When you're not into the royal family...
Reputation: everything’s about the royal family: Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London. The food’s bad, and it rains all the time.
Why you should go: a truly multi-cultural city with some of the best museums, art galleries and parks in the world. English pubs. A heaven for sports fans. The shopping, oh the glorious shopping.
A quick note about accessibility in London: London is flat and its buildings are required to be accessible for people with restricted mobility, so everything listed here can be visited by people with mobility devices and pushchairs, even the Cutty Sark.
Don't be put off by the name 'Royal' in many place names. Everything’s free unless stated.
Relax in London’s green spaces and public parks
London has some outstanding parks. Our favourites include St James’s Park (we love the pelicans), Kensington Garden (check out its formal avenues) and Hyde Park (go cycling, swimming and horse riding). The parks are huge with lots of grass to lounge on and walking paths to explore. You can let the kids run wild. The parks are officially called Royal Parks but don't let that put you off.
Gardeners will love Kew Gardens for its glorious glasshouses, historic buildings and rare plants. An entry fee applies.
A little further afield is Greenwich Park, which dates back to Roman times. It's a popular spot with locals on the weekends. If we had a pound for every group of picnickers we saw…
If you’re not looking for grass, kick back at Trafalgar Square and enjoy the very good buskers. Or check out the ‘circuses’: Oxford and Piccadilly. They are hubs of activity, and close to popular shops and the theatre district.
Get lost in the museums
The National History Museum is awesome. Think dinosaur bones, volcanoes and fossils. You'll learn something without even meaning to. It's a blast for grown-ups and kids alike with 36 galleries to discover. It's a great day out.
Around the corner is the popular Science Museum. It’s highly interactive and kids of all ages will love it too.
The British Museum is fantastic - and controversial - and is worth a visit but do your homework first! It's very popular and even if you arrive as the doors open, you'll still be dealing with crowds. Before you go, decide what you want to see as you'll never see everything in a single visit. The museum has great suggestions on its website of what to see if you've got an hour, three hours or are visiting with children. The museum is also where you'll find the Elgin Marbles, originally from the Parthenon in Greece (this is where the controversy comes in).
The London Library may not immediately spring to mind as a tourist destination, but if you're in the neighbourhood (St James's Square), pop in and see a notebook from Leonardo da Vinci, letters from Galileo or Handel's original manuscript for the Messiah. There's also a copy of the Magna Carta (yes, we know you're not into royal history but think of it as an agreement with the people). Famous members include Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie.
Discover amazing art
The National Gallery is a remarkable place to visit, even if you don't like art. Think of a famous old painter and they'll find at least one of their works here. It's big so decide what you want to see before you go. Our favourite painting is Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers, which looks like it glows.
For modern art, head to the Tate Modern. We love the room dedicated to Mark Rothko. There’s also Pollock, Dali and Monet. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You may not be a modern art fan (“I could have done that”) but there’s something here for everyone. There's a great view of London from level 10. If you’re travelling with kids, give them a penny and see how far they can roll it from the top of the ramp on the ground floor. We saw a little boy get his penny right to the other end, which is pretty impressive.
Hungry? Gail’s Artisan Bakery behind the Tate Modern does yummy food.
Uncover London's dark underbelly
Despite it being over 125 years since Jack the Ripper terrorised Whitechapel, it's still possible to visit the streets and even the pub where he committed his crimes. So grab a map and head to Durward Street, Hanbury Street, Henriques Street, Mitre Square (which can all be explored from Aldgate East Tube station) and Dorset Street (Tube: Bond Street or Marble Arch). This is where his five victims were found.
Then, have a beer at The Ten Bells pub, where victim Annie Chapman is believed to have had a drink the night she died and where Mary Kelly, another victim, met her clients. Regardless of its history, The Ten Bells is a great place for a pint. It's located at 84 Commercial Street in Spitalfields.
Tour your favourite sports ground
Cricket fans will love touring Lord’s. Visit the Long Room, the players’ changing rooms and the media centre, and see the Ashes trophy. A fee applies and we recommending buying tickets in advance on the Lord's website as they tend to sell out. If you want to catch a game, consider a county match. This is Middlesex’s home ground and tickets are considerably cheaper and easier to get than watching an international match. When we visited we were allowed on the sacred ground during the lunch break (yes, we got to walk on the grass!), but we can't guarantee that this happens every time.
While you're in the neighbourhood, Abbey Road (of Beatles-crossing-the-road fame) is just down the road. Just don't be that person who stands in the middle of the road to get a photo and blocks traffic.
Football (that’s soccer to some of you) fans will love touring Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s home ground. The self-guided tour covers the players’ changing rooms, stands and the club’s museum. A fee applies.
Other sites to see, which we haven’t visited yet, include Wimbledon (technically the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tours at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Whew!) for tennis and Twickenham for rugby.
The shopping in London is literally wow. Our favourite stores in London are Dover Street Market for dead-cool clothing and accessories. The staff are very friendly despite being so hip it hurts. The Rose Bakery on the top floor sells the best carrot cake we’ve ever had. And we love Victoria Beckham on Dover Street. We’d kill for her clothes and bags. And sunglasses. Well, for everything. Note that these stores aren’t on the same street. Dover Street Market is now on Haymarket.
Our pick of department store is Liberty in its gorgeous black and white Tudor building, although it's a close call. The brands stocked here are top-notch and the cosmetics halls have the very best, coolest make-up and skincare. Check out the perfect flowers for sale at the main entrance. Other options are Harrod’s and Selfridge’s, which need no introduction and deserve their excellent reputations.
For high street labels, head to Oxford Street. For designer goodies, you’ll love New Bond Street.
Covent Garden will make everyone happy and has everything you could ever want, from the very fabulous and expensive to affordable, high street wares. Make sure you visit the United Nude store on Floral Street for unique and totally wearable shoes. Covent Garden can get very busy so take your time and go with the flow. Tip: if you get here by Tube, don’t take the stairs! There are nearly 200 of them. Wait for the lifts instead. You can thank us later.
If malls are more your style, head to Westfield London for a combination of luxury and high street brands under one roof.
Admire the architecture
London is heaven for architecture buffs. London was founded by the Romans in 43AD and some parts of the wall are still visible near Tower Hill Tube station.
The White Castle at the Tower of London dates back over 1,000 years and is a fabulous example of Norman architecture. An entry fee applies and we strongly recommend booking online, in advance. You can ignore all the royal stuff, although the armour display is kinda fun.
Check out 17th century neo-classicism by Sir Christopher Wren at St Paul’s Cathedral and Greenwich’s Royal Naval College, and Inago Jones’s Queen’s House, also in Greenwich. An entry fee applies to St Paul's and the Queen's House if you'd like to go inside.
For mid-20th century Brutalism, see the Barbican by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon.
For something a little more modern, check out the Lloyd’s of London building by Richard Rogers. Or Herzog and de Meuron’s transformation of an old power station into the Tate Modern. Or marvel at The Shard by our fav architect Renzo Piano and 30 St Mary’s Axe – AKA The Gherkin – by Norman Foster.
Travel on the Tube
We reckon that you haven’t been to London unless you’ve travelled on the Tube. It goes everywhere and is often quicker than other forms of transport. Plus, the names of the stations are brilliant (Elephant and Castle!) and the route names are iconic (Piccadilly!).
Grab an Oyster card and Tube map from your nearest station, and get going. Just remember to stand on the right when you’re on an escalator and to mind the gap. Tip: if you’re only planning to travel one station it's often quicker to walk.
While you’re in London, try a trip on one of London’s iconic red buses (they also take Oyster cards) and maybe even grab a black cab and enjoy a bit of banter with the driver.
Revisit London’s WWII history
London will keep the WWII buff occupied for days. Start with the Imperial War Museum, which also has exhibitions about WWI and Britain’s more recent conflicts. The main gallery has a Harrier Jump Jet and a Spitfire hanging from the ceiling. It's a commemoration of wars rather than a glorification, and even non-historians will get a lot out of this museum.
The Churchill War Rooms provide a glimpse into Britain’s dark days of WWII. The government was essentially run from this underground bunker from 1939 until 1945. An entry fee applies.
There are memorials to WWII all over London. The Battle of Britain Memorial on Victoria Embankment is especially good and commemorates the few who gave so much for so many. Kiwis will be interested in the memorial to Sir Keith Park, Air Chief Marshal during the Battle of Britain.
And whenever you’re in a Tube station, keep in mind that these were used as air raid shelters during the war.
Take a trip to Greenwich
We love Greenwich. It’s got a gorgeous village atmosphere and feels miles from the city even though it's only 30 minutes away. Start at the Cutty Sark, a restored 1869 clipper ship which transported tea from China and then wool from Australia. Most parts of the ship can be explored including the captain’s cabin and crew quarters. There’s lots for kids to explore too. Make sure you have a mug of ship’s tea at the café before you leave. An entry fee applies.
Next, take a walk through the grounds of the former Royal Naval College designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who is responsible for many of London’s post-Great Fire buildings. Film junkies will recognise it from the second Thor movie.
Cross the road to the National Maritime Museum, which traces England’s navy history. We really like the display of old ship mastheads and got a lot out of the section on Lord Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar. Make sure you see the painting by JMW Turner on the ground floor. It got lousy reviews from those who fought in the battle, but it’s very successful at conveying the utter chaos and destruction of war.
Finally, head up the hill to the Royal Observatory for great views of Greenwich and London, and for the Prime Meridian, from which point time and longitude are measured. An entry fee applies. Tip: buy a combined ticket for the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory and save a few pounds.
The village of Greenwich itself is nice to explore. It has a cute market and great pubs. It’s only half an hour from London's CBD on the Dockland Light Rail (DLR). Jump on at Bank and off at Cutty Sark. You can use your Oyster card. The Tube also travels to Greenwich but the DLR gets you much closer to the action.
Explore the icons
Red phone boxes? Yes. Black cabs? Check. Abbey Road? Yeap. Big Ben? Yes. Fish and chips? Definitely. The London Eye (which has great views of London, by the way)? Affirmative.
London still has all the great icons that it's famous for. So go for a wonder. Find a pub. Have a beer and some fish and chips. Ride the London Eye. Grab a black cab and enjoy a bit of banter with the driver. Explore all the things that London is famous for (apart from the royal family, of course) and enjoy yourself.
And that isn't even half of it
London has loads of other things to do that we haven't covered yet, like the markets, Hampstead Heath, HMS Belfast, cruising on the Thames, the theatre, day trips to places like Bath and Oxford...There is so much to do in London that you'll forget that there's a royal family. So go nuts and enjoy yourself.
If you visit just one thing to do with history...
The Tower of London is history with a capital 'H' but is a huge amount of fun. There's the Crown Jewels, ravens, the spot where a queen lost her head, torture devices and armour. Join a tour with a Yeomen Warder (Beefeater). The retired Beefeaters will take you through the highlights of the Tower in just an hour. The tours are hugely entertaining and are included in the ticket price.
We strongly recommend buying tickets online, in advance from the Tower's website.
Where to stay
We stay at The Nadler, an affordable option in an otherwise expensive city. There are three locations throughout the city: near Buckingham Palace, Soho and South Kensington. We stay at South Kensington, which is just around the corner from various supermarkets where we pick up yummy, cheap heat-and-eat meals and heat them up in the microwave in our room. It's also really close to the Tube (Earl's Court) and walking distance to the Natural History Museum and Kensington Gardens. The rooms aren't huge but they are well-equipped, super-clean and comfortable, with good bathrooms and wifi.
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Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Teresa Amey, Kevin Greaney, Michael Nansett, Bridget Young
Updated: 6 January 2018