The capital of England is a must for any traveller in the country. With the obvious landmarks to be seen, hidden gems to be discovered, history to learn and trips to the outskirts to be taken, there’s much more to London than meets the eye. I find that no matter how often I go to London, I always find something new. Whether it be a new fact, a new bar or just a new street.
The actual City of London is only about a square mile, and was founded by the Romans. This historic district contains St Paul's Cathedral, Temple Church and the Tower of London and is one of the world’s great financial centres. The city grew from this small section and now has 33 boroughs and is more than 30 miles from east to west.
The main sights are on the north of the River Thames, such as Westminster, where you’ll find the royal and political power base. Here you will find the palace and Big Ben. The West End needs no introduction, here is where you can see some great musicals and shows. South of the river does have attractions too though, and is worth exploring. Southwark, Tate Modern and the Globe can all be found on the south bank. Further afield Greenwich and Windsor are worth a visit. From London you’ll also find day tours to the famous Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Don’t be put off by the hustle and bustle of this great city – it always takes me a few hours to adjust to the pace of life here! Once you ‘get into it’ you’ll learn to love it. And if you do need a break from it all there are plenty of quiet spots to be found in parks, museums and along the river.
London is extremely diverse. In this amazing city you will find culture and cuisine from around the world. The people are actually friendlier than the media makes out. Just give them a bit of time and they’ll come round, they tend to just be cautious or in a hurry, not unfriendly.
Types of GatG’s (types of solos) – Cultural, Sightseeing, Arty & Museums GatGs
Stay for – At least 3 nights for an overview, longer if you want to fully explore
London is a capital city, so be vigilant. Don’t keep anything in your back pocket, keeps bags close and don’t go down any secluded streets at night.
Did you know?
Big Ben is not actually the name of the famous clock tower, it is the name of the bell inside. So when you “See Big Ben” you actually just see the clock tower and not Big Ben itself, though you may hear it!
Local’s Tip – “For a cheap show, go to the Globe. You can see a Shakespeare for £5, as long as you don’t mind standing.”
Solo’s Tip – “Go on a free tour of the city, there’s plenty to choose from. It’s a great way to get your bearings, some advice and even make some friends”
Top Sightseeing For Solos
1. Tower of London
At the eastern boundary of the old city walls, this is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions. With gory tales of imprisonment and death, the building has much more to it’s history and is currently where the Crown Jewels are held. Included in the admission are free guided tours by the Tower’s Beefeaters, which are great for an overview. There’s lots to see here and plenty of history.
Cost = £21.50
Time = Full Day
2. Shakespeare’s Globe
See a Shakespeare play for just £5.00, you can’t get better than that! This reconstruction takes you back to Shakespeare’s time and as you watch the play standing you really feel like one of the ‘Rabble’ from by-gone eras. Although it can be difficult to fully understand the old language, it’s easy to at last get the list of what’s going on.
Cost = From £5 for standing ticket
Time = 3-4 hours
3. Borough Market
Walk around this busy market and be seduced by the sights and smells. This is London’s oldest food market, being about 1000 years old. It is located beneath the railway arches between Borough High Street and Southwark Cathedral. The market is one of the few that is still trading under its original Victoria shed. The building and railway arches are must sees, and the atmosphere of the market must be experienced.
Cost = Free (Unless you are tempted by some of the produce)
Time = 1 hour
4. The Changing of the Guard
A lot of pomp, that every visitor to London must see at least once! Taking place every day at specified times (check on the Buckingham Palace website) in front of Buckingham Palace. This military ceremony is when the Old Guard hand over the responsibility of protecting Buckingham Palace to the New Guard. The Guards that protect Buckingham Palace are called the Queen's Guard and are recognisable from their red tunics and bearskin hats.
Cost = Free
Time = 1 hour
5. Trafalgar Square
Arguably one of London’s greatest architectural pieces, this square also has plenty of history and quirks. An obvious tourist spot, it does attract large crowds (but less pigeons now that you are not allowed to feed them). The central focus point is Nelson’s Column, with the famous admiral on top, the pillar is surrounded by four bronze lions. There are also fountains, which is quite a rarity in London and a plinth at each corner of the square, one of which is the “Empty Plinth” This famous square is often the sight for events and demonstrations.
Cost = Free
Time = 1 hour
Escape the crowds – Surprisingly there are a few places where you can escape the crowds in London. Holland Park is a small, relaxed park in the Kensington district. With a calming Japanese garden here you can find some quiet time to yourself.
Lose yourself at – Take a walk along the Thames and see where you end up. Switch banks, and just generally head for anything that looks interesting. Just make sure you have a map handy so you can find the nearest tube station when you’ve had enough of walking and need to get back to your accommodation!
Get a great view – Greenwich Park. The trip out to Greenwich is well worth it once you reach the top of the hill in this park. Here you get the best view of London and the Thames. It is the only place to get a full view of London’s skyline, as when you are in the iconic viewpoints, such as the Shard, you cannot see that iconic building. From the hill in Greenwich park you can see it all.
Interact with the locals at – Borough Market, get there early when the locals are doing their shopping though, before all the tourists arrive. Also find small local cafes, away from the main tourist sites to experience a more local London.
Places to enjoy the sun:
- Any of the parks are a great place to enjoy the sun, and there is plenty to choose from! Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St James Park are all popular places to enjoy the sun. But there are also lesser known parks, such as Holland Garden and Chelsea Physic Garden.
- On of my favourite spots is actually the London Eye. Here, on the banks of the Thames, is a lovely grassy verge, where on sunny days you will find ice cream vendors. It’s a nice place to relax.
- There are plenty of Markets around London. Camden Market is a firm favourite. It is actually various markets all rolled into one. From fashion to crafts, art to food, you can find pretty much everything in the 1,000+ stalls.
- Brick Lane Market has become a favourite on the hipster circuit. Here you can find a bargain with secondhand goods, as street performers keep give the market a positive vibe. The best thing about this market is you never know what you might find!
Take a guided kayak tour down the Thames, for a different and active way to see the sights. Glide past legendary landmarks and paddle under famous bridges, all without the crowds.
For those with a sense of adventure, abseil down the UK’s tallest sculpture – the Orbit. The centre piece of the Olympic Park offers the country’s highest freefall abseil – not for the faint hearted. Before descending the 80m drop you enjoy a stunning bird's eye view. You completely control the descent, so go slow for plenty of pictures, or drop down for an adrenaline rush!
Arty & Museum GatG
Where to start? Tate Modern, the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, the Natural History Museum. Whether you prefer art, science or history you are literally spoilt for choice for museums in London. There are also some quirky museums that you may not have heard of, such as the Sherlock Holmes Museum, located at 221b Baker Street.
- Many tourist attractions are completely free. Trafalgar Square, the Changing of the Guard, Tower Bridge, all can be seen for free. See them, don’t go in Tower Bridge, don’t go up the Shard (you get better views elsewhere anyway), if you’re on a budget, time and money, simply see the sights.
- If you’re going to be using the tube a lot, get a travel or oyster card. That way you’ll get the best deal, rather than paying for every journey.
See a Shakespeare play at the Globe theatre. You are literally transported back in time in this reconstruction of the Globe. With standing areas, where peasants would once watch the show, and seated areas. Go for standing to get a true cultural (and cheap) experience. The plays are actually easier to follow than you realise and you really get into it. Cost = from £5
- The Tower of London is great for History geeks. The tower has been used as a jail, royal residence, a mint and more. Take a tour by one of the Beefeaters to get an overview, then explore on your own. Here was where Anne Boleyn was beheaded and the two Princes imprisoned. With lots of gory tales and legends, plus the Crown Jewels, no history fan should miss the Tower. Cost = £21.50
- The Churchill War Rooms are also great for more recent history. In this WW2 bunker you can learn about Churchill’s life and legacy. It was in this room that the secret government headquarters were based during WW2. Cost = £19
Between the stations of St Pancras and King's Cross a wildlife haven can be found. Camley Street Natural Park is managed by London’s Wildlife Trust. The reserve was once a wasteland, but is now a great place to see wildlife in the city. With woodlands, grasslands and wetlands, there’s a variety of birds, plants, butterflies and even bats to be discovered.
Have a tourist moment
Watch the Changing of the Guard, with all the other tourists! Arrive early for a good view, as it is a popular sight. This ceremony is full of pomp and is when the Old Guard hands over the protection of Buckingham Palace to the New Guard.
Don’t have much time?
Take a free walking tour to see the main sights. Most will take you through the City, show you Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. They’re a great way to see the main sights and attractions in a few hours.
TIP – Also make sure you get a travel or oyster card. That way you can simply hop on the tube or a bus to get around quickly.
Where to Meet Others / Tours
Where to meet others
There are loads of places to meet people. Trafalgar Square and Covent Gardens are popular meeting places.
Sandemans New Europe Tours offer free guided walking tours of London (but the guides work for tips, so give what you can afford). Personally, I love this tour company. The guides are always well informed and happy to help you after the tour too. They also offer several other tours that have a price, such as a Day trip to Oxford and the Grim Reaper Tour. The free tour starts at Covent Garden.
Viator – If you prefer day tours, Viator has a plethora to choose from. As a TripAdvisor company each tour is handpicked and pre-vetted to make such you get the best experience. From sampling the East End on a food tour to a theatre performance, you'll find something for any kind of solo.
In The Evenings
- See a West End show. From Les Miserables to Avenue Q, from Cats to Matilda there’s bound to be a show for everyone’s taste.
- Walk around the city (in populated areas), along the Thames you get some great views at night.
Where to Eat & Drink
Typical food and drink
You'll find all types of traditional food in London, whether battered fish ‘n' chips, roast dinners with Yorkshire puddings, pie and mash, or Cornish pasties. Treat yourself to a cream tea at one of the famous hotels such as the Ritz or just find a cafe for a more budget afternoon tea. Typical drinks are cider and ales so pop into a traditional English pub for a pint.
£ – The Breakfast Club. There are a few of these about London and they’re great for breakfast lunch and dinner. They serve typical breakfast fare, but with a twist. book a table or get there early as it gets busy! Find the locations around London here.
£ – A taste of Spain in London. Famous for paella, there are also great tapas and sharing boards. It is a bit far out but it's worth the journey. Find at Forest Drive East in Leytonstone.
Restaurants for typical cuisine
£ – The Anchor Bankside. Serving “Pub grub” and the very English Fish and Chips, this is more of an English pub than a restaurant. Located right next to the Thames, the interior is traditionally British and the food is at reasonably priced too. Find at 34 Park Street, London SE1 9EF.
££ – Swan, Shakespeare's Globe. Again, overlooking the Thames, this restaurant has swish decor and the food is nicely presented. For afternoon tea this is a great choice and generally the menu has a Shakespeare theme, making it unique to visit. Find at 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT.
Young Vegans Pie and Mash Shop – If you like pie and mash, this vegan restaurant is perfect. Serving vegan pie and mash such as curry pie, sweet potato pie, and even desserts. Located in Camden Market there are other eateries nearby too. Opt for a £10 meal deal which includes a drink. Find at: 60 Camden Lock Place.
Coffee & Cake
Shakes & Co – If you love waffles, you'll be in waffle heaven here. In a futuristic interior you can choose all kinds of amazing desserts which are simply to die for. The service is both quick and fantastic. Try the red velvet waffle if you can. Find at 182 High Road, Willesden.
Borough Market is a great place to get some street food. Although the food isn’t the cheapest of street food, you can find some interesting and very different choices.
Where to Drink
- For something a little different, go to Bounce. There are a couple in the city, and here you can play ping-pong as you drink, or just watch others play.
- The Founders Arms on the South bank of the Thames is a great place to sit and drink. With brilliant views over the river, it can get crowded on hot, sunny days.
Clink 261 is the smallest of the Clink hostels and is a short walk from Kings Cross Station in a central location. With friendly staff, comfy sofas and movie nights, it’s like a home away from home. Reception is open 24 hours so you can check in at any time and they have female-only dorms. Rooms vary from a private double to an 18 bed mixed dorm. Prices start from £13 for a dorm bed.
Situated in Tavistock Place, Generator Hostel is just a short walk from Covent Gardens. Part of a chain of hostels known for their friendly atmosphere and funky interior, this hostel is no exception. Built in an old police station, it has a great vibe and a bar for cheap drinks. With private twins, and dormitories from 4 to 10 beds, prices start from £9 a night.
Safestay is a group of hostels in the UK, all based in gorgeous buildings with Elephant and Castle as their very first. Located in John Smith House, the hostel used to be the Central Labour Party headquarters in the 18th century. The hostel offers a continental breakfast for an additional £4.00 a day (£3.50 if you prebook) which consists of a buffet of ham, cheese, croissants and cereals, plus there’s a snack machine if you get peckish. Free Wi-Fi is available in all rooms.
About the Author
Nat is a part time backpacker who first got ‘bitten’ by the travel bug on a round the world gap year. Since coming home she has been trying to explore more of the world closer to home and hopes to make travel a full time lifestyle. Follow her adventures on https://natpacker.com or on her social media channels at Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.