London will soon be reveling in the global hoopla that comes along with hosting the Summer Olympic Games. Many people will use the opportunity to add London to their travel list and explore what is truly one of the great cities of the world. While the Olympics are fine, there’s obviously a lot more to do in the city, including my five favorite non-Olympic London activities.
1. Churchill War Rooms – I only just discovered this popular tourist spot on my last trip to London, but it immediately became my favorite thing to do in the city. Part of the Imperial War Museum system, the Churchill War Rooms were the original rooms that sheltered the people at the heart of Britain’s wartime government during the Blitz. It was at this location, near Westminster, where the Prime Minister and his Cabinet directed the war efforts and quite literally changed the course of world history. I was most amazed at the Map Room, where everything was left in situ following the bunker’s abandonment in 1945. If you look closely at the wall maps, you can still see pin marks used by the war planners. The war rooms are well presented, interesting and appropriate for all ages and interest levels. It really is a must-stop for any traveler to London.
2. Retracing Footsteps of the Bloomsbury Group – I’m a literature buff and British literature in particular has always appealed to me. In college I took a special class on the Bloomsbury Group that analyzed their writing, their biographies and their influence on English writing. From that moment on I was a fan of the writers but especially their own fascinating personal histories. The Bloomsbury Group was a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, who believed in the power of the arts and whose lifestyles put them on the intellectual fringes of Edwardian British society. Most of the group lived and worked near the Bloomsbury area of London, giving the associated personalities their name. These intellectuals led the great revolt against long held Victorian thought, morality and ideals and helped to usher in modern thinking in what was a very stuffy culture. Several members were homosexual at a time when it just wasn’t accepted it was illegal. Several were ardent feminists at a time when the movement was gaining strength. Still others were influenced by the concepts linking the group together to formulate non-artistic movements, like Keynes and economics. Even if you haven’t heard of the group before there is no doubt that your life has been influenced by them and spending an afternoon learning more about these revolutionary thinkers is one of the most interesting things to do in London.
3. British Museum – If you time it right, you can combine your tour of Bloomsbury with an exploration of one of the greatest museums in the world, the British Museum. If you’re ok with the fact that a lot of the exhibits are the result of rampant, colonial looting, then you’ll be in love instantly. I’m a history buff and especially enjoy learning about ancient cultures, which is one reason why the British Museum appeals to me so much. On display is everything from the Elgin Marbles to the Rosetta Stone, with the Lindow Man thrown in for good measure. If that’s not your proverbial cup of British tea, there are collections from every corner of the planet, detailing just about every major culture that has ever existed. It truly is one stop shopping for world history and I always make sure to visit for at least a few hours when I visit London. Also be sure to check out their special exhibits; they tend to be extraordinary.
4. Leaving London: Great Day Trips – If you’re actually in London during the Olympics, you will now doubt be driven insane by the crowds after only a few days. Luckily there are plenty of great places to explore close to the capital city. Some of the perennial favorites are Oxford, the Cotswolds, Stratford-on-Avon, Cambridge and Bath, but my favorite is Stonehenge and Avebury. Everyone knows Stonehenge, the grouping of standing stones is one of the most famous Neolithic sites in the world, and with good reason. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also an amazing experience to see these ancient monuments in person. Don’t miss the nearby site Avebury though, which is larger than its more famous cousin. The henge monument contains three stone circles, including what is the largest stone circle in Europe. It is currently used as both a tourist attraction and a place of religious importance to contemporary Pagans. Many visitors to Stonehenge mistakenly just stop there and don’t continue exploring the wider prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire, but they absolutely should.
5. Exploring the Borough Market – Lately I’ve realized that touring a truly great food market is one of the best things any visitor to a new city can do. Not only do you get to sample some of the best, most fresh food in town, but it’s also a great way to get underneath the skin of a new location. In London, one of the best is the Borough Market, which is located in Southwark. I’m always humbled by the age of places in London, and the Borough Market is no different since it has probably been operating for a thousand years. Today it hosts a wide array of vendors and caters to both restaurants and retailers as well as to private individuals and curious tourists. It’s such an iconic London spot that you’ve probably seen it in movies without realizing it. Films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban all had scenes shot at the Market.
These are some of my favorite non-Oympic London activities, what are some of yours?
17 thoughts on “Five Things To Do In London That Aren’t The Olympics”
There are so many other things to do in London apart from the 2012 games so you shouldn’t have much of a problem if you’re not into sports. I would imagine the queues will be shorter for the big attractions too.
I really need to spend more time in this city!
British Library and Kew Gardens come to mind. As a side trip, Brighton Beach. (Yes, its touristy but that’s the fun of it.)
I love seeing what people who don’t live in London do when they come here. It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut with habits and favourite places to spend the weekend and then I’ll read something like this and remember how many cool things I need to do. I’ve lived here 6 months and still haven’t been to Borough Market! Definitely need to go there soon.
I totally understand how you feel. I’ve lived in Washington, DC for 12 years and I hardly ever “see the sights.”
Awesome ideas. I am a big fan of the British Museum (where I’ve been many times) and Borough Market.
Now you made me curious, so next time I’ll go visit the Churchill War Rooms and will follow the Footsteps of the Bloomsbury Group!
So good to see you include the Imperial War Museum in the mix. I lived in London for years before I cottoned onto that one, and it’s such a great museum that is so often overlooked. I always tell friends heading London way that they should check that one out.
Yup, loved that place, all of its branches
I’m headed to London for the games and have been working on a list for non-Olympics things to do, so this post is very handy! I’ve done the British Museum before but never had time for the Imperial War Museums, but as a history buff I’m excited to see the War Rooms, thanks for the suggestion!
You’ll love them, the Museum and the War Rooms are in different parts of town, but both are really interesting. Have a great time!
We were in London for 5 days. It was so difficult picking things to do with such a limited time. We did the British museum and the war rooms. The British museum has a handy guide on the website for 1 or 3 hour visits so you can see the most important exhibits. It would have been nice to have more time but alas! I was bored by the war rooms, but I’m not a big fan or war history. If your not a fan its a waste of time.
We did the big tyre bike tour, it was a really good way to see heaps and pretty relaxing.
St Pauls was worth doing to, the view at the top is fantastic.
We did the day trip out of London to stonehenge, bath and windsor. It was fantastic.
We stopped off at Brighton as we visited rellies near there, it was packed!! So dont go on a weekend on a hot day!
So much to see and do there, one of our highlights was going to Wicked though. I could spend weeks there, and still not see everything!
Great tips for a great city – thank you!
Thanks for this…I live about half an hour from London but never really take advantage of it! This reminds me that I’ll need to start doing that.
My pleasure. I too live near a large city and almost never take advantage of everything on offer. Human nature I think to forget about those things closest to us. :)
Great post! I live in Bath and couldn’t agree more that Stonehenge is a ‘must-see’ whilst in England. From London, I would also recommend visiting Brighton for a trip to the great British sea-side. There is the historic pier, the new pier, tonnes of boutique shops and cute cafes, and an immense amount of music and cultural events going on. It is only a quick train ride from London centre too.
Hi All, I would definitely add Hampstead and the Heath to this list for an excellent option for escaping the city, enjoying a relaxed afternoon and experiencing a real London neighbourhood (albeit one that mere mortals can only really dream of every buying somewhere in!). Many of my friends live (= rent!) around here and we spend lots of our summer days chilling on the Heath. Chuck a left out of Hampstead tube station and then another after the ‘Paul’ bakery down Flask Walk. This pretty, narrow, paved pedestrian street is home to several quirky shops (posh bric-a-brac, antiques, homewares and clothes), plus a good little selection of upmarket, cosy cafes and restaurants too. Continue pretty much in a straight line (while oggling the beautiful period homes) down Wells Walk, where there’s also another lovely gastro-pub (The Wells Tavern), and you’ll soon hit the Heath. Either stock up on a pic-nic to take with you, or eat before you go and then walk or snooze it off in the (being optimistic here) sun. I guarantee you this is a recipe for a wondeful afternoon! – Sarah
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