So you’re in London, that ancient city of monarchs, palaces, and the weird smell you can’t quite place. First off, congratulations! It’s one of the biggest, most beautiful cities on the planet, brimming with experiences to suit any newcomer’s tastes.
Want to put some hurt on your credit card with a little high-end shopping? Stop by Fortnum & Mason’s or Harrod’s for the ultimate in expensive goods. Fancy some fashion? Stop in the multiple Burberry or Givenchy storefronts along Piccadilly Circus. London really does have something for everyone.
But what about those of us with more nerdy proclivities? The Big Smoke is packed with amazing things to do (much of it free!) so read on for some recommendations.
Let’s start off with some travel tips for getting around. If you’re staying in the city for more than a few days, these will make your stay smoother, faster, and easier.
- Invest in an Oyster card. This little slice of plastic will get you onto most any bus, train, or boat in London. Stop by any Underground station, find a terminal, and buy one ASAP. Load it up with £20 and you’ll be good to go for at least a few days (just keep an eye on the remaining balance when you get on a bus or buy a ticket). If you run low, top it off the same way.
- Taxis are expensive but fun—and fast. Hopping in one of the iconic black cabs is something you should experience at least once. Expert cabbies fly through the streets while dodging double-decker buses and bikers, their legendary know-how (the Knowledge) acquired through years of training. A word of caution: taxi rides can drain your funds lickety-split, and all London cabbies aren’t created equal.
- Packed lunches are your wallet’s friend. With so many amazing restaurants and little cafes, the temptation to go out for every meal can be strong. But if you can, gird your loins and hold off when possible (save those experiences, and your money, for special occasions). Instead, find a corner store or grocery story like Waitrose or Sainsbury’s and stock up. Sandwiches, fruit, and sides you can stash in your backpack will save some major cash. Best of all, every public space—parks, museums, cathedrals, you name it—will allow you to enjoy your picnic in peace.
- Do your homework. Given how old many of London’s building are, it’s a given that at least some of the big tourist sites will be fully or partially closed for renovations while you’re there. You might be unable to do anything more than take street pictures and buy cheap souvenirs, so always check ahead before you set out. Better yet, plan a basic, flexible schedule for your stay; it’ll help you get the most out of your trip.
In the Garden of Nerdly Delights
Now that you’re ready to head out into the city proper, prepare to be overwhelmed. Enjoy it! London is enormous, flooded with people and history and buses and statues and so many things. The big tourist attractions (Big Ben, double-decker bus tours, Buckingham Palace, the West End, etc.) are definitely worth seeing, but there are plenty of unexpected, nerdy experiences waiting just off the beaten path.
Take Westminster Abbey, for example. This will probably be one of the very stops on your visit, an iconic place that creates the magnificent, disconcerting feeling of literally wading through waves of British history.
But if you want more, climb up to the Abbey’s triforium. This upper level, 50 feet above the sea of tourists below, is home to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Just opened to the public, the quiet triforium displays some of the city’s greatest treasures: an original copy of the Magna Carta, illuminated manuscripts, and tons of actual clothing and death masks from royal funeral effigies over the centuries. We explored the triforium on our first day in the city, and history floated through its hushed galleries like dust motes in a sunbeam. Be sure to book your tickets in advance!
Next up: the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, must-see exhibitions if you’re fascinated by ancient, medieval, and Renaissance Europe. The V&A’s staff has collected plaster casts of the continent’s art and sculptures since the 1860s. The Courts’ most striking aspect are their size and scope.
Two gigantic halls are crammed with plasters of all shapes and sizes, from a mind-boggling, full-scale copy of Trajan’s Column (so big it’s broken into two columns just to fit inside the V&A) to the beautiful Portico de la Gloria, completed in 1188 as the entryway into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. In a time when the conversation about museums and cultural theft is divisive and necessary, the Cast Courts offer an incredible way to view Europe’s priceless treasures without a side order of cultural imperialism.
My last suggestion is farther off the beaten path of the average tourist, despite being only a few blocks from the British Museum. Sir John Soane’s Museum is a literal time capsule, perfectly preserved as it was when Sir John died in 1837. The brilliant, eccentric Soane turned his vast collection of architecture, paintings, and artifacts over to the nation after his death with the stipulation that the space in which they were displayed—his personal home—be kept exactly as it was upon his death.
Hidden within its narrow maze of hideaways is everything from his shaving room to the 3,300-year-old sarcophagus of the pharaoh Seti I, paintings by Turner and Caneletto, and 40,000 more curiosities. Winding my way through its hallways was surreal, like a Dickens-era fever dream.
Just Go Already!
London was a once-in-a-lifetime when we visited last summer. We spent a long time planning it and saving up, and the weeks we spent there were worth every penny. If you can swing it, London won’t disappoint you. Nerds like us will find it particularly delightful to boot. As Samuel Johnson once wrote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” You’re in for a good time no matter what.