London: 5 surprising essentials to see before you die

By Sean O'Neill
October 3, 2012
Courtesy <a href="" target="_blank">Tony Hisgett/Flickr</a>

Visitors to London already know about its highlights. On your past trips, you probably soared to the top of the London Eye, gawked at the Queen's jewels at the Tower of London, and contemplated the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin marbles, and Van Gogh's sunflowers at the National Gallery.

But what about the attractions haven't you heard of? You know, the ones that are affordable and truly worth seeing?

After months of reflection, I'm tossing out my five picks.

Listen to a heavenly choir

London's contributions to music and religious faith have been enormous over the centuries. Breathe it all in during a service at Westminster Cathedral. Even atheists will bliss out at the world-class choir, which sings during mass. Daily. For times, see

Visit a haunted mansion

For a city that's all about capital-H History, this is a spot where you can walk right into it: Dennis Severs' House is a little bit history, a little bit gallery, and a little bit kitschy. Somehow, it all works. Interiors are decorated in authentic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furnishings. You are escorted through the rooms in silence by candlelight, listening and feeling for the presence of ghosts., admission fee from £8, or $13.

See the classic art collection of a British eccentric

London may be the art capital of the world, and the favorite museum of many Londoners is Sir John Soane's Museum. One of the founders of the British Museum, Soane collected many eccentric treasures, which are on display in his former home, including the sarcophagus of Egyptian king Seti I. The architecture and decoration varies wildly in this group of buildings, with one room crammed with Roman marble and miniatures while another is decorated like a Gothic monk's parlor. Located in Holborn (between the city's political and financial districts), the museum can be spun through in about an hour. free,

Laugh into your beer at a comedy show

London is the world capital of stand-up. Pick up a copy of Time Out London and catch one of the shows—which happen every night of the week in every part of downtown. Prices range from free to dirt cheap. With luck, you may see the world's next Ricky Gervais before he becomes a household name.

Roam the historical center's back streets after dark

Many Americans are so afraid of getting lost that they never stray from the familiarity of central London's busy sidewalks. But the true charm of the British capital lies in its side streets and medieval pathways, which buzz with entrepreneurs and bristle with centuries-old architecture. After the sun goes down, the side streets look cinematic. So, be bold! Wander around the courtyards of the Inns of Court, the one-way streets in the district surrounding St. Paul's Cathedral, and the pedestrianized passageways off of Regent Street—such as Beak Street. For inspiration, pick up a guidebook with maps of self-guided walking. Still nervous? Then walk with in a small group with one of guides at the award-winning London Walks., from £8, or $13.

What is *your* pick for a lesser-known attraction that all visitors to London should see before they die? Please share your recommendation, below.


London's top fish and chip shops

How staying near Paddington can make your trip better

London hotels: Want that towel? You have to pay $2.40

Plan Your Next Getaway
Keep reading

London: How staying near Paddington can make your trip better

In west central London, it's smart to stay in the quiet area near Paddington Station, which provides speedy access to the city's iconic destinations. Once gritty zones where the final drug deal in Trainspotting was filmed, the neighborhoods of Paddington and Bayswater have softened their edges to become a haven for value-priced hotels. Hotels here&mdash;unlike those downtown&mdash;are quiet and roomy, and most are inside white and black Victorian town houses that have been refurbished. Couples and families make up most of the guests in the local hotels&mdash;not business people with expense accounts or backpackers who make lots of noise late at night. Here's what to expect, plus four Budget Travel-recommended hotels: The location Lying on the north side of Hyde Park, it's a short walk from here to the famous clothing shops on Oxford Street. On weekends, it's easy to visit the famous Portobello Road market from here. Hop on the Tube (or subway) at Lancaster Gate station and go two stops to Notting Hill Gate station. Great access to transit Heathrow is the airport most Americans fly into, and the Heathrow Express rail service takes you nonstop to Paddington. Drop off your bags at your hotel a few blocks from the station, and then get on with your first day of exploring the city quickly&mdash;without paying for any pricey black cabs. Decent pubs In London, the pubs with the best ale and lager are usually owned by local breweries. Fullers is one London microbrewery with pubs around town, including two in this district: The Swan and Victoria. Cool kids' shop Be sure to buy a Paddington Bear, the famous character from the children's book series. Look for the kiosk on the eastern side of the station, close to the entrance to the train platforms under the station's cavernous roof (and just outside of the shopping concourse shrouded in glass), It costs &pound;10, or about $16. You may also want to check out the statue nearby of Paddington. It's cute, and quite the contrast to the statues of generals seen elsewhere. Mediocre restaurants (sigh) Truth be told, this is not a food-centric part of town. Best to grab a breakfast to go at a small shop in or by Paddington Station, such as Marks &amp; Spencer Simply Food, and set on about your day exploring the city. BUDGET TRAVEL'S RECOMMENDED HOTELS IN THIS AREA: Caring Hotel This newly refurbished Victorian town house is next to Hyde Park. From $108. The Gresham Hotel This Georgian town house is a great choice for families, given its unusually spacious top-floor rooms. From $108. The Caesar A modern 140-room retreat in west-central London with touches of antiquity. From $141. Darlington Hyde Park This traditional hotel near Kensington Gardens is known for its crisp, formal service. From $141.


Rome: What to eat in winter

The chilly breeze that signals winter arrived earlier than expected this year, but Romans are more than happy to welcome the season's hearty vegetables. Pumpkins have been piling up at markets like Campo de' Fiori, and the aroma of roasted chestnuts now fills the air. Early winter also brings a rare type of chicory called puntarelle, found primarily in the central region of Lazio and the northern Italian region of Veneto. Puntarelle are prepared by peeling off the green leaves to expose the juicy upper stem. The stems are then soaked in cold water for about a half hour, during which they naturally curl. They don't look like anything more than fancy lettuce, but puntarelle pack a lot of distinctive flavor when paired with the traditional mix of anchovies, garlic, salt, vinegar and oil. Puntarelle will be in season until around March, depending, naturally, on the weather. Staff at La Campana restaurant say that this winter's menu will feature insalata di puntarelle for &euro;7 ($9.72), plus porcini mushrooms and artichokes from surrounding areas of Rome for dishes such as tagliatelle ai funghi porcini for &euro;12 ($16.67), roasted funghi porcini for &euro;18 ($25), and carciofi alla giudia for &euro;6 ($8.34). Truffles or tartufi are a national delight. They are sniffed out by dogs under cool soil and classified as a type of fungi even though they look like hard stones. They hail most famously from the northern region of Piedmont. Truffles can be preserved, but taste best in wintertime, when you'll often find them in creamy sauces. White truffles are more expensive and harder to find than black truffles. Salumeria Roscioli is a Roman gem of a restaurant that serves a memorable tagliatelle al tartufo bianco. The price is about &euro;25 ($34.74), but it's definitely worth the splurge. Head past the upscale deli area to the seating in the back, where the trappings make for a nice romantic dinner. Since seating is limited, my advice is to book in advance. MORE FOOD COVERAGE IN ROME 5 quintessential Roman trattorias Roman snacks for any craving Where to eat when you need a pasta break


25 travel-inspiring photos

Halloween marks the beginning of the holiday season&mdash;before we know it Thanksgiving will be here, followed by Christmas and Hanukkah. You know what that means&mdash;time to start thinking about vacation. Since we love fantasizing about what's next on our travel list, we decided it was high time to dig through our files to find photos that are so spectacular they're bound to jump-start plans for a new adventure. See the slide show and tell us what you think&mdash;will you visit any of these places in 2010 (or 2011)?


Rome: Coffee prices are rising

Espresso drinkers in Rome should prepare for a jolt of another kind. The inflated price of coffee beans has increased the likelihood that local caf&eacute;s will hike up prices before the new year, according to a report in the Italian daily paper Corriere della Sera. Coffee futures broke the $2-a-pound level for the first time in 13 years earlier in October, and coffee makers have already begun communicating the upcoming increase to businesses in Rome. Prices are currently around &euro;0.80 ($1.10) for a cup of espresso, but experts predict an increase of about &euro;0.20 ($0.28) cents to a new price of &euro;1 ($1.38) in Rome, where caf&eacute; owners have so far managed to keep coffee prices comparatively low. In cities like Milan, the Italian hub of luxury, you can easily be charged between &euro;1 to &euro;1.50 ($2.07) at the bar. I checked with the staff at Rome's La Bottega del Caff&eacute; (Piazza Madonna dei Monti, 5, 011-39/06-474-1578). They said they will definitely be compelled to raise prices, though they don't know by how much yet. Last time they raised prices was in 2008 when an espresso went from &euro;70 ($0.97) to &euro;80 ($1.10). Some bar owners interviewed by Corriere della Sera said they only plan to up the cost of coffee served tableside and not the quick cup you drink standing at the bar. Most Italians on their way to work in the morning sling back coffees standing up and don't take more than a minute or two to drink a cappuccino. At La Bottega del Caff&eacute;, coffee at the bar currently costs &euro;0.80 ($1.10) compared to &euro;2 ($2.76) at the table. Watch this video clip for tips on how to order coffee like a Roman. On my way to a meeting last week, I stepped into a bar near the Vatican called La Bottega di Raffaello (Via dei Corridori, 42), which has started serving American-style coffee to go. An American coffee costs &euro;1 ($1.38). If you have ever been to the Eternal City, you would know that this kind of Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts coffee is a serious anomaly. I personally think that the traditional Italian coffee experience is a treasure worth preserving and experiencing. But if you're desperate for that warm paper cup and plastic cover to take with you, now there's a place to find it. MORE ON ROME How to tip in 6 situations Neighborhood watch: Monti, Rome How to get tickets for Rome's film festival