London for starters: essential experiences for first-time visitors to the British capital

Possibly the single most fascinating city in the world, knowing where to start when visiting London can be quite a challenge. Do you head straight for any of the dozen or so world class museums and art galleries, or dive straight in to more than two millennia of rich history? How about a journey down London’s lifeblood, the mighty River Thames, or a search for the perfect pint of beer, or plate of Fish & Chips? And that’s before you’ve even thought of hitting the shops and markets or considered exploring some of the city’s less well-known parts.

To get you started, here are some essential experiences for first-time visitors to the British capital

A pint in a classic London pub

For a city with thousands of pubs, in a country that’s world famous for them, London has a lot of really average boozers. When strolling central London however you can find a decent one here and there. Pubs run by the Samuel Smith Brewery of Tadcaster, Yorkshire are a good bet.

Princess Louise – Holborn tube
Fitzroy Tavern – the entire length of Charlotte Street is lined with good restaurants, and there are more good pubs nearby. Tottenham Court Road or Goodge Street
Jerusalem Tavern – Farringdon
Lamb & Flag – Covent Garden
Blue Posts – Piccadilly Circus or Tottenham Court Road

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea is a London institution, not that you’d know it by talking to Londoners. For some reason – probably the relatively high cost of scoffing a few finger sandwiches and cakes – locals don’t tend to go in for long, languid infusion sessions, leaving it to tourists. Their loss. But while the big name hotels all offer impeccable high teas, complete with tea menus and – don’t mind if I do – a glass of champagne. But top-end food stores do mean high teas too – and Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly is the pick of the bunch. Go easy on lunch, plan for a small dinner, and sit back and relax.

An afternoon at the football

English football may be the reason you came to Britain in the first place. Once here you’ll realise how all-encompassing a passion it is. However, getting a ticket to an EPL (as I believe our Premier League is known overseas) can be a tricky undertaking. Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – the latter playing at Wembley while their new ground is built – regularly sell out at home but it’s always worth sniffing round box offices and supporters clubs on match days in case there are any returns. Watch out for scammers all over the internet. Steer clear of touts who’ll charge an arm and a leg – two arms if they hear a foreign accent. West Ham United, who play at the former Olympic Stadium are more likely to have tickets on general sale though generally require you to be a member. Crystal Palace, another London club based near Sydenham south of the river are also in the Premier League at the time of writing.

If you drop down a division a visit to Fulham’s Craven Cottage ground on a crisp winter’s day is a lovely way to see a game. At other lower-league teams (Millwall, Charlton Athletic, Brentford, Barnet) you’ll find lower prices, smaller crowds and plenty of atmosphere away from the EPL’s showy spectacle.

Messing about on the river

There’s no shortage of boats on the Thames which will whisk you east to Greenwich or west to Hampton Court. Most are tourist-friendly with variable quality of commentary. Think like a journalist – find two reliable sources before repeating one of the facts heard over the tannoy on these cruises. Something different is the Thames Clipper, a fast and frequent catamaran aimed at commuters. It travels from Woolwich to Westminster and vice versa, on the way calling at most of London’s great riverside landmarks like the Tower of London, the Tate Modern and the London Eye. Day tickets for unlimited travel  provide a great base from which to tick off a few sights. Don’t miss the high-speed section of the journey east of Tower Bridge to Canary Wharf, Greenwich and Woolwich.

A spot of shopping

Londoners know that Selfridges (Oxford Street) knocks spots off Harrods. So save some time and do all your departments in one go. This done, aim for some shopping streets which offer something different. Sloane Square and the Kings Road offer high-class shopping, while in the east Brick Lane and surrounding streets are stuffed with boutique, vintage and retro stores as well as Rough Trade, London’s best record shop. The streets leading off from Neal Street in Covent Garden are also an excellent place for a nose.

Fish & Chips or Pie & Mash

While Fish & Chips may be Britain’s signature dish, you can struggle to find it done well in London. The batter should be crisp, the fish too hot to chomp on first bite, and the chips must be crunchy on the outside and soft inside. Then you cover the lot in salt and vinegar and scoff it before loved ones steal all your chips. Posh imitators and bland pub substitutes proliferate, but the real deal remains working class fare. Five to try:

The Fryer’s Delight – Holborn tube
Rock & Sole Plaice – Covent Garden
North Sea Fish Bar – King’s Cross St Pancras or Euston
The Sea Shell of Lisson Grove – Marylebone

It should be noted though that for truly great fish & chips you must visit the seaside.

London’s traditional foodstuff, which has warmed the stomachs of cockneys for generations, is Pie and Mash. This no-nonsense dish usually comes with a parsley sauce and an eel or two. London’s market streets are the places to find these. Try the shops run since 1892 by the Manze family and Clark’s on one of London’s loveliest streets, Exmouth Market (Angel or Farringdon tubes).

One response to “London for starters: essential experiences for first-time visitors to the British capital

  1. Pingback: New for 2010: bargain London « Tom Hall: London & Overseas Travel

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