Even though it’s hard to walk far in London without encountering a buttress, tower, or wall aimed at keeping foreign invaders out, the largest city in Britain has since invited many of its former adversaries’ cuisines in, making for a city rich in diverse—and delicious—international fare.
Tower of London
The first stone was laid for the Tower of London in the 11th century under William the Conqueror, with successive monarchs adding both architectural form and grisly details to its long history. Over time, it’s served as a royal residence, treasury, arsenal, zoo, mint, torture chamber, and prison. Two of Henry VIII’s wives were famously executed here, among scores of other unlucky prisoners—but don’t let its gruesome history spoil your appetite. Several good eateries are nearby, and you can ask for a reentry ticket if you’d like to return later in the day.
Classic food option: Dispel any lingering gloom with a pint of hand-pulled ale and a savory pie at the Hung Drawn & Quartered pub. Be forewarned that your pie will come with a hearty helping of Tower of London lore—so if you prefer not to hear dungeon tales over tea, head to the Tower Wharf, where the Perkin Reveller serves a mix of classic and contemporary food in a convivial setting. If you feel like fleeing the scene entirely, enjoy a cocktail and stunning skyline views at SkyLounge in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London–Tower of London, a safe (but picturesque) distance away.
Trendy food option: Head east from the tower along the Thames to St. Katharine Docks, where traders have done brisk business since the tenth century. Ostrich plumes and tortoise shells are no longer on offer here, but you can find street-food vendors peddling everything from duck confit to Argentine empanadas on Fridays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. See and be seen at Bravas Tapas, where the artfully sculpted Spanish-style small plates compete only with the smartly dressed clientele and trendy reclaimed-wood decor. On a hot summer’s day, the terrace is the place to be.
Unexpected food option: A good tale should never be rushed in the telling, so plan ample time for dining at Story, just on the other side of the Tower Bridge. The books lining the walls at this Michelin-starred restaurant are your first clue you’re in for something different. Each course is accompanied by its own tale of provenance—hence the name—and you’re even invited to leave a book behind, if you wish. But locals agree that the delectable dishes speak for themselves, no tall tales required.
The British Museum
The museum’s first exhibition of 1753 comprised only objects in the royal physician’s “cabinet of curiosities.” Today the British Museum’s collections include the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo ship burial from the Middle Ages, and the hotly debated Parthenon, or Elgin, Marbles. The museum is free, so there’s no reason not to pop out for a restorative lunch in the Bloomsbury area before returning for another look at the museum’s roughly 80,000 treasures on display.
Classic food option: If you want a quick pick-me-up without leaving the museum, visit the Court Café, which offers light bites under the stunning glass-and-steel roof of the Great Court. For alfresco dining year-round (cozy blankets and heated benches take the chill off), The Terrace at Rosewood London offers traditional British fare in a lush garden setting. If you’re feeling a bit less posh, try Fryer’s Delight, a no-frills fish-and-chips shop that’s been frying up the British classic since 1962. (The decor hasn’t changed much since then, either.)
Trendy food option: The industrial-cool vibe and minimalist menu at Dabbous is in stark contrast to the centuries of opulence on view at the museum, but this sizzling-hot eatery has just as much style. If you can’t nab a seat for Dabbous’s tasting menu, head downstairs to Oskar’s Bar, where freshly made syrups and preserves flavor inventive cocktails, some with cringe-worthy names. Go ahead and try the Tequila Mockingbird: At Oskar’s, quaffing it isn’t a sin.
Unexpected food option: The entrance to this buzzing subterranean hot spot might deter more prudish types—it closely resembles a shop catering to peoples’ naughtier impulses—but La Bodega Negra’s impressively long tequila list is just the thing to offset an afternoon at the museum. Pair one of several ceviche on the starters menu with a cocktail for a quick refresher, then continue west on Shaftesbury Avenue to finish the evening in Piccadilly Circus.
Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey
Most visitors elect to skip the official tour of Buckingham Palace’s interior and queue up outside to watch the Changing of the Guard instead. Once you’ve had your fill of pomp, circumstance, and bearskin hats, it’s just a short walk along the edge of picturesque St. James’s Park to Westminster Abbey. The venerable church—technically a “royal peculiar,” meaning it belongs to the monarch and not a diocese—has played gracious host to every monarch’s coronation since William the Conqueror and has hosted quite a few weddings, as well.
Classic food option: Indulging in a proper afternoon tea is a must when in London. While many tourists flock to The Ritz, The Goring offers an equally sumptuous experience, with the advantage of being located cozily near the palace. Indeed, the Duchess of Cambridge elected to stay at the family-owned hotel before her 2011 wedding. While you might not see royalty during your visit, it’s hard not to delight in being treated as such.
Trendy food option: London is one of the best cities in the world for excellent curry (outside of India, perhaps), but for times when you don’t feel like eating a takeaway, The Cinnamon Club provides an excellent alternative. Housed in the old Westminster library, a recent renovation and modern menu makes it feel more like an intellectual’s retreat rather than a dusty relic. It’s also open for breakfast.
Unexpected food option: Continue past the high-end shops and members-only establishments of St. James’s to Shoryu Ramen, where the chef elevates the humble ramen noodle to royal status. With its pork-bone-broth base (boiled for more than 12 hours) and custom-cooked noodles, the tonkotsu-style ramen gets consistently high marks. Pile the toppings high and slurp up.
The London Eye
The Coca-Cola London Eye is considered one of the most successful projects to come out of London’s millennium construction boom. Board one of its 32 glass capsules on a clear day and you’ll see why it’s still so popular—the view from its 443-foot apex is glorious.
Classic food option: If it’s your first rotation around the sightseeing wheel (or if you’re feeling in a celebratory mood) consider paying a bit extra to add a glass of bubbly to toast the view. For a more budget-friendly option, try Skylon at the Royal Festival Hall, which has a cool cocktail bar with spectacular views out over the Thames.
Trendy food option: While it’s a bit of a walk from the London Eye to Waterloo, it’s worth the hike to explore the trendy independent eateries and shops that are making the neighborhood feel like less of a commuter’s pass-through and more of a destination. Act like a local by pulling up a chair at the quirky Vespa-themed Scooter Caffé, or enjoy a flat white coffee and the chocolate stout cake at the Australian-flavored Love & Scandal café.
Unexpected food option: The unprepossessing Marie’s Cafe may have a bit of an identity crisis: During the day it’s a traditional greasy-spoon café, and at night it moonlights as a Thai food takeaway. But the locals who pack the place agree on one thing: The food is delicious. The prices are also excellent, and it’s BYOB for a minimal corkage fee.
Though its name is derived from the wide, stiff men’s collars (“piccadills”) made by a 17th-century tailor who lived nearby, there’s nothing buttoned-up these days about the neon-clad Piccadilly Circus. Like Times Square, it’s hard to visit London without ticking this box on your list, but if you tire of its throbbing street scene, there are numerous eateries in which to seek respite—or from which to soak it all up.
Classic food option: Bob Bob Ricard has a “press for champagne” button at every single table, which makes it an excellent choice for a celebration—or just for when you crave extremely delicious English/Russian comfort food served with flair. If you can’t get into the notoriously busy hot spot, head to Bocca di Lupo, where Italian plates to share are accompanied by a generous dose of people-watching.
Trendy food option: Perhaps because the bright, zingy flavors and fresh seafood dishes counteract the effects of London’s drizzle, Peruvian food has exerted a strong influence on Soho’s dining scene recently. Belly up to the bar at Ceviche Soho, where you can watch your ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice) being made fresh while sipping on pisco, a grape-based brandy that’s distilled in Peru.
Unexpected food option: There’s a certain allure in the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of a food truck, but the truck turned brick-and-mortar restaurant Bao has lost none of its appeal. “Bao,” meaning “bun,” is also the vehicle of choice for transporting Taiwanese-style slow-braised pork belly, cilantro, pickled greens, and ground peanuts to your mouth. If you can’t get into the tiny eatery, try Cahoots Cocktail Bar, which serves up surprisingly cheery drinks in an old air-raid shelter from World War II.