Think Outside the Buckingham Box with This London Itinerary

It’s much more than fish and chips.

Like New York City or Disney World, London is a destination so major, so epic, and so iconic that it can be downright daunting to distill it down to a few paragraphs, especially when the London bucket list is a mile long. As the most visited city in Europe, and one engrained in global culture from every vantage point—the food, the fashion, the museums, the theater, the London-set films, etc.—this is a metropolis that can be all too easily overwhelmed by its big-ticket attractions and quintessential sights. Because at the end of the day, whether visiting London for the first time or the 15th, with a city of this scope, it’s tempting just to curl into the fetal position and stick with what you know—or, rather, what you’ve seen in a Disney movie or a Sherlock Holmes iteration.

Sure, sights like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey are all as worthy of an international bucket list as the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids, but there’s so much more to see, do, and eat in this immense global hub. By all means, snap your palatial selfies and ride a double-decker bus; buy a wizarding wand at Platform 9¾, and go on a fish & chips-fueled pub crawl; line up for last-minute tickets to Les Miserables; and spend way too much money at Harrods.

But don’t be intimidated to venture off the well-trod path and discover the many sides of London, all of which are backdropped by industrial age brick buildings, white mansion-like row houses, homey pubs on every corner, and plants tumbling off windowsills of tree-lined streets. As busy and bustling a metropolis as London is, it’s an old and pretty city, no matter which alley you look down.

Whether modern and glossy-new or an under-the-radar classic, these are some of the shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and sights you should check out in London to discover a new side of one of the world’s most iconic cities.

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Visit the requisite sights for first-timers

When it comes to touristy big-city fanfare, you can do a lot worse than giant clock towers and literal palaces. Like the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, and the Space Needle in the US, London has its fill of world-famous bucket list hits. While you might not visit these swarming tourist magnets on every London trip, they definitely merit a stop for first-timers. After all, Big Ben looks even bigger in real life than it does in Peter Pan.

For any inaugural trip to London, start with a walking tour through Westminster. Begin by Westminster Bridge and make your way to the base of Big Ben—the 16-story Gothic clock tower is closed to visitors and under a years-long refurbishment, but the gilded monolith is definitely ripe for gawking (and selfies). A couple blocks away is Westminster Abbey, a Notre Dame-sized cathedral that’s been crowning royalty for more than a millennium. The Abbey is open most days for verger-guided or self-guided tours, but keep in mind it closes for special ceremonies, so check ahead that you’re not crashing a royal wedding.

From here, head towards Buckingham Palace (passing the Winston Churchill statue on the way) via The Mall. The gorgeous, tree-lined route goes directly through swan-filled St. James Park, culminating with an elaborate marble and bronze monument. Behind is Buckingham Palace, a vast royal residence literally fit for a Queen—the ornate palace is so large, at 828,000-square-feet, it makes the White House (a measly 55,000-sq.-ft.) look like an NYC studio apartment. While most visitors simply stand outside the gates and marvel from afar or watch the famous Changing of the Guard, tickets to enter and tour parts of the palace are available in the months when the Queen is OOO (i.e. she’s at her summer residence in Scotland), July 22-October 2.

A line of trees in Hyde Park
George W Johnson/Moment/Getty Images

Just northwest of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park is the largest—and most famed—of London’s Royal Parks. What Central Park is to Manhattan, Hyde Park is to London, featuring 350 acres of lush greenery, shimmering waterways, fountains, rose gardens, and memorials, including the somber yet serene Diana Memorial Fountain. Simply strolling through is a lovely way to experience it, but the park also hosts periodic events, Serpentine Bar & Kitchen serves wood-fired pizza on the shores of Serpentine lake, and sporting options include football fields, tennis courts, and horseback riding.

On the south bank of the River Thames, you can test your fear of heights at the London Eye—at 443 feet, it’s the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe, with each massive pod large enough to hold 25 people. If you need a little liquid courage, reserve a spot in the Jubilee Pub Pod, specially decked-out for the Queen’s Jubilee with regal seating, flowers, and spritzy cocktails. In case this isn’t adrenaline-pumping enough, you can get even higher at The Shard, a pointy skyscraper that rises 72 stories and 1,016 feet on the south bank. It’s the tallest building in the UK, with mile-long views from galleries on floors 68, 69, and 72. There are also several bars and restaurants in the jagged tower, including modern British spot Aqua Shard and cocktails with a staggering view from GŎNG on the 52nd floor.

For something closer to Earth, visit nearby Shakespeare’s Globe. William Shakespeare’s most seminal works—like Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet—were performed in a round, timber-clad theater that put actors on a stage surrounded by 3,000 spectators. While the Globe Theater was built in 1599, it burned down in 1613, and has since been re-built to approximate the original, but with less flammable materials and fewer seats to adhere to fire code. Located near the original site, with a roofless open-air stage in the central yard, the Globe 2.0 is still the best place in the world to see productions like Henry VIII, King Lear, and The Tempest.

Whales Exhibition in The National Historic Museum in London
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Hit up the museum musts

Beyond the big, splashy towers and palaces, London’s world-class museums are the perfect middle ground between tourist attractions and cultural keystones—and most are free. There truly are so many utterly fantastic museums in London, from the National Gallery to the Imperial War Museum, and even modern white cube galleries, so you’ll have to plan out your choices wisely.

One can’t-miss is the British Museum, a temple to art and culture that’s so vast it dwarfs even Buckingham Palace at 990,000-square-feet. Snag a map (you’ll need one) and mosey through exhibitions depicting the past 2 million years, including Roman gladiators, Stonehenge, Egyptian mummies, Hindu goddesses, and even the Rosetta Stone. Then savor the culinary arts at Great Court Restaurant for afternoon tea, butter scones, and Yorkshire rhubarb tarts.

Marble statue at The British Museum
FenlioQ/Shutterstock

If you like wandering into old rooms fully reconstructed from a different era, you’ll want to see the Victoria & Albert Museum, aka the V&A. You’ll also find royal jewels here, as well as gowns, the intersection of art and fashion, hallways of stained glass windows, and enormous rooms packed with columns and sculptures, for 360 degrees of wandering in a world of 3D art. It’s also right next door the Natural History Museum, where you can see colossal elephant skulls and dinosaur bones in a magical, cathedral-like setting.

For fantastic contemporary art, the Tate Modern sits in an industrial warehouse building and always manages to intrigue with light shows, audio visual displays, and generally boundary-pushing art. The museum is free for the majority of art, like Picasso and Surrealism to Aboriginal art from Australia, though sometimes tickets are required for special exhibits, like for one of Yayoi Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms.

bartender pouring a drink
Fitz's bar

Drink somewhere that isn’t a pub

Beyond Buckingham Palace and Shakespearean lore, if there’s one thing London is known for, it’s pubs. This is a drinking town, and for centuries, most of that swilling has taken place at corner pubs typified by polished wood, cozy corners, and pints of bitter British IPAs. As charming as that is, they’re a dime-a-dozen in London, and you won’t have to look hard to check that off your list every single day. Even if you start at the pub, it’s worthwhile to advance onward throughout the night or on different evenings to explore some the more offbeat drinking destinations in a city teeming with singular bars.

On the newer front, Hithe & Seek is a beautiful wine bar overlooking the north bank of the River Thames. The chic spot is basically the antithesis of a pub, swapping sudsy pints for esoteric natural wines, veggie-centric small plates, and plush furniture in date-night-worthy digs. The curated wine list is divvied into two sections: one with more familiar varietals, and the other containing undiscovered novelties like Canadian rosé, Welsh Blanc de Noir, Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc, and Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon. The shareable food menu follows suit with adventurous bites like mackerel tartare with black garlic ketchup, charred baby corn with funky huitlacoche mayo, and buttery burrata with pickled wild strawberries and 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar.

For a sensory cocktail experience, linger at Fitz’s Bar, a glam lounge inside the castle-sized Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel in Bloomsbury. The decadent Gatsby-worthy bar—boasting 18th-century stained glass, ostrich feathers, and a Jazz Age mirrorball—offers inventive rotating themes, with the current list spotlighting cocktails inspired by emotions and colors. The menu is like a drinkable Rorschach test, featuring different pages of distinct colors and patterns designed to connect with customers. You’re given a small blacklight to flash over the pages, above each drink description, which unveils hidden personality traits. For instance, if you order the floral and rosy Bodice Ripper—made with rum, passion fruit, kumquat liqueur, tomato wine, and pomegranate—you’re a passionate romantic. But if you’re ordering something called Bodice Ripper, you probably already knew that.

People at an outside bar
Yard Bar

London is also known as one of the most queer-friendly cities in the world, rife with LGBTQIA-friendly bars from late-night clubs to jovial gay pubs. One of the most unique, though, is The Yard Bar, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it courtyard hidden down an alley in Soho. Bedecked with fountains and Grecian-style statues, the queer-centric space feels more mature than most nearby alternatives, with friendly bartenders shaking up expert espresso martinis.

For craft beer in a non-pub setting, it doesn’t get any more un-pub-like than The Birds, a modern East End tavern that leans into whimsy with Alfred Hitchcock-themed decor, dog shows, and quiz nights. The family-friendly beer bar, equipped with a tented Aviary Garden, even offers vegan riffs on pub staples like banana blossom “fish” and chips, seitan and ale pie, alongside a lineup of rotating beers mostly from nearby Laine Brew Co.

Mallow Restaurant

Trade fish & chips for donuts, tempeh, and watercress soup

From fish & chips and meaty Sunday roasts to black pudding and shepherd’s pie, London isn’t lacking in timeworn culinary traditions, nor in celebrity chefs, tasting menu temples, and contemporary restaurants shifting the paradigm of English dining traditions. But to limit yourself to a fried slab of haddock and heap of chips would be to miss out on the international culinary capital that London is.

Take Mallow, an entirely plant-based restaurant that serves up dazzlingly inventive, Insta-worthy plates in a boho-chic space. The menu is seasonal and internationally inspired, from labneh with walnut kataifi and leek-cheddar croquettes with black butter ketchup to buttermilk “chicken” sandwiches with cacio e pepe mayo and tempeh pad woon sen with peanut dust.

Just across the river, 14 Hills is a sexy stunner on the 14th floor of Fen Court, decked out like an indoor jungle with tropical plants and pops of pink and turquoise. The intricate dishes are just as vibrant, like harissa-seasoned tuna with lime yogurt, chorizo-crusted pork chops with piperade, and miso-glazed eggplant with pickled shallots. Don’t sleep on the cocktails, either, like the Gentleman’s Club, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon fat-washed with salted butter, maple syrup, barrel-aged oak bitters, infused with spiced smoke, and topped with a chocolate cigar.

hand pouring maple syrup
14 Hills

Any restaurant called Art|Yard Bar and Kitchen is bound to be aesthetically pleasing, and indeed, this seasonally driven modern British spot traffics in dishes that are as visually appealing as they are delicious. Quieter and more underrated than most contemporary British restaurants in town, this sleeper hit slings walnut hummus crudites, supergrains salads with vegan feta, burrata with Spanish black truffles and honey, and potatoes gussied up with nasturtiums and purple broccoli.

For something sweet, London’s donut scene is popping. This is especially true of the fluffy, sugar-dusted and custard-filled varieties. Taste for yourself at Bread Ahead Bakery at Borough Market, where the famed, freshly fried fritters come stuffed with buttery praline, lemon curd, vanilla custard, and sea salt caramel with honeycomb. Then there’s St. John Bakery in Neal’s Yard, owned by the same folks behind arguably one of the most famed and influential restaurants in London, St. John. The tiny bakery and bottle shop features bread and other pastries, but it’s particularly known for its filled-to-order donuts—order the velvety chocolate custard and risk having all other donuts ruined for you forever.

young man standing outside vintage store
@bricklanevintage

Hunt for under-the-radar shops

Shops abound beyond mega-destinations like Harrods, the retail-lined stretch of Oxford Street, and the adorable Apple Market in centrally located Covent Garden.

After you’ve gorged on donuts at Bread Ahead, amble around the rest of Borough Market, a sprawling outdoor food market that’s been in operation for centuries. Located in Southwark on the south bank of the River Thames, this place is like a farmers’ market on steroids, featuring a dizzying array of vendors, prepared foods, sundries, and samples. It’s the perfect place for a foodie to get lost following the fragrance of risotto, olive oil, seafood, bread, cheese, tacos, and so much more. For Londoners, it’s the dreamiest place to shop for dinner—for the rest of us, it’s like an edible treasure hunt.

If you’re shopping for something to wear, London abounds with vintage wares that are at once vibrantly unique and economical. Soho and Shoreditch are two neighborhoods particularly populated by thrifty storefronts. In the former, check out shops like Beyond Retro, Reign Vintage, Cow, and Rokit for everything from flame-printed capes and sequined berets to zebra jackets and faux fur shawls. In Shoreditch on the East End, Brick Lane is a prime stretch of vintage shops, street art, and restaurants. Each block boasts another funky storefront, like Brick Lane Vintage, Hunky Dory, Cream Vintage, and Here After.

London is also a great place to be a bookworm. Bibliophiles should spend time at Foyles’s flagship Charing Cross store. Basically the FAO Schwartz of books, it was once the largest bookstore on Earth, boasting five massive floors filled with enough books to make the Beauty and The Beast library look paltry. There’s also a cafe, stocked with wine and beer, on the top floor.

dancers on stage
Southwark Playhouse

Finish your visit with fringe theater

Along with food, museums, and palatial meccas, theater is another well-known facet of London’s cultural landscape. But while heavy-hitting productions like Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd are all worth the hassle and cost, there are so many other lesser-known performances that are just as epic—at a fraction of the price.

Tucked off the main drag of London’s glowing theater district is one of the city’s longest running shows: The Mousetrap. An Agatha Christie whodunnit, this fun murder mystery show will keep you giggling and guessing over the course of two hours, as actors shuffle around on a stage set in a wintry B&B. Housed in the historic and impossibly charming St. Martin’s Theatre, it’s an ideal way to spend an afternoon matinee while sipping Prosecco from the on-site bar.

You’ll also find a number of smaller and excellent performances at places like Southwark Playhouse, Finborough Theatre, and The Vaults (located in underground tunnels). In fact, small theaters are almost as abundant as pubs, and a must-experience in London is fringe theater. You’ll be lucky if you catch one done in the upstairs space above a pub, like Upstairs at the Gatehouse or Theatre503, where guests often sit on cushions in a circle around actors who can easily engage with the audience. Just don’t be late to any shows in London; there’s a strict lock the door policy as soon as the show starts.

hotel with pool
The Westin London City (London, UK)

Beat the jet lag at this wellness-minded hotel

With travel restrictions dwindling, that means international trips are ramping back up, but that also means jet lag is ramping back up as well. Which is why the wellness-oriented The Westin London City hotel might be your best bet for a trip to London.

The hotel’s all-day restaurant, Mosaic, specifically focuses on healthful dishes and ingredients—like a broccolini-clad quinoa salad and fresh pasta filled with silken pumpkin puree—that naturally help with jet lag. Also, turn-down service involves nightly teapots and nourishing snacks that promote restful sleep, like roasted chickpeas and kiwi-filled fruit salads.

On-staff “run concierges” guide guests on morning jogs along the river, there’s an elegant indoor pool designed like a modern Roman bath house, and the hotel is home to the UK’s first Heavenly Spa. There you can experience unique treatments like theMeridian Flow Golden Facial, wherein gold coated micro-magnetic pearls are part of a gilded facial treatment designed to plump the skin.

Sure, London is home to iconic hotels like Claridges, The Ritz, and The Savoy, but there’s only one place in town willing to slather your face in gold for the sake of your well-being.

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Matt Kirouac is a recent transplant to Oklahoma City after two and a half years of RV living, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.