We’ve all heard of them, but many of us have never visited (or, if we have, it was probably donkeys ago) some of London’s top tourist attractions and landmarks. From historic palaces to much-loved parks, they’re all on our must-visit list. So while one of Europe’s most popular cities is less busy, why not take some time off from your day-to-day routine this autumn and make the most of the peace and quiet by escaping to one of the most famous cities in the world - national treasure, Clare Balding, has.
Clare's top tips on how to escape the everyday in London
Some of the best free views are found at London’s many rooftop bars – plus, you get to wash them down with a drink or two
You can pack in more of London’s iconic sites without the carbon footprint by cycling the city using TFL’s Santander Cycles – there are docking stations across the city meaning you can hop on and off as you please
Get off the beaten track and explore parts of London that aren’t as well known (you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you’ll find)
Clare's London highlight
"I love seeing London from above. A particular favourite is the view from the Aqua terrace bar. Even though it’s right in central London off Regent Street, it’s relatively hidden and you can take your drinks out year-round and watch the world go by.”
Raring to go? Here are nine more ways you can escape the everyday in London.
Step back in time
Visit the 1,000-year-old Tower of London without the usual crowds this autumn. London’s iconic castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the Crown Jewels, legendary Yeoman Warders (also known as Beefeaters) and tons of tumultuous tales. Uncover stories of execution and torture at this former prison (that, more recently, held notorious gangsters The Kray Twins), meet the palace’s guardians, the ravens, and see the impressive armour on display in the White Tower.
Head down to the leafy suburbs of south-west London to explore Hampton Court Palace – former home of Henry VIII – to learn about the day-to-day lives of the Tudor Court. Traipse the kitchens where 200 cooks prepared meals for the household, wander the grand gardens enjoyed by past kings and queens, and stop by The Great Vine (thought to be the oldest and largest grapevine in the world) where, in September, the fruits are harvested and sold to visitors.
A cathedral for Saint Paul has stood in London for more than 1,400 years, but today’s masterpiece was designed by Britain’s most famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Miraculously escaping destruction, it was a symbol of wartime resistance and is now one of the most recognisable sights in the city. Typically teeming with tourists, you can now walk the cathedral floor, admiring the ceilings decorated with mosaics, without the extra hubbub. Descend into the underground Crypt to see the tombs of historic figures, or climb up to the Stone Gallery, 52 metres above the ground, for views of London over the surrounding rooftops.
On the opposite side of the river, you’ll find the tallest building in the UK. Standing at 309.9 metres high and made up of 11,000 glass panels, The Shard is inspired by the spires of London’s churches and the masts of tall ships. Its high-speed lifts carry you up 68 floors to a panoramic viewing platform, where – with fewer people about – you won’t even have to queue for a selfie. If you’re in the mood for food, treat yourself to a glass of bubbly or a meal at one of The Shard’s six swanky bars and restaurants.
Stop by the National Gallery on an autumn break in London. Acting as a backdrop to the thronging Trafalgar Square, the gallery houses over 2,600 paintings spanning the mid-13th century to 1900. Like many museums and galleries in the city, entry to the main exhibitions is free – so you can see works by Monet, Turner, Van Gogh and Cezanne without paying a penny. There are free curated art routes for you to follow, too, taking you through more than 700 years of art history. And with fewer people inside, you’ll have unrestricted views of your favourite pieces.
If moving pictures are more your thing, then make your way down to Leicester Square. Usually full of fanfare and world-famous movie stars, the iconic square is now also home to a film-themed statue trail, filled with some of our all-time favourite film characters from Mr. Bean to Paddington, Mary Poppins to Batman. While you scour the buildings and gardens, why not listen along to the free audio tour, packed with movie clips, trivia, humour and interviews, specially designed with social distancing in mind.
The Natural History Museum not only houses 80 million specimens of exotic animals and plants but, as one of Britain’s most striking examples of Romanesque architecture, is a work of art in itself. Take your time getting to grips with the pre-historic lives of dinosaurs (and even meet a T-Rex), walk unobstructed beneath the skeleton of the largest animal on earth and journey through the middle of a giant metallic globe – without the queues – to learn about earthquakes and volcanoes.
Another of London’s famous institutions is the Imperial War Museum, which lets you see war through the eyes of people who have lived it. Through a collection of war relics, documents and films – from Spitfires suspended from the ceiling to powerful propaganda – you can get a glimpse into the conflicts involving Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth.
Reconnect with nature at the world’s oldest scientific zoo. Catching a glimpse of a giraffe plucking leaves off trees or eagle-eyed meerkats poking their heads out of the sand doesn’t just make for a wholesome day out, but also helps support ZSL London Zoo’s conservation efforts. From Tiger Territory and Gorilla Kingdom, you’ll get to see an abundance of animals from around the world. There are immersive areas too, meaning you can get up close and personal with cheeky monkeys and laidback sloths. Though can you brave the UK’s first-ever walk-through spider exhibit?
The kids will also love SEA LIFE London Aquarium, where you’ll discover the array of aquatic life that inhabits the depths of the planet’s rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. Explore the UK’s largest coral reef, stroke starfish in the rockpool and take an underwater stroll through the Ocean Tunnel. See mythical seahorses, sharks and a colony of Gentoo penguins too. You’ll also get to learn about what the SEA LIFE Trust are doing to help conserve marine life all over the world.
Hidden away in the financial district, above a typical office building, is a lush rooftop garden perfect for indulging in a cocktail from the adjoining restaurant and bar, Coq d’Argent. The terrace offers panoramic views across the City of London, towards the famous Gherkin, Walkie Talkie and Cheese Grater buildings, and the grand pillars of the London Stock Exchange. Accompany your views with a tipple or two, or sit down to some brunch on the partially covered, heated veranda – think escargots, marinated duck breasts and lots of warm, freshly baked bread.
Other viewing platforms include London’s highest public garden, the Sky Garden, on Fenchurch Street. Grab yourself a free timed ticket for entry to lush greenery, landscaped gardens, an observation deck and an open-air terrace. Surround yourself with plants that flourish all year round – like the African Lily and the Bird of Paradise – and cheers to the views with a glass of bubbly from one of the garden’s bars.
With three open-air public swimming ponds, 800 acres of ancient grassy heath and spectacular views of London, a visit to Hampstead Heath is hard to beat. This hilly open space is said to be one of the last remaining ‘lungs of London’ that everyone can enjoy, and when the sun’s out, the park that inspired The Chronicles of Narnia can get pretty busy. But with so much space, it can sometimes feel like you have the place to yourself. Fly your kite on Parliament Hill, have a look around Kenwood House, or simply bring a picnic and while away the afternoon under endless skies.
Down south, overlooking the River Thames, is the 183 acres of Greenwich Park. Standing on the Prime Meridian (home to Greenwich Mean Time) this leafy space is rich with history and nature. Follow in the footsteps of former kings and queens as you explore flower gardens, see wild deer frolicking amongst the long grass and pay a visit to the Royal Observatory, which rises up over the city and has fantastic views of Greenwich, Canary Wharf and beyond.
Stock up on post-lockdown fashion, beauty must-haves and lifestyle goodies in Covent Garden, one of London’s coveted shopping destinations. Birthplace of the Punch and Judy puppet show, this cobbled plaza has everything from Mulberry to MAC, Ladurée to Lacoste, and plenty of places to stop for a bite to eat. The shops even extend out to the narrow streets of Seven Dials, all lined with boutiques, high-street brands and quirky cafés – see if you can find concealed Neals Yard, famous for its colourful facades.
Also in the West End (just out of sight of Oxford Street) is Carnaby Street, lauded as the epicentre of style, and the birthplace of the Swinging 60s. Previously home to Mods, Skinheads and Punks, this retail district has bagged itself a number of one-off boutiques, beauty emporiums and high-end fashion brands over the years. Located around a small collection of pedestrianised streets, Carnaby’s multi-coloured buildings house names like MONKI, Levi’s, Barbour and Birkenstock, as well as the prestigious Liberty’s department store.
Nab yourself a table at the highly sought after sketch, deemed one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city. Dine in mystical forests, sip on tea on plush, pleated chairs and nip to egg-shaped toilet cubicles. If that doesn’t intrigue you, we don’t know what will. Brainchild of restaurateur Mourad Mazouz and chef, Pierre Gagnaire, Michelin-starred Sketch is a hub of four separate restaurants, each with their own exuberant designs. The Gallery is a fuschia fantasy, while The Glade’s carpet portrays a fluffy forest floor. The casual Parlour is an all-day affair, while the Lecture Room serves up an unforgettable seven-course tasting dinner.
For something slightly more traditional, book a table at Rules – the oldest restaurant in London. Established in 1798, this old-school eatery specialises in game, oysters, pies and homemade puds. Sit at red velvet booths draped in white tablecloths and tuck into braised wild rabbit or a good ol’ steak and kidney pudding, and round off your meal with everyone’s favourite…sticky toffee pudding. As well as hosting the likes of Edward VII, Rules has even appeared in Downton Abbey not one but three times. It doesn’t get more British than that.