The first time I visited London, even with experience as a quote “Big Fish” with stints in New York and my adopted hometown of L.A., I was overwhelmed. Bustling, with far and wide stretches and what seemed like a laundry list of must-see attractions, haunts, and storied locales, where was I to even begin? To make matters even more dizzying, where was I to stay? There’s a million plus gorgeous hotels spread across the city, and even more popping up in ever-trendy neighborhoods like Brixton, Shoreditch, and Spitalfields.
Staying in Central London, let alone the tourist-fueled West End, seemed like a nightmare. I thought, “that’d be the equivalent of staying in Times Square.” But as it turns out, staying in the lively and whimsically playground-like hub is the best way to experience the city. The West End puts you in “Quintessential London” with a plethora of hotels (at a range of price points), a fun atmosphere, and no shortage of pubs, cocktail bars, and other unique dining experiences—and let’s not forget the world-class, award-winning theater. Still not convinced? Allow me to elaborate.
Ahem, You Are a Tourist—Don’t Be Scared to Own It
In the wise words of Hugh Grant in Love, Actually, Britain has brought us “Shakespeare, Sean Connery, and Harry Potter.” Isn’t that why you’re there? The cultural touchstones and unique British iconography are part of what makes London so exciting, eternal, and, well…London! So, do the “touristy” stuff while you’re in town! Embrace it! And if you stay in the West End, you’ll be at the epicenter for this kind of fare.
Want to play Queen for a day–literally? Make your way to Fortnum and Mason, the Queen’s favorite shop for tea and all its accouterments. The historic building will have you feeling like a kid in a candy store, as it’s home to a variety of teas and sweets, with entire floors devoted to the art of the afternoon cuppa. It also holds a luxury shopping floor, grocer, and the must experience located on its top floor, afternoon tea. Truly there might be no better afternoon spent than toggling between cups of fine teas, prosecco, cucumber sandwiches, and a cake trolley that wizzes around just for your enjoyment. It’s a must.
For other touristy (yet delightful) activities, I recommend strolling through nearby Soho, Chinatown, and Covent Garden shops. After all, wandering in London is an activity in itself.
Related: The Best Things to Do in London
Who Said London Doesn’t Have Good Food?
Whoever said London doesn’t have good food isn’t looking hard enough. Sure, the relative blandness of British cuisine abounds in the city. But! Once you realize the city does specific cuisines (erm, anything not particularly British), you’re in for a treat. The diverse ethnic makeup of the city means there’s no shortage of incredible Asian, African, and Western European flavors across many diasporas.
We know we just ragged on local London cuisine, but Apricity’s stunning and thoughtful take on classic flavors is not to be missed. A circular restaurant (a.k.a. the most progressive take on no-waste cuisine–down the decor), you’ll chomp on buttery beef tongue in a savory broth alongside tender gnudi and a scallop dish that, simply put, is an elevated, absolutely gorgeous take on a BLT. Acclaimed chef Chantelle Nicholson’s restaurant feels cozy and inviting and makes the perfect meal before you make the 20-minute jaunt to nearby theaters.
We also love the restaurants at Kingly Court, another diverse and warm example of London’s popular dining hall scene, an easy 10-minute walk from the West End. Nibble on global flavors from Greece to American comfort, to East Asia, and beyond in this three-story, vibrant food hall. It’s situated on bustling Carnaby Street, which has no shortage of bars, restaurants, shops, and excellent people-watching.
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Finally, in nearby Covent Garden, we delighted in the whimsy and wow factor of Italian spot Ave Mario. Enter what feels like an Italian Willy Wonka, complete with Instagrammable decor and an audacious use of color, and enjoy rustic, classic Italian cuisine. Ave Mario pulls off the near impossible, OTT, “scene-y” decor, while having actually delicious food. (Don’t forget to check out the bathroom where you may have a Soprano character or two waiting for you.)
Take in the Spectacle of West End’s Theater
When staying in the West End, going to a show is a must. Walk outside your hotel door, and you’ll be thrust into the melodic chaos of this district. London’s West End theater scene has long been hailed as the across-the-pond equivalent to New York City’s Broadway theater district, with no shortage of iconic, long-running plays like Les Misérables, A+ list star turns (Amy Adams is currently starring in The Glass Menagerie), and newbie sensations like 2:22 A Ghost Story (Lily Allen made her West End debut in the stage sensation last year.)
I caught the most recent iteration of the show, now in its second run, with an incredible cast, including Tom Felton (Potterheads, get your bras ready.) It honestly was a thrilling and exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat, and the Criterion Theater’s small, cozy environment made things feel intimate and all the more riveting. Also currently running are productions of Mamma Mia!, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the lauded Jerusalem starring Oscar-winner Mark Rylance.
Want more London via West End? Use these itinerary add-ons to win over any kind of tourist.
Where to Go If You’re a History Buff
Want to hit all of London’s must-see landmarks in one fell swoop? Just Uber a boat! Seriously. You can hop on Uber Boat by Thames Clippers and go for a ride on the Thames for under 20 pounds. There you’ll glide by landmarks like Tower Bridge, the MI6 building, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament while getting fun photos. Reserve tickets in advance, in-app. Opt for a fun excursion on one of Skuna’s hot tub boats in chillier months! After your ride on the Thames, you can hop off and explore The British Museum, National Gallery, and Barbican Centre nearby. There’s zero shortage of exciting museums and arts experiences in the surrounding area.
Dive Into London’s Diverse Food Scene
Hop on the tube outside of Zone 1 (neighborhoods in central London) to Zone 2 or even Zone 3, and you’ll be thrust into foodie wonderlands with a broad range of exciting and diverse cuisines. Into Afro-Caribbean food? Try heading to Brixton for food halls like Brixton Market, specializing in regional Caribbean flavors. Or devote an entire evening to Camden and its unique and very cool restaurants like The Cheese Bar (exactly what you’d think) or local fav Alexander the Great. Staying in the West End means you’re just a short walk to the Piccadilly Circus line, where you can simply tap with Apple or Google pay in lieu of an Oyster card and whiz yourself to one of these exciting dining destinations.
Walk in the Footsteps of Your Favorite British Characters
Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, and James Bond are all wildly popular characters with one thing in common: they’re all Londoners. With so many iconic films and TV shows filmed in London, there’s plenty of sightseeing to be done surrounding film and TV favorites. You could create your own tour and bop about based on your beloved characters or do official tours from companies like Brit Movie Tours, which have tours surrounding London-based rom-coms, Doctor Who, and Peaky Blinders. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet your own Mark Darcy in the process? Cheers!