What must we do in London?
October 28, 2019 9:06 AM   Subscribe

We're a U.S. couple in our early 40s, traveling to London for four days in early December (just the two of us, no kids). This is our first-ever trip there. What are the absolute must-sees/must-dos? We are open to just about anything, and cost is generally not an issue. Thanks!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to Travel & Transportation around London, England (40 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
British Museum and National Gallery for the biggies.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:16 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oooh have a fab time! Afternoon tea is a must and Fortnum and Mason is the best one I've eaten (which is a lot). You should also go to the Royal Opera House - Sleeping Beauty is on. And finally ice skating at Somerset House which I see is sponsored by Fortnum and Mason. I swear I'm not though.

Other smaller must-dos: eat these eclairs, these donuts and these macarons.
posted by london explorer girl at 9:19 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

My suggestion, as someone who lived there for years, is The Tate Modern, and maybe walk past Buckingham Palace if you're interested.

My husband, who is a Londoner, says: "Take the Tube to Tower Hill, walk over Tower Bridge, turn right, proceed down the Thames at least as far as the Houses of Parliament." That's about 2 - 3 miles, you pass absolutely everything, and you will be 100% sorted for photos.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:26 AM on October 28, 2019 [19 favorites]

Walk along the Thames, near the Eye and Big Ben (probably under construction). I'll bet Rick Steves has a good self guided walk around this area that gives you lots of neat facts.
posted by soelo at 9:27 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Food-wise, go to Hedone for a blow-out meal.

The palaces are generally a waste of time, in my opinion, except Hampton Court, which is a fascinating amalgamation of two distinct eras of architecture and which you can reach by ferry up the Thames, itself quite pleasant.

If you're choosing between churches, take Westminster Abbey over St. Paul's. A personal tiny favorite is St. Bart's the Greater, though.

Of the smaller art museums, the Wallace Collection over the Courtald, though adjust for individual tastes in art.

The Museum of London is as fascinating as you'd expect a museum covering a couple thousand years of habitation to be. Did you know there used to be hippos roaming England???

James McAvoy is doing Cyrano, sounds like it should be fun.
posted by praemunire at 9:30 AM on October 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Perhaps my favorite room in the entire world.
posted by arco at 9:40 AM on October 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Well, I'd say pick St. Paul's over Westminster Abbey. WA has the burial stones or tributes to the great dead but the building is an ugly hodgepodge. SP is beautiful. St. Paul's also puts you at one end of the millennium footbridge which is a great short walk in nice weather with views up and down the river and connects to the area of the New Globe and the Tate Modern.

Few people suggest Sir John Soane's Museum but I think it's unique. (And free.) And if you are interested in Hogarth etchings, unbeatable.
posted by tmdonahue at 9:49 AM on October 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

Sir John Soane's Museum - a labyrinthine townhouse stuffed to the gills with Soane's collection of antiquities and art, plus a Hogarth exhibition. Especially good if you book for a candlelit visit on a Saturday night (which is also the only time you're allowed to take photos).

Leadenhall Market is fairly spectacular (and stood in for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films, if that's something you care about).

Richmond Park is lovely and has deer (who should have finished the rutting season by early December and so will not be 'pumped full of testosterone', which is a plus).
posted by inire at 9:50 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'd skip the eye, btw. Boring.
posted by tmdonahue at 9:50 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hedone has closed, sadly. If money is no object, I would consider going to the Ritz - very expensive, excellent food, ridiculously opulent, fantastic people watching.
posted by inire at 10:02 AM on October 28, 2019

St. Paul's also puts you at one end of the millennium footbridge which is a great short walk in nice weather with views up and down the river and connects to the area of the New Globe and the Tate Modern.

Was going to suggest this. It's a nice walk, from St. Paul's to the Tate Modern, and we really enjoyed the Tate Modern when we were first-time visitors.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:03 AM on October 28, 2019

The Imperial War Museum sounds boring, but I loved it. It's been a while since I've been there, but the focus is on the human experience of war.
posted by FencingGal at 10:05 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Great fish and chips: Rock and Sole Plaice.

Although I generally agree with the poster above about the castles EXCEPT I didn't think I'd care to see the Crown Jewels but found them fascinating. This is 35 years ago, but I'm sure they haven't much changed. I think they would have cleaned them at least once.

I don't know if most folks consider the Tower of London a castle, actually.

In better weather than early December, Kew Gardens is special and you can reach it by the underground and a short walk through a pretty residential area.

I go to London especially for the theater but one can't predict what will be on and worth seeing in December. The National Theatre, though, comes as close to reliably good as any arts organization is.

I almost always visit a small gallery near the National Theater, the Hayward Gallery, when I'm in London. Interesting shows of usually contemporary art.
posted by tmdonahue at 10:05 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm not a huge London fan but the things I did like: The Tate Modern was good, so too the Tate Britain. The Barbican is lovely and worth seeing a show at. If you don't see a show, I would still recommend going to the bar — it's very Retro Future. The ferries on the river were nice and a good way to take in the view. Canary Wharf is the worst place in the universe; you have no reason to go there, but just a warning. It's usually worth it to walk from place to place as long as the walk is less than an hour just to see the city and get a sense of it. And the Regent's Canal path is definitely worth walking.
posted by dame at 10:08 AM on October 28, 2019

If you're into arty food experiences, Sketch London is wonderful and weird. Make sure you stop by the toilets. I went for tea but they also have a cafe and a sit-down dinner. At tea there was a man in a pink suit walking around delivering caviar, to give you an idea of the level of whimsy. Reservations are required.

The Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library about the intersections of science, medicine, life, and art.

Very much second the Tate Modern--one of my favorite art museums ever.
posted by assenav at 10:10 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Damn me, an additional thought. At the National Gallery, the National Dining Room in the Sainsbury Wing has decent food and lovely views.
posted by tmdonahue at 10:11 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I still have a postcard from Rock and Sole Plaice (because GREAT NAME), and I second the recommendation -- really good fish and chips.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:15 AM on October 28, 2019

Hedone, nooooooo! Take your eye off the ball for a year and...

Then do the Ledbury instead. Or, if you prefer greater informality, the Harwich Arms is worth the trek, especially in game season.
posted by praemunire at 10:42 AM on October 28, 2019

I would say that the Tower of London is a must. The tours givens by the Beefeaters are fun and give you a lot of history in a short period; the Crown jewels are ridiculous and are worth seeing to get a sense of how weird the pomp & circumstance can be.

I would also recommend this walking tour of East London which gave us a cool intro the the street art and also a history of that part of London, from Jack the Ripper and Whitechapel to the rich South Asian community now living there.
posted by girlpublisher at 10:44 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

And yes, the Tate Modern - so good.
posted by girlpublisher at 10:46 AM on October 28, 2019

I've lived in London most of my adult life. Here are the things I would do if I only had four days here:

• The Tower of London. Make sure you take a tour led by a Beefeater. Also see the Crown Jewels. Even if (like me) you don't particularly care about the royal family, the jewels are dazzling.

• London is full of amazing museums, but if I could only choose one, I would choose the British Museum. It is a storehouse of world culture, and (because so many of the items were effectively looted from other countries) an implicit history of the British empire.

• See two plays: one big West End production with some famous actor, and one tiny well-reviewed production featuring people you've never heard of.

• Go to Trafalgar Square. If you're really into art museums, you can see the National Gallery; otherwise, just enjoy the ambience of Trafalgar Square for a little while. Then, from there, walk over the Hungerford (or Jubilee) Bridge, then walk along the Thames to the Tate Modern. Depending on your interests, see the museum at the Globe Theatre and/or the Tate. You will want to schedule this walk for the day with the least awful weather. Even if you don't choose to see the Tate's collection, it is worth popping in just to enjoy the architecture of the building.

• Go to the Churchill War Rooms.

• If you have a spare day, I would make the trip to Greenwich and see the Naval Observatory.

Things I would skip if I only had four days:
• Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
• Clink Museum
• Madame Tussaud's wax museum (unless you are really into getting your photo taken with celebrity mannequins)

Note that the above is my general, what-I'd-tell-everybody recommendations. If you have particular areas of interest, I bet we could come up with some more specific tips.
posted by yankeefog at 10:56 AM on October 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

Tate Modern, absolutely.

I haven't yet been able to go to St. John, but I really, really want to. Last time we went to London we had dim sum, the restaurant we went to is gone now, but English-Chinese is different from both American Chinese and Continental Chinese, and worth trying if you like Asian food. Same with Indian food. Another classic restaurant is the River Café. It was started as the cafeteria of an architectural design company on the Thames, and the design and the site are still stunning.

When I visit cities, I love just walking around and taking in the atmosphere. For first-timers, SOHO is a must, as is in my view Hampstead and Brick Lane (and surroundings). My favorite among the "castles and palaces" is the Queens House, in Greenwich.
posted by mumimor at 11:18 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not to follow slavishly, but to get some ideas: London itineraries from Lonely Planet, Frommer's, Earth Trekkers, and Rick Steves.

And I'd also vote for Sir John Soane's Museum and add the V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:22 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take the unofficial tour bus route -- the number 9 west to Kensington, or the number 15 east to the Tower. That'll give you a sense of how central London fits together. Wander through Soho, the Inns of Court, the narrower streets of the City. Think about taking a boat from Tower Pier to Westminster.

For specific sights: the Soane House. St Paul's. Selectively, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. The V&A is unique. (The big museums are free, which makes it easier to be selective.)
posted by holgate at 11:24 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

We (40-something Californians) have found ourselves going to London every year more or less lately and one of the things we always take a day to do is go to Bethnal Green and visit the V&A Museum Of Childhood. It's off the tourist mainline, and it's really, deeply fascinating if you like old toys and media and play and whatnot. It's a real gem of a museum and far more intimate than the big museums on the other side of the city. After the museum, we walk up Cambridge Heath Road, take a left on the Regent's Canal Footpath, and then a right up Broadway Market, and get a pint at The Dove, which is simply a really awesome pub.
posted by niicholas at 11:39 AM on October 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

One of my favourite places is the London is the V & A which is only a short way away from the natural history museum and in walking distance of Kensington Gardens and palace and the Royal Albert Hall.

Nthing the afternoon tea. Plan your day so this covers a meal. There is a lot of yummy food.

If you like savoury food you may want to get Indian food at least once.

I haven’t made it to the transport museum so far but hear good things about it so if you like that kind of thing absolutely go.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:09 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Abbey Road, there is a little coffee/gift shop near there and if you do Beatles you will love it. Second on the Churchill War Rooms, puts the fate of the western world in the 40's in perspective.
posted by Freedomboy at 12:35 PM on October 28, 2019

Harwich Arms

The Harwood Arms, I think? That's the pub with the Michelin star, anyway.
posted by inire at 12:47 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Go to the Kappacasein stall at Borough Market and have the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world.
posted by asterix at 12:52 PM on October 28, 2019

Most definitely do the Sir John Soane's Museum.
posted by Gotanda at 2:46 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go against the grain here and say with only four days, think deeply about whether you want to break the seal on the British Museum. It is a storehouse of world culture. It is absolutely massive and has more of every single thing than you can possibly imagine. (Do you like Abyssinian bas reliefs? Here's four galleries full!) You could spend literal days doing nothing but visiting the British Museum. The last time I was in London, I walked in to the British Museum, got instantly overwhelmed, and nearly walked right back out again. I did not do so, but I did sit down with a gallery guide and choose just a few things to see, focusing on specific art and artifacts of special interest to me that I would never be able to see anywhere else. I prefer to focus on really place-based museums instead. The Museum of the City of London is great. The Globe is super interesting. The Tower of London is legit (you must go on a tour with a Beefeater--it sounds like a tourist trap but it's 100% not).

I also prefer Westminster, but I'm more of a history buff than an art buff. I like to touch the things so many others have touched. The older the better.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:48 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you do Westminster Abbey I recommend buying your ticket online and trying to get a tour with a verger. The audio guided tour is not particularly long or detailed and I sort of wish that we had timed our visit with a verger tour as I think I would have gotten the architectural nerdery I like in my church tourism.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:40 PM on October 28, 2019

We had good experiences with the London Walks tours. The V&A tour was especially helpful because it focused on a handful of truly special objects among the (literally) millions of pieces. Our guide for the pub tour was described as “fizzy” which was delightfully appropriate. Have the best time!
posted by killy willy at 8:52 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a London resident - I would suggest signing up for the Londonist
posted by Megami at 10:25 PM on October 28, 2019

I was in London last month and reading this brings back many good memories.

I loved V&A, Soane, Tate Modern for museums. I personally found the British Museum way too upsetting to enjoy.

Tower of London was surprisingly enjoyable. Less murder, more diamonds than expected, but still very well curated. I unintentionally caught the talk by the Ravenmaster, then immediately bought his book.

Not sure how it will be in Dec, but when I was there Trafalgar Square was some of my favorite people watching. Our hotel was a couple blocks away, so it was nice to just go walk a couple laps in the evening.

Wandering around Brick Lane in Shoreditch was excellent, ditto the parks near Buckingham palace. Walk the south bank of the Thames as far as you dare, then do it again at night.
posted by itesser at 11:23 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some years ago when I had only one day to visit London, I asked this question on the green. Since many Mefites are recommending the Tate Modern as well as St. Paul's, you might time your Tate Modern visit with Evensong at St. Pauls. Maybe somone else can suggest a lovely tea place in between your museum visit and St. Paul's.
posted by Elsie at 4:21 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

My London favourites:

Borough Markets, 1100 years old and a good stop on a Thames Walk
National Portrait Gallery - a nice respite from pigeons and people is the cafe overlooking Trafalgar Square
Cafe in the Crypt under St Martin’s in the Fields
John Soanes Museum
Shoreditch streets - a wander around the great street art, I much prefer over the over populated Camden markets
Any cafe or store that Katya Katkova of East London Mornings [on instagram, great to follow] tells you to visit. Eg I love E6 Bakery and that area of Hackney which has small business owner furniture and art shops, street art and a great vibe
Ottolenghi in Islington or Nottinghill. Love the breakfasts and pretty reasonable for great seasonal menu
The V&A Museum
I took my USA partner last time I was in London and we loved hiring the Boris Bikes and pedalling around town, surprisingly easier than you think it will be
I don’t think you can go to London for the first time and not experience Hyde Park, Speakers Corner and people watch for awhile.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:08 PM on October 29, 2019

I agree, that the Tower is worth a visit, I found the crown jewels to be a yawn, but the rest of it was great.
I enjoyed the Natural History museum and the Science museum, but found the V&A boring - it all depends on your interests.
As for the British museum, I'd say go there if you have a specific interest you want to indulge, but don't try & do the whole thing.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:17 PM on October 29, 2019

If you are in the area of St Paul's / the Millenium Bridge / Tate Modern, and fancy a British pub experience, I'd highly recommend the Blackfriar pub. It has really beautiful Art Nouveau reliefs, especially in one of the side rooms.

I reiterate the recommendations for any of London's museums - I especially liked the Tate Modern, the V&A, & the British Museum - what you prioritise will depends on your interests.

London is great for bookstores, if you are a bookish person. If so: the London Review Bookshop near the British museum is great, and also the Foyles on Charing Cross Road (equidistant from the British Museum and the National Gallery).

If you like brutalist architecture I'd recommend walking around the Barbican; the estate also has an art gallery with usually interesting shows, and a boutique cinema.
posted by yesbut at 4:57 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

The cast courts at the V&A are incredible - full-size plaster casts of beautiful sculptures and architecture from around Europe. Trajan's Column is there! Michelangelo's David is there! And so much more besides.

If you want a reason *other* than the Cast Courts to pick one museum over another, there are lots of great exhibitions on this winter - though note that if any of these sound like something you'd be sorry to miss, it's worth booking ahead (popular days/times sell out):
If you enjoy mindbending art, there's a fantastic Bridget Riley exhibition on at the Hayward, and Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern. Prefer more traditional art? There's William Blake at Tate Britain, Leonardo at the National Gallery, Rembrandt at Dulwich Picture Gallery or the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery. Photography? Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum, or Science Photographer of the Year at the Science Museum next door. Feeling playful? Play Well at the Wellcome Collection. More of a history buff? Troy at the British Museum, or the treasures of Tutankhamun at the Saatchi Gallery. That's just a handful of what's on; the Art Fund website is a good place to look to find more.

The Temple of Mithras is brilliant, and as per these previous comments of mine, there are some other bits and bobs of ancient Londinium about the place if you fancy exploring it.

Walking around London is a very satisfying thing to do. There are maps all over the place to keep you feeling well-oriented, you'll never be too far from a Tube station if the weather turns nasty, and you get to see so much more than you would even from the top deck of a bus. Things like imaginative fountains, little space invader mosaics, works of art by famous sculptors, glorious video ceilings, beautiful old churches (intact and ruined), fragments of Roman city wall, parakeets in the trees, the occasional eccentric on a penny-farthing... Keep your eyes open, and don't forget to look up as well as side to side. And down! For instance, as you cross the Millennium Bridge, you'll find some of the splotches of chewing gum underfoot have been turned into bright little painted artworks.

If you prefer walking in greener places, the Royal Parks are lovely, even in winter. I'd go for St James's, because it's quite central and it has pelicans.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that December in London means Christmas - we're already well and truly into the run-up, with the lights going on all over the place this month. To me, this is the right time of year to wander around the Covent Garden Markets, with the wonderful little toy shop (you don't need to have someone to buy toys for to enjoy it) and the lively street performances. Speaking of markets, are Christmas markets a thing where you live? If not, you might want to explore those - there's always one on the South Bank and a massive one ("Winter Wonderland") in Hyde Park, and smaller ones pop up here and there at different times. The Londonist guide to Christmas markets will keep you up-to-date on that.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:12 AM on November 20, 2019

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