There’s an argument to be made that London is at its best in the run-up to sunrise. Even the nature-loving Wordsworth felt compelled to record its early morning beauty in his 1802 verse, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”: “Earth has not any thing to show more fair: / Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty: / This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The Beauty of the morning; silent, bare… ” And while the city may be radically different now from the 19th century, it still holds plenty of charm for early risers. Below, the best activities to do in London before breakfast.
Hit the river
There’s no way to overstate the centrality of the Thames to London’s history. Take the opportunity to see some of the capital’s most beautiful sights drenched in golden light by following the Thames Path from London Bridge to Westminster, passing everything from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Houses of Parliament along the way. For a less traditional experience, there’s the Line Sculpture Trail, which meanders along waterways that roughly follow the Greenwich meridian, taking you past works by Anish Kapoor and Madge Gill. If that sounds like too much hard work first thing in the morning, hop on and off one of the old-school Thames Clippers, which cruise gently along the river between Greenwich and Putney from 5:30am.
Take a dip
During a heatwave, every person in London appears desperate to submerge themselves in a pool, making most of the capital’s historic lidos and bathing ponds off-puttingly crowded. Early birds, however, can dive into the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond or Highgate’s Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath as early as 7am in blissful peace and quiet. Out of bed even earlier? Make like an Olympian at the London Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid and nestled within Olympic Park, which opens from 6am every day.
Do some mudlarking
At low tide, the Thames foreshore becomes a trove of relics from other periods of London’s history, from Roman tiles to clay pipes, which were routinely smoked and tossed into the water for more than 300 years. Enter the so-called mudlarking community, who descend to the river’s edge and preserve these fragments of the past. (Read Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking for a charming summary of the movement.) You do need to apply for a permit, but it’s more than worth it to be alone on the shore when the tide is out at dawn.
Explore royal parks
Technically the greenest city in the world (and, in fact, a designated forest), London is deservedly famous for its royal parks. Regent’s Park opens from 5am, meaning visitors can wander through its rose-scented acres to Primrose Hill in time to watch the sun rise across the city. (There are few better views of the London skyline.) Also worth a visit if you’re an early riser? Richmond Park, which opens slightly later at 7am—a perfect moment for seeing its 300-strong herd of wild red deer without interruptions.
Visit a market
While all of the above can be done early in the morning, a visit to London’s best markets must be done before the day hits its stride. On the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, the Sunbury Antiques Market takes over Kempton Park Racecourse, with interior designers jostling for exquisite furniture and knick-knacks from the moment it opens at 6:30am. Meanwhile, traders at the legendary Billingsgate Fish Market sell their catch of the day within the 12-acre building complex from the yawn-inducing hour of 4am, while across the river, New Covent Garden Market vendors trade fruit and vegetables from midnight to 6am, and flowers from 4am to 10am. Scooping up armfuls of violets at the Nine Elms site is the closest you’re likely to get to the Covent Garden Market depicted in My Fair Lady.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.