What to See and What to Skip in London

PHOTO: The Tower Bridge on the River Thames on October 15, 2016, in London. Waring Abbott/Getty Images
The Tower Bridge on the River Thames on October 15, 2016, in London.

The secret is out: 2017 may well be one of the best years to visit the U.K. in a long time.

Brexit has a lot to do with it -- the way it helped send the British pound to 30-year lows, giving Americans more spending power and making that notoriously pricey trek across the pond more attainable.

It's a big reason why the United Kingdom made Travelzoo’s Wow Deal Destinations list for 2017.

When it comes to London, all of this is likely to encourage plenty of return visits in the New Year and plenty of first ones. If you’re a first-timer, you’ll find that fascinating experiences are never in short supply.

Here are a few to add to your London to-do list:

Plan Your Visit, Celebrate an Anniversary

The city of London is marking several noteworthy anniversaries in 2017. For one, "Harry Potter" turns 20; the first book in J.K. Rowling’s smash series appeared in 1997. You can celebrate the world’s most famous wizard by visiting Platform 9-3/4 at King’s Station for a selfie; try your hand at pushing a trolley through the brick wall between Platforms 9 and 10 -- the portal to the wizarding world. Also, check out the Making of Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros. studio; the film version of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone," and all seven sequels, were filmed in Britain.

The world-famous Premier League has been drawing international interest since it premiered in 1992 and, with its 25th anniversary in 2017, attending a match in one of London’s stadiums may well be in order.

And would-be sleuths will want to commemorate Sherlock Holmes’ 125th birthday; the first publication in 1892, and all the stories that followed, made London a character in itself. Fans can visit the famous address of Sherlock and Watson -- 221B Baker Street -- and then check out the Sherlock Holmes Pub in Westminster (order Dr. Watson’s favorite food, Cumberland sausages) and the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

Skip the Street, Catch the View

As with any great city, London’s beauty is probably best appreciated from up high, and Western Europe’s tallest building is a good place to start. The popular View from The Shard offers panoramic views from 800 feet up (the high-speed lifts get you there in 60 seconds). Guests can also track 1,000 years of London history through high-tech interactive digital telescopes and multimedia displays. Save 15 percent on admission by pre-buying your tickets online.

You can also catch sweeping vistas from The Orbit, the world’s longest slide; which is also the U.K.’s tallest public artwork that takes visitors through dark and light sections while London’s dramatic skyscape whizzes by. At the O2 arena, check out the daytime or twilights views from the roof, 17 stories above the ground. And there’s always a 360-degree-view ride on the famous London Eye (it’s Europe’s tallest observation wheel and is open every day except Christmas).

Skip the Center, Visit the Countryside

Hampstead Heath is totally accessible from downtown London -- just a couple of miles from Trafalgar Square -- but feels a world away. “Not a park, but a proper countryside,” says my colleague Stephen Dunk, operations director for London-based Travelzoo Europe. This vast open green space, which featured prominently in the Hugh Grant film "Notting Hill," is home to diverse wildlife. But it also welcomes human guests with a zoo, running track, kids’ facilities and plenty of spots for sports. Dunk likes swimming here. “In the summer, you can go swimming in the pond –- actually, you can go all year-round if you’re brave,” he says. In fact, there are three bathing ponds here -- the U.K.’s only lifeguarded swimming facilities open to the public year-round -- and a Lido.

Glyn Owen, head of marketing for Travelzoo UK in London, suggests making an afternoon of a Hampstead Heath visit. “I would take on a Sunday stroll through Hampstead Heath -- you get a great view of London from Parliament Hill,” he tells me. “Close by is Highgate Cemetery, very atmospheric. Take a guided walk and learn how the Victorians were fascinated by death.” There are 53,000 graves at Highgate, actually, many marked with famous names like George Eliot, Michael Faraday and Karl Marx. “Then finish off for a Sunday pub lunch at the Spaniards Inn,” Owen adds. “Just make sure to book ahead.”

For more of that country feel, visit Dulwich Village, about six miles from the West End. Original 18th- and 19th-century buildings remain here and the village center is lovely. Dunk comes here to visit Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest public art gallery in England. “It has all the attributes and qualities of the great galleries but on a smaller and more manageable scale,” he says. “Nice café, too.”

Skip Dessert, Seek the Custard

Need a snack while you’re cruising beautiful Covent Garden? Two insider options from Owen: “Have a pint at the Lamb & Flag, one of London’s oldest pubs, and get yourself a Portuguese custard tart from I Love Nata,” he says. “These are a Travelzoo office favorite -- we take it in turn to buy a box of six!”

Skip the Museum, Visit the Hotel

When the Great Scotland Yard Hotel opens in the first quarter of 2017, it’ll be an historic attraction all its own. Located in Westminster, the Edwardian seven-story building is the original Scotland Yard headquarters, home to London’s top detectives from 1829 until 1890. Recently, it was used as storage by the Ministry of Defense, as well as a filming location for Keira Knightley’s 2007 film, “Atonement.” But now, after a major revamp, it’ll open as a 236-room hotel, complete with high-end restaurant and bar. The most expensive rooms will likely go for £10,000 a night -- sorry, even with the weaker pound sterling, that’s still a pricey stay. (By the way, this is one of seven new hotels opening in London in 2017.)

Skip the Hotel, Sip Onboard

High tea is a quintessential London tradition and attraction. Many of the city’s grand hotels offer the tea experience at its very finest -- check out The Savoy, The Ritz and the Langham. At The Berkeley, a 5-star hotel in Knightsbridge, sipping gets stylish with their Pret-a-Portea: inspired by the world of high fashion, the menu takes on a fashionista twist (a Burberry’s classic trench coat chocolate biscuit with creamy royal icing, anyone?) and changes every few months to follow the changing seasons in fashion. Tea is served in the Collins Room.

For a unique way to steep and sip, check out the Afternoon Tea Bus Tour, aboard a classic Routemaster. Your vintage London bus will drive throughout Central London, offering up the city’s classic landmarks, all while indulging passengers with a scrumptious tea experience (complete with sandwiches, pastries and cakes, of course). Diner-style seating is available in both the upper and lower deck, and tours last about 90 minutes.

Skip the Bus, Tour by Mini

Small Car Big City offers unique private tours in original Mini Coopers. The colorful cars can take on three passengers (plus your driver/guide) and have cute names, like Daphne, Betty and Poppy. Learn about London from a variety of angles: they offer a Beatles Tour, a Landmarks Tour and a "Harry Potter" Tour. During the holidays, consider the Christmas Lights Tour. And to really feel like a Londoner, splurge on the eight-hour Live Like A Local Tour, which is fully customizable -- are you interested in designer shops? Notting Hill? Bridges? -- and includes stops for both lunch and tea.

Skip the Tour, Catch a Match

Spectators rejoice! London will play host to a slew of international sporting events in 2017, including the Chestertons Polo in the Park tournament and the Royal Ascot horse races in June, the RideLondon cycling contest in July and the IAFF World Athletic Championships -- 3,300 top athletes from around the world competing at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park -- in August. Tennis fans, legendary Wimbledon, one of only four Grand Slam tennis tournaments in the world, is scheduled for July. And if you want to join in on the sweating, sign up for the Virgin Money London Marathon scheduled for April 23.

Skip Hyde Park, Visit Victoria Park

A boating lake has helped make Hyde Park (which also includes Kensington Gardens) one of London's most beloved open green spaces. But Victoria Park, the city's first public park dating back to 1887, is a nature lover's secret. It's teeming with flowers, lakes and trees of all kinds (from cherries to oaks to hawthorns), and kids will love checking out the deer enclosure.

My colleague Cat Jordan, a Londoner-turned-New Yorker who manages PR for Travelzoo, also loves Chelsea Physic Garden because “no one knows about it!” Founded in 1673 to train apothecaries on the use of medicinal plants, it’s tucked away behind the Thames and houses some 5,000 plants (many of them edible).

Skip Borough, Nosh at Broadway

Foodies flock to London's famous Borough Market, renowned for fresh produce from throughout Britain and the world. But it can get extremely crowded, especially on Saturdays. So follow your taste buds, instead, to Broadway Market in Hackney, East London, which tempts visitors with a plethora of international delights: gourmet coffees, just-picked watermelons and such exotic but tasty treats as jellied eels and Vietnamese banh mi (breads). Maltby Market is another great alternative (many popular Borough Market vendors have set up alternate stands here).

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on London hotels, flights, activities, restaurants, spas and shows at www.travelzoo.com.

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