Londoners are partial to a good moan – the Night Tube, housing crisis and the gentrification of Soho are just some of the things we’re currently grousing about over our pricey pints – but deep down we love this city. And we’re not the only ones: last year a record-breaking 31.5 million people visited the capital. So what is it we find so enchanting about this seething metropolis we call home? Telegraph Travel shines a light on its own doorstep to find out.
1. Having a pint in an historic pub
London’s old pubs are some of the most beautiful buildings in the city and many have literary connections, having been frequented by the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and Samuel Johnson. They’re also magnets for thirsty hacks, who are never short of good pub recommendations…
2. Watching fringe theatre
London’s West End is world-renowned, but the city is also home to a number of fringe theatres, which put on leftfield productions across the city. Check the listings at Southwark Playhouse, Donmar, Menier Chocolate Factor, Union Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre, which are some of the best.
3. Visiting weird museums
Rather than jostling for space in bustling institutions like the Tate, Londoners get their culture fix in some of the city’s more unusual and less-crowded museums. One of our favourites is Dennis Severs’ House, where visitors transcend the decades as they negotiate 10 authentically attired Georgian and Victorian rooms, seemingly moments after its residents, a family of Huguenot silk weaves, have left the building.
4. Strolling around Nunhead Cemetery
Perhaps it’s the panoramic views across London or the eerie romance of its crumbling crypt. Maybe it’s the bountiful flora and fauna that finds life in this place of death. Whatever it is, this leafy graveyard in south-east London is one of our favourite open spaces.
5. Catching a gig at Wilton’s Music Hall
Wilton’s is the oldest music hall in the world and its crumbling interior beautifully evokes an otherwise vanished past. Intimate concerts occasionally take place on the premises, but you can also take tours of the venue or prop up the bar for a drink.
6. Drinking in rooftop bars
As London’s buildings get ever loftier, drinkers are discovering a new appreciation for the city’s burgeoning collection of rooftop bars. Here are some of the best…
7. Stomping around Soho
Soho isn’t the louche artists’ retreat that it once was, but it is still the beating heart of London. Its pubs, theatres, restaurants, guitar shops and independent boutiques are all part of the rich tapestry of everyday life in this lively district where David Bowie used to hang out.
8. Swimming in outdoor pools
From Hampstead Ponds to Brockwell Lido, London has a fine collection of outdoor swimming pools, most of which are open all year.
9. Grazing at Maltby Street Market
You could spend your Saturday weaving through throngs of foodies in Borough Market, or you could visit Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey, which serves up similar gastronomic delights minus the crowds. The market embodies all that is good about contemporary food in London (well-sourced meat and vegetables prepared with sophistication) and welcomes gourmands of all stripes.
10. Cycling around the Olympic Park velodrome
London’s newfound appreciation for Lycra can be witnessed in all its sweaty glory at the Olympic Park, where cyclists compete on the very velodrome that yielded so many gold medals for Team GB.
11. Watching one of Shakespeare’s plays
12. Doing brunch
London is increasingly becoming a city that likes to brunch and a number of London restaurants are now offering innovative and intriguing brunch menus. Here are some of the best ones…
13. Nosing around National Trust properties
From Tudor manor houses to neo-classical mansions, the National Trust owns some of the oldest and most unusual properties in London and gives visitors the opportunity to have a nose around them.
14. Taking tea
The time-honoured tradition of taking afternoon tea is still alive and well in London – evidently the lure of a loose leaf cuppa and scones smothered in clotted cream are too tantalising for us to resist.
15. Free concerts
There’s an incredible amount of live music to be enjoyed across the city – much of it for free. The South Bank Centre has a packed roster of complimentary concerts throughout the year, while St James’s church in Piccadilly, which was designed by Christopher Wren, offers free lunchtime recitals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
16. Wandering around Whitecross Street Market
One of the oldest markets in London, this Islington institution serves up a smorgasbord of street food, as well as jewellery and clothing stalls. It’s decidedly un-touristy but only open during the week.
17. Gambolling around Greenwich
Breathe in the maritime history of Greenwich, which is home to impressive museums (the Royal Observatory, Cutty Sark, National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House art gallery) as well as leafy parks, old pubs and excellent river walks.
18. Visiting free museums after hours
London is blessed with world-class museums – the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the British Museum to name a few – and most of them are free. What’s more, many museums in London are open late at least once a month for those who can’t hack the crowds at the weekend. Some occasionally offer sleepovers.
19. Walking the Thames Path
Not all of it, obviously, because it’s 184 miles long. However, some of the most scenic stretches in London can be found in Richmond, Putney and Southbank.
20. Relaxing in parks
London is the greenest city in Europe with 35,000 acres given over to public parks, woodlands and gardens. While Hyde Park, Richmond Park and Hampstead Heath are perennially popular, there are many other green spaces that Londoners like to kick back in, including Peckham Rye Park, Dulwich Park, Beckton District Park and Hackney Downs.
21. Watching a fight at York Hall
One of Britain’s best-known boxing venues, York Hall opened in 1929 and still offers ringside seats to fights today having been saved from closure in 2007.
22. Feeling zen at Holland Park
Kyoto garden in Holland Park is a beautiful place to escape the madness of London. The Japanese garden is home to a mini waterfall, a koi carp pond and an ostentation of peacocks, which strut around adding to the ambiance.
23. Taking refuge in Highgate Cemetery
Karl Marx, George Eliot and Beryl Bainbridge are among those interned at the Victorian, Grade I-listed Highgate Cemetery. A perhaps unexpectedly popular tourist attraction, the ivy-clad East Cemetery is an intriguing, beautiful resting place; the West Cemetery can be visited as part of an hour-long guided tour.
24. Raising a mug to London’s lost coffee houses
Drinking coffee is a time-honoured tradition in London that dates back to 1652. Alas, the city’s ancient coffee houses are no more, but you can still drink in the history at Jamaica Wine House in Cornhill, which is now a pub but lays claim to being the first coffee house in the city.
25. Taking the Number 15 bus
This slice of history still splutters through the city (Towel Hill to Trafalgar Square) as it did when the Routemaster was first introduced to London’s streets in 1956. It’s the only heritage service still running and brings a bit of joy to the daily commute.
26. Or the Thames Clipper
Easily the best (and possibly the quickest) way to get around London, Thames Clipper services ply the waters between Putney in the west and Woolwich in the east, though the best section of the journey is when it passes beneath Tower Bridge.
27. Admiring the blooms at Colombia Road Flower Market
Open every Sunday, this market has been popular with flower-loving Londoners since it opened in 1869. It gets very busy, but it’s worth enduring the crowds to catch sight of the magnificent blooms being sold at its stalls.
28. Pints and pétanque in Cleaver Square
Clever Square in Kennington is home to the London Pétanque Club, which welcomes competitors of any age and ability. Players spill out from nearby pubs to compete every Wednesday evening during the summer and the first Saturday of every month during the winter.
29. Watching cricket at Lord’s
The spiritual home of cricket, Lord’s was founded in 1814 and lays claim to one of the world’s oldest sporting museums.
30. Climbing the bell tower in Westminster Cathedral
Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral is an often overlooked attraction and it is all the more attractive for it. The distinctive Byzantine-style building’s 83-metre bell tower can be climbed – come here for impressive views of the city and, hopefully, a few moments’ solitude.
31. Rowing through London’s parks
Throughout the summer, the boating lakes at many of London’s parks open to the public. The biggest and best-known is the Serpentine lake at Hyde Park, but alternative locations are found at Regent’s Park, Alexandra Park and Greenwich Park.
32. Uncovering layers of hidden history
Modern-day visitors are often ignorant of the trail of buried rivers that surge beneath the city’s surface – did you know a river runs directly beneath Buckingham Palace? Our feature on these secret conduits reveals the surprising ways they’ve shaped the city and where you can see them today; read it to understand how Peckham Rye got its name, and why The Oval is oval.
33. Shopping for umbrellas
Moments from the homogenous stretch of high-street shops found on Oxford Street, James Smith & Sons is Europe’s oldest umbrella shop. Handsome and refined, it can also be a surprisingly affordable spot to pick up a brolly.
34. Bargain hunting at boot sales
Plenty of Londoners would be surprised by the amount of car boot sales held throughout the capital, but with money a concern for many they remain popular. Opening days and times can vary, but one of the best online directories for London car boot sales can be found here.
35. Venting at Speakers’ Corner
Inspiring orators and irked Londoners can vent at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park every Sunday and anyone is free to join them – since 1872 it’s been permissible to speak about whatever you wish here, as long as you avoid obscene language.
36. Getting a black cab (then moaning about it)
Are London’s cabs the world’s most expensive? Maybe, but who else will taxi you, a buggy, two small children and a Labrador around London, while giving a political lecture?
37. Listening to the Proms
An eight-week classical music extravaganza, the BBC Proms takes place every summer at the Royal Albert Hall and other venues across the city. A regular fixture since 1895, its packed programme features more than 100 concerts.
38. Walking along the treetops at Kew Gardens
Rising 18 metres above the ground, the Xstrata Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens gives naturalists the opportunity to examine soaring lime, chestnut and oak trees up close, as well as providing impressive views of the Gardens’ sprawling grounds.
39. Bypassing Brick Lane’s curry houses
Continued problems with touts and variable quality levels mean going for a curry on Brick Lane isn’t always as pleasant and experience as you’d expect it to be. A worthy alternative is Tayyabs on Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel, a 15-minute walk away. The queues attest to its popularity.
40. Shopping for second-hand books
The bookshop barge Word on the Water is – as you’d probably expect – London’s only floating second-hand bookshop. Generally for two weeks at a time, it moors in Camden Lock, Angel, Hackney and Paddington, and offers music performances and poetry slams in addition to the books on sale.
41. Bagging bargains at Frank G Bowen’s auction house
Frank G Bowen auction house in Leytonstone is where the police auction off recovered goods whose owners they were unable to trace. The distance from the city centre and variability of the stock means crowds are usually manageable and there are often excellent deals to be had – £10 bikes, for example, aren’t to be sniffed at.
42. Splurging in expensive emporiums
Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason are renowned the world over for their high-quality produce, extravagant displays and hefty price tags. They’re also guilty pleasures for lavish Londoners.
43. Bargain hunting in charity shops
For more restrained spending requirements, London’s charity shops can offer bargains galore – if you know where to look. Our guide to the best charity shops in the city sets you on the right path.
44. Eating what we’re given
London’s restaurant scene offers almost everything you could possibly wish for, so the latest development is a surprising reversal of that. An increasing number of eateries now offer extremely limited menus, concentrating on perhaps just one or two dishes that are done exceptionally well. Read our recommendations here.
Leaving London seems to be one of our favourite pastimes and that’s made easy by the Eurostar, which can whisk you from St Pancras to Paris in about the time it takes to ride the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to Cockfosters.