When I travel, I like to try to experience a city in a local way.
So when I stayed in Downtown Vegas — more traditional and less flashy than “The Strip” — I went to yoga classes and coffee shops in residential areas. And when I went to Kerala, India, I chose a homestay in Kochin, the state capital, over a name-brand hotel.
The joy of living like a local comes from a slower pace of vacation, where I don’t feel like a tourist checking off a list. It gives me a truer sense of a place.
Having been born and raised in London, I know many places — from parks and restaurants to cafes and architectural sites — that a visitor might not seek out straight away. Some treasures are literally underground.
And I have my favorite ways of seeing some of the city’s main attractions too.
London is split into multiple locally governed areas. Central London’s City of Westminster is its political heart, while the City of London is where the capital’s financial decisions happen.
The City of Westminster is home to:
- the Palace of Westminster, also known as the “Houses of Parliament”
- the majority of London’s theaters, around Soho and Covent Garden, an area known as the “West End”
- Mayfair, where you could easily spend the cost of your airfare on a night out
- some of London’s best green spaces, like Regent’s Park and Hyde Park
One of my favorite things to do here is cycle. Bikes for hire are available from Santander Cycles, near Lancaster Gate Underground station just north of Hyde Park (download the program’s app for pick-up and drop-off locations). There are several cycle paths around Hyde Park that take in sights like Kensington Palace, the official residence of The Prince and Princess of Wales, and “The Serpentine” — a lake toward the south of the park.
But be warned: Several paths across Hyde Park are pedestrian-only, and police often fine people who cycle on them.
Hyde Park connects to Green Park via a busy intersection that has traffic signals for cyclists. After crossing the street and cycling along Constitution Hill, you’ll reach Buckingham Palace. On a warm day, I might carry on cycling into St James’s Park, just opposite the palace, and have lunch at its roof-terrace café.
The City of London (often referred to as “the City”), juxtaposes shiny glass and steel towers and residential blocks built in the 1960s with traditional pubs and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Londinium. The Bank of England is a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, the huge, domed church designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century.
I prefer to walk around this area. A weekday visit at lunchtime shows the hustle of the place as workers pile out of their offices for a quick meal.
Postman’s Park, though tiny, is a popular spot for a sandwich, with its Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, a series of tablets dedicated to ordinary people who died saving others. Close by, Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden is set in the ruins of an 18th-century church and is worth seeing for the flowerbeds contrasting with the remains of the church walls. For a traditional pub, try The Cockpit, a quirky bar on St. Andrew’s Hill, a backstreet near St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s may be the best-known monument in the area, but it’s also fascinating to get beneath the City’s streets — literally — to see part of London’s Roman history. The roughly 2,000-year-old Billingsgate Roman House and Baths sit below an uninspiring office block. Easy to miss, there are few surface-level clues to the remnants below, which can be accessed by guided tours on Saturdays from April to November.
I was raised close to one of London’s largest parks, Hampstead Heath. “The Heath” — as locals call it — is hilly and wild, and it’s easy (and fun) to get a bit lost in it. The views from the top of Parliament Hill are a great way to orient yourself in the city, and the park’s historical Kenwood House has an art gallery that’s free to enter.
Hampstead Heath station, on the London Overground train line, is at the Heath’s southwest tip, and on a sunny weekend in any season you’ll find the nearby street packed with Londoners getting coffee before hiking the Heath. A top spot is the independently owned Karma Bread. My favorite treat there is the cardamom bun, or shakshuka for breakfast.
At the southeast tip of Hampstead Heath is the 1930s-built Parliament Hill Lido, an unheated outdoor swimming pool that is a classic local delight on a hot day. It’s open all year round and facilities are basic: expect to drape your towel on the concrete pavement around the pool. Its website has schedules, pricing and reservation information.
Also in north London is the Parkland Walk, another good spot for a hike or a run through the woods along an old railway line. It’s pretty during the spring when tall cow parsley grows along the path. A 2.5-mile walk east gets you to Finsbury Park, and close to the Faltering Fullback pub, a rambling place with live music twice a week (check its website for details).
The Parkland Walk makes up a section of the Capital Ring, a 78-mile signposted hiking route that circumnavigates London — through suburbs, along canals, via green spaces and even past a palace. It’s divided into 15 sections, all accessible via the London Underground and detailed on a free app.
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, built to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, is in the east London area of Stratford (as well as Section 14 of the Capital Ring route). The area is a good example of London’s blend of old and new, urban and natural, with a giant shopping mall, called Westfield Stratford City, alongside the River Lea. Victorian terraced houses are but a short distance from modern, high-rise apartments.
The main Olympics stadium, known as London Stadium, is now home to soccer team West Ham United. It also hosts concerts and other sporting events including Major League Baseball. You can cycle in the former Olympic Velodrome or on a BMX track, or head to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a curious-looking twisted red metal sculpture that doubles as a tunnel slide.
One of my favorite things to do in east London is eat. Shoreditch — a central area just north of the City – is packed with great restaurants, from popular Indian chain Dishoom (reserve a table for lunch, or get there early for dinner and wait in line) to unfussy fine dining places like Lyle’s, which uses British meat, fish and vegetables.
Rochelle Canteen is an unpretentious place in a former bike shed where good produce is the star. It also has a walled garden, making it a good respite from the busy city streets.
Also in the area is Columbia Road Flower Market, open on Sundays from 8 a.m. Londoners head there to stock up on cut flowers and house plants. You might get a bargain during the final couple of hours (around 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.), and there are plenty of independent jewelry, homeware and gift stores along the street too.
There’s a bit of friendly competition between north and south Londoners, who each claim their area is best and joke about the hardship of having to travel to the opposite side of the River Thames.
While north London has Hampstead Heath, south of the river is Richmond Park, which dwarfs its northern counterpart in size. Plus, the park is in the county of Surrey, so it isn’t technically in London.
Still, you could easily spend a day spotting deer in its fields and exploring the beautiful garden toward its southern tip, the Isabella Plantation. For views across the Thames, head toward Pembroke Lodge in the west of the park, and on a weekend you’ll see Lycra-clad cyclists whizzing through the park and at its cafes.
If you’re looking for something traditionally English, try Petersham Nurseries Cafe, just outside Richmond Park. It has a Garden Afternoon Tea on Fridays and weekends (reservations are essential) that includes dainty sandwiches and mini savory tarts followed by sweet treats, such as buttermilk scones and plum cheesecake. It also accepts walk-ins for brunch or lunch every day except Monday, when it’s closed.
There’s also a branch in central London’s Covent Garden — the flower-filled restaurant The Petersham — that has an sit-down deli and bar.
In west London, I recommend checking out Notting Hill’s street market and restaurants. Portobello Road Market is open every day and sells food, vintage fashion and antiques. A good day to go is Friday, when most of the stalls and areas are open and it’s less busy than Saturday, when locals head there.
French bistro Buvette, on Blenheim Crescent, is a good all-day food option — an outpost of the Manhattan original by chef Jody Williams. For a luxe movie experience try the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, a restored Edwardian picture house with a classic diner next door.
Portobello Road meets Golborne Road at its northern end, a quieter and less touristy street where you’ll find traditional Portuguese pastel de nata custard tarts at Lisboa Patisserie. If you look up you’ll see Trellick Tower, a residential block designed in the Brutalist architectural style by Erno Goldfinger.
Close to the base of the tower is Rellik, a hip vintage fashion store selling clothes from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake.
Just beyond Rellik is a small grassy area that backs onto the Regent’s Canal, a waterway you can walk along to reach Little Venice. Further east toward Paddington Basin, there is a redeveloped area with waterside bars and restaurants, in yet another example of London’s eclectic blend of old and new.