London has to be one of my favorite cities in the world. I love it in the winter, when the weather is grey and bleak and the narrow streets seem to burst with ghosts. There’s an ethereal quality about the city – as if it’s permanently draped in echoes of past glory. But you’ll find modernty too – towering skyscrapers, forward thinkers, eclectic artists and a thriving underground music scene.
The best time to see London is winter – I’ve been in November and December, and sure, it’s cold, but it’s also empty of tourists and filled with an English chirstmassy spirit. I spent Christmas in London 5 years ago, and it was truly magical – ice skating on the moat of the Tower of London, eating fudge and roasted nuts at the Christmas markets, freezing my ass off waiting in line to see Iron Maiden at Earl’s Court.
What you choose to do and see in London really depends on your interests – you could easily spend a month there visiting all the historic buildigns and museums seeing shows, drinking, shopping, eating exquisite londony food, or just chilling out in the typically English public spaces.
Here are some of my favorite things to do in London:
1. The British Museum
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a museum buff, and, if you’d spent several years of your life studying archaeology, you’d feel the ever-present pull of this remparkable institution. In practically every ancient culture, the British Museum holds some of the most dazzling pieces. The Rosetta Stone and many impressive mummies from Egypt, the Elgin marbles from Greece, the Magna Carta … the Sutton Hoo artifacts …
The last time I went to London, I’d come from Greece where I’d talked to historians and archaeologists about the Elgin Marbles – the reliefs and masnry taken (“stolen”, say the Greeks) from the acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in the 19th century and given to the British Museum. The Greeks believe the marbles should now be returned to Greece.
In the British Museum, the plaques talk about how the marbles were “saved” by Lord Elgin, and extoll the pristine state of preservation of the statues compared to the few left behind. This is particularly noteable when comparing the caryatids on the Erectheon. Yes, it is true the marbles in the British Museum are in a better state of repair than the marbles in greece, which had been left to the elements and blown up by the Turks, and this was one of the reasons the British always gave for not giving them back. Now, however, the Greeks have built a state-of-the-art museum to house the marbles – better than the rooms at the British Museum – but still the museum won’t give the marbles back.
Other exhibits of note include the Egyptian artifacts – the Rosetta stone, the mummy rooms, the statues of Rameses II – the Sutton Hoo burials, and the 19th century inventions. You can lose several hours wandering about the stunning library.
The British museum is free to enter – although special exhibits might incur a fee. If you’re not museumed out after looking around, you’ll find the Victoria and Albert museum (art, fashion and artisan crafts) and the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs, specimans, studies of the earth … did I mention dinosaurs?) across the road and around the corner. Both of these museums are also free, making your museum day a rather inexpensive excursion, which is good, since you need to save your money for the next adventure …
2. Camden Markets
If you’re a metalhead, punk, goth or any other kind of alternative wossit, and you go to London and don’t go to Camden, well, then, you’re just silly.
The Camden Markets occupy an area of North West London, and consist of a range of permanent shops open most days, and the different markets, which are hopping on the weekends. This is the shopping area to find metal shirts, corsets, cyber clubwear, black clothing of every description, and a mad array of street performers and bedraggled people on corners thrusting their hands in your face and ask you for drugs.
If you’ve never seen anything like it before, Camden is paradise. In reality, a lot of the shops sell exactly the same things, and it has a bit of a reputation omong the London scene as a place full of posers. That doesn’t make shops like Fairy Gothmother, Cyberdog, and the Electric Ballroom (only one of the best clubs in London) any less awesome, but if you’ve come from the Metal Market at Wacken, you might not find much new stock to tempt you.
Unlike other areas of London, lunch in Camden won’t set you back a house deposit. You can even try to haggle – the owners and stall holders can be quite ebrasive, but they’ll often knock a few bob off it you seem insistant.
I’ve heard the Portabello markets are actually better than Camden now, but I’ve never been, so can’t vouch for this myself.
3. Go to the Pub
Any pub really, they’re all pokey, dimly-lit places with stunning food and good english beer.
4. Ghost Tour
For so many of us, thoughts of London are intrinsically tied up in reading and films – Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, 18th and 19th century ghost and horror stories. If you want to see the London that inspires these stories, consider a ghost tour – these late-night jaunts through cobbled alleys and old sewer tunnels will set you back a few pounds, but will give you a glimpse of the city you’ll never forget. The people who lead the tours are usually professionalactors, and they write the tours themselves, so no two are exactly the same. When I was there last I booked a Jack the Ripper tour, which took me, on a typical misty London night, to the sites of the murders and the Ten Bells pub, which the prostitutes had frequented before their untimely demise.
I used this company – The London Ghost Walk – who were one of the originators of this idea. But there are tons more around if you start googling. There’s a light night frolic to suit every taste.
5. Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery is probably my favourite area in all of London. The cemetery, one of the oldest in London, was established in 1839. In the Victorian area, the cemetery became a fashionable place to see and be seen, and the wealthy built monuments to reflect that, including the Egyptian Avenue and the Lebanon Monument.
Swain’s Lane splits the cemetery down the middle. You tour each side seperately. The East Cemetery, where Carl Marx lies, you can wlak around by yourself, while the West side, which contains the most famous monuments, can only be accessed via a walking tour given by a volunteer. You visit and pay for each side separately. Each tour is just a little different, and as well as seeing the graves of people like Douglas Adams, Lucy Cliffard, George Elliot (Mary Ann Cross), Henry Moore and my hero, James Holman, but you can learn remarkable stories about some of the less famous names in the cemetery, hear some tales of eccentric Victorians, and learn a little about funerary architecture.
I ususally stay with friends, but if you’re looking for a cheap place to stay, the first time I travelled to London, (11 years ago now – eep!) I stayed at Baden Powell house – smack bang in the centre of town, right opposite the Natural History museum. This is a hostel, so don’t expect anything too fancy – the beds look like dog boxes, but what I remember about it was the incredible cooked breakfast – it was the first time I ever had fried bread, and they had the most amazing sausages, and homemade tonato sauce, and you could eat as much as you like, so I ate a LOT. In ten years, it might have changed, but that is what I remember.
London is, of course, the home of Iron Maiden, but the Ruskin Arms pub (where Maiden used to play) was bulldozed to make way for apartments a couple of years back. If you’re a keen Maiden fan, you could go visit 22 Acacia Avenue, but beware – there are about 6 Acacia avenue’s in the greater London area, and I’m not certain which one they meant.
I am hoping to wind up back in London next year doing some book research, where I plan to visit a couple of lesser-known dinosaur collections, the Clink Prison Museum (thanks for the tip, Ali!) and do a bit of urban exploring on abandoned underground tunnels. What are your favorite things to do in London?