London was the first place I ever travelled to overseas. At age 9, everything felt exotic and I was fascinated by the old world charm that was hidden around every street corner. I loved the idea of drinking high tea with tiny little finger sandwiches and flushing the toilet with a pull chain that hung from a tank suspended in air. My brother and I would spend hours outside Buckingham Palace trying to get the guards to smile. We fed ducks in Hyde Park, rode an iconic double decker bus and visited Harrods three times to eat ice cream sundaes and play with just about every game in the toy department. Since then, I’ve visited England four times and even spent a few months studying at City University during my Junior year of college. This past October I went back to my favorite city to rediscover why I ever loved it in the first place.
WHAT TO DO
Neighborhoods to explore
Notting Hill: Spend a day walking through the colorful streets of Notting Hill. Visit Portobello Market on Saturday and stock up on antiques, furs and vintage clothing. I recently scored a great deal on a beautiful rabbit fur vest. If you're feeling hungry after all that shopping, head to Snaps + Rye, a contemporary Danish eatery serving up authentic Scandinavian flavors. My favorite dish was the house-cured salmon and scrambled eggs on rye - yum!
Shoreditch: Calling all hipsters (and wannabes), Shoreditch is where you should be hanging out. It's basically the Williamsburg of Brooklyn, home to quirky boutiques, food markets and the best of London’s night life. Walk up Brick Lane to get a close up look at some of the city's best graffiti work. Grab a coffee and a slice of avocado toast at Shoreditch Grind on Old Street (where all the cool kids hangout) and if you’re still hungry, stop by Byron Burger for a classic American treat.
Primrose Hill: Grab a hot apple cider at Camden Market and make your way up to Primrose Hill for a beautiful sunset view over the city. With families picnicking and dogs running around, it will feel like you’ve escaped the hustle and bustle for a small slice of the suburbs.
Chelsea: If you have a bit of extra money to spend and want to catch a glimpse of how London’s posh, upper class live, Chelsea is the place to be. Dress up with your girlfriends and go for brunch at the Bluebird Cafe, stroll along King’s Road for endless window shopping and stop at The Flower Stand at the corner of Fulham Road and Old Church Street to pick up a fresh bouquet.
Chinatown: If you’re in the mood for dim sum or simply looking to kill some time before your theatre show in Covent Garden, it’s worth the 7 minute walk to Chinatown on Gerrard Street. Check out the colorful red lanterns hanging from the sky as you head to Experimental Cocktail Club, a speakeasy style bar hidden behind an unassuming door, to grab a drink before showtime.
Soho/Oxford Street: When you've cleaned out every shop on Oxford between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road Station, make your way over to Carnaby Street. This narrow cobblestone road is the heart of Newburgh Quarter, a creative hub full of classic British brands, innovative pop-up shops and international restaurants.
Covent Garden: Even if you haven't bought tickets to see a broadway play (which you should!) Covent Garden, also known as the theatre district, is still worth a visit. Head to the piazza for free entertainment by the many street performers and grab a bite to eat at La Bodega Negra for Mexican street food in a hacienda-style cellar. P.S. For all my Canadian friends who are feeling a little homesick, head to Maple Leaf bar for selection of Canadian brews and ice hockey playing on the big screen.
London Dungeon: This was one of my favorite places to go as a kid. The London Dungeon is a journey through 1,000 years of London's murky past. Walk around the spooky basement, where live actors play characters including Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper to recreate various gory historical events.
London Eye: If you want to catch a glimpse of London from above (and you're willing to shell out £40 per ticket) then head to the London Eye for a cool ariel shot of the city.
Madame Tussauds: You know you've made it when you end up in Madame Tussauds wax museum. Get up close and personal with your favorite celebs. Shake hands with the queen and take a selfie with Kim K.
Tower of London: Take a guided tour through one of London's most fascinating fortresses built by William the Conqueror in 1078. Brush up on some of England's rich history, while catching a glimpse of the famous crown jewels.
Buckingham Palace: Now that the guards have moved away from the front gates, the novelty of making them laugh is gone, but a trip to England still isn’t complete without a visit to Buckingham Palace. If you book well in advance, you can tour the grounds and uncover the juicy secrets behind many years of royal scandal.
St. Paul's Cathedral: If cash is tight but you're looking to add some culture in your trip, attend a service at St. Paul's Cathedral where entry is free for worship.
Borough Market: London's most renowned food and drink market, this spot is filled with flavors from across the globe. After your first loop around the 100+ stalls sampling all of the speciality cheeses, go back to your favorite vendors and chow down! Tip: find the friendly guy who roasts the sweet corn - add chili salt, lime and parmesan cheese - yum.
Camden Market: With over 200 stalls, this eclectic market tends to attract a younger crowd, offering everything from graphic tees and handmade Indian rugs to nose rings and liquid nitro ice cream.
Old Spitalfields Market: This place is not your average flea market, but instead a beautifully covered indoor space full of high-end boutiques like Chanel and Jo Malone. When you're done day dreaming about all of the things you can't afford, take a lunch break and try a bit of everything at the pop-up food stands.
Columbia Road Flower Market: Located in East London and only open on Sunday, this is the place to grab fresh, seasonal flowers. It’s definitely still worth a visit even if you’re not in the market for a bouquet, but brace yourselves, the tiny street gets really crowded with locals and tourists alike.
Greenwich Market: Take the DLR train 20 minutes to Greenwich where you can find 120 stalls of antiques, art and other things you didn't know you needed but end up buying anyway.
Sip high tea: Feel like a royal at Kensington Palace’s The Orangery. Relax on the outdoor terrace overlooking the immaculately kept gardens as you sip high tea and nibble on tiny finger sandwiches.
Go for a pint at The Churchill Arms: Covered in thousands of beautifully colored flowers, this place is worth the photo op alone. If you drink one too many pints, there’s a Thai restaurant at the back of the pub for some good drunk munchies.
Take a stroll through St. Lukes Mews: One of my favorite hidden alleyways is St. Lukes Mews in the heart of Notting Hill. Every house looks like it belongs in a storybook, painted with pretty pastel colors and covered with ivy.
Visit Hyde Park: Feed the ducks, go for a run, have a picnic or if you’re lucky enough to catch some sun while in London, rent a paddle board to work off some of those pints you keep drinking.
Discover Neal's Yard: This place can be tricky to find, but it’s one of London’s best kept secrets. Find the alleyway in London's Covent Garden between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street which opens into a beautifully colored courtyard full of restaurants and small cafes. If you’re in the mood for something healthy, check out SaladPride. Everything is gluten free and vegan and their salads are delicious!
Take a photo in a red telephone booth: You’re allowed to stand out as a tourist once in awhile, so hop in one of those old school phone booths and say cheese. Caution: you might want to plug your nose as you enter, most of the booths smell like pee!
WHERE TO STAY
Safestay Holland Park Hostel: For those on a budget, who want to stay in an upscale and safe part of the city, check out Safestay Hostel. Located in the heart of Kensington and nestled in between the Central, District and Circle tube lines, it's easy to get anywhere in the city. This hostel is clean, affordable and makes a great Americano.
Airbnb: If you’d rather avoid 33 bed hostel dorm rooms, try an Airbnb. We stayed at a cozy apartment located in Bethnal Green, which was close to Shoreditch and all of the action, but far enough removed that you steer clear of the sound of drunk people stumbling home from the pub.
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK
Dishoom: I still do not regret waiting in line for 2 hours (outside in October) for this meal! Dishroom is a unique take on Indian food with a super cool interior that transports you to another world. My favorites were the Black House Daal, a signature dish, which is cooked for 24 hours and the chicken tikka made from a family recipe. The cocktails are also top notch. If you're a whisky fan, try the Handra Bose Sour, a combination of Indian and Japanese whiskies with dashes of plum bitters and egg-white foam.
Farm Girl: Located in the heart of Notting Hill, this cozy Australian cafe is a great spot to grab a coffee or brunch your friends. Everything on the menu is amazing AND it's dog friendly! Try the berry pancakes, avocado toast and the chai latte for an extra special surprise!
The Breakfast Club: This quirky cafe with a very eclectic interior (think taxidermy on the walls and neon signs that read "Sex, Drugs and Bacon Rolls") has the best hangover brunches. If you wait too long, you'll probably have to wait in line, but the menu is worth the wait. Try the pancakes and berries (bacon on the side) or the huevos al benny. If you're feeling guilty from the not-so-healthy choices, throw a cold press green juice in there to ease your mind.
The Ivy Chelsea Garden: This place is expensive and probably out of most people's budget (including mine), but with its beautifully landscaped garden and orange leather booths, it's worth a visit just to check out the interior. If you skip lunch, grab a cocktail at the bar or sit in the front lounge for tea and an afternoon sweet.
Bluebird: This is one of Chelsea's favorite destinations for drinking and dining. If you're lucky enough to catch a day of sun in London, head to the Bluebird for brunch outside. Sit in the courtyard and enjoy an hour of people watching, while sipping your morning cocktail. You might even catch a glimpse of your favorite Made in Chelsea star.
Nando's: This is a London staple and a must-try before you leave the city! Known for their famous peri-peri flame grilled chicken, I would call this place fast food fresh. It's cheap, delicious and there are a ton of locations around the city.
Stonehenge & Oxford: If you have some extra time in London, I suggest taking a day trip outside the city. There are many companies offering bus tours to visit Stonehenge and Oxford in one day. To be honest, Stonehenge didn't wow me. It's exactly what it looks like (a pile of very old rocks), but it's one of those bucket list items that you have to check off. Oxford on the other hand is a charming little town, located about an hour and a half outside the city. Browse the gift shops, check out the covered market for local crafts and visit the university where the Harry Potter scene dining hall was filmed.
Oyster Cards: The best advice given to me year's ago was to get an Oyster Card. Seriously, public transportation is the way to go in London. These are free of charge and can be used on all subways (tubes) and buses. The card allows you to purchase rides at a discounted price, as opposed to buying single tickets. I usually buy a 5 day unlimited pass for zones 1 and 2.