By Abigail King
London is one of the most sustainable cities in the world. No, seriously, it is. Alongside its famous red buses and phone booths, the black cabs and the Mind the Gap signs, London’s credentials include ranking sixth overall in 2022’s Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index. And this city, the city of my birth, still knows how to show visitors a good time. As you’ll soon learn, there are many sustainable things to do in London for visitors.
eco-friendly Experiences in London
Not convinced yet of how sustainable London is? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London. Those song lyrics may promise that I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind. But this time, it will be about a world that does care.
Enjoy London’s Green Spaces
One of my favourite sustainable things to do in London involves immersing myself in one of her green spaces.
And London has a lot. There’s Primrose Hill which spills the skyline of London across the horizon like a personal manuscript just for you. There’s Hyde Park with the zealots shouting on Speaker’s Corner, the Peter Pan statue and the Diana Memorial Playground, a haven and beautiful play space for children.
Green Park throws up instagrammable leaves on a crisp autumn day and Regent’s Park hosts outdoor theatre concerts in the summer each year. Umbrellas advised, unless you’re a daredevil. But remember this: no-one wins against the British weather.
But probably my favourite green space lies further from the centre, which you can reach by taking the overland train from Waterloo Station to Norbiton.
There, you can enter Richmond Park, a place so vast that deer roam between the oaks and cyclists go to train on the hills. There’s just one spot and one alone where you can see the skyline of London, although it carries a macabre tale. It was here that King Henry VIII, the one with all the wives, stood to look for the signal of smoke to signify that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been executed.
These days, though, it’s fine to just sit there and enjoy a picnic.
See the City on Two Wheels
To be completely honest with you, cycling in London is not for the faint of heart. But it is fairly easy to pick up a bike, even if you’ve arrived from out of town. The Santander Cycles (once nicknamed Boris bikes after the flamboyant London mayor who went on to be PM) can be picked up and dropped off at various terminals across the city for a small charge.
The best route for beginners involves picking up a bike near Hyde Park. Within this grand leafy space with not too many cars, you can cycle between Kensington Palace and the Serpentine Galleries. And just outside the park, it’s only a short trip to the stunning Natural History Museum, the V&A Museum and the shopping institution that is Harrods.
Another cool way to have fun on two wheels takes place in summer at the Southbank Centre. Outdoor film screenings take place, organised by Electric Pedals. The audience have to cycle to generate the electricity to show the film. Slack off and the film goes off.
London: Made for Walking
Despite its sprawling size, London is a surprisingly walkable city. Not in the way that you can cross it easily on foot, that would take days.
No, because it has so many appealing walking routes that can show you timeless attractions and soothing nature just one around the corner from the other.
My all time favourite route is to start at the Tower of London and walk along the river to Southbank. The route between Buckingham Palace and the London Eye is another one I love, passing through the flowers of St James’ Park and the spires of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster.
Strike a pose
As one of the world’s fashion hubs, London shines a spotlight on sustainable and ethical ways to make the clothes we wear.
And the most recommended spot is Pop London in north London. They make clothes from surplus fabric and only use materials that use natural fibres.
Taste the world
London is a city of the world and so you’ll find food from across the world served up in cafes, restaurants, galleries and kiosks in the wall from British people with international heritage.
Sure, you’ll also find the big fast food chains. But if you want to celebrate and support local businesses, then you’ll find them almost all everywhere. Just not, perhaps, right in the tourist hot spots of Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square.
I have a particular soft spot for the Brownie Box in Earl’s Court.
People also recommend the Cookery School at Little Portland Street. The Sustainable Restaurant Association gives it the highest possible score and it rails against single-use plastics.
London also has plenty of open air farmers markets, with the Buck Street Market in Camden standing out for its eco credentials. Built from recycled shipping containers, it’s a zero-plastic market and food waste is converted back into electricity to power the site.
If these walls could talk…
A lot of ideas about sustainability come with creative ideas and innovation, particularly when it comes to architecture.
In London, you’ll find vertical gardens galore (I love the one at the Athenaeum.) Then there are the roof gardens, with the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie skyscraper being one of the most famous. And even the street art gives plants a chance to breathe (my absolute favourite is this series of pictures near Earls Court last spring.)
But in a city that was founded over two thousand years ago by the Romans, London has sustainable architecture through the sheer force of history.
The inner part of the Tower of London is over one thousand years old. So is part of the Palace of Westminster where the government still meets.
Across the city, you’ll find structures that are still in use and yet which were built generations and generations and generations ago.
It’s that surprising kind of sustainability that London does so well.
And you can find more unusual things to do in London here.
Abigail King is a London born award-winning writer and broadcaster who has worked with the BBC, UNESCO, the EU, NASA and more. She’s the founder of Inside the Travel Lab, described by National Geographic Traveler as “Essential Reading” and Lonely Planet as “one of the best travel blogs in the world.”
Abigail King spoke at the High Level EU-China Summit on Sustainable Tourism at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and joined a panel to talk about responsible tourism for NASA-Hybrid CoE in Helsinki.