Today is a very special day on the blog as Jessica from over at Diverting Journeys will be sharing insights on London, where she has lived for the past few years. On her blog, Jessica writes about museums and house museums and has even been to places like the Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, and she’s your go-to person for odd museums and interesting places to visit. So with that, here’s Jessica!
Hi everybody, I’m really excited to be the first guest poster on Misadventures with Michael! I usually write about museums and travel on my own blog, Diverting Journeys, but in keeping with the style of Michael’s blog, I’ve attempted to put together a little city guide to London for you (this is by no means intended to be a comprehensive guide; London’s too big for that!). I’ve been living in London for nearly six years now, and before that, I was a tourist here myself, so I’ve experienced the city from both perspectives; here’s some stuff I wish I would have known before my first visit!
One of the first things to do upon arriving in London is to get yourself an Oyster Card (which is a bit trickier these days now that Boris has closed down most ticket offices, but they still have them in larger stations, and most Underground stations will have a machine that vends them); it’s much, much cheaper than buying single and return tickets all the time, and unless you plan on only seeing a very small area of Central London, you will find yourself doing a prodigious amount of walking otherwise (hint, you can also use the TfL journey planner to navigate your way around). You can use Oyster not only on the Tube, but the DLR, buses, Overground trains, and National Rail services within Greater London (for example, if you were going to Wimbledon or Richmond) as well (I was going to say something cheesy here like, “And now let’s see where that Oyster can take you,” but that kind of makes it sound like I work for TfL, which I definitely don’t).
Attractions: I am a museum fiend, so that is heavily influencing my opinion of the best things to see and do, but museums are also great because so many of them are free (and London is hella expensive, so you will need to save money for food and booze)! I think some of the large museums live up to the hype, and others don’t. The British Museum, for instance, is huge and has a fantastic collection, but it is always so damn busy that’s it’s difficult to just have a nice wander – it’s more a question of figuring out exactly what you want to see (for example, the Warren Cup), and pushing through the crowds to make it happen. I have the same issue with the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, although the Portrait Gallery is quite good if you like history.
However, I adore the V&A, which I believe is technically a museum of design, but it’s really so much more; history, art, and just random beautiful objects all rolled into one. Don’t miss the man-eating tiger automaton in the Indian gallery! As far as the rest of South Kensington is concerned, I’d opt for the Science Museum over the NHM, particularly the “secret” fourth and fifth floors (most people don’t know they’re there because you can only access them through one set of lifts) that hold some of the overflow of the Wellcome Collection, meaning history of medicine stuff (with bonus wax figures re-enacting medical treatments throughout history!).
Some smaller museums I’d recommend are the Hunterian and John Soane Museum (on opposite sides of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, near Holborn) for medical history and stuff in jars in the former museum and Hogarthian goodness in the latter. The Geffrye Museum (on the history of the home), and the Museum of London Docklands (history of the Thames) are off the beaten path (in the hipster haven of Hoxton and West India Quay respectively, but visiting the latter means you get to ride the DLR (if you sit in the front of the first carriage, you can pretend to be the driver!)) but are worth going out of your way for, particularly the Geffrye if you are interested in checking out the many trendy restaurants and bars in Shoreditch. If you have cash to burn (lucky you!), Dennis Severs House is an amazing experience, wherein you take a candlelit journey through the home of Huguenot silk weavers who have only just left the room…or so you’re led to believe via the use of authentic smells and sound effects, but you need to book that in advance, so plan ahead!
As far as palaces go, I think Hampton Court is the one to see. Henry VIII snatched it up from Cardinal Wolsey and made it his own, and in addition to his apartments and huge kitchen (as you might expect), you can see rooms where some of the Stuarts lived, lovely gardens, and a hedge maze! I think it’s definitely worth the trip from Central London, as you can easily catch a train there from Waterloo, which leads me to another tip: If you are planning on visiting Hampton Court, the Tower of London, Churchill War Rooms, or many of the other major attractions in London that charge an admission fee, you can get 2 for 1 admission through National Rail by printing out the vouchers on their website, or picking up a 2for1 Days Out booklet from any rail station (they have a little gnome guy on the cover), and then buying a National Rail ticket to said destination (as in, taking a train rather than the Tube). If your destination is in Central London, and not near a rail station, you can get around this by buying a day travelcard from a rail station (such as Waterloo or Victoria, basically, you buy your ticket from one of the machines by the trains, rather than down in the Tube station), and using that on the Tube in lieu of your Oyster. I think I’m making this sound more confusing than it is, so either read their FAQs, or ask a member of rail staff when you’re here!
London is a massive city, and it can be nice to spend a day in one smaller area to explore and soak up some local colour. Two of my favourite areas for this are Greenwich and London Bridge. Greenwich feels grand and historic, offers so many different museums (particularly if you like maritime history) including the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, Queen’s House, and the Fan Museum. And, (perhaps most importantly) it has a nice little market with Brazilian churros (with homemade dulce de leche), lots of other delicious food, and a few quirky boutiques (I like the Shoe Embassy).
The London Bridge area is also grand, and I’d recommend visiting on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday to catch Borough Market (it’s also open on Saturdays, but is super crowded then, so it’s best to go during the week if you can). It’s a fantastic food market, arguably the best in London, and abuts Southwark Cathedral. There’s also some fab pubs nearby, like the Market Porter (you’ll notice the office workers standing in hordes outside on a Friday night, even in the winter, because the pub is tiny, so most people just take their pint outside), Katzenjammers (German themed, and they do full-size steins), or The Rake for craft ales. Finally, I’d avoid the extremely touristy and overpriced London Bridge Experience, and instead get your fill of grisly medical procedures at the Old Operating Theatre, which is a real historic operating theatre that dates back to the Regency period, before the advent of anaesthesia (which is plenty scary, I think, without the need for fake gore).
Eatin’: I usually tend to grab food en route to other destinations when I’m in Central, rather than take the time to eat in a restaurant, and I think it’s probably handy for tourists to know some places to get cheap and cheerful eats too, so here we go. Markets are the perfect place to grab lunch or a quick snack; in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned above, I’d also recommend Maltby Street (between Bermondsey and London Bridge) on a Saturday morning, and Brixton’s covered market on Fridays and Saturdays to sample a range of international cuisines, notably some cracking dumplings from Mama Lan. I love pizza, and Arancina in Notting Hill does a pretty authentic Italian slice, Franco Manca (various locations) has a delicious sourdough crust, and if cheap is what you’re after, ICCo on Goodge Street is the place to go – don’t expect amazing quality, but its greasy pies do hit the spot.
I have a ferocious sweet tooth, so I can’t neglect pudding! Gelato dominates the ice cream scene in London and some of the best can be found at Black Vanilla in Greenwich, particularly their pistachio. There’s a lot of solid gelaterias in Covent Garden and Soho, so you’ll probably do well sampling a cone from anywhere around there, especially Scoop or Gelupo (Gelupo is a complete rip-off, but their granita is pretty amazing, even though they give it to you in the world’s smallest cup. Seriously, it’s about the size of a thimble). In terms of pastries, I am shamelessly addicted to the “Fudgepacker” brownie from Konditor and Cook (London Bridge and Waterloo) and the Snickers Blondie from Outsider Tart (Real Food Market at Waterloo, weekends only), so if you like caramel as much as I do, check ’em out!
Drinkin’: Pubs are indeed the main way most British people socialise, so if you really want to get a taste of London life, you might want to head out for a drink (or for teetotallers, maybe a St. Clements? It’s a delicious blend of orange juice and fizzy lemonade). In addition to the pubs I’ve already mentioned, I’m partial to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (not to be confused with the Cheshire Cheese by Tower Hill), parts of which likely date back to the 13th century (and if you’re going down Fleet Street, make sure to check out the Samuel Johnson statue and the dragon statue in the middle of the road that marks the start of the City). It’s a crazy warren of low ceilings and dark rooms, but I mainly like it because it’s a Sammy Smith’s pub, which means cherry beer! Because I’m such a fan of fruit beers, I also enjoy the Dovetail in Farringdon, which is a Belgian pub, but it is mega-pricy, even by London standards. Craft beer lovers will dig the painfully hip Brewdog, with various locations around London, including Camden, Shoreditch, and Shephard’s Bush (the Shoreditch location has a secret speakeasy style bar in the basement, shhh). Another, more traditional spot for a drink is the Ship and Shovell near Embankment, which is all the same pub, even though it’s split into two sections on either side of the road. I prefer the smaller side (the one on your left if you’re coming from Embankment), which has an upstairs section and a cozy nook in the back.
I’m not the clubbing sort, but I do like a cocktail every now and again. Freud’s in Covent Garden is hidden down a random metal staircase that leads to a basement bar, and if you get there early enough (or are willing to brave the crowds), you’ll be rewarded with a variety of reasonably priced and tasty cocktails. By contrast, the drinks at Garlic and Shots in Soho aren’t really to my taste, but everyone I’ve taken there has loved the place, so I thought I’d let you know about it too! It’s in the basement of a Scandinavian garlic restaurant, and is a Swedish metal bar that specialises in the Blood Shot, a vile Bloody Mary-esque concoction of garlic, chili, and tomato vodkas, and who knows what else. Try to get a seat in the wine cellar, as it’s much cosier and conducive to conversation than the noisy bar.
As I said, this is only a partial list (I could have gone on about museums and such for quite a while, but I didn’t want to bore everyone), so feel free to add your suggestions, comments, or questions in the comments! Thanks again to Michael for inviting me to guest post on his rad blog!