Earlier this month, Ben and I took a trip to London, and although we only had four days in the city, we truly packed in every bit of living (and eating!) that we could.
A good friend who studied abroad in London once described it as “the world in a city.” After having visited London a third time, I must say that sums it up perfectly.
Without a doubt, London is the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever visited. The fabric of the city is a vibrant, glittering weave of both past and present. Modern glass skyscrapers are built beside pubs and palaces that have been standing for centuries. Each voice you hear speaks English with a different accent than the last. Diversity and tradition are represented proudly, and as a tourist, I truly felt as if the city offered me the best of both.
If you’re planning to visit London soon (or if you feel like taking a few moments to go on a little mental vacation), this post has all the highlights of our favorite London activities, London restaurants, and bars we visited too!
London in Four Days – Top Activities
Mimo London Borough Market Tasting Tour. Less than two hours after we arrived in the country, we hit the Borough Market for a food tour (because, priorities!). The Borough Market is a true, functioning market where you can find a mind-bogglingly delicious and diverse selection of fresh produce, artisan meats and cheeses, baked goodies, seafood, candies, ethnic food, beer + wine, and SO MUCH MORE. If you are in London and love food, this is a must stop (be sure to go on a day when the full market is operating).
Overwhelmed by options, I decided to book a food tour so that we could experience its highlights and learn about the history.
We opted for a tour with Mimo London, the market’s official tour company. Our guide, Sara, was fantastic (hi, Sara!). She knew many of the purveyors personally and selected a fabulous sampling for us (we were stuffed by the end). From British cheeses, to freshly shucked oysters, to Pimms, to Thai coconut pancakes, to Indian dosa, to bubbling hot plates of raclette scraped fresh from the wheel (DREAMS), to salted caramels, with many a pit stop in between, every bite was a delight.
In between stops, Sara filled us in on the market’s history, which is fascinating. Whenever I am in London, the Borough Market will be on my agenda, no question!
Big Bus Tour of London. Touristy yet completely worth it. This is an excellent first day activity, because it will help orient you geographically in the city, introduce you to different neighborhoods, and you’ll pick up historical tidbits along the way. The red route is the best for taking in the city’s major sites. Your ticket also includes a free river cruise if you have time for it.
Tower of London. Built by William the Conqueror in 1066, the Tower of London has been everything from a fortress to a royal residence to the site of executions (including the likes of Henry VIII’s wives and Thomas Moore) to a zoo. Be sure to take a guided tour by one of the Yeomen Warders (a.k.a. Beefeaters), which is included with your ticket. Yeoman Warders were originally part of the the monarch’s personal bodyguard and traveled with him everywhere. The tour is both educational and entertaining.
NEAR BY: Tower Bridge. Known for its stunning architecture, Tower Bridge is often mistaken for (the highly boring-looking) London Bridge. Walk across Tower Bridge after you visit the Tower of London, then stroll along the south bank of the Thames towards Waterloo.
The British Museum. Famous residents include one of the most important and meticulously displayed collections of Egyptian and Middle Eastern art and artifacts (I could have read about the mummies for hours), parts of the Pantheon, the Rosetta Stone, to name but a few. Admission is free (donation suggested). Even the museum itself is beautiful. It’s bright, airy, and ultra well organized. Make a point to spend at least an hour or two here when you are in London (stop at Drury 188-189 for a cruffin on your way—see the restaurant section below).
The National Gallery. Another fantastic museum (also free with a suggested donation). This one is home to several paintings that touch my heart, especially Van Gogh’s sunflowers and The Arnolfini Portrait, whose detail blows me away. If you are an art lover, this is an excellent stop.
NEAR BY: The National Portrait Gallery. We couldn’t squeeze it in on this trip, but I went several years ago and adored it. It’s the world’s most extensive collection of portraits, dating from the 16th century to present day. While that might sound odd or repetitive, it’s actually completely refreshing and intriguing. Do go, even if you can only spend a half hour.
Imperial War Museum. A top pick for war history buffs. Again, admission is free (with donation), so even if you only have an hour, it’s worthwhile. If you are pressed for time, start with the World War I exhibit.
Buckingham Palace. Purchase your tickets for a specific time slot in advance, as they do sell out. I loved seeing The State Rooms, which are grand and impressive. Ben is less into pretending he’s a member of British royalty, so in retrospect he felt like he could have skipped it.
Hampton Court. If you’d like to get out of the city for a day without traveling far, Hampton Court is a short train ride away. It’s a beautiful palace where King Henry VIII spent much of his time. The audio guide included with your ticket brings each room to life. The outside gardens are stunning too. Be sure to stop at Mezzet Dar for lunch beforehand (more info in restaurant section below).
Hang in a Pub. Pub culture is completely relaxed and an excellent way to recover from all of your museum/palace visiting.
High Tea. Notice how my activities and my foods intermix? If you can swing it, spending several hours at high tea nibbling finger sandwiches, sipping tea (and champagne) and stuffing yourself with scones (topped with jam and clotted cream, I insist) is indulgently fun.
Stroll Along the Thames. The Westminster Bridge is ideal for taking in views of Big Ben (when it’s not covered in scaffolding as it was during our trip), the Palace of Westminster, and the London Eye. The river’s south bank is lined with fun restaurants and bars.
Westminster Palace and Westminster Abby. About these places. Sooooo, I went here when I was 20 and remember it being fantastic, but it turns out that just because the posted hours advertise the last entry at 3:30 does not mean you can enter at 3:30—we arrived at 3:15 and were turned away. Lesson learned.
The list of potential London activities extends far beyond this blog post. The above is what we squeezed in (or almost squeezed in). For more ideas, check out my friend Kitt’s 150+ Things to Do in London.
Depending upon how much time you have, for a busy but not killer agenda, I’d recommend picking two “must sees” per day, and build in plenty of time for relaxing in between (see Pubs and High Tea above). This is vacation after all! Go, have fun, assume you will return.
What to Eat in London – Best London Restaurants
Below is a recap of the places we ate. We researched fairly extensively, and there isn’t one on the list that I wouldn’t recommend! Except for casual bakery stops, I recommend reservations.
As you plan where to eat, be sure you check out where the restaurant is located relative to your planned activities that day. London is large and if you aren’t careful, you could end up spending unnecessary time commuting.
Dishoom. London is renown for its Indian food, and Dishoom has a cult following for a reason. Lines for dinner will wrap around the block, but blessedly, they take reservations for breakfast and lunch (we went for lunch. Be sure to order the house dal and ruby chicken). We went to the Covent Garden location, which is conveniently near the British Museum.
Ottolenghi. This restaurant was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. After pouring over Yotham Ottolenghi’s cookbooks for years, I knew I had to try one of his restaurants in London. There are several locations, and while I doubt you can go wrong, we went to the one in Islington (the original). Between our group of five, we tried nearly the entire menu (it’s made for sharing), and not one item was even so-so. If you love seasonal food, vibrant flavors, and appreciate careful, thoughtful preparation, this is your place.
St. John Smithfield. A pick from the late, loved Anthony Bourdain, who was good friends with the chef and featured this restaurant on Parts Unknown. It puts a modern spin on British cuisine. The interior is beyond understated in a good way. This spot is all about the ingredients and its food shows it.
Ceviche. For two tapas lovers, Ceviche (a Peruvian restaurant) was HEAVEN. Get anything your server recommends and wash it down with one of their house pisco cocktails. We went to the Soho location.
Mezzet Dar. A GEM located right outside Hampton Court in East Mosley. Seriously delish, elevated, and generously portioned tapas.
Drury 188-189. The most lovely bakery/café located steps from The British Museum. GET THE CRUFFIN. You’re welcome.
High Tea at Ting (at the Shangri-La Hotel). If you splurge on a fabulous high tea, pick one with a view! We spend a leisurely 2.5 hours here, taking in London’s skyline from the 35th floor.
Borough Market. GO GO GO. I suggest double checking the schedule to make sure it’s a full market day and arrive as early as you can before the crowds take over. See recap of our food tour in the activities section above.
What to Drink in London – Our Picks for London Cocktails
Lyaness. The lead mixologist here was voted best cocktail maker in London and for good reason. The drinks are expertly crafted and unique. This south bank location is hip but not snooty and you have a gorgeous view of the Thames River and St. Paul’s Cathedral. If you only go for one splurge drink in London, I’d pick here.
69 Colebrooke Row (a.k.a. the Bar with No Name). Excellent (and expensive) cocktails at a bright and cozy bar. This one is only a 10 minute walk to Ottolenghi, so it’s a perfect pre-dinner stop.
Mr. Fogg’s Residence. London has a collection of Mr. Fogg’s bars, which are designed to be various places associated with Mr. Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. I can’t say that it lived up to the hype (or the price tag), but our drinks were tasty and if you are a fan of the book, it would be a worthy stop.
WHEW! There you have it: four days in one of the world’s most dynamic, diverse, and delicious cities.
If you use this guide, please let me know in the comments section below. I hope it’s useful to you as you plan your own adventures! Also, if you have any favorite London spots we missed, I’d love to hear about those too.