Those of us beset by chronic wanderlust, who far prefer to collect stamps in our passports than “stuff” in our closets, who would rather spend nine hours on an airplane than just about anywhere else—other than the destination that awaits at the end of that journey—usually have our favorite destinations. Once we have traveled extensively enough, although there are always more places to see and countries on the wish list that still haven’t been crossed off, we itinerants tend to fall in love with certain cities. For this writer, London sits at the top of that list—it may even occupy the top three slots of the list—and to be fair, it has been locked in there for at least 30 years. But I am not alone—the British capital was voted the number one of the Top 25 Destinations in the World in the 2019 Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. The funny thing is, London is always London: while an evolving restaurant and hotel scene offers more and more choices every year—almost so many as to be overwhelming—the main attractions remain the same: Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard; shopping on Oxford Street, at Harrods, at Liberty—there are too many options to name; a trek through the Tower of London; a pass on the London Eye; the views (and don’t miss tea here) from the top of the sky-high Shard, which extend out some 40 miles over the city; and, even for those who rebuff the idea of a lesson in military history, the Churchill War Rooms, a network of hidden passageways and historic rooms from which Winston Churchill and his wartime cabinet directed World War II.
Although all of these excursions are worth exploring multiple times, there’s no need to cram every single day of your time spent in London following an agenda. Some of the absolute best days begin with at one of the many delightful breakfast restaurants in the city, among them the famous Duck & Waffle (open 24 hours, you’ll be pleased to know, in case you’d rather brunch or do a late-night snack), where the actual Duck & Waffle happens to be one of our very favorites, served as it is with crispy leg confit, fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup. Wander through Shoreditch High Street, about a 30-minute ride from Oxford Circus, and check out Brick Lane for Insta-worthy street art and unique shopping. (Note: The Curtain hotel in Shoreditch is 5-star and fabulous, so if you’re up for staying outside of Central London, give it a look—there’s a rooftop pool and lounge, the Marcus Samuelsson restaurant Red Rooster for soul food on premises, and a trippy underground spa and steam room, not to mention ultra-stylish guest rooms.) Make your way to Mayfair and head to afternoon tea (reservations absolutely necessary) in arguably one of the most magical spaces you’ll ever witness, Sketch, where an assortment of rooms featuring memorable design elements like chairs wearing ballet slippers, a transparent hot pink piano and a room themed as a magical forest will have your jaw dropping the entire time. When work lets out, the British workforce spills out of their offices to grab a pint with their mates at any one of dozens of pubs, some historic, such as Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden and The Mayflower, established in 1550. Doesn’t matter if you’re into ale. Stop by, grab yourself a drink, and blend in. Feel British while you can. There is nothing like it.
Paris is a city of romance—that’s not just a cliché. But as a tourist, you needn’t be in a relationship, or accompanied by anyone else, to enjoy that romance: If it’s your first time, you’re sure to fall in love with the city itself. And if you’ve already experienced it, well—no explanation necessary. After all, you’ve chosen to return. From the uninterrupted vistas of the Haussmannian architecture to the musical sound of the French accent to the legendary patisseries and shopping, it’s like being dropped into a movie. (No, it really is.)
If, however, you are a newbie to the City of Light, bone up on a few things before you go in order to make your visit as perfect as possible. Because even though the whole “Parisians hate Americans” thing is exaggerated, there are certain behaviors that should be avoided in order to, shall we say, not stick out like a sore thumb. Keep it light. Learn a few basic French phrases (this will make natives happy), such as “Bonjour” (“Hello”), “Au revoir” (goodbye), “S’il vous plait” (“Please”) and “Merci” (“Thank you”), at the least. And while you needn’t be decked out head-to-toe in designer garb, try to elevate your game when it comes to being comfortable.
This city is best experienced on foot, which is perfect given the amount of delicious cheese, bread, pastry and wine you are almost certainly going to consume while you’re there. It also means that the best time to visit is in the springtime and early summer, because not only do the temperatures tend to become unbearably hot toward July, August and September, but that’s when many Europeans close up shop and take their own holidays—and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the best restaurants and shops while you’re there.
On the other hand, there are the main attractions that, as with London, you won’t want to miss regardless of what time of year you visit—and regardless of how many times you have already visited them. I’ve actually heard people who enjoy Paris immensely say, “I can’t stand the Eiffel Tower,” which is perplexing to me. You may not want to wait in a long line to get to it, you probably won’t want to eat in one of its touristy restaurants, and you definitely may opt not to climb the 906 vertical feet to its observation deck (there are elevators, or you can hike the 300 stairs), but there is no denying its majestic presence and the fact that the sight of it in person—particularly when it’s lit up at night—is enough to give one goose bumps, every single time.
By day, you’ll want to sample the sumptuous offerings of the street markets, of which there are many—although standouts for irresistible breads and cheeses include the Marché d’Aligre, an ideal place to stock up for a picnic (Rue d’Aligre et, Place d’Aligre, 75012), and of course, while away at least a few hours at one of the city’s magnificent wine bars. Right off the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, Le Verre Volé is a cozy, colorful spot that offers natural wines to be enjoyed alongside bites from their diminutive open kitchen (67 Rue de Lancry, 75010); it warrants a place on your must-stop list while in town.
If you start out in London, you can get to Paris by the Eurostar in approximately two and a half hours; 16 trains run daily, and tickets start at 26€ (about $30 US).