If you were to ask me to tell you my favourite city in the world, I wouldn’t need any time to ponder my answer. Despite its reputation, its busyness and its expensive nature, for me there is no city in the world like London. Perhaps I’m biased because I have lived here all my life, but having explored over 10 European cities in the last 18 months alone I haven’t felt anything that compares to the raw, gritty, historical beauty of my home town.
But when you work, live and play in a place it can be easy to take it for granted, and I realised I’d taken my beloved London for granted for far too long. Walking past the Houses of Parliament every day on my commute had lost its impressiveness. I barely looked up when passing by Buckingham Palace. And I can’t remember the last time I purposefully visited somewhere south of the river.
So I decided that I’d play tourist in my home city – but not just any sort of tourist. I wanted to find new things to do, see and eat that don’t always make it into the guidebooks. Here’s five ways to make a London city break a little more offbeat and unusual – why not try one of these on your next visit?
1. Travel in style on a Thames River Cruise
I hadn’t taken a boat trip down The Thames for over a decade, and given I’ve enjoyed boat trips in other European capital cities it seemed an obvious and fun way to get around for the day. Whilst the London Underground is a quick and popular method to traverse the city, it’s not massively inspiring, you’re often wedged underneath someone else’s armpit, and for the most part you miss out on all the good stuff above ground.
So for that reason, I found myself at Westminster Pier waiting for a boat with City Cruises. As well as doing dinner and afternoon tea style trips, they also offer a hop-on hop-off Red Rover ticket that allows you to get around the Thames, stopping off at certain sites and allowing you to come back again. You can grab the boat from Westminster, Tower, Bankside and Greenwich piers and use your ticket to jump on and off as much as you like in a 24 hour period.
Not only is it a truly pleasant experience on a baking hot day when no one wants to be stuck underground, you also get to see beautiful London from a different perspective AND get a commentary about the things that you’ll see. DOUBLE WIN!
I first travelled from Westminster Pier to Tower Pier in around 50 minutes, taking in such sites as the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Gherkin, The Shard, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge itself. Later on in the day I travelled from Tower Pier to Greenwich Pier seeing more of South London such as Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe. Even as a self confessed London geek, I still learnt a lot from the commentary, and the photo opportunities are unrivalled as you can’t get those angles from land.
Cost + Info: Tickets for the 24 hour hop on hop off service cost £16.88 per person and can be bought online. Cruises depart every 40 minutes, every day of the week, all year round.
2. Fill up on an amazing two course brunch
What’s an amazing couple of days in a city without a long and lazy brunch with a pal? It’s a slightly sadder one, that’s what it is, and as my love for brunch is almost as big as my love for my cats, a perfect brunch location was the first thing that I researched.
We’re extremely spoilt in London for epic brunch locations, but I’d wanted to try London Grind for a long time, and given the London Bridge branch was so close to my chosen hotel and Tower Pier it felt like a great time to go. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.
London Grind is a photographic dream – marble tables, red coffee cups, a stylish bar area and florescent coloured lighting and that’s before the food has even arrived. It’s open from 7am until long into the night and serves up lunches, dinners and cocktails to a mix of local workers and those venturing in from further afield because of its reputation – indeed we saw a professional photographer there whilst we were brunching which is a mark of its popularity.
We were overwhelmed by choice for our brunch extravaganza, but never one to be put off by a mountain of food we opted for the less well known option of a two course brunch. Basically, we couldn’t decide between sweet and savoury so we had both! We selected the breakfast burrito, the sweet potato harissa cakes with poached egg and avocado and a stack of buttermilk blueberry pancakes. It was all completely delicious, especially washed down with a round of flat whites – which kept me fully pepped up for the rest of my day.
On this occasion I didn’t get the chance to try out any of their fresh smoothies (the green with coffee sounds divine), but I enjoyed brunch here so much that I’ll definitely be returning very soon, perhaps to try out their locations in Exmouth Market or Clerkenwell.
Cost + Info: Prices vary depending on what you order, but their full menu is available here. Even during the week London Grind gets extremely busy, so I’d recommended booking in advance to ensure you get seated.Here's five ways to make a London city break a little more offbeat and unusual! #visitlondonClick To Tweet
3. Head to one of the best views in London
There are many views in London that could be entitled truly spectacular. From the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, Primrose Hill, The Shard and Alexandra Palace you can see London sprawled out below you in a wonderful and enthralling way but I think I may have found another view that tops them all.
Confused? Maybe, but the viewing point at the top of Greenwich Park barely gets a look in against other, more central top spots but the view is, I would argue completely unrivalled. It’s one of the very best natural views of the city, and Maritime Greenwich is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage site with lots of architecturally stunning buildings, modern city views and The Thames weaving through it all.
The climb isn’t the easiest, but although it is steep, it’s fairly short and takes you to a viewing point next to the Royal Observatory. Within your sightline you’ll find the Royal Museums Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College, Canary Wharf, the City, the O2 and even St Paul’s Cathedral. The view is so wonderful, Turner even painted it!
Once you’ve had your fill of the view, Greenwich itself is such a wonderful place to hang out. You could take a cat nap in the park (I might have done this…), visit the Royal Observatory, explore the Cutty Sark, head to any number of other museums in the area, do some shopping at Greenwich Market or just take a lazy walk along the river.
Cost + Info: Totally free (which is great, because so many of the views in London are accessed only by buying a ticket). Greenwich has a number of excellent travel options including Bus, London Underground, Docklands Light Railway and boats from Greenwich Pier.
4. Check into a thoroughly modern hotel
As I’m technically a local (if a zone 5 postcode gives me rights to that title), it’s rare that I get to stay overnight in London, and when I do it feels like a very decadent treat. When I get to stay in a hotel chain like Citizen M, it feels like a very decadent treat with a cherry on top. Citizen M have boutique hotels in London, Paris, Glasgow, Amsterdam and Rotterdam as well as further afield, and I stayed in their newest addition to their London clan at Citizen M Tower of London.
After a day of sightseeing, all I wanted to do is flop down into a cosy hotel bed and relax before heading out for dinner. But upon entering Citizen M I was so completely enthralled that I forgot all about my aching feet and set about exploring the hotel, inch by inch.
The Lobby + Check In
The lobby itself is a dream, with cosy red sofas, filled to the brim bookshelves with curiosities as well as books, space to work and a large screen television, making it the perfect place for weary tourists and freelancers alike. Unlike other hotels in London, it felt like using the space to work was actively encouraged, and they’ve even got a bank of iMacs just in case you forgot your laptop. The dream.
To fuel your freelancing or your lounging is Canteen M, the location for breakfast but also serving food and drink throughout the day. The coffee is really very good (which is not the norm in hotels I have found), and I have it on very good authority that they do burgers to die for here. It’s an excellent spot for a nightcap or a cheeky lunchtime beer, and they even have spots outside to sit if the weather is fine.
Upon arrival I checked in using the screens in the lobby, collected my hotel key and headed for the lifts, not knowing what I’d find. The check-in was seamless, quicker than a standard reception desk but there are always staff available if you get into trouble with the check-in screens.
I’d heard great things about the spectacular view at Citizen M’s Tower of London hotel, but at this point I didn’t know where my room was. As I rode the lift I crossed all my fingers and toes that I’d be greeted by something awesome, and as I opened the door I let out a little yelp when my eyes were drawn straight to the huge wall-to-wall window.
LOOK. AT. THIS. VIEW.
From my bed, I could look out onto The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, City Hall and The Shard, and instead of getting my power nap, I spent a couple of hours just staring out at this incredible view. It was just as beautiful when we returned from dinner later that evening, as we caught the whole scene just before they turned the lights off at The Tower of London.
View aside, it’s not the only reason why the rooms are simply blissful. Everything in the room can be controlled with your very own iPad style remote, which gives you power over the curtains and blinds, the entertainment system (tv + radio), the heating and rather excitingly the lighting. I had great fun while Mr S was in the shower playing with the mood settings which simultaneously changed the lights in the shower from pink to purple to green to blue and to yellow.
The beds are XL and extremely comfy, the rainfall shower is pure bliss (as are the shower products provided by Citizen M), there is a full sized hairdryer in the room which is like gold dust in most hotels, you can watch free movies at any time of day or night and the free wifi works perfectly. It’s basically my perfect room even without the view, but that view really is just breathtaking.
The Rooftop Bar
If you were thinking, “wouldn’t that view be enhanced by a couple of cocktails?“, you’d be absolutely right. Luckily, Citizen M have a residents only rooftop bar called cloudM where you can drink in the panoramic city views with a perfectly made drink. In fact, I enjoyed the view with one of the best Aperol Spritz I have ever tasted, even including ones in Italy. You can reserve a table or sofa and settle in to watch the sunset over one of the most beautiful buildings in London.
Even more impressive is that they really only open the bar to guests. A bar with a view like that would be packed all day long and CitizenM could indeed make a fair amount of money from that so it’s a testament to how special they want their guests to feel that they keep it for their eyes only.
I know I’m exuding overwhelming positively for this hotel, but genuinely there wasn’t a thing I could fault – and I’m quite the fussy hotel booker. Whether you are heading to London for a break or are a local looking for a treat, CitizenM Tower of London is the perfect hotel. No doubt.
Cost + Info: CitizenM Tower of London is located close to the Tower of London and Tower Hill tube station. Rates start at £209 per night, but discounts exist if you book early or sign up for membership, which is free. Breakfast is £13.95 per person.
5. Take the best free walking tour of the city
My love of walking tours has been long documented, and it’s the thing I do, and recommend to anyone when setting foot in a new city. London is not a new city to me, having lived and worked here all my life, but with its vast sprawling borders and long history I knew even as a local I’d enjoy a walking tour in my home location.
And for a highly entertaining, jam-packed and best of all free walking tour I turned to my favourite tour operator – Sandemans. Just like in other major European cities, Sandeman’s offers a comprehensive free walking tour in London that they name “The Royal Tour”. Obviously in a city as big and diverse as London they couldn’t cover every aspect of the capital, and this tour was a whistle-stop through the rich and powerful – from politics to royalty and back again. Starting at Covent Garden and ending at Westminster Abbey, we walked through royal parks, saw parts of the changing of the guard and Buckingham Palace and hung out at Trafalgar Square.
We also saw the actual Queen on a visit to the Canadian High Commission, but that was just a perfectly timed fluke.
As well passing by some incredible buildings and locations that I usually take for granted, I could take the time to appreciate them in all their beauty. Buckingham Palace really is extremely pretty. But all of this was made about a million times better by our guide for the tour. Sandeman’s have a reputation for having very good guides, but I believe that in London, we might have found the best walking tour guide of all time. Prone as I am to exaggeration, I don’t believe in this case that I am.
I’d like to introduce you to Angus – half Scottish, half Australian and all actor, Angus hit the right tone between being extremely entertaining, very knowledgeable and at the appropriate moments bellyachingly funny. A trained Shakespearean actor, Angus set the scene for some of the best stories about royalty and politicians gone by and this fast paced tour left me strangely proud of London’s quirky, offbeat history.
You should book this free tour, because you might end up with Angus as your guide, and a morning spent with Angus is not a morning wasted. I’m extremely keen to book on to some of his other tours, such as the Grim Reaper evening tour which I’m sure will be a grizzly hoot.
Cost + Info: This is a free walking tour which leaves at various times throughout the day, but booking in advance is essential via the Sandemans website. Be prepared to leave a tip – whilst the tour is free, guides rely on tips for their livelihood, and it’s because of this that the tours are such high quality!
Samuel Johnson said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”, and I don’t think I could love that quote hard enough. I think, that if I could pluck up the courage to get tattooed, I’d have it permanently inked on my body – that’s how much is resonates. Instead, I’ll have to make sure that its at the forefront of my mind every time I forget how much London has to offer. During these glorious 36 hours I didn’t queue for a museum or pay for overpriced entry to an attraction – I saw things at a different pace and from a different angle – and I encourage you to do the same!
*I collaborated with Citizen M to review their Tower of London hotel and with City Cruises to review their Red Rover experience, but all opinions are my own – and as you can tell I genuinely loved both experiences!