Walking around London is like rewatching your favourite film over and over. You rediscover parts you’d forgotten, you remember why you’d loved it in the first place and you learn something new every single time you do it. Being a tour guide is like showing someone else that favourite film for the very first time. You get to experience the joy of that first viewing over and over again. It’s a massive cliché that London is like a series of small, interesting towns stitched together, but that truly is what walking around in it feels like. Every part of it has its own distinct culture, people, locations and, more often than not, smells. And every single part is (sometimes literally) dripping in history and culture.
If I were going to give one tip to anyone visiting London for their first, tenth or fiftieth time, it would be to always look up. The part of London just above our eyeline is the richest, most varied landscape of fascinating architecture, faded advertising, historic buildings, blue plaques marking famous people and events, and tiny snapshots of domestic living. Always look up. And always take the quieter side streets: it’s where the best shops, cafes, theatres and galleries will be.
My favourite places in London tend to reflect what I’ve been talking about: places in famous areas that you’re probably less likely to visit. Steer well clear of the main streets. London rewards careful investigation. It can be cheaper (sometimes even free), it can be more interesting, it can certainly be less crowded and will always leave you with a much more genuine ‘local’ experience. So here are some of my top tips:
The “Two Bridges” – a completely underrated and undervisited secret area of West London, the riverside walk between Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge, and back again on the other side, takes in countryside scenery, beautiful bridges, about 15 fantastic pubs, a beautiful village green (Barnes Green), a great arts centre (OSO Arts Centre, Barnes), one of London’s most famous jazz venues (The Bull’s Head) and a famous brewery, which you can tour (Fuller’s). All accessible on the tube to Hammersmith Station. Perfect.
Greenwich – visit Greenwich market, right next to Cutty Sark Station, for excellent food, books, clothes, vinyl, everything. Then climb to Greenwich Observatory to see the Meridian Line and a great, free museum about time. Drop into the Royal Maritime Museum. And the Cutty Sark itself, a brilliantly preserved old ship. Then hit up excellent pubs, also on the riverside. There’s a trend here.
Peckham Levels – Peckham is a ridiculously cool, artsy area of South London that very few tourists know about. It’s pretty rough around the edges, but most of the best places in London are. Go to Peckham Rye station on the tube. Then about five minutes away you’ll get to a converted multistory car park (I know, right?) and, instead, you’ll find a multi story hub filled with galleries, great independent restaurants, a theatre, a cinema, great bars, brilliant independent shops and just loads of things you won’t realise you want until you want them. And in the summer they have a rooftop bar.
Theatre – unless you hate your money, don’t bother with the big London West End shows. They’re far too expensive (unless you get returns), and the best London theatre is on the Fringe. Best theatres in London, for their size, programming, cost and atmosphere are the Soho Theatre, in Soho (amazing for comedy and experimental theatre) and the Bush Theatre, in Shepherd’s Bush (for daring and exciting new writing and intimate performances).
Bobby Fitzpatrick’s, West Hampstead – Hampstead is a place worth dedicating a day to exploring by itself, especially with its literary history and the Heath, but this is probably London’s least well known, and my favourite, restaurant. Decorated to look like a ‘70s living room, and with the music to match, they have an American Diner-menu, with burgers, nachos, hot dogs, pizza etc. And great, great cocktails. My god. The cocktails. Go to West Hampstead station for this one.
Or just ignore everything I say and just walk everywhere. I’ve lived here for 26 years and I’ve only seen about a quarter of this crazy city. Go wild.