Your inside guide to the ultimate weekend in the capital of cool
London is awash with people but it’s remarkably easy to slip through back streets and get about, with many attractions in close proximity. The big ‘tourist traps’ are not to be missed, yet there’s so much more to London than the London Eye, Big Ben and Oxford Street’s shopping. Outside of the centre, there are boroughs and neighbourhoods filled with hidden gems.
London at a glance:
- From Michelin-starred restaurants to tiny café bistros, whatever you want to eat and whatever your budget, it’s here.
- Huge must-see West End blockbusters are a big draw, but delve a bit deeper and you’ll find smaller quirky shows and crazy comedy, at affordable prices.
- London buzzes like no other city in the UK, with something going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week
- Offering the best of everything, you’ll find entertainment to suit all tastes from mainstream super-clubs to intimate backroom gigs, cutting edge art to world famous attractions
- Packed full of iconic tourist sites, from the London Eye to Buckingham Palace
Bankside - London’s cultural hub
Centuries ago it was a real seedy area of the city, today Bankside is something of a cultural hub, thanks in part to the arrival of Tate Modern in the former power station. The UK's largest museum of modern art, this is where you need to go if you want to see Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Warhol and the 20th century masters, plus the rising stars of the international art scene. The area is also home to Shakepeare's Globe Theatre (a faithful reconstruction of a 16th century open air playhouse), a replica of the Golden Hinde ship, the (no longer wobbly) Millennium Bridge, The Clink Prison Museum, The London Bridge Experience and The London Tombs, and a variety of foodie hotspots.
Camden Town - showing off London’s alternative side
Home to the famed markets, including Camden Lock Market (crafts, books, clothing, jewellery), Camden Lock Village (clothing, accessories), Camden Market (fashion), Inverness Street Market (clothing, footwear, souvenirs) and Stables Market (household items, antiques, clothing). The perfect location for a mooch. Notable pubs and restaurants include The World's End and Dublin Castle, Hache (for burgers) and Gilgamesh (Pan-Asian). For music, check Koko, Underworld, Electric Ballroom and Jazz Cafe. Meanwhile, nearby Regent's Park is home to the zoo and Open Air Theatre (during the summer).
Covent Garden - buzzing with boutiques, cafe culture and nightlife
The once bustling market that dominated the area for 800 years has gone and today, Covent Garden is famed for its collection of shops, boutiques (especially around Neal Street, Seven Dials and Floral Street) and more up market covered stalls/units. Lots of interesting eateries, cafes and boozers (Beaufort Bar, Battersea Pie Station, The Ivy, Delaunay, Hawksmoor, Jamie's Union Jacks) mean the area is still buzzing into the early hours, while culture-wise, there's the Royal Opera House and trendy Donmar Warehouse.
Hoxton - chockablock with hipster hangouts
Twenty years ago Hoxton was best described as a little rough around the edges. But then the artists and the cool kids crept in, attracted by the low costs, and before you knew it Hoxton had become cool. Damn cool. Hoxton Square and The White Cube gallery are ground zero for this cultural rebirth, and there are plenty of hip bars and clubs around Old Street. F Cooke is a good old fashioned pie house while Jamie Oliver's Fifteen serves a selection of rustic/honest dishes designed for sharing.
Soho - seedy underbelly turned stylish cultural hotspot
The heart of London's gay community and still home to plenty of sex shops, Soho is awash with countless fine boozers, unique restaurants, one-off boutiques and, as part of London's Theatreland, plenty of cultural hotspots. Media professionals zip around during the day and actors hide in pub corners during the later hours. Barrafina serve some of the best tapas in the city while Dean Street Townhouse is open for breakfast and throughout the day. Popular drinking establishments include French House, Argyll Arms, Dog and Duck, and Crown and Two Chairmen.
South Bank - riverside artistic hotspot
Home to the Southbank Centre, a concrete complex comprising of The Royal Festival Hall and Hayward Gallery, where you'll find challenging fine art exhibitions alongside classical and more left field music events. Next door are art cinema BFI Southbank and the National Theatre. Great starting place for a brief wander along the river, with Tate Modern within walking distance.
Oxford Street - the beating heart of London shopping
The heart of London shopping with more than 300 shops, including designer outlets and department stores such as Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams. Slope off down the side streets for more interesting finds.
Best bars and pubs in London:
Experimental Cocktail Club, Gerrard Street, Chinatown - www.chinatownecc.com/
Speakeasy-styled venue spread over three floors of an old Chinatown townhouse. Given the cocktail explosion and near scientific concoctions constructed at other venues around the UK, the term 'experimental' might be pushing it a bit, but there's no doubt that ECC know how to mix a sophisticated, classy cocktail. Half the capacity is kept for walk-in guests, but reservations are accepted (though large bookings are not taken during the weekends).
Queen of Hoxton, Curtain Road, Shoreditch - www.queenofhoxton.com/
If you want a drink with a view, the Queen of Hoxton provides. The drinks selection may be relatively mainstream but the music is fantastic and decorative art lines the walls to give an air of gallery cool. Spread across three floors, head to the top with drink in hand to admire the city skyline. Get there early to avoid the queues.
Strongroom, Curtain Road, Shoreditch - www.strongroombar.com/
This gem of a boozer is tucked away off the main streets of Shoreditch. With an assortment of different beers on tap and in bottles, you’ll find something to satisfy your tastebuds. The prized possession though is a fantastic copper tank full of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, driven from the Czech Republic every week. Combine this with some fantastic DJ sets and a little outdoor terrace and this is a one way ticket to a great night.
Vinopolis Wine Wharf, Stoney Street, Bankside - www.winewharf.co.uk/
Regularly popping up in ‘best wine bar’ lists, Vinopolis Wine Wharf boasts a selection of some 200-plus wines, culled from all the major wine-making regions of the world and many more in between – so expect to see full-bodied and light tipples from Slovenia, Britain, Morocco and Uruguay alongside bottles from Spain, France, Italy and the US. Inside, it's an informal mix of solid wooden chairs and leather sofas, with a reasonable main and bar menu selection.
Guanabara, Parker Street, Holborn - www.guanabara.co.uk
A late night restaurant, bar and club presenting the best of Brazilian-inspired music and dance, including capoeira performers, percussion artists, samba schools and DJs. The cocktails lean (naturally) towards Brazilian flavours, with a highlight being the punchy Caipirinha de Cachaca – sugar cane rum mixed with lime, sugar and crushed ice. Food-wise, check out feijoada (black bean, chorizo, smoked pork and beef stew) or the vegetarian moqueca (spiced coconut milk based roasted vegetable stew).
69 Colebrooke Row, Islington - www.69colebrookerow.com/
AKA ‘The Bar With No Name’, 69 Colebrooke Row is a one-room cocktail bar tucked away in a backstreet with a 1950s Italian-meets-film noir vibe. There is not a massive number of cocktails available, but what they do they do very well indeed, using quality ingredients. And if you like what you've tasted, grab one of their signed drink recipes books to take home for some cocktail DIY.
Shochu Lounge, Charlotte Street, nr Goodge Street, Fitzrovia - www.shochulounge.com/
Basement cocktail lounge with a Japanese theme tucked away underneath the award-winning Roka restaurant. Shochu is Japan's most popular spirit, similar to vodka, though remains relatively obscure in the West. The lounge customises its own from barley and is the first venue in Europe to infuse it with a variety of ingredients. These range from fruit and herbs to chocolate.
Ye Olde Mitre, Chancery Lane - www.yeoldemitreholborn.co.uk
Fuller’s is known for its fine selection of ales and well situated pubs and Ye Olde Mitre is no exception - in fact, this boozer was CAMRA’s East London and City branch pub of the year 2014. Expect a traditional atmosphere, reasonably priced drinks and hearty pub grub: all of the key ingredients for a good old fashioned knees up.
Newman Arms, Tottenham Court Road - www.newmanarmspub.com/
Fitzrovia is a top place to enjoy a drink in town, but if you’re looking for something without the pretentious price tag, The Newman Arms is the place to go. There’s plenty of decent grog within these four walls and if you want a bite to eat, the food is sourced fresh from the South West thanks to the pub’s innovative culinary venture, The Cornwall Project.
The Green Man, Berwick Street
You don’t get many cider houses in London, but if you like those apples, you can’t go wrong with a group trip to the Green Man. The bar area is bright and spacious, the staff are spot on and you won’t find a better choice to ciders in or around the area – just make sure you check the percentages before you get stuck in!
Graphic Bar, Soho - www.graphicbar.com/
Deep in the heart of Soho’s Golden Square sits Graphic Bar, a watering hole that you’re unlikely to forget. Not only does this little gem offer more gin than you can shake a stick at, its interior is clad from head to toe in ground-breaking urban art. So sit back, sip your gin, have a natter and take in your surroundings, this could be your new favourite drinking spot.
Coach and Horses, Soho - www.thecoachandhorsessoho.co.uk/
On the corner of Soho’s bustling Greek Street stands the Coach and Horses, a London boozer with a longstanding history. Once the haunt of some of the UK’s most prolific journalist, this pub is now a beer house oozing with personality. If you go there on a Saturday night, you might even get to join in with the Coach and Horses’ famous piano sing-along, so make sure you’ve got those vocal chords warmed up!
The Queen’s Head, King’s Cross - www.queensheadlondon.com/
There are countless Queen’s Heads pubs in town, but this has got to be one of the best. This lively little Bloomsbury pub is a top spot for a few pints and bar snacks and if you like your beer, a trip here will go down a treat. Ales, lagers, stouts, porters, whiskies, wines - the choice is yours. Also, if you trek down there on a Thursday night, you’ll connect with some live music.
Fox and Anchor, Farringdon - www.foxandanchor.com/
No trip to London would be complete without a wander around the Smithfield Market area and while you’re there, it’s definitely worth diving into the Fox and Anchor. This recently refurbished ale house has been restored to its former glory and there are many snugs in the bar area for a cosy group drinking situation.
Best beer gardens in London:
The Carpenters Arms, Whitfield Street, nr Tottenham Court Road - www.thecarpentersarmsw1.co.uk/
Vibrant pub with a 'beer garden’. But with this being London, and space a premium, they’ve gone and stuck it on the roof. Heated and partially covered for those cooler months, you can peer over and check out the busy city streets. Beer-wise, they take their tipples seriously with a variety of local cask ales and seasonal choices as well as some 'homemade' hangover cures, such as a spiced Bloody Mary – ideal for those bleary Sunday mornings.
The Gipsy Moth, Greenwich Church Street, Greenwich - www.thegipsymothgreenwich.co.uk/
Right by the Cutty Sark, the Gipsy Moth's oversized patio can seat up to 200 making it somewhat more than a beer garden. A great location for a G&T, craft beer or continental lager, as well as alfresco dining. The menu is very much 'modern classics' with such dishes as fish'n'chips, sausage’n’mash and burgers. There are also Sunday roasts, monthly seasonal specials and summer BBQs. Gets busy in the summer.
The Avalon, Balham Hill, Clapham South - www.theavalonlondon.com/
Voted one of the best beer gardens in the capital, The Avalon has not one, or two, but three outdoor spaces: The Summer Garden, Courtyard and Terrace. The Summer Garden is one of London's largest pub gardens, and features raised beds (not for sleeping in for plants, you dummy), mature trees, umbrellas, fountain, mixed seating and wifi. Something of an oasis, it can get lively, with various menus spanning street food, pizzas, modern English, BBQs and more formal nosh.
The Eagle, Askew Road, Shepherd's Bush - www.eaglelondon.com/
They're pretty proud of their beer garden, describing it as 'most glorious' thanks to its own bar, BBQ, bunting, brightly coloured bean bags and giant lawn Jenga. There's also more conventional seating and some neat little open sheds. Great for lounging about in the sunshine.
Edinboro Castle, Mornington Terrace, Primrose Hill - www.edinborocastlepub.co.uk/
A short stroll from Regents Park, this Camden pub has a buzzing beer garden that comes alive with twinkly lights (and heaters) during the evenings. With room for about 300, there are loads of tables and sheltered areas, plus regular BBQs and hog roasts and a summer bar.
Best clubs in London
Village Undergound, Holywell Lane, Shoreditch
One of the most unique arts and clubbing spaces anywhere in the country, let alone London. Village Underground boasts a converted warehouse space for up to 1,000 revellers, while recycled train carriages above have been turned into artists’ studios. The hub of a bustling creative community, you just know the music policy is going to be at the very cutting edge, covering the full spectrum of high quality dance, electronic and experimental music.
XOYO, Cowper Street, Shoreditch
Another Shoreditch favourite, XOYO has no discernable music policy, other than a strong emphasis on quality. A popular live gig venue, clubbing is still its bread and butter, with top class DJs keeping things going until 4am at weekends.
Fabric, Charterhouse Street, Clerkenwell
One of the most famous names for discerning clubbers in London, Fabric has earned a reputation around the world for showcasing the most cutting-edge soundtracks in house, techno, electro and dub. Popular resident DJs and guests plucked from the coolest dance labels across the globe make sure that every weekend is something special.
KOKO, Camden High Street
An indie kid favourite, this popular Camden haunt is housed in a stunning building, with its plush interiors giving some old school cabaret charm to your night out. A popular live music venue, Koko also knows how to keep people entertained late in the night, with Club NME on Fridays keeping the indie disco anthems going until the early hours.
Ministry of Sound, Gaunt Street, Elephant & Castle
A bonafide clubbing super-brand, Ministry of Sound has defined the soundtracks of recent generations of dance music lovers. And its flagship club in south London is still pulling in the punters with its world class DJ lineups.
Studio 338, Boord Street, Greenwich
Bringing a little bit of Balearic spirit to south east London all year round, Studio 338 boasts a capacity of up to 3,000, making it one of the capital’s biggest – and perhaps most feel-good – nightclubs. The huge heated terrace is the headline attraction, for alfresco partying whatever the weather.
Food: eat like a local:
You name it, it’s here, from award-laden, excruciatingly priced, celebrity chef constructed creations you’d need a science degree to cook (and an overdraft to pay for), through to all-you-can-eat, pile-it-high Chinese and Indian buffets – and everything in between.
If it’s Chinese you’re after head to Chinatown, where there’s an array of cafes and restaurants offering quick-fill buffets for set fees to more refined dining.
For breakfast, The Delaunay (https://www.thedelaunay.com/) in Aldwych is the place for pains au chocolat, muffins, eggs, kippers, waffles, pancakes, full English plus some more specialist European options (bircher muesli, pretzels, wiener kaffee, or the Viennese breakfast with salami, boiled eggs and figs).
Koya Bar (www.koyabar.co.uk/) on Frith Street, offers a Japanese twist on breakfast with morning udon dishes such as hot noodles with raw egg and soy sauce, plus English breakfast-inspired egg, bacon and shiitake mushroom udon.
Great in the summer when you can sit outdoors, The Modern Pantry (www.themodernpantry.co.uk/) in St John's Square, offers up interesting early morning meals such as sweetcorn, feta, green chilli and curry leaf waffles with smoked streaky bacon, and raspberry and ricotta pancakes.
For North African try Momo Restaurant’s Mo Café and Terrace Kemia Bar (www.momoresto.com/) on Heddon Street.
Elsewhere, there's Japanese (Dining’s, Harcourt Street), Korean, (Cah Chi, Durham Road), Peruvian (Ceviche, Frith Street), Russian (Erebuni, Lancaster Gate, Bayswater), Indian (Painted Heron, Chelsea; Cinnamon Kitchen, Devonshire Square; Masala Zone, Covent Garden), Greek (The Real Greek, Bankside, Marylebone, Westfield, Spitalfields, Covent Garden), Nigerian (805 Bar Restaurant, Peckham), Mexican (Mestizo Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar, Hampstead Road), French (Les Trois Garçons, Shoreditch)...you name a country and someone is cooking its favourite dish.
If it's great views you want, there are loads of options, including the rooftop OXO Tower Restaurant, Brasserie and Bar (www.harveynichols.com/restaurant/the-oxo-tower/) . Looking out across the Thames to Charing Cross and the City of London, it serves modern British food with a global influence.
For something a little more novel, try Dans le Noir (london.danslenoir.com/) in Clerkenwell Green, where your dining experience takes place in complete and utter darkness and served by blind waiters, or Circus (circus-london.co.uk/) in Covent Garden, where cabaret and circus acts entertain you while you dine.
The best view of the city:
There are so many, but top of the list has to be The London Eye. The giant ferris wheel (at 135m high, the largest of its kind) is situated on the South Bank and offers spectacular views across the River Thames, The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. On a clear day, traveling at a stately 26cm per second, you can see Windsor Castle 25 miles away.
For something a little less spectacular (though clearly London), the Millennium footbridge sits between the Tate and St Paul’s Cathedral, while Westminster Bridge is close to the Houses Of Parliament, or nip over to Trafalgar Square for pics featuring Nelson’s Column (with lions), The National Gallery, pigeons and tourists.
And not all the best views cost money. Head over to Primrose Hill in Camden for a great view of London’s skyline. Bring a picnic and people watch – you may even spot a few celebs. Another great option is Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. A more rugged park with lots of greenery, you can unwind as you take in the panoramic views of the city.
If you're basing yourself in the centre of London, getting about on foot may be the quickest option, but you're never too far from a bus stop or tube station.
Buses are frequent, as are tubes (with the city divided into fare zones and colour coded routes). But you'll want to pick up a pre-loaded Visitor Oyster Card (a travel smartcard) to get about.
If you're unfamiliar with London's bus, train and tube network, plan journeys in advance as once you're wandering through a maze of tunnels looking for platforms, it's easy to jump on the wrong one.
Black cab taxis are in plentiful supply, but fares can add up. Book private minicabs in advance (we'd suggest booking via your hotel if you're staying over) and ask about costs before you set off.
For alternative forms of transport, London operates a self-service, bike-sharing scheme for short journeys. Pick up (and pay for) your bike from a docking station. Or there are schemes to rent an electric car in a similar way.