As we walked through Green Park and saw the green and white striped deck chairs lined up and ready for London’s sun worshippers, I smiled
We really were in London. For summer.
The expected top of 21 degrees was bound to bring out office workers on their lunch breaks.
Truth be told, the deck chairs (which cost about $3 per hour to hire) were more likely going to be cradling the bottoms of tourists.
Locals don’t need a chair. Just a patch of grass.
It’s the English way. And proves just how relative temperatures can be.
Back home in Queensland, 21 degrees would see us rugging up and declaring a cold winter’s day.
Here, it’s positively balmy. And Londoners do not waste a moment of that sunshine, however fleeting it may be.
It’s my first visit to London in the summer and it’s a very LOOONNGG time between visits full stop.
The last time I was here I was a university student, proudly wearing my white Reebok leather sneakers with my Staggers stonewash denim jeans and white Ken Done koala motif sweatshirt.
What can I say? It was the late ’80s.
My first visit was as a 12-year-old. Our family lived in the UK for five months when my Dad and Step-Mum took long-service leave.
I skipped the beginning of Year 8 for an education in travel. The stuff of life-long memories.
This time we’re creating memories for our almost-10-year-old son. Within a day he had mastered the Underground map and was telling us which stations we needed to change at and which lines would get us to our destination.
I remember doing the same as a 12-year-old.
We arrived 9pm on Sunday evening and have only had two days to absorb as much of the magic as London as we physically can. The arrival time meant we were able to get our sleep patterns on to British time more quickly and we’ve had minimal jetlag.
There’s so much to be said for visiting this city in summer, not just because of the “warmer” temperatures but because you get daylight until 9pm, it’s possible to pack so much more into one day.
And pack we have.
There’s so much we haven’t seen on this trip but the list of things to do in London in summer below has given us a taste of what this city has on offer … and we’ll be back.
13 things to do in London
1. Book a London bus tour. Ok, so this might seem a naff thing to do and we may have felt extremely touristy sitting on top of the bus on the first day, raincoats on and umbrellas up, but if you have limited time, it’s a very good way to get your bearings and a snapshot of the city. We booked the Original London Bus Tour and didn’t complete the full tour but did a fair chunk on day one and then added on a little bit more the next day (our deal included a second day free). It’s not the quickest way to get around thanks to London traffic but it does give you a really good perspective and historical commentary.
2. Trafalgar Square. Our first stop was this iconic landmark. I couldn’t work out where the pigeons had gone. I thought my Ken Done sweatshirt had scared them off back in 1986 but, no, a falcon is now employed as pest control to keep them out of the square.
3. Big Ben. Our eldest son is called Ben and the youngest son was obsessed with getting a photo with his “brother”. From any angle, Ben will always have a commanding presence on the London skyline.
4. Parliament Square and Whitehall. A walk around Parliament Square, past Westminster Abbey, on to Whitehall, and past Downing Street is an exercise in modern and not-so-modern history.
5. Oxford Street. If you’ve got your shopping mojo fully strapped on, this is the street for you. Every “high street” store is there, in flagship proportions, as well as one of London’s iconic department stores, Selfridges.
6. Afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. While the Ritz is most famous for its afternoon tea offering, we didn’t fancy packing a jacket and tie for Mr SY just so we could eat cake and drink tea. A friend said that Fortnum & Mason (just up the street) would be a more relaxed, yet just as ceremonial spot for a cuppa. We weren’t disappointed with our afternoon tea and champagne in The Gallery.
7. The London Eye. This was on my bucket list and so worth the money for a birds-eye view of London. I love that even London’s newer buildings – the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater – add to the traditional and add another layer on to the architectural history of the city. Do get there at opening time (10am) and do pay the extra for a fast-track ticket – especially at peak times and if you’ve got limited time in London. You don’t want to lose a day in a queue.
8. Buckingham Palace. We didn’t plan it but happened to happen along to Buck House just before the changing of the guard. Yes, we are the accidental tourists. This happens every day at 11.30am between May and July. The crowds are massive. I’d say get there early but we did ok by stumbling across it. A London Bobby even had the kids in our area come and sit at the front where they could see the action.
9. The Green Park. This is the park immediately adjacent to Buckingham Palace. I hadn’t thought much of it until discovering its history. A former Queen established the park and developed its flowerbeds back in the day. That was until she saw her husband -Charles II – pick a flower from one of the beds and give it to his mistress. The Queen ordered that all the flowerbeds be removed. And they’ve never been reinstated. Instead in summer you’ll find lush green grass and avenues of trees.
10. Harrods. As a 12-year-old, I remember being in absolute awe of the Harrods food hall. We came from a country town that at that point in time wasn’t even have a major supermarket. I just didn’t know where to look first. This now 40-something may have repeated those same jaw-dropping looks all these years later. Rather than just look, we all chose some food to takeaway and eat in Hyde Park (a 10-minute walk away). I wouldn’t say it saved money on eating out but the experience was priceless.
11. Hyde Park. Hyde Park in summer did not disappoint. Geese and swans competed with paddle boats for territory on the Serpentine. Kids were atop ponies; bikes were there for the hiring. You could spend the entire day enjoying this park. We walked off our picnic lunch by heading to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain – a stunning large, shallow circular water feature.
12. Kensington Palace and gardens. Keep walking across the Ring Road from Hyde Park and you’re into Kensington Gardens and can walk through to the palace. If Wills and Kate were in residence, they didn’t ask us up for a cuppa. Next time. The Orangery next to the palace is a stunning place for high tea. The Princess Diana Memorial Children’s Playground is an ideal place to stop if you’ve got small kids in tow.
13. See a show. Like a visit to New York, a visit to London is not complete without seeing at least one show. We had one night available to us for this and booked to see Bend it Like Beckham – something that appealed to our soccer-mad youngest as well as us. It was all kinds of fabulous – funny, well-cast and recreated the spirit of the original movie.
We bought an Oyster card on our first morning (you can buy ahead and save a bit of money) and topped it up at the local mini-mart. This card will get you on all London public transport without having to worry about buying individual tickets.
Apart from our time on the Original London Bus Tour, we only used the tube for getting around London. Getting anywhere involved no more than one station change. If you can avoid travelling in peak hour times, then it’s a whole lot more comfortable.
Walk as much as you can. This applies in any city. While the tube is great for getting you from A-B in a hurry, you do miss out on a lot by being underground.
Travelling outside London? We booked our tickets ahead via The Trainline.Com – it can save you considerable money doing this in advance.
What to wear
London in summer is definitely all about light layers. As soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud, you’ll be adding on a layer. When it reappears, you’ll be stripping off again.
I’ve found long pants or jeans plus a leather jacket to be the most versatile. On the cooler days I had a long-sleeve tee underneath; on warmer days, a short-sleeve tee.
Footwear needs have comfort as its number one focus as you do a lot of walking. I’ve worn black leather sneakers and sandals by Frankie4 Footwear and have powered through each day.
For more on what to pack, see What to pack for Europe in summer.
Where to stay
There are so many options available to you in terms of accommodation in London. I had considered AirBnB but when I started Googling options, I stumbled across the Hilton Islington. The price was better than city centre counterparts and we could get a room that had a separate lounge with sofa bed for our youngest. Before booking, I did more research into the area and decided that yes, Islington, very much appealed. We haven’t been disappointed.
Think Surry Hills in Sydney; New Farm in Brisbane; Prahran in Melbourne and you’ll get an understanding of this area in London. It’s only one tube stop from King’s Cross train station but it’s a world away from the tourist hot spots.
Cafes, restaurants, pubs and boutiques line the streets, that are also home to every High Street store you’d see in the city centre – but in a less hectic location.
Each afternoon, we’d return home from our tourist trek and sighed as we came out of Angel tube station. Yes, it was still busy (this IS London) but it was a more relaxed busy.
Hilton Islington is a short five-minute stroll to Angel tube station (Northern Line). It has all the services you’d need within a hotel but also all the things you’d like surrounding the hotel in terms of food and shopping choices.
So, it’s your turn. Anyone who’s ever been to London knows my list is but the tip of an iceberg. We simply did not have the time for galleries and museums this time round.
I’d love you to share your “must see and dos” in the comments below to help others who might be planning a trip soon.
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