London was the first stop on my month-long European solo trip! I gained so much confidence as a solo traveler in London, and it was a dream to visit since I was 16. After spending a week in the city, I’ve put together a list of 18 fun things to do your first time in London. This list was designed for first time visitors, but there’s also hidden gems that you may not have thought of!
1. Visit Big Ben at Sunset
Big Ben is a gorgeous, globally recognized clock, and it’s my favorite view in London! It’s located on the River Thames, at the north end of the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben features amazing gold detailing, and it’s recent restoration and cleaning was completed in 2022. One of the reasons I love Big Ben so much is the atmosphere around it. It’s a bustling area, but it also has a calmness to it. In my opinion, Big Ben is prettiest at sunset when the sky is colorful and there’s lots of reflection in the river. But I also recommend visiting before 8am. It’s worth it to wake up early because it gets extremely crowded here.
Big Ben is 105 yards (95 meters) tall, and has 334 steps to the top. Only UK residents are allowed to climb the clock tower.
2. Book a Walking Tour
Walking tours are a great way to hit all the highlights at the beginning of your trip! From there, you can decide if there’s any spots you want to revisit. My goal was to see the London highlights without spending all my time at the major tourist spots. I saw Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Queen’s horse guard, London Bridge, Trafalgar Square, and so many other popular sites. We even rode a double decker bus on the way back to our meeting point.
*With that being said, book a more specific tour if you have a London favorite. Maybe a Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes tour would be more memorable for you.
I recommend booking through Airbnb experiences because the guides are local people who are genuinely passionate about the city. They’ll usually share hidden spots and fun facts too.
Walking tours give a perspective of the city that tourists can’t get on their own. It’s an opportunity to interact with locals, support small businesses, meet new people, and take a break from planning the route.
St.Dunstan in the East is a beautiful church turned garden. Built around 1100, the church was damaged in the 1666 Great Fire of London and by a WWll bombing in 1941. After sustaining so much damage, it was decided not to rebuild the church. Several decades later, the City of London turned the remains into a public garden. Today you’ll see people reading, enjoying their lunch break, or just hanging out in the garden. It’s a calm, seemingly hidden spot, right in the middle of the busy city.
4. Explore Borough Market
London is full of amazing food markets, but Borough Market is my favorite! Borough Market is a bustling and historic food market, dating back to the 12th century. You’ll find everything from fresh juices to food stands, cheeses, meats, desserts, and so much more. There’s more than 4 million visitors at Borough Market every year, and when you visit you’ll understand why! Not only is it a beautiful open space, but it’s a culinary adventure. Whatever you’re hungry for, even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can find it here!
5. Hangout in Camden Town
Camden Town is another area of London that I could write an entire blog on. It’s famous for Camden Market, the charity shops, Little Venice, the music scene, and the street art. For Americans, Camden is to London what Brooklyn is to New York City (at least in my opinion).
I was drawn to Camden because of the art scene and the location outside of the city center. It’s close to Primrose Hill, Regents Park, and so many other London favorites too. While Camden Market is a bit touristy, Camden Town has a very local-London feel overall. I love the canals, colorful houses, and endless plant-based eating options. It’s also extremely walkable!
6. Spend a Day in Notting Hill
I could write an entire blog post about Notting Hill. It’s one of the cutest and trendiest areas of London, with rows of pastel colored houses, local shops, bakeries, eateries, art galleries, farmers markets, and the world famous Portobello Market. The antique shops are amazing too, filled from floor to ceiling with tea cups, ceramics, jewelry, paintings, and anything you could dream of.
Of course there’s some touristy souvenir stands, but I recommend avoiding those and going somewhere like Alice’s antique shop on Portobello Road. Also, it’s best to go on the weekend when the markets are lively! But get there early if you’re into photography because the main streets get crowded. I recommend spending a whole day in Notting Hill because you won’t want to rush!
Popular spots in Notting Hill:
- The Notting Hill Bookshop
- Museum of Brands
- Books For Cooks (Featured in the movie Notting Hill with Julia Roberts. There are over 8,000 cookbooks here!)
- Biscuiteers Baking Company
- Buns from Home (My personal favorite! They have such unique and delicious dessert bun flavors.)
- Farmacy (This was the best plant based meal I’ve had in my life! Such an amazing dining experience, and the food was to die for.)
7. Shop at Portobello Road Market
Portobello Road Market deserves its own spot on the list, even though it’s located in Notting Hill! It’s the world’s largest antique market, filled with one-of-a-kind treasures. And if you’re wondering where to buy one of the iconic “Notting Hill shopping bags,” this is your place. It’s also the best place to find authentic souvenirs, instead of the tacky “I love London” t-shirts that will leave your closet within a year.
Portobello Road Market is sectioned by:
Friday and Saturday are the busiest days, and you can click here to see more details about the markets and schedules. Keep in mind that Saturday is busier than Friday! Portobello Road Market was at the top of my London bucket list, and it’s something you can’t miss! It’s truly a London bucket list experience.
8. Visit Chinatown
Chinatown is another must-see spot in London, and it’s such a vibrant and fun area. There’s great restaurants, cafes, karaoke bars, shopping, and (my favorite) desserts! Some of my favorite desserts are bubble cone ice creams, fish shaped waffles, and boba tea. The grand gates make London’s Chinatown easy to spot, and they’re also the perfect photo op. The ideal time to visit is during Chinese New Year, since there’s festivals and parades. You can also click here to see what other events are going on during your visit!
9. Hangout at St.Anne’s Church Lawn
Just a quick walk away from Chinatown, St.Anne’s Church lawn is the perfect spot to spend an afternoon. You’ll find people laying the grass, reading books, catching up with friends, or just taking their lunch break. The yard is lush, green, and decorated with colorful banners and flowers. St.Anne’s Church was founded in 1686 and was unfortunately damaged in 1940 by WWII bombings. It was finally rebuilt in 1991 and has remained a church ever since. I enjoyed hanging out here so much that it’s one of my top London recommendations, and it’s the perfect spot to relax for a while after visiting Chinatown.
10. Visit Primrose Hill
Primrose Hill is north of Regent’s park and the London Zoo, and it’s less than a 15 minute walk from Camden Market. When you climb to the top of the grassy hill, you’ll see one of the best skyline views of London. The hill is a protected viewpoint, so the trees are monitored to make sure nothing blocks the view. You’ll find lots of people laying in the grass, dogs running and playing, and locals enjoying a sunny afternoon. This is one of my favorite spots in London and something you can’t miss!
The area around Primrose Hill is also very charming. It’s less than a 15 minute walk from Camden Market to Primrose Hill, so keep that in mind when planning your itinerary.
11. Visit Regents Park & Queen Mary’s Rose Garden
Regents Park is a gorgeous green space with a Japanese garden, sports fields, a dog park, trails, a cafe and theater, and the beautiful Queen Mary’s Rose Garden. If you’ve been to New York City, this park reminds me a lot of Central Park. The rose garden opened in 1934 and has about 12,000 roses and 85 varieties. But there’s not just roses! There’s also over 9,000 Begonias planted. It’s best to visit the rose garden in June or July, when the roses are in full bloom.
12. Eat at a Curry House on Brick Lane
Indian food is to London like Mexican food is to California. As a vegetarian, I was super excited to try some of the best Indian food in London. The options were quite overwhelming, ranging from street food to fine dining and chain restaurants. So how did I decide? I asked my AirBnb host, and he directed me to Brick Lane.
So, why Brick Lane?
- It’s authentic and where the locals go, since it’s outside of Central London. It’s located in the East End, which means it’s away from where (most) tourists go.
- There’s 20+ curry houses, bagel shops, and other cuisines from around the world!
- After your meal, there’s still lots to explore. Brick Lane is known for its street art, vintage shopping, breweries, markets, bars, and its home to the London Coffee Festival.
Just be aware that there’s lots of competition between the curry houses, so the waiters and managers will try to lure you in before you can choose someone else! Don’t be afraid to tell them no, or that you’re still deciding.
13. Walk Through Banksy Tunnel (Leake Street Arches)
The walls of Banksy Tunnel are covered in street art, and it’s the only place in London where graffiti is tolerated without a permit. The tunnel was previously used by a bus company as a garage. Now it’s colorful, filled with art, and there’s even restaurants and bars inside. It’s located under the Waterloo railway arches, and it’s only a 15 minute walk from Big Ben. Waterloo Station is also right there, so it’s an easy stop off the tube.
14. Attend an Afternoon Tea
Can you even go to London without attending an afternoon tea? I chose a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory themed tea at One Aldwych because I loved the movie as a kid. I also chose it because there was a vegetarian option, which was delicious! But there are so many to choose from. Whatever your London interests are, there’s probably a tea themed for it. Of course, not all teas are themed, but I think it’s fun when they are.
My main recommendation is to book this in advance! Afternoon teas are super popular amongst tourists, so I recommend booking at least a month out. I paid $60, and it included bottomless food, dessert, and tea. $60 is on the lower end, as many teas start at $100. You can decide what’s worth it to you, but I didn’t care about attending the most “fancy” tea. Here’s a list of afternoon teas for 2023, if you need some inspiration! And if you’re looking for themed teas, check out this this fun list!
15. Catch a Concert at Finsbury Park
Finsbury Park is a 115 acre park in North London with a boating lake, tennis and basketball courts, picnic areas, and even a skate park. It’s also an amazing outdoor concert venue that holds 10,000-50,000 people, depending on the event. I saw a George Ezra concert here, and it was the best thing I did in London. Attending a concert abroad should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s a once in a lifetime experience!
16. Go Thrift Shopping
You don’t have to support fast fashion, even abroad! There’s something so special about finding a one-of-a-kind piece on a vacation, and it becomes a memorable piece in your wardrobe. Here’s what you need to know about thrift shopping (charity shopping) in London, especially as an American.
- The thrift stores in the UK are called Charity Shops, and each one raises money for a different cause.
- As an American, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. The shops are a lot smaller than American thrift stores. However, they’re more curated.
- The shops in Central London are way overpriced. You’ll find things like… a worn Ohio State sweatshirt for 40-50 pounds. It made me laugh to see all of the American university clothing, but they would obviously cost less at Goodwill in the US.
- Go thrift shopping outside of the city center, in Camden or Brick Lane! It’s way cheaper, there’s more variety, and (in my opinion) better stuff!
My Top 3 Charity Shops:
- Traid: There are several locations, but I went to the one in Camden. The selection is amazing, and I bought a beautiful sundress for 15 pounds. Their charity mission is to, “improve workers’ lives in the global textile industry,” which I love.
- Oxfam Boutique: There’s multiple locations and a great selection of clothes, shoes, and unexpected treasures. Their charity mission is to fight poverty.
- Scope Camden: Another awesome spot in Camden to find cute clothes! Their charity mission is about equality for disabled people.
17. Book a Photoshoot
Booking a photoshoot guarantees perfect photos while in London. Let’s be honest, taking selfies or asking strangers to take group photos is simply not as good as hiring a professional photographer! Photoshoots support someone’s business, and you’ll have amazing photo souvenirs to last a lifetime.
As a solo traveler, booking photoshoots was a great way to hang out with locals, to get travel recommendations, to have fun, and to build confidence. After all, once the trip is over, all you have are the photos.
So how can you find a photographer?
- Search “experiences” on Airbnb. This makes booking and payment easy, and you can look at reviews from other people.
- Search Instagram for, “Lisbon photographers.” This will give you more options and allows you to choose an editing style that you like. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to figure out how to send the deposit payment. I used MoneyGram, since it converts currency and allows you to send money internationally.
18. Visit the National Gallery (for free!)
The National Gallery features over 2,300 European masterpieces, and it’s completely free to enter! If you’re an art lover, you won’t want to miss it. I spent a couple hours in the museum, but you could also spend hours hanging out in Trafalgar Square in front of The National Gallery.
Hi Ellen! Thank you for this lovely list for London! I definitely want to see St. Dunstan and try your restaurant recommendation “Farmacy”! In fact I feel like visiting London right now!
Love the picture of you in the telephone booth.
Thanks Estelle! You’ll have to let me know when you go to London! St.Dunstan was one of my favorite spots, and I still dream about Farmacy. So delicious. Hope you’re doing well!