Americans already know to pencil in Big Ben, the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace on their London must-see checklist. But a surprisingly eco-friendly city is emerging that’s also worth crossing the pond to see. In recent years, local politicians put climate change and carbon emissions on the radar, and suddenly the whole capital is racing to go green. Many restaurants and boutiques are making fair-trade and organic offerings a higher priority, and museums and walking tours now have the earth-conscious tourist in mind. Even Prince Charles has hopped aboard the greening machine, creating several environmental charities, including a foundation that supports sustainable urban development. We’d never suggest skipping the changing of the guard, but there’s a whole different London to explore.
Sightseeing need not be a gaggle-of-tourists affair. These under-the-radar highlights let you experience and learn about local and global environmental efforts.
Nestled in the London Bridge neighborhood, the city’s oldest food market dates back to Roman times. It’s the local’s choice for cheap whole food or organic eats: wild boar burgers, pints of cider, and all the cheese, olives, and fish your heart could desire. 8 Southwark Street, SE1.
Climate change audio tour
“And While London Burns” is a 70-minute operatic audio walking tour around the City. This historical, haunting walk explains the area’s role in climate change, taking you on an environmental adventure through the skyscrapers and alleyways. Download an mp3 of the tour from their website.
London Transport Museum
This Victorian building in Covent Garden was refurbished and reopened this fall. The exhibits tell the story of the city’s buses, trams, rail, and the Underground, as well as cycling, walking, taxis, and the Thames River. The museum also features a new family learning area and a play zone for kids under five. 39 Wellington Street, WC2.
Natural History Museum
Housed in a grand Romanesque building, this South Kensington museum is hailed as a temple to the natural world. Boasting more than 70 million specimens, it features an ecology area that details world-wide conservation efforts and gives tips on how you can make a difference at home. Cromwell Road, SW7.
The Original London Walks
Take a ramble on one of dozens of guided sojourns throughout the city, following the footsteps of famous Brits from Shakespeare to Harry Potter. Walks originate from different places and times, and are offered 365 days a year.
London Wetland Centre
Home to one of the largest bird and wildlife havens in any European capital, this award-winning attraction in Barnes spans more than 100 acres of lakes, reed beds, and marshes created from old reservoirs. It also has a café, theater, and a children’s adventure area. Free guided tours twice daily. Queen Elizabeth’s Walk, SW13
London is world-renowned for its exceptional parks and green spaces. In fact, natural and landscaped greenery accounts for more of the city’s total composition than roads, buildings, and concrete areas.
To relax in some of the city’s finest, visit Hyde Park, a holder of the Green Flag Award—a national program that recognizes England’s and Wales’ best parks and green spaces. Every half hour, the SolarShuttle ferries passengers across the Serpentine Lake. When docked and not in use, the panels’ surplus electricity is fed back into the national grid.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a former royal residence and World Heritage Site near Richmond. Kew’s 300-acres feature Victorian greenhouses and themed gardens and their postal code is the most biodiverse in the world.
Thames Barrier Park spans 22 acres along the river’s north bank at Woolwich Reach. A great place to picnic, it boasts fantastic views of the city’s flood barrier and a beautiful fountain plaza.
London’s notoriously bad restaurant scene is getting an eco-shot in the arm with a tasty new crop of eco-friendly, locally sourced and oft-organic eateries.
This all-organic takeaway near Covent Garden serves breakfast, smoothies, and a variety of other fare like organic beef and veggie burgers. They also use green electricity and cleaning products. Prices range from $4 to $10. 22 Wellington Street, WC2.
This vegan and organic eatery is an oasis in the Soho desert of cocktail bars and Chinese take-out. All fare is organic, pure whole food, raw, or gently cooked. If you’ve ever longed for an Ayurvedic meal, this is your chance. Specialities like Red Pepper Sauce Steam Mousaka run around $16. 74 Wardour Street, W1.
This friendly local chain serves virtuous (often organic) seasonal food at fast food prices: salads, Moroccan meatballs, stews, and even wheat-free chocolate brownies if you still have room. They also offer sustainably-farmed fish and free-range chicken. A three-course meal can cost less than $20. Multiple locations.
The Duke of Cambridge
This yuppie haven in Islington is the world’s first certified organic gastro pub. Most all food and drink is organic—and as local and seasonal as possible. And the restaurant’s power is all wind and solar generated. The menu of modern British fare changes twice daily. Entrees start at $20. 30 St Peters Street, N1.
One of England’s oldest vegetarian restaurants, this Primrose Hill standby is still modern and imaginative. Sample their homemade pasta of the day or their vegetarian chef salad made with crispy tofu and Greek butter beans. Pair it with homemade organic bread and organic wine, spirits, and beer. Entrees start at $20. 4 Erskine Road, Primrose Hill, London NW3.
The Natural Kitchen
This three-story foodie heaven near the Baker Street Tube station sells food supplied by small, independent British companies. There’s a large selection of fair-trade and organic goods, foods to sample, and a café that serves light snacks and meals. 77/78 Marylebone High Street, W1,
Neal’s Yard Remedies
The grandmother of English herbal beauty care, they sell handmade, mostly organic lotions, soaps, and shampoos and herbal, aromatherapeutic, and homeopathic remedies. Indulgences include $10 lip balm and a $50 liter of rosemary and elderflower shower gel. Multiple locations.
The Organic Pharmacy
Launched in 2002, this shop is fast becoming one of the leaders in the natural skin care world. All products are certified organic, handmade, and contain no artificial preservatives, dyes, fragrances, or petrochemicals. The Rose Crystal Lymphatic Facial at the day spa is divine. Multiple locations.
London’s congestion charge, which levies stiff fees on those who insist on driving in the city center during peak hours, keeps private vehicles to a minimum. Skip driving on the wrong side of the road and tap into greener ways to see the sights.
The 14-mile Jubilee Walkway connects London’s key attractions. Or log on to walkit.com to devise your own stroll, replete with the time, distance, calories you’ll burn, and the carbon dioxide emissions avoided.
On a bike
Go Pedal! will deliver a rental bike to your hotel and fetch it too.
Hop aboard the world’s first hybrid double-decker bus, which runs from Palmer’s Green to London Bridge station. (Six single-deck hybrid buses are also on the roads.) Powered by a diesel engine and electric power, it cuts emissions by as much as 40 percent per bus.
On the Tube
The world’s oldest underground train system is also one of the most comprehensive. When your dogs get tired—or the winding streets leave you lost—descend into one of the 275 stations and whisk off to your next destination.
Ride guilt-free in a Green Tomato Car — a Toyota Prius decorated with its namesake fruit. Green Tomato offsets double their cars’ carbon emissions. Radio Taxis also limits its carbon footprint with renewable energy and tree-planting projects.
There’s still room for improvement in London’s eco-lodgings—you won’t find a wind-powered hostel constructed from bamboo and bee saliva just yet—but these hotels are headed in the right direction.
Apex City of London Hotel
A stone’s throw from the Tower of London, this Scottish chain is as sustainable as you’ll find: energy-efficient lighting, ventilation, heating and water systems, and extensive recycling. Rooms start at $150 a night. No 1 Seething Lane, EC3.
Meliá White House
Sleep in style while keeping your conscience green. This four-star Regent’s Park gem is the only UK member of the Green Hotels Association. It has efficient lighting, thorough recycling, and carbon offsets. Rooms start at $190 a night. Albany Street, Regent’s Park, NW1.
Hilton London Metropole
London’s largest hotelier recently announced plans for carbon-free electricity in 69 of its UK and Irish properties. This location, a short walk from shop-central Oxford Street, also recycles guest room paper and has glass-recycling bins on every floor. Prices start at $240 a night. 225 Edgware Road, W2.
This Clerkenwell’s hotel is a modernist design housed in a converted Victorian warehouse. Ecophiles will love that water for drinking, flushing, and air-conditioning is pumped from the hotel’s own borehole. Rooms start at $265 a night. St John’s Square, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, EC1.
This Edwardian building in Covent Garden has contemporary interiors and is committed to eco-friendly practices and charities. Their flushing system uses 80 percent less water than conventional types, they eschew bleach, and the lighting is timed and energy-efficient. Prices start at $425 a night. 1 Aldwych, WC2.
London's lap of eco-luxury
These high-end highlights let you pamper yourself in guilt-free style:
Book a room at 51 Buckingham Gate, a Westminster hotel with spacious, contemporary apartments and suites with personal butlers and chauffeur-driven limousines. Sure those are indulgences, but this hotel harvests water, recycles comprehensively, and is reducing their energy consumption by 40 percent this year. Prices start at $530 a night. 51 Buckingham Gate, SW1.
To truly experience England’s posh life, there’s no substitute for taking afternoon tea. Claridge’s, a nearly two-centuries-old hotel in the upper-crust Mayfair neighborhood, serves a selection of organic teas from 3:00 to 5:30 pm for $63 per person ($79 for the champagne option). You don’t need to stay there to partake, but reservations are essential. Brook Street, W1.
Tuck into a savory meal in Richmond’s Petersham Nurseries. Their enchanting café and teahouse is the perfect respite from the city’s congestion. After your meal you can amble through the nurseries’ fruit trees. The menu changes daily, but you’ll find fall menu entrees such as pan-fried halibut with Puy lentil, roasted tomatoes, and buerre blanc. Entrees start at $32. Church Lane, off Petersham Road, TW10.
London 2012: The greenest games ever?
Previous Olympic host cities aimed to impress with dazzling buildings. London is gunning for green credentials. A look ahead for the nearly 15,000 athletes, 9,000,000 ticketed visitors, and the future of the city:
The stadiums and Olympic village will be built in London’s East End, currently an underdeveloped industrial wasteland. Contaminated soil will be treated and returned, and new greenery will be added to create one of the largest new urban parks built in Europe in the last 150 years.
Construction crews will reuse ninety percent of the materials from the demolished landscape in new structures, with the remaining new timber coming from fair-trade and sustainable sources. After the Games, the athlete’s village will be converted into 4,000 housing units, with other buildings finding new life as community and health centers and commercial space.
In addition to creating more than 270 acres of new open space and wildlife habitats, the plan calls for restoring existing woodland and waterways, connecting these habitats to London’s other green areas by a network of terrestrial and aquatic corridors.
Organizers aim for a zero-waste garbage policy at the games. Wind turbines and biomass boilers will provide 20 percent of the Games’ energy. Rainwater will be harvested, greywater will be reused, and organizers strive to minimize all emissions other than those created by attendees flying in.
Cars will be used minimally, and organizers hope to create about 7,000 bicycle parking spots—some permanent. Transit officials plan to repair and extend existing train lines adding more trains, more cars, new stations, and new signaling systems to boost ridership capacity.
Ask an insider
These hot spots are recommended by members of London’s eco-minded inner circle.
“I pop in the Story Deli off Brick Lane if I’ve got a pizza craving. (ph: 020 7247 3137) The food is organic and delicious, and the owner’s girlfriend decorated the space with a mix of vintage mirrors and sustainable cardboard. When I eat there, I always make a pitstop at Blondie, a great vintage boutique around the corner.” -- Virginia Rowe, editor of the eco-friendly digital magazine StyleWillSaveUs.com
“I buy all my own food from farmer’s markets, Fresh & Wild and Planet Organic. For dining out, I like The Duke of Cambridge—they’re really good with organic produce—and I’m friends with the owners of Petersham Nurseries.” -- Arthur Potts Dawson, executive chef and co-founder of Acorn House restaurant
“The Grain Shop, a takeaway on Portobello Road in Notting Hill (ph: 020 7229 5571) is an old-school, organic, vegetarian favorite. I also like Pizza Organic and Food For Thought on Neal Street in Covent Garden (ph: 020 7836 9072). I also recommend Portobello Market on Saturdays for great vintage and local finds.” -- Jocelyn Whipple, London-based ethical stylist and consultant
Story by Zoe Cormier & Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.
Copyright Environ Press 2007