London is an incredible city. It’s cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial, and a lot of fun. But if you’re visiting for a few days, it can be a bit overwhelming. London is big and the list of things you can find on Google is endless. How do you know where to go? What are the best non-touristy things to do and places to stay in London?
NON-TOURISTY LONDON ADVICE
I’ve put together this guide because I’m always being asked by friends from around the world – “I’m going to London soon, where shall I go?” And it’s pretty impossible to answer spontaneously. There are so many places to go and so many things to do in London, so there is no quick answer.
I’ve specifically not included the main tourist attractions here, like Big Ben, Madame Tussauds, and The London Eye. Yes, they are cool, but they are expensive and often so full of tourists that it’s not where the locals hang out.
In order to fully enjoy the city, you’ve gotta know where to go. So hopefully this post will give you some ideas for where to stay, where to eat, the best ‘underground’ bars, and what else you can do in the city including flying trapeze, neon naked life drawing, and yoga!
LONDON’S BIG, WHERE SHOULD YOU STAY?
I have a friend from Portugal who boldly claimed “there’s nothing to do in London”. But when I asked him how he came to such a ludicrous conclusion he told me that he stayed in Hounslow. For those of you that don’t know, Hounslow is a small borough on the very outskirts of London. It’s close to Heathrow Airport, about an hour on the tube from Central London. It’s very residential and there’s really not much else here apart from chicken shops and newsagents. Moral of this story? Stay in a good area!
Whatever your budget – whether you’re looking for an Airbnb, hostel or hotel – the list below should give you some ideas for where to look, based on what you like.
- For the hipsters: Shoreditch, Old Street, Hackney
- For alternative music lovers (think techno, hip hop, & jazz): Dalston
- For the boho market-loving hippies: Brixton
- For the boutique shoppers & pastel-coloured house lovers: Notting Hill and Holland Park
- For the Aussies: Clapham Common
I generally recommend not staying too Central because it’s usually more expensive and, in my opinion, less fun. The areas above are all buzzing with locals and independent coffee shops, bars, and restaurants for you to explore.
SWANKY LONDON RESTAURANTS
If you’re looking for a special restaurant to treat yourself (and maybe a loved one), then you might like one of the following restaurants. They aren’t cheap and you will need to reserve in advance, but if you want to wine and dine in true London style, check out the following.
- Duck & Waffle (Liverpool Street): On the 40th floor of The Heron Tower, this is the highest restaurant in the city’s tallest building. Expect monumental views, incredible British-inspired food and your ears to pop. Try their signature dish, the “duck and waffle” where you can drizzle maple syrup all over the top.
- Sushi Samba (Liverpool Street): On the 38th floor of The Heron Tower, specialising in a menu that’s a fusion of Brazilian, Portuguese & Peruvian food – with a lot of sushi.
- Oblix @ The Shard: On the 32nd floor of The Shard, with panoramic views of the skyline and an extensive cocktail menu.
- The Ned (Bank): Located in the old, impressive Midland Bank building, it’s part-members club, part-open-to-the-public who book. Try the Sunday Feast: all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch, including lobster and oysters, for £45.
- Dans Le Noir (Farringdon): The famous restaurant ‘in the dark’ – and ‘dark’ means completely pitch black! The idea is that your taste senses are heightened when you can’t rely on your sight.
- Coppa (Tower Bridge): Where you can sit on The Thames in your own private igloo, decked out with furry chairs.
CHEAP(ER) BUT STILL DELICIOUS RESTAURANTS (ALL WITH GREAT VIBES)
There are a ton of amazing restaurants in London, but here are some of my favourites. They are all popular so if you don’t book (you can’t book all), head down early to beat the queues.
- Dishoom (Soho, Kings Cross, Kensington): For posh Indian tapas (great for breakfast too!).
- Patty & Bun (all over): A popular burger joint with a selection of adventurous flavours in toasted brioche buns.
- Le Bab (Soho): For posh kebabs, a lot of spices and chewy flatbreads.
- Hoppers (Soho): For Sri Lankan food that’s so exotic you may not understand any of the menu – but if it’s tasty, does it matter?
- Flat Iron (Soho, Covent Garden, Shoreditch): Specialising in perfectly charred, juicy steak at affordable prices. The Flat Iron steak with house salad is just £10 (the creamed spinach as an extra side and the salted caramel mousse are both worth tasting too!).
- Wahaca (all over): For Mexican-style street food.
- Franco Manca & Pizza Pilgrims (both are all over the city): The great pizza debate amongst Londoners, with both offering a selected menu of sourdough pizzas.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, and are looking for healthy meat-free restaurants in London here are some great options:
- Redemption (Notting Hill, Shoreditch): Wheat-free, low in sugar, and no alcohol – it’s self proclaimed the “world’s healthiest bar and restaurant”.
- Farmacy (Notting Hill): Food that’s so healthy it’s like medicine – Farmacy isn’t fully vegan (they do eggs) but there are plenty of vegan options available. They even offer “Farmaceutical Syringe Shots” – health drinks served in a syringe.
- The Gate (Marylebone, Islington, Hammersmith): A wide selection of delicious vegetarian dishes – with an even more spectacular dessert menu (try the dark chocolate shell, filled with chocolate mousse & salted date caramel sauce!).
- Ethos (Oxford Street): A buffet selection of meat-free dishes where you weigh what you choose. Again, there’s a very extravagant, large selection of no-refined-sugar desserts.
BEST LONDON STREET-FOOD MARKETS
- Box Park (Shoreditch): An eclectic mix of independent food stands, cocktail bars, and clothing shops nestled in the heart of Shoreditch.
- Borough Market (Borough): Possibly the most touristy thing here – but Borough Market is the godfather of street-food markets in London. And if you need a cup of coffee while you’re there, go to the famous Monmouth.
- Maltby Street Market: You could describe Maltby Street Market as Borough Market’s lesser-known younger cousin: similar food, similar location, but smaller and with a lot less people.
- Dinerama (Shoreditch High Street): For a selection of street food stands and killer cocktail bars that’s under a roof, including Mother Clucker fried chicken, Prawnography’s shrimp, and dumplings from Yumplings.
- Pop Brixton (Brixton): Launched as a pop-up in 2015 to help support independent start-up businesses, it’s been so successful that it’s still going strong today. You’ll find some of the best independent and emerging food stands, cocktail bars, and clothing shops as well as free exercise classes and sometimes even small art exhibitions.
THE BEST LOCAL LONDON BARS FOR WHATEVER YOU FANCY
There are so many quirky bars and pubs all over London that it’s very easy to just stroll into the first place you see when you fancy a drink. But why go to a vanilla bar when you can go to a ‘secret’ one where you walk through a fridge, laundrette or bookcase to get inside? Or one with bottomless brunch & board-games?
FOR “SECRET” BARS
- Mayor of Scaredycat Town (Shoreditch): Where you walk through a fridge to get to the bar. At the door, ask to see the Mayor. (Located within Breakfast Club, Shoreditch)
- King of Ladies Man (Clapham Junction): Where you walk through a laundrette to get to the bar. (Located within Breakfast Club, Clapham)
- Evans & Peel (Earls Court): Make sure you book, and when you arrive tell the man on the door that you have an appointment. You’ll then walk through a bookcase to get inside.
FOR QUIRKY INTERIORS
- Sketch (Mayfair): Arguably the most Instagrammable bar in London due to the famous pink walls, and white pods in the toilets.
- Katzenjammers (Borough): A pretty crazy German-designed underground bar that serves litre beers, perfect if it’s Oktoberfest.
- Cahoots (Soho): Decked out with old school 1940s London decor, an elaborate newspaper-style cocktail menu and vintage tube decorations.
- Blues Kitchen (Shoreditch): There are a few Blues Kitchens around London, but the Shoreditch one has a funky 1950s airstream caravan available to hire – or you can hop in if it’s not too busy. (Weekends do get busy though, so get down early)
- Near & Far (Peckham): The staircase to Near & Far feels like a pop-art designed maze. Situated in a creative shared building with startups and yoga studios, it feels quirky, funky, and cool.
FOR ROOFTOP VIEWS
- WigWam @ The Queen of Hoxton (Shoreditch High Street): Every season, the guys at the Queen Of Hoxton decorate the WigWam with incredible bespoke decor; this year it was fully decked out in Moroccan style. In the winter, you can toast marshmallows over fires, while sipping on mulled spiced cider; in the summer, it’s home to a rooftop cinema.
- Pergola on the Roof (Shepherds Bush): On top of a car park in Shepherds Bush – but quite posh and swanky with tasty food stands. (Only open in the summer)
- Franks (Peckham): Another one that’s on top of a car park – but the crowd here are a bit edgier than Pergola, and vibes a little more laid back. (Only open in the summer)
FOR ENGLISH PUBS WITH BEER GARDENS
- People’s Park Tavern (Victoria Park): On the beautifully green Victoria Park with it’s very own mini golf, it’s where all the cool kids in Hackney hang out.
- The Faltering Fullback (Finsbury Park): With an outside area that’s designed a little like a maze, it’s a bit of a hidden gem that’s tucked away from the hustle and bustle of London streets.
- Duke of Edinburgh (Brixton): With a huge beer garden hiding behind the pub, this is the perfect spot to go if the sun is shining.
FOR AN ACTIVITY (you’ll need to book all of these in advance)
- Bounce (Holborn, Shoreditch): Europe’s biggest “social ping pong club” – with cocktails, Italian pizzas, and eclectic music.
- Cafe Kick (Exmouth Market) and Bar Kick (Shoreditch High Street): Both ran by the same team, offering table football and a daily happy hour, it’s a fun (but competitive) place to have a game of fussball.
- Fight Club (Shaftesbury Avenue, Shoreditch): For darts & pizzas, the atmosphere is always buzzing here.
- Drink Shop Do (Kings Cross): Where bar meets cafe, with a range of board games that you can play. At the weekend, they do a bottomless brunch, bagels & board game combo for £25 per person.
- Swingers Crazy Golf (Bank): Home to two 9-hole crazy golf courses, along with cocktail bars, street food stands, and DJs.
- Ballie Ballerson (Hackney): A ball pit bar with one million plastic balls to dance in? Yes, this is a thing and it is amazing.
OTHER LOCAL THINGS TO DO IN LONDON
- Cinema – if you fancy watching a film, there’s no point settling in a soulless chain of cinemas. Instead, head to one of the comfortable cinemas with sofas and a bar, like The Electric (Notting Hill), The Picture House cinemas (all over), or Genesis (Stepney Green).
- Naked Neon Life Drawing: Life drawing with really beautiful models wearing nothing but neon drapes, in the back of a pub with very chilled music. It doesn’t matter how bad you are at drawing, the teacher is so inspiring and the whole event is so relaxing, that it’s very therapeutic.
- Flying Trapeze @ Gorilla Circus: If you’ve ever wanted to join the circus, now you can learn how to swing on the flying trapeze with Gorilla Circus. In the summer, they are located in Regents Park or Battersea Park.
- The Design Museum (High Street Kensington): Home to the fascinating (and free) exhibition about how design affects our society, looking at the evolution of transport, computers, mobile phones, and apps. There are usually always paid exhibitions available too so check what’s on.
- Victoria & Albert Museum (Knightsbridge): A pretty spectacular building with many interesting and arty exhibitions that are free, as well as paid, to visit.
- Hayward Gallery (Waterloo) : quite an unassuming, unpretentious art gallery.
If you want to do a spot of exercise, there are heaps of pay-as-you-go classes that don’t require full-on memberships. Just check the timetable online, sign up & book in advance. For example…
- HIIT Classes: If you want to work out where David Beckham, Harry Styles and Ellie Goulding have all been, try Barry’s Bootcamp. The world-renowned hour long cardio and weight workout, otherwise called “the best workout in the world”.
- Yoga: Hot Pod yoga, Yotopia, and Battersea Yoga all offer single drop in classes.
- Spinning: Boom Cycle, Psycle London and 1Rebel all offer intense spinning classes with funky tunes all over the city.
Hopefully this guide has given you a few ideas of how to spend your time in London. If you’re looking for somewhere edgy and hipster, stay East (around Dalston, Hackney, or Old Street) and eat the street food at Dinerama Street Feast, play ping pong at Bounce, or darts at Fight Club. Or if you’re looking for somewhere a little more upmarket, stay West (around Notting Hill or Holland Park), eat at the “healthiest bar in the world,” Redemption, and hop into Mayfair to drink at the famous pink bar, Sketch.
There are so many new places popping up all the time that by the time you’re reading this, there will most likely be other great places to visit too. Just do a little research, plan an itinerary, and wherever you go, I hope you enjoy London like a local.
Have you ever visited London? We’d love to hear your local tips in the comment section below!
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