20 Things We Really Love About London

Last Updated 13 June 2024

20 Things We Really Love About London

Londonist turns 20 logo

Londonist is 20 years old in 2024! As part of our celebrations, we're bringing you some special articles in which we (and possibly you) pick 20 things to do with London. Here, Team Londonist pick 20 things we love about the capital. How many do you agree with? And what would you add?

The unflappable nature of Londoners

The Protein Man with his banner
Stanley Green — aka the Protein Man. Image: Sean Hickin via creative commons

For the 25 years between 1968 and 1993, Stanley Green — aka the Protein Man — trooped up and down Oxford Street with a placard urging Londoners to eat less cheese, eggs, nuts and other proteins in order to dampen their sexual libidos. He was an oddball man with a screwy message, seen by millions of people every day, and yet, as Peter Ackroyd later observed, Green was largely ignored. Londoners are curious when they want to be; tell them you know of a good wine bar in an old Victorian toilet, and they're all ears. At the same time, you could run a Generation Game-like conveyor belt of increasingly egregious objects past a seasoned Londoner, and they'd nary bat an eyelid. Yes, they've seen it all before. Yes, they're too busy to stop and take note. But at the heart of this apparent indifference is a hidden depth. Sometimes it's a form of stoicism; on 8 July 2005 — the day following the devastating 7/7 terrorist attacks — 80% of trains were running as normal, and many Londoners headed back in to work. It's more than that though; from Londoners' unflappable nature radiates, when at its best, a warmth of tolerance and acceptance. In London, you are your own person, and whether you want to kiss your same sex lover in the park or sail through the streets on a skateboard pulled by dogs, please go right ahead. There is, however, one thing that has Londoners freaking out at, and as well all know, that's standing on the left-hand side of the escalator.

The lime green trams of south London

A tram gliding past a park
Wham, bam, thank you tram. Image: Londonist

In the early 1950s, London dropped a clanger by doing away with its network of trams. It took decades to dawn on the city that they were one of the best things it'd ever had, but by then the streets were entangled in new infrastructure, and it wasn't as simple as just plonking the trams back again. In one section of south London, however, a reverse tram-sectomy was possible, and so at sunup on the new millennium, the Croydon Tramlink (now London Trams) opened — the streets, roads and open countryside between Beckenham/Addington and Wimbledon once again serenaded by chirruping of bells and the gentle whoosh of a 30-metre-long boardable snake gliding by. There's something magical about London's trams: they cut through traffic like a hot knife through butter; they dash you from the Minecraft tower blocks of Croydon to the palace-studded woodlands of Addington in minutes; they'll lead you on an epic pub crawl that doesn't cost more than £4.95 (though that doesn't include the beers, sadly). People who've never seen a tram before are dumbfounded by the sight of this miraculous 'train of the road', and who can blame them. South London often gets short shrift for its inferior transport links, but trust us, everywhere else is lime green with envy about its trams. Read our Ode to the London Trams.

Bumping into celebs

Paul McCartney in a white shirt strumming a guitar
The average Londoner bumps into Sir Paul McCartney twice a week. Possibly. Image: Jimmy Baikovicius via creative commons

Every Londoner and his dog seems to have a story about spotting Bill Nighy out and about in London, be it strolling through Soho or hopping on the Overground. Sir Ian McKellen, Kate Moss and Sir Michael Caine also feature frequently in many stories of celeb encounters in the capital. In 2016, we asked you who you'd spotted, and the answers ranged from James May running away from morris dancers to James Nesbitt in a near miss on his bike. In 2023, our readers charmed us once again with tales of Paul McCartney buying board games, two-fingered salutes to the Queen Mother and Tom Jones pointing out a former whore house.

You never know who you'll pass as you go about your business, or what they'll be doing when you pass them. Even better: you just know that the Londoner standing nonchalantly next to Ian McKellen trying to pretend they're too cool and too London to care, is secretly messaging everyone they know: "I'M STANDING NEXT TO GANDALF". Our own top celeb spots in London? Stephen Fry, gazing up at the departure screens at King's Cross, just a few metres away from Esme Young from the Sewing Bee; Bradley Walsh in a bar in Chelsea; and Gwyneth Paltrow in the gift shop at London Zoo.

Getting soaked in the London rain

"I like London in the rain..." once sang the great Blossom Dearie. We'd go further: we LOVE London in the rain. Overcast skies and the threat of storms are only problematic if you let them: but isn't watching the lights of Piccadilly Circus stippled through a droplet-smattered bus window — or making a dash for the shelter of a plane tree in Hyde Park — part of the whole London experience? Absolutely. A rainy day, of course, is also the perfect excuse to either treat yourself to a posh brolly from one of the world's most beautiful umbrella shops or otherwise dry off with a pint in front of one of the city's many pubs with open fires. Or — in the name of a neat article segue — visit one of the city's art galleries...

An absolute glut of galleries

Drones that look like jellyfish
Just another normal day in London. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

There are over 800 contemporary art galleries in London, from the bigger museum-like ones such as South London Gallery and the newly opened Gilbert & George Centre (where the eponymous artists appear as a permanent exhibit), to teensy spaces tucked away down side alleys, through a door and up some stairs. Whether you're looking for big name artists or affordable art to put on your walls; pop art or conceptual art; painting, photography or sculpture — London has you covered.

There's loads in the swanky neighbourhood of Mayfair, and nearby Fitzrovia seems to have a new gallery opening every month. You'll also find hubs in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Peckham and Walthamstow. Even if you're not in one of said hubs, you’ll still be able to find a gallery in your local neighbourhood. Galleries are slowly getting better at making their spaces and openings welcoming to all. It also feels like every time one gallery closes, another two open.

Wild parakeets here, there and everywhere

A parakeet landing on someone's hand
Let's be honest, they're cooler than pigeons. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

If you've so much as set foot in zones 1-3 in recent years, odds are that you've heard or seen the parakeets, even if you weren't quite sure what they were at the time. Regularly mistaken for parrots, the natty little green birds live wild in London now, despite not being a native species. Their origin is unknown, and widely debated, with rumours that they escaped from the film set of The African Queen in the 1950s, or that Jimi Hendrix released a single pair in the 1960s (both of these theories have been disproven).

Wherever they came from, they're here to stay, spreading fast with sightings all over the south-east of England, and beyond. They've become a beloved part of London's avian tapestry, with many people saying they love listening to them. There's even been a whole book dedicated to them, and if you fancy a closer look, we know a spot where they're now so accustomed to people, they'll even land on your hand. Can't imagine the capital without their incessant squawking, or the flashes of green darting through trees overhead, to be honest.

Glorious railway stations

A panorama of Surbiton station with a yellow taxi to left
Yes, tube stations are amazing — but let's not neglect the train stations. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

London's tube stations get plenty of attention — and rightly so, magnificent beasts that they are — but the capital's National Rail stations are a bit special too. For many, they are the gateway to London, the place you glide into, buzzing for a day out. For others, they are the way home, where you head after a weary day at the office, knowing your dinner and loved ones are waiting for you at the other end of the line. Admittedly, they vary in admirability, from the functional nature of the likes of Cannon Street, to the architectural wonder of St Pancras, the sprawling utilitarianism of the concourse at Waterloo, the what-fresh-hell-is-this vibes of London Bridge and... whatever it is that's going on at Euston at the moment. But whichever station you're travelling from, there's always a frisson of excitement that we don't always get with the tube. Perhaps it's the potential for travelling a longer distance, out into Kent, or Hertfordshire, or as far as Edinburgh... or even Paris? Whatever it is, make sure to look around you before you board your train: London's National Rail stations are full of secrets, from missing platforms to presidential visits to a grave beneath a platform. The majority of them have at least one pub too.

Boozers with a backstory

A glowing jukebox in Bradleys bar, with the door open behind onto Hanway Street
Image: Londonist

Did someone say pub? Not many boozers have entire autobiographies written about them, but the George Tavern in Southwark is one of them (it's called Shakespeare's Local, give it a read). It is one of scores of pubs in London with a fascinating backstory: the Great Fire-escaping (Seven Stars), the tchotchke-collecting (Nag's Head), the jukebox-wielding (Bradley's Spanish Bar), the outright haunted (Grenadier). While dipping into a classic novel — the Pickwick Papers, Hangover Square — will give you a taste of London of yore, you're better off wheeling off down the next alleyway you come to, because there's a good chance it'll draw you into a world of roaring log fires, ale in pewter tankards... or even just wind the clock back a bit to the 1970s. In the digital-obsessed world we live in, it's a rare thing indeed to surrender your phone, but London's historic pubs are one such place to do just that. Especially in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, where you can never get any bloody signal.

Always being on the cusp of tomorrow

Tuxedos. Bourbon biscuits. Harrier jump jets. What do they all have in common? Well yes, if you combine the three, you have a helluva night out on your hands — but they were also all invented in London. Sucking in some of the smartest minds known to history, London has always been a crucible of creativity — somewhere the impossible is possible. But we're not just talking electric kettles and cash machines. In all walks of life, London is two steps ahead of most other places. Culturally, it switched on the world's first TV in 1926, was throwing avocado conventions in 1966, and opened the UK's first internet cafe in 1994. It's also where you could have played the first game of modern darts, flobbed your way through the Sex Pistols first ever gig or slurped the first espresso martini ever made. Not going on about it or anything, but London also invented a little thing called underground trains. Here, you have the privilege of experiencing things before anyone else — haircuts and music among them — it's like having a cheeky world exclusive before anyone else. Do we pay the price? Certainly: in rent, two-hour journeys home and a nagging thought in the back of your head saying it's time to move to Lincolnshire and start up that kale farm. But if you're still a Londoner, then you're obviously here for a reason — even if that reason hasn't been invented yet.

Museums that let you in for nothing

A man looking at some of the Elgin Marbles
This bloke didn't pay to get in. Didn't have to. Image: Londonist

Louvre in Paris: 17€. National Gallery in London: free. National Palace Museum in Taipei: NT$350. British Museum in London: free. MoMA in NYC: $28. Tate Modern in London: free. It is one of the great joys of being a Londoner that you can walk in off the street, wander around a museum gallery for half an hour then leave without your wallet feeling any lighter. You can do it in your lunch break. In your coffee break even (although does anyone have coffee breaks anymore?). And it's about so much more than just being thrifty: the benefit of free access to a big institution means you keep coming back for more, visiting different parts of it, trying out the cafe, building up a relationship with the place — not just visiting it in one leg-aching six-hour quest once every 20 years. Free museums make a lot of sense for everyone involved. And London is the undisputed heavyweight champ. Try our London museum flowchart.

Dotty rituals to keep you entertained/baffled year-round

From the health and safety-lacking baby jumping festival of Murcia in Spain, to chucking cinnamon at 25-year-old Danes, barmy rituals make the world a more interesting place, and keep desk-based listicle writers in a job. London has more than its fair share of these kooky goings-on: a bloke dressed as a bush being piped over the Millennium Footbridge by the Devil; the Soho Waiter's Race (in which serving staff dash around the block balancing a bottle of fizz on a tray), a load of sailors lifting another sailor up to put a hot cross bun in a basket), and the Swearing on the Horns — where a fake judge hands out sentences for looking at him the wrong way. These are the mere tip of the iceberg: most weeks of the year, you could sniff out some little oddity that happens nowhere else in the world. It is probably not coincidence that a good deal of these vignettes either take place in the pub, or end up down one.

Street furniture scattered all over the place

Colourful bollards
Image: Matt Brown and his trigger-happy attitude to saturation levels

Sure, every town has its bollards and benches, but London is the home of street furniture. 97.56% of all first-time tourists to London take a snap of our K2 red phone boxes, according to a survey I just did in my head. And who can blame them? They're handsome, distinguished things that are iconic to the city — the boxes, not the tourists. But it doesn't stop there. We have bollards made from captured cannon, rainbow bollards, a post shaped like a police helmet, and arty bollards designed by Antony Gormley and Zandra Rhodes. Benches, too, come in all shapes and sizes, including whippet, sphinx, Olympic rings, famous buildings and, um, Antony Gormley with an erection. Throw in all those plaques, memorials, coal hole covers and drinking fountains, and you have a city where every bit of pavement clutter deserves an essay. Or at least a tea towel.

The unexpected quiet spaces

Phoenix Garden with Stik mural
Peace in Phoenix Garden. Image: Matt Brown

The corollary of living in a buzzing, crowded city is that you notice the silent spots all the more keenly. Often, these sit right beside the busiest thoroughfares. Have you ever dipped into Brooke's Market between High Holborn and Leather Lane? Do so. I swear it's enveloped in an eerie enchantment, which magics away the commotion of the surrounding streets. A more placid silence can be found in the Phoenix Garden, just metres from the hubbub of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Or try a Square Mile churchyard on a Saturday morning, when 95% of the office workers are absent and the blackbirds are singing. Just don't seek peace at the St Dunstan-in-the-East peace garden. The bombed out Wren church has found its way into so many 'secret London' guides that you're guaranteed to find a crowd at any time of the week.

The inimitable Thames

The Thames with the Shard, tate modern and other buildings across it
Just don't swim in it. Image: Matt Brown

What would London be without the Thames? Well, it wouldn't be. The city was founded here by the Romans because of the river, for the protection and communication it afforded. They picked the spot where it was still wide, yet easily bridgeable. 2,000 years on, and the Thames still defines the city. We are North Londoners or South Londoners according to which side of the river we live. Tower Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe, Tate Modern, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the O2, the Tower of London, the towers of Canary Wharf... all these iconic structures were placed, for different reasons, on or close to the river. Try to imagine the city if the Thames were suddenly deleted. The same buildings remain, but it would no longer be London. Liquid history. (Other London rivers are available: even if they're not all visible.)

Alleyways, charming and useful

Brydges Place near Trafalgar Square
How can you resist. Image: Matt Brown

Many Londoners fear to tread in the West End during high tourist season. It's all just too busy. Ditto the Square Mile at lunch time. Both areas become much more walkable if you know about the alleys and cut-throughs. It's possible to get from, say, Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden almost entirely by alley. Likewise, you can get from Aldgate to Smithfield without any bother if you follow the quiet lanes and narrow cuttings. The main reason to go 'off-road' in this way, though, is the sheer romance of it all. Many of London's alleys have been here for hundreds of years — some since medieval times. Try our self-guided tour of some West End alleys for a taster, or seek out some of London's finest pubs, which tend to lurk down alleys. Lacking vehicles, advertising and modern shop signs, these spaces are potent reservoirs of history. And only a few of them smell of piss.

Streets slathered in art and murals

A giant jay in Penge
A random piece of street art from Penge... one of London's more unlikely hotspots for street art. Image: Matt Brown

London has some of the most important art galleries in the world, which should rightly be celebrated (and we have, above). But some of the best stuff is to be found randomly on the streets. It's the sense of place. A tediously familiar corner can spring to life from the sudden appearance of new street art. It can stop you in your tracks. This is art in the community, often appearing without warning or planning (beyond that of the artist themselves).

Even when they are planned and commissioned, murals can still boggle the mind in ways that gallery art seldom does. It's impossible to walk past the Battle of Cable Street mural or the Spirit of Soho mural without stopping to admire them anew, to take just two examples from a pool of hundreds of community murals across London. More recent commissions, such as Dan Kitchener's multistorey mural over a Southampton Row hotel, or Lionel Stanhope's railway signs (pictured below) have added to the visual richness of London's streets.

Lionel Stanhope Selhurst mural
Can't remember where we took this one. Image: Matt Brown

Even pure graffiti can raise a smile if the place and message are well chosen. Take the enigmatic (and now sadly destroyed) "Give Peas a Chance" slogan daubed across an M25 motorway bridge; a dumped bed with "You're all that mattress to me" sprayed upon it; or the many signs along the Thames warning of strong currents, which now also caution against "dangerous raisins". You don't find silly dad jokes on the walls of galleries.

The rambling Royal Parks

A statue of Achilles looking over towards a high rise building
Now that's a six pack. Image: Londonist

For such a large and busy city, London is surprisingly green, thanks in no small part to its network of Royal Parks. The fact you can walk from Horse Guards Parade almost all the way to Notting Hill crossing just a couple of roads — a distance of around three miles — is incredible when you think about it. But that's just the start of the magnificence of the Royal Parks, a collection of 10 open spaces. Between them, they're home to: an open-air theatre, ancient woodland, herds of wild deer, royal monuments, boating lakes, the oldest outdoor swimming club in Britain, mausoleums, the graves of well-known figures including suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, a pet cemetery, plus many species of birds, mammals and insects... and that's just off the top of our heads. Reckon you could spend 3-5 business days exploring Hyde Park alone and not see all of it — though if anyone's able to explain why the heavens always open when we're right in the middle of the park, miles from the nearest shelter, we're all ears. Happened too many times for it to be coincidence.

Awe-inspiring views to drink in for free

The atrium of Horizon 22
Getting high in London is rarely a bad idea. Image: Londonist

London's skyline is constantly changing. Case in point: The Gherkin, once a behemoth of the skies of the Square Mile, now pretty damn difficult to catch a glimpse of. The good news is that there are loads of places around London where you can get an incredible view of the City, and watch it evolving — sometimes by the day, or so it feels. Lofty spots like Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill have always been popular for this sort of thing, with Londoners and tourists (and filmmakers) flocking there to picnic, court and generally enjoy themselves with the London skyline as a backdrop. And to be honest, hardened Londoners though we are, we still feel a *little* bit like we're starring in a Richard Curtis film every time we venture there.

Recently though, a new — though equally thrifty — breed of viewpoints have, quite literally, sprung up: free viewing platforms. The Sky Garden, which opened in 2015, was among the first, offering Londoners and visitors free access to the top of a skyscraper. Since then, The Garden at 120, Horizon 22, and The Post Building's roof garden have joined the ranks. The irony: the more of these buildings that go up, the less there is to see from, as they all block each other's views. It won't be long until we're all just staring out at each other, each in our own little glass room 30/40/50 (delete as appropriate) floors above the now-empty streets below.

Enough food to keep you sated forever and a day

Pie, mash and liquor
London's food scene offers infinitely more than pie and mash. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Back in 2016 we ran a piece lamenting various foodstuffs it was hard to come by in London, including deep dish pizza, chicken parmo and shabu-shabu. Fast-forward to 2024 and all three of these can be scoffed in the capital — it's as if London itself read that article and said "hold my souvlaki...". Such is the vibrancy of the food scene nowadays, we're scared to click on Instagram lest we find ourselves with FOMO that we're not at that very moment scarfing down beef rendang in some Malaysian eatery stashed away in a Queensway shopping centre. There are 80 Michelin-starred restaurants in London, but you can just as easily find yourself sitting down to a thrifty Ethiopian stew in Kingston, and having just as much/a lot more fun. And for all the world cuisine on offer, there is always that quintessentially-London, yet much-debated dish: pie and mash. We'll take ours with lashings of liquor and chilli vinegar, thanks.

Londoners and their sense of humour

Stick with us on this one. If you live in a city that forces you to stump up a third to almost half of your monthly income of rent, you have GOT to have an active sense of humour. Joel Golby's London Rental Opportunity of the Week exhibited this rather splendidly. Londoners are often denounced as po-faced so-and-sos who wouldn't crack a smile if you tickled their feet with a feather while reading them the complete works of PG Wodehouse. But that would be to ignore the fact this is a city where tube drivers say the funniest things, weird dummies occupy the corner of museums, Princess Di shot glasses are readily available — and even the red-tunic-wearing soldiers taking part in Changing the Guard are prone to outbursts of Neil Diamond standards (see above above). And did we mention London has the best comedy scene in the world? Not laughing now, are you.

Contributions from Matt Brown, Will Noble, Laura Reynolds and Tabish Khan.