I was thinking recently about my first time in London in 2007 and all the things I did while I was living there during study abroad. The first items on my to-do lists were all the museums (Victoria and Albert, Natural History, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, The National Portrait Gallery, The British Museum, etc.) because they were all FREE and that sound is very nice when 1 British pound buys you $.50 USD (oh the dollar was so worthless when I was there in 2007).
I kind of just raced through all the museums to check that item off my list of things “to do.” And to be honest, I’m not really an art museum person. Starring at a very old painting or statue doesn’t really do much for me. Did I enjoy seeing Jackson Pollock at Tate Modern? Sure. Did I also enjoy seeing the only known portrait of Shakespeare that was painted from looking at Shakespeare himself at the National Gallery? Sure. But if you’re asking me to spend hours of my days looking at pictures of Jesus and Mary and angels, you’re out of luck.
Rant over. Here’s what I think are the 10 things that you should do when you’re in London for the first time:
Changing of the Guard: This takes place in front of Buckingham Palace (above) every day at 11:30am from April to July and as weather permits during the other months. They like to put on a show for the tourists and it’s much more interesting than, say, watching the guards just punch in and out on a computer, right? This is also free.
Go have lunch on Brick Lane or in Shoreditch. This is an artsy part of town and there’s lots of street art and cool shops. Go pick up lunch here at a sidewalk cafe. During my second trip to London in 2008, my friend took me to a bus in a parking lot that you can eat inside. I believe it was called “Bus Cafe” back in 2008 but they changed their name to “Rootmaster” and sadly, I think it’s now closed.
Tower of London & Tower Bridge: The Tower of London costs money but there’s SO much history there that it’s 100% worth it. It used to be a place where people lived and then a jail. Lots of movies you’ve seen about old London took place here. And go walk across the Tower Bridge after to say “fuck you” to the terrorists who ran people off it and show them you’re not scared.
Go check out the other (free) museums: I know I just ranted that I’m not a fan of walking around museums for prolonged periods of time, but because they’re free and you might like art more than I do, they’re worth it. I’d go see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum at the very least.
Visit Shakespeare’s Globe: This is not the original site of the original structure (which is only a few hundred yards away). That one burned to the ground in 1613 when a canon that went off during a production of Henry VIII set some of the hay roof on fire. For theatre and culture nerds alike, this is a must. Find out more here.
Camden Market: I didn’t go here the last time I was in London in 2017, but I remember (sort of) going here in 2007. This market is in the northern part of London. If you want to pick up some souvenirs or some funky clothing, this is the place to go.
Afternoon Tea at The Orangery at Kensington Palace: Super cliche, but you should do it. It’s delicious. Find out more here. (I have no idea why I can find zero pictures from this event. I’m going to blame the lack of iPhone.)
Walk Along the South Bank at Night: The South Bank near The National Theatre has been made into quite the nightlife spot since I was there last in 2008. I wish I’d had more time to explore it last summer, but I did a quick walk through on my way back to the tube and it seemed REALLY hoppin’. And it’s also really pretty to look at London from the South Bank. Go have a meal here before you see a show at the National Theatre.
Visit Hyde Park and Speaker’s Corner. In the northeast corner of London’s Hyde Park, you’ll find an area swamped with people on soap boxes (literally) speaking quite loudly about whatever issue it is that they’re passionate about.
Walk Around Covent Garden: This area used to be a farm and now it’s shops, theatres, and restaurants. There are lots of street performers, too. I spent a lot of time here because I saw a lot of shows!
Covent Garden circa 2008.