London is to Europe what New York City is to America; a place where everyone strives to make their dreams come true. London is an absolutely vibrant and buzzing city with incredible technological advancements (contactless credit cards and toilet flushers anyone?), amazing food from all ethnicities, a hip pub culture, and every single accent and language you can possibly think of. Nobody is a minority or majority here, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with (and even adopt a bit of) the sophisticated and classy-sounding British accent.
Just like Seattleites love coffee, Coloradans love biking, and Germans love hiking, London loves indulging in the frequent social activity of imbibing. They drink outside of pubs whilst standing, they drink on lawns when it’s sunny, and they are a highly social culture. Not many people drive in the city because the cost of owning a car is so high, which makes it tough to do day trips on the weekends. Unlike Seattle, which has mountains and water all around, London is fairly land and city-locked, so people tend to stick around for the weekends and hang out in their neighborhoods with friends and family.
We spent a total of 7 days in London in May 2017 and got really lucky with the weather, which was in the high 20’s C (80’s F) and sunny.
How to Get Around in London
We purchased the Oyster card for seven days, which gave us unlimited rides on the bus (which are all double-decker closed-roof) and the tube in most zones within downtown London. You can load as you go, as well as receive a refund for whatever you have not used at the end of your time in London. We redeemed our refund at Gatwick Airport on our way to Russia, and received £5.70 each, which went back onto our credit card. I love returned money! London is also an extraordinarily walkable city (and it’s half the fun of visiting!) However, if you’re not from Australia, it will take you a while to get used to looking right before left when crossing the street. Luckily, there are helpful signs to help you avoid getting hit by a vehicle, such as the one below:
There are all kinds of bikers about, as London is very bike-friendly. There are also city share bikes that have a green bicycle laser that project about three meters in front of the bicycle to alert cars that there is a biker approaching, which is especially helpful when biking at night.
A Note About Museums
Most museums in London are free with the exception of special exhibitions, which are free to members only. I can’t imagine that even a local will visit all the museums in London throughout their lifetime, there are so many! My suggestion is to research what is currently on display as well as what you’d like to see, then pick a day and go! Keep in mind that there may be several school children visiting on field trips.
Things to do in London
Where to even begin?! Well, if you’re a foodie like me, then you start at the markets! And there are no shortage of colorful markets all over the city on every day of the week!
Eat Your Way Through Borough Market
Borough Market was my favorite because of the overall vibe and excellent food stall options. This market is open every day of the week except Sunday. Hours vary but most days they open at 10:00 AM (Saturdays at 8:00 AM). This is an artisan food market with everything ranging from Italian cheese to fish & chips to the best fudge I have ever tasted in my entire life. Parents – your kids will be begging for all kinds of sweets! 😉 I may or may not have spent £10 on some fudge to eat over one week (okay, let’s be honest, more like two days; that stuff has a magical disappearing act.) 😉
Even though we walked on average ten kilometers (six+ miles) a day, we seemed to have gained a few pounds in the seven days we were there. (Hmm…I’m starting to see the correlation between the £10 spent on fudge.) 😉 London is quite expensive even though the currency exchange rate is the lowest it has been since 1984. (Read through to see our spending analysis at the end of this post.) Especially since Colombia was the country we visited prior to London, we were definitely sticker-shocked.
How to Choose the Best Food Stall
The only good answer for this is to sample as much as you can! This market reminded me of Pike Place Market in Seattle where many stalls offer samples of what they are serving. There have got to be well over 40 different ethnic foods here ranging from Egyptian to the Balkans to Mediterranean, British and Colombian. We went with The Gourmet Goat, which serves up Eastern Mediterranean bowls where you select your own salad and meat, halloumi cheese, and/or veggies. For £8 (multiply by 1.3 for current exchange rate to get U.S. Dollars, so approximately $10.40), it was delicious. Here’s a photo of our bowl. That huge pile of white sauce is tzatziki. Let’s not think about the fact that we could have purchased this exact same dish in Colombia with super fresh ingredients for only $3 USD. Oh well, that’s Europe for you.
Visit the Tate Modern Museum
We visited this museum over two days because it was so big and overwhelming. It is near in proximity to Borough Market (about a 15-minute walk) right on the waterfront. This museum is thought-provoking and includes many different installations and exhibitions from all over the world. The building was a former power station built in 1947, now converted into ten floors of art. Very recent is the tenth floor observation deck, where admission is free. We found this to be quite funny because you could literally see straight into the apartment building across the way…I’m talking so close that you can make out facial expressions (this must be the new place to go for peeping Toms!) There is even a sign on the viewing deck that says “please respect our neighbors’ privacy.” How about don’t open a public observation deck ten meters from an apartment complex with floor-to-ceiling windows! Poor residents.
Try Pasta in a Cheese Wheel at KERB Camden Market
Camden is another excellent market with lots of food stalls and more artisan shops selling clothing, jewelry and other hand-made goods. This market is quite a bit more touristy, so expect to feel like a sardine as you try to squeeze through crowds, and it would be a good idea to not wear a white shirt (bumper-humans, white shirts and colored sauces don’t mix well).
Stroll the Stalls at Broadway Market
Located in the hip, young neighborhood of Shoreditch, this market happens every Saturday, followed by a flowers-only market on Sundays. As you walk through this mostly locals market, you will be delighted with the sounds of live jazz and blues music from buskers on the street.
By the way, we were enticed by the looks of this interesting food called a Scotch egg, but the taste didn’t live up to its presentation. We weren’t a fan.
Visit the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A as the Brits call it)
Founded in 1852, the V&A Museum houses a permanent collection of over 4 million objects and spans over 5,000 years of human creativity. It contains mixed media and modern exhibits (even as modern as several months ago with the Pussycat Hat during the anti-Trump women’s rally in February.) There are exhibitions of design and development through the ages including jewelry as well as powerful photography documenting political issues. To me the most moving one was a Russian photographer who documented the struggles of refugees migrating to Europe and the rough journey (pictured above). It was quite emotionally evoking.
While I lived in Seattle, I worked for the Space Needle and Chihuly Garden and Glass at the Seattle Center. Dale Chihuly’s work is in over 400 museums worldwide, and one of his gorgeous pieces is here at the Victoria and Albert Museum right at the entrance. His style is very recognizable, and the staff was passionate and proud of the piece. I don’t blame them!
People sit outside the lovely courtyard which contains a cafe where kids love to run through the fountain and lounge on the sides in the sunshine (when there is sun.) I found this photo to be a hilarious juxtaposition of a couple who is embracing the old and the new. Because of the outdoor courtyard, this is an excellent place for families to bring their children! If they get bored in the museum, they have a place to run around and expend their energy!
Did you know that the V&A was the first museum to build a restaurant inside of a museum? It certainly is a stunning one! Here is the ceiling and interior of the museum’s restaurant:
Visit the British Museum
The British Museum is dedicated to history, art and culture. Its permanent collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the entire world, documenting human culture from beginning to modern-day. Established in 1753, The British Museum has been a target of controversy for whether or not museums should be allowed to possess artifacts taken from other countries. I found it to be quite funny that in the ladies room there was written graffiti all over the inside of the door, similar to what you would see in a high school stall. However, instead of curse words and negativity, it was filled with positively bright comments such as “you look lovely today“, “peace begins on your plate. Go vegan“, “you are loved“, and “as a Brit, I apologize for stealing your beautiful artifacts.” I guess if you’re going to vandalize property, make it positive, right?
If your children are learning about Egyptian history or mummies in school, this is a great place to take them because one of the exhibitions is a real decayed body.
Enjoy Inexpensive Korean Fare at Bibimbab
Located just across the street from the British Museum, this unassuming hole-in-the-wall offers Korean fare at reasonable prices (for London, anyway!) After you’ve worked up an appetite exploring all the British Museum has to offer, this authentic Korean fare will hit the spot!
Take a Free Walking Tour
Are your kids tired of going to museums? Take a break and explore one of London’s free walking tours to visit historical and modern sites in the city.
London was our fourth free walking tour of our six weeks of international travel thus far. We did tours in Quito, Bogota and Medellin. As with all “free” tours, you are expected to pay a tip to the guide at the end; they typically suggest an amount, but it’s truly whatever you are comfortable with and can afford. This tour was through a company called London Walking Tours and focused on the people who made London history. The story I found most interesting was Hodge the cat. Let me tell you about Hodge…
Samuel Johnson was a famous London poet and author who created the first dictionary. He was a cat-lover who owned over 15 felines, but Hodge was his favorite and received preferential treatment. Back in the 1700’s, seafood was considered food of the poor in London because it was the most inexpensive and easily-found fare. Back then, it was considered shameful to be seen purchasing oysters because it meant you were poor. You would never want to be caught hosting a dinner and serving oysters (can you imagine?!) Hodge was fed a diet strictly of oysters, and Johnson did not want his servants to be subjected to being seen purchasing oysters, but he wanted his precious Hodge to have his favorite (and only) food, so he went down to the docks to purchase oysters for the cat, himself. He was judged and shunned and many people thought his whole career was over. But Johnson didn’t care. He did it all for Hodge.
Here is a statue of Hodge cat with oysters as a commemoration of the beautiful and treasured feline in front of Johnson’s house.
Visit Big Ben, The London Eye, and Enjoy the Sunshine in Hyde Park
For families with kids, there are endless activities to select from year-round, including:
- Madame Tussaud’s
- Sea Life London Aquarium
- Theatre shows such as The Lion King and Aladdin
- Explore the collection of toys at V&A Museum of Childhood
- Science Museum
WHERE TO EAT
There is no shortage of brilliant food in London. I’m not a fan of traditional British fare, but there is such a vast variety of different ethnic foods. Here are some of the excellent places we dined along with their price range (in pounds.)
The Long White Cloud – great for brunch, reasonable prices ££
Bull & Gate – pub with an enormous space, plenty of seating and surprisingly excellent, healthy food (we ordered the aubergine (eggplant) dish). This is a great place to chat for hours with friends, and the pub section is dog-friendly. (There is a fancier section in the back that seats larger parties.) £££
Nkora – adorable cafe in Shoreditch (East London), but locations are around other areas of London. I recommend their mocha, as they grind house-made chocolate chips and fresh coffee beans to make your highly-appreciated cup of chocolate coffee.£
Pizza East – fabulous pizza and home-made lemonade and ginger beer. Suitable for families. ££
Bibimbab Cafe – on Museum Street just across from the British Museum. Korean. £
Dark Sugars Chocolate Shop – artisan chocolate. Enough said. ££
WHERE TO STAY
We were very lucky to stay with a friend in Shoreditch, so our accommodation was free. However, there is a huge concentration of both budget and high-end hotels within the city. Some top-rated hotels for families include:
- Hilton London Paddington: average rate $168 per night
- Park Grand London Lancaster Gate: average rate $149 per night
- Double Tree by Hilton London Westminster: average rate $165 per night
LONDON SPENDING ANALYSIS
*Prices are for the two of us over 7 days. Prices are in USD (U.S. Dollars)
Conversion rate to U.S. dollars (at the time of travel in May 2017): multiply £1.00 by 1.3
(I.E. £10.00 –> 10 * 1.3 = $13.00 USD)
Categories of Spending:
EATING OUT: $438
ACCOMMODATION: $0 – We stayed with one of Sasha’s close friends from Boulder who has lived here for 8 years.
MEALS COOKED AT HOME:
TOTAL SPENT IN 7 DAYS: $693
AVERAGE PER DIEM FOR (2) PEOPLE: $99