Making the Most of London: 7 Local Gems You Won’t Find in the Travel Guides
by Caitlyn Gambino | September, 2012
The real thrill of experiencing iconic London is born out of the nooks and crannies most unexpected. We’ve all heard of the main attractions of England’s most reputable city: Buckingham Palace, The British Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater; and these are all worth seeing at least once, don’t get me wrong, but …
Rumor has it that getting to know why the city is such a world-renowned attraction comes from standing fifty feet from Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’, trying to see over hundreds of heads to get a glimpse at a painting we’ve all seen countless times on television or in pictures; or looking through a plate glass window at a wax figure of Britney Spears that looks almost exactly like the real thing.
Be honest, does doing these things give you a satisfaction that makes you feel like you really know what the place is all about, what makes it tick? Not me! And having stayed in London for six weeks and conferred with others who’ve done the same, I’ve discovered a list of places that define what makes the city of London amazing … and without the long lines and extra bucks to prove it!
#1: The Roof Gardens
With all the famous, beautiful parks in London, it’s easy to overlook the lesser known nature areas available to us. The Roof Gardens, atop the extravagant former Derry and Toms building on Kensington High Street in central London, puts nature and city both within eye’s reach.
The rooftop is home to three themed gardens, 70 fully matured trees, a lively stream with fish and flamingos meshing into the scenery, and all only seven floors above the bustling cityscape at no charge; all while avoiding the claustrophobia of thousands of other tourists. My friends and I stumbled across this gem unknowingly and the artful gardens, sculptures, and lounging areas remain one of my fondest memories of the entire trip.
#2: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Nestled inconspicuously on Fleet Street near the intersection of Farrington Street, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is the epitome of a traditional English pub. There’s been a pub in this location dating back to 1538, until it was destroyed in London’s Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt only a year later, possibly with some of the original materials.
Dim lighting, walls paneled in dark wood, and many close-quartered rooms on different floors of the pub make for a cozy, intimate atmosphere. In the winter, the pub is heated by fireplaces and people can sit near a crackling fire eating one of Cheshire’s many traditional English dishes or drinking one of its finest local brews. Want to truly experience London history? Don’t go to a museum, go to a pub!
While we’re on the topic of unexpected places to experience local life in London, PizzaExpress is a must! I know what you’re thinking … “Pizza? In London?” Though pizzas aren’t exactly ‘The Crown Jewels’ of London’s culinary industry, the city boasts cultural diversity, and why not experience that diversity at this local favorite rather than paying mounds to go to the swanky Italian restaurant down the street?
PizzaExpress is a large chain restaurant that started on Wardour Street in Westminster, and later grew immensely popular in Great Britain. The tables are all adorned with real flowers and flickering candles. A fancy restaurant to the eye but a reliever to the wallet, every PizzaExpress is a quiet sit-down affair with mouthwatering pizzas and a huge wine list that won’t disappoint. And if you’ve ever been to London, you know that finding good prices and good food under the same roof is truly a challenge!
#4: Any Amount of Books
One thing London is famous for is its role in the world of literature. Walking down the streets of the city, there are bookstores everywhere, but none quite like this one. Located on Charing Cross Road not far from the Leicester Square Tube stop, Any Amount of Books houses thousands of second-hand books for as low as £1 as well as antique, collectors, and first edition books.
Talk to the staff and locals digging around in the stacks about what they recommend, and you’ll be amazed at the conversations that will spark in this treasure trove of local culture. On entering the bookshop, I was overwhelmed with that wonderful ‘old book smell’. Anyone else know what I’m talking about? If not, Any Amount of Books is the perfect place to find out. Check out some Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare while you’re there!
#5: Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens in Regent’s Park
Although Regent’s Park is a popular tourist destination, being one of the Royal Parks and all, you can experience this particular part of the park in a very non-touristy way. The park is huge, and I visited numerous times during my stay in London. It was never overwhelmingly packed with tourists; in fact, it seemed to be mostly locals walking their dogs or picnicking near the water.
Make your way toward the center of the park and you’ll see a moss-covered terrace made of flower vines encircling a lush garden of roses. You’ll find rustic benches to sit on and simply enjoy the scenery. My challenge to you is to sit on one of those benches for at least thirty minutes and take in your surroundings. Turn off your phone, don’t read or talk to a friend … just watch. This is the best way to experience the gorgeous parks of London and it is in Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens that I personally experienced the most moving realization of the city’s beauty.
#6: The Hummingbird Bakery
Scattered throughout the city, The Hummingbird Bakeries are quaint little venues (found only in London, I might add) with outdoor seating and delicate desserts that will send your taste buds singing. The cakes, cupcakes, brownies, and pies all look like the ones you see in cookbooks and the hot tea and coffee are, in my opinion, some of the best that can be found in the city.
Stop here after a long day for a latte. Relax, chat and laugh with friends by the bustling street and you’ll get a taste of everyday life in London. Do as the British do, although, contrary to popular belief, they don’t just sit around having tea and crumpets and talking about politics all day! And my personal recommendation? The red velvet cupcakes!
#7: Pimlico Road Farmers Market
The gigantic, well-known market in London is Borough Market; endless lines of people and thousands of tourists make it hard to move, much less breathe while navigating the streets. For a more personal, localized market, check out Pimlico Road Farmers Market.
It’s small and not far from the Sloane Square Tube station. Located on what’s known locally as Mozart Square (corner of Pimlico Road and Ebury Street), the market has a wide range of diverse and artisan food stalls including seafood from the East Anglian coast, Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese, and Chegworth Valley Juices. All of the food is produced and grown within 100 miles of the city. Don’t miss your chance, though! The market is only open on Saturdays from 9am-1pm. My advice? Avoid the crowds to try something completely local!
Places like these are the ones that create lasting memories when traveling, not those places everyone said you just had to see. If you’re on your way to a museum and happen upon an intriguing shop or restaurant, don’t think “I don’t have time,” but rather, “I don’t have time not to go!” Chances are, if you’re traveling in London or any other big city for the first time, you have no idea where you are and may not find the place the second time around.
Don’t hesitate just because it’s not on the ‘Suggested Destinations’ list in the pamphlet you picked up in the hotel lobby. Some of the best travel and holiday experiences are unplanned. Cheers!
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About the Author
Caitlyn Gambino studies professional writing, Spanish, and literature at Michigan State University and also knows a bit about web design. She loves writing, reading, painting, and yoga, but her true passion is travel. She hopes to take her next trip through South America and write about it on her personal cooking blog.