Although many people shun large cities for less crowded destinations, everyone should experience London at least once. And if you can do it on a family trip, even better! Meg Wert is here to tell us all about her London experiences on a trip to see her daughter, who lives in this vibrant city. Cheerio!
Finding Adventures in London
I love the thrill of experiencing new places for the first time. I approach my trips with a two-part strategy: I always look up the touristy stuff as well as things off the beaten path.
The touristy gives me a sense of history, feel, and the “as it should be”. While seeking out “where the locals go” gives me a much deeper sense of the place, people and culture.
How to See London: Purchase a City Pass
Visiting the touristy part of London
For every city I start with a search for a city pass (here’s a good one for London). These are fixed-price passes that can be purchased for one day or several. They provide access to most (if not all) major attractions, museums, walks, tours and trails.
When you look consider purchasing a city pass, have an idea of what types of things you and your fellow traveling companions like to do. Are you a history buff? A foodie? Into music or books? A crafter? Do you like lots of activity or have limitations? Then take a look at what things are included, look at the days you would be using it, and cross reference prices at these places individually or under the pass.
The general rule of thumb for me is, if I am going to use it for at least 3 attractions per day, the city pass is worth it financially. Also, when looking at cost, (note in London and most of the EU actually), there are lower prices for everyone under the age of 26! So, if you’re like me and travel with your kids/students/burgeoning young adults, you still may get a good deal on the discount rates.
Off the Beaten Path ideas for London
I love to get the “true essence” of a place and the people by looking on Airbnb and researching under “Experiences.” I learn about what the area and its residents have to offer through tours, cooking classes, art classes, boat rides, concerts, to name a few.
After honing in on my areas of interest, I will also do internet searches to see if I want to brave it and embark on these experiences on my own or with a ‘local expert’. I have done both and found both to be really great.
Generally with the local expert, I walk away with more information and sometimes quirky knowledge which is lovely, giving that added depth and richness. Braving something on my own, I tend to take more time and stumble upon more gems along the way. For both approaches, I strongly recommend leaving space in your schedule for those unexpected wonderful surprises that may appear!
Did I mention those locals, that may drive the Uber, stand in line next to you while ordering the coffee, or give you the tickets at the counter? Ask them about their favorite places to go, eat and play, just like the locals. Another way to uncover these rich opportunities is to keep your eyes peeled for boards that have events or things to do posted on it. Also, keep a sharp eye out for the free magazines, such as Time Out, in shop entryways that also list local attractions.
Boomer Travel Tip
Are you a history buff? Don’t miss our tips for the best things to do in London for history lovers.
What to do in London for boomers
Three of us flew into London via Heathrow (check Skyscanner for the best prices). While we planned on taking the tube into London (would have been about 8 Pounds per person, 1 tube transfer and about an hour in travel), we ended up seeing a taxi stand, rushing over and piling in. (It did cost close to 100 pounds but, we opted for greatest ease).
Once all of us were up and joining the living, we began to stroll the streets, soak in the energy of London and explore all of (or most of) its nooks and crannies! Here are some of our London must sees:
Covent Garden in the West End of London, is an amazingly colorful area that houses indoor and outdoor markets with wonderful shops, restaurants, pubs, and street performers. The neighboring area holds the Royal Opera house (which also houses the Royal Ballet), The Theater, The National Gallery, The London Transport Museum, Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square.
Frequented by both Londoners and tourists, this area is alive, bustling and one of the absolute must do’s on my list! We actually spent parts of two days here and revisited one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Antoinette, a cozy lovely Cafe with vegetarian options, divine cheese, salads, tartines, desserts and a fairly extensive wine selection
The Borough Market is another must do on my list and I will revisit perhaps every time I come back. In Southwick London, this is one of the oldest food markets dating back earlier than the 12th century! It’s partially outside, with numerous stalls and shops which are then found sprawling inside and also nestled under an overpass.
The numerous stalls sell farm market produce, honey and combs, local meats and cheeses as well as exotic meats and spices from far away lands. There is a demo kitchen, gastrotours (book one here) and a cookbook club which is free to join and shares all of its events. We found ourselves wandering, falling in love, being lured by wafting scents, and eating to our hearts delight.
Musicals and Theater
If you’d like to see a show or two, London has plenty to choose from. I found out it is much better to book tickets for a musical about 6 weeks prior to travel, as the prices just kept increasing for the same seats. I waited and even went to the TKTS booth as well as a competitor booth while there, and the costs were double what I could have gotten earlier, so we passed this time around.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery hosts a large collection of portraits of famous and historically important British people. Walking in, I was transported through time, unconsciously slowed my steps and soaked in the magnificence of these paintings.
This too is another place I need to revisit. Please note that In London, most of the museums are free of charge, opening the history, beauty and knowledge to anyone interested!
St Paul’s Cathedral
Walking in, You begin to feel the greatness and weightiness of lifetimes that have been a part of this cathedral. We chose to go to the 5pm Choral Evensong and soaked in the reverence of this present day and ‘era gone by’ experience, but the most powerful imprinted memory lay a few minutes beyond leaving the Cathedral.
As our eyes re acclimated to the early evening light in this expansive square I noticed these old stone arches stretching between newer buildings. To no one in particular, I asked if anyone knew the story of why they were here and what it was.
A voice from behind asked if we were American, and an older gentleman stepped forward, took my hand to shake, and thanked us for what the Americans did in World War 2 and how he would not be here if it weren’t for them joining the fight. How profound, how humbling and powerful.
The gentleman explained that much of London had been bombed and the arches (as well as most of St Paul’s Cathedral) remained standing while invading troops were 20 kilometers away. It was then that the Americans came in and put a pause on the invasion.
I shared that my Dad flew the B-17 bomber during WWII and flew out of the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh Scotland. This gentleman turned to our daughters and told them how incredibly proud they must be of their grandfather, for without him and the others, he would not be alive. Its moments like these, that are so powerful, connecting each of us through geography, generations, and humanity.
Columbia Road Flower Market
The Columbia Road Flower Market and Shops is an open air market tucked in among tightly packed row homes on somewhat narrow cobblestone roads. It is open on Sundays rain or shine and touts colorful explosions of flowers, as well as small local shops with trinkets, antiquities, gardening supplies and coffee and pastries.
We entered the area and listened to street musicians busking to a full crowd of happy onlookers. The plants and flowers are magnificent, and a gardeners’ dream, and the whole experience is a delight to the senses!
The British Museum
The British Museum, like most museums in London, is free and also boasts an immensely light open air feel in its central gallery. There are plenty of tables, snacks and space to spread out, meet up with your peers, and regroup. A skip-the-line guided tour ticket is well worth the price.
It was opened in the 18th century by physician Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his collections of books, specimens and artifacts, for all people to see and share. This museum, continuing to add to the collection, now boasts over 8 million pieces that explore archeology, anthropology, linguistics, culture and more. As an absolute gem, The British Museum deserves a fair amount of time to explore!
Whether touristy or off the beaten path (or a combination of the both), there will always be more to see and do and experience in London. I find that my measure of success is when I have opened time for the unexpected, come away with a great feeling and awareness of the place, the people, the culture and the history.
It is also good when I find my thoughts drifting to stopping in to different shops and areas that I had already been on my travels!