As someone who considers her only international experience visiting Niagara Falls, I was excited for my recent trip to London. I struck luck in having a place to stay (my friend's family's flat near Primrose Hill) and a nearby Underground station – the city was ours for eight days. My friend Billy and I share similar dislikes of big crowds and overly touristy destinations, so we spent the week stopping by both the quintessential sites and nearby neighborhoods. Here is how to spend eight days in London: which famous spots to check out and which less-touristy destinations to explore.
After traveling via plane, train and a taxi that couldn’t find its way to my destination, I arrived to my friend waiting for me on a balcony.
The flat stood near Regent’s Park (a Royal Park), London Zoo and Primrose Hill, a park with a giant hill overlooking the London skyline. Jet lag dictated a three-hour nap, but I felt well rested for the remainder of the week. Blame the fact that I’m accustomed to a weird college sleeping schedule.
We kicked off the week by exploring the village surrounding Primrose Hill, full of shops and restaurants that put out water for the plethora of dogs constantly hanging out at Primrose Hill. We curved around to take a peek at Camden, a touristy spot teeming with souvenir booths and loud restaurants. The crowd reminded me of New York’s Canal Street: bustling with tourists stopping dead center to take pictures of everything.
After sharing a very large calzone and pizza at a nearby Italian restaurant (we never found out the name despite several serious attempts), we walked around to Regent’s Canal.
We ended the night on top of Primrose Hill, enjoying the view with a few (legal, for the first time!) drinks.
TAKEAWAY: Exchange your currency via ATM at the airport; the rate at currency booths is panic inducing.
Day 2 was mostly spent sleeping, until we managed to crawl out of our beds and make way to Greenwich, home of the famed Cutty Sark and the Old Royal Naval College. Billy and I took the route of simply walking around and seeing what we found, which usually didn’t involve more historical sites. Although the Cutty Sark is kind of a big deal, we both decided we cared very little about a boat. Instead, we walked around the green college and took in a beautiful day.
Once a five-minute torrential downpour subsided, we made way to Greenwich Market, full of carts and tents of drool-worthy foods and abstract paintings, little sewed dolls and homemade soaps. Greenwich, like seemingly every neighborhood of London, features many cheap and delicious restaurants, so needless to say we got our fish and chips fill.
TAKEAWAY: If it starts to pour apocalyptically hard, seek cover for five minutes. It will likely pass and the sun will shine for the rest of the day.
The next day we made a beeline for the British Library, as per my Studies in Narrative teacher’s recommendation. You could probably spend forever just in the first room, full of rare and important documents. The library’s claim to fame is the Magna Carta, but I enjoyed the Gutenberg Bible, the first ever printed book (from the year 800…what), original Bach scores, original Shakespeare, pages from da Vinci’s notebook and very, very old religious texts. I have no words, except go. Billy and I walked, still in shock from the library’s goods, through Bloomsbury (the surrounding neighborhood) and ate paninis at a small cafe across the street from London’s first gay bookstore.
Full of ham and cheese and glorious bread, we continued our journey to the British Museum.
The must-see sight in the overwhelmingly large museum is the Rosetta Stone. We made jokes that there were far too many bowls for our liking but in reality, everything there (yes, even each and every bowl) is amazingly old and therefore incredible to lay eyes upon. Except maybe for the unimpressive shape art. 🙁
TAKEAWAY: London is full of museums that are amazing and free. FREE!
If you happen to be in London during the week of the Great British Beer Festival, by all means, check it out. Because that’s what Billy and I did. On our way there, we briefly passed by Oxford Street and Hyde Park. Those two destinations would perfectly fill Day 4 if beer isn’t your thing.
At the GBBF, you buy a pint glass for three pounds and have the choice to keep the glass as a souvenir or return it and get three pounds back. Obviously, I kept it as a souvenir. The fest includes dozens of booths with beers from all around the world, as well as some food stands, too. I went out on a limb and got some sort of chocolate beer concoction…an acquired taste is all I have to report. The best part is you can get any beer in â pint, ½ pint or full pint. Naturally, I chose a bunch of â pints so I could try as many different kinds as possible without dying. We topped our beer bellies off with a pizza in Primrose Village.
TAKEAWAY: Chocolate beer only suits the adventurous.
Billy and I probably walked about five miles a day, at the very least. We likely walked much, much more on Day 5, though. We began by the Shard, the second-tallest building in the UK, and walked across the Thames.
I forced Billy to commence our walk along the Thames rather than on sidewalks. We ended up at the Tower of London, which is a glorious sight even without its magnificent poppy field.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the Tower Bridge, though, just because of its iconicity.
And the picture taking only got worse when we were on the actual bridge.
Our bellies were rumbling already from all that walking, so we stopped by Borough Market, a greenhouse-type place full of food tents, plants and giant cheese wheels.
Billy raved about the best pulled pork he’d eaten in his entire life, while I raved about the best pad Thai I’d eaten in my entire life.
You know when you’re so full but then there’s dessert and suddenly you’re not so full? We finished it off with a rich brownie and éclair.
As we passed by Shakespeare’s Globe, I would have loved to go inside but the outside sufficed for our limited budget. In fact, we sat for a few minutes and marveled. Although the Globe has been academically redone according to history, just looking at the outside gives you feelings of being in the 1600s.
Right next door conveniently stood our destination: Tate Modern, the most popular modern art gallery in the world. Billy and I were quite the critics on the art, especially this one that looked like a pile of dog poop lying in a corner (or was it something more…?), but at least we gave it a try. At least it sparked some deep, meaningful, artful conversation in the end. At least we walked off our Borough Market goodies.
TAKEAWAY: Make room for dessert at Borough Market, and use Tate to walk it off…if you can handle the sight of what MUST BE dog poop.
Each day it rained for five minutes, passed and was spectacularly sunny for the rest of the day. Day 6 was a different, rainy story. We sought refuge in the neighborhood of Kensington, home of several museums. We began at the Natural History Museum, ready to see some woolly mammoths, but the line was far too long and we decided to move on to the Science Museum. We looked at some exhibits that seemed interesting, got bored like children and bought amazing milkshakes as we longed to be in the kid’s line for the flight simulator.
By that point it was raining rather hard, so we took a detour to look at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a museum of art and design. Our favorite sight was the room of Raphael Cartoons. Seven GINORMOUS paintings had us sitting and simply looking for a while.
TAKEAWAY: Don’t get held up by any one attraction unless it gets you really fired up. There is too much to see and the woolly mammoths can wait.
For our last full day, we decided to stay close and walk to a nearby neighborhood called Hampstead. We perused Yelp that morning for a quality breakfast spot and we found it at Oliver’s Village Café. This food-stagram says it all.
A short walk away, we passed by the home of John Keats, where he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” in the garden. Amusingly nearby sits Keats Pharmacy. A short walk from there and we arrived at Hampstead Heath, a hilly area with paths and ponds and various wildlife. We hung out by a pond in an attempt to save ourselves from the hills and to, in the meantime, keep our delicious egg breakfast to ourselves.
By recommendation, we decided to check out Big Ben at night. We were glad we did; it was less of a tourist mess and very beautiful.
We got there via Trafalgar Square, a lively and music-filled spot, past the bright blue London Eye, to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.
TAKEAWAY: If you can, check out touristy spots at night. They will be less crowded and look even cooler.
Before leaving London, we indulged in the delicacy of meatball subs from Subway on Baker Street, home to every fast food restaurant you can imagine. We took them to Regent’s Park, a giant Royal Park near Primrose Hill, and ended the trip people watching by the pond.
TAKEAWAY: People will jealously glare at you if you eat meatball footlongs in a common exercise area. Embrace it.