In 2015, some 31.5 million people visited London. That was a record year, yet early indications are that 2016 beat even those figures. The capital has the three most popular free visitor attractions in the UK (British Museum; National Gallery; Natural History Museum). It also lays claim to the top three paid-for sites (Tower of London; St Paul’s Cathedral; Westminster Abbey). Long and short – as a tourist in London, you won’t be short of company.
But should you start finding all the people wearing their backpacks on their chests a little oppressive, it’s time to shake them off your tail. As one of the authors of The Rough Guide to London, Neil McQuillian has got this down to a fine art. Here are his top tips.
Take a walk – or the bus
Mews, alleyways, yards, courts – London does atmospheric walking like few other places on Earth. And the more you walk, the more you find; roads seem to call out to you, leading you on, ensnaring you in a wonderful riddle. Getting lost in London is one of its great pleasures.
Feeling ambitious? Writer Will Self reckons it takes a whole day to walk from central London to green fields – in other words, to actually leave the city on foot. A more manageable variation is to take a bus to the end of its line and walk back in.
Slightly less ambitious, but a lot of fun, is to take a bus back into London from the start of its route. Getting on before anyone else, you’ll have your choice of seats – which of course means top deck, front row. Picnic and hip flask optional.
You could try the number 18 from out by the legendary Ace Café, a petrolhead hub on the North Circular. The 74, meanwhile, is cut out for better things: hop on at Putney Bridge and spend the next hour or so peering in at the windows of some of London’s wealthiest residences in the likes of Fulham, South Kensington and Knightsbridge.
Many of the buses that run from around Hampstead Heath feel practically bucolic at times – get some fresh air vibes aboard the 214 or 271 (the latter is also handy for Highgate Cemetery). South of the river, the 176 runs from Penge, through leafy Dulwich (passing right by the excellent Horniman Museum) to Tottenham Court Road.
A fine companion to such explorations are the Pevsner architectural guides – with these in your backpack, you’re never far from a flying buttress or some other fascinating nook or cranny. Nairn’s London is another recommended book.
Follow the other river
London’s lost rivers are its most powerful ghosts. Largely built over now, they run in subterranean silence, locked away from the living city, feeding its urban legend. Some twenty of them have been accounted for and a good number you can see for yourself if you know where to look.
Walk down to Blackfriars Bridge, for instance, peer over the side and you’ll see the Fleet emptying into the Thames. Stand on the platform at Sloane Square station and look up – see that pipe? That’s the Westbourne in there.
But there’s another river, not yet lost, which remains little known by tourists – the Lea.
Head out to Tottenham or Walthamstow and you can follow the Lea all the way down to the Thames. It’s a gritty vista for much of the way – if you can’t find the beauty in wetlands, industrial landscapes and so-called ‘edgelands’, it might not be for you.
But the Lea also takes in some undeniably evocative spots, such as Three Mills Island, where a rare tidal mill still stands; the eerie sculptural concrete of Middlesex Filter Beds; Trinity Buoy Wharf, site of London’s only remaining lighthouse; and, of course, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which the Lea snakes all over.
See the real East End
It has in recent times been known as the epicentre of London’s ‘cool’, yet many tourists still don’t make it out east. Brick Lane, Shoreditch graffiti spotting and altogether questionable Jack the Ripper tours (it wasn’t that long ago) tend to be the limit of their explorations.
But while many working class East End families have shifted out to Essex – some by choice, others by the march of gentrification – the east of the city is still where you can sample some good old Cockney culture. Fancy a knees-up? Try the Eleanor Arms pub on Old Ford Road.
Get a side of banter with your bacon at Bethnal Green’s E Pellicci (perhaps the best looking of all the classic London “caffs”, with its touches of chrome and Formica).
For a taste of music hall, meanwhile – the true Cockney’s evening entertainment of choice – it’s got to be Wilton’s, near Shadwell Overground.
Image by Michael Ambjorn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Enjoy London’s island oases
Paris has its famous Île de la Cité, home to Notre Dame. What has London got? The Isle of Dogs, home to the utterly un-bewitching scramble of skyscrapers that is Canary Wharf.
But London can lay claim to a whole lot of other islands (and islets and aits and eyots, as they’re variously known), none of which are much visited – which is why they’re often of a distinctly unusual character.
Take Isleworth Ait, for instance, which is home to a population of two threatened snail species: the German Hairy Snail and the Two-Lipped Snail. To enquire about visiting, contact the London Wildlife Trust, which manages the ait.
Then there’s the human-inhabited Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, which has a long and colourful link to London’s musical heritage (not least with The Who and Rolling Stones playing there in the 1960s). Today it’s still a hub of alternative culture and can be visited on occasional open days.
Do note that some of the Thames islands are entirely off limits.
Get up early
Tourists get up and out early. London draws them out. Or perhaps that’s the budget English breakfasts on offer at their digs. Either way – you need to get up earlier.
Make it out of bed at dawn, and you’ll be handsomely rewarded. Two of London’s most venerable markets get going as the sun rises: Smithfield and Billingsgate have flogged flesh and fish respectively at these hours for centuries. Smithfield runs from 2am until mid-morning (Mon–Sat) but you should definitely arrive by 7am to see it at its bustling best and Billingsgate is open from 4–8am (Tues–Sat).
They’re very much working markets, not tourist attractions. Yet they’re open to all – you’re guaranteed a lively atmosphere (in spite of the ungodly hour) and will be rubbing shoulders with top chefs amongst other punters. Towards the end of their trading hours (still relatively ungodly), you can pick up a bargain or two too.
And, when your body’s actually ready for breakfast, there are some fantastic greasy spoons near both.
Take to the heath
With eight hundred acres to play with, if there is a tourist trail on Hampstead Heath, it’s easy to shake it off.
The West Heath is perhaps the wildest feeling part of this whole wonderful expanse. Here you’ll find Hill Garden and an incredible rambling Pergola, which you’ll quite frequently have all to yourself.
It fell into disrepair in the second half of the twentieth century, and still hasn’t fully recovered. The timeworn atmosphere of the place is probably why it’s not a tourist magnet – and is a huge part of its charm. You feel you ought to be wearing a torn wedding dress and thick black eyeliner as you walk around…
Over on the east side of the Heath, meanwhile, are the famous bathing ponds – a little bit murky, invariably cold, they’re a joy, but not exactly a tourist hotspot.
Any visit should be sure to take in Parliament Hill. Its name, it has been claimed, comes from the Gunpowder Plot – Guy Fawkes and his crew planned to watch Parliament burn from up here, apparently.
Either way, you can stand and look down on the city stretched out below you – the tourist-thronged city you’ve escaped from. East to west, it’s all there, from Canary Wharf on to the Gherkin, past St Paul’s and the London Eye, all the way to the BT tower. Now breathe.