I’m far too stubborn to regularly take public transit in a new place. I silence my inner realist, and favor the voice that says “two miles isn’t that far — and think of all the stuff you’ll see on the way!” Though my feet may disagree, I nearly always side with the voice that tells me to walk between this museum and that park because, honestly, I know could be missing out on all the interesting character crevices and special spots that really make certain cities so awesome and alluring. So, if I haven’t lost you by talking about the voices in my head and abusing alliteration (sorry, last one!), then let’s look at London!
There is a lot to see in London.
Unlike other places I’ve been, London seems to have a never-ending list of interesting things to see and do for visitors.
I had a total of 4 full days in the city, with a few scattered half days. The first portion of my visit was with my sister Kelly, who had spent 6 months living and working in London. We arrived via train from Leeds and had a short walk to our hostel- we got very lucky with it being so near to King’s Cross Station. With bags stowed, we took off for Camden Market. Including a brief stop to peek into The British Library, it took us around 45 minutes to get up to Camden Town. The walk was quiet… until it wasn’t. Camden was bustling. Thankfully, by the time we arrived to the area, it was late-afternoon, and between the lunch crowd and the dinner rush.
Camden Market is really visually stimulating.
Lots of colors, textures, and shapes- and one of the very first things that struck me was a short hallway lined with vendor tables – and beautiful ornate archways. As we walked through, it went from feeling like a bazaar to feeling like a food court (I am not complaining!).
The food decision was a hard one. While struggling to pick something (hellooo choice-paralysis!), we heard someone yell, “Hey! Are you vegetarians?!” He had my attention. Though technically omnivorous, I veer towards the veg options whenever possible, so I gladly accepted a sample of Louisiana Chili Shack‘s vegan chili. The sample turned into a purchase because the gent behind the booth (and that genius pitch) was so engaging, that even though we took a lap to look elsewhere, nothing can compare to delicious food paired with quality interactions.
Stuffed and ready to think about moseying back towards King’s Cross/St. Pancras, I had just one more thing I wanted to see before departing: the street art. There are a lot of pieces throughout Camden Town, but we chose to aim for Hawley Mews and hope that there were some other pieces en route. Finally, back to the hostel for check-in.
“Let’s walk down to the river.”
We had a lot of ground to cover before Kelly went back stateside, so we quickly locked up our bags and went back out- this time to wander south towards the river. It was cold and coffee was dinner. I listened as she talked about times she had been on certain streets or on terrible dates at pubs we passed.
To take a break from the elements, we ducked inside Somerset House.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Somerset House. It almost felt as if I was walking around someone’s home. The long halls with individual rooms gave the sensation that I was about to be yelled at for trespassing. After a few quick snaps of the amazing floor, we walked out the back door and jumped into the river.
It was mighty chilly, after a few minutes riverside, we turned around and walked back north towards the hostel. Our chosen route brought us directly through Oxford Circus… which it was. A circus, I mean. Totally packed. I might’ve been tempted to hang out if I wasn’t edging on hangry and acutely aware that I had 3-5 years on the crowd. Had I been full and caffeinated, I would’ve been way more fun.
Get up early, it pays off.
I know what you’re thinking… and that’s what coffee is for.
We had mapped out our general plan when we got back to the hostel the evening prior, so we were able to get up and out early enough that our ride to South Kensington was quick and painless. The first goal for the morning was to go take some pictures and poke around Kynance Mews. Kensington was really quiet and we found our way to what may be the most charming little street ever. I think I uttered the words “it’s so cute I could just die” (note: I didn’t die).
While Kynance Mews is a bit of a destination, if you plan to add it to your walking tour, please remember that this is a residential area – there are people who live in those houses and children that play outside. Treat the area as you would want your home treated, and respect the privacy of the residents.
But what’s so special about cute houses? And what is a ‘mews’?
Glad you asked! According to the OED, a ‘mews’ is defined as: a row or street of houses or flats that have been converted from stables or built to look like former stables.
In my opinion, the special part is that they’re a unique shape and have an exterior design unlike anything I’ve come across in the US. As I understand, it takes a bit of money to live in a mews (on a mews?), so some love and investment go into making them unique and “just so cute I could [expletive] die.”
On the way to coffee Kelly walked us past the Natural History Museum- but was unable to resist showing me something right next door that she knew I would love: the Ironwork exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was rad and free and 10/10 recommend. Luckily coffee and croissants were just across the street in a little pedestrian square. Coffee in hand, we moved north to walk through Hyde Park. No sooner had we arrived at the Albert Memorial, Kelly decided that I would be missing out if I skipped Harrods (for one very specific reason).
I have never seen a bathroom as nice as the bathrooms in Harrods.
I’m talking perfume, beautiful decor – just all-around luxe. Other than being a nice department store, the bathrooms were definitely the highlight – so we left. For the second time that day we hopped on the train – this time to Borough Market.
Half day and 5mi/8km down.
By the time we arrived at Borough Market, we had already spent a lot of calories and they needed replenishing. Yeah, we had that croissant but… I eat a lot for a human of my size. Conveniently, the market had food and cider – which made walking outside on a cold day a lot more bearable! Headed for the Thames, we followed the crowd though the Clink Street underpass and wandered across a big portrait of Shakespeare, and then subsequently past the current Globe Theatre. We knew we were close to losing daylight, but ducked into Tate Modern to see what they had going on.
I fell asleep in Tate Modern.
It’s true. After walking around for so long and finally being warm and digesting my Borough Market sandwich (and cider), I hit a wall. I sat in a chair while my sister was in the restroom and just conked out. When I came-to it had only been a few minutes, but I knew I needed to be in motion or else I’d snooze again.
We crossed the Thames via the Millennium Bridge, and cut west towards some famous clock tower. The walk along the river was lovely; the weather was clear and there weren’t huge crowds like there had been earlier. The blissful feeling crept away as we got closer to Westminster Bridge. Apparently, the bridge is the most popular spot to try to get a picture of Big Ben.
This was the only thing I did during my time in London that I actively disliked.
The bridge was a mob scene. Lot’s of teens on their phones and tour groups taking up the whole sidewalk. Good thing Kelly is a smart lady – she told me to hold in the pedestrianrage and power through to the other side. Just across the bridge (crossing west to east), on the right-hand side there is a staircase that leads down to the riverwalk. At the bottom of the stairs is the most beautiful, unobstructed view of the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben.
With my sister leaving the next day, we used our time in the quiet observation spot to both take it all in – and figure out where to eat dinner. The choice seemed pretty obvious: Nando’s. Kelly had loved the chicken chain when she lived in London, so it was the perfect end for her trip. It was a well-deserved meal, as by the end of the day we had walked just over 11mi/18km!
After several days without rain…
It was gross the next morning, so Kelly braved the rain to go to a Sainsbury’s to stock up on treats to bring home. Checked-out, bags in storage, and off we went to Trafalgar Square. The weather was dreary, so we only spent a few minutes outside before we went into the National Portrait Gallery. While not typically something I would’ve prioritized, I’m glad we stopped in.
Mid-morning, custody of yours-truly shifted from Kelly to my friend Sarah, who was living and working just outside London. I spent a lovely few days with her in Essex before coming back to London to power through the rest of my mega-walking tour. So I’m going to jump around a bit!
With Kelly gone and Sarah as my new companion, I was ready to go somewhere that my sister hadn’t been too keen to revisit: Brick Lane. A fellow blogger had suggested that I go to Beigel Bake, so we did. We shared our first meal together in over a year, standing up dripping mustard on a dirty counter. It was great.
We went back to the riverfront to just walk and chat, and she had the genius idea to take me to Gordon’s Wine Bar. If you’ve never been to a wine bar in a cave, you’re missing out. We split a bottle, did a little more walking and talking, and then said a temporary goodbye to London.
I picked a different neighborhood the 2nd time around.
Being by Kings Cross was convenient, but when I returned I plopped myself just outside the craziness of Oxford Circus. The rain had given me a little break while I was outside London, and then returned – but only after I had left the hostel for the day and was getting off the train at Paddington Station. Little Venice was a really nice area. It would be a lovely place to run if I lived there….. or liked running. After maybe 30 minutes of meander/exploring, being maybe a mile from the station, the sky opened up and dumped buckets of rain. Soaked through, I could either turn back to the hostel to change, or trudge on to my next destination.
Being a champion means wearing wet clothes in rich neighborhoods.
I was originally going to walk to Notting Hill from Little Venice, but chose the train just so I could avoid being rained on for a little while. By the time I alighted at Ladbroke Grove Station, the rain had passed and the sun was attempting to peek through – lucky lady.
There was no planned route – I just picked a direction and started walking. This method worked out pretty well – I passed a street with rainbow colored houses, had to be very quiet as I walked down Portobello Road (there was a movie being filmed), and I didn’t know it at the time, took my favorite photo from the whole trip on St. Luke’s Mews.
I’ll admit that Notting Hill had some really photo-worthy homes, but otherwise there wasn’t as much to do or learn. I did, however, leave Notting Hill fully dry!
I needed to sit down.
It hit the point in the day where after 2 locations and just under 6mi/10k, my feet needed the quick break that the train provided.
The next stop was Buckingham Palace, though I made a quick diversion to see the Wellington Arch. The cast-iron gates tucked inside the arch are pretty stunning. Before I made it to the palace (but after I expertly side-stepped piles of horse “evidence”), I noticed a map with different walking routes marked through Green Park. I chose to follow the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk to the palace, though the full walk is much longer.
It was cool to walk past Buckingham Palace, but nothing interesting was going on, so after a few clicks of the camera, I was moving on.
Aside from a quick “I need to use the restroom so I’ll buy something” coffee in Notting Hill, my calorie intake was limited to a few fistfuls of a cashew/almond/choco chip trail mix. Even though I wanted to spend a little more time exploring the areas around Westminster Abbey and The Palace at Westminster, I knew I needed to make it a quick visit.
After a little poking around and some up-close examination of the architecture, I flew through a Tesco Express grabbing the first two tasty carby things I saw, and took the lazy way back to the hostel. It was an early night, but it was necessary given that I needed to be fully energized for my last full day.
Being a budget-minded traveler, when someone drops the word “free” – I perk up.
Sky Garden is comprised of the 35th, 36th, and 37th floors of the building located at 20 Fenchurch St. a Fellow hosteller tipped me off that aside from needing to sign-up in advance, the tickets were free. I booked the first slot available, which was luckily 10:15am (only 15 minutes after they open). The views were decent; certainly worth the trip and time. The deck offers 360-degree views of the city, and though the sky was cloudy, I was still able to see all the popular sights (and they have etching on the glass if you’re unsure where to look or what you’re seeing).
The Sky Garden doesn’t need a ton of your time. I was easily able to sneak it in before heading off to Greenwich Market/Greenwich Observatory for the afternoon. There was no way I was going to be able to walk to Greenwich, but the train was great- a good portion above ground.
The Royal Greenwich Observatory was so cool. I highly recommend grabbing an audio guide because it gives vital context to what you’re seeing. When my time was up (get it, Greenwich?…..time? lol), I cut through the park, the Queen’s House mansion/gallery, and then passed through the University of Greenwich. There is a massive boat, the Cutty Sark, that had been used to move tea from Asia the Britain – so that was intended to be my last stop in the area.
I love when it works out that something that looks cool, also has a cool function.
Before heading back to the train, I spotted a weird/cool building that I thought was a bathroom. Getting closer, I noticed a similar building on the other side of the river, so I figured it was worth reading the plaque. Good thing I did! The buildings connected an underground footpath that led from one side of the river to the other. Why take the train back across- when I could walk under the Thames?! I still had to take the train the rest of the way back into central London, but whatever… I walked under a river.
To kept the momentum of “doing things that many visitors might not know about” going, I made the various remnants of the London Roman Wall the very next stop for the day. The bits of the wall are something you might just walk past if you weren’t specifically looking for them. This is particularly true with so many people laser-focused on the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, that they walk right past these artifacts.
Up until this point, I had only seen the Tower Bridge from afar, so I knew I needed to make it a priority for the afternoon. Half the bridge was under construction, so the view from up close wasn’t what it might normally be.
5mi/8km down for the day, and I was starting to get tired of all the walking.
The Tower Bridge was crowded, so after a few photos, I moved on. The only other thing I knew I could squeeze into the day was a quick trip to see St. Paul’s Cathedral. I n e e d e d to get a picture of me holding two pence in by the steps of the cathedral [leave a comment below if you know why!]
After I got my photo, I was done. I was so tired that I could feel myself edging on being unpleasant, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I was alone. One of the major perks of solo travel! I also had to pack and be ready to get out early to squeeze in one…. last…. item.
Being kind opens doors… literally.
My last morning, I had three hours to play with before I needed to head off to the airport.
The last of my London must-do was to visit the Tower of London. The weather was beautiful, perfect for a quick walk along the river before doing some more walking through the tower grounds.
I got there the second they opened, did an abbreviated version of the audio guided tour, and made sure that I was able to join the very first Yeoman tour. Though nowadays Yeomen are ceremonial guards, their historical purpose is great and the resume they must have to be considered is beyond impressive. Yeoman Shaun was our guide and did a great job of intertwining the history with a little entertainment.
At the end of the tour, I had been hoping to get a little more information on Sir Thomas More’s time incarcerated and execution, so I approached a few Yeoman to ask if there were any exhibits within the grounds. After a little friendly conversation, and me explaining why I was interested, one of them quickly ushered me into an area that is not typically open to the public (though I should say he was not breaking any rules, as their position allows them to use their discretion), and gave me a quick history on Thomas More in relation to the Tower.
I walked out of there with the biggest smile. I was elated that he went out of his way to make sure I got a really unique experience.
My feet survived.
I didn’t note all of the distances throughout my time in London, though I did calculate my total mileage to be somewhere around 35-37 miles (57-60km) in London alone. Swapping between two great pairs of shoes (my Nike sneakers and Kodiak boots) made a huge difference I’m sure.
I was tired, but it was worth it.
I wouldn’t have seen things like little school children making a chain as they crossed the street, gorgeous lion head door knockers, alleys. I might’ve missed seeing where my sister lived and street art and the goodies I tasted because I wandered by a Tesco at the right time (I got real spammy towards Kettle Brand Chips because I need salt and balsamic vinegar chips to be a thing in the US).
I would’ve spent more time (and money) on the train, and less time getting a feel for the personality of the city. And even with all that I was able to accomplish, I feel like London will always be a place with more to explore.
- What is your favorite London neighborhood?
- Have you ever discovered something amazing while wandering on-foot that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen?
- Any idea what I was referencing in my bit about St. Paul’s?