So you’ve seen Buckingham Palace a thousand times, you’ve been on The Eye (or turned your nose up at its long queues and claimed it’s only for tourists), and you’ve started complaining about the people who walk too slowly in the street or misunderstand on what side of the escalators they need to stand in the Tube. Sounds like you’re becoming a Londoner. I moved to England about a year ago, but even before then, London was a city in which I felt very at home. I still remember the first time I went there as a seventeen year old. Having just been on exchange in Paris for several months, I hadn’t realised how accustomed I’d grown to people ignoring you in the street, until I went to London and was taken aback by people greeting me in parks, or kindly offering me directions when I seemed lost. I’ll admit after that first visit I did feel a little jaded about returning as a tourist to London. I thought I’d done and seen it all. How wrong I was! On subsequent visits, I’ve made it a point to explore as many of London’s diverse neighbourhoods as possible. These suggestions should take you away from the hoards of tourists and allow you to come away with a fresh perspective.
Free street art walking tour
You don’t have to be an avid street art fan like me to enjoy this tour of Shoreditch. If anything, this is the tour that really got me interested in street art in the first place, and since I went on it, I’ve always made it a point to discover the graffiti in every city I travel to. The tour takes you past art by many household names like Pez, Thierry Noir, and Invader, not to mention original works by none other than Banksy. Our guide was passionate about the industry and I learned so much about these artists, how they create their masterpieces, and about the general culture of East London. Most tours are free, but I paid for mine as it included a graffiti workshop with stencilling. I paid to take the course and it was pretty awesome, and I also paid another fiver to make a t-shirt. Now I can say I painted a t-shirt of a gnome riding a skateboard. What’s not to love?
I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the main reason I wanted to go to Hampstead Heath was because I watched Notting Hill, and Hugh Grant goes to visit Julia Roberts there while she’s filming her movie. Sure, she totally snubs him in that scene, filmed at Kenwood House, but don’t let that put you off going.
Jokes aside, I was drawn to Hampstead Heath as it is home to ancient woodlands — pretty awesome when you consider how modern so much of London is today. Not only this, but it boasts a brilliant view from Parliament Hill, a lido, and lots of public swimming ponds. I took my parents here, hoping to see a gain a different vantage point of London’s skyline, and beat the heat during London’s most recent heatwave. I was supposed to be returning to New Zealand a week later, and I wasn’t sure when I’d next get to swim, as it would be winter over in NZ and the main thing I enjoy when I’m at home in winter is curling up in bed and hibernating until summer arrives.
Hampstead Heath swimming pond
Of course, given my luck with the weather gods, the day we went out there, the sky happened to be cloudy. I was determined to get my swim in, though. First we checked out Parliament Hill. It was a little difficult to find as my GPS went a bit haywire when we got to the Heath, but again, people were keen to direct us the right way. We walked down the hill and headed over to the female bathing pond. It turned into a solo swim for me, as men aren’t allowed within the vicinity (there are unisex and male-specific ponds not far away at other points of the Heath). My parents weren’t particularly bothered though. Nearby there was a beautiful lake, where lots of people were lying out on the grass, so they went and did the same while I swam for a bit. The pond always has lifeguards, but is pretty deep so only swim if you’re confident — children have to be at least eight years old to enter the pond. Other than that, the facilities have showers and bathrooms, and also spare swimsuits if you forget yours. I figured with the way the weather had panned out, the easiest thing to do would be to literally dive into the deep end. To my surprise, thanks to the heatwave, the water was lovely and warm despite the sun hiding that day. I spoke to a woman who told me she was 75 and swam every day at the pond. She was incredibly fit, which was pretty motivating, I must say.
The main reason a lot of Londoners or visitors probably haven’t been up here is that it’s notoriously difficult to get tickets. I mean, it’s free, after all. Something free in London is a rare gem, and that is this place. The Sky Garden is three storeys of beautifully landscaped gardens at the top of 20 Fenchurch St, a building thirty eight floors high in London’s business district. Every time I’d been to London, I’d checked the website to see if there were tickets available, to no avail — until last year, when I was in London for a week on holiday, so managed to grab a time slot at some odd hour on a Tuesday morning, when everyone else was busy contributing to society and the only responsibility I had was to explore. I ended up experiencing the most incredible, 360 degree view over all of London. On the viewing deck you see the Shard and Tower Bridge, inside you can peer down at Tower of London and St Paul’s. The bar and cafe are pretty good up there too. I enjoyed a coffee while sitting amongst the greenery.
A good friend of mine calls Brixton home, and constantly puts up with me staying at her flat when I escape to London over weekends or holidays. When I mention Brixton to people, the response is often “Oh, that’s the rough area of London”. Maybe in the past it’s had a tough history and dealt with a whole range of issues, but in recent years it’s become quite gentrified. I love the diversity of cultures in this area (reflected in all the amazing food in Brixton Village). Market Row, an arcade where you’ll find quirky shops, vintage clothing stores, and a range of restaurants has a quirky, hipster vibe running through it. If the hipster vibes don’t convince you, then go to Brixton for the food — oh my days, the food. My friend took me to an amazing Caribbean restaurant where you feel you’re in the owners’ home. Further down the road you’ll find Pop Brixton, home to a range of start up bars, food, retail and design businesses. I had the best calamari sandwich of my life from an Italian food stall there. It was so good that I rushed back to buy another before I travelled back to Cheltenham, where I live in England, and ended up missing my bus. Totally worth it.
Hidden gems in London
So whether you’re a seasoned Londongoer or a new tourist, it’s important to know there is so much more to London than Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. Sure, things like that are iconic and millions flock to the city to see them each year. Once you’re done seeing those things though, your experience of London should be far from over. Give these things a try if the brisk London lifestyle is leading you to feel enervated and you’ll end up refreshed and revived.