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.
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).