Last month I wrote about great tourist activities to do in London and I stand by all of them!
Meanwhile, there are loads of places in the guidebooks you’ve probably earmarked to visit and with which I categorically do NOT agree. Oh friends . . . if you’re heading to any of the below . . . PLEASE AVOID. I know you want to go home and say “I bought these trousers on Oxford Street!” but as a Londoner, I can’t have you thinking that these represent my city. They don’t. You can do so much better.
Oxford St / Westfield
As a local who needs to buy stuff, I appreciate both on their own individual merits. But as a tourist, why would you come to London and make either one a destination?!
Oxford St is a heaving maelstrom of human bodies trapped in a crush of shopping bags. Sure, there are five H&Ms and a gigantic TopShop but does anyone genuinely enjoy walking up and down this deeply unappealing street of endless high street repetitions?
And Westfield: it’s a stone’s throw from my flat and I love it for its convenience, but the hoards of foreigners forever traipsing over its polished floors indicates that people come to London for the sole purpose of going shopping. But not even at unique shops, just . . . ones you can get in every single high street in every single town all over the country.
Full disclosure: I love shopping in new and unusual places and I treasure the many souvenirs I’ve collected from around the world. But Oxford St and Westfield aren’t interesting shopping destinations. If you really want to buy stuff to remind you of London, then why not instead visit the markets? Portobello Road for antiques, Brick Lane for quirky fashions, Borough for food, Camden (Lock or Stables) for (now somewhat commercialised) goth and punk memorabilia, Merton Abbey Mills for crafts, even the somewhat down-at-heel Shepherds Bush for fabrics and unusual vegetables. Just don’t waste your time at the shopping centres when you could be literally anywhere else.
It used to be cool, 15 years ago. Now it’s like the monument version of Jeremy Clarkson: instantly recognisable, unexplainably iconic, but a bit of an embarrassment that’s long outstayed its welcome.
Sure, from the ground it’s kind of spectacular (at least when standing directly underneath – NB we are no longer drawing comparisons with Jezza) but that’s about as good as it gets. It’s overpriced, uninspired, and guess what – it’s also bloody boring. I mean, let’s face it, you’re in London, so nine times out of ten you’ll just be staring into a wall of cloud. Really? Is that how you want to spend a precious afternoon in this ancient city? Hours queuing on concrete pavement to get into a glass bubble and stare at clouds for 30 minutes with a bunch of other strangers and probably several wailing children?
If you want
cliched sorry, classic tourist activities then you’re better off at the Tower of London, standing outside Buckingham Palace to witness the Changing of the Guard, an open-top bus tour, or a stroll around the museums in South Kensington. If you’re after views then I recommend the Emirates Air Line, or a meal at Duck and Waffle on the 40th floor of the vertiginous Heron Tower, or even the new SkyGarden (although I’ve not yet visited myself).
But whatever you do, please don’t go on the London Eye. You’ll only encourage them.
Fish and chips at any old pla(i)ce
The UK is known for its fish and chips, but London . . . not necessarily.
Whilst there are a few fantastic chippies dotted around – here’s a helpful list – there are also a lot of places selling fish and chips of which very few are up to scratch. It’d be like going to New York and walking into the first place you see advertising pizza. Sure, it’s probably ok, but if you’re a New Yorker, would you recommend your friends take that away as their NYC pizza experience? I should bloody well think not.
My personal recommendation is Kerbisher & Malt in Hammersmith, and I’ve had positive experiences from two old-school Soho joints, the Dining Plaice and Golden Union. Poppies in Spitalfields, Toffs of Muswell Hill, and The Golden Hind in Marylebone are frequently given the thumbs-up by discerning Londoners.
Still, the best stuff is found down on the coast. So if you’re really craving our (former) national dish, take a train to Brighton or spend a day on the Isle of Wight, and enjoy it in its local glory. Wherever you go, always have a side of mushy peas. I personally put salt and lemon juice on my fish, but salt and vinegar on my chips; and tartare sauce with the fish, but ketchup on the chips. Everyone’s got their preferences, though. No judgement here.
Someone once put this in a guidebook and for the love of god, I do not understand why.
Go to any other curry house. Literally any other. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about Tayyabs which marks it out from the norm – at least, in foodie terms. Sure, they have good lamb chops, but when you’ve been waiting two hours to get to your table WHO THE HELL CARES? I mean, the entrance heaves with so many hungry customers that it’s on the point of being designated a danger zone by the UN so if you want to watch the spectacle of hungry people getting increasingly pissed off then hey, head over there right now. You’ll sit amongst other diners’ dirty napkins because the staff don’t bother to clean anything, you’ll be shunted from the restaurant before you’ve even finished eating, and if you’ve made a reservation they honestly couldn’t give a flying monkeys. But if you’re in the area and looking for a good Indian or Pakistani restaurant then I’d suggest . . . well, pretty much any curry house on Brick Lane, really. And yet people keep going. Why? NO SERIOUSLY, WHY???
The UK is famous for its Indian restaurants but do not waste your time, money and sanity on this place.
Outside of the East End, my favourite choices are Ma Goa in Putney (upmarket restaurant serving creative Goan cuisine), Mirch Masala in Tooting (super casual and BYOB), Rasa in Stoke Newington (delicious multi-coloured veggie dishes from Kerala), or Hot Stuff in Vauxhall (family-owned spot; once a local secret, now the stuff of legend).
Leicester Square / Trafalgar Square / Piccadilly Circus
Are you coming to London for a good time? Heard about the crazy drinking, the late nights, the mad times? Well, allow me to let you in on a little secret . . . this is NOT where London parties. NO SELF-RESPECTING LOCAL WILL EVER BE SEEN DEAD IN THESE PLACES. (With the absolute sole exception of the Cork & Bottle off Leicester Square, which is lovely, and totally ignored by the masses).
If you are going out to any of the bars or clubs which dot around the edges of these places then you are, once again, wasting your time.
The cool places are out east (and it pains me to say that, as a west London girl, but it’s true). There are nice cocktail bars in Soho and big clubs which go until the early – or even the next-day late – hours (not my scene, so I couldn’t in all honesty recommend any) but they are not here. They are elsewhere. If you’re in a group and someone says “let’s just go to Leicester Square and see what happens” . . . back away. Fast. Head to Dalston, Brixton, Shoreditch, Clapham, Camden. Embrace the gay club scene in Vauxhall. But please, don’t consider a night at the Piccadilly Institute or Cafe de Paris to be partying with the locals. It’s not. You’re only fooling yourself.
Soon to come: off-the-beaten-path tourist suggestions, for when Big Ben just no longer cuts the mustard . . .