to commemorate a personal goal in London and I still have it and love it; it's in their iconic print and it's very very cool. You have to order them online here in the US if you want them -- a lot of Liberty stuff can still be a bit of a pain to source in the US.

You guys might like tea at Sketch. It's delicious and unusual and the bathrooms are a hoot -- plus, they've got two Michelin stars. (It's basically across the road from Liberty, so convenient too!.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:17 PM on April 3, 2016

Check the calendar: my most noteworthy London purchases are some towels and a T-shirt I bought at Wimbledon. Usually end of June/start of July. Grounds passes for first week are fairly simple to get.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:20 PM on April 3, 2016

There's a number of British cosmetic and skincare lines--Neal's Yard, Atkinson's, Cowshed--that aren't common in the US.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:42 PM on April 3, 2016

Granted, I'm a 41 year old woman, but as an alternative to Liberty, she might enjoy something from Cath Kidston. It's more whimsical than Liberty. The flagship store on Piccadilly is fun to peruse.

Alternatively, a poster (or some art) from the London Transport Museum might also be neat. I have some that I've kept around since 1997.
posted by pyjammy at 4:00 PM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

You sound like a great mom. My grandmother took me on a trip to London (and primarily Wales, where she was born) when I was 13. It was a fantastic trip. The best shopping I can recall was at Harrods, where she let me select a piece of jewelry.
Consider a day trip to Bath. I believe you can stop there on the way to Stonehenge. And Wales! It's stunning and the accents are the best and there's beautiful beaches. I've been back to the UK a few times and can just never get enough of Wales. (Watch the sitcom Gavin & Stacy before you go to Wales to get an idea of local flavor. Great show). This made me really miss my grandma. I'm off to drink a cuppa in her honor. Have fun!
posted by areaperson at 5:14 PM on April 3, 2016

These are the best suggestions!! I'm looking into booking our big experiences now... Had not thought about that but I can't wait till last minute... We arrive in London June 16.... Maybe I can find some 'book ahead' or groupon deals for the tours and fun things.

Purses, jewelry, funky clothes that will stand the test of time (leather jacket maybe?) and screams "across the pond" are exactly what I am talking about. She isn't a girly girl....but still likes cute, fun things. Thanks everyone. I'm taking note.
posted by pearlybob at 5:43 PM on April 3, 2016

Nthing the Harry Potter studio tour, there is some fantastic areas showcasing the makeup and SFX.

I would vote Liberty over Cath Kidston. Cath Kidston has become a bit mass market and it's totally possible to get it in the states. Liberty is much more niche and is very specifically London - and the store is amazing to browse in!

If she's into makeup (and you allow it) go to Boots or Superdrug. Cheap makeup brands - Brit specific: Barry M, Revolution (so cheap and so good!), No17 (Boots only), Sleek, Gosh. If you don't mind going high end, I would recommend Space N.K.

You could also go to Jo Malone and Molton Brown's for handcreams and candles to take home.

Other London specific stores to check out:
- Selfridges
- TopShop (as a 16 year old I would say this is a must go)
- Penhaligons
- M&S Food (I wouldn't bother with the rest of the store)
- The biscuit aisle of any grocery store, Sainsbury, Tesco, etc...
posted by like_neon at 1:28 AM on April 4, 2016

As Harry Potter fans, you must visit Platform 9 3/4 at the real King's Cross Station, where you can get your photo taken pushing a cart through the wall. There's also a Harry Potter store there. I am guessing the store will have the same stuff you could buy at the Harry Potter Studio Tour, but might be worth a visit while you're there. (It's much easier to get to King's Cross than to the Harry Potter studio tour. So my advice would be to scout out the King's Cross store first, but not buy anything. Then you can easily return there after the studio tour if you decide it's where you want to shop.)

And speaking of kid's books-- to echo Something Something's advice, it's worth finding a bookstore with a really good children's and YA department, and asking them what British kids are reading. Depending on where you are, you might stop by a specialist children's bookstore, or a major independent like Foyles, or the huge Waterstones on Picadilly. At any one of those places, you should be able to find a knowledgeable and enthusiastic bookseller to help your kids discover books they haven't seen at home. I am a writer, so I'm biased, but I really do think that great literature is one of Britain's most important products!

On an entirely different note, depending on your daughter's tastes and your own comfort level, you might consider visiting The Camden Lock Markets, which has a goth/punk vibe. There are lots of opportunities for unusual jewelry, clothing, and accessories there.

I should note that 95% of the focus in Camden Town will be on funky and creative fashion, but you will also likely spot some marijuana-themed merchandise, ranging from t-shirts to actual paraphernalia. You may or may not see actual marijuana smoking. More generally, part of Camden's attraction for teenagers is that it feels funkier and grittier than other parts of London, but it's still part of one of the world's safest cities. I've walked around that area a fair amount, and I've never felt unsafe, and I wouldn't have a problem letting my kids hang out there. But you should be prepared for it to have a different vibe than other parts of the city.

If you do go there check out Chin Chin Labs, who make ice cream right in front of you using liquid nitrogen. It's great theatre, and it tastes good as well.
posted by yankeefog at 3:51 AM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

She might enjoy Tatty Devine - Brick Lane and Covent Garden. They do custom laser cut name necklaces and lots of vibrant super cool jewellery. As far as department stores go, you should also head to Selfridge's. Perfect for a teen girl!
posted by teststrip at 12:08 PM on April 4, 2016

I agree with the Spitalfields/Brick Lane/Columbia Road suggestion. There are lots of interesting little boutique-y shops, and while not cheap it wouldn't be as pricey as Liberty (although I love browsing there). Tatty Devine jewellery is fun too. If you want to see it bustling, go on Sunday and take in the Brick Lane market and the Columbia Road Flower Market.

Ps. For very good quality British purses, I love Mimi Berry.
posted by Concordia at 3:46 PM on April 4, 2016

Seconding the nice hairbrush option that I saw mentioned above. I got MsEld the next-best-thing type knockoff brush based on Amazon reviews and our budget at the time and even that is a huge upgrade compared to other brushes that I've ever seen. If the price is right I'd get one of those in a heartbeat.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:58 AM on April 5, 2016

You'll be able to get London-only handbags at Camden Lock and probably Spitalfields markets, now that I remember. Look around and you'll see a few vendors all selling the same type of bag. You will not have seen this bag at home. This is the "it" bag that you can only get in London. Buy that bag. I got this "London Army" messenger style bag that's thick grey material with tons of pockets. I got one for my NYC daughter and she loves it and we've not yet seen these bags in the US.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:21 AM on April 6, 2016

« Older Off the Beaten Path: Chicago with a 7 year old   |   Alternative to Istanbul in Turkey? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.