London city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in the UK capital, according to a local

North London’s trendy Coal Drops Yard quarter (Kings Cross)
North London’s trendy Coal Drops Yard quarter (Kings Cross)

London is sprawling, stacked with options for both day and night, and linked up by many confusing, criss-crossing, colour-coded Underground routes. It’s easy to fall into the much-replicated Instagram and influencer-sanctioned to-do list of royal palaces, handful of “it” restaurants – that, let’s be honest, you could also go to in Vegas, LA or Dubai – and hackneyed photo viewpoints.

A real-life Londoner will likely start by pointing you away from the West End and central shopping area, and towards their own charming neighbourhood; perhaps urging you to cross town for a smaller cultural venue or pretty canal walk. The charms you’ve seen on social media are really here: Victorian pubs, enormous Sunday roasts, architectural flourishes, riverside strolls.

There’s almost too much to cover in a capital of this size. But if you want to get out of the crush and into this city’s unique personality – half olde-worlde, half trendsetting – here’s a start.

What to do

Ditch Leicester Square

Brixton Village, southwest London (Getty Images)
Brixton Village, southwest London (Getty Images)

Take a half-day or a day to explore one dedicated neighbourhood that’s a hit with locals for food, shopping, local vibes or all of the above. Shoreditch is now just about on every visitor’s social media page, so head instead to Brixton, for lunch in Brixton Village market, shopping from boutiques and market stalls, and perhaps even a gig at the Electric. It’s a 10-minute whizz on the Londoner-loved Victoria line from central Green Park station, but feels a world away from the mainstream tourist hubbub.

For an evening out, try Southwark, the evolving slice of land behind the much-trodden Southbank. Borough Market is old news to the bloggers, but head along quirky street The Cut from Waterloo station for great bites and theatre (the Old Vic, the Young Vic), plus pubs ranging from bougie to delightfully grubby. Fuel up with the alfresco beer and food purveyors of Vinegar Yard if it’s fine; or make for Bermondsey High Street for some of the best food and drink options this side of the river. If it’s a weekend daytime, head onward to Maltby Street Market.

Heading north, Clerkenwell is a foodie and cultured spot to while away an afternoon: peruse all things graphic at scarlet-fronted shop Magma; stock up on flora-inspired gifts, vases, bath salts and seeds at Botanique Workshop or notepaper, posters and cards at Marby & Elm; stop into the Charles Dickens Museum; and do your best to pick just one stop for lunch in Exmouth Market.

The ‘V&A’, or Victoria & Albert Museum (Getty Images)
The ‘V&A’, or Victoria & Albert Museum (Getty Images)

The V&A

While the British Museum is controversial to some and the Natural History Museum constantly heaving with school groups, the V&A remains the cherished, stylish aunt of London’s museums. Even locals make the time to stop by for a visit. Focused on all things design, exhibitions could cover K-Pop, children’s book illustrations, the history of underwear or archive musical theatre costumes. Don’t miss its boutique (gorgeous for unique, artsy gifts) and courtyard for a breather.


Yes, we’re taking you out of Leicester Square again – M&M World may not thank us, but you will. Greenwich is just a 30-minute tube ride from the West End, but can feel like stepping into the past. On a bright day, wander the Royal Observatory, dating back to 1676; nip into the Planetarium for a nerdy hour or so; and see the towering masts of the Cutty Sark tea clipper floating in the Thames. This year there’s ice-skating at the Queen’s House until 8 January, too.

Dennis Severs’ House

Londoners love a weird and wonderful attraction, and there’s none better than this Miss Havisham-esque building in the financial quarter the City. Styled like a 1724 Huguenot family home, it’s empty, but “alive” with sounds, scents and sights, as if the occupants have just left the room you’ve walked into. Fires flicker in grates, cooking aromas waft from the oven and wax seals appear freshly stamped on writing desks. From November to early January it’s decked out in vintage Christmas style, too.

Coal Drops Yard, near Kings Cross (Coal Drops Yard)
Coal Drops Yard, near Kings Cross (Coal Drops Yard)

Where to drink

Top of your list should be a truly ancient (and potentially dusty) London pub. None of your Gordon Ramsay menus or mixologists – we’re talking thick tankards of ale and a Ploughman’s lunch. Try Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (est 1667), the Prospect of Whitby, overlooking the Thames, and The Blackfriar, in a former Dominican friary. According to historian John Stow, the Prospect was “the usual place for hanging of pirates and sea-rovers, at the low-water mark, and there to remain till three tides had overflowed them” – and a replica gallows sits on the riverbank outside to remind us. Cheers!

Since the days when we were hanging criminals and smugglers, a few newer bars have come into play. Head to Bethnal Green in the East End for Satan’s Whiskers, a cosy and creative cocktail bar that, according to World’s Best Bars, is the 23rd greatest on the planet.

If you’re in the peak drinking-and-dining area of Soho or Regent Street, duck down Carnaby Street and into Kingly Court’s indoor food complex, with the aim of ending up at Cahoots. This Blitz-spirit-themed bar is tons of fun, from its newspaper-styled cocktail menus to drinks served up in pea tins, ceramic shoes or painted teacups.

For a wine bar full of London locals, try Hackney hotspot Sager + Wilde (the original is on Hackney Road). Platters of capital-sourced cheeses and charcuterie are served up with wines by the glass, as are superlative cheese toasties and unusual small plates such as marinated courgettes or duck rillettes.

Noble Rot restaurant is a cosy spot in Soho (Juan Trujillo Andrades)
Noble Rot restaurant is a cosy spot in Soho (Juan Trujillo Andrades)

Where to eat

Noble Rot

Soho is our top choice for great restaurants packed side by side, and this unassuming little wood-panelled drawing room is a dining spot with a special interest: wine. Simple, quality French and English dishes such as ox cheek bourguignon with swede mash, or scottish langoustines with homemade mayonnaise, are paired with the best wines by the glass or carafe, with tons of advice and organised pairings on hand. Try the moreish Comte cheese beignet (doughnut) with pickled walnut ketchup. Can’t get in? There’s a sibling restaurant in Bloomsbury, on atmospheric Lamb’s Conduit Street.

The Barbary

In pretty Seven Dials (see Where to Shop), this bijou restaurant has a horseshoe-shaped counter of just 24 seats, giving it the vibe of an intimate dinner party. The menu celebrates all things eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African, with freshly sizzled clay-oven flatbreads and zingy dips alongside flame-grilled meats, halloumi, cauliflower, salmon and squid. The best bit is watching the chefs theatrically shape, slice and grill right in front of you.


Shoreditch is another treasure trove of ambitious, independent restaurants, and tapas joint Brat has been one of the hits of the year. Simple classics such as crab toast, steak and olive oil ice cream are beautifully crafted. Meanwhile, a cosily stuffed dining room – all exposed brick, pared-back wood and gleaming leather – and meats cooked over an open flame make for a toasty-warm atmosphere.

Coal Drops Yard

For a micro-neighbourhood where you can wander and simply sniff out a dinner choice, try Coal Drops Yard, just behind Kings Cross-St Pancras Station. As well as cult London favourites Bao, Caravan, Dishoom and Hoppers, you can weave along canals before or after dinner, or shop at artisan market stalls under the “Canopy” area.

Food served up at the bar at The Barbary, London (The Barbary)
Food served up at the bar at The Barbary, London (The Barbary)

Where to stay

The Hoxton (various)

This homegrown chain may first have popped up in trendy Hoxton, east London, but there are now four boutique numbers across the capital. Characterised by affordable starting rates, slick design and sociable lobby bars and restaurants, they’re a firm hit with locals. While Southwark has the swankiest venue with its rooftop bar, the oyster-loving Seabird, the newest is the Shepherd’s Bush outpost, out of the mania of zone one and handily close to Westfield shopping mall, as well as the Stop by lobby hangout Chet’s for a fabulous Thai-meets-retro-diner take on breakfast.

The Mondrian, Shoreditch

Steps away from some of the capital’s best restaurants, this fabulous boutique hotel is most famous for its petite rooftop pool, surrounded by strings of fairy lights and striped cushioned areas to lounge on. But basement restaurant BiBO is also worth getting the lift down to – a high-end Spanish affair where you can chow down on huge pans of buttery paella, lightly battered cod fritters, delicate, smoky tendrils of grilled octopus and slivers of salty Iberico ham. Rooms are smart, with cloud-like beds and a dash of distinctive London style: welly-boot green wardrobes, leather Chesterfield chairs, and Thames-inspired graphic art.

The rooftop at The Mondrian (The Mondrian/Rusne Draz)
The rooftop at The Mondrian (The Mondrian/Rusne Draz)

The best of the five-stars

Londoners don’t spend a tremendous amount of time in five-star hotels, but most have their favourite hotel bar for the odd special occasion drink - whether the dramatic black-and-gold Beaufort Bar at the storied Savoy Hotel, the much-awarded Artesian Bar at the Langham, the exclusive, snug Connaught Bar, or Duke’s, originator of James Bond’s signature Martini. If we were to splurge on a room at one of the big names, we’d probably go for the Rosewood Hotel - set in a palatial Edwardian building, with one of the best hotel bars in Scarfe’s - or the London EDITION, placed in restaurant-rich Fitzrovia with its own cosy “secret” bar, the Punch Room.

Seven Dials shopping area (Seven Dials)
Seven Dials shopping area (Seven Dials)

Where to shop

Seven Dials

This pretty, wheel-shaped spread of streets looks like dials branching out on a clockface, hence the name. Just above Covent Garden, it’s somehow not quite as jam-packed with tourists – though the swish new Seven Dials Market is starting to tempt them in. It’s also packed full of great shops for fashion, jewellery, gifts and food: stop in at Monmouth Coffee for bags of London’s best java (calmer than Borough Market’s outpost) and Coco de Mer for high-end lingerie, then browse the clothes at London design duo Emin + Paul on Earlham Street.

Spitalfields Market

This rejuvenated East End fruit and veg market has been a site for traders since 1666, and since a major polish-up in 2005 it’s a pretty, modern and atmospheric area to shop, with an industrial-chic look reminiscent of New York’s Meatpacking District. As well as smart fashion, shoe and beauty boutiques packed around the old Victorian market site, there are still independent vendors inside the covered area, selling trendy T-shirts, jewellery, posters and kids’ clothing.

Ancient boutiques

Look out for London’s historic shops, many of them around Piccadilly: Penhaligon perfumes (est. 1860s), D.R. Harris chemist (1790), cheesemongers Paxton and Whitfield (1797), and wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd (1698). Though their heritage is impressive, do be aware that nearby toy emporium Hamley’s and foodie department store Fortnum & Mason tend to be overrun by tourists at any time of day.

Browsing art at Spitalfields Market (Spitalfields Market)
Browsing art at Spitalfields Market (Spitalfields Market)

Architectural highlight

Though the whole Brutalist chunk of the Southbank deserves an honourable mention (as do the wacky City skyscrapers nicknamed after everything from a gherkin to a cheese grater), for us, London has never quite topped the nostalgic beauty of St Paul’s Cathedral. Whether you know it as the site of Charles and Di’s wedding, a cinematic spot in which to feed the birds from Mary Poppins or its role in a suffragette’s bomb plot, this domed beauty with a million stories is the heart of culture and romance among London’s historic buildings.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Pounds sterling.

What language do they speak?


Should I tip?

Yes. A 12.5 per cent service charge is added to most bills, unless your venue specifies otherwise, but feel free to add a little more for great food or service. Unlike Americans, Brits will register their dissatisfaction with a meal by asking to remove the service charge.

How should I get around?

The majestic London Underground. You can use contactless credit or debit cards to tap in and out, or load some money onto an Oyster card. Get the Tube between far-flung neighbourhoods (say, Southwark and Notting Hill), then walk around for the morning or afternoon. There are lots of great bus routes too, if you’d prefer to be able to see the city as you travel (again, contactless card is accepted). Few Londoners get black cabs unless they have to.

What’s the best view of the city?

From one of the hilly parks in north London: Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath, or Alexandra Palace (the latter particularly atmospheric at night).

Insider tip

Some areas, though pretty or much-photographed, are known as gluts of tourist trap restaurants, low-quality chain bars and tourist-tat shops. So avoid finding yourself stuck there when hungry or needing a rest. These include: Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Covent Garden, the Strand, Shaftesbury Avenue, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. All of these are a short walk from better dining and drinking areas.

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

If you’re exploring Europe, take advantage of the direct Eurostar train in from Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam to link up your mainland continental travels with a UK visit.

Fine with flying?

London is connected to many countries and continents with direct flights, including the US, India, Japan, China and most European cities, from six airports with the prefix “London”: Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted, Luton, Southend. Just be aware, aside from Heathrow and City, none of these is on the London Underground network – and most of them are a good half-hour train ride into the capital.