The thing that always surprises me about London is how the city combines the historic and the modern, sometimes even on the same street. You might, for instance, encounter an outrageously hip clothes store on a block where Charles Dickens once observed the harshness of child poverty, or contemporary cuisine served in a tavern that’s been around practically since Shakespeare’s time. One minute it feels like you’re in a History Channel show full of royal households and churches; the next minute you’re in a place totally on the cutting edge.
Local chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are now as famous as rock stars, though a tourist requisite is still traditional afternoon tea. You can splurge on Saturday morning along Portobello Road or stroll Jermyn Street for gentlemen’s shops bearing royal warrants (Prince Charles gets his pajamas at Turnbull & Asser), but these days it’s also fun to join the flocks of shoppers at fashion-forward boutiques along Elizabeth Street or (less expensively) around the markets and funky shops of Brick Lane in the East End.
London is a big city geographically. The majority of visitors spend most of their time in and around the West End, where London’s main attractions are located (Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Road’s bookshops, Covent Garden, Soho, Regent and Oxford Streets, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Carnaby Street). Further west are the pricey neighborhoods of Belgravia, Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum), Knightsbridge (Harrods, Harvey Nichols), Mayfair, Chelsea (Kings Road) and Notting Hill (Portobello Road).
The City of London, the financial district (and home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street and the Tower of London), is a must for history lovers — it is where London began, as the original square mile built by the Romans, and it still exists as its own self-governing entity.
There are plenty of attractions in London you can experience for free or little charge. Our favorite freebies are the museums (though there is often a charge for special exhibits). These include the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert, Museum of London and Science Museum. Other free attractions include the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and the craziness of the ad hoc speechmakers who do their thing at the Speakers’ Corner of Hyde Park. We also love the city’s markets, which offer a chance to view local life and pick up some bargains.