This is actually a combination of what Cip and I did about 11 years ago, and my recent trip last August.
The first version was written by Cip on the first page of the Lonely Planet’s London guide that we carried around that time. We spent 5 days at that time.
Looking at that list, and having spent more time in London this time, I think I need to do some more justice to London by making a new list. This was made with the assumption that you spend at least 7-8 days in London.
So here’s my version.
1. Experience The Underground!.
And I mean EXPERIENCE it, don’t just look at it as a way to get you from one point to the other!.
Immerse yourself in the crowd going in and out of the trains, ‘minding the gap’ as you go along. You can see interesting crowds. Look at the rows of advertising – a lot of them are about musicals and what are going ons in London. You can find work of art here and there too: poems, bits of painting from the National Art Gallery, exhibition in a museum. Enjoy the architecture and infrastructure of the stations – like at Kings Cross (where you can find that famous Platform 9 ¾), Paddington, Liverpool. The long escalators in Piccadily.
Be observant of those interesting bits and pieces on the ceilings of the trains. Read the names of the stations – many of them will remind you of some movies!.
I love the Underground because to me it boils down to one thing: how the English government engages its people to love and care and participate in the whole experience, that it’s more than just a transportation system. It’s really lovely to see that engagement effort, at any front: art, culture, marketing, social messages.
|Platform 9 - Kings Cross|
|Kings Cross has a very modern touch in its hall, while keeping the platforms with that original style|
|Paddington Station with its hustle and bustle|
|Recognise the pictures?. Yup, Sherlock Holmes. Baker Street Station|
|Baker Street was also one of the first stations in the Underground|
|Enjoy the remnants of the past that they still keep|
2. Enjoy the parks.
Coming from Jakarta with limited parks, this is perhaps my second best experience.
I simply love the feeling of that huge open air environment. When I first visited London which was in winter, I already enjoyed it. This time, it was summer!. So it was just really lovely to be able to walk across that wide open space. Enjoying the sky, the air, the meadow, the flowers.
Spend some time to sit down and watch people. You don’t get this experience if you’re like me, living in Jakarta. So may as well savour each moment.
And which park?, I would recommend Kensington and Hyde Park. Both have various options of activities. Kids will enjoy them if you travel with kids. And you’ll simply love the ability to sit down on the grass watching the day goes by.
|The long stretches of benches @ Kensington|
|Coming from a tropical country, sun bathing is not a must do activity :)|
|Love these simple colourful chairs|
3. Visit the museums.
Plenty of museums, for any interest, are in London. And best thing is this: almost all are free!. If you go to the likes of British Museum, Natural History Museum, Science museums and all those kinds, they’re all free!. You’ll have to pay only if you want to see certain exhibitions.
The smaller ones and those who are attached to a particular name e.g. Sherlock Holmes’, Sigmund Freud’s etc, you’ll have to pay. So how to pick and choose which to visit?. Simple: define your interest, and decide which museum relates to that.
And for an experience, try visiting the British Museum at night. They are open till 11pm on Thursday to Saturday. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it. But I’d imagine that’d be quite an experience, especially to go through their Egypt’s collection which is the largest in the world.
Egypt’s collection in the British Museum is definitely not to be missed. It’s quite a feeling to see those huge statues, and of course, to see the mummies. I went to see these when big crowds were there so, though I still enjoyed it, it lacked the calm experience that I wanted (though I’m not sure I’d spend a long time in the mummy section if there were no crowds!). So don’t go there in the mornings. I think around lunch time or in the afternoon is better.
|British Museum's hall|
|The Egypt's section. Yup it was very crowded when I was there. The collection is quite impressive|
|A mummy of a 17 years old girl called Cleopatra (no not that Cleopatra the Queen). Changed the way I thought about them really!...all those images from the movies :D|
4. Watch a musical – even if you aren’t really the art-culture type.
Seriously, this is something to experience. At least you’ll see the interior of a theater.
The quality of sound, and the quality of the players, are just too good to be missed. Of course you’ll have to pick and choose by reading the reviews which are not difficult to access. And it is not all expensive. There are options of prices so you can get quite an affordable one as well.
I watched Billy Elliot (hope you’re familiar with the movie) – and it was simply a great show. Imagine kids in their pre-teen ages can do all these: ballet, tap dancing, ballroom dancing, singing, memorizing dialogues, theatrical acts. I got dizzy just imagining that. Not to mention this show has been in London for about 1 month – how on earth are those kids not bored, beats me. I guess that’s what you call determination, and of course, passion.
|The details of the ceiling of the theater we went to|
5. Explore the markets.
Don’t just go to Portobello – go to Camden Market, Old Spitalfields, and Petticoat Lane. And go to Covent Garden for the street performances, not only for the goods (anyway prices are high in there).
Tourists will most definitely have to experience Portobello all the way to Notting Hill. It is a vibrant market. But it is after all, enhanced for tourist attraction. So still interesting to go to, but you’ll also have to experience something else.
Camden Market, is quite interesting. I never knew there is a canal in London. So you’ll see that here. Walk along Camden Lock with their interesting high streets – with interesting shop signs. Go into the Stables Market for arts and crafts, also vintage goods. Food from many parts of the world is also here, much like Portobello but in a smaller version.
Not far from Liverpool station, you’ll find Old Spitalfields. The area itself is quite interesting, in the past it was a center of the textile industry. And the feeling is quite different from the Central London of course – a lot more vintage, a lot more subdued. The market sells various arts and crafts too, and also vintage goods. Much less crowded than Camden. And it is filled more by Londoners, or so I felt. Not too many tourists, which makes it really nice and quiet.
Petticoat Lane is more like a bargain market, and again felt a lot more local. Not that interesting if you are looking at the goods they sell – mostly are clothes. But, observe the people, feel the aura. Petticoat Lane has that strong immigrant flavour in the air.
Spend sometime around Covent Garden on the weekends. A lot of hustle and bustle of street performances. At every single corner. Enjoy the crowd, the kids especially and how these street performers interact with them.
|The high streets @ Camden Lock. To some extent the shop signs remind me of Jalan Cihampelas, Bandung. Where they created statues of super heroes or other gimmicks to be put as shop signs|
|A store @ Camden|
|The canal @ Camden|
|Need more suitcases, anyone? @ Stables Market, Camden|
|A street performer ready to act @ Covent Garden|
|Kids waiting for the performance @ Covent Garden|
|Old Spittalfields market|
|The surrounding around Old Spittalfields|
|Where you can still find this very vintage cafe|
|or a very vintage looking shop|
So don’t just stick to Portobello. And don’t just go to shop!. Even when you’re already broke, it’s still interesting to see these market. Experience different markets, experience the different ambience and people that the market caters to. You’ll get a more wholesome experience that way.
6. Visit the Kensington Palace.
If museums are free, then going into historical buildings and palaces is notoriously expensive!. So choose wisely when you’re in London. Study these buildings carefully before you just decide to follow the crowds. Except of course you have unlimited budget.
My personal opinion: scrap Buckingham Palace (they have some parts open to public), go to the Tower of London if you are interested in the history of those people being punished and some ghost stories, otherwise you can forget this one as well cause the queue is also horrendous!. But one thing is a must: visit Kensington Palace.
One of the things you’ll get is that you’ll FEEL the personal life of Queen Victoria. I’ve written FEEL here for a reason: the whole setting is very emotional. You go in there and you can feel its strong femininity, as well as happy and sad memories stored behind those walls.
This is where she grew up, met her husband the very first time, and where she also lost her husband. You’ll also see very different setting of the Queen’s and King’s apartment. The different grandeur each has. And I quite like the teatrical way this palace is set up. A very interesting way of showing history.
|In one of the room used to hold dances @ Kensington Palace|
|Queen Victoria's childhood's toys @ Kensington Palace|
|After she lost her husband, Queen Victoria wore black until she passed away|
7. Walk along the Thames.
The famous London Bridge and Tower Bridge are of course at the Thames. Also the London Eye. But don’t just go there to see those, enjoy that long walk. Buy your lunch or dinner, sit on one of the benches by the river watching the boats going to both directions.
Forget about those river cruises, you can’t feel the emotion that way, every bits and pieces which are interesting to take home with you in your mind.
You can pick and choose from which point you want to start and end. But from whichever point, the Thames has something to offer.
|The more modern side of London from London Bridge|
|The Tower Bridge seen from the London Bridge|
|The older part of London on that far side|
|The famous 'bee hive' :)|
8. Visit Greenwich.
I didn’t do this in this second visit to London. But Cip and I did it 11 years ago and it was a lovely short trip away from Central London. You can reach Greenwich by boat, which will get you pass the sides of London from a different view: from the Thames (and without paying for those cruises because this is a regular passenger boat, not only for tourists).
Greenwich itself, apart from GMT (Greenwich Meridian Time), is a lovely place to visit. You can feel the strong maritime flavour of this place.
9. Explore Hampstead.
My friends and I happened to stay at Hampstead (which, by the way, is very cheap!. An apartment owned by an Indonesian couple, they offer a very good rate. And for London that’s most important because everything feels expensive to us).
This area, is also quite interesting to explore. There’s Hampstead Heath – a large park offering you a view up the hill. This is also an area where many riches live – like those soccer players, apparently they have huge houses here. So walking around Hampstead, will give your eyes a feast of beautiful houses, interesting high streets.
If you wonder why on earth should you go to another country just to look at people’s houses, oh well, if you’re one of those kinds, stop reading this at once :)
|What I love about Hampstead is its high streets. It also has a nice contour. Can get you heaving all the way up, but it's nice to walk around|
|High streets @ Hampstead|
10. Go to Bath.
If you have to skip any journey outside London, then do not skip Bath. It is one of the World Heritage sites. It's only around 1.5 hours by train and you can make this as a day trip.
Interesting mish mash of architectural designs from different periods. And of course there is the Roman Bath. What I find most interesting is how they’ve enlivened the life of the Romans at the Roman Bath. With interesting visuals, even people with Roman clothes to try portraying how Romans in that era lived. I couldn’t help imagining if our Trowulan, which is the biggest remain from the Majapahit era in East Java, can be made that way too. That, would be awesome. A looooong way to go, but one may dream a big dream, right?.
|The Royal Crescent @ Bath. The first semi-circular building in the world|
|Street performers @ Bath|
|@ The Roman Bath. An interesting way to portray how this place used to be, what people did in there: through audio visual, audio guide, reconstruction of events. I really enjoy it. And wish there was some of these in Indonesia! :)|
|an interesting apartment building with three different types of roofs signifying different social layers: the left with that common roof is for common people, the middle one is for the riches, the one on the right is for the royals|
If you have more time, go to Cambrige or Oxford if you wish to see how grand old buildings are turned into solemn places of knowledge. And you can have a little Harry Potter tour in Oxford (not sure how much – we didn’t go there). Or go to Windsor to visit Windsor Castle. This will give you quite a contrast if you’ve visited Kensington Palace which has a touch of modernity.
There you go.
Like any top 10 list, of course this is not set in stone. We went to more places than those mentioned in the list, but if you only want to experience bits and pieces, to me this will give you a real feel of London: visits to the central of tourist attractions, the main historical points, and the life of the people.
And you can modify the list within your itinerary, with The Underground, nothing is unreachable!.
By the way, if you wonder why I didn’t mention a visit to Buckingham Palace – well, unless you can see the changing guard procession, you don’t miss much by not seeing the palace, seriously :)
(R I R I)