Beefeaters, red buses and Buckingham Palace. Tate Modern, the Eye, the Gherkin. You’ve seen London in a million films and know all about it from the style mags, so is there anything left to explore?
The answer’s yes, even for me, and I’ve spent a decade writing about this city. The only problem for first-time visitors, return visitors, even people who are here so often they’re almost residents themselves, is that there’s just too much to do.
Perhaps you think this is PR guff? For starters, there are four World Heritage Sites along the Thames, to which you can add half a dozen seriously world-class museums and art galleries - all with free admission (see my London insider tips page for more information). That’s a fortnight’s sightseeing already.
More than just sights
London isn’t just about sights, of course. It might come as a surprise, but these days the food is great. Londoners are blessed with superb cafés and restaurants, where pioneering British cooks are neighbours to the best chefs from across the world.
London is a fun city too. Many people will enjoy the brash glamour of the West End musicals, but you can also dive into the grubbily fashionable East End clubbing scene. Theatre buffs, pop fans and lovers of symphonic violins, devotees of stand-up comedy - if you know where to look, this town has the best Britain has to offer. (My London nightlife page has some details.)
And I haven’t yet touched on the hidden side of London.
London isn’t a city of magnificent, sweeping vistas. It wasn’t planned like Paris, it doesn’t have the canals of Venice. Instead, it grew organically out of disasters and mistakes into a curious, often cramped, always fascinating cluster of distinct districts.
The best London views come as a surprise: the glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral from the bottom of scrubby Ludgate Hill or seeing the City open out at night looking east from Waterloo Bridge.
Many of the greatest pleasures of the city are on the smallest scale. The Sir John Soane Museum, for example: just a little townhouse, but packed with fascinating oddities. Or the brilliant St John: this key influence on modern British cooking is a casual restaurant, housed in a plain, whitewashed former smokehouse.
If you like walking, you’re in luck: this is a great city to explore on foot. The Queen and her crisply choreographed Household Regiments are a few minutes from the Houses of Parliament. Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column are just a stroll from the street entertainers of Covent Garden. If you’re tired or less mobile, public transport will get you anywhere you need to go - and a ride through central London in a black cab is a great addition to any sightseeing itinerary. (For more on London transport, see How to get around London).
As I’ve hinted: the only way to do London is to give up. Give up the notion of doing the whole city, but there’s no need to be overawed by the range of options. Use the Simonseeks guides (below) to choose the handful of places you couldn’t bear to miss while you’re here - and build in plenty of time to make your own discoveries.
Enjoy your visit - and do please let me know how you get on!