City Experiences: Play tourist in your own backyard, while seeing another side of London’s history and cuisine
Old London favourites can offer more more than meets the eye, when looked at from a fresh perspective
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Living in a city as vast and sprawling as London, there's always something new to see - even if it's experiencing something you've seen before, 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, you name it. Many native Londoners and visitors from the rest of the British Isles can say the same about popular spots like the Tower of London and Borough Market.
But in a city with a history as storied as London's is, every site has layers upon layers of history you can peel back for an eye-opening fresh perspective, which not only reveal more about that place, but about the generations of people who have made the Big Smoke what it is today.
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 backyard.
Anything but bland
Britain’s oft-maligned 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 a cross-section of English history, and the people who have made it what it is today. It’s not just limited to the history of the British upper class either, with the stories of working class and migrant communities - and even groups considered to be social pariahs - hidden just below the surface.
Starting the day right with a traditional breakfast bap from Brood, we then 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 littering streets and ruins dating back thousands of years.
And far from their current reputation as something of a delicacy, were a common working class snack food, as Becki told us. Richard Haward’s oysteria brings a little of that history back to the market, making the fresh, sustainably-harvested shellfish once again accessible to the masses.
Then it was on to the reinvented classics, like the award-winning fish, chips, and mushy peas courtesy 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.
But the real star of the show was Humble Crumble, which elevates the famously humble apple-based 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, this dessert served up a heavy 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 a heavy 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 to never let anyone leave hungry - no easy feat, but one that was achieved with room to spare (or not, in this case).
Perhaps the very best thing about the tour, however, is that it used the UK’s culinary history as a window through which you could glimpse the people who have called it home throughout the years. The most poignant part of the tour 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 now been turned into a beautiful, peaceful little garden, which memorialises and honours all of 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 of that era, 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
Like so many of Europe’s cities built up on the banks of a mighty river, a riverboat tour is a perfect way to see a highlights reel of London’s history and infrastructure - literally from a fresh angle.
City Cruises offers the chance to experience some of this history from the waters of the River Thames, while relaxing onboard with a sumptuous afternoon tea spread of sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea.
The perfect opportunity to unwind while still ticking sightseeing goals off your bucket list, after your cucumber sandwiches you can relax on the sundeck and hear all about some of the many famous bridges connecting London’s north and south - 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 next door.
You will, of course, be introduced to other, lesser-known bridges that also deserve some love and notoriety, such as the striking Millennium footbridge - closed for two years after a disastrous opening day, which has seen it nicknamed the wobbly bridge by Londoners ever since.
Ghost stories and 14th century pageantry
The Tower of London is a frequent flyer on tourists’ must-see lists, but as anyone who has done much European travel will know, the experience can sometimes be soured a little by the throngs of people with the exact same plan as you.
This is where an after-hours tour can come in handy. Guided by a real Yeoman Warden - who frequently live on site and as such have an intimate inside knowledge of the castle - it offers a chance to thoroughly explore the grounds of the historic fortress, as well as catching a glimpse of its age-old pageantry and ceremony, without the crowds.
From learning about the many prisoners who lived and died behind its walls, to its time as a zoo - housing an exotic menagerie of animals owned by the royal family - the tower has a storied history with something for everyone.
The site of numerous executions and a few murders, 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 also gives you the chance to watch the Ceremony of the Keys from a unique vantage point. With filming and photography strictly forbidden, the ceremonial locking of the tower for the night is something too few Londoners have seen, and yet it happens without fail every single night - rain or shine.
I won't give away what exactly makes up the ceremony, but even for the traveller less interested in royalty and the pomp and pageantry that comes with it - it's a quirky piece of English history that's a real once-in-a-lifetime sight.
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.