12 Hours In London

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One of the best things about playing host to travelling friends is the chance to see your home city from a visitor’s perspective. Last week our Washingtonian pen-pals turned real-life-best-friends Jenn and Ashley arrived from Seattle and Ireland, respectively. We were ecstatic with excitement but gifted only one measly full day to cram in as much fun and sight-seeing as possible. Our bucket list could be summarised as follows: as much time outdoors in the spring sun as possible, as much time avoiding tourists as possible, as much time soaking up beautiful city scenery as possible, as many photo opportunities for our resident photographers as possible, and as much ground covered as possible. Not much to ask, then…!

But what a wonderful day we had! I truly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a ‘sightseeing’ day in London so much; in fact, I can barely remember the last time I truly played tourist in my own city. My days off are usually spent quietly, lazing in coffee shops or walking in the park, so it was an unexpected treat to act as if I was seeing the city through a tourist’s eyes. I’d so recommend this itinerary if you’re in London & short on time, or you’d like to see beyond the usual monuments and the crowds mingling in Covent Garden and on the South Bank (lovely though these places are).

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1) AN OFFBEAT BRUNCH

Book a table (or on a weekday, simply turn up) at Dishoom in Granary Square at King’s Cross for a quirky Iranian-Indian fusion breakfast – based on the Irani cafes in Bombay of yesteryear, surprisingly inexpensive for the capital, with flavours unlike most of the usual European-style brunch offerings in London. Brunch is served until 11.30am. Order the bottomless (chocolate, should you be so inclined) chai and the fruit and granola. Believe me, this is not your ordinary granola. Omnivores, go for the Big Bombay. In the words of my meat-munching beau, “the best Full (Un)English I’ve ever tasted”. Bonus: the building, once a vast Victorian warehouse, is truly breathtaking. In fine weather, the square outside is worth a linger with its sprawling fountains and public artwork.

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3) A WANDER THROUGH HISTORY
Hop on the Northern line, alight at Bank. Narrow historic alleyways juxtapose skyscrapers of steel and glass. Admire the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which started on nearby Pudding Lane, and climb its 311 steps for a stunning 360-degree view of central London if you’re feeling energetic (in my view, best saved for sunset.) Wind your way to the skeleton of a church that was bombed in WWII, St Dunstan In The East – now a serene spot in the hubbub of the Square Mile and a poignant reminder of London’s blitz history. While you’re there, wander down to the riverside for a peek at Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. Some sights just have to be seen! 

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4) HEAD EAST
Take the DLR far, far east to Royal Victoria Docks. If you can, grab a seat at the front of the light rail for the true driverless experience. Then swipe your Oyster card (or a buy a one-way ticket for £3.50) at the Emirates Cable Car and embark for a stunning view of the East London industrial landscape. I’d never done this before, and never really felt the urge to, but I’d so recommend it (even for a motion sickness sufferer!) It’s a really fun and unusual way to see the city.

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5) GREENWICH MEAN TIME
Hop off the cable car in North Greenwich, ogle the street murals and 21st century architecture before hopping on the bus to Greenwich Town proper. Sliced through by the meridian, this enclave on a hilltop has its place in history and feels far removed from the big smoke thanks to its dearth of a tube and postcard-perfect views of the distant urban skyline. Walk up the hill, linger beneath the columns of the Royal Naval College, visit the Maritime Museum on a rainy day. Stop by the market for a late street-food lunch (the Ethiopian food comes highly recommended) and meander down to the riverside for a peek into the Cutty Sark.

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6) TO THE RIVER
As the sky turns pink, board the Thames Clipper boat service at Greenwich and ride for as long or as little as you like. Being transported on water is a scenic way to feel truly connected to the city and to admire it from a different angle (literally!) On the eve of a sunny day, there is nothing better. We disembarked at Embankment and walked once across Jubilee Bridge and back, soaking up the last rays of a beautiful day.

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What would an ideal day in your city look like?

(photos) by me and Ashley Garrels