The typical hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus is a great way to spend the day on your first trip to London. The ‘Old Smoke’ is such a large city, you can get your bearings and tick off some of the famous sights you feel you can’t miss. But London’s size also means that there is so much dwelling beneath that tourist-friendly surface. As Samuel Johnson rightly said, ‘He who is tired of London is tired of life,’ and you could honestly spend years in the British capital and still never run out of new things to see and do. So once you’ve satisfied your tourist tooth, try one of these more unique London day tours on for size.
Literary Pub Crawl
There are a few cities that have literature-themed pub crawls and the London Literary Pub Crawl is one of the few tours I knew about before researching this post. A local actor in character as Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf guides you around Fitzrovia and Soho over the course of three hours, pointing out pubs famous authors and poets frequented. You won’t drink at every pub. Our group stopped for drinks at just two sites – the Marquis of Granby and Soho Theatre – and you can arrive a little early or stay a little late to have a tipple at your start and end points. The script for this tour is so corny, and perhaps unsurprisingly, is mostly just about Dylan Thomas. Personally, I don’t think I would take this tour again and would recommend it only to those really dying to go.
A big part of why I can only offer a lukewarm recommendation here is the terrible script the guides have to follow. The guides here are just employees of a larger company. Local actors looking for a quick buck on the side. In spite of this, my guide was wonderful when he was out of character. SO. What I recommend taking instead of the London Literary Pub Crawl is Neil’s actual passion project that he manages himself: a West End musical tour. The best day tours are those where the guides are deeply connected to the material, and that helps them connect more to guests.
The exception to the ‘passion project’ rule may be Fun London Tours. This company is very professional, but when I met up with a group of London-based travel bloggers for a walking tour, our guide Matt was perfectly personable. Of course, a lot of that owes to the totally unique set up of Fun London’s Liar Liar tour. As we explored the Square Mile, at each stop Matt would tell us three facts or stories about the site. Two would be true, but one would be a lie. Split into three teams, we competed to guess which was the lie. The Gherkin, Leadenhall Markets, and the original starting point of London Bridge all featured on our route.
The more the merrier here! This tour was made for large groups and its interactive take on London’s history and architecture would be ideal for traveling families.
Disclaimer: I received a discounted ticket for this tour as part of a group of bloggers. Big thanks to Pinay Flying High for organizing our meetup! All opinions are naturally my own, and I would happily pay full price for this tour (or another from the same company) on a future visit.
Shoreditch Street Art
Alternative London operates a variety of walking tours and workshops in the Shoreditch area. My semi-impulsive booking scored me a spot on their two-hour walking tour ending at Moniker Art Fair, a commercial art market. We explored the rapidly developing neighborhoods of east London and spotted works by Jonesy, Lily Mixe, and Citizen Kane.
Personally, I was not wildly impressed with this tour. The guide mostly just used it as a soapbox for his political views. Politics will always have an important place in street art – but there’s a lot of interesting art to discuss too. The guide, a documentary filmmaker rather than a street artist himself, had a rather narrow view of ‘real art’ and I think we missed out on a lot of attractive, interesting pieces as a result. I would recommend anyone interested book far enough in advance to get a spot at the combo tour and workshop. Having the extra engagement of learning to work with spray paint and stencils would be more worthwhile, as the tour does not stand as well on its own.
Soho Murder Mile
As an incredibly morbid person who loves traipsing about historic cemeteries and consuming serial killer pop culture, when I was prepping this post and found the Soho Murder Mile tour, I could not book it fast enough. And boy howdy was it worth it.
Michael is easily the best tour guide in the whole of London. This tour is his absolute passion, meaning the hour walk is a) packed with painstakingly researched stories, and b) presented with an incredible, infectious energy. He has one rule: Less walking, more murders. Within the single mile of ground we covered in Soho, we heard the sorry tales of a dozen murderers with over 70 victims, with plenty of portraits, newspaper clippings, and other visual aids.
Now, Jack the Ripper fans – don’t get your hopes up. London’s most legendary killer – who technically was supposed to have operated in Whitechapel, not Soho – was mostly just the invention of tabloid press, and the murders ascribed to him were probably committed by many different people. What you will hear about are stories with far more hard evidence behind them from 19th century madman William Crees to the infamous 1980s serial killer Dennis Nilsen. Soho is some bloody ground ya’ll. This is not your mama’s London walking tour.
Gin Distilleries & Events
Gin is experiencing an absolute renaissance in Europe at the moment. A ‘gin-aissance,’ if you will, and I make no apologies for that pun. London is the absolute homeland of gin, so there are plenty of ways for you to get a guided introduction to the spirit. It’s called London dry gin for a reason, after all.
For an intimate and inexpensive tasting, time your visit for the first Monday of the month so you can attend Graphic Bar’s Gin Social. Each month, the Soho watering hole welcomes a new label to pour for a small group of pre-booked guests around the cozy leather couches by the bar’s front window. In October, Alex, a ‘gin curator’ from Thomas Dakin, based in Manchester, served up their small batch gin, the recreation of an historic 18th century recipe. Six quid scores a seat at the table and three drinks, including a welcome cocktail, a tipple of straight gin for a guided tasting, and a second cocktail. My welcome gin & tonic was prepared with orange and cinnamon, instead of the traditional lime, and damn if it wasn’t the best G&T I’ve ever had. The second cocktail was the invention of a Graphic bartender, a bloody mary style drink, just with gin instead of vodka, so a bit less to my taste.
For a slightly different experience, book a tour of one of the gin distilleries in London. The old-school copper tanks at Sipsmith Distillery, located in Chiswick, and its matching bar are as Instagrammable as it gets. Sipsmith tours fill up fast – you may need to book as much as a month in advance. Groups are very large, making it more difficult to follow the guide. But you get a unique glimpse into how gin is produced, and a guided tasting which includes Sipsmith’s craft vodka, dry gin, sloe gin, and a gin & tonic. They also send guests away with a little parting gift.
Tours I Think You Should Skip
Hands down, two of the most sought-after tours of London must be Jack the Ripper-themed walks and Beatles-themed walks. I think you should say no to both.
As mentioned above, Jack the Ripper did not exist. Paying for a Ripper-themed walk just helps perpetuate the myth that he did. Granted, we can still love the stories, so if the fact that it’s not true doesn’t deter you, here’s what should. The Jack the Ripper walking tour of London is just not good quality. I took one on my second or third visit to London, during my semester abroad in Bath, and was completely underwhelmed. The guide had very poor skills, not projecting his voice enough, stopping the group by noisy construction sites, etc. He also tended to stop the group far from the sites we were actually discussing, which really hurt the connection we could feel to the stories. Just don’t go. Take the Soho Murder Mile tour instead. The stories are true and just plain more enjoyable.
As for the Beatles, the man who runs the walking tour focused on the Fab Four is quite rude and disinterested in connecting with his guests. Many people signed up for the tour have difficulty finding him at the meeting point because he does not have appropriate signage. He is especially rude to anyone not taking his tour asking for directions, and I’ve heard lots of complaints from folks who did not feel they got their money’s worth. You couldn’t pay me to go on the Beatles walking tour in London. I think you’re far better off doing some research and putting together your own self-guided tour if you’re a Beatles fan. Or go to Liverpool, and take a Beatles tour there.
From a darker look at local history to special focuses on art or food and drink, there are countless ways to explore the British capital beyond its famous sightseeing. What are your favorite London day tours?
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