Visit London: Where the Tourists Don’t Go

The following is a guest post.

This past summer, I planned a much-anticipated trip to London – my very first! As a Britophile, you can understand my immense excitement to visit the land of tea and McVities. I spent months planning my itinerary, even publishing it on my blog as a “Princess-inspired tour of London.” London was my favorite place and, even though I had never been, it was calling me home.

So imagine my surprise when, three days into my visit, I was sobbing outside Kensington Palace. I was miserable. And the reason can be surmised in one word: Tourists. Ah, yes. Tourists in London in July. Who knew?

At Kensington Palace, there is a small anteroom with official portraits lining the walls. As I viewed the striking portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales, Queen Victoria, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I was horrified to see teenagers napping – actually napping! – on the large, round couch in the center of the room.

Princess Diana portrait at Kensington Palace © Smitten by Britain

I had seen this pattern before in the few days prior; belching in front of Monet portraits, carrying over-sized luggage through Fortnum and Mason, and the odd tour group trying to cut the queue (oh, the horror!) was too much to bear.

I quickly had to reevaluate my itinerary and throw the old one in the bin. I needed a new plan. I wanted to see my London, not the tourists’ London.

I started asking everyone, from the shopkeeper to the docent at the National Gallery, to the taxi drivers. Each time, I asked, “Where do the tourists not go?” and after a good laugh, they would share their wisdom.

Tea at The Goring Hotel

When I first began my plans, I knew I wanted a proper afternoon tea. While many guidebooks suggested Claridge’s (after all, to be at Claridge’s is to have arrived), The Mandarin Oriental, or The Ritz Carlton, I wanted something that was simple, sweet, and English. I decided upon The Goring Hotel, the only establishment granted a Royal Warrant for Hospitality. The Goring, which opened in 1910, has a long reputation for quiet elegance and luxury. Often a haven for royalty, The Goring is private and subtle, while also boasting charm and excellence.

My reservation was for 3:00PM on a Monday. I was greeted on the curb by the delightful doorman, and promptly taken to a table on the veranda overlooking the picturesque gardens. The service was superb, and the food was even better. Everything about my visit was above and beyond, from the extra treats not found on the menu to the handsome waiter. And the best part – there was not an American in sight. Every guest was British, enjoying a proper British tea in a proper British garden.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

When I asked the docent at the National Gallery, he gave me a perfect answer. He told me to “take the tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral, except you turn right, or maybe left, just go the opposite direction of the Cathedral, and you follow this little road for a bit and you’ll see these shops and then you’ll see the shop where the Demon Barber killed all his victims.” Poor directions aside, a little research guided me to Fleet Street.

Although the Demon Barber (sometimes known as Sweeney Todd) is urban legend, the tale is well-known and good fun. The barbers shop on 186 Fleet Street is now the Dundee Courier building, with Margery Lovett’s pie shop a short walk away. There is no easily found marker to tell you where you are, but the mystery is what adds to the fun. The street is also lined with shops and restaurants, making it a nice stop on an afternoon. Best part – few people know where it is, so no one is crowding to find it!

Hampton Court Palace

When I asked the taxi drivers where the tourists do not go, the vast majority said Hampton Court Palace. I thought this was an interesting answer, since I was sure that Hampton Court Palace would be a popular spot for tourists. A short train ride from London, Hampton Court Palace was the well-known palace of Henry VIII and his many wives and Elizabeth I, along with James I and William III. Much to my surprise and delight, Hampton Court Palace was nearly empty on a July weekday. In fact, I was often touring the rooms completely alone.

The palace is made to feel immersive, with pots cooking and fresh herbs in the kitchen. Sometimes, you might even spot Henry VIII and a wife wandering the halls bickering. The gardens are kept in the traditional English style – picturesque, with smaller, private gardens accenting the vast lawns and pathways. An entire day was not wasted or drawn out in the vast palace, gardens, and nearby high street.

The King’s Road

All the guidebooks and all the friends told me the fabulous shopping on Oxford Street. After visiting the famous road for all of twenty minutes on a Saturday, I knew there must be somewhere else. Oxford Street is a bit like Wal-Mart the day after Thanksgiving, except it is like this all the time and no one speaks the same language. Instead, I spent an entire day on The King’s Road in Chelsea.

With hardly a tourist in sight, the service at the high street shops was superb. The best of European brands line the road, including LK Bennett, Jigsaw, Sandro, and Whistles. Fellow shoppers such as Millie Mackintosh and Pippa Middleton know that this is the poshest of the posh of London shopping. Have lunch at Bluebird Restaurant first, and then walk all the way to Sloane Square. Bring an extra credit card, just in case.

Exclusive Evening Tours

There are some places that should not be missed while in London, and for me that place was Buckingham Palace. However, I was not going to survive a cattle-herd experience in such an iconic and important venue. I was delighted to find that Buckingham Palace, as well as Windsor Castle and a few other prime attractions, offer exclusive evening tours.

These tours take place after-hours, guided by expert docents who take you through the palace. The ticket costs are higher than regular admission, but the small group and private experience is well worth it. Enjoy the attraction without the crowds! The exclusive tour of the palace is truly magical, as if Her Majesty could wander in the room at any moment looking for her corgis. Buckingham Palace ended the tour on the West Terrace with a glass of fine champagne, the perfect way to end the perfect tour.

Christine is the editor of What Would Kate Do?, a site that helped her find other Britophiles who understand her love of pure assam blends and Pringle sweaters. When she isn’t writing, she doesn’t know what to do with herself so she brews a cup of tea and reads a book (that most likely takes place in Great Britain).

Comments

  1. Tara says

    Hampton Court is one of my favorite places and I’ve never found it crowded. So many tourists never bother to get out of central London unless they are with a tour group, so that might be a factor.

    • Emily Wright says

      I visited Hampton Court, but I was staying in Kingston, so my hosts told us about it. I would have enjoyed more time there, it was very cold the day I went, but Spring was starting to emerge and it was nice to envision England during the time of King Henry and the other kings that occupied the residence.

  2. Catherine says

    Bookmarked, and thanks! I’m married to a Brit who, of course, discourages me from doing anything touristy when I’m there, but as his hometown memories center mostly on pubs, I need some guidance for things other than museums and the New Globe to do on my daytrips, while I leave him to catch up with family and friends . . .

  3. Lori Hudson says

    I’ve been to London many times, but never in the summer. This year I went in June and introduced my family to my favorite city in the world. I, too, shed some tears! Although the weather was beautiful and sunny, we were drowned in a sea of tourist, the vast majority American. In fact, I think the only English persons we met, besides my friends that we visited, were cab drivers. It was not the London that I know and love. It certainly wasn’t the London I wanted my kids to see for the first time. Maybe if it had rained a little more….

  4. says

    Great! I plan on visiting Hampton Court Palace in a couple of weeks and this has reaffirmed that it’s the right decision.
    I often travel in England in the off season and it’s wonderful. Except for when National Trust properties are closed. That’s the sad tradeoff.

  5. JFK says

    Hi, I from London and a little tip.

    Highly recommend going to Hampton Court but get there nice and early. Get the train there but going back, go by boat. There is a boat that departs at 3pm and 4pm right by the side of HC. The boat goes all the way to Westminster and takes 3 hours. It stops at Richmond and Kew. Really i wouldn’t go all the way. Get off at Richmond and you can walk along the River front where there are some nice pubs. It takes 1 hour to get to Richmond. Promise you’ll love it. Your right by the district line there so easy to jump on and back into the centre.

    But if you do want to see more of the River, you can get the regular commuter service from Woolwich Arsenal. It’s a lot cheaper than the tourist one although of course there is no guide but they run very regular. It’s worth starting here as you will go to go through the Thames Flood Barrier. You have to change at the next stop which is North Greenwich. The boat then goes all the way to Westminster.

    If still loving the river, try the Duck Tours. These vehicles drive around a few of the usual tourist attractions but what is different it drives straight into the Thames by the M16 building at Vauxhall. The Duck then travels up to Westminster and back. They have about 7 Ducks but still recommend you book up in advance.

    Finally, just before the Olympics, a new cable car crossing opened connecting North Greenwich with the Royal Docks. By North Greenwich is the O2 arena, a good cheap place to have lunch in good quality places.

    I’ve done these trips a few times for family that come over from Australia and they all loved it.

    Have fun!

  6. Christy@SweetandSavoring says

    Love these tips! I’ll have to come back to this post when my husband and I start planning our UK trip. I can’t stand crowds and annoying tourists (as in, oh my lord, every single person here is trying to take a picture of the same thing…shoot me?) and it’s so much fun finding out about places that are less-visited :)

  7. says

    I used to live close to Hampton Court Palace and it’s true, with the exception of the Flower Festival, it never seemed uncomfortably busy. And JFK is right: Richmond would make a great addition to a day at Hampton Court. I’m now dying to try tea at The Goring… and since it’s been at least twenty years since I visited the Kings Road, I should probably go back and see what’s changed.

  8. Gail Marie says

    Thanks for this wonderful information! I went last July and visited the Tower of London and Hever Castle for a quick but productive Tudor-themed vacation. The heat was unexpected but I still had a great time. Planning to go back this year and visit Hampton Court Palace, I had no idea it is so off the tourist map! I hope to include every other excursion that is on your list as well. Also thanks JFK for the travel info to/from Hampton Court. Love this blog!

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