Travel

Think Outside the Buckingham Box With This London Itinerary

It's much more than fish and chips.

Sylvain Sonnet/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Sylvain Sonnet/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Sylvain Sonnet/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Like New York City or Disney World, London is a destination so major, so epic, and so iconic that it can be downright daunting to distil it down to a few paragraphs, especially when the London bucket list is a mile long. As the most visited city in Europe, and one ingrained in global culture from every vantage point-the food, the fashion, the museums, the theatre, the London-set films, etc.-this is a metropolis that can be all too easily overwhelmed by its big-ticket attractions and quintessential sights. Because at the end of the day, whether visiting London for the first time or the 15th, with a city of this scope, it’s tempting just to curl into the fetal position and stick with what you know-or, rather, what you’ve seen in a Disney movie or a Sherlock Holmes iteration.

Sure, sights like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey are all as worthy of an international bucket list as the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids, but there’s so much more to see, do, and eat in this immense global hub. By all means, snap your palatial selfies and ride a double-decker bus; buy a wizarding wand at Platform 9¾, and go on a fish & chips-fueled pub crawl; line up for last-minute tickets to Les Miserables; and spend way too much money at Harrods.

But don’t be intimidated to venture off the well-trod path and discover the many sides of London, all of which are backdropped by industrial age brick buildings, white mansion-like row houses, homey pubs on every corner, and plants tumbling off windowsills of tree-lined streets. As busy and bustling a metropolis as London is, it’s an old and pretty city, no matter which alley you look down.

Whether modern and glossy-new or an under-the-radar classic, these are some of the shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and sights you should check out in London to discover a new side of one of the world’s most iconic cities.

I Wei Huang/Shutterstock
I Wei Huang/Shutterstock
I Wei Huang/Shutterstock

Visit the requisite sights for first-timers

When it comes to touristy big-city fanfare, you can do a lot worse than giant clock towers and literal palaces. Like the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, and the Space Needle in the US, London has its fill of world-famous bucket list hits. While you might not visit these swarming tourist magnets on every London trip, they definitely merit a stop for first-timers. After all, Big Ben looks even bigger in real life than it does in Peter Pan.

For any inaugural trip to London, start with a walking tour through Westminster. Begin by Westminster Bridge and make your way to the base of Big Ben-the 16-story Gothic clock tower is closed to visitors and under a years-long refurbishment, but the gilded monolith is definitely ripe for gawking (and selfies). A couple blocks away is Westminster Abbey, a Notre Dame-sized cathedral that’s been crowning royalty for more than a millennium. The Abbey is open most days for verger-guided or self-guided tours, but keep in mind it closes for special ceremonies, so check ahead that you’re not crashing a royal wedding.

From here, head towards Buckingham Palace (passing the Winston Churchill statue on the way) via The Mall. The gorgeous, tree-lined route goes directly through swan-filled St. James Park, culminating with an elaborate marble and bronze monument. Behind is Buckingham Palace, a vast royal residence literally fit for a Queen-the ornate palace is so large, at 828,000-square-feet, it makes the White House (a measly 55,000-sq.-ft.) look like an NYC studio apartment. While most visitors simply stand outside the gates and marvel from afar or watch the famous Changing of the Guard, tickets to enter and tour parts of the palace are available in the months when the Queen is OOO (i.e. she’s at her summer residence in Scotland), July 22-October 2.

George W Johnson/Moment/Getty Images
George W Johnson/Moment/Getty Images
George W Johnson/Moment/Getty Images

Just northwest of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park is the largest-and most famed-of London’s Royal Parks. What Central Park is to Manhattan, Hyde Park is to London, featuring 350 acres of lush greenery, shimmering waterways, fountains, rose gardens, and memorials, including the sombre yet serene Diana Memorial Fountain. Simply strolling through is a lovely way to experience it, but the park also hosts periodic events, Serpentine Bar & Kitchen serves wood-fired pizza on the shores of Serpentine lake, and sporting options include football fields, tennis courts, and horseback riding.

On the south bank of the River Thames, you can test your fear of heights at the London Eye-at 443 feet, it’s the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe, with each massive pod large enough to hold 25 people. If you need a little liquid courage, reserve a spot in the Jubilee Pub Pod, specially decked-out for the Queen’s Jubilee with regal seating, flowers, and spritzy cocktails. In case this isn’t adrenaline-pumping enough, you can get even higher at The Shard, a pointy skyscraper that rises 72 stories and 1,016 feet on the south bank. It’s the tallest building in the UK, with mile-long views from galleries on floors 68, 69, and 72. There are also several bars and restaurants in the jagged tower, including modern British spot Aqua Shard and cocktails with a staggering view from GŎNG on the 52nd floor.

For something closer to Earth, visit nearby Shakespeare’s Globe. William Shakespeare’s most seminal works-like Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet-were performed in a round, timber-clad theatre that put actors on a stage surrounded by 3,000 spectators. While the Globe Theater was built in 1599, it burned down in 1613, and has since been re-built to approximate the original, but with less flammable materials and fewer seats to adhere to fire code. Located near the original site, with a roofless open-air stage in the central yard, the Globe 2.0 is still the best place in the world to see productions like Henry VIII, King Lear, and The Tempest.

Diliana Nikolova/Shutterstock
Diliana Nikolova/Shutterstock
Diliana Nikolova/Shutterstock

Hit up the museum musts

Beyond the big, splashy towers and palaces, London’s world-class museums are the perfect middle ground between tourist attractions and cultural keystones-and most are free. There truly are so many utterly fantastic museums in London, from the National Gallery to the Imperial War Museum, and even modern white cube galleries, so you’ll have to plan out your choices wisely.

One can’t-miss is the British Museum, a temple to art and culture that’s so vast it dwarfs even Buckingham Palace at 990,000-square-feet. Snag a map (you’ll need one) and mosey through exhibitions depicting the past 2 million years, including Roman gladiators, Stonehenge, Egyptian mummies, Hindu goddesses, and even the Rosetta Stone. Then savour the culinary arts at Great Court Restaurant for afternoon tea, butter scones, and Yorkshire rhubarb tarts.

FenlioQ/Shutterstock
FenlioQ/Shutterstock
FenlioQ/Shutterstock

If you like wandering into old rooms fully reconstructed from a different era, you’ll want to see the Victoria & Albert Museum, aka the V&A. You’ll also find royal jewels here, as well as gowns, the intersection of art and fashion, hallways of stained glass windows, and enormous rooms packed with columns and sculptures, for 360 degrees of wandering in a world of 3D art. It’s also right next door the Natural History Museum, where you can see colossal elephant skulls and dinosaur bones in a magical, cathedral-like setting.

For fantastic contemporary art, the Tate Modern sits in an industrial warehouse building and always manages to intrigue with light shows, audio visual displays, and generally boundary-pushing art. The museum is free for the majority of art, like Picasso and Surrealism to Aboriginal art from Australia, though sometimes tickets are required for special exhibits, like for one of Yayoi Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms.

Fitz's bar
Fitz’s bar
Fitz’s bar

Drink somewhere that isn’t a pub

Beyond Buckingham Palace and Shakespearean lore, if there’s one thing London is known for, it’s pubs. This is a drinking town, and for centuries, most of that swilling has taken place at corner pubs typified by polished wood, cozy corners, and pints of bitter British IPAs. As charming as that is, they’re a dime-a-dozen in London, and you won’t have to look hard to check that off your list every single day. Even if you start at the pub, it’s worthwhile to advance onward throughout the night or on different evenings to explore some the more offbeat drinking destinations in a city teeming with singular bars.

On the newer front, Hithe & Seek is a beautiful wine bar overlooking the north bank of the River Thames. The chic spot is basically the antithesis of a pub, swapping sudsy pints for esoteric natural wines, veggie-centric small plates, and plush furniture in date-night-worthy digs. The curated wine list is divvied into two sections: one with more familiar varietals, and the other containing undiscovered novelties like Canadian rosé, Welsh Blanc de Noir, Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc, and Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon. The shareable food menu follows suit with adventurous bites like mackerel tartare with black garlic ketchup, charred baby corn with funky huitlacoche mayo, and buttery burrata with pickled wild strawberries and 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar.

For a sensory cocktail experience, linger at Fitz’s Bar, a glam lounge inside the castle-sized Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel in Bloomsbury. The decadent Gatsby-worthy bar-boasting 18th-century stained glass, ostrich feathers, and a Jazz Age mirrorball-offers inventive rotating themes, with the current list spotlighting cocktails inspired by emotions and colours. The menu is like a drinkable Rorschach test, featuring different pages of distinct colours and patterns designed to connect with customers. You’re given a small blacklight to flash over the pages, above each drink description, which unveils hidden personality traits. For instance, if you order the floral and rosy Bodice Ripper-made with rum, passion fruit, kumquat liqueur, tomato wine, and pomegranate-you’re a passionate romantic. But if you’re ordering something called Bodice Ripper, you probably already knew that.

Yard Bar
Yard Bar
Yard Bar

London is also known as one of the most queer-friendly cities in the world, rife with LGBTQIA-friendly bars from late-night clubs to jovial gay pubs. One of the most unique, though, is The Yard Bar, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it courtyard hidden down an alley in Soho. Bedecked with fountains and Grecian-style statues, the queer-centric space feels more mature than most nearby alternatives, with friendly bartenders shaking up expert espresso martinis.

For craft beer in a non-pub setting, it doesn’t get any more un-pub-like than The Birds, a modern East End tavern that leans into whimsy with Alfred Hitchcock-themed decor, dog shows, and quiz nights. The family-friendly beer bar, equipped with a tented Aviary Garden, even offers vegan riffs on pub staples like banana blossom “fish” and chips, seitan and ale pie, alongside a lineup of rotating beers mostly from nearby Laine Brew Co.

Mallow Restaurant
Mallow Restaurant
Mallow Restaurant

Trade fish & chips for doughnuts, tempeh, and watercress soup

From fish & chips and meaty Sunday roasts to black pudding and shepherd’s pie, London isn’t lacking in timeworn culinary traditions, nor in celebrity chefs, tasting menu temples, and contemporary restaurants shifting the paradigm of English dining traditions. But to limit yourself to a fried slab of haddock and heap of chips would be to miss out on the international culinary capital that London is.

Take Mallow, an entirely plant-based restaurant that serves up dazzlingly inventive, Insta-worthy plates in a boho-chic space. The menu is seasonal and internationally inspired, from labneh with walnut kataifi and leek-cheddar croquettes with black butter ketchup to buttermilk “chicken” sandwiches with cacio e pepe mayo and tempeh pad woon sen with peanut dust.

Just across the river, 14 Hills is a sexy stunner on the 14th floor of Fen Court, decked out like an indoor jungle with tropical plants and pops of pink and turquoise. The intricate dishes are just as vibrant, like harissa-seasoned tuna with lime yogurt, chorizo-crusted pork chops with piperade, and miso-glazed eggplant with pickled shallots. Don’t sleep on the cocktails, either, like the Gentleman’s Club, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon fat-washed with salted butter, maple syrup, barrel-aged oak bitters, infused with spiced smoke, and topped with a chocolate cigar.

14 Hills
14 Hills
14 Hills

Any restaurant called Art|Yard Bar and Kitchen is bound to be aesthetically pleasing, and indeed, this seasonally driven modern British spot traffics in dishes that are as visually appealing as they are delicious. Quieter and more underrated than most contemporary British restaurants in town, this sleeper hit slings walnut hummus crudites, supergrains salads with vegan feta, burrata with Spanish black truffles and honey, and potatoes gussied up with nasturtiums and purple broccoli.

For something sweet, London’s doughnut scene is popping. This is especially true of the fluffy, sugar-dusted and custard-filled varieties. Taste for yourself at Bread Ahead Bakery at Borough Market, where the famed, freshly fried fritters come stuffed with buttery praline, lemon curd, vanilla custard, and sea salt caramel with honeycomb. Then there’s St. John Bakery in Neal’s Yard, owned by the same folks behind arguably one of the most famed and influential restaurants in London, St. John. The tiny bakery and bottle shop features bread and other pastries, but it’s particularly known for its filled-to-order doughnuts-order the velvety chocolate custard and risk having all other doughnuts ruined for you forever.

@bricklanevintage
@bricklanevintage
@bricklanevintage

Hunt for under-the-radar shops

Shops abound beyond mega-destinations like Harrods, the retail-lined stretch of Oxford Street, and the adorable Apple Market in centrally located Covent Garden.

After you’ve gorged on doughnuts at Bread Ahead, amble around the rest of Borough Market, a sprawling outdoor food market that’s been in operation for centuries. Located in Southwark on the south bank of the River Thames, this place is like a farmers’ market on steroids, featuring a dizzying array of vendors, prepared foods, sundries, and samples. It’s the perfect place for a foodie to get lost following the fragrance of risotto, olive oil, seafood, bread, cheese, tacos, and so much more. For Londoners, it’s the dreamiest place to shop for dinner-for the rest of us, it’s like an edible treasure hunt.

If you’re shopping for something to wear, London abounds with vintage wares that are at once vibrantly unique and economical. Soho and Shoreditch are two neighbourhoods particularly populated by thrifty storefronts. In the former, check out shops like Beyond Retro, Reign Vintage, Cow, and Rokit for everything from flame-printed capes and sequined berets to zebra jackets and faux fur shawls. In Shoreditch on the East End, Brick Lane is a prime stretch of vintage shops, street art, and restaurants. Each block boasts another funky storefront, like Brick Lane Vintage, Hunky Dory, Cream Vintage, and Here After.

London is also a great place to be a bookworm. Bibliophiles should spend time at Foyles‘s flagship Charing Cross store. Basically the FAO Schwartz of books, it was once the largest bookstore on Earth, boasting five massive floors filled with enough books to make the Beauty and The Beast library look paltry. There’s also a cafe, stocked with wine and beer, on the top floor.

Southwark Playhouse
Southwark Playhouse
Southwark Playhouse

Finish your visit with fringe theatre

Along with food, museums, and palatial meccas, theatre is another well-known facet of London’s cultural landscape. But while heavy-hitting productions like Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd are all worth the hassle and cost, there are so many other lesser-known performances that are just as epic-at a fraction of the price.

Tucked off the main drag of London’s glowing theatre district is one of the city’s longest running shows: The Mousetrap. An Agatha Christie whodunnit, this fun murder mystery show will keep you giggling and guessing over the course of two hours, as actors shuffle around on a stage set in a wintry B&B. Housed in the historic and impossibly charming St. Martin’s Theatre, it’s an ideal way to spend an afternoon matinee while sipping Prosecco from the on-site bar.

You’ll also find a number of smaller and excellent performances at places like Southwark Playhouse, Finborough Theatre, and The Vaults (located in underground tunnels). In fact, small theatres are almost as abundant as pubs, and a must-experience in London is fringe theatre. You’ll be lucky if you catch one done in the upstairs space above a pub, like Upstairs at the Gatehouse or Theatre503, where guests often sit on cushions in a circle around actors who can easily engage with the audience. Just don’t be late to any shows in London; there’s a strict lock the door policy as soon as the show starts.

The Westin London City (London, UK)
The Westin London City (London, UK)
The Westin London City (London, UK)

Beat the jet lag at this wellness-minded hotel

With travel restrictions dwindling, that means international trips are ramping back up, but that also means jet lag is ramping back up as well. Which is why the wellness-oriented The Westin London City hotel might be your best bet for a trip to London.

The hotel’s all-day restaurant, Mosaic, specifically focuses on healthful dishes and ingredients-like a broccolini-clad quinoa salad and fresh pasta filled with silken pumpkin puree-that naturally help with jet lag. Also, turn-down service involves nightly teapots and nourishing snacks that promote restful sleep, like roasted chickpeas and kiwi-filled fruit salads.

On-staff “run concierges” guide guests on morning jogs along the river, there’s an elegant indoor pool designed like a modern Roman bath house, and the hotel is home to the UK’s first Heavenly Spa. There you can experience unique treatments like the Meridian Flow Golden Facial, wherein gold coated micro-magnetic pearls are part of a gilded facial treatment designed to plump the skin.

Sure, London is home to iconic hotels like Claridges, The Ritz, and The Savoy, but there’s only one place in town willing to slather your face in gold for the sake of your well-being.

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Matt Kirouac is a recent transplant to Oklahoma City after two and a half years of RV living, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple-and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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