Rediscovering London: No Tea Please, We're Tourists

Posted by: Candice Daquin


Most of us fond of traveling have visited London and done the prerequisite red bus tour, taking in Big Ben, Oxford Street and the The Tower of London. Those more adventurous souls may well have visited further a field, a walk by the Serpentine, The Tate Modern, Madam Tussauds, Carnaby Street. But as with any tourist experience, taking in a city authentically, and seeing in a few days the best that city has to offer, is hard to achieve, even with a common language. The lovely part about living in a city is knowing the nooks and crannies that tourists usually miss. With their maps and good intentions, tourism obviates the local things in favor of the well-known, and those recommendations usually from other tourists.

The worst mistake a traveler can make is to rely solely on the reports of tourist vehicles and other travelers.

Speak instead to someone in the city you are visiting, talk to the locals, ask them the best places to visit, be specific about what you like and what you’re looking to experience, don’t leave the experience up to the tour bus, or likely as not, you’ll be heading home with a plastic snow globe of a red bus and a t-shirt with the underground sign. To see the ‘real’ London you need to appreciate the size, and history of the city. London might try to sell itself on ‘Tea at The Ritz’ and cater to those aficionados of all things English, encouraging the purchase of kilts, overly priced china (that can’t possibly survive the trip home) and ghoulish trips to the London Dungeon. But real London has long surpassed the shallow confines of its tourist surface and if one ventures a little further, you can experience London as the locals do.

If you like live dance, London is one of the best cities in the world to see a performance.  Try beautiful Sadler’s Wells, a few miles from the center, in Islington, dance troupes worldwide perform year round, and the cost isn’t prohibitive. Take in a slow dinner afterwards at one of the many late night theatre restaurants dotted in the neighborhood and return to your hotel on a bus, ambling through the thin streets of North London strung with tiny lights and overhanging trees. If your budget isn’t large, try walking to one of the local fish and chip shops where unlike the tourist shops of the West End, you’ll actually eat good chips wrapped in newspaper and steaming with vinegar. Indian food is perhaps the best food you’ll find in London, with a huge Indian and Pakistani population, it’s hard to beat the quality of Indian food, and there are so many very inexpensive restaurants to choose from, so try going out of the usual areas and take the Central Line tube a few stops from London’s center, to Liverpool Street and walk down Brick Lane, past Spittlefields impromptu market overflowing with organic produce, cheap knock-off designer goods, beautiful vintage clothing and special little boutique stores selling anything from handmade soups to sex toys.

Primrose Hill, a short walk from Chalk Farm tube station is a hidden gem littered with tiny tea shops, adorable one of the kind boutiques, ancient architecture and nearby, London Zoo, which despite its tourist appeal, has just next to it, a wonderful boat ride through Maida Vale and other water-bound neighborhoods, well worth taking. The neighborhood is just a hop skip from Camden Lock, also reachable by tube, a glorious Pandora’s Box of shopping experiences. Find the latest fashions at half-price, and handmade things you’ll never see again. Old bookshops, roast chestnuts and antique canal barges, are just some of the delights of Camden, a renovated area of London known for its market and neighborhood feel. The Stables, a lesser known diversion behind the main Camden market, is a rapidly growing fashion district of tiny boutiques, many alternative catering for the Goth, the clubber, the eclectic lover. You’ll find the best silver jewelry, hats, bags, coats and bizarre memorabilia and collectables, alongside really good quality antiques and priceless vintage.

A little further away, another trip could take you to Hampstead, where connected by good public transport, the alcoves of this rich neighborhood can be accessed and walked in a day. Beautiful multimillion pound cottages are dotted around the sumptuous English park lands, rambling with wildlife and well healed English professionals enjoying the benefits of this untouched part of London. You’ll feel you’re back a 100 years, walking down Hampstead High Street with the best of London’s expensive clothes stores, it would not be hard to spend a years earnings. Flower sellers, crepes, bookshops, hot chocolate, Chinese apothecaries and little handmade chocolate tea shops, crammed next to numerous shoe shops, of course, London has an excellent shoe industry with surprisingly affordable prices, and dinky children’s clothes and toy shops. This will be so far removed from shopping in a mall you will never want to return.

A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without visiting Soho, but don’t just visit China Town, walk down into the heart of Soho, where the film industry lies. Soho contains a plethora of little china cup cafes and funky restaurants, gay clubs and pubs, fetish shops, the hottest trends, and beautiful deli’s and markets splashed with flowers and collectables. Have a baguette on Old Compton Street and walk up into Leicester Square and through the back of Theatre-land into Covent Garden. Most people visiting London do the prerequisite route through Covent Garden but never really stop to explore the details. Down in the heart of Covent Garden, is the unforgettable Children’s Toy Museum, a playhouse of inventions, next to more shopping than you could cope with.

Around the neighborhood, are dozens of winding streets taking you through the cobbled roads of London past the strangely named pubs, alley ways and tucked away basement restaurants where live music plays all night. Find yourself off the map at the end of Covent Garden in Neal’s Yard, a little square of eccentricity, and if you’re so inclined, pay the exorbitant but unforgettable cost of a night spent at the Covent Garden Hotel, one of many expensive and immaculately designed boutique hotels in the center.
Walk along the South Bank from Vauxhall up to the Tate Modern, a beautiful cobbled winding road by the river, there’s a lot more there than the Millennium Wheel, like the National Film Theatre, open-market bookstores, and Gabriel’s Wharf packed with designer boutiques and jewelers.

On the District line, Sloane Street is not far from Harrods and the other typically visited tourist destinations in London’s high-end Knightsbridge area, but instead of Harvey Nichols try the cheaper Peter Jones on the corner of Sloane street and amble down the Kings Road to World’s End, taking in the small market communities off the main road, and the abundance of high-end designer boutiques and little clothes stores, as well as fantastic restaurants ranging from Belgium to Iranian. It’s a world away from the bustle of central London and a truly great shopping day, with lots of quiet places to stop and chat or just stare as the world walks by. Particularly pay note to the cool Bluebird building, a hubbub of cultural cuisines and the sumptuous second-hand designer stores in World’s End.

Visit the museums and the parks by all means, but don’t forget to see the Peter Pan garden in Kensington, or visit Kensington Market, the original one, as gothic and outrageous as your imagination will take you. Tramp the horse worn streets up into Green Park and visit the ICI Museum, not usually found on most tourists maps, just a heartbeat from the Palace, take in the inexpensive early theater rehearsals during the day rather than shelling out full price and sitting at the back and don’t forget the local theatres, a lot easier on the wallet, like the Almeda Theater in Islington or the New Vic in Lambeth. London is a kaleidoscope of experiences, the best way to know it is to live it, so use public transport, talk to locals, they’re not so bad, and dive into the cities diversity and bouquet of cultures to really bring back the flavors of this exciting city. 

Photo credit:

Page Views: 2146


  Notify me of New Comments

Mar 21, 2008 | iCraft Updates

Great suggestions Eyeshoot Photography! Personally, I've never been to London, but when I do get there, Highgate Cemetery will be on the list. :)

Mar 20, 2008 | Posted by:

I'd like to mention that a visit to Highgate Cemetery is well worth the very interesting bus ride and then the trek down the steep hill from Highgate Village (save some energy for coming back up!). There's a small charge for entry, but it's like no cemetery you'll have ever seen before. If you're a photographer, you'll have a great time! (No loos I don't think, no cafe and not suitable if you're not surefooted and want to venture off the paths).

Submitted by:

Candice Daquin
London, ON, Canada

Search Blog Central