Why not to ask a Londoner what to do in London

So you want to visit London, like really visit London and you want to know what you’re supposed to do in London.  You don’t want to rely on TripAdvisor and LonelyPlanet.  Pfft. No no no.

 You want to do it right and avoid the tourist bits. And you know someone – a proper Londoner – so you ask them, obviously.  

And what do you get?

A blank stare and maybe the suggestion of: “Erm. Oxford Street?” with added commentary of “Personally I hate it but I s’pose it’s alright if you like that kind of thing…” Londoners (and by this I class people born and bred there, like me) are, in general, the most useless people at telling you what to do in London. I say in general, there are exceptions, but mostly no, we’re rubbish.

I, however, found new eyes to see London with in the head of a New Zealander.


Two years ago, when I started dating my adventurous Kiwi co-worker,  he started asking me things like whether I’d been to this place or that place, places like the Tower of London, for example.

I immediately said yes, well, because I was a Londoner and it was the Tower of, you know, London.  But then he would ask details.

Him: What was your favourite bit?

Me: Oh, erm, I don’t really remember. I was like 5 or something

Him: Really 5? That’s kind of creepy for a kid.

Me: Ok maybe not 5. Like 13. Or some other age that is reasonable enough to think about beheaded people but also remember little of it. Ok? Happy? Jeez. What’s with the questions…

The fact was: I hadn’t been. Or maybe I had but, if I had, it had so little impact on me it had erased itself from my brain and I didn’t want to admit that.   Frankly, I was embarrassed.  This wasn’t the first time it had happened; wasn’t the first time I looked blankly at my New Zealander asking me about something in my city that he had come to know so much better than me.  It also happened when I discovered a different side to Krakow as a tourist.

Soon I got over my shame of being a bad Londoner and I decided instead to become a better one, actually visit things, and get to know and love London a little more. As we’d walk to work he’d point out bits of Roman wall, and tell me stories about the streets we’d walked along.  Every weekend we were exploring our backyard – going to the oldest pub, looking for pirate bones in the Thames, climbing the monument, visiting museums and going on tours, finding ‘new’ parts of London to see, finding out that you can actually feed squirrels and they’ll come up and hold your hand like tiny fluffy people.  All things that I had never even thought to do.

Send me to Paris for a weekend and I go devouring every museum and monument and macaroon until I’m physically exhausted but London? Meh.  I had no idea you could go up Big Ben with special permission and though I’d always admired the Houses of Parliament from afar, did I ever go inside? Don’t be silly.   Suddenly though, I felt like I was on holiday all the time, before we’d even started on our travels.  

I didn’t need to book a trip abroad anywhere, I could just look around at things that I’d seen a 100 times before but never really looked at.

So while Londoners may laugh at tourists thinking they’re going to have tea with the queen, let me tell you something: a tourist is much 
more likely to see the queen than Londoners ever are. Why? Because they’re actually hanging out at Buckingham Palace or Windsor or all the other places where queens hang out while we’re down at the local pub moaning about the weather or the government or benefits.

So Londoners, you need to get out there. Our museums are free. Free!  We too can go to the Tate Modern and stare at a grey canvas thinking ‘Seriously? What am I missing here’? 
tate modern

Our parks are beautiful, squirrels and ducks are really very amusing and our city is an actual historical marvel.  If stuck, find yourself a helpful non-Londoner to show you the ropes. They don’t have to be a Kiwi. They don’t even have to be that attractive (though that’s definitely an added bonus).  Aussies, Americans, Canadians, they work well too, plus anyone who’s living in London as part of some kind of life-affirming overseas experience.  Though don’t go drinking with them. That can get messy.

Some of my favourite London expat bloggers are Sarah of The Wanderblogger, Emma of Adventures of a London Kiwi, Selena of Oh, the places we will go and Sammy from To the Days Like These will tell you some cool stuff to do in London. My secret weapon blogs about travels and foods over at Jono Rambles and I have, ironically, written a post about what to do in London too.

So, am I wrong about Londoners? And have you ever seen a city with “new eyes”?

47 Responses to Why not to ask a Londoner what to do in London

  1. Oh, this is so lovely, thank you Anna. It’s also SO very true – I’ve never been to the South Island of New Zealand, but I have been up to see Big Ben. Weird, no?
    My British husband hasn’t visited so much of London in the last 25years, as the last 5 or so.

    • Hah yes! The same thing happened when we went to New Zealand. HE saw so much more of the country when he had his lil’ ol tourist with him along pointing at things on the map and going “There. I want to go there. What’s there? Can we go? Please!”

  2. I didn’t actually become an expert until I left London, and the UK…. Now I get asked so often, I actually have a huge list of things to see and do that I email those that have requested it! 😀 Great post, I had no idea about Big Ben though! 😀

    • I’m the same now! I have loads of advice for people but before I’d be bored on weekends. Actually bored. In London. Such a moron!

  3. Anna! This is a great post. Thanks so much for including me in it. I feel very special. I know exactly what you mean. I meet people all the time who have visited Australia and have seen much more than I have. My goal when I move back home is to become a tourist in my own country.

    • You’re super welcome. I love the little London gems that you find and yes I think travelling opens up your eyes to exploring your own country too.

  4. You’re so right! We don’t really appreciate all we have in a place when we live there. I have the same problem with London – I get caught in other things and forget to explore what the city really has to offer (or what really attracts all the tourists!).

    • There is SO much – even just going on tripadvisor for your own city can be surprising although I love checking out Time Out too. We don’t have that in my little French town now and I miss being able to just find out what’s on from somewhere like Time Out!

  5. I know exactly what you mean. As an expat in London I’m constantly looking for new things to do and explore. But when people ask me for tips in my old hometown, I hardly know what to say. Maybe it’s because as an expat you want to get the most out of your time here, and back home you feel like there’s enough time to do those things ‘some day’.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. You think you’ve got forever to do things so you never do them but when you’re ‘abroad’ you tend to try and squeeze it all in.

  6. I know it’s so true!!! My friend is a Londoner and he couldn’t even recommend cheap places to visit in the capital city. He was like “Hmmmm let me thing……. I don’t know really” 😀

    • Was lucky, yes 🙂 I appreciate not being too far away from it too. I get a headache from the amount of things I want to explore around me now.

  7. I think this holds true for most of us in our cities! While I know my home town really well, I still haven’t been to a single museum in the city I lived in for 6 years!

    • Hah true. In Montpellier we have an amazing museum right next door. Have we been yet in the six months we’ve lived here. Course not.

  8. These photos are gorgeous and this is a great post! I think this would be true for most cities… but each city has a limit to which you can play tourist. Like what if your city has a population of maybe 200? :p Haha, but I really can’t wait to visit London in March!

    • Good point 😉 Although even in the little french villages we think they’re so cute and old and french and the young people that live there can’t wait to get out. March will hopefully be not too cold – you’ll get the beginning of Spring which is really pretty in the parks.

  9. I think this is so true for so many of us. We just had friends visiting from London and I couldn’t think of things to recommend for them to do! I really want to visit London this year though so and check out all the museums!

    • It’s terrible isn’t it. I used to come at such a blank when people would ask me! The museums are great and just walking around, especially if it’s a sunny day just has to be one of my favourite things to do.

  10. Haha, I can completely back you up on this. Whilst I am not a Londoner, I spent a lot of time in London as a kid with my home town being on a direct train line to London, it only took 40 minutes to get there (and USED to be super cheap). But ask me what to do as a tourist in London? I’m always like er… Buckingham Palace? Maybe Camden… 😉

    • Hah. But I loved your London post a wee while back (particularly debunking the whole London bridge thing). I actually grew up on the outskirts of London so it wasn’t until I got older that I used to drag myself aaaaalll the way to London. Still so many things I haven’t actually done that I’d like to.

  11. This sounds so familiar to me! Not with London, of course, but with Germany. Even though I have lived there for nearly all my life, I could barely give you any advice when it comes to traveling Germany. Ask me about Norway instead and I can point out tons of information to anyone who cares to listen to it! I plan to remedy this once I’m back in Germany, though – living abroad definitely has made me realize that there are so many great things to find in our backyards! And until then I’m just looking forward to my next trip to London! 😉

    • Oh don’t get me started on the rest of England! I know so many tourists who have seen so much more of England than me. I’ve actually visited more towns in Germany than England (which was awesome! I love Germany. Love it) Also I’d care to listen about Norway. It’s definitely somewhere I would love to go exploring next. Thinking about it makes me excited for a next London trip too actually – hopefully there’ll be more tea too! 🙂

  12. Isn’t this the truth?! And not just for Londoners, I don’t believe. I think the same can be said for most folks in regards to where they were born/grew up. It took me moving to London to actually return home and visit some of the famous sites in the city I lived in for 20 years. 🙂 Us humans are funny like that. We’re just not as interested in our hometowns as we are everywhere else.

    Thank you the mention. I’m honored to be listed among such talented writers. Yours is one of my favorite places to visit on the internet as well. 🙂

    • Thanks Sarah, I’ll take that as a huge compliment too 🙂 I loved your hometown posts and it’s good that, at least for us, travel has opened us up to seeing more of our home town too – not just the places away from home.

  13. I discover your blog… and love it !
    So true your article Anna, I’m not a Londoner but I have loads of good adresses in London ! And each time I plan to go there (I love London) I also have a look to the blog “Lost and found in London” that I like very much too !

  14. Hi Anna!
    I’ve just discovered your blog and I absolutely love it! So many of your posts have resonated with me. You are such a world traveller! Even though I’m currently travelling through North America for six months (and blogging about it!), I’d soooo love to get to London and Europe one day so I’m in total awe of your life and your travels! Its so true about how great it is to become a tourist in your own home town/country. While travelling, I’ve been asked countless times where to visit in Australia and I find myself mumbling something inaudible and trying to change the subject! What a shame! I’m determined to do the touristy thing in my own backyard as soon as I return! So glad I found your blog 🙂
    Carly xx

    • Awww Carly thank you! That’s such a lovely comment. Travelling is good like that – makes you appreciate home as well as the places far and wide. Ooh I’d love to read about your American adventures – there’s a place I haven’t spent enough time in! x

  15. I love love love that top photo of you with the quote! So perfect in every way! I loved what you said about seeing things with new eyes or how you notice things you had not seen before. I think as a photographer thats how I love to view life. Its great to notice the little things many others just walk on by!

  16. Thank you Bonnie. I have to admit I felt a bit self-conscious putting my face with a quote on it but hey, it’s always the things I feel a bit awkward about that turn out best.

  17. Too true! I lived just outside Washington D.C. for YEARS and never really visited any of the monuments or museums (besides the Smithsonian) When you are living your day to day life you don’t really think about exploring your own city!

    • We’re terrible. And yet, here I am in London on a trip and I’m not really doing all that much exploring! I really enjoyed Washington D.C and I would have no idea what to do there bar go and look at monuments and museums and wander around pretending to be important.

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