London City Experiences: Be a tourist in your own back yard with amazing food and unique sights
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Living in a city as vast as London, there's always something new to see - or something to see from a fresh perspective. I've been here nearly a year now, and like any other new arrival, I've ticked many of the classic tourist attractions off my list; Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, the Tower of London, Borough Market (writes Amber Allott).
But in a city as storied as London, every site has layers upon layers of history, which reveal more and more about the place and its people.
With the cost of living and the climate crisis both biting, the era of the staycation is in, so I tried out a few of City Experiences' tours, and found they offer a unique chance for Londoners to play tourist in their own back yard.
Anything but bland
Britain’s cuisine cops a lot of flack overseas, with many imagining it as bland, stodgy, lacking in imagination, and reminiscent of wartime rationing. But as our bright and bubbly Devour Tours guide Becki demonstrated, it’s a reputation that is thoroughly undeserved.
Southwark’s Borough Market is what it is today because of a history spanning eras and classes.
Starting the day right with a traditional breakfast bap from Brood, we learned all about London’s original street food - fresh oysters. Harking back to England’s days as part of the Roman empire, native oyster shells can be found dating back thousands of years. A delicacy today, they were once a working class snack food.
Richard Haward’s oysteria brings a little of that history back to the market, making the fresh, sustainably-harvested shellfish accessible to the masses.
Then it was on to the reinvented classics, such as the award-winning fish, chips, and mushy peas of Fish! - arguably some of Britain’s best - and sausage rolls from The Ginger Pig, with chaat from Indian street food favourite Horn Ok Please for the vegetarians.
The real star of the show was Humble Crumble, which elevates the apple dessert into an all-too-Instagrammable treat. With optional add-ons including an airy marshmallow fluff, lashings of sweet vanillary custard, and seasonal fruit combinations like plum, blueberry and orange, it served up a helping of class alongside its nostalgia.
Apple crumble as a dish really is a throwback to World War II, Becki said, with its crunchy top a rationing-friendly alternative to baking an entire pie crust. But Humble Crumble’s very existence just goes to show while the war may have had an influence, British cuisine is anything but drab.
The tour finished off with madeira, a selection of British cheeses, and a helping of sticky toffee pudding at the Mug House - a cozy little bar tucked away under London Bridge. Becki said the Devour Tours motto is never to let anyone leave hungry - no easy feat, but one that was achieved with room to spare (or not, in this case).
Perhaps the best thing about the tour is that it used the UK’s culinary history as a window through which you could glimpse the people who have called it home. The most poignant part was a stop at the Cross Bones Graveyard, just a stone’s throw from Borough Market. This is the final resting place of the Winchester Geese, the local nickname for the thousands of prostitutes who lived and worked in this once-shady corner of London. The remains of the unconsecrated (although this has now been rectified) cemetery have been turned into a peaceful little garden, which memorialises and honours society’s outcasts.
On its doorstep, the ruins of a Roman-era mausoleum were recently discovered, complete with still-intact floor mosaics. The lavish facility is thought to have been used by the well-off, encapsulating London to a tee - a place where people from all walks of life live side by side, to this very day.
Afternoon tea and a crash course on London's bridges
A riverboat tour is a perfect way to see a highlights reel of London’s history and architecture from a fresh angle.
City Cruises offers the chance to experience some of this history from the waters of the River Thames, while relaxing with a sumptuous afternoon tea spread of sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea.
The perfect opportunity to unwind while sightseeing, after your cucumber sandwiches you can relax on the sundeck and hear about the famous bridges - from the iconic towers of Tower Bridge (the bascule bridge may even open while you’re passing through, if you’re lucky) to the nursery-rhyme famous but much less showy London Bridge.
Other, lesser-known, bridges include the striking Millennium footbridge - closed for two years after a disastrous opening day, which saw it nicknamed the ‘wobbly bridge’.
Ghost stories and 14th century pageantry
The Tower of London is one of London’s most popular attractions and this is where an after-hours tour can come in handy. Guided by a yeoman warden, it offers a chance to explore the grounds of the historic fortress without the crowds.
You will learn about everything from the prisoners who lived and died behind its walls, to its time as a zoo.
The Tower’s ghost stories suddenly become much more believable after dark. Accompanied by a gurgling croak from one of its resident ravens (always at least six, or legend has it the tower will fall), you can almost see the White Lady watching you from the windows of its central keep.
An after-hours tour gives you the rare chance to watch the nightly Ceremony of the Keys - filming and photography is strictly forbidden. I won't give away what exactly makes up the ceremony, but even for the traveller less interested in the pomp and pageantry, it's a quirky piece of English history.
Experience one of these tours for yourself
A food tour of Borough Market with Devour Tours starts at £78 - which is pretty cost effective as you certainly won’t leave hungry. The City Cruises afternoon tea experience on the River Thames costs an extra £52.
While anyone can get a ticket to see the Tower of London’s key ceremony from the Royal Palaces, availability is on a first come, first served basis and is strictly limited - meaning you may need to book up to a month in advance to see it on your preferred dates. City Experiences’ VIP option, which combines the ceremony with a beefeater-guided after hours tour is a great alternative. Prices start at £120.