Museums here are ubiquitous and a city with London’s clout attracts all the best exhibitions (a recent favorite was Anish Kapoor’s mesmerizing and larger than life modern sculpture exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts). However, even if you visited just the best museums the city has to offer (the Tate Modern on the South Bank, the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square just to name a few) you’d have time for nothing else.
Instead I recommend that visitors check the most famous tourist spots off their list (Big Ben, Westminster Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge) and pick one or two museums as a back-up plan for that inevitable rainy day but be sure to save plenty of time to hit the streets and experience what Londoners love most about their city – the parks, open air markets and of course the pubs.
The Thames is the biggest and best known waterway in London and in nice weather I highly recommend a walk along the South Bank (past the Tate Modern, OXO Tower and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre) with stops for refreshment along the way. However, for an off-the-beaten path river-side experience follow London’s canal network instead.
Start in Camden Town at the alternative Camden Lock Market and follow the canal for 2.5 miles west past Regent’s Park and the London Zoo and all the way to Maida Vale, also known as Little Venice. You’ll pass some gorgeous houses on prime canal real estate and the zoo’s bird habitat. You can end your stroll with a meal at the Waterway restaurant (54 Formosa Street, London W9 2JU) – it has a lovely terrace right on the canal.
Alternatively, start at Broadway Market in Hackney (a charming street that is worth a look whether the market is on or not) and walk east along the tow path past Victoria Park and Mile End Park all the way to the Limehouse Basin, London’s canal port since 1820, where the canal network reconnects with the Thames. The path is dotted with happy walkers and cyclists and the canal is full of quirky house boats which bob pleasantly as you stroll past.
Location: London bridge
Featuring: fresh produce, cheese, meat, home made goodies and more
When: Thursday (11am-5pm), Friday (12pm-6pm), Saturday (8am-5pm)
Columbia Road Flower Market
Location: Columbia Road, Hackney, nearest tube – Old Street and Bethnal Green
Featuring: plants of all sizes, fresh cut flowers, plus really cute garden, clothing and antiques shops
When: Sunday (8am-3pm)
Location: E8, nearest tube – Bethnal Green
Featuring: food and fashion
When: Saturday (9am-5pm)
Out on the Town
As spring approaches and the days slowly start to get longer, Londoners come out of hibernation and prepare for the not-to-be-missed events of the summer.
Chelsea Flower Show
What: World famous flower and garden show
When: May 25-28, 2010
Where: Royal Hospital, Chelsea
How: Buy your tickets online, go over on Thursday after work, grab a glass of champagne and stroll around the fanciful and fun garden exhibits.
Epsom Derby Day
What: Horse racing with double-decker party busses
When: June 5, 2010
Where: southwest of London on the M25, accessible by tube and bus
How: Buy a pedestrian ticket for the Lonsdale enclosure to be near the fun crowds and have a great view of the race course.
What: English horse racing at its poshest; the Queen is normally in attendance.
When: June 19, 2010
Where: southwest of London, about a 50 minute train ride from Waterloo
How: Dress smartly; hats and fascinators are optional for ladies but encouraged.
Henley Royal Regatta
What: A regatta that has been held annually on the Thames since 1839 (except during the two World Wars)
When: July 3-4, 2010
Where: From Temple Island to Henley Bridge on the Thames
How: Go early, head west, find a pub with a terrace overlooking the river and stake out the perfect spot to both watch the race and get frequent refills of Pimms.
What: A polo match and so much more
When: July 25, 2010
Where: Take the train from Waterloo to Egham and it’s a 10 minute taxi ride to the polo club. Or rent a bus for 30 people so you can arrive in style with friends and not worry about missing the last train home.
How: It’s England so prepare for all weather contingencies – bring sunglasses and sunscreen as well as a jacket and umbrella. Pack a picnic and get your ticket for the Chinawhite after party. You are guaranteed to have a great day out and to be dancing until midnight (NB it’s a Sunday – you might want to consider taking the next day off work…).