After you’ve seen Buckingham Palace and eaten fish & chips, where do you go on a second or third visit to London?
I lived in London for a year. Here are some of the places I took friends who came to visit, in no particular order.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by museum fatigue in any major metropolis, but that’s especially true in London. I wish I could say one was a standout, and you can skip the rest. But they’re all good and worthy of attention in their own right. It doesn’t help that London museums are free, so you feel even more compelled to hit all of them.
That being said, I can’t bring myself to eliminate any from this list. To avoid getting burned out, I’d limit museum hopping to one or two per visit.
Natural History Museum, Kensington
This is one of my favorite museums to bring friends to. Yes, there will be lots of kids marveling at dinosaur skeletons, but there will be lots of adults marveling too, and that’s why you should go. The museum is famous for its dinosaurs, but has so much more. See the blue whale skeleton in Hintze Hall or the Mars rock in The Vault.
In the winter, there’s a wonderful ice skating rink outside the Natural History Museum.
Science Museum, Kensington
Ah, the science museum. Sounds nerdy… and turns out, it is. But it’s also very cool. The museum makes science accessible. It takes topics like “how do people use metro systems around the world?” or “what weird scalpels and leech jars did previous generations use for medicine?” and turns them into interactive exhibits.
I really like how the scientific lens goes both back and forward in time. There’s a clock collection from the 1600s to the present day as well as a section on the future of science.
As someone who works in the genomics industry, I especially liked the exhibit on DNA sequencing—they even had an Illumina HiSeq instrument on display!
British Museum, Bloomsbury
Even if you’ve seen the British Museum before, it’s always worth seeing again. The collection is so vast that you could never see it all in a single day or a single trip. I didn’t even see all of it in an entire year.
I love that the museum provides a cheat sheet to help you prioritize your time if you only have one hour, three hours, etc. I used to send this list to a friend, drop them off at the museum, and pick them up an hour or two later.
The greatest hits if you’re short on time:
- Rosetta Stone, Room 4
- Parthenon sculptures (aka Elgin marbles), Room 18
- Lewis chessmen, Room 40
Victoria & Albert Museum, Kensington
The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design. I’d still choose the other three museums on this list before this one, but for anyone who appreciates aesthetics, the V&A is time well spent. It houses millions of objects spanning the history of the world. I loved the room with all the teapots and other ceramics.
Word on the Water Bookshop, King’s Cross
Book lovers, head to Regents Canal near King’s Cross. This tiny bookshop is on a 1920s Dutch barge, occasionally “guarded” by a friendly, sleepy dog. Luckily, the bookshop on a boat is parked in its permanent location, so you don’t have to wander the canals to find it.
House of MinaLima, Soho
Like me, many of my friends grew up loving Harry Potter. So it was only natural that when I found out that the House of MinaLima was opening in 2016, I had to bring everyone here.
The House of MinaLima showcases the graphic props from the Harry Potter films. Artwork is laid out as a multi-story exhibit. Make your way up the winding staircase to see Harry’s Hogwarts acceptance letter or framed editions of the Daily Prophet. Lots of merchandise for sale, too, but even if you’re broke it’s a feast for the eyes.
It helps that the House of MinaLima is right around the corner from one of my favorite restaurants, Hoppers. I’d put my name down for a table at Hoppers, then walk over to MinaLima to browse the artwork while we waited.
Food & Drink
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the restaurants I’d take visitors to (I had a running list with piles and piles of restaurants we’d never make it to). These are only the greatest hits that I made sure no one missed.
Wondering what else to eat when you’re in London? Read London for Foodies: An Eater’s Guide for First-Time Visitors. I cover the restaurants in more depth in this blog post I wrote for The Culinary Travel Guide.
I can’t say enough good things about Hoppers. It’s a Sri Lankan restaurant that I think does a great job of presenting Sri Lankan food simply to audiences who aren’t familiar with hoppers or sambols or kotthu. It’s done without pretension but with a whole lotta flavor.
The bone marrow varuval is the thing to order, and the black pork kari is probably the best curry. Always get your hopper with seeni sambol and pol sambol.
Duck & Waffle, City
High in a tower on the 40th floor, Duck & Waffle boasts a very good signature dish. On a clear day, you’re treated to sweeping views of the city of London. On other days, the floor-to-ceiling windows are enveloped in thick fog, which feels almost surreal.
We always got a duck & waffle for the table, but apart from that, the menu is open to interpretation. I liked the ox cheek donut with paprika sugar. My sweet-tooth friends liked The Elvis waffle, covered in brûléed banana and peanut butter.
Dishoom is another London institution that everyone has to try at least once. The chai, house black daal, and chicken ruby were my go-to staples. Rumor has it the lamb chop is a big hit as well.
Borough Market, London Bridge
A foodie’s paradise. You probably can’t cover the entire market in a day, so it’s great for repeat visits. We used to skip breakfast, go to Borough Market for lunch, and just graze all afternoon.
St. John’s Donuts, Bermondsey
I’m sure the custard donut from St. John’s always came a bit of a surprise to my friends, after walking through sleepy Bermondsey and reaching the bakery’s stall on Druid Street. These iconic donuts are filled to bursting with custard. Vanilla is classic, but they also have flavors like butterscotch and lemon curd.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, Charing Cross
London’s oldest wine bar, established 1890. Where else can you drink wine in a cave? Although there is a terrace outside, the reason you go is for the dungeon-like atmosphere of sitting inside. It’s quirky and a surprise for most tourists visiting London.
Scarfes library bar at Rosewood London Hotel, Holborn
Scarfes Bar has live jazz and a cozy, intimate atmosphere that would seduce any book lover. Complete with a crackling fireplace, velvet armchairs, and round little tables in secluded corners, the bar lets you borrow some aristocratic sophistication for an evening. A creative menu of cocktails and over a thousand antique books complete the illusion.
Afternoon tea at Park Grand Kensington
This is my favorite cap on a day of Kensington museums—a leisurely walk across the beautiful Kensington neighborhood to this boutique hotel. As a grad student, I relied on Groupon to fund my afternoon tea habit, and it led me to Park Grand Kensington.
The tea room is bright, with large windows. Service is impeccable. The food… there’s so much of it. Savory, sweet, it’s all done very well. Great sandwiches, moist scones, and the best petit fours I’ve had at an afternoon tea. The hotel ambience and surrounding Kensington neighborhood make you feel as if you’re posh for a day, even if, well, you used a Groupon to come here.
A pint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Blackfriars
The main reason I take friends to this pub is because it’s old. Very old. One of the oldest pubs in London, it was frequented by Charles Dickens. The sign outside says that it was rebuilt in 1667.
Stay for a pint only, not the food—it really is just pub food, and not the good kind.
Kew Gardens, Richmond upon Thames
Kew Gardens is one of the few botanical garden tourist attractions that I think is actually worth the entrance fee. It’s a trek to get there, too, located all the way at the end of the District line.
Besides the obvious Instagram photo op, the treetop walkway is a treat in itself. The Palm House is stunning, too.
Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park
On a clear day, Primrose Hill is a nice walk that rewards pilgrimages to the top with views of the London skyline. Hiking skills not necessary—it’s an easy walk. It tends to get crowded on weekends as people lay out their picnics on top of the hill.
Visual treats are not limited to the hill itself. After climbing back down, walk along the cobblestone streets surrounding the area, lined with boutique shops and cute teahouses and cafes. The neighborhood is a well-preserved example of older London architecture. After the walk, rest your feet in The Pembroke Castle, a local pub, for a Pimm’s cup or a pint.
A few of my favorite cheap eats in London that fit a grad student’s budget.