London is a city that’s modern and exciting but it’s also a city with a rich and fascinating history. From it’s Roman origins to the Elizabethan and Victorian eras, to the more modern history during the time of WWII and after, London offers far more interesting historic places and activities than could ever be packed into a weekend! However, this guide will show you how you can dip your toe into some of the best historic experiences and sites over one weekend, as well as offering plenty of ideas for you to switch up depending on your interests, or add on if you have more than a weekend to spend here. For the history buffs or simply those who are fascinated by everything London, this historic London guide is for you!
Stay: At the London House Hotel, Georgian House Hotel or Wombat’s Hostel. The London House Hotel is comprised of five Victorian-era buildings in the beautiful Bayswater neighbourhood, right near to Notting Hill and Hyde Park (perfect if you want to squeeze in a visit to Kensington Palace or the Notting Hill Markets during your stay). The Georgian House Hotel is, obviously, set in an 1851 Georgian townhouse, another great way to experience history and modern amenities. If your budget doesn’t stretch as far as either of these hotels then Wombat’s Hostel is located in a great spot close to the Tower of London, was re-constructed using 500 year old wood and used to be an 1865 sailor’s hostel! Alternatively, you can find your own choice of accommodation using this handy tool:
Eat: Start your weekend off by having dinner in a historic tube carriage with Basement Galley. The London underground train system (known as The Tube) is almost synonymous with the city itself, and this supper club holds regular dinner events in a disused 1969 London underground carriage in Walthamstow. They’re only held about once a month though, so you will need to book ahead and possibly time your trip to coincide with one of their events if you want to go. Alternatively you might like to eat at Bobby Fitzpatrick, a 1970s themed bar and diner in the West End which offers pizzas, burgers, pies for dessert and delicious sounding cocktails! Or perhaps you might prefer Mr Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden; a Victorian-style tavern which also features a gin parlour with an amazing Victorian-themed drinks menu (plus snacks).
See: If you like the spooky and macabre side of history then go on a Jack the Ripper tour in Whitehall, or a more general ghost walk. You’ll get to see some of the sights at night as well as learning about the darker history of the city.
Drink: Have a historic nightcap at Cahoots or the Coral Room at the Bloomsbury Hotel (or Mr Fogg’s or Bobby Fitzpatrick if you haven’t already visited for dinner). Cahoots is a 1940s style underground bar, and it really is ‘underground’ because (a bit like Basement Galley) it is housed in a disused tube station! Featuring cocktails, swing-dancing and old fashioned sing-alongs around a piano, Cahoots is perfect if you want to pretend you’re in post-war London. The Coral Room at the Bloomsbury Hotel is a 1920s salon bar featuring bold colours and design, and of course, delicious cocktails!
Eat: Have brunch at Dalloway Terrace (part of the Bloomsbury Hotel) in Bloomsbury. Named after Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Dalloway from the book of the same name, this is a perfect historic spot especially if you are a literary lover as well as a history buff. The famous ‘Bloomsbury set’ inspired the decor and food choices here, so it’s perfect if you’d like to feel as though you’re enjoying tea during the 1920s or 30s.
Psst! If you’re especially interested in historic literature of London make sure you check out my other guide: How to Have the Perfect Literary Weekend in London as well!
Do: Find the hidden historic site of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, and visit a museum such as Sir John Soane’s Museum. St. Dunstan-in-the-East was a church that was damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666. The damage was patched up although it was then also severely damaged during the Blitz. Instead of repairing the damage the City of London Corporation decided to instead turn the ruins of the church into a public garden. This spot is often overlooked but offers an enchanting little oasis in the middle of the city. Sir John Soane was a 19th century architect who requested that his home be left untouched after his death – almost 180 years ago. A visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into his life and work, and is home to many interesting antiques, sculptures, paintings and curiosities. The best thing; entrance is free!
Eat: Stop off for lunch in Covent Garden, historic, pretty and full of great little cafes and restaurants! Wander around to find one that you like. If you haven’t already visited Mr Fogg’s then you might like to try their “Curiously British” brunch menu which is available on Saturdays from midday until 3.30pm.
Do: Visit the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and/or the Museum of London. The Tower of London is a must-visit for anyone even slightly interested in historic London, as it contains so much history! You can see displays of armour, the crown jewels and some very interesting sculptures of animals throughout the castle. The Tower Bridge exhibit lets you learn about the building of the bridge and you can go up inside it for views over the Thames. Or if you’re happy to just have a photo from the outside then you will have time to visit the Museum of London, another must-visit for those with an interest in the history of the city of London itself. This museum is free, and fascinating if you’d like to see more about the different eras and events that took place in London since before it was officially settled by the Romans.
Eat: Have dinner at a historic London pub such as The Lamb and Flag or Ye Olde London. The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden has been a pub since at least 1772 and was also apparently a drinking-spot of the great British author Charles Dickens. Ye Olde London (pictured above) also serves traditional pub fare such as fish and chips, pies and burgers; and is located very close to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Drink/Do: Go to the Blitz Party for a night of swing-dancing in a war-era bunker or a nostalgia themed night at Rivoli Ballroom. The Blitz Party isn’t held very often so you’ll have to plan your visit for a weekend it’s on if you really want to go, the next one will be on the 9th June 2018. It’s held in a secret East London location, you won’t find out exactly where to go until you’ve booked your tickets. You’ll also need to make sure you have adhered to their strict 1940s style dress code! Otherwise, the Rivoli Ballroom hosts a jive party on the third Saturday of every month and a 70s/80s disco on the fourth Saturday of the month. You could visit one of the bars I suggested for Friday that you haven’t already been to, or perhaps Ye Olde Mitre pub in Holborn. Ye Olde Mitre is almost a ‘secret pub’ because it’s a bit difficult to find, and it’s very old and historic. The original building was established during the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, and apparently she even visited and danced around the cherry tree that used to grow here and is still preserved in a corner of the bar. Definitely a great spot for a historic drink and perhaps some bar snacks. You can read some more about its history here.
Eat: Have breakfast at your accommodation or grab a quick bite from Attendant; a Victorian-era toilet turned cafe in Fitzrovia. Alternatively you could also grab something to eat from one of the cafes in St. James’s Park on your way to Buckingham Palace.
Do: Watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace at 11am (although you’ll want to arrive around 10.30 or even earlier in Summer to get a good spot), then visit the Household Cavalry Museum and Westminster to view the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Watching the changing of the guard is completely free and a fun and interesting way to experience some traditional British pomp and circumstance. The Household Cavalry Museum costs £8 for adults but you might wish to skip this in favour of saving your money if you are on a budget. Westminster Abbey is open on Sundays for worship only, although it is free if you wish to attend a service. Otherwise you’ll need to come on another day (and check online for closures) and pay £20 for adult admission.
Eat: Have lunch (or all-day brunch) at the Bourne and Hollingsworth Buildings in Clerkenwell. Their Garden Room restaurant in particular is an Instagrammer’s dream, and looks like some sort of Victorian-esque greenhouse/parlour. Or if you don’t want to go that far and/or still haven’t been to Mr Fogg’s yet (can you tell I’m a fan?!) they do a special roast and punch menu for £15 on Sundays!
Do: Visit the Churchill War Rooms/Imperial War Museum to see inside of the Westminster war bunker where Churchill and his inner circle directed the Second World War. You can also learn more about Winston Churchill’s life and legacy before visiting either the London Dungeon or the Clink Prison Museum before heading home again. The London Dungeon is a bit more of a fun kind of ride that children might enjoy (although I enjoyed it and I’m an adult) although it is closer to the Imperial War Museum than the Clink. While the Clink Prison Museum is located further away (near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre) it is perhaps a bit more historical because it is located on the site of the original Clink Prison; one of England’s oldest and most notorious prisons. The Clink Prison is also much more affordable in terms of pricing, although I don’t think it’s as big or perhaps as ‘exciting’ as the London Dungeon. I haven’t actually managed to visit the Clink Museum yet, so you will need to decide which you would prefer to visit as I don’t think you would have time for both – unless you skip the Churchill War Rooms and do both the Prison and Dungeon instead!
Alternative Historic London Activities for Your Trip
If you aren’t able or interested in seeing some of the previous itinerary choices then you could easily switch some of them out with others; London has a LOT to offer in terms of historic sights and experiences, so there is a lot of choice! And if you have more than a weekend to explore then you could also add more excursions onto your list from these options:
- The Ragged School Museum – If you’re interested in seeing what school was like during Victorian times then the Ragged School Museum is open between 10am-5pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 2-5pm on the first Sunday of each month. It’s free!
- Highgate Cemetery – If you’d like to see the final resting places of famous figures such as Karl Marx, George Eliot and others, then you can visit the Highgate Cemetery. The East Cemetery has an entrance price of £4 for adults and the West Cemetery is only available with a guided tour (which costs £12 for adults). Find out more on the website.
- Greenwich – If you have an extra day to spare then Greenwich is packed with historic (and fun!) things to do. Look out over the gorgeous views from the top of Greenwich Park, stand on the Meridian Line and explore the Royal Observatory, visit the Cutty Sark British Clipper museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House, the Old Royal Naval College, stroll along in the Greenwich Market and more! Find out specific information about all these spots here.
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – If you’re a fan of the Bard or just literary history in general then you should definitely stop for a look at Shakespeare’s Globe. The tours and information in the exhibition are very interesting, and if your visit coincides with the season you could even see a Shakespeare play just like they used to be performed – standing in the pit and everything! Don’t forget to have a look at my guide on Literary London if you would like more ideas about visiting iconic literary spots in London.
- Dennis Sever’s House – If you would like to see how people in London lived in the past then Dennis Sever’s House is a sort of time capsule showing the intimate lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the 20th century. It’s only open on Sundays (12-4pm) and Mondays (12-2pm) and sometimes for night-time visits (see the website for more info).
- The Geffrye Museum – This is currently closed for two years for renovations, but should be re-opening in 2020. Once open again this is a very interesting museum to learn about ‘the home’ in London from the year 1600 to the present.
- British Museum – While the British Museum houses objects from all around the world, it also has some fascinating parts pertaining to Britain and the area around London as well. And if you’re interested in history in general (or just want to take advantage of another great free museum in London) then it’s well worth a visit if you have the time.
- Kew Gardens – If you like history and gardens then Kew Gardens is a must-see for you! Founded in 1840 this botanical garden in Southwest London is apparently home to the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world. It’s obviously a pretty massive site, so you’ll definitely want to plan your visit and probably take the day if you want to explore the gardens properly.
- London Transport Museum – If you’re fascinated by trains, buses, automobiles and the history of transport in London (and really enjoyed visiting Cahoots and the Basement Galley Supper Club) then you might also find this rather quirky museum of interest as well. It explores the link between transport and the growth of London over the past 200 years and they also organise ‘Hidden London’ tours of disused stations and secret sites across the city. The museum is free for children but costs £17.50 for adults.
- Tipsy Tea at Mr Fogg’s Residence – I know I’ve been raving about Mr Fogg’s all through this post, but there’s another location I haven’t mentioned where you can have a Victorian tipsy high tea on Saturdays and Sundays in Mayfair.
A Note on the London Pass
If you are planning to visit quite a few of these historic sites that cost money then the London Pass can save you a lot of money if you are able to cram lots of your must-sees into a couple of days. I’m not an affiliate for the pass or anything, but I did use it when my friend from Australia came to visit because we wanted to see and do a lot of the things I’ve mentioned here (The Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Household Cavalry Museum, Westminster Abbey plus others) over a weekend and it worked out cheaper with the pass. My advice is, make a list of the places you really want to see (and think you can manage in however many days you have, bearing in mind they nearly all take longer than you expect to visit) look up the entrance prices for all of them, add them up and then see if the London Pass is cheaper. It usually is. I hope this guide has given you lots of inspiration for your own historic visit to London in the future!
Map of Historic London
I’ve included a free map with all the places I’ve mentioned in this article marked on it, apart from the location of the Blitz Party since the location is secret!
What are your favourite sights and experiences in historic London? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to pin one of these for your planning!
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Gif via Giphy