While in London, I was constantly looking for cool places to visit and experience. I like to think I found quite a few little gems, some you may have heard of, and maybe some new ones, too!
Sure, people visiting London tend to do the tourist things like Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the West End and on and on … but some of the gems of London aren’t those attractions.
In fact, there are plenty of free places to explore (and, sure, they are likely in guidebooks).
I’ve rounded up some of my favorite free places to visit, walks to take, great restaurants and bars and even some hotels to add to your itinerary.
So, what’s cool to do in London? Why, hello, The Cool London Guide (as curated by yours truly) that includes all of the things to do in London that I love.
London offers plenty of things you can do, entirely for free. So, pick a gorgeous day, put on some walking shoes, and go!
The park system
Packed with parks, including my favorite, the sprawling former hunting grounds of Henry the VIII, Richmond Park. This one isn’t as easily accessible as others in the heart of London, but pick a gorgeous day and go watch the famous deer roam and catch some sum. It’s also the largest park in the city, complete with water, plantations and events.
In town, there are a number of parks to explore. Hyde Park is my favorite. While I wasn’t there to enjoy most of the outdoor activities — including swimming and boating — I did get to enjoy the spectacular scenery.
For some free art, head to either Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens to wander through the Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
Borough Market is hands down, my favorite one to stroll through. Eat your way through (OK, that costs money) or just go and people watch. This market is heavy on the food, and oftentimes you can even snag a sample. Be sure to check out the shop that serves up the black and white truffle olive oil.
Old Spitafields Market is another amazing market. This one changes depending on the day of the week, and ranges from vintage clothing to antiques to stalls hawking similar clothing items and jewelry. There are always plenty of food vendors camped out on the outskirts of this market, plus it is surrounded by restaurants. Even better? When it gets cold, the mulled wine comes out!
Brixton Market, located in the Brixton neighborhood, is another foodie heaven. Run by local traders, this is the place to sample food from around the world and pick up some fresh produce, too.
With tiny restaurants (we’re talking they can seat between 10 and 20, tops), little stalls selling fruits and veggies and cute little shops, it is the place to explore in the late afternoon.
Every weekend, Notting Hill is home to the Portobello Market. While there is something every day there, Saturday is the main draw when you can find souvenirs, antiques, clothing and food.
Many museums in London offer free entry (with a suggested donation). I could spend hours, jaw-dropped, exploring the stunning Victoria & Albert Museum (affectionately dubbed the V & A), which houses the most extensive collection of ceramics in the world (and a simply stunning garden).
In the same South Kensington neighborhood, there is also the magnificently beautiful Natural History Museum. Then, check out the Science Museum. This one is heavy on interactive exhibits and is an ideal choice for people traveling with kids (or want to feel like kids again).
Other museums offering free entry are the British Museum, the British Library, and the National Gallery.
Simply walking around neighborhoods can deliver some seriously amazing looks at London life. My favorite place to explore is Shoreditch, located in London’s East End.
This hipster neighborhood — complete with pop-up shops and trendy and hip bars — is home to some famous street art. It’s easy to spend the entire day just wandering through this neighborhood, snacking, drinking and snapping pics of the works of art.
Or, head to Oxford Street to window shop. Another fantastic place to wander is Greenwich, home to the Greenwich Maritime line, as well as the famous Cutty Sark and plenty of gorgeous green space to picnic.
Where to eat
Thanks to the introduction from The Traveling Editor, my favorite spot, hands down, to dine is Franco Manca. This sourdough pizza restaurant, with quite a few locations across town, serves up cheap pies, quickly (think four minutes). Plus, its got both chili olive oil and garlic olive oil for dipping the thick crust. Bonus points go to this spot for its cozy vibe and organic wine offerings.
For Indian, head to the Tooting neighborhood. Most places here don’t serve booze, but thanks to off-license stores dotting the main drag, a quick run there gives you the chance to enjoy that spicy curry with wine.
I’d be remiss to not include the markets I mentioned above in this list. All of them have some sensational offerings (I dig the Egyptian food stall at Borough Market and the vegan cupcake stand at Spitafields).
Where to drink
The cavernous Gordon’s Wine Bar, located a quick walk from Big Ben, has it all: a wide selection of wine, snacks and indoor and outdoor seating. My favorite thing about Gordon’s isn’t any of that, it is the ancient cave lit with candles to sit and sip, too. It’s claim to fame is at 125 years, it is the city’s oldest wine bar. And, it is awesome.
I’m currently on a speakeasy kick, and Evans & Peel Detective Agency at Earl’s Court, is seriously kick ass. Get ready to go with the flow, though. Unassuming from the outside, you head down a staircase and are interrogated, assuming fake identities, before you can sip the cocktails or grab dinner. This spot requires a reservation or you can risk it and sit at the bar.
Step back in time and head to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, located a few minutes walk from St. Paul’s Cathedral, this is the oldest pub in London, rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666. A sawdust covered floor, multiple bars, dim lighting and low ceilings create an intimate and festive vibe.
For a night out, stop in at to the Arts Theatre Club in SoHo. With teapots filled with amazing cocktails and a speakeasy, old-time vibe, it’s got some serious atmosphere and ambience. It’s probably my favorite spot.
Where to stay
On a fluke, I discovered The Pavilion Hotel. In Notting Hill, this hotel features themed rooms.
Lined with relics from the past, this townhouse-cum-hotel is seriously quirky. And, I love it.
Located in the Paddington neighborhood is Hotel Indigo, a swankier option and close to the Paddington Tube station.
If you’re looking for an upmarket place to stay, try to Sofitel St. James, located in the heart of the city.
Tips for London
– If you’re staying in the city for more than a few days, purchase an Oyster Card and then get a week pass. It is cheaper than paying as-you-go for tickets and lets you ride the Tube, DLR, Overground and the buses.
– Check the weather before you go. London’s temperatures are fickle. One day it is hot, the next it is chilly and rainy.
– Download CityMapper to your smartphone. This app lets you figure out the best routes and transport options, and also provides the cost per route.
– London is a city of well-dressed people. Bring at least one outfit you can wear out on the town.
– Pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes. While the transit system is extensive, sometimes it is more fun to simply hoof it from spot to spot and check out the city.
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