london: a city guide
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
When I studied abroad in London, there was so much to see and do. Even after spending four months there, I felt like there was never enough time to check off everything on my London bucket list. If you are planning a trip to London or even studying abroad there, I hope this guide will help you — it’s chock-full of my favorite spots around the city. Enjoy!
Breakfast in my neighborhood at Camden Market
There’s a wide variety of markets to check out in London, but these three made it to the top of my list.
Camden Market: I might be biased because I lived in Camden Town when I studied abroad, but I think you can get the best variety (and fun shopping too) in Camden Market. It’s also nice to be near the canal and people-watch. I’d recommend hitting it up for breakfast: there are so many cute doughnut/churros/crepes/dutch pancake stands.
Cyberdog is full of rave apparel (if you’re into that sort of thing), but even if you aren’t, you should go in for the experience — it’s super futuristic and funky and certainly a Camden staple.
Borough Market: If you’re looking for more of an up-scale London market experience (lol), hit up Borough Market. They have some incredible vendors (i.e. incredible bakery stands) and it’s really centrally located. So, you could easily hit this up on your way to The Globe Theater or a stroll down The Thames.
Columbia Road Flower Market: If you need fresh flowers for your flat (or just some great Instagram photos!), head over to the Columbia Road Flower Market in Shoreditch. The smell of fresh flowers wafts through the air from around the block and it’s a great place to people-watch, too!
My meal at Gloria Trattoria
The food scene in London is incredible, but I’ll be real with you...I’m not a total “foodie,” so there are a lot of places in London I never got to try. Although I didn’t hit up all of the trendy places, I’ve listed below a few of my go-to places and most memorable dining experiences.
Dishoom: I would argue this is the trendiest place to get Indian food in London. It definitely lived up to the hype, but one of those places that you have to make a reservation in advance (and perhaps save up a bit before, too). I went to the Shoreditch location and it was stunning inside, too. Their cocktails are to die for. However, I’d argue it’s a must-visit to say that you’ve gone once to have “the experience”and then hit up Masala Zone for a more affordable meal.
Masala Zone: This is a chain Indian restaurant, but it’s so so good and honestly never disappoints. While Dishoom’s menu has some modern twists to it and is a bit more unconventional, Masala Zone has all the classics (i.e. the BEST chicken tikka masala) with much lower prices. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong here!
Brick Lane: On Brick Lane, there are also a ton of Bangladeshi/Indian restaurants. Some are definitely more geared towards being a tourist trap, but there are also some keepers on the street. I’d recommend checking out Trip Advisor before you go and sticking to one of the highest rated restaurants on that list.
Gloria Trattoria: This is a charming Italian restaurant in Shoreditch. Honestly, I mainly came in here for the aesthetic, but the food did not disappoint!
Cicchetti: Another great Italian place with great aesthetic. Are you sensing a theme?? This place is great for small plates and located conveniently in Piccadilly. Could be a cute date place, too.
The Breakfast Club: This place has incredible brunch. I think there are a few locations, but it’s quirky and cozy and perfect for a brunch date with a friend. Might be a basic choice for some, but I had the most delectable stack of pancakes there.
Rosa’s Thai Cafe: This is another chain, but also came here multiple times, and had delicious Thai food each time I visited. I went to the location on Carnaby Street, so it could be a good place to go after a day of shopping in Soho/Central London.
Pizza Express: Another tried & true chain, but let me tell you ... I still crave it on a weekly basis here in the states. It sounds like it would be a Pizza Hut/Dominos situation, but it’s a sit down restaurant with bomb pizza & the best pizza dough balls. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Another perk is that there are so many around London, so if you’re craving pizza, it’s never too hard to find!
Smoking Goat: I’ve never been, but heard great things and it looks amazing. Serves regional Thai food.
The entrance to Tonight Josephine in Shoreditch
Bars & Pubs
Junkyard Golf Club: I had one of the best nights out in London at this place. Junkyard Golf Club is an epic mini-golf bar with fun cocktails (I had gummies and cookies in mine). This is great to do with a small group and then hit up more bars afterwards around Shoreditch.
The Shard: This is by far one of the most bougiest places to get a drink in London, but in my opinion, it’s one of those things that you do once to check it off the list. It’s in one of the most stunning (and iconic) skyscrapers in London and the view at the top is worth the wait in the line going up to the bar. My boyfriend and I also had some great cocktails there (even though they were well overpriced).
Tonight Josephine (Chain): This is a chain that some would consider “basic,” but one of my go-to’s for a night out with the girls. There are a few Tonight Josephines around London, from Shoreditch to Waterloo. Come here for incredible and quirky cocktails, the best 90’s/2000’s music and pink sparkly decor. I have vivid memories of singing The Spice Girls in here with a bunch of friendly Brits (while drinking a flaming cocktail)!
Simmons Bar (Chain): This is another Chain and popular for the young college crowd on a budget. There was a Simmons down the road from our flat, so the other study abroad students and I went all the time. This place also has a quirky atmosphere and has karaoke night at least once a week. You can also order gin, which is served to you in a teapot, which is always fun.
The Hawley Arms (Camden): This pub hits close to home because it was also super close to my flat (and also where Amy Winehouse once worked/got discovered)! There are photos of Amy all around this pub and it’s a great place to go on a Friday night for live music and a pint of beer. Their Sunday roast also looked really good, but I was never able to try it myself. Next time!
Sketch: Sigh, Sketch. I could go on and on about it. Also a very trendy/basic place, but it never once disappointed me. I usually went for drinks at night and there are a few rooms you can choose from (which also helps if you wander in without a reservation). The drink prices are not for the faint of heart, but a fun place to take visitors to impress them! The Instagram photos are also endless, if you care about that sort of thing.
The Churchill Arms: I'm so sad that I never made it here, but almost everyone else on my study abroad trip did. This pub in Kensington is stunning and in the spring time it’s decked out with flowers that cover the entire building. I also hear it has great Thai food, oddly enough!
Cahoots: Also bummed I never made it here, but I hear great things. It’s a “1940s Cocktail bar located in Soho's Kingly Court.” Definitely make a reservation in advance if you want to spend a night here.
Tea at The Rosewood
Sketch: I mentioned this earlier, but if you’re really feeling like treating yourself, you can have tea at Sketch in the Parlour room, which is this stunning a glam room decked out in wall art and millennial pink. This was a bit too pricy for me (which is why I opted for drinks at night in one of the other rooms or tea in the more affordable room across the hall), but for the people I know who did this, they were not disappointed. I tell this to everyone I know who goes: YOU MUST CHECK OUT THE BATHROOM. If you don’t know why, you’ll find out when you go ;).
The Rosewood: This is where a coworker and I ended up getting tea (which ended up being a lot pricier than we anticipated lol), but I honestly wouldn’t trade my experience here for the world. Each course was immaculate and they refilled us with as much tea and scones as we wanted! The atmosphere is also 10/10.
The Wolseley & Dorchester London: Probably two of the most popular/touristy options for FANCY afternoon tea. I mean, THE REAL DEAL afternoon tea. I hear it’s a fantastic (and very posh) experience if you’re willing to pay top dollar for the ultimate afternoon tea.
St. Ermin’s Hotel Tea: This high tea might be a bit more affordable and the hotel is this incredibly charming building full of history. I’d recommend this if you’re looking for a quality experience but on a slightly tighter budget!
Brigit's Afternoon Tea Bus: Here, you can accomplish two London bucket list items at once: a double-decker ride AND afternoon tea at the same time! Yes, you read that correctly. There are a few similar companies around London, but this particular tea bus seemed to be pretty popular. This also looks like a really fun idea to do with someone who might be visiting you from out of town. I never managed to do this, but it’s on my bucket list for the next time I visit.
Seen in the Tate Modern
My fave museum is Tate Modern in London because I’m an art history nerd and that museum is chock-full of incredible pieces that I learned about in school! It’s also a fun place to get a great view of the city/The Thames.
National Portrait Gallery: The National Portrait Gallery is another museum that you can’t go wrong with; it's also in a great central location (right off Trafalgar Square and a short walk from Piccadilly Circus).
Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A museum): “The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the world's largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, as well as sculpture, housing a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects.” Here’s another place where I kept running into things I learned about in my art history classes. This place is massive and you could easily spend a full day in here! It’s also located in Kensington and Chelsea, so you could perhaps visit Kensington Palace in the morning and then spend the afternoon here (or vice versa).
Champagne butter from Fortnum & Mason...need I say more??
Getting the basics out the way…
Primark: I know it’s fast fashion and in the perfect world it’s best to avoid, but if you are in a pinch and need cheap clothes/home goods/everyday items, this will be one of the more affordable options in London. I ended up getting a lot of affordable flat items here (bed sheets, clothings hangers, etc.).
Topshop: Topshop is a step above Primark in the sense that the clothes are better quality and things aren't as cheaply made. Although it's also not the most sustainable option (and it’s a bit pricier), they do have cute outfits...
Liberty London: This is an iconic store located on Regent Street. It's definitely a place to window shop, but a must-see. Known for its intricate and color fabrics, going in this store alone is an experience!
Brick Lane Vintage Market: You must go here for all of your vintage shopping needs! Unfortunately it’s way pricier than your average American vintage shop, but you can find some hidden gems here (and then get some bomb food after a day of shopping on Brick Lane)! Go for just the vibes, honestly haha.
BOXPARK in Shoreditch: BOXPARK is a collection of fun & quirky little stores in Shoreditch, from stationery to an IV drop place! This could be fun to do before/after a trip to Dishoom. They also have a great froyo place and a fun bar on the top of the complex.
All of the wonderful department stores, from Harrods to Selfridges!
I have a soft spot for Fortnum & Mason. It has the best/classiest souvenirs (good for parent souvenirs/gifts for older adults). I always get tea when I go because they have the prettiest packaging and it’s always high quality.
God's Own Junkyard
Fun weekend activities
Picnic in Primrose Hill
Stroll through Hyde Park
See a show (or a few) in London’s West End
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: I’d recommend booking this ASAP if you are interested. I knew a few people who booked months in advance!
If you can’t grab a ticket (like me), I ended up going on a fun city tour (walking tour for muggles), which was definitely cheesy, but it’s a great way to learn some Harry Potter trivia and explore a good part of downtown London. Our guide was also incredible and in uniform.
Walk down The Thames (obviously!)
Sunrise Yoga at the Sky Garden
London Eye (if you want, another one of those things you do once and never again lol)
Pub Crawl: There are so many around London and they are a great way to meet people
Natural History Museum Ice Rink (in the winter of course)
My friend went on a street art tour around Shoreditch where you can find the work of famous artists like Banksy! I want to do this the next time I’m in London.
Trip to Liverpool (for my fellow Beatles lovers)!
Trip to Brighton (if you need a beachy & fun getaway!)
If you are planning on making a trip to London town, I hope this guide will give you some inspiration on what to see and do while you are there. Questions, comments or suggestions on places to add? Send me a message in my "contact" section!