Why London is More Than Big Ben and Buckingham – What to See and Do in England’s Capital City

by Sarah

Countless novels and movies are set in London, England. They span centuries, from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor Court novels to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. They span the city too, which is far larger than Henry VIII could have imagined, across the Thames to the tiny alleys where Jack the Ripper did his work. Saint Paul’s towered over the city until Big Ben towered over the city. Today, modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London, and its surroundings, offers visitors a multitude of experiences, no matter what you’re interested in.

Westminster and Big Ben tower over the bridge and quintessential red double decker buses.

London, England – More Than Big Ben and Buckingham

Encompassing nearly 611 square miles, and with a population of over eight million, England’s largest city is a financial powerhouse and historic capital. It features in numerous films and novels, as well, and is home to loveable characters, fictional and real. London deserves as much time as you can give her – it’s a sprawling metropolis with plenty to see and do.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

St. Paul’s Cathedral lies in the heart of the city, across the Millennium Bridge from the Tate Modern.

How to Get to London

All roads lead to London these days. The major US carriers – Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and United Airlines – all fly nonstop to London from numerous gateways across the US. International carriers Emirates, Qatar, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Lufthansa, and others also fly into one of the four airports. London Heathrow alone is the seventh busiest airport in the world, with 38 million arrivals in 2018. Heathrow combined with Luton, Stansted, and Gatwick makes London the busiest in terms of passenger traffic.

Thousands of flights arrive daily into London’s Heathrow Airport. Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock.com

Recently, my mom and I were looking for mileage tickets to Edinburgh – trying to take advantage of the latest flash sale – and Juicy Miles snagged us two Delta One tickets from Atlanta to London, with First Class domestic tickets. Instead of flying in and out of Edinburgh and simply connecting in London, we opted for two days in the city. As I’m a big fan of stopover programs, this ended up being ideal.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

Oxford Street is one of London’s most famous thoroughfares. elenaburn / Shutterstock.com

What to Do in London

London fascinates me, it truly does. I suppose I have always read books set here and have a novel approach to the city, but my most favorite things to do in London revolve around things my favorite characters have done. London really is more than just Big Ben, Westminster, and Buckingham Palace. Visitors can dive into fashion on Oxford and Bond streets, revisit the iconic music scene, immerse themselves in the 14th and 15th century royals, or follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Harry Potter, or James Bond.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

The traditional Changing of the Guards, at Buckingham Palace, is a popular stop for tourists. Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

Some of my suppliers can secure private tours at the Churchill War Rooms – including tea with Churchill’s granddaughter – or a behind the scenes visit at the Changing of the Guards. One particular supplier can get my clients into otherwise closed museums, access into private homes and castles, and invitations to private, royal-attended events.

But, should you be after iconic London experiences without a hefty price tag, there’s more than enough to do on your own.

Arts and Culture

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

The Tate Modern is one of the many museums across London. lapas77 / Shutterstock.com

London wouldn’t be London without the extensive array of museums. Whether you want to walk the halls of the Tate Modern or gaze at the portraits in the National Galleries, you have your pick of artwork. Add to that the street art, the pops of color on otherwise grey alleys, the many galleries in Soho, Chelsea, and Kensington, and it seems like all of London is a canvas. Some museums are even free, a bonus in this expensive city! Want to buy something? Sotheby’s remains the ultimate in auction houses.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

Channel your inner Harry Potter at the Platform 9 3/4 exhibit, located at Kings Cross station in central London. Benjamin B / Shutterstock.com

London is also the home to some of our favorite fictional characters, from James Bond to Austin Powers to Harry Potter. Follow in the footsteps of fictional heroes and heroines on tours that highlight everything from Baker Street to Platform 9 3/4.

Food and Drink

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

Covent Garden market is a great place to grab a bite to eat. alice-photo / Shutterstock.com

For too long, the British food scene was rather uninspiring. Memories of graduate school dinners (fuzzy thanks to bad wine) are of lumpy potatoes, dry meat, and soggy sides. Fresh veg and fruit were hard to come by, or insanely expensive in the shops. My memories of London street food, however, are of rich, flavorful curries, crispy Greek spanakopita, spicy Turkish kebabs, and more. (Some neighborhoods are better than others for various international dishes, but broadly speaking you’ll find everything, anywhere.)

Today, you’ll find (like most everywhere else) a local spin on ethnic dishes, an emphasis on local produce and meats, homegrown chefs, and craft cocktails. You can find great food across the city, but notable places include Covent Garden, Borough Market, Shoreditch, and SoHo. To really dive into the scene, take a private food tour with a local chef or food writer.

History

The British Museum is one of the most iconic museums in the world. Cedric Weber / Shutterstock.com

London has been a city for millennia. The Romans founded London in 43 AD, and despite a few invasions, has otherwise grown exponentially. It has withstood plague, fire, two world wars, and modern day attacks. The British have been around the world, on every continent, and involved in many of history’s most accomplished activities.

You can get a fairly comprehensive look at London’s history at the British Museum, in Bloomsbury. The BM is considered one of the best museums in the world. It is home to over eight million objects, including Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone, and Easter Island Moai. In addition to being one of the largest museums, the British Museum is also the first museum ever opened to the public.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

David Steele / Shutterstock.com

Other destinations of historical note include the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace. All but the Tower are still in use as government and royal buildings; the Tower is cared for by a trust and is the city’s premiere tourist attraction. The Tower has a distinct history, namely as a prison for various nobles during the Tudor era. Perhaps its most notorious guests were the York Princes Richard and Edward V, although Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, and almost all of Henry VIII’s six wives were prisoners there too. The Tower of London was also used as a prison during the Second World War.

Nature and Wildlife

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

There are plenty of green spaces in central London, including Hyde Park.

It may seem near impossible to have any kind of wildlife experience in London. All you have to do, though, is head for one of the many parks. Once hunting grounds for the kings, they’re now vast swaths of green space in the city. Many are easily accessible, like St. James Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and Greenwich Park. But there are also wildlife reserves, such as the WWT London Wetland Centre, the Epping Forest, Queen’s Wood, and the RSPB Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve.

Where to Stay in London, England

When Hyatt announced its takeover of Small Luxury Hotels in late 2018, and its subsequent takeover of Two Roads Hospitality a few weeks later, the path to reward bookings around the world opened wide up. Our recent post here at PMTTP showcased the new categories in Hyatt bookings in a sortable table – many of which are in London.

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

The Goring Hotel is a five star property near BUckingham, and where Duchess Catherine spent the night before her wedding to Prince William. Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com

It’s true there’s no shortage of accommodation in London, though the list of luxury or even mid-range luxury hotels is short.

The entire SLH portfolio in London is comprised of exceptional boutique properties boasting gorgeous, historic, interiors, cozy yet spacious rooms, and superb service. Flemings Mayfair is the second-oldest hotel in London and a luxurious five star property just around the corner from Green Park. Nearby, St James Hotel and Club was once a private club for traveling diplomats. The Capital Hotel and Apartments, located just across from Harrods, also boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant. Dukes Hotel, by contrast, has a legendary bar – which doesn’t take reservations. Now that Hyatt has taken over the Small Luxury Hotels portfolio, all of these hotels are available to book on World of Hyatt credit card points!

London calling... modern skyscrapers like The Shard shine bright like diamonds against the coal-dusted buildings of earlier eras. London offers visitors...

The Tower Bridge is an iconic symbol of London.

Marriott/Starwood Rewards members can also choose from a wide array of hotels. In the city alone there are Autograph Collection, Luxury Collection, and Design Hotels, as well as the usual Marriott and Sheraton properties.

Luxury in London

Luxury properties abound, including The Goring, where Kate Middleton spent the night before her wedding, The Corinthia, the Ritz, and Brown’s Hotel, a Rocco Forte hotel. Global luxury brands like Four Seasons, InterContinental, Langham, Mandarin Oriental, and Rosewood also have a strong presence in London.

Cheeky travel advisor tip… flying to and from the continent? Consider a stopover in London, and stay near Heathrow at Great Fosters, in Surrey. You’ll break up the trip and get to relax in a luxurious country estate, feeling like you’re miles from the city.

London Calling …

I’ve admittedly focused on some other global capitals (like Lisbon, Dublin, and Wellington) lately, but London remains a perennial favorite. Spanning generations, London appeals to a wide array of visitors and interests. It’s easy to get to, and can be done inexpensively with travel reward bookings and mileage ticketing.

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Mike December 9, 2018 - 6:10 pm

Thanks Sarah for a good report. I’m flying to London in July and trying to find affordable frequent flyer tickets back home but can’t find any from London without paying a lot of taxes ($300@ which adds up as I have 5 people in my family). I’m open to traveling to any city in Europe to fly home using American AAdvantage miles, BA Avios, or Delta miles. I also have Chase Ultimate Reward points and AMEX points.

Does anyone know a good city to fly out of at the end of July in Europe where I can easily come back to Los Angeles? Thanks in advance.

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Sarah December 12, 2018 - 10:20 am

Thanks for reading Mike! I’m not the best with mileage questions, but since American Airlines is a British Airways partner and I know there’s a direct London-LA it seems like there ought to be affordable tickets.

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