6 Unique Cultural Experiences in London
Firstly, let us just say that London is all about unique cultural experiences; whether it involves eating your way around New Malden’s “Little Korea”, hopping from one free museum to the next in South Kensington, chatting to Pearly Kings and Queens on the street, or “propping up” the bar of some kitschy gin parlor. Its 2,000-year legacy brings together proud traditions with today’s modern, inclusive mindset and internationalism to create the London that both residents and travelers adore so much: a London where everyone and everything is not only welcomed, but celebrated.
To the outside eye, the city might seem a little stiff or stuck-up. Yes, there may be a degree of snobbery when it comes to standing on the right of an Underground escalator or getting your Travelcard ready before approaching the barriers, and Londoners may not be the most obliging folk in the world when rushing from A to B—but they only really have one hard-and-fast rule for their visitors: make yourself at home.
So, here are some of the most authentic experiences to aim for on your next trip to London.
1. See the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Regardless of your stance on the monarchy, nobody can deny that Queen Elizabeth II is a remarkable human being. She alone represents an institution that can be traced back over 1,000 years, with almost 70 of those being under her reign. Travelers come from every corner of the Earth just to catch a glimpse of her famous home, Buckingham Palace , and observe the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance of the Changing of the Guard ceremony that unfolds in the courtyard outside. The Changing of the Guard is exactly that: when the Queen’s Old Guard of protective soldiers is swapped out for the New Guard. Think of it as a very elaborate shift changeover. It normally happens at 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, but occurs daily during the summer months.
2. Go to the theatre
London undisputedly has the most varied and vibrant theatre offering in all the world. Largely concentrated around the district known as the West End, you’ll find everything from acclaimed musicals, opera, and dance to star-studded Shakespeare, cabaret, and improvised comedies. But there is so much more to London’s theatreland than just the triple-tiered auditoriums of Shaftesbury Avenue; there are award-winning spaces like the Bush Theatre and Theatre503 specializing in new-writing, alternative venues like The Vaults Theatre , fringe theatres, pub theatres, pop-up theatres, immersive shows, and site-specific productions. You name it, you’ll find it here. Pro tip: When booking tickets for a performance, go directly to the specific theatre’s website or box office, as this will guarantee you are getting the best available seats for the best price while avoiding the extortionate booking fees charged by a lot of third-party agents.
3. Ride on a big red bus
A big red double-decker bus is the internationally recognized mascot for London, and a wonderful way to navigate the city. A transportation method popular with the people who live here, London buses are cheaper, cleaner, and a typically less-cramped substitute for the Underground. Albeit much slower than the Tube, what buses do offer instead is the opportunity for passengers to see London from above-ground, allowing them to really appreciate its geography, architecture, and surprising features. Transport for London has even created a handy map detailing some of the most interesting routes. Pro tip: Avoid peak times when Londoners might be commuting in and out of work.
4. Shop in the city’s many markets
Markets are where the eclectic creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of London’s people truly come into focus. Their buzzing stalls are a microcosm of the city’s global heart, showcasing artisanal crafts, clothing, curios, world-inspired street food, and the freshest groceries. No two are the same, and each neighborhood has its own: whether it’s a farmer’s market, flea market, or flower market. Head to Old Spitalfields Market for a slice of past-meets-present, Greenwich Market for unusual gifts, Maltby Street Market for delicious nibbles under the railway arches, Broadway Market for planet-kind buys, and Portobello Road Market for antiques, collectibles, and rare finds. Pro tip: If you’re intending to visit a market on the weekend, arrive early before the crowds descend and stocks deplete. Take some cash with you too, just in case certain vendors don’t accept cards.
5. Toss a coin to London’s street performers
Street entertainment is a massive part of London culture, adding to the idea that there’s always a willing audience here for anyone wanting to share their talents. Acrobats, puppeteers, living statues, roller-skaters, musicians, magicians, hip-hop dancers, and bubble-blowers are just a handful of artists that you’ll find flexing their skills around Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, or on the South Bank of the Thames. The London Underground is also a great spot for hearing buskers, with more than 100,000 hours of live music a year soaring through the tunnels. When silence fell across the city during the height of the pandemic, performers who rely on making an income from this kind of work suffered a terrible slump, so be sure to support them if you’re able to by dropping some loose change into their hats (or tapping their card-reader).
6. Spend a day on the South Bank and Bankside of the Thames
You’d be forgiven for doubting the importance of what may seem like a mundane embankment on paper, but this isn’t just any old embankment. Beginning at Westminster Bridge, the South Bank is a riverside promenade that merges with the Bankside area around Blackfriars Bridge before ending at Tower Bridge. Walking this route, which forms a section of the Jubilee Walkway, incorporates some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, arts venues, community hangouts and cultural hubs, including the National Theatre , Royal Festival Hall , BFI , Gabriel's Wharf , the Tate Modern , and Shakespeare's Globe . You’ll pass the aforementioned street performers, a skatepark, an open-air book market, food trucks, and the iconic London Eye . This is where you can also depart on a Thames Clipper or riverboat cruise to see the city from a magical new perspective and learn more about its history.