Top 10 Parks and Gardens in London

Oh dear! It’s nearly a year since I started this series and I’m afraid I haven’t made much progress in that time. It’s difficult to maintain a blog while travelling but it turns out it’s even more difficult during the every day routine of “normal” life! Time to smash the rest of this thing out before our time living in London is an all-too-distant memory!

London can at times feel like an overwhelmingly large jungle of grey buildings and grey weather but it’s actually “the greenest city of its size in the world”(ref) with parks, gardens and other green spaces covering almost 40% of greater London. Before we moved there we’d heard that when the sun comes out and the temperature rises above 24ºC Londoners flock to those green spaces and strip off to sunbathe. I never really believed it until I finally witnessed it for myself, and I think it’s great. I love the fact that they embrace sunny weather so enthusiastically and it fills the parks with a fun and cheerful atmosphere. A good spring in London, when you get that first relief from the cold, dark grip of winter, is is wonderful thing to experience. Here are some great places to do it!

1. Hampstead Heath
Our old local! Duck ponds, bathing areas, grassy hills, tree-lined paths and terrific picnic spots. Kenwood and Kenwood House are just to the north of the Heath too.

Hampstead Heath

2. Golders Hill Park
The park itself is not the most picturesque in London but it does have a kind of free open air mini zoo with deer, rhea, lemurs, mara, birds and butterflies which is great for the kids.

Deer, Golders Hill

3. Richmond Park
E-nor-mous! Great for cycling. Not as verdant as some other parks, more of a dry, yellowy colour. Wild deer roam around the place. When you’re finished you can get a cracking cup of tea at The Dysart Arms on the western edge.

Wild deer, Richmond Park

4. Regent’s Park
Beautiful green park just north of central London (near Lord’s Cricket Ground) with a boating lake, Queen Mary’s Gardens and the London Zoo. I found it funny that it’s fine to drink alcohol in the Gardens but you might get reprimanded by a bobby if they catch you kicking a ball around, since it’s more likely to be the opposite in Melbourne. ;)

Regent's Park

5. Primrose Hill
Just north of Regent’s Park and offers a spectacular view of the London skyline, particularly at dusk.

Primrose Hill

6. Kensington Gardens
One of London’s most famous gardens, and I think more picturesque than Hyde Park which is just to the east past a body of water called the Serpentine. Kensington features a Palace, memorial statues and a modern art gallery.

Kensington Gardens

7. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
There’s an entrance fee to visit Kew Gardens but it’s worth going to see its beautiful old iconic greenhouses – I particularly liked the ones with giant waterlilies. It also features lots of different types of garden styles from all over the world.

Palm House, Kew Gardens

8. Parkland Walk
A wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of London – even though it’s still quite central you’ll feel like you’re following a trail in the countryside. The walk follows an old disused railway line – my favourite route is from Finsbury Park to Highgate. Once in Highgate, you have to visit the beautiful old cemetery.

Parkland Walk

9. Crystal Palace
Probably not in the nicest part of town but I have a soft spot for it because of the bizarre collection of dinosaur sculptures. Made in the 1850s, they were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world and based on research pre-dating Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and are interestingly inaccurate by today’s standards.

Iguanodon, Crystal Palace

10. Little Venice
Not a park per se but a beautifully picturesque area nonetheless. I spent many of my lunch hours wandering along the canals past longboats. (Specifically, laughing along to Ricky Gervais’ podcast and old XFM show, so the two are somehow intrinsically linked in my mind. :)

Little Venice

Of course there are many others – St James’ Park, Greenwich Park, Victoria Park, Holland Park, London Fields… which is your favourite?

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Top 10 Markets and Shops to Browse in London

Two of London’s most popular shopping streets are Oxford Street and Regent Street but they’re far too crowded for my liking and simply to be avoided at all costs around Christmas. If you want to do some good solid “high street” shopping visit Westfield first thing on a Saturday – it will be much less congested and you won’t have to queue as long for change rooms.

For something a bit more unique or independent I would recommend checking out the following. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything these markets and shops offer fantastic window shopping opportunities!

1. Camden Lock
There are actually several markets in Camden. If you exit the Camden Town tube station and head north along the high street you’ll see lots of alternative fashion shops, Camden Market (good for funny/band tees), Camden Lock Village (places to eat and cute little shops), Camden Lock Market (hand made gifts) and then you can descend into the bowels of the sprawling Camden Stables Market with oodles of vintage and second hand shops (books, clothing and knick knacks) along with eateries (which probably aren’t amazing but they are atmospheric).

Camden Lock Market Camden Stables Market Knick knacks at Camden Stables Market

2. Spitalfields Market
One of my favourites. It’s big with lots of variety and stalls can feature anything from tshirts and leather-bound notebooks to handmade jewellery and nifty upcycled items. The market is also surrounded by permanent shops and restaurants which are worth a look.

3. Sunday UpMarket
Since this one’s only a short walk from Spitalfields you can hit two markets in one day. There’s even more of a focus on handmade items at the UpMarket and there are lots of great international food stalls as well. I’m a sucker for the sweet treats at Kooky Bakes!

4. Borough Market
Borough Market is London’s famous foodie market. Grab a Monmouth coffee and go for a wander admiring bountiful tables of baked goods, giant cheeses and shining vegetables; shelves of fancy beers; butchers selling specialty meats and shops offering gourmet European food stuffs.

Borough Market F. Cooke, Broadway Market

5. Broadway Market
A smaller market than some of the others on this list but no less worthy or interesting. Stalls line the street and feature lots of different delicious foods, from cheeses and pastries to exciting international dishes. Or if you prefer, you can go ultra British with a visit to F Cooke for eel, pie and mash.

6. Greenwich Market
Half the fun of visiting Greenwich Market is the journey there! While you can do it by tube and DLR the more scenic option is to ride a Thames Clipper down the river – you don’t get a tourist cruise commentary but it’s a much cheaper way of enjoying the same view. The market itself is half delicious food stalls and half crafty/independent traders. It’s not huge, but once you’ve finished having a look around you can grab some food to take up to Greenwich Park to enjoy.

Greenwich Market Liberty

7. Liberty
Liberty is a gorgeous Tudor-style half-timbered building housing a luxury department store. My favourite two sections are those for stationary and yarn. It’s a wonderful place to browse lovely things while soaking up the atmosphere of a beautiful old wooden building, complete with creaky stairs.

8. Design shops at Southbank
There are a couple of clusters of contemporary design shops along Southbank that are full of great gift ideas and interesting items to browse. Some, such as Jianhui‘s jewellery store, can be found at Gabriel’s Wharf, and if memory serves I think the others are along the first floor of the OXO Tower.

9. Columbia Road Flower Market
Visiting the Columbia Road Flower Market is almost like stepping back in time to a bygone era of London’s past. It can be incredibly crowded, which I don’t like, but it’s worth visiting once to see it in action (and/or if you like flowers!).

Columbia Road Flower Market Icecream sundae, Harrods

10. Harrods
I find it difficult to believe that anyone actually buys anything at Harrods. Not only is it amusingly expensive but it’s usually crammed with tourists that are clearly just there to window shop. Which is fine! I recommend doing it, at least once: it’s a surreal experience. My favourite room was full of fossils and geodes with price tags featuring lots of zeros. Plus you have to go to the Ice Cream Parlour for a giant sundae!

If you can’t get enough of markets there’s also Covent Garden and Portobello Road, which are nice, they just don’t make my top 10. Leadenhall Market is worth visiting to admire its history and architecture but I don’t find the shops particularly interesting. I was quite keen to go on the guided tour of Smithfield Meat Market but never worked up enough nerve to brave the 7am starting time! If window shopping exclusive stores is more up your alley Fortnum & Mason is beautiful, in a look-but-don’t-touch kind of way (especially the produce section).

Tins at Portobello Road Market Leadenhall Market

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Top 10 Paid Things To Do in London

I’m alive! Moving back into our flat in Melbourne and applying for jobs have taken priority over everything else during the last month but I hadn’t forgotten about finishing this series.

There are enough fantastic free activities in London to keep you busy for a week-long stay, but if you don’t mind spending some cash there are even more things you can add to your itinerary.

As with all the lists in this series, this is my personal top 10. The things I’ve listed might not be your cup of tea but they are the things I enjoyed the most during my time in London.

1. Ride on a double decker bus
Price per adult: £1.40 with an Oyster card
The downside of zipping about town on the underground is that it makes it difficult to visualise how all the different areas piece together and you don’t get to admire the view. Try the number 3 bus from Oxford Street, the 211 from Victoria or the 148 from the north side of Hyde Park and get off at Waterloo for a scenic trip through Westminster and over the Thames. Bag a seat in the first row of the upper deck for the best view!

2. Go on a cycling tour
Price per adult: £18-20
I recommend this even if you’re a Londoner! We did the East End tour after we’d been living in London for about 6 months and discovered a host of interesting facts and places we’d never previously come across. Highly enjoyable and recommended.

Double decker buses East End Cycle Tour

3. See a performance at The Globe
Price per adult: £5-39
Even though it’s only a replica of the original theatre, the performances, sets and costumes at the Globe are spectacular. Standing room tickets, the most authentic “seat” in the house, are only £5! If you do choose a standing ticket try to get there early so you can snag a spot right up by the stage – 1) so you’re right next to the action, and 2) so you can lean on it. (Your feet do get a bit tired! Make sure you’re well hydrated as well because after standing still for an hour or two even in the relative cool of a British summer evening it’s easy to feel a bit faint.)

4. Tour of 2 Willow Road
Price per adult: £6
This unique home was designed by architect Ernö Goldfinger in 1939 but it was 30-40 years ahead of its time. It’s still furnished the way the family left it – it’s as if they just stepped out and will be back any minute. You’ll get much more out of a guided tour than a self guided visit but tickets are extremely limited. Make sure you arrive well before your preferred time slot to put your name down. (If you have time to kill after that you can always enjoy a pint at one of Hampstead’s many nice local pubs.)

5. Barbican architecture tour
Price per adult: £8
I got a taste for Brutalist-esque architecture after visiting 2 Willow Road and thus also highly enjoyed a guided tour of the Barbican. I find the Barbican fascinating: it feels like a 1970s sci-fi utopia brought to life, and while so many of its features were made with people and liveability in mind, it remains a somewhat bizarre and almost impenetrable complex. (Demonstrated by how difficult it is to get into the darn place when you’re on your way to the tour meeting point!)

The Globe Theatre The Barbican

6. Visit the Tower of London
Price per adult: £19.50-21.45
I put off doing this for a long time because I thought it would be one of those expensive touristy things that everyone does but isn’t really that interesting. I’m so glad I went despite that misconception because I really enjoyed it! It’s so well preserved (restored?) that you feel like you’re entering a medieval city when you step through the gates. Entry includes a free tour of the grounds with one of the famous Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeater!).

7. Visit Chuchill’s War Rooms
Price per adult: £15.45-17
These are the original Cabinet War Rooms, the underground bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during WWII. It’s quite amazing to wander through the cramped rooms that many people lived and worked in throughout the London Blitz. There’s also a larger space set up as an interesting museum dedicated to Churchill’s life and career.

8. Tour of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament
Price per adult: £15-16.50 for international visitors (free for UK residents)
It’s best to book online in advance to secure tickets – you’ll need to choose from a selection of available time slots. The Houses of Parliament are such a quintessential London icon and it’s fascinating to take a rare glimpse of the inside. I enjoyed this more than visiting Westminster Abbey.

The Tower of London Houses of Parliament

9. See at film at an Everyman Cinema
Price per adult: £14-16.50
A wonderful experience for watching arthouse and independent cinema. The screening rooms are small and cosy with big comfy leather couches, and they can serve you cocktails and tasty treats while seated. I recommend the ones in Hampstead and Belsize Park.

10. Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum
Price per adult: £10
This spectacular annual photography exhibition is hosted at the NHM. Go first thing in the morning because it gets very crowded!

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Top 10 Free Things To Do in London

London has an undeserved reputation for being an expensive city, but apart from rent most other living expenses (food, drink, clothes, entertainment, telecommunication bills) are significantly cheaper than they are in Melbourne. Best of all, there are so many things you can do and see for free: in particular, visit most of its world-class museums and galleries.

You may notice a couple of conspicuous absences from my top 10 list below: the fact is that of course there are more than 10 fantastic free attractions in London, these are simply my favourites. (And I haven’t even included any parks or window shopping opportunities as I’ll be covering them separately.) Three particularly obvious absences are the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and The British Museum. These three are great, but they’re also the most popular so they can get overly crowded – particularly the British Museum, good grief!

Museum of London The Wallace Collection

1. Victoria and Albert Museum
permanent exhibitions free | opening hours

“The world’s greatest museum of art and design” has something for everyone, from classical sculpture and art to fashion and contemporary design and everything in between. My favourite sections are the European cast courtsJapanese netsuke and inro collections, modern section of the furniture gallery, and I highly recommend the free introductory tour. The main cafe is another highlight – a little pricey but absolutely beautiful with an excellent selection of treats and the best Earl Grey tea I’ve ever tasted.

2. The British Library
most exhibitions free | opening hours

The British Library puts together fascinating temporary exhibitions on a variety of interesting genres and themes. I thoroughly enjoyed Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It last year and both the current Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction and the upcoming Propaganda: Power and Persuasion sound great. On top of these, the permanent galleries are filled with some simply amazing treasures including a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, two of Scott of the Antarctic’s diaries, a letter written by Charles Darwin, works by Shakespeare, a notebook of Jane Austin’s, work of The Beatles, sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci and so much more. Highly recommended!

3. The Wallace Collection
free admission | opening hours

The Wallace Collection is a gallery and museum inside a historic house just a short walk (and welcome escape) from the crowds of busy Oxford Street. Its collection of European paintings is particularly fine and it also features a world class armoury, but it’s worth visiting to admire the beauty of the house alone. I particularly like the rooms with vibrantly coloured wallpaper – turquoise, red, purple. The central courtyard is home to Peyton and Byrne’s Wallace Restaurant, an excellent spot for afternoon tea.

4. The National Gallery
free admission | opening hours

I can’t put my finger on the exact reason why but I enjoyed The National Gallery a lot more than I expected to. I particularly liked the Van GoghTurner and Rembrant collections and the overall size of the gallery is a comfortable: you’ll be able to see everything that interests you in one visit. The free guided taster tour is incredibly informative and they also offer a variety of intriguing trails to help you discover other interesting aspects of the paintings. They have another lovely Peyton and Byrne cafe too.

5. Hunterian Museum
free admission | opening hours

Not for the faint-hearted, the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a small but fascinating collection of human and animal parts preserved in jars, with a focus on examples of various diseases. Even though I ended up feeling quite queasy after browsing some of its glass shelves I think it’s a brilliant and unusual place to visit. It’s quite popular with students though so it can get surprisingly busy.

6. Sir John Soane’s Museum
free admission | opening hours

This quirky museum is architect Sir John Soane’s home, preserved as it was full of all the items he collected during his life. The layout of some of the rooms is quite unusual, with mezzanine-like levels that open up on the floors below. Every space is crammed full of statues, casts, books and other antiquities including a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus. You could pair a visit to the Soane Museum with a trip to the Hunterian as they’re on opposite sides of the same green and you’d only need about 2-3 hours to see them both.

7. The Wellcome Collection
free admission | opening hours

The Wellcome Collection’s tagline should be enough to make you want to plan a visit: “A free destination for the incurably curious”. It’s main focus is on the development of medicine throughout the ages and across the world’s cultures. They’re particularly good at putting on exhibitions with fascinatingly macabre or intriguing themes such as death or drugs, accompanied by interesting talks and events.

8. The Musem of London
permanent exhibitions free | opening hours

A fantastic place to learn about the history of the city itself, from its prehistoric and Roman origins to the modern day. The Museum of London also often hosts some very good and popular paid exhibitions so if you’re there to see one of them you should definitely allow extra time to visit the extensive permanent exhibitions as well.

9. Saatchi Gallery
free admission | opening hours

Saatchi’s focus is on contemporary art and most of its exhibitions are temporary, so the quality of your visit will depend on your interest in the works exhibited at the time. When I visited last year there were several photography exhibitions on which I really enjoyed. At the moment the main two appear to be about modern and contemporary Russian art which I wish I could attend! Either way, it’s worth visiting for the one exceptional permanent exhibit in the basement: Richard Wilson’s 20:50. Don’t read anything about it before you visit, just go and see if your brain can process and decipher what you’re looking at – it’s probably the biggest optical illusion you’ll ever see! (I also love the fact that this piece has moved with the Saatchi Gallery to at least three different sites since its creation in 1987.)

10. Be part of a live TV audience

A random one at the end! Not a museum or a gallery, but something else which is quite unique. Britain is famous for its television and many of its entertainment shows require a live audience. You can register with Applause to be notified when there are any opportunities for the shows that you’re interested in. The more popular shows (QI, Top Gear, etc) are trickier to get into, but Applause often runs deals where if you sit in on a new or less popular show you can score a priority ticket for something more popular in return. But be prepared to queue, even for the less popular shows! They always need a full house so they issue more standard tickets than they have seats for on the assumption that some people just won’t turn up – which means if everyone does turn up some people won’t get in. (Although if this happens you can sometimes wrangle a priority ticket for the next recording if you ring them.)

BBC audience queue The British Library

London museum visiting tips:

  • Check opening hours before you visit! Many are closed at least one day per week and there isn’t really any consistency about what day that is.
  • The more popular the museum is the more important it is to go early to avoid queues and crowds.
  • Many run free guided tours of particular exhibits – check websites and information desks for details. It can be surprisingly rewarding to attend a tour of an exhibit you wouldn’t normally have been interested in, so be adventurous!
  • If you miss out on a guided tour you might be able to hire an audio guide instead. Sometimes this will incur a fee but it’s surprising how much more you can get out of the exhibits when you have more detailed background information about them (I think this is particularly good at art galleries).
  • Some of the museums are huge. Websites or brochures sometimes provide a list of “must see” exhibits or a suggested itinerary if you’re short on time.
  • Another strategy for coping with a huge museum is to pick an area or two that interest you and spend most of your time there, rather than trying to catch a glimpse of every single thing in the building.
  • Besides, the museums will be there for many years: if you feel like you missed out on anything you can always go back another day.
  • Some offer adult-only Friday Lates which give you an opportunity to visit the museum with glass of wine in hand, sans screaming children. Sometimes the Lates have special themes or events associated with them – check museum websites for details.
  • All the museums and galleries listed above either completely free or at least the permanent exhibitions are free to visit, but if you enjoy them you are normally more than welcome to donate a little money to go towards maintenance and upkeep. Sometimes they will request a small donation if you want a map or to use the cloakroom.
  • You can’t always take photos, and the rule can vary for different rooms of the same building. Observe signs and when in doubt ask one of the staff in attendance.

Glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, V&A Cast Courts, V&A Trajan's Column (plaster cast), V&A

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Top 10 in London series introduction

At the beginning of what became the 19 months we spent living in London my friend Helen suggested we make a list of all the things we wanted to do while we were over there and really make an effort to work through them. Otherwise it’s all too easy to be sucked into the black hole that is the London weekly work routine, which can be surprisingly difficult to break free from. We wrote up a list as Helen suggested, added to it whenever friends or co-workers gave us any new ideas, and did our best to work through as many things as possible.

We did a pretty good job! In the end we managed to tick off 81% of the things on our list of 150 – an average of 1-2 per week. We visited most of London’s main tourist attractions as well as many other lesser known places. Given that there are so many fantastic museums, galleries, theatres, cafes, restaurants, markets, shops and parks to visit in London it’s too difficult to narrow our favourites down to an overall top 10, so I’m going to break them down into categories which I’ll cover in a series of posts:

The lists will be based on our own personal tastes and experiences and therefore quite biased – not just a replication of what you’ll see in the guidebooks (although there’s a reason why some things do appear in those so you probably will see a bit of crossover). Hopefully there will be plenty of things you haven’t heard of – even if you live in London yourself! Stay tuned and enjoy!