In June of this year, one of my oldest dreams came true.
As I stepped in the last step of the staircase leading from the RyanAir airplane, a feeling of total euphoria went through my body. I was in London!!!!! It was real. The ground was officially British. And I was in London.
Well, not quite. The airport is actually located in Stansted Mountfitchet, some good 50 minutes away.
But still, it was London! And so, some of the happiest 7 days of my life began. Of course, it helped a great deal that those days were gloriously warm, with blue skies and almost no clouds. You could truly see how happy people were—gotta celebrate those no-rain days, amma right? The World Cup atmosphere definitely also helped. Note to self: be back to London in 2022 to have some happy pints in the streets.
But let’s cut to the chase. Are you also planning your first trip to London? I can help you there. Below I’ll list, point-by-point, the places I visited and things I did. Keep in mind this was a tiny-budget trip, so I didn’t go anywhere I had to pay to get in.
Ready? Set! London!
Harry Potter Walking Tour
Price: As much as you want
Times: Every day, 11:00 or 15:30
Of course, my first activity in London had to be about Harry Potter. I’m not a muggle, you know.
I arrived in London in a Tuesday afternoon. After checking in my hostel, I went to my first London experience: “Free” walking tours are my favorite way of getting to know a city, at least at first. I say “free” because it works in a “pay what you think it’s worth” basis. This particular tour was offered by Strawberry Tours. I made the reservation online a few days before, but you can also show up and sign up on the spot. They can’t guarantee your participation if there are too many people, so it’s a good idea to sign up before.
We met the guide at Leicester Square, in front of the Swiss Flags Monument. Just look for the huge M&M’s World Store, and you’ll find it. The tour took about 2.5 hours, and it was pure joy all over. The guide I was with is called Alex, and his enthusiasm and knowledge about the series really make the experience much cooler. The highlight of the walking tour was visiting an alley that it’s said to have inspired the Knockturn Alley. I felt completely transported in time and space!
Walk around aimlessly
After the tour, my initial plan was to go to the Angel Comedy Club and watch a free performance of stand-up. However, I really wanted to visit a vegan pub, and so I changed my plans. I walked a bit around downtown, retracing some of the steps of the Harry Potter tour and taking some more pictures. After that, I hopped on a bus and went to The Blacksmith And The Toffeemaker, an all-vegan pub, and …. Curious about it? Check this post about All I Ate in London — or, if you’re more into street food, this post about aaaall the delicious vegan option you can find in food markets 😉
Price: Free – donations are welcomed
Time: Open every day, 10:00 to 17:30; Fridays, up to 20:30
If you feel like traveling the world in a couple of hours, then this museum is exactly what you need. The whole world’s history is told there, in one way or another. Of course, this is mainly due to Britain’s role as the biggest empire of the last century… but that’s a discussion we can have in a different article.
The museum is absolutely gigantic. They have highlights tours which can, in theory, be done in 1 or 3 hours. I definitely took longer than 3 hours. There are both free and paid guided tours as well, if you don’t feel like exploring on your own. They have a great section in their website with information on how to plan your visit.
This is one of those picture perfect places, a must-see for any first trip to London. There you have London’s Eye, Tate Modern, several bridges to take beautiful photos – including the so-famous London Bridge – Borough Market and this vibrant atmosphere, with performers, tourists and locals all mingling together. In a sunny day, is just amazing to sit down and watch all the passers by, maybe with an ice cream cone in hand!
Time: Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 18:00; Weekends, 11:00 to 21:00
A 40 minutes walk later, I was at the Sky Garden. I had made an online reservation three weeks prior, since you need to scan your code to get it. It’s totally free and super simple to do, just click on this link and book your visit. You also need to pass your bag through a scanning device, so be warned. Once you’re up there, prepare for an amazing view and an amazing place.
Technically, you’re allowed to stay there up to 1-hour from the entrance time in your ticket. There are several floors, with bars and, of course, lots of green- it is a real garden, you guys! It’s a really nice place just to chill on cold days, take pictures and stare at the beautiful sights of London. And in a warm day, it’s also a way to escape the heat.
I didn’t consume anything there. Honestly, I thought it was too expensive to be worth it. But that was ok because the next stop was all about food!
Shoreditch – food and street art
From Sky Garden, I went to Shoreditch, again by foot (30 minutes). Yes, I walked a lot during my days in London. The sunny days were inviting, and I wanted to see as much as I could of the city, so it was the perfect option. As a plus, I did save quite a bit by not taking so many buses or metro.
Shoreditch is a place I was very curious about, because I had seem many pictures of its creative, colourful street art. There, you can just get lost thorugh the streets and wander about: you’re guaranteed to find some gems in a random wall. It’s a very artsy and trendy place, with loads of shops and “hipster” venues.
Finally, it’s also home to Boxpark, a pop-up mall made of shipping containers. The vegan food there is insaneeeee: burgers by Biff’s Jack Shack, Asian food by Eat Chay, döners by What the Pitta!
Price: You can get into the photo queue for free, and then they try to sell you the professional pics
Time: Monday to Saturday, 08:00 to 22:00; Sunday, 09:00 to 21:00
Ok, I don’t really advise you to walk to King’s Cross from Shoreditch, even though that’s what I did. It was an 1-hour + walk. But I forgot all about it when I laid my eyes upon the Platform 9 ¾ sign <3 As you might expect, there was a pretty long line there. Lots of people eager to take their jumping picture at the luggage cart half-way through the wall.
Since I was alone, I started talking to some very nice girls in the line. This way, we would each take pictures for each other with our phones. They have professional photographers there to take cool pictures mid-air. However, they are also expensive, so we opted for our smartphones pictures after all.
When it’s your turn, you choose which scarf you will want (Hufflepuff for life!) and take pictures in three positions, including one with a wand and one jumping. They help to create a flying effect by throwing your scarf upwards. I admit, it’s a lot of fun to make those awkward poses with a whole bunch of people around.
After that, we go into the official Platform 9 ¾ store, check our pics and cruise around the endless options of merchandising they offer. And take the opportunity to take some extra photos with our favorite house’s tie or headband.
Bonus for crazy people – Baker street – the real one
To end the day on a great note, I went all the way to Gower Street, the location of fictional 221B Baker Street in the BBC’s Sherlock show. Unfortunately, Speedy’s was already closed when I got there, but it was still super exciting to know I was in the location where so many great scenes had been recorded!
Although I’m not a huge The Beatles fan, I was really psyched to be at the sight of the famous Abbey Road cover photo. Abbey Road wasn’t far from my hostel, so it was a nice walk in a quiet morning. I could see a more residential side of London on the way.
Getting there, the best part was all the people posing and walking up and down the zebra crossing to take their pictures. If I had some popcorn in hand, I’m sure I’d have stayed a bit longer, just watching. By the way, did you know there is a live cam 24/7 focused on the crosswalk¿ Folks at home can see you taking your pictures! Yay or nay?
On the walls of the famous Abbey Road Studios, you can read all the messages left by other travelers just like you and I. Lots of love for The Beatles, for sure. And then, there is The Abbey Road Shop, where you can see and buy lots of merch for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and more.
St John Woods Church Gardens
On my way to Primrose Hill, I stopped by St John Woods Church Gardens – I really needed to use the loo, which was impeccably clean – and what a pleasant surprise it was! It is a disused cemetery and woodland area, with flower beds and a playground for children.
It was so interesting to see all of those things in the same space: the old graves, the trees, the children playing and elderly people reading their newspapers… never saw something quite like that. It’s a fun spot to explore the historical graves and find some of the most famous ones, like that of John Sell Cotman, a painter.
Inside Reagent’s Park, you can find this charming hill. Once you get to the summit – a task which will definitely make you sweat a little bit – you will have a beautiful view of London. There, you can experience such a quietness, all the city noises are subdued… it’s really amazing and super worth it to spend some time there.
It’s a great spot to admire the skyline, read, write, draw or, in nice conditions, have a happy picnic. Again, it was summer when I was there, and I still had to deal with some chilly winds from time to time, so be warned.
Time: Open every day, 10:00 to late
Oh, the Camden Markets. I was really excited about this! A mix of everything you can think of, I had no idea where one ended and another one began. It was just so much fun to walk around, get lost over and over again, find all kinds of clothes and accessories, handmade souvenirs and, of course… a bunch of food.
The Stables Market is definitely worth a visit for its atmosphere. You know, the whole old stables thing really gets to you. Lots of vintage and gothic products, and also the home to Amy Winehouse’s statue.
The Camden Lock Market offers a great picture spot, with its iconic bridge on the background. There, you’re guaranteed to eat well and shop plenty of random items.
I believe I spent between 2 and 3 hours exploring all the shops, eating and walking around the neighborhood. My advice is, don’t rush it and take your time to immerse in this alternative, boho and definitely Londoner place!
Sherlock Holmes’ Museum
Price: Adult £15 Child £10 – visit the gift shop £0
Time: Open every day, 9:30 to 18:00
This private museum is set in Baker Street, but not really on the number 221. But don’t worry, you can’t miss it: the big queue is assured to catch your eye. If you’re into all things Sherlock, you have to pay this place a visit. Buuut, maybe, don’t really pay for it. So, here is the deal. I researched a lot before deciding if I should pay the £15 admission fee. And in the end, my veridict was no.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t swing by, though. First, the façade is gorgeous, instantaneously transporting you back to the 19th century. Secondly, their official shop is open to visit, and in all honesty, it looks like a mini-museum already!
Why I decided not to go in the museum: the three-store building always has a big line to get in; and, by everything I read, the rooms are small and all they have is some Victorian decoration, with occasional references to itens and objects that appear in the original stories. Since that’s pretty much what the gift shop offers, I opted for that instead.
This area is so idyllic! I actually stumbled upon it when walking a little bit aimlessly. But as soon as I set my eyes on the canal, I decided to explore it a little bit more. Note that, if you don’t want to go to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, you can get to Little Venice straight from Camden Town, walking or taking a boat in Camden Lock.
Lots of artificial canals, boats and waterside cafes make this a perfect afternoon stroll locations. You can get some boat rides if you’re into that, bike or walk, all of them are perfect ways to really soak in the peaceful atmosphere. The canals are surrounded by trees, fancy houses and pubs or cafes. Definitely take some pictures around!
To finish the day, I walked to Notting Hill, a colorful neighborhood which also gives its name to the 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
I was there by the early evening, and although the sun was still up in the sky, the streets were mostly empty. Unfortunately, I didn’t come back to the Portobello Market, which happens every Saturday. But I still could see all of the glorious colors in the buildings, and as a plus, visit the cute blue door used in the movie! I felt really awkward taking a picture at this random door, but oh well… I had done it before with Sherlock’s door, right?
When walking around, make sure to pay attention to all the cute bookshops, souvenir stores, and pastry places: there are plenty of interesting establishments around.
London All-in-one Free Walking tour
Price: As much as you want
Times: Friday and Saturday, 10:00
In order to get to know the more mainstream London, I chose the mega, all-in-one walking tour by Free Tour by Foot. That’s a six hours tour, with a break halfway through. It goes through all the famous, must-see sights of London: Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the River Thames, London Bridge, and it ends by the London Tower.
My guide was Margaret, an American born English history graduate. Since it’s such a long tour, you get to know the guide a bit better than in other cases, and she was just lovely! And of course, super knowledgeable and fun. Definitely recommend going on a tour with her.
Prepare to walk a lot, bring a water bottle, some snacks and lots of enthusiasm!
Price: Some exhibitions are free entrance. Paid exhibition’s prices vary from £13 to £25. Some exhibitions also have cheaper prices for online bookings in advance.
Times: Sunday to Thursday, 10:00 to 18:00; Friday to Saturday, 10:00 to 22:00
My feet were killing me, but once in London, you got to enjoy every single minute of it. So I headed from the Tower of London (which I didn’t visit yet) to Tate Modern, the modern art museum of London. I stuck to the free exhibitions, which were very interesting. But if you’re really into modern art, it might be a good idea to invest a bit more and go into one of the temporary exhibits. For me, it was enough to admire the building’s architecture and the free entry rooms, though.
The Sherlock Holmes Pub
Times: Sunday to Thursday, 10:00 to 23:00; Friday and Saturday, 10:00 to 00:00
On my way to Hyde Park, I made a quick detour to The Sherlock Holmes Pub, just to make sure my Sherlock experience was a bit more complete. The façade is already a great picture spot. But the real gem is on the second floor of the pub: going up the stairs, you can see posters of the old 1930’s and 40’s Sherlock Holmes movies. When you arrive, you can see a recreation of 221B Baker Street living room, full of detailed objects, Victorian decoration, and references to the stories. The exhibition is surrounded by glass walls, in order to preserve it.
You can take a table on the second floor and dine amidst this sherlockian atmosphere as well!
Last stop of the day was this gigantic royal park (350 acres, or almost 1,5 km²). After walking a little around, passing through Diana Memorial Fountain and some of the gardens, I sat down by The Serpentine, the lake with cute ducks and where you can board a pedal boat. I stayed there until sundown, and it was a very nice spot to do so.
Hyde Park is also where the Speaker’s corner is located: every Sunday morning/afternoon you can hear people talking about religion, politics, animal’s rights or any other topic imaginable. It’s very fun to witness it. It’s a popular spot for debates such as this since the XIX century, so it’s worth a visit.
Greenwich Park and Observatory
Price: £15.00 per ticket for adults (for the Observatory)
Times: Open every day, 10:00 to 17:00
Greenwich is one of those names that we are all familiar with. For that reason, I was so curious about visiting this World Heritage Site!
To get there, I took a DLR (Docklands Light Railway), using my Oyster Card. Then, I went all the way up to the Royal Observatory. It’s quite a walk, but once you get there, you have quite a nice view of the city. I thought I would be able to see the Meridian Line for free (I know, silly me), but unfortunately, it’s in the grounds of the Observatory, and we need to purchase a ticket to get there.
After that, it was time to explore Greenwich Park, London’s oldest royal park. As I mentioned before, the view is amazing, but they also have lovely gardens and a peaceful atmosphere. It’s a gigantic park, with beautiful spots all over.
Time: Open every day, 10:00 to 17:30
The Greenwich Market is a great place for shopping but also to eat. They have food stalls with international dishes, from Brazilian churros to Ethiopian meals.
I really advise you to chat with the vendors and artists selling their products there: I don’t know why, but they were the friendliest people I met in London!
In my hunt for more great parks, I headed to London Fields. This large grassy park has children’s play areas, cricket pitch, outdoor gym, tennis courts, and a café, making it a super popular spot for locals and tourists.
I just took some rest in the meadow, reading a book and watching Londoners celebrating the warm days, having picnics and drinking wine. Right next to where I was, a group of Capoeira – afro-brazilian sport – started their lesson, which was lovely to witness.
There was also an area where lots of people were having their barbecues, and I had never seen that before: in Brazil, barbecues are never in public areas, so that was quite a sight! However, since July they have suspended barbecue use in London Fields.
Since it was a Saturday, Broadway Market was taking place! Another great spot for shopping and eating some street food.
Brick Lane is an explosion for your senses. Walking down this street, you can smell curry, visit vintage markets, see colorful street art and eat anything your heart desires.
A historical melting pot of different cultures and communities, this artsy spots houses more than 50 curry houses! Prepare to have lots of people calling you to get in their restaurants… as you can imagine, competition is fierce.
Admire the brick buildings and the street art in their walls. If you’re into vintage, you’ll be spoiled for options, especially if you go there on a Sunday – if so, make sure to check Sunday Upmarket. For food, the Boiler House Market is a hotspot for international street food. I’m sure you will find some yummy vegan (or not) snack there.
Jack the Ripper Free Walking Tour
Price: As much as you want
Times: Thursday and Saturday, 18:30
After realizing I still had some time to spare before having to head back to the airport, I decided to book a last free walking tour in London. The chosen one? The Jack the Ripper tour, by Free Tours by Foot.
Although the sunny evening was not ideal for creating the dark atmosphere this tour asks for, Sinead was a great guide that really sent chills (and some laughs) down my spine during the 2 hours we were together. It was super interesting to walk through the streets Jack the Ripper walked through and try to image London at the time. If you’re into some gory, real-life crime stuff, don’t miss this opportunity. You can also do a self-guided tour, but just make sure to visit some of the historical places connected to this case.
And that was it. As the day ended and I went back to my hostel to pick up my stuff, my heart was filled with happy memories. It was the most amazing trip I had ever experienced, because it reunited so many of my life-long interests, my fantasies about this city and the realization of this dream!
Since then, I have been back to London once, and it was just as amazing and soul-fulfilling. Maybe I’ll write a post about it in the future. If you’d like that, please let me know!