For your first visit you need no less than 5 days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in many cases, but the city is vast – you will certainly need to use public transport for traveling between “clusters” of attractions.
Don’t miss: Lingering on Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square; strolling along the Thames Path; (reputedly) taking an afternoon tea at a posh salon; immersing in theater-and-pubs scene in the West End; relaxing in Green Park or St James Park.
On the other hand: The narrow twisting streets aren’t intimate enough to invite idle perambulation, but they do make driving through the city a lengthy and confusing exercise; not that you would care if you were visiting as a tourist.
Worthy attractions: Westminster Abbey with memorials to world-famous Brits; London Tower with its ravens and Beefeaters; St Paul’s Cathedral with Whispering Gallery under the dome and viewpoints on upper levels; National Gallery, one of the foremost painting collections in the world; British Museum, home to many treasures from around the world; Buckingham Palace (open to visitors only in summer); Victoria and Albert Museum; Natural History Museum with its famous dinosaur display; Science Museum; National Portrait Gallery; London Eye; Shakespeare’s Globe.
Left unexplored so far: Museum of London; Transport Museum; a number of churches.
Further afield: Greenwich; Kew Gardens; Hampton Court; Windsor.
Wise to skip: Madame Tussaud’s – overpriced, overcrowded and unimpressive; Kensington Palace – not worth the entry price even if you absolutely have to see Princess Diana’s former digs.
Resided: 2006-09, last visit in 2010.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on London.
Things to See
For the sheer number of museums, galleries and various attractions, London can contend with any other city. It also has a unique feature: Most of the major museums are free for anyone to enter (although special exhibitions are always for a special fee).
The Westminster Abbey ♥♥♥ is a very impressive architectural masterpiece of the 13th to 16th centuries. It also presents a unique pageant of British history, including the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the tombs of kings and queens, and countless memorials to the famous and the great. It has also been the setting for every Coronation since 1066 and for numerous other royal occasions.
There are several nice stained-glass windows, and some impressive chapels and altars. Royal tombs are often lavishly decorated. Kids of all ages engage in recognize-the-famous activity, moving from monument to monument around the cathedral’s chapels.
The Abbey closes much earlier than other sights, at 3:30pm.
The Tower of London ♥♥♥ is surely one of the top attractions in the city. Onetime fort, onetime royal castle, onetime infamous prison, it is bursting with history at every step.
I have last been to the Tower prior to relocation and promise to write a better overview upon my next visit. But among many points of interest inside the complex, there are several fascinating armory and history displays in the White tower, the magnificent royal jewels collection, prisoner dwellings and always entertaining Beefeaters and ravens.
The nearby Tower Bridge, arguably the most emblematic of London sights, offers an interesting Experience tour ♥♥, which starts with a short movie on the history of its construction, and follows that with a walk on the bridge’s upper level, at 45 meters high, with fantastic views over the river and the city. Along the way, one can try a hand in various Victorian games. There is also a treasure-hunt-like “What Victorians did for us” activity that goes well with children.
St Paul’s Cathedral ♥♥ is one of the greatest Christian cathedrals in the world. It is in fact the fourth cathedral to occupy the site, the earliest dating from 640 AD. The present building was designed by the court architect Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710 after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.
The imposing building’s interior is far from luxurious, but ceiling mosaics around the choir are nothing short of amazing, marking the departure from the usual frescoes depicting biblical scenes. St Paul’s mosaics are instead colorful, ornamental and gilded.
Several hundreds of narrow, twisting steps lead up to three levels of galleries. The first one, Whispering, gets its name from a curious acoustic effect: A whisper into the wall on one side of the gallery is clearly heard if you put your ear to the wall on another side. Two upper galleries provide sweeping views of the city; the view from uppermost is completely unobstructed.
The National Gallery ♥♥ has a very nice collection of European paintings dating back to the 13th century. It probably cannot compete with Louvre or Hermitage, but it does boast a nice assemblage, including Rembrandt, van Dyck, many other Dutch and Flemish painters, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Boticelli, Claude, Caravaggio, Canaletto, three rooms of Rubens…
Not sure how good the permanent impressionist collection at the gallery is (somehow we never spent enough time at the gallery to find it), but there are frequent temporary exhibitions that we visited over years.
There are a few scheduled drawing activities for the kids on weekends.
The British Museum ♥♥♥ is simply an incredible collection of exhibits from all over the world. Impressive open-space galleries contain unparalleled collection of artifacts from ancient and not-so-ancient civilizations. One of the most famous objects, for instance, is the Rosetta Stone that enabled Champollion to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. An entire gallery is filled with statues from Greek Parthenon – makes you wonder whether any are left at the Parthenon itself.
One visit is clearly not enough to see all of the great stuff in this museum.
Kids activity backpacks are available for different ages, each providing of up to two hours of tasks to occupy inquisitive minds.
A vast collection of objéts d’art from the last two millennia, the Victoria & Albert Museum ♥♥ has something of interest for everybody. Sculptures, paintings (not many of the latter, though), masonry, ironwork, and literally every other type of craft are presented in over a hundred galleries. There are many hands-on side exhibits and quite a number of kid-friendly activities.
The museum is organized a bit along lines of different cultures and eras. It can hardly be covered in a day, but it also does not apply any pressure in terms of must-see exhibits. You can simply wander galleries, literally stumbling upon masterpieces of craftsmanship.
Museum cafe is surprisingly good, if overpriced.
The Natural History Museum ♥♥ is one of the South Kensington Big Three (together with V&A and Science museums). Located in an palatial building, it has an unrivaled collection that promotes discovery of the natural world. Dinosaurs’ skeletons, models of animals, birds and fishes, exhibitions on natural resources and phenomena – it all comes together to provide enjoyment for kids of all ages.
Small kids can equip themselves with explorer kits and embark on treasure hunts and various educational activities. This is one of the most children-friendly museums. Each gallery, even when filling a huge hall, is not overwhelming as far as the number of exhibits. Plus, each gallery has something specific for kids to do.
The Science Museum ♥♥♥ is another one of the major attractions in South Kensington. Its galleries are devoted to scientific discoveries, technological progress and various aspects of human innovation. Displays range from models to historical exhibits to computerized interactive activities.
A fantastic model ship exhibition displays hundreds of different types of ships and boats grouped by culture and region.
The Launch Pad gallery is a hands-on children activity center, with several dozen scientifically-minded and simply fascinating things to do. The museum also houses an IMAX theatre, a computer-games arcade, and a 3D Simulator, none of which we had a chance to visit yet (somewhat on the account of extra fees required to get in).
Even though I am not a big fan of portraiture as a genre, the National Portrait Gallery ♥ is certainly an interesting place to visit.
The main interest is in an engrossing excursus into British history that it provides. All portraits on display are well annotated with short bios and descriptions of occasions for which they were painted. Putting famous names with faces is quite enlightening.
The most “ancient” figures (Middle Ages) are housed on the upper floor, and the most modern ones on the ground floor. I personally find contemporary section a bit too artsy.
A separate room is dedicated to various portraits of Princess Diana.
The Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum ♥♥ is nearly a must-see for anyone fascinated with the subject of the second World War. The War Rooms convey their claustrophobic nature from the very first steps and illustrate living accommodations of the top politicians and the military personnel rather vividly. The audioguide, included in the price of admission, provides excellent narration and many captivating facts and tidbits about the Blitz and the wartime operations.
The wing of the Churchill Museum, collocated with the War Rooms, is an excellent tribute to the great statesman, with dozens of interactive displays charting Churchill’s biography and hundreds of artefacts.
Adults £12, children under 16 free.
The Imperial War Museum ♥ has enough tanks and planes on display to satisfy any fan of military craft. There are also thorough exhibitions on the First and Second World Wars, complete with a simulated trench (for the former) and a simulated Blitz experience (for the latter; not visited on account of a sufficiently long line).
There is also a powerful and bone-chilling exhibition on Holocaust. As much as I believe that every person should know about Holocaust and appreciate its magnitude, this exposition is not for those weak of heart and certainly not for children under 15. The display chronologically follows the catastrophic events from Hitler’s rise to power through the end of the World War II. The exhibits, of which fair share are the photos with factual descriptions and the survivor testimony, will fill you with contempt for the perpetrators and the unbearable sadness for the victims, no matter how well you are familiar with the subject from before.
The museum offers an audioguide, which I do not believe is necessary. There is plentiful labeling everywhere.
Another attraction for weaponry buffs is the HMS Belfast, a naval cruiser moored between the London and Tower Bridges on the South Bank of the Thames. You can visit various rooms and sections, climb upon guns (always popular with the kids), and learn a wealth of stuff about life on a warship. [I did not visit the Belfast personally; other people found their visit quite interesting]
Madame Tussaud’s wax museum is one of the most popular destinations in London, but you would be wise to skip it. It is terribly overpriced and invariably takes queuing for at least an hour in order to get in (tickets bought online or via a pre-paid voucher from a hotel concierge will allow you to skip the queue).
There are probably 100+ models of celebrities and historical figures in the current collection. Some are very lifelike, others look nothing like themselves. Throngs of tourists incessantly photograph themselves with Brad and Angelina, Bush and Blair and especially David and Victoria Beckham. There are also thematic displays, such as Pirates of the Caribbean.
Additional attractions include Chamber of Horrors (serial killers and guillotine victims), Chamber Live (with live actors mixed with wax figures, all trying to scare the bejesus out of you), Spirit of London (amusement-park-like ride through centuries of London history) and, as grand finale, an animated movie with funny aliens discoursing on the subject of earthling celebrities (the movie is played in an observatory-like hall projected onto the dome).
Teens and celebrity-chasers undoubtedly come away impressed. Except to please my teen daughter, I fail to see the point of going.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum ♥, at – where else? – 221b Baker Street, will certainly resonate with the fans of the famous detective, even though the recreated dwelling of a fictional character sounds like a less-than-sophisticated destination on balance.
But it is very nicely done, with three levels of a tiny building chock-full of furniture and exhibits representing all that we know of Holmes’ and Watson’s abode, from chemistry equipment to insect collection to smoking pipes. It is faithfully maintained, which makes it appear more authentic than a lot of less-fictitious quarters. There is even a rather phlegmatic fellow, dressed as Watson, who greets you and allows you to take pictures with him. If you are so inclined, you can engage him in a conversation related to the nature of the exhibits.
The entry fee of £6 may feel like too much for a tourist trap if you are not a true Holmes aficionado.
The Tate Modern gallery occupies a converted power station building in the hip Bankside area on the south bank of the Thames. It is certainly worth a visit for any admirer of the modern art, but I will admit that it is not exactly my cup of tea. Even though I recognize many famous names (among them Picasso, Miro, Rodin, Matisse) whose works are on display, I do not get the big idea of the post-expressionist art in general. Especially when it comes to installations. Or paintings that consist of solid colors that seemingly do not depict anything. Or grotesque distortions of human shapes and proportions.
There are a few expressionist works as well, but not enough to improve on my overall lack of appreciation for the collection. Hence, the absence of hearts; were I more attuned to the modern art in general, I might have placed a couple of hearts next to the gallery name.
There are, however, several interesting children’s activities, so if you are looking to expose your offspring to unorthodox concepts and keep them engaged in the process, you might find just the right things at Tate.
Shakespeare’s Globe ♥♥ is an awesome open-air theater, where performances are held from April to September. At other times, you can go on a guided tour that starts every half-hour and lasts for about 45 minutes. You’ll hear about the storied history of the place and will be able to appreciate many of its fun attributes. If you manage to see a play in addition to taking a tour, the experience may be even grander, but we so far have not managed that. [I did not visit the Globe personally; this paragraph paraphrases what I heard from members of my family.]
Courtauld Gallery at the Somerset House houses a comparatively small collection of paintings, among them a couple of dozen expressionists, including works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Pisarro and others. Not exactly enough to warrant a targeted visit, but as an add-on diversion to doing some other staff in the West End theater district, it can be a nice stop. Children free, adults £5.
Covent Garden ♥♥ can be overcrowded and noisy (especially on Saturday nights), but it is a fun place to walk around, with a small market, many interesting shops and plethora of good places to eat. It is probably one of the best places in all of London for people-watching. There are always several street performances happening in its various corners. Note: Stay away from the Covent Garden tube station – it easily gets congested at busy times, and there are no escalators – only slowly running lifts, – so you may need to schlep up 180 steps to get to the ground.
The State Rooms of the Buckingham Palace ♥♥ are as impressive as in any other royal palace. Equipped with a complimentary audio guide, you will stroll through several drawing rooms, galleries and especially splendid Royal Dining Room and Music Room. The fact that all of the rooms are in continuous use by the royalty and their guests, gives them some additional allure.
There is a number of outstanding sculptures and paintings throughout the State Rooms, including several works by my favorite Canaletto. The displayed furniture and ornaments are fascinating in their own right.
Every year, a side room on the viewing route is given for a different special exhibition (no extra cost). In 2006, the ceremonial dresses of the Queen throughout her reign were on display. In 2007, the special exhibition was devoted to the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s wedding to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.
The palace is open for only 7 weeks each year, from late July through late September.
Next to the palace, the Royal Mews is both a working royal stables and an interesting collection of State vehicles (read, carriages). [I did not visit the Royal Mews personally; other people told me that they liked their visit there, especially with the kids.]
The ceremony of changing guard at the palace has some colorful and interesting components, but, on balance, is quite disappointing. The problem is that for the most part the ceremony happens behind the gates, in the palace courtyard. And the only people who see something are those lucky ones standing right against the gates. But to get a spot there, you need to stake the ground an hour or more prior to the ceremony. And then just wait there, with nothing to do except making sure that you do not get elbowed out.
The rest of the spectators – and there are dozens of thousands of them – line the sidewalks of the square and the steps of the Queen Victoria Monument. They get to see marching bands and guard companies and flaneuring cuirassiers, but there is very little that is discernible between companies marching in and – in 25 minutes or so – companies marching out.
In that interval, the bands play music heavily slanted to cinematic themes, from 007 to Star Wars. The guards are performing some maneuvers, but they are largely shielded by the bands, so even the people in the nearest rows can hardly understand what is going on. And after a while, it’s over.
To summarize, the marching and the riding is cool, but there is hardly anything to see, there are tremendous crowds, and you certainly would not go there for the music. Come only if you must.
St James’s Park ♥♥ and Green Park ♥♥ are two very nice patches of greenery in the heart of Westminster. Maybe not attractions in themselves, they give you a perfect respite from the city and its traffic on your wanderings in the area.
Kensington Gardens ♥♥ is a large, pleasant park in West London. We walked through it a couple of times, fed hungry obnoxious geese by the pond, and spent some time at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. The latter is a gated marine-themed playing area, dominated by a tall ship. There are swings, jungle gyms and other implements to make every kid happy.
In the summertime, the park is a great place to relax and kick back, or rollerskate, cycle or run, if that is your preference.
Kensington Palace, at the edge of the park, is quite overpriced and only slightly curious, with several sequential exhibitions. First few rooms are dedicated to Victorian dressmaking and royal court presentations. They are followed by a photo tribute to Princess Diana. Afterwards, you walk through a few empty rooms where Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, used to reside; there are picture-and-text displays in each room, but hardly anything exciting. Finally, the state rooms – some of them are imposing, but only a few decorated with furniture
The audio guide is not great; certain commentary was okay, but it was too lengthy in some cases or ended too abruptly in others.
Looking out on the Gardens is The Royal Albert Hall ♥. You will certainly be driven by it if you take a bus tour around the city, and you may come in for a tour of the building. While an awesome sight in itself, the Royal Albert is first and foremost a magnificent performance arena, so if you have an opportunity to attend a classical music concert ♥♥♥ there, I highly recommend it. There is a scheme for very cheap (£5) standing-room-only tickets available a couple of hours before performances, but buying a regular ticket, coming in with some time to spare, and taking in the grandeur of the place, capped with a great acoustic experience of the performance itself, will not leave you disappointed.
Regent’s Park ♥♥ is another large park, north of the central London area. Its boating lake is very popular with visitors, and it has everything that a park should offer, namely, plenty of picnic space and various snack stands. There are also a couple of semi-formal gated garden areas within the park confines, open to public, but not well-known, that are ideal for a quieter relaxation.
The British Airways London Eye ♥ is a huge Ferris wheel located on the South Bank – you can’t miss it.
Large glass capsules, each accommodating up to 25 people, accomplish full circle in a bit over 30 minutes, providing excellent views of London and its major landmarks. The highest point is at 135 meters. The movement of the wheel is quite slow, which affords ample time to take in the views. On the other hand, the movement is constant, so there is a limit to how much you can linger (unlike, say, some high tower viewpoint) and your fellow “travellers” are likely to attempt to take a hundred snapshots each, constantly interrupting your reverie.
It is one of the most popular tourist destinations, often requiring long queuing time. Late afternoons tend to be less busy, but it is fairly impossible in-season to just walk up, buy tickets and get on.
If you are interested in the gruesome bits of history, you might fancy the London Dungeon. Located on the South Bank within walking distance of the Tower Bridge, it is one of the more expensive attractions in town. Contrary to common misconceptions, it goes for history lessons a lot more than for simple “boo” effects. The rooms, rides and displays are themed around executions, epidemics and famous murderers, but while the experience is certainly aimed at making you uneasy, it is not at all like Disney’s “Haunted Mansion”. I’m told that some kids especially enjoy petting live rats at the Dungeon, but my eldest daughter refrained for shocking me so when we visited together.
The London Aquarium is located by the Westminster Bridge, near the London Eye. It is neither large nor fancy, providing samples of various marine ecosystems. The touching tank is the biggest attraction, and there are several lectures at specific times. Kids activity station – arts and crafts on marine themes – was closed when we were there. An hour and a half is more than enough to cover everything.
The famous Portobello Market ♥♥ in Notting Hill is a great place for those interested in antiques, jewelry, accessories and bric-a-brac. The eponymous street is made pedestrian by the market-goers, with both makeshift stalls and resident shops participating in the fair. The street is quite narrow, the people quite numerous. Movement along the succession of vendors is very slow, but you get a chance to take a look at all the different wares.
For food, there is Borough Market ♥♥, which sits by the Southwark Cathedral near London Bridge. All kinds of produce, delicacies, specialty foods and sweets can be found here, for quite reasonable prices. Cheeses and meats stalls offer tasters of their wares, and a large number of places are there to sell food for consumption on site, be it oysters, burgers or paellas. At the end of the market day (around 4pm), you may even be offered the remaining delicacies for free or at a big discount.
Two grand department stores merit a look regardless of whether shopping is your thing or not. Harrods ♥♥ on Knightsbridge is the world-famous one, selling anything and everything in “luxury goods” category across its million-plus square feet of commercial space. I especially like its food halls on the ground level (disclaimer: Never bought a single thing there). Fortnum & Mason ♥♥ is more widely known as the premium tea brand, but its store on Piccadilly is a lot more than a vast selection of teas. The domestic utensils department is entirely fascinating.
You can also take a look at the London Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t entry on my main blog.
Greenwich and Blackheath
Greenwich ♥♥ is a popular destination for most visitors to London, primarily because of the magnetic attraction of the Prime Meridian. Its neighbor, Blackheath Village ♥, separated from the Greenwich Park by a vast swath of open meadow, – the Heath – is also quite lively and popular, although it manages to maintain a certain quintessential English charm. Its popularity in no small way is due to the range of available eateries concentrated within a minute’s walk from the main village road intersection.
Greenwich park ♥♥ is a vast hilly expanse of grass and trees, bordering the bustling central part of the town.
The viewpoint on the top of the hill by the Observatory offers unparalleled views of London’s Docklands area, including Canary Wharf office towers.
The park is large and diverse, with a beautiful rose garden in one part, and a tranquil duck pond in another, among other things. There is a children playground and several sport facilities as well, but first and foremost, it is a place for picnics and leisurely strolls.
National Maritime Museum ♥ is a compact set of galleries devoted to naval history and sea exploration. Exhibits range from interactive scientific displays to boat models to navigation equipment. There are presentations and hands-on workshops throughout the day. Planetarium offers shows that discuss stars and planets. Kids have tons of fun.
Royal Naval College consists of a group of buildings by the river. We have explored some parts of it, including the breathtakingly magnificent Painted Hall ♥♥♥, with incredible ceilings, and the beautiful neoclassical Chapel of St Peter and St Paul ♥ (also known as Old Royal Naval College Chapel). There are scheduled guided tours and extensive reading materials for those who prefer to explore on their own.
Queen’s House ♥ is practically bereft of furnishings and the Royal Apartments are primarily an art gallery these days, heavily themed around marine and naval life. American visitors may be interested to know that this classical building was a model for the White House.
Royal Observatory ♥ is located at the top of the hill within Greenwich Park. The main attraction is obviously the Zero Meridian – you often have to spend quite some time in line to get to take your pictures in front of the dominating metallic installation. But there is more to see and do inside.
The old galleries building houses interesting expositions dedicated to the history of timekeeping and marine navigation. Rooms occupied by the Royal Astronomers in centuries past can also be visited. You can climb up to the dome to see the old telescope. At certain times during the day, you can join a 20-minute presentation on the history of the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, delivered by an exuberantly expressive lady in the main courtyard. Inquire with staff for available times. In the new building, there are several galleries devoted to astronomy with awesome interactive computerized exhibits. Those always go extremely well with kids. There is also a Planetarium, with hourly shows, but we so far did not manage to fit one into our schedule. Entry free, except Planetarium.
About two blocks from the busiest entrance to the Greenwich park, a mildly curious Fan Museum has a couple of dozen exhibits related to fans and their making. There are only three small rooms, and a pleasant non-exhibition orangery, and the visit, even with an audioguide, is unlikely to last more than half hour. £4 for adults, £3 for children over 7.
Greenwich market ♥♥ is the most fun on the weekends. It is located in the center of the town and is a lively jumble of colors and smells. It consists of three parts – crafts, food, antiques – crammed together under one roof. There is plenty of interesting stuff being peddled: Glassware, shawls, carpets, camel-fleece blankets, purses, accessories, pastries, spices, flavored coffee… The list can go on and on. There are several simple eateries around, with more sophisticated food just a few steps away.
The historic ship Cutty Sark, moored by the Thames at the center of the town, is being re-built following a botched refurbishment and a fire.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there are free classical music concerts ♥ in early afternoons that are held at either the Naval College Chapel or the St Alfege Church (in Greenwich center). If you are visiting on one of those days, you may want to think of working it into your schedule.
The center of Blackheath ♥ consists of a picturesque intersection of several roads, which are lined with attractive shops and restaurants. The area is bordered by the heath itself – a large expanse of grass, frequented by kite-flyers, – with the impressively positioned Church of All Saints. The walk around the village center could take as little as 15 minutes, but the temptation to step inside some of the shops is too high…
The Windsor Castle ♥♥♥, which remains the official residence of the British monarch, as well as an oft-used location for various State occasions, is grand and magnificent.
The State Apartments boast great armour displays and a worthy of a top gallery collection of paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Holbein and others. Otherwise, their grandeur is fairly understated – not a bad thing, really, just slightly below awe-inducing for those who’ve seen a lot of opulent palaces during the years.
There is an incredible in its detail Dolls’ House as a separate stopping point of interest (prepare to wait in line for an hour or so), and a marvelous St. George’s Chapel within the castle’s precincts.
The complimentary audio-guide is excellent. It comes in several languages and in two versions: For adults and for children. The kids-oriented narration makes viewing the rooms and grounds into a sort of a treasure hunt, constantly asking the youngsters to look for this or search for that. Our young children were completely engrossed in the activity.
If you have enough time, you may want to spend a bit of it strolling through the busy shopping-and-eating area around the castle, as well as walking across the river to the atmospheric Eton village.
Kew Gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens)
It is probably true that once you’ve been to a botanic garden, you’ve been to all of them, yet Kew Gardens ♥♥ is clearly among the stand-outs in this category. Spread-out grounds are impeccably maintained and utterly spectacular, with thousands of species of trees and vegetation, and plethora of strategically placed memorial benches for unhurried relaxation. The lawns are prime real estate for picnics.
Several glasshouse galleries hold enough educational content to satisfy the most curious. We visited the Palm House, the Evolution House and the Temperate House – each fascinating in its own right. There are a couple of others, notably the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
A number of thematic gardens are equally enticing. The Rose Garden is simply magnificent. In addition, there is a variety of other “points of interest” – secluded buildings, groves, ponds, scenic views – you probably cannot fit it all in a single day even you aim to do just that.
There is also a royal Kew Palace, but our intentions did not include visiting it.
The kids activity book (available at ticket offices for £4) helps kids to stay interested. They also enjoy aquatic displays (either at the Palm House or at the Princess of Wales Conservatory). Plus, there is a playground, Climbers and Creepers, which certainly needs to be a stop on your route if you have kids in tow.
The gardens are unfortunately located in the close vicinity to the Heathrow airport. Depending on the flying patterns, you may be constantly subjected to jet-engine noise, which unquestionably diminishes the enjoyment of the scenery.
Children under 17 go free.
Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace ♥♥♥ is a fantastic place to visit, even though it does not evoke as much splendor as Versailles or Peterhof.
Located in Southwest London, the palace consists of several “apartments”, built in different styles for different kings and queens. While furnishings are sparse, the rooms themselves are quite resplendent. The Great Hall of Henry VIII’s wing is utterly majestic with superb carved ceiling.
Tudor Kitchens wing is a fascinating insight into cooking and eating customs of the English court, accompanied by requisite smells and sounds.
Costumed guides provide free tours and commentary throughout the palace. Musical performances on medieval instruments occur at various places. Several times a day, in the main kitchen hall, costumed musicians play music with the help of kitchen utensils.
The audio guide, which provides narration for four different parts of the palace, is very well composed. The only drawback is that listening to the entire narration would take well over three hours.
Palace grounds are very nice, with several sculpted gardens, as well as less formal park. The famous Maze is a curious diversion, although hardly a must.
Legoland ♥, located near Windsor, failed to make a great impression on us, primarily because we found the rides to be underwhelming and they are quite short, especially in relation to interminable wait times (which you can get somewhat around by renting a Q-bot – see below).
We collectively tried around a dozen ride, of which only Vikings’ River Splash (a river rapids ride), Spinning Spider (like the Teacup Party in Disneyland) and Wave Surfer (a fast watercraft circular ride) received top marks from those who went on them. The roller-coasters, The Dragon and Jungle Coaster, were short on thrills, although the former started with a fun “tour” of a castle full of various Lego statues. The water log ride, Pirate Falls, went for a similar tour, that of a pirate island, but it had only one single lift-and-drop, which made it ultimately disappointing. The big rotating gondola swing, Longboat Invader, was no more than ok.
Our younger child went on a bunch of smaller rides, of which she especially liked Boating School, and that only because she got to drive the boat herself around the water course. The speed is much too slow to make this appealing to anyone older than 8 years of age. Chairoplane (circular swing ride) and a little Ferris Wheel were mildly amusing for her, and Rat Trap (a tree-house playground) provided an opportunity for some climbing and sliding exercises.
Miniland, a collection of models of buildings from around the Britain, the rest of Europe and the US, is a nice non-ride attraction for most ages.
In short, smaller kids might find things of interest to do at Legoland, but teenagers will likely get bored, and the adults will have to contend themselves with being happy for the kids (as opposed to maybe finding rides of their own liking).
We availed ourselves to the Q-bot technology, thereby reducing our potential levels of wait-queue aggravation. Q-bot is a small wireless gadget that allows you to “reserve” your place in the queue for the next ride that you want to get on. It is not a “fast pass”; rather, it gives you an appointment for the approximate time that you’d be able to get on the ride if you were to join its queue at the moment of making your reservation. The upside, of course, is that you do not have to physically spend time in line; you can explore other attractions in the meantime, or even get on another ride; the gadget only allows one reservation at a time, though. The largely acceptable downside is that renting the Q-bot costs £10 per person (which is an introductory rate; in 2009, the price will double). And your “reservation” will always be for exactly the number of people that you rented the Q-bot for (so, if there are four of you and you only rent a Q-bot for three, you will always have to leave someone off; conversely, if you rent a Q-bot for all four of you, but never get on any ride all together, you simply waste money). Plus, some rides cannot be reserved via a Q-bot, which is quite annoying.
No matter, not standing in queues beats the alternative any busy weekend day.
There are many places to get food and drinks on the premises. Unlike many amusement parks in America, you are not prohibited to bring your own food inside the park.
Car parking note: The lot nearest to the entrance is paid, while the lots slightly further away (C, D, etc.) are free. They are not too far to walk.
Minor attractions on the southern edges
The entries in this section are unlikely to feature on any tourist itinerary. We know about them only because we lived in the area for three years. They all offer certain diversions to people who have time to get away from beaten paths.
Eltham Palace ♥ is located in southeast London, within easy walking distance from Mottingham train station. Initially built in early 14th century, the palace become one of the royal residences over the years. In 17th century, however, it fell into decline and disrepair until 1933, when a wealthy aristocratic family bought and restored it, converting the palace into a richly decorated Art Deco mansion. There is an impressive Great Hall, built in 1470, several fine mid-20th-century rooms, and 19 acres of gardens.
The price is a bit high for an exhibition of this size, but it is still quite interesting.
Located within minutes from Chislehurst train station, Chislehurst Caves are a moderately interesting attraction with origins going back millenia ago. The 20 miles of man-made underground passages acted as mines, bomb shelters, an entertainment venue and a location for “Doctor Who” filming in their history. Half-hour-long guided tours depart hourly and, while somewhat hurried and sketchy, they still provide fascinating glimpses into history. There are some curious exhibits on display in the reception hall, and the adjoining café serves hearty meals. The place is popular for children parties and frequented by the local Dungeons and Dragons dress-up-and-play society.
The Green Chain Walk is a splendid idea of 30 years past, connecting parks, playgrounds and other open spaces in Southeast London with a sign-posted trail.
It is not a single chain, actually, but rather three overlapping ones, comprising over 40 miles of combined distance. You obviously cannot avoid walking streets from one park to another, but that just diversifies the exercise, and most of the streets are quiet, back ones, often enjoyable in their own right.
Most of the stops along the trail, unfortunately, are in declining condition, to put it mildly. It appears as if since its establishment in 1977, the properties along the walk have not been repaired or maintained. It is still a pleasant diversion on a nice sunny day.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is a small art museum in South London. A dozen rooms contain a nice little permanent collection, including works by Lorraine, Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, Van Dyck, Teniers, Van Ruisdael and others. There is always a special exhibition going on.
London transportation system is very extensive and can get you anywhere in the city, including its outer edges. Underground stations are within easy walking distance from virtually anywhere in the city center. The service is reasonably frequent (although disruptions happen now and then) and the stations and the trains are reasonably well-maintained. “Each line has its own track” principle necessitates occasional long walks between connecting stations, but there is ample signage and plenty of maps to lead you to your destination. A few older stations in the city center do not have escalators.
Several underground lines have branches. It is important not only to know the name of the line that you need, but also keep an eye that the final destination of the train that you are getting on is on the right branch of the line.
A vast network of commuter trains is integrated with the subway. The trains are collectively called the National Rail, but are operated by two dozen different companies and connect suburban areas with the city center.
Plus, there are over 800 municipal bus routes. Double-decker buses are fun to ride, but the bus network is not easy to navigate without certain local knowledge (each stop provides an outline of the route, but you’ll need to carry a map of bus routes and figure connections on your own).
On most subway stations, electronic signs display how many minutes are left until the next three trains. Very welcome practice! Central bus stops often have their own electronic signs, announcing when next buses are expected. Commuter train stations always have plenty of monitors displaying departures and stations served.
Fare structure is extremely complicated. There are six zones, concentrically extending from the city center. Trips within and between different zones cost different amounts of money. Single trip within central zone 1 on the underground costs £3, while a single bus ride costs £2. Nobody buys single trips anyway – the way to go is to use one of the following two main methods.
The first one is travel cards. They come in daily, 3-day, weekly, monthly and even yearly variety (the longer ones do not have to be Monday through Sunday or the 1st of the month through the 31st; they simply last for a week, month or year from the day you start them on). The card allows for unlimited trips on any public transportation (underground, buses, commuter trains) within proscribed zones. The cards make travel very cheap. For instance, off-peak day travel card for zones 1 through 4 costs only £5.70 – just two subway trips, and you already saved money.
The second main method is Oyster card (which, unfortunately, cannot yet be used on many commuter train routes). It works on a simple pre-paid balance basis and deducts fares for each trip. Not only Oyster-paid fares are much lower than basic ones, but if you happen to travel so much within a period of time as to reach an amount that an appropriate travel card would cost, your subsequent fares for that period will be zero.
Kids travel for free during school-days, and pay £1 or £2 for an unlimited day travel card, depending on the type of the card held by the accompanying adult.
Access control on all underground stations and central train stations is very strict. You either touch your Oyster on the reader or insert your travel card into a slot and retrieve it from another slot; the almost full-height swinging doors let you through. The procedure needs to be repeated at the exit, so that correct zone-based fare can be checked/deducted. If there is a problem with your card, there is always a gate agent on hand.
Places to Eat
Over the first decade of the third millennium, London’s dining scene has become so diverse that there are literally hundreds of excellent places to eat for every taste in the world. Living within easy reach of so many great restaurants, we certainly made efforts to experience some of them. This entry provides brief reviews of the various places we visited between 2006 and 2009.
Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden
J Sheekey ♥♥ is more than 100 years old, opened before the turn of 20th century by a seafood market stallholder. It went through several re-incarnations in its storied history and is now one of the top seafood restaurants in London.
The atmosphere is certainly upscale, the service is impeccable, the prices are what you’d expect them. The food is entirely delectable, from razor clams or jellied eels for starters to the main courses of sole or trout. Delicious desserts, good wine list. There are meat dishes as well, but who would want them…
The restaurant is located in the middle of Soho Theatre district, and is not easy to get into. Reservations are absolutely necessary, and often are needed in advance, but 8pm on Saturday, when theatre-goers are enjoying the performances, is a good bet.
This is the first restaurant that we feel compelled to downgrade a bit because of the prices. It is absolutely beyond reproach, but is certainly quite expensive. Our damage: £290 for a meal for four, including appetizers, main courses, desserts and two bottles of wine. Last visit: July 2007.
Where Chinatown meets Soho, at the edge of West End Theatre district, Bar Shu ♥♥ is a “modern” Chinese restaurant. Modern both in terms of dishes and presentation, and also in terms of staff equipment – all waiters have hands-free phone cords hanging down from their ears, into which they continuously bark what I can only assume were orders and requests. They are quite a bit annoying with too frequent visits to take away plates, even ones that are still being worked on. Conversely, unasked-for teapot refills are quite welcome.
The Sichuan cuisine is decidedly on the spicier side. Very delicious, but very hot. Menu items are marked with one, two or three peppers to indicate the level of spiciness. “Three-peppers” mixed meat in a “fiery” sauce required some careful picking through to avoid unpleasant sensations. The portion was huge as well, and I had to admit defeat at some point…
The upper-floor dining rooms (there are two additional levels above ground) are considerably quieter, although a bit less ambient. On a repeat trip to Bar Shu, being seated on the first floor, we did not experience as much waiter activity around us as on the prior trip and on the ground floor.
If you like spicy or simply feel a bit adventurous, it is a great culinary experience!
Our damage: £170 for four people, including appetizers, main courses and a bottle of wine. Last visit: Fall 2007.
One block away on the same street as Bar Shu is El Cantara ♥, serving a mix of North African and Spanish cuisines. There are three levels of dining rooms – we were seated on the middle level. Very good service, all the way to a beautiful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” by one of the waiters. A belly dancer spiced up the proceedings at some point. The food is pretty good, but not raising to the level of exceptional. The wine list is quite limited, although we were able to find a good bottle.
There are two tasting menus, each consisting of half a dozen tapas, three of more raciones and dessert and tea. The slightly cheaper option is at £22.95 per person, the other at £26.95. Our reservation made through TopTable afforded us a 25% discount. The resulting damage, as divided between 16 people, was £58 per couple; that included a handful of wine bottles. Last visit: February 2009.
Situated on a happening street in Soho, Montplaisir ♥♥ is an authentic French culinary experience. The waiters speak passable English, but are unmistakably French in both their accent and their demeanor. The wine list is more than adequate. The food is simply excellent. Selecting from nearly thirty types of cheeses for dessert is a treat in itself. Our damage: £200 for a full meal for four, including two bottles of wine. Last visit: April 2007.
Not far from the Covent Garden, but also within a stone’s throw from the British Museum, Sitaaray ♥ is an Indian restaurant that puts a spin on the South American churrascaria theme. Various meats come to your plate one piece per, and you have a chance later to request another helping of the ones that you most liked. There is also requisite Indian finger food and a couple of curries, plus at least two kinds of naan bread. The place is very popular, the service is reasonable, the ambiance unmistakably Indian, with a TV playing unending clips of singing movie numbers. Cost of meal per person (excluding drinks and desserts): £18. Last visit: March 2007.
Literally on the corner of the Covent Garden itself there is a nice French-inspired Palm Court Brasserie ♥. The sophisticated Parisian-style atmosphere creates a leisurely environment, and the food is pretty good, although not outstanding. Very popular with theater-going crowd, and on our recent meal there, several tables were actually turned over a couple of times. 3-course prix-fixe dinner costs only £15 (including a glass of Bellini), but one of the four choices for the main course – undoubtedly, the most popular – was not available, which is a big demerit in our book. Nonetheless, a pleasant experience. Last visit: Winter 2008.
On the opposite side of the same street, we chanced across a Mediterranean place called Carthage ♥. The food was great in all aspects, and the service, while unhurried, was nonetheless quite agreeable. I cannot intelligently vouch for authenticity, but we had mixed grill, lamb kebab, penne all’arabiata and spaghetti bolognese, and everyone was left happy. Greek, Turkish and North African appetizers were well received too.
We had Turkish coffee and Moroccan tea pot with our desserts, and having had experienced Moroccan tea before (via an erstwhile neighbor of ours), I can emphatically say that the tea was made right. The only problem of the entire meal was the fact that the cheesecake that my kids fancied was frozen, and they had to substitute it with apple pie, which got rave reviews, just as the chocolate gateau had. Our damage: £70 for a mix of appetizers and entrées for four, 12.5% service added to the bill. Last visit: Fall 2007.
Near Charing Cross, at the beginning of Craven Passage, sits Sherlock Holmes Restaurant ♥. As the flyer tells it, it is located at the spot of the old Northumberland Hotel, where Sir Henry Baskerville stayed on his visit to London to see Holmes.
The place is a regular English pub, but as many other pubs it has a full-service restaurant on the upper floor. The fare is traditional British, with staples such as fish and chips or toad in the hole, but all main dishes are cleverly named after tales and characters about the famous detective (i.e., bangers and mash – which translates to sausages with mashed potatoes – carries the name of Dr Watson’s Favorite).
The place is decorated with pictures and portraits related to Holmes’ portrayals in movies and television. There is also a room behind the glass recasting Holmes’s apartment, complete with a mannequin of “Empty House” fame with a prominent hole through its forehead. Rather spooky, but gives the place a lot of character. Main courses are £10-16. Last visit: June 2008.
Note: This place has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes Museum, which is located in a different part of the city.
Mamounia Lounge ♥♥, on Curzon Street, attracts pretty fashionable crowd. The cuisine is Moroccan, Lebanese and Mediterranean “fusion”, supplemented by a good wine list. There is an open-air seating area, and the ground level is a Moroccan-styled lounge, with low tables and cushion seats. The lower level is a contemporary restaurant, with an adjoining shisha room.
We had a great meal at the restaurant, starting with a large variety of appetizers, and getting different tagines for main courses. Tagines especially were excellent, but one person in our party decided to go for a mixed grill instead and was no less satisfied.
The service was attentive and professional. The live entertainment started at 10pm with a nice selection of music played by a keyboardist, then proceeded onto belly dancing and Moroccan singing. As we were leaving after 11pm, the place was just getting into a full-swing reverie.
Our damage for a small birthday celebration by a party of eight: £485, which included 4 bottles of medium-priced wine. Last visit: September 2008.
La Porte des Indes ♥♥♥ is located a block away from the bustling Oxford Street near the Marble Arch. Advertized as “Indian cuisine with a difference”, it does provide a more refined take on the Indian dining experience, with “French” Indian specialties on the menu alongside with Tandoori and Thai dishes.
The dining room is on two levels, of which the upper level (ground floor) is seemingly slightly more pleasant. The decor is modern Oriental, and the staff wears festive traditional garb. The service is very prompt and pleasant.
The food is fantastic. We tried dakshin lentil soup, magret de canard, two different versions of kohe kashmiri (spicy lamb), and a sampler talis called “Plateau des Indes”, with six small portions of different dishes complemented with rice.
As the dinner we had here was celebratory, we loaded on quite a number of drinks and desserts which inflated the bill a bit. 12.5% service charge was automatically added to the bill. Including two bottles of wine, our overall damage for a party of four (all adults): £235. Last visit: December 2008.
Mango Tree ♥♥, outside Buckingham Palace grounds not far from the Victoria train station, is a renowned Thai restaurant serving traditional cuisine in a sophisticated setting. Our later cooking-show encounter with its corporate head chef, Mark Read, actually managed to dampen my enthusiasm for it, but the recollection of the restaurant is very positive, with excellent menu, delicious food and great service. Our damage: £190 for a full meal for five, including wine. Last visit: January 2007.
Literally next door is Volt ♥♥♥, a contemporary Italian lounge and restaurant. Excellent service and fantastic food. We had a gourmet tasting menu called Mamma Mia!, which includes 6 different appetizers and primi for each two people to share (carpaccio, gnocchi, rigatoni, mozzarella, a couple of salads), a choice of a main course (one of us had a sea bass, another vitello alla milanese and two people opted for beef filet, which turned out the best choice of all; not that the others were bad), and a choice of desserts and coffee/tea. Desserts received great marks all by themselves, especially the tiramisu.
Mamma Mia! menu is £44.50 per person; there is also a slightly cheaper alternative at £38.50. We got in on a special deal for 50% off the menu price. Only alcohol was extra, and we had two bottles of our favorite Malbec Terrazzas from the comprehensive wine list. Our damage for a party of four (all adults): £180, including wine and gratuities. Last visit: January 2009.
We tend to like tapas places in general, and Goya Pimlico ♥♥ does not disappoint.
There is a bar on the ground level, with the main restaurant located in the basement. Nary a decoration in sight, but the not-very-large dining room has an inviting feel, with a couple of alcove seating areas as well as some tucked-away corner tables.
The service is mostly prompt and friendly; if you can order in Spanish, you score additional goodwill points. Over our two trips to the restaurant, we ordered more than a dozen different tapas. Pollo al Ajillo, Chorizo al Vino and Hígado Encebollado were especially well-received, but we were duly impressed by almost every other. Sangria was reputedly outstanding, while my choice of Spanish wine from quite a broad selection was certainly above average.
Several desserts were no longer available when we got to that point of dinner on one trip, but that was the only small hiccup in an otherwise excellent meal. Our damage: £100 for a dozen tapas shared by four people, with two bottles of wine. Last visit: June 2007.
There is a sister restaurant, Goya Belgravia, which I assume provides similar overall experience.
The Mimino restaurant ♥ is located on Kensington High Street, a couple of blocks away from the eponymous tube station. For those who recognize the name, yes, it is a Georgian (as in former Soviet republic Georgian) place.
Nice experience, including live musical accompaniment of mostly Russian (and occasional Georgian) pop numbers. The food is not superb, just good, and on our latest visit, the main courses were all somehow half-cold when they reached our table. Traditional Georgian dishes abound (khachapuri, lobio, chakhokhbili, odjakhuri, etc.), but somehow, on the whole, they do not raise to the level of our recollections of youth. Kharcho is fantastic, though, as are most appetizers. There is a sizable selection of Georgian wines, for those who find them appealing.
The service was a bit amateurish in the past, but improved recently to very pleasant levels. Average damage per couple at a large party that includes several bottles of wine: £75-85. Last visit: December 2008.
Negozio Classica ♥♥♥ is a little bar/lounge on the corner of Portobello Road and Westbourne Grove. Also a store specializing in Italian wine and products, the intimate eatery offers an excellent choice of cold cuts and light dishes to complement its broad variety of wines from all regions of Italy. We had various selections of cheeses and meats, including a fantastic deer meat, as well as crostini and bruschetta. Our damage: £135 for four people, including 3 bottles of moderately-priced wine, before tips. Very friendly service. Last visit: January 2009.
Bella Italia ♥ is located on Queensway, a few blocks from the Kensington Gardens and right by the Bayswater tube station. The food is unmistakably Italian, of an excellent quality. Pizzas went great with the kids, different types of pastas – with adults. We also had an excellent mushroom soup and some passable house wine.
The service is fairly prompt. Our damage: £60 for four people. Last visit: January 2007.
St John’s Wood and north of the Regent’s Park
The parts of northwest London abutting Regent’s Park are by turns unassuming, sleepy or happening. These mostly residential areas in tube Zone 2 are both far away from touristy London, yet within a fairly short distance of the city center. There are quite a number of great places to eat across them.
XO ♥♥ is a chic conceptual establishment on Belsize Lane, specializing in pan-Asian cuisine. Sleek colonial style decor creates a sophisticated atmosphere. The dining room was not very crowded on a Sunday night, which could be explained away by either the time of the week or the seemingly out-of-place location.
The menu consists of a mix of updated takes on traditional Asian, Japanese and Thai dishes, all entirely delectable. The service is prompt and friendly. Our damage: £120 for a full meal for three, including cocktails. Last visit: August 2007.
Beyoglu ♥♥ is a little Turkish place a hundred yards or so away from XO, and it was packed on a Thursday night (some tables were actually turned over a couple of times during our three hours at the restaurant). The walls are decorated with beautifully painted dishes, and unobtrusive Oriental music played throughout the night.
Every staple of Turkish cuisine is represented on the menu, and every appetizer and main course that we sampled tasted fantastic, be it “boring” shish kebab, or saslik, or more elaborate Iskender kebab.
The wine list is rather limited, but our choice ended up being pretty good. The service is very friendly. One small shortcoming is that the back of the room gets pretty hot and the air conditioner is positioned in such a way that it blows directly on people who do not entirely need it. We had to have a waiter on a turn-it-on/turn-it-off schedule every few minutes.
Our damage: £230 for seven people, with four bottles of wine. Last visit: September 2007.
L’Aventure ♥♥ is a French restaurant located on Blenheim Terrace just a couple of blocks away from the famous Abbey Road Beatles crossing in St John’s Wood. (Next to it is a new Italian establishment that replaced Rosmarino, once featured here.)
The menus are entirely in French and contain many of the staples of the French cuisine. Pricing is on prix-fixe basis, either for two or three courses, depending on whether you choose to have dessert. The wine list is on pricier side, but our low-end selection of Bordeaux was quite good.
I had an excellent soupe de poisson and a delicious magret de canard. The friends I was there with were all entirely satisfied with their choices of escargot, lotte (that’s monkfish), mignon de veau, etc. Very pleasant and understated service.
Our damage: &0163;280 for a party of five, including two bottles of wine, with a 12.5% service charge already added in. Last visit: August 2008.
Toresano ♥♥ is a tapas place on Boundary Road not far from where it crosses with Abbey Road.
While other restaurants on the same block appeared half-empty, Toresano was rather busy on Friday night. A couple of tables were turned over during our stay.
The service is very friendly, and the tapas are of very good quality. The selection includes every known staple of this culinary genre, and there are main courses as well (which we did not try). Mejillones, pulpo, albondigas and other offerings were very well received by our demanding company. We did have a slight hold-up with an aubergine dish, which arrived a long time after it had been ordered, but as we ordered two dozen tapas in total (some of them were seconds, though), we were not much inconvenienced.
Tapas £4.50-7 each. Our damage: £200 for six people, including three bottles of wine. Last visit: January 2008.
Lemonia ♥ is near Chalk Farm, just to the north of Regents Park. Some reviewers go as far as call it the best Greek restaurant outside of Greece; I would be less exuberant in my praise, but I certainly liked our experience there.
The place is popular and serves every staple of Greek food, from cold appetizers to meze combination. We dined with several friends and ordered many different dishes, none of which was a disappointment.
We also bravely selected a Greek wine to accompany the meal and liked it enough to order several more bottles of the same over the course of three-hour banquet.
Some of the waiters were rather economical in terms of speaking, which I ascribe to their little mastery of English. Our “main” waiter, however, made small talk, jokes and recommendations, so the overall service was on the pleasant side.
Our damage: £250 for a party of nine, including several bottles of wine. Last visit: Fall 2007.
Singapore Gardens ♥ is on Fairfax Road in Swiss Cottage. The contemporary Oriental restaurant boasts an extensive menu, which includes several combination plates, each with a handful of different appetizers and one or several main courses (combinations are for two or three people). For our party of four, we ordered one of such combinations, Jasmine, plus a couple of bowls of soup and three more “standalone” dishes (wasabi prawns are exquisite), which was more than enough for a great meal.
Wine selection is somewhat ordinary. The service is very prompt and friendly. The place seems to be quite popular, but we ate there on Valentine’s Day, so I cannot lend an opinion on how busy it gets on a regular date.
Our damage: £155 including two bottles of wine and gratuity for a party of four adults. Last visit: February 2009.
Half a step from Mornington Crescent located a wonderful Japanese eatery Asakusa ♥♥♥. Its hole-in-the-wall appearance is especially reinforced if you end up in the basement dining room, while the dining area on the ground floor is visually more respectable, if cramped nonetheless.
The menu is huge and caters to all tastes, from sushi, sashimi and tempura to traditional Japanese dishes that non-natives rarely sample. Our group of four ordered about a dozen of items, including soups, salads, appetizers and main dishes, which were delivered as they became ready, providing our table with a conveyor belt of incoming plates. All delicious.
The place is very busy nightly; for a larger group you will be well served with a reservation. We were warned when ordering that raw-fish dishes would not arrive for about an hour due to capacity constraints, but it did not deter us from ordering them. Overall, the service is understated, but friendly, and well-coping.
Not a glamorous meal, but excellent food and unbeatable value. Our damage: £100 for a dozen different plates for a party of four, including sake and beers. Last visit: January 2008.
Bankside and Southwark
Bankside and Southwark area on the Thames’s south bank have been revitalized over the last few years, acquiring in the process many hip and inviting places to eat.
We had lunch at The Real Greek ♥, where you can partake in the meze concept. Similar to tapas, the portions are small, and you would be well served to order a few different things (or possibly a Meat Sharer that combines several meats and salads). Don’t forget the flatbread to use with spreads, such as taramosalata. You can order additional dips, such as Parsley Aioli. Everything is tasty, and well presented. Our waiter at some point ignored us for a rather prolonged period of time, but overall the service was acceptable. Our damage: £43 for a meal for four. Last visit: Summer 2007.
Tucked into railway arches next to the Southwark Cathedral is a small coffee shop called Cafe Brood ♥, which is popular for breakfast with the Borough Market-goers. It also has excellent burgers and paella cooked on an open grill. The guy manning the grill is a bit of a Soup Nazi, but the quality of the quick bites is great.
The Borough Market itself has a number of food stands and cafés, but we have not personally sampled any.
At one corner of the market, there is Black & Blue ♥♥ steakhouse, with a limited but sophisticated wine selection and menu, the latter including several cuts of meat, as well as burgers and salad plates. The 600g (a bit over 20oz) Côte de Boeuf ended up being shared by four people in our party, but I can see myself handling it on my own; it was excellent. The service is a bit leisurely, but friendly. Our damage: £97 for one main course, three appetizers, several extra sides and a bottle of Malbec, with 12.5% service charge included in the bill. Last visit: March 2008.
Also within the confines of the market is Roast, on the upper level of the pavilion named The Floral Hall. This was one of those places where the meal was not bad in any particular way, but the overall impression was of middling variety.
The service is friendly and deferential, which was the main positive. The open-space layout is nice and modern-looking, and there is a partial view of the St Paul’s Cathedral from the raised part of the restaurant. The menu is not very extensive, and with the exception of one single appetizer (herring roes on a toast) and one main course (a fish stew remarkably evocative of a Provençal soupe de poisson), all of our selections were no better than ok (half a dozen oysters were quite good, but there is little credit to the restaurant for that, I suppose). Funnily, the two outstanding choices were both made by the same person, so the rest of the party could not get excited about anything. The sirloin, for instance, was pretty average.
The wine list is quite extensive, but on the pricier side. The overall value for money is low, even though the place is seemingly quite popular: A couple of tables were turned over during our meal, and there did not seem to be empty tables when we were leaving. Our damage: £220 for a party of four, including two bottles of wine and 12.5% gratuities automatically added to the bill. Last visit: April 2009.
A large block, facing the Borough Market on one side and almost coming out to the water on the other, is taken by the wine-dedicated enterprise called Vinopolis. Its corner nearest to the river is occupied by the eponymous cantina ♥♥. The cuisine is Mediterranean-inflected, and the portions are decidedly on the smaller “French” side. The service is nice and friendly, and the place does not get completely full and stays far from loud, with above-average sophistication level of the clientele. The food is quite good, though, with excellent scallops or goat cheese tart, or a tasty seasonal soup, for a starter and several savory choices among mains.
The wine list, as expected, is very extensive, with the downside of slightly higher pricing. Selections in our price range, which normally encompasses reasonably good choices, here are not too impressive, although I managed to select a pretty nice Argentinian malbec on our last visit.
On our first visit, ordering from the main menu, our damage came to £230 for a party of five, including two wine bottles, with 12.5% service charge included in the bill.
On a repeat visit, we chose from special set menus, limited in selection, but nonetheless quite adequate. Two-course meal cost £14.95, with a desert that added up to £18.95. With two bottles of wine and 12.5% service charge included, for a party of four the total damage was £135. Last visit: April 2009.
There are several Gaucho Grill ♥♥ restaurants in London and England, one of which, at Canary Wharf, I have visited on several occasions. The specialty is Argentinean steaks, and, boy, are those steaks out of this world!!
My favorite cut is Churrasco de Lomo, which is delectably marinated and is impossibly tender. There are enough non-steak fares to satisfy alternative tastes (Natasha had Adobo chicken which she was more than satisfied with on one of the visits), and I highly recommend a ceviche sampler for an appetizer.
For dessert, try Dulce de Leche Cheesecake. Very light, fluffy and delicious to the last bite.
The service is very friendly, and the demonstration of various meat cuts can be a highlight of the menu selection process. When the restaurant fills up, the attention of your waiter may wander a bit, but I have not found a particular problem even at the most busy times. The bartenders, on the other hand, somehow project amateurishness and often take inordinate time to prepare not very elaborate cocktails.
The wine list is very extensive, with Malbec dominating the selection.
The restaurant is located on the Canary waterfront, with outside seating for drinks (supposedly, in warm months, they even serve food outside). The interior is modern with partially open kitchen; many chairs use animal hides for upholstery.
The place gets very busy on weeknights (reservations are essential – or prepare to wait for quite some time), but not so much on weekends. Damage for a party of four: £215, including gratuities and £35 for a bottle of wine.
A visit in April of 2008 was a bit of a disappointment, as the meats were less than perfect. We were warned beforehand of the imminently changing menu, so I was both willing to allow them a mulligan and curious as to what the menu will look like next time. On a follow-up visit in June, there was a slight change in available cuts, but the quality somehow remained slightly lower than I remembered from the past. Last visit: June 2008.
In addition, I have visited many local pubs and eateries in Canary Wharf.
The boardwalk that runs parallel to Hertsmere Road on West India Quay is home to half a dozen pubs, sitting all in a row. Bar 38 is the most popular of them, especially on Thursdays in good weather, attracting mostly young crowd.
Brown’s ♥♥ is popular as well, but with a bit more established professionals. It has a bar and an informal dining room downstairs. The ground level is home to a more formal main restaurant. I visited the place a couple of times: Burgers are above-average, the main courses are quite good as well (but I always end up spending time mingling around the table too much to pay attention to the food).
A few doors down is La Tasca ♥, a tapas franchise, which is probably a notch below some other representatives of the Spanish cuisine that I have been to, but still quite enjoyable.
Across the pedestrian bridge, on Fisherman’s Walk, there are several more pubs and restaurants. I only had drinks and snacks at Cat & Canary, but went to a few lunches at Davey’s ♥. The fare is traditional, the service very prompt and friendly, the place itself is nice and is frequented by suits from nearby offices.
Brodie’s, another pub on Fisherman’s Walk, is great for drinks, but a lunch there was a disappointment; limited menu, average quality.
A few steps away, on the North Colonnade, sits a very popular Thai place called Sri Nam ♥. It gets very busy and noisy both during lunchtime and on workday evenings, with many professionals flocking in to its bar. The proper restaurant is upstairs, where I once attended a dim-sum-like banquet. I like Thai food to start with, and what I recall from that meal was beyond reproach. The place employs at least one she-man, who always attracts disbelieving looks from non-regulars.
Across, on the upper level of Cabot Place, there are a couple of popular lunching places, such as Chili’s (not at all disagreeable), Pizza Express ♥ (which, belying its name, has an excellent selection of gourmet pizzas) and Itsu Sushi (conveyor set-up; disappointing selection). There are many fast- or prepared-food, take-away establishments throughout the big underground mall. Birley’s Salted Beef, in a corner of 1 Canada Place basement level, is my favorite for sandwich-type lunch; at busy times, with half a dozen servers working simultaneously, it still grows a queue of 20-30 people.
Across from it is Nicolas bar, whose affiliation with the wine seller of the same name facilitates a pretty good selection of French wines.
On Reuters Plaza, near the Canary Wharf tube station, are a couple of other popular places. I’ve had several drinks at Smollensky’s, which is also a popular restaurant. Next to it is an Italian cafe, Carlucchio’s, where I once had an unremarkable lunch; in good weather, it’s outdoor sitting area fills out in the first few minutes of lunchtime; it is less busy after-hours if all you want is drinks.
On the waterfront around the corner from them is a Cafe Rouge ♥ franchise, which, unlike other establishments in this chain, boasts fairly efficient service.
San Miguel ♥ is a pleasant tapas restaurant right outside the Greenwich market. The food is excellent, the interior colorful, the service not half bad. Tapas under £5; our damage has varied between £40 and £55 for a lunch for four. Last visit: Spring 2008.
North Pole bar and restaurant ♥ is a pub/fine dining combination establishment half a mile up Greenwich High Road from the village center. The pub is on the ground level and the restaurant is upstairs. Nice place, good food, not very busy on Saturday afternoon. We went all out with a two-course meal for everybody, plus a couple of desserts, and everything we chose, from soup of the day to smoked duck for starters to lamb, rib-eye steak or sea bream for the main course, was tasty. Overall damage came to £143 for two adults and two children, including an inexpensive bottle of wine and gratuities, but we were armed with a 50% discount on food selections, reducing the damage to a round £100. Last visit: March 2009.
A bit away from the center of Greenwich, there is the French brasserie Le Guildford ♥. Nice environment, nice music, French-speaking staff. We targeted a visit for quite some time, and ended up going for lunch on a weekday, when they have £7.50 or £9.75 specials (depending on whether you have dessert or not). The place was initially completely empty, but other customers soon followed. The feeling is that it should be quite busy on nights and weekends. The specials menu was rather limited, but adequate. A la carte menu looked rather promising for a dinner visit sometime. Last visit: Summer 2008.
We love sushi and Japanese cuisine in general, and Ginza ♥♥ serves an excellent opportunity to indulge. It is located on Woolwich Rd about a mile from Greenwich center. The decor is unobtrusively traditional. The stuff is friendly to the point of being annoyingly ever-present, but that is the only – and mild – negative about the place. The food is simply great. Our damage: £90 for a party of five. Last visit: Fall 2008.
Buenos Aires Cafe ♥♥, which looks out on the heath, offers Argentinean cuisine, with steaks being the prime attraction. There are various appetizers and sides that make it a great meal, and for the especially hungry, there is a meat combo (which can easily feed three people). As Italian heritage is very strong in Argentina, many items on the menu are unmistakably Italian. Reasonable wine list. The waiters were a bit stiff, but the owner melted upon realizing that people in our party in one of the visits had spent a couple of weeks traveling in Argentina a couple of years ago. The place looks very simple and rustic, but that makes it even more inviting. Very popular with locals, and since it is rather small, reservations are essential any day of the week.
The latest visit to Buenos Aires Cafe left a couple of smudges on my overall perception of it, namely a too warm bottle of wine (I had to ask for an ice bucket) and a clearly less than freshly-baked baguette in the bread basket. Roasted peppers for an appetizer failed to impress my Mother. The meat, though, was excellent and aplenty, and the overall experience still enjoyable. Our damage last time: £130 for four people, including a bottle of wine and a couple desserts. Last visit: Summer 2008.
We first ate at Chapters ♥ when it was called “Chapter Two” in spring of 2007. The place is located on Montpelier Vale, also looking out to the heath, and was a bit of an upscale variety. Our dinner was on the lower level of the restaurant. The service was surprisingly attentive, despite the fact that the place filled up on Friday night. The menu was not very extensive, French-inflected, on a prix-fixe basis: You selected an appetizer and a main course. Some of the selections had extra charges associated with them, noted on the menu, but still they came as a surprise on the bill. The food was good-to-excellent. Prix-fixe dinner: £19.95 (without desert), £24.95 (with desert).
As the place has been re-branded, we assume that the dinner notes in the previous paragraph no longer apply. We made a couple of visits, first for lunch, then for dinner, and were not shown to the lower level. The seating was on the contemporary-styled upper (ground) level. The menu had a number of interesting choices, with several specials noted on the chalk-board. We tried a terrine for appetizer, and a rack of lamb and a duck for main dishes. Very tasty. The lunch damage came to £34 for two. Last visit: May 2009.
The adjacent coffeeshop has a nice dessert selection and an appropriate atmosphere for a cup of coffee, a piece of cake, or maybe a snack.
A couple of doors down is Zero Degrees ♥♥, which is mostly popular for the beer that is brewed on the premises. I am told that it is the most happening place in the village. It is, however, a pretty good lunching place as well, with several tasty specials and a large selection of pizzas and pastas. The interior decor suggests brewery in a very hip way. Our damage: £17 for a lunch for two. Last visit: Spring 2008.
Bella Vista ♥ is a nice Italian place in the heart of the Blackheath village. The service is excellent, the atmosphere quite nice. Fairly authentic Italian dishes are served, although the portion size is probably a bit on the smallish side. The food quality is pretty good, even though I could not really get excited about my plate. It should be noted that the friends that we were together with liked the place more than we did. Our damage: £110 for four adults and four kids, including a bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2007.
I personally like Strada ♥♥ even better. This Italian eatery is located at the top of the hill away from the heath. The food is top-notch; agnello brasado and pollo ai funghi were extremely well received, and the rest of the dishes were great as well. A very picky little member of our entourage devoured her pizza margherita and asked for more. The adults were offered a complimentary shot of limoncello at the end of the meal. Our damage: £130 for four adults and four kids, including a bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2008.
The Royal ♥ is located on the border of the Greenwich Borough council area; it is in Mottingham, practically next to Mottingham station, about 6 miles from Greenwich center. The place was refurbished and re-opened as a “gastro-pub” in early 2008. Simple and rustic furniture in the main dining room, but the wine selection and the menu are decidedly more sophisticated than in any given pub, including terrine, salmon steak, lamb shoulder, etc. Fish and chips and a very good steak burger feature as well. Sunday roast includes several specials at £4 per appetizer and £12 per entrée; a la carte menu is quite good as well. Very friendly service. Our average damage: £80 for four/five people. Last visit: December 2008.
Due Amici ♥♥ is a very popular Italian restaurant on Royal Parade (which is the extension of the High Street to the south, separated from the village center by a wooded area). Excellent food, very friendly service; most of the waiters are middle-aged men who seem to speak better Italian than English. On Friday night, the place filled up quite quickly. Funghi del Amici for a starter received ebullient praise and the rest of our selections, including very nice abbacchio alla chef, were also well received. Our damage: £100 for a party of four, with only one main course selection in addition to several appetizers, including a bottle of wine and gratuities. Last visit: March 2009.
Foxes Brasserie ♥ is in the middle of the village. Nice food, understated service, but the place was entirely empty while we dined there (must be the economic times – I will not be surprised to learn that it closes at some point). We had several appetizers, such as stuffed portobello mushroom and salmon and crab cakes, and different main courses, including seabass, veal escalope and Oriental-fusion chicken and prawn noodles. All dishes were received quite well, capped by excellent cheesecake. Our damage: £83 for four people, which includes two glasses of wine and gratuities added directly to the bill. Last visit: February 2009.
Brouge ♥♥ is located on a sub-street level right at the main intersection in the village center. The atmosphere is an amalgam of a beer pub and a wine cave. Friendly staff. Belgian-inflected cuisine and supposedly several dozen varieties of Belgian beer on offer. There is a reasonable wine list as well, and we stuck with that. Our appetizer choices were various terrines and rilettes, while for main courses we ordered lamb shanks, rib-eye steak and chicken in mushroom sauce. Great food. Excellent desserts, as well. Our damage: £165 for a party of four (all adults), including two bottles of wine and gratuities. Last visit: February 2009.
There is a Brouge sister restaurant in Twickenham as well, but it does not look like it is situated near as picturesque area.
Note of caution: Parking in Richmond is a big pain in the posterior, with street parking sparse and limited to 4 hours for non-residents. There is one covered garage a few hundred yards from the village center, but on Sundays, it gets locked at 6pm. Local recommendations are to look for parking across the river.