Beyond the Tourist Traps in London

Most visitors to London just stick to the West End and well-known attractions, and whilst these are all worth seeing, some of them are vastly overrated and there is so much more to London.


Beyond the Tourist Traps in London

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

Nightlife - stylish bars, traditional pubs, and clubs playing every type of music you would want

Museums and galleries - the main collections at the big museums and galleries are free. There are also lots of smaller galleries outside central London that are worth exploring.

Theatre - yes, do visit the West End's Theatreland and see a big name musical, but there is so much more to London's theatre. The National Theatre on the Southbank always has something worth seeing, and there are many other smaller theatres doing exciting work. ${QuickSuggestions} ${BestWay} Public transport can be unreliable, but the Tube is still the easiest way to get around, as it is simple to navigate. Just allow a bit more time for the likely delays.

In central London, many places are actually fairly close together, so you can walk between them. In particular, note that Marble Arch, Bond Street, Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road tube stations are all in a straight line along Oxford Street, so it is often quicker to walk than use the Tube, which many tourists don't seem to realise.

The Tube does stop fairly early, around midnight. Black cabs are difficult to come across late at night and expensive. There are many unlicensed mini cabs, which have no meter, and you have to agree a price with the driver in advance. These are not recommended, as they are unregulated, prone to changing their mind about the price, and often expect you to know the route, as they don't. Night buses are a safer and cheaper alternative, but they can take a long time, are infrequent to some areas, and are usually crowded with drunken people.

Food for Thought

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

This is a very popular little cafe that serves vegetarian food, although it isn't all necessarily healthy and worthy!

Its menu changes daily, but they always offer three hot main course options for lunch and an additional dish for dinner, four types of salad, a quiche, a soup, two types of bread, fruit salad, and various sweet things, including their speciality, the Scrunch, which is a sweet concoction that is far from healthy.

You can eat in or takeaway. Queue up on the ground floor for takeaway or go downstairs to the small seating area. There are menus posted outside, and it’s advisable to make your choice from these before going in if you are having the takeaway option, as the queue moves quickly and most people are on their lunch breaks so in a hurry. If the weather is good, it’s a great place to get some food to take away to eat in Covent Garden piazza or a park.

The staff can sometimes be a bit surly, but are all knowledgeable about what is in each dish, so can answer any questions you have.

One of their special offers is a mixed salad and quiche, and each of these dishes is enough for a meal in itself and far too much just for lunch. The stir-fried vegetables and rice option is always on the menu, but it’s rather bland. Go for something more adventurous instead. The other main courses are usually things like curries, bakes, and stews, but often with an international twist. Mains cost around £4, which is pretty good value for this part of London.
Food For Thought
31 Neal Street
London, England, WC2H 9PR
+44 20 7836 0239

Oxo Tower Restaurant

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

I had possibly one of the worst meals I have ever had here. Don't believe the hype about this restaurant, although actually that may have past now, as I have seen it mentioned in a list of London's most overrated restaurants.

The restaurant is at the top of the Oxo Tower, so it has wonderful views of London, but that is only if you are fortunate enough to get a table by the window. It has a fairly big dining room, so lots of tables aren't by the window, so you have no view and could be anywhere.

The staff was snooty and incompetent. Our waitress had great trouble serving the bread rolls. The atmosphere was awful. Everyone was very quiet, as if it was a library rather than a restaurant, which made us feel uncomfortable.

But these would be mere trifles if the food had been any good, but, as it was, it was terrible. I don't remember exactly what we had, mainly because it all tasted the same. Everything had been drowned in butter, starters and mains. This made it all far too rich and left us both feeling quite sick. We felt so bad that we didn't bother with dessert.
Oxo Tower Restaurant
Oxo Tower Wharf
London, England, SE1 9PH
+44 20 7803 3888

Hamburger Union

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

London is turning its collective nose up at traditional fast-food chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc., but it seems that we can't get enough of gourmet burger restaurants, as they are springing up around the capital.

This is one of the better ones and in handy central locations. The system is that you order your food at the counter when you first go in and they give you a numbered stick that you put in the holder on whichever table you pick to sit at. Then, about 10 minutes later, a waiter brings the food to your table.

The food, as the name suggests, is mainly burgers, but they do have about three choices for vegetarians. I can wholeheartedly recommend the grilled haloumi (Greek cheese), which is served with beetroot and salad. All the burgers come in delicious sourdough buns and are substantial enough to be a meal on their own, but you can also order fries (perhaps it’s best to share between two people). Cheese costs extra, and even more if you want real cheese rather than those plastic-like slices. A good selection of condiments are provided on the tables if you need anything extra on our food.

Drinks are pretty standard: a couple of bottled continental lagers, a wine or two, soft drinks, and juices.

The price is quite expensive if you compare it to fast food, but it is really on a different level, so it would be fairer to compare with pub lunches, in which case it starts to look like good value. I certainly didn't feel hungry for hours afterwards.
Hamburger Union
22-25 Dean St.
London, England, W1D 3RY
020 7437 6004

London International Gallery of Children's Art

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

The only gallery in London that is dedicated to showing art produced by children, this delightful little place makes a great afternoon out for families.

Tucked away on the top floor of the O2 shopping centre on Finchley Road (just four stops on the Jubilee line from Bond Street), as its name suggests, the gallery shows art made by children from around the world. It has a changing programme of exhibitions, each exhibition usually being from one place on a particular theme. The exhibitions can vary from the thought-provoking (e.g. art therapy work from children affected by the Chernobel disaster, photography by street children in Ecuador) to the educational (e.g. depictions of traditional Nepalese life, wildlife in Costa Rica) to the light-hearted (e.g. days out on the train in Italy).

The work shown here is of a very high standard, so forget ideas of children's art being all stick figures and square houses.

It is a small, one-room space, so it doesn't take long to look around the exhibition, but art materials and worksheets inspired by the exhibition are provided for visiting children and admission is free, so it’s a great way to fill an afternoon without spending a fortune.

The O2 Centre has a six-screen cinema and plenty of restaurants, so you could combine your visit to the gallery with other activities to make it worth the journey.
The London International Gallery of Children's Art
O2 Centre
London, England, NW3 6LU
020 7435 0903

Heavenly Social

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

Heavenly Records were a key part of the ‘90s dance scene, being home to melodic dance stalwarts St Etienne and releasing Flowered Up's anthem “Weekender,” but it was through the now-legendary Heavenly Social club night that they really made an impact. The Chemical Brothers (or Dust Brothers, as they were then), Richard Fearless, Jon Carter, Beth Orton, and Dot Allison all attended their first parties. Then it moved to Turnmills, where they continued for years (a name change to Heavenly Jukebox around 1998).

The Social Bar was opened to carry on in the spirit of the label: eclectic music and relaxed atmosphere, and presumably somewhere a bit calmer, as the main players in this scene are older and wiser and looking for something a bit less full on than the old club nights. As clubbing in London has changed in recent years (not for the better), and we are also getting older, we welcomed this bar, and at first it was brilliant.

It is a small venue set out on two floors. The upstairs bar area is quiet and houses the jukebox, reportedly the best in London. Downstairs is noisier and has the small stage area where the bands play and the DJ booth. There are various sized tables, but never enough, and usually lots of people are standing. The drink prices are about average for central London. They also serve food that they describe as comfort food: cheese on toast, beans on toast, fish finger sandwiches, twiglets, etc., which is good, unpretentious stuff, but rather expensive for what it is. They do cocktails as well, but I've never had one nor seen anyone else order one. It’s not really a cocktail kind of place, with more pints of lager or the occasional white wine type venue.

The music as policy remains brilliant (dub, electronica, 'baggy', ska, northern soul, live bands), but its location, north of Oxford Street, has meant that it has now been infiltrated by crowds of office workers who aren't interested in the music and just want somewhere convenient to drink.
Social
5 Little Portland St
London, England, W1N 5AG
+44 20 7434 0620

Photographers' Gallery

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

The Photographers’ Gallery is London's foremost gallery devoted to photography, but it is a rather unassuming looking place that is easy to walk past. It is actually spread over two separate buildings, both pretty small and a couple of doors away from each other, at nos. 5 and 8 Great Newport St.

Usually there is a different exhibition in each building, and often the exhibitions focus on the work of one photographer, although occasionally there will be mixed exhibitions on a particular theme. The exhibition space in no. 8 is larger, and this is also home to the bookshop. The bookshop is not like the typical gallery gift shop, but a proper specialist outlet for photography books and magazines, so don't expect any souvenirs.

The other building has a smaller exhibition space on the ground floor, which is combined with the gallery café. Seating for the cafe is on long wooden benches in the centre of the room and is a quiet pleasant place to have a coffee and enjoy the photographs. Upstairs is the print sale exhibition.

Overall, you could see the whole gallery in 30 minutes, but it is very close to the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery and Covent Garden, so it’s definitely worth making a little time for it during trips to other galleries, the theatre, or the shops.
Photographers' Gallery
5 & 8 Great Newport Street
London, England, WC2H 7HY
+44 20 7831 1772

Overrated: Covent Garden Piazza & Market

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

Everyone visits Covent Garden when they come to London. I'm not really sure why. There are some nice little shops and a market selling art, crafts, jewellery, etc., but really most of this stuff can be bought elsewhere. The prices are hugely inflated because it is mainly tourists who shop here, but they don't realise that it is overpriced. The shops on and around Neal Street are much better.

There is also the dubious attraction of street entertainers: mime artists, magicians, and, most famously, the living statues. For anyone lucky enough not to have encountered one of these, they are people in various costumes, painted head to toe in one colour, that stand very still so you think they are a statue and then move suddenly to “surprise” you. Dreadful!

The food places in the piazza are pricey and nothing special. The most famous pub here is the Punch & Judy, which again seems to be compulsory for all visitors. I went here a few times when I first moved to London, as it was a good meeting point with other friends who were new to the city before we knew any better. I had the misfortune to return here again in daylight recently, and it wasn't pretty. It is decidedly shabby and the clientele left a lot to be desired. Its attraction is the balcony overlooking the piazza, from which you can people-watch or watch the street entertainers while having a drink. Avoid this place - there are much better pubs nearby (all of them, in fact).

Covent Garden is near a lot of other attractions, theatres, galleries, shops, etc., but it isn't worth making a special trip to and the cobblestone is no good if you are wearing heels!
Covent Garden
Covent Garden
London, England, WC2
+44 20 7836 9136

Soho Bar

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by justinef on September 23, 2005

Soho Bar prides itself on being the only non-members club in Soho with a late license, which means that anyone can just come in to have a drink up until 3am. However, if you go in after 10pm (or 9pm on a Saturday), you will have to pay.

The best time to go here is between 5 and 7pm, because every day at this time it is happy hour. The best offers in happy hour are undoubtedly the half-price wine and reduced-price champagne cocktails (£3.95). Other cocktails and martinis are pretty good value too at £2.85. There does tend to be lots of people at the bar at 6:45pm, panic-buying before the prices go back up, and although it might make you look a bit mean, the bar staff don't seem to mind you stocking up. Once this promotional period finishes, you can expect to pay between £5 and £7 for the cocktails, which isn't too bad for Soho.

I have sampled quite a few of the cocktails on the menu here (not all in one night, though). Here is what I can remember of them:
Strawberry Capirinha - wonderful mixture of Brazilian spirit cachaca with strawberry liqueur and loads of fresh strawberries
Melon Rouge (involves something melon-flavoured and rum) - not so nice - I mainly ordered it because I liked its name being a pun.
Apple Smith - a near lethal mixture of Absinthe, apple schnapps, and apple juice that actually tastes a lot nicer than it sounds, which is perhaps dangerous, because it’s very potent.
Schnampagne - brilliantly-named, this is a simple combination of various flavours of schnapps and champagne. I've had the butterscotch and raspberry flavours, and both were excellent.

The music played here always seems to be pretty funky, and although it can get busy on a Saturday, it still has a good atmosphere. The bar is in a basement, which means little mobile-phone reception, so it can be difficult to coordinate meeting up with friends. There is a Bar Soho, which, the last time I went here, half our group went to first by mistake. There is a small dance floor, and the seating is arranged in various sized booths and alcove rooms. There is a lovely one with what looks like padded walls! These can be can be booked in advance, which is recommended on a weekend or if you have a large group.
The Soho Bar
12-13 Greek St.
London, England, W1D 4DJ
020 7025 7844

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