Looking to visit London? Find out when to go, where to go and what you need to book before you arrive in the Big Smoke
Planning your trip to London
There are two ways to take a break in London – plan carefully to get access to a much-loved theatre show, and a table in the best restaurant… or arrive with an open mind and see where the city takes you. The following may help you to get the best out of the world’s most visited city.
Which area is best to visit?
A break in London can seem like a contradiction in terms – there are so many things to do in the city that it seems a waste to take a pause. It’s also possible to have 100 different types of holiday in the capital.
If you’re looking for a romantic weekend, spend a couple of days in Notting Hill, walking through Primrose Hill and along the banks of the Grand Union Canal. If you’re a culture-craver, head to South Kensington for the capital’s – and maybe the country’s – best museums, plus the Royal Albert Hall.
Got the itch to shop? If it’s department stores, high-street names and little independents you’re after, fill your boots in the West End. Feeling foodie? You could spend a year in London without being able to exhaust dining options brought to you from all over the world. If you’re visiting with the family, find the country in the city with its inner-city farms, puppet theatres and parkland.
When’s the best time to visit London?
This depends on the kind of city break you are planning to take. London is fabulous in summer – it has abundant green space, and an open-air boat trip along the Thames is a great way to get your bearings when you first arrive. After a trip to one of Kensington’s museums, you can walk to Hyde Park and have lunch overlooking the Serpentine lake.
August bank holiday sees the famous Notting Hill Carnival introduce a riot of colour and music to Portobello Road. Music festivals take place most weekends throughout June and July, everywhere from Clapham to Hyde Park and London Fields – check in advance to see if one of your favourites is playing and worth building a trip around.
In August the Tube, or London Underground, is less crowded as many office-workers head abroad on holiday, and it’s easier to get a table in popular restaurants. But if you do come during the school holidays, you will have to queue for a long time to access exhibitions and family-friendly institutions such as London Zoo. To enjoy warmer weather without the crowds, May sees the start of summery events including Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park plus the late opening of the lidos for an alfresco dip, and in May it’s quieter as there are no end-of-term crowds.
In winter, many markets start hosting fairy-lit ‘lates’ – Columbia Road, which on Sundays is crammed with flower sellers and buyers, opens every Thursday night in the run-up to Christmas for mulled wine and festive shopping. Pubs come into their own at this time of year, too – most bars will be topped with a cauldron of steaming mulled wine to warm the cockles. The good thing about a city as abundant in activity as London is that, whenever you come, there will be a huge amount for you to see and do.
What should I book in advance?
There are many no-bookings-taken restaurants in the area of Soho in central London – it’s a hot culinary trend to offer walk-in dining, which means you can pitch up unannounced and still enjoy a table.
If you want to sample a proper Sunday roast, you should book in advance – the good ones are popular and pubs may start to get booked up for Sunday as much as a week in advance. If you expect to be in the West End or east London’s trendy Shoreditch on a Friday night, and mind queuing for a table, you should certainly reserve a table.
Popular theatre shows such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be booked up many months in advance. Head to the theatres the morning you arrive to check for returned tickets, if you’re set on seeing something that seems to be sold out. If you have an open mind, though, go to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, where you can pick up cheap last-minute tickets to a variety of shows.
You don’t need to pay or book to enter any of London’s major museums or galleries, but you will have to pay, and probably book, to see specific exhibitions. Some of the city’s best exhibits, however, are the ones that you can see for free – enjoy them while you have the opportunity!