Breaking the ice with London

Do you ever have that feeling when you’re at a party, and there’s someone there that you want to meet, but you’re too intimidated to just put yourself out there? Wishing you had a friend in common to give an introduction to break the ice?

Well, if the party is Europe and you’re staring down London from across the room -- I’ve unwittingly become that friend in common to give an introduction to get things started.  I got my own introduction with a two-week college course on theater and since then I’ve had the pleasure of introducing the city to many of my friends and family (starting with my husband -- London was our first European vacation as a married couple).

Now, I’d like to give you an idea of how to look London in the eye and say “How you doin’?” by way of recounting my most recent London introduction: to my brother, David.  One never knows where he is bound to show up, and so it should come as no surprise that somehow it worked out in our last few months in Europe that David’s business trip to London aligned perfectly with one of Michael’s work trips there. It was David’s first time in London, and he had an afternoon between business meetings to spend with me in England’s capital.

Here’s an overview of the 1-day plan to see the heart of London, following the steps David and I took together. I’ve thrown in some additional options as well if you are looking for a longer, more packed day. This tour starts on the eastern side of London and makes its way westward:

  • Tower of London [optional if you get an earlier start to your day]
    • get there for the 9am opening (10am on Sundays and Mondays) and allow for 2 hours minimum
  • Borough Market for lunch
  • Walk from Borough Market to St. Paul’s Cathedral
    • pass by the Globe Theater
    • pass by Tate Modern museum (with more time, check out this free modern art museum)
    • Cross Millennium Bridge and walk to St Paul’s Cathedral - with more time, can pay to visit inside the church and even climb to the top of dome
  • Bus to Trafalgar Square
    • with more time, check out the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery, both free admission
  • Pub stop at the Harp
  • Walk to Big Ben / Parliament
    • With more time, can tour the Parliament 
  • Stop by Westminster Abbey, with more time see inside
  • Walk through St. James Park
  • See outside of Buckingham Palace
  • Dinner and craft beer stop at Cask Pub & Kitchen - [an optional, but highly recommended, ending to the day - a Simply Sara fav]

Back to my 6.5 hours with David - here’s how it all unfolded!

As I started pointing out London landmarks like the Shard, I started realizing just all the quirky nicknames that the English call their buildings by. The "cheesegrater," the "walkie talkie" - so many funny gems line the skyline! 

We met up in near Victoria. To start off the day, we took the Tube’s District Line eastward and got off near the London Bridge. You might have guessed that our first stop was food-related given my previous introduction to my little foodie of a brother. In our defense, it was about lunchtime by the time we popped out of the Tube! And although it is a bit touristy, there was no place I wanted to take D more than Borough Market to get the day started.

Walking along the Thames is an essential thing to do in London. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Tower Bridge while at the river!

Although there were clearly a bunch of people at the market, if you’re familiar with the crowds Borough Market pulls in, you know this is nothing. We were there at the beginning of the week - Mondays and Tuesdays are open for lunch, but the full market with all the vendors comes later in the week. It makes for a less crowded experience - we were easily able to find seats each time we had food in hand.

We had to make up for our late start, so we remedied not being able to share breakfast together by amending the situation with a doughnut stop. David had heard from some locals that Bread Ahead is a must, so our first purchase was here for a sweet treat (and we agree - try something here, it all looks fabulous!). 

Next up was lunch. We tried a beef sandwich and an Indian dish, splitting both for maximum coverage of tastes at the market. I’m being vague about them, because they were easily forgettable and nothing worth writing home about. The other shining star of the market, and what I deemed that day to be my most favorite lunch stand in the entire Borough Market, was this one:

Pieminster. They are a small chain, making British savory pies. I had first tasted one of their pies in Bristol, and had been raving about it for a few months. Seeing their stand in London, I knew we had to add them to our lunch list. We both voted it one of the best choices of the day (Bread Ahead as the other). The Moo Pie was just as delicious as it sounds, featuring British beef and ale from Brewdog (sound familiar? Another of my favorites!). Trust me, I’ve done enough eating at this market to say that this is the stand to purchase lunch from, with the gravy and crisp shallots add-ons as a must, and mashed potatoes if it’s your only lunch at the market.

Crossing over the Millennium Bridge, which connects the new Tate Modern (behind me in this shot) and the old St. Paul's Cathedral

The best thing to do after a meal of those proportions is to walk. And there’s really no better way to see London, given that the weather cooperates. We did the classic walk along the Thames because really, what says London more than these views?! We passed by Shakespeare’s Globe theater and the Tate Modern museum. As we got to the the Millennium Bridge, we crossed over the Thames and walked up to peek at St. Paul’s Cathedral before catching a bus to take us the rest of the way.

Next up on the highlights of London one day extravaganza tour was Trafalgar Square. For those who love art, the National Gallery right here is a fantastic (and free!) museum to check out. (The National Portrait Gallery is also close by and free, as another museum option.) David isn’t much of a museum enthusiast so we we saw the famous square, gave David a first glimpse at Big Ben in the distance, and headed to a spot that was more his speed - a classic English pub!

Above: Our brother-sister photos at Trafalgar Square. Can you see some family resemblance? I never was a mean sister who tried to get my younger brother to believe he was adopted, but I can always start...

Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in the distance // Yes, I know that Big Ben is the name of the actual bell and not the entire tower (which is the Elizabeth Tower) but who really calls it by its proper name?

We went to the Harp, which has become one of my favorite pubs in London. It’s close by to Trafalgar Square, a high traffic area. Yet it’s on a quieter street, and when you step in, it feels local and quaint despite its central location. There’s a good selection of beers to choose from, and a friendly staff is there to offer guidance. I love the crowd of people there - you’ll find yourself in the company of many older English gents as well as younger people popping by after work. On nice days, the big windows open up in front, giving a brighter feel than the typical dark pubs. It’s my new go-to in central London.

Above left: Getting close up with Benjamin // Above right: You know you have to get this photo opp if it's your first time in London! And you know as the older sister, it's my duty to post this for you all to see (but I'll be nice and let you know he really didn't want to get into that telephone booth!).

After our pub break, we walked over to see Benjamin as well as the rest of the intricate Parliament building. Westminster Abbey is right there as well, so while we didn’t have time to go inside, David at least got to see the exterior.

Don't get so caught up looking at Big Ben that you miss the rest of the building! England's Parliament is such a delicate looking monument. If you have time, you can even go on a guided tour to get inside and learn more.

Last item of the day was a visit to the Queen. We crossed through St. James Park for a picturesque approach as we headed to Buckingham Palace. With that crossed off the list and labeled as "accomplished", I think we hit the main highlights that one might want to see in a day (at least as much as we could do at a reasonable pace).

With that, we stopped for one more pint before David had to jet off to a work affair. It was a wonderful day to share with my brother in London that couldn’t have worked out better!

Pub time at the Harp - I have my limits of embarrassing my little bro, so please excuse the lower quality phone camera shot - I wasn't going to bring out the big guns for this photo :-)

You can be sure this is my top suggested way to see the city in a day, as it’s what I did with one of my closest friends!

Now that we’ve gotten the introductions out of the way, how are you going to spend the rest of your time with London?