I travelled solo to London as a 25 year old woman. This travel blog is about the experiences I had, the must-see attractions, and my travel tips for solo female travellers in London.
Whenever I’d see the sculpture at Horniman Circle in Mumbai, I’d be reminded of the ones I had seen in the museums of Paris. Sometimes, I think Mumbai contains glimpses of the whole world in it. But this post is about my three-day trip to London (which was followed by Paris) and the nearby countryside, which is why I called it the English diaries.
London was my first real trip abroad (barring one to visit my dad in Dar es Salaam when I was twelve). London was also my first holiday alone. And London was my first step into the magical continent of Europe.
I had heard so much about this member of the golden triad (London, Paris, New York) and yet, I was unprepared for the turrets, castles and brick buildings that transported me to the sets of a fairy tale or a Harry Potter novel. I was also amazed at how sparkling and clean the city was – as though not lived in.
London was disciplined, crisp and visually perfect. No, it wasn’t as jolly or spirited or friendly as Paris. But it had character. London – she was a stately queen where Paris was the friendly commoner. And yet, London only touched my heart in bits. It wasn’t the London Eye or the Tower of London that charmed me. No, in fact the spots that weren’t on touristy itineraries – those were the ones that convinced me the city had some soul.
Solo Female Travel in London
Before I go into the top ten places in London that stood out for me from the rest, let me answer a few questions that inevitably pop up when women consider travelling to London alone:
- Is London safe for solo female travellers? Yes, very much. London is modern, accessible, and very well-connected. You will see many women on their own in London. Sometimes, men do try to chat you up, but you can politely ignore them or show them that you’re not interested.
- Will I get bored travelling solo in London? Maybe in the nights. I couldn’t work up the courage to go to a bar alone but maybe you should try it if you get bored! But during the day, the sights and architecture of London will keep you enthralled. If you go on a group tour, you can easily make friends.
- Is it safe to walk around London alone? Absolutely. I walked alone everyday for hours, and loved it. I often asked for directions too, and people were helpful. Londoners aren’t overly friendly. I didn’t observe much of racism except for one time at Buckingham Palace but feel free to show them their place!
- How can I travel London cheap? It’s not that easy. London is very expensive, compared to the rest of Europe as well. I avoided eating at restaurants and shopped for groceries at the Tesco supermarkets instead. That could help. Also, the hop on hop off bus tour with free river cruise was a cost saver.
- Where should solo women travellers to London stay? I stayed at Chrysos Hotel at Norfolk Square. It is a lovely neighbourhood in the centre of London, and well-connected by public transport (Paddington station). The hotel offers proper single rooms – they are small but comfy and cheap by London standards. The staff was really nice.
One Day in London: Hop On Hop Off City Bus Tour
I took the one day hop on hop off city bus tour offered by The Original Tour Company, and it was brilliant. Our guide was lively and informative, and the bus had great open-air seats on the upper deck. It was not at all crowded although it was summer. And the best part: the ticket comes with a free Thames river cruise! I can also recommend Big Bus Tours: they are an old and trusted tour company in London.
- Thames River Cruise
All touristy places are the same: crawling with people, sounds, colours, and smells. In London, there was no jostling. There wasn’t much of impatience either. There were some suspicious glances – not too many. But just enough so I never forgot I was a tourist.
The cruise – it moved at so leisurely a pace – it almost seemed to be still. I’d look up to see that the view had changed merely five degrees to the right. And then, it would pick up pace.
The stately figures of the city watched us circling by, like dour Britishmen of yore, I imagined. People whooshed past in motorboats and ‘ribcrafts’, reminding me of the plethora of boating options available at Udaipur’s lakes. The Thames river cruise lasted for 30 minutes. I didn’t take the return trip because I wanted to explore the other side of the river!
- Tate Modern Gallery
Tate Modern is one of the four famous art galleries of London. I saw some really stunning modern art – videos, images and installations. But the most interesting sight I saw was a young man directing a little child across a long, empty space, while he took photographs of her. He had an assistant with him and it looked like a photography project.
I had mixed feelings as I saw the little girl scamper across the ground, giggling. She seemed to love the guy – perhaps she was his daughter. In that case, was it right for him to use her for professional purposes? I didn’t know why I had that odd feeling of disquiet. But I was simultaneously fascinated. And like me, so were many others.
In fact, some took photographs of the whole scene. A photograph of the process of photography. It seemed apt that such a thing should happen at Tate Modern.
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is an Elizabethan playhouse celebrating the Bard’s contribution to the world. I missed Julius Caeser by just an hour. So I had to make do with the theatre tour and exhibition. But it turned out to be just brilliant. It wasn’t just about Shakespeare – the exhibition took me on a journey of the whole city through the ages.
I saw London in black and white. I saw London before it was shrouded in the aura of being one of the busiest cities in the world. And I think I might have loved that London more.
Southwark, the locality on the opposite side of the road from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, does not feature on too many travel guides to London.
But those little cobblestone streets and walls, that pretty vintage pub The Anchor, the facade of Southwark Cathedral, the ruins of Winchester Palace, the exhibition of the mighty ship of Sir Francis Drake and finally, the quaint Borough Market, fragrant with the aroma of freshly baked bread – all of it charmed me completely and it was perhaps one of the best walks I had in the city.
Later, I found out that Southwark is one of the oldest parts of London and I’m glad I stumbled upon this hidden treasure.
- Buckingham Palace
I had more than my fill of English royalty at the Buckingham Palace (where I also made it to the change of the guards) and Windsor Castle (part of my out-of-London day tour). The former serves as the current residence and headquarters of UK’s reigning monarch.
Things to see at the Buckingham Palace include the state rooms, the grand staircase, the art and porcelain collections, and the imposing throne room. But it was the 39 acre garden that really caught my attention.
It would be tough to say which one made a greater impression on me but I think I’d vote in favour of Buckingham Palace – perhaps because I visited there first but I also found it more elegant, luxurious and slightly homelier than Windsor Castle. I also found the gardens with their little ponds, woods and swimming ducks really delightful.
6. Big Ben
The Big Ben is much more than the eponymous clock tower; it’s a part of the arresting Palace of Westminster. Given its towering height, I saw the Big Ben many times during my explorations of London. My favourite glimpses were of the clock tower across the street and from the river cruise.
The Gothic tower was built in 1858, and is known to be remarkably resilient. It has kept time through the harshest of weathers and situations, including World War II. However, it will not chime until 2021 due to maintenance work.
7. Tower of London
The Tower of London refers to Her Majesty’s royal residence and fortress. The historic castle lies at the northern bank of the River Thames. I was lucky enough to visit during the display of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, an artwork consisting of hordes of ceramic red poppies as you can see in the image below. It was commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I.
The Tower is famous as it used to be a royal palace, prison, execution site, armoury, and zoo. If you have the time, make sure you go inside and see Her Majesty’s Crown Jewels, the mint museum, and the resident ravens. But be prepared for raucous crowds!
8. London Eye
The London Eye is the one landmark that I’d seen most often whenever I’d looked up the city, and it was surreal to witness it at such close quarters! This is the main tourist area of London, with the Big Ben, the River Thames, and the London Bridge all in the vicinity.
The London Eye is actually an observation wheel supported by cantilevers. And the popular opinion is that it offers the best possible view of London. However, I did not go aboard because it was freakishly expensive. See the prices for London Eye tickets here.
London in 3 Hours: What Can You Do?
The day I arrived at Heathrow Airport from Mumbai, India, I didn’t have much time in London. By the time I located my hotel, checked in, and settled into my room, it was evening. So, I decided to explore some nearby attractions:
9. Hyde Park
I went to Hyde Park many times – sometimes to rest my tired toes after a busy day of traipsing around the city and sometimes because it was only a fifteen minute walk from my hotel (Chrysos at Norfolk Square).
I’d heard so much about this place but I couldn’t see it all simply because of its sheer expanse! Nevertheless, I was awed by the size of parks and gardens in London. They occupied such a sizeable chunk of the map and such green standards are something all cities should emulate.
Here’s a poem I wrote at Hyde Park:
Under the blue beyond
I gaze at milky straits
Carving secret passages,
When the clouds forget to look.
The rhythmic whooshes of the pastoral wind
They sing to me of stories
Hidden deep within the folds of the foliage.
I gaze and gaze
At what seems to be endless verdant paradise
In every direction it stretches
And in every direction it pleases.
Unshaped and uncropped,
The shrubberies are free to peer
At whatever bird or bee catches their fancy.
10. Marble Arch
Marble Arch bus-stop was the one that always came to my rescue. Although still a healthy 15-20 minute walk from my hotel, I always had this sense of comfort and relief when I got off here and faced that familiar sculpture of a horse’s head, looking as though it was suspended in mid-air.
Marble Arch is London’s Arc de Triomphe and adjoins Hyde Park. It’s common to see cyclists zipping past on lanes dedicated for them and giving tourists like me a complex with their admirably flat abs and ripping pectorals.
Marble Arch is where I clicked my first photograph of a street-side musician and then beat an ignominious retreat when he insisted on being paid (I was broke in London!).
London in 36 Hours: Final Words
I think I would liken my London experience to the taste of the spring water I had at Bath – somewhat pleasant and somewhat strange, but with a lingering aftertaste that didn’t exactly make me nostalgic – but it certainly made me smile.
The memory seems borrowed – as though it wasn’t me who actually lived it all. But when I shut my eyes and transport myself back to that crisp, chilly evening street at Norfolk Square or the magical by-lanes of Southwark or my journey from the airport to the hotel, driven by an enterprising Sardar who somewhat allayed my trepidation, I can almost believe that it all happened. And it happened to me.
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