If New York is the city that never sleeps, London is the city that likes to have a quick nap sometime between 3 and 6am. But whether you’re chasing a late-night buzz or are rising for the dawn, the wee hours offer the opportunity to experience the capital as few others do. Here are our picks for getting the best out of the 24-hour city.

 Drink till dawn

Bar Italia, a mainstay of late-night Soho. Image by  SomeDriftwood / CC BY 2.0

London offers a smattering of places where you can drink till – or indeed with – your breakfast. Thursdays to Saturdays see more bars opening till a later hour. Good areas to head to include Soho, Shoreditch, Dalston and Brixton. Options diminish fast after 2 or 3am and those that remain open are often cheerfully insalubrious: if you're picky, head to a club instead. For an early pint, check out Smithfield’s Fox & Anchor, close to the famous meat market, which opens at 7am in the week and serves fry-ups that couldn’t be fresher. For caffeine cravings, Bar Italia is a Soho legend, serving all through the night.

Dance the night away

If you want to throw some shapes, the city is dotted with clubs that won’t kick you out until 6am or later. Try Fabric in Clerkenwell, Oval Space (ovalspace.co.uk) in Bethnal Green, the Bussey Building (clfartcafe.org) in Peckham and Corsica Studios in Elephant & Castle. Vauxhall’s gay scene runs right through the night and day at venues like Fire (firelondon.net).

For something more wholesome, Morning Gloryville (morninggloryville.com) offers sober early risers the chance to shake their booty before heading off for a day in the office. Raving starts at 6.30am and runs till 10.30am, although most people will shimmy off to work before then.

Midnight feasts

From the dazzling to the down-to-earth, know where to look and you can eat well at all hours in London. Tiny Polo Bar (polo24hourbar.co.uk) opposite Liverpool St station is open 24 hours for a hearty English Breakfast or some great British classics, washed down with a craft beer, if you fancy. Brick Lane clubbers' and cabbies’ favourite Beigel Bake does lip-smackingly good salt beef and smoked salmon bagels all night long. For something a little more upmarket, Vingt Quatre (vq24hours.com), with branches in Fulham and Bloomsbury, has a varied menu including breakfast, burgers and comfort food. And for stunning views of London round-the-clock, Duck & Waffle, on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, serves top-quality dishes using seasonal British produce till 5am, with breakfast starting at 6am.

Catch the sun

Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. Image by Francisco Antunes / CC BY 2.0

If you wake while it’s still dark, it would be foolish to miss the opportunity to watch the sun creep over the skyscrapers of the city. Head to the hills for the best views – Alexandra Palace and Parliament Hill in North London and Richmond Hill in the southwest are all great vantage points to watch London come to life.

Daybreak brings with it a wealth of photo opportunities. Early morning, when the light is kind, is a great time to get a shot of those famous landmarks minus the pesky crowds. Stroll the South Bank or hop on the Thames Clipper (thamesclippers.com) and shoot along the river between Tower Bridge and the London Eye; the first boat sets off around 6.30am on weekdays.

Take the plunge

The London Aquatics Centre: perfect for an early morning dip. Image by Sally Schafer / Lonely Planet

If you really want to start the day off well, you could channel the spirit of the 2012 Olympics from 6am at the London Aquatics Centre in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – a stunning place to practise your strokes. A wild, alfresco dip, meanwhile, is a great way to mingle with Londoners of both the human and avian varieties. Hardy swimmers take to the chilly depths of Hampstead Heath from 7am (all year for the Lido – the Ponds open later in winter).

Miss the mob

St Paul's Cathedral at dawn. Image by  Aurelien Guichard / CC BY-SA 2.0

An early start gives you the perfect opportunity to avoid the queues and arrive at London’s major attractions as they open. The best place to be first on the scene is the city, which has an unbeatable spread of churches, some opening as early as 7am. Head and shoulders above them all is St Paul’s, which throws back its doors at 8.30am. On weekdays, other options include St Mary-le-Bow (from 7.30am), and All Hallows-by-the-Tower (from 8am). The square mile is also a fantastic place to watch suited commuters flood the streets from 8 to 9am; Bank interchange has some good places to perch.

Morning Markets

Smithfields Market. Image by Sally Schafer / Lonely Planet

Another benefit to being sparky at this hour is the chance to see one of London’s wholesale markets in full swing. A far more authentic experience than the more touristy stalls around town, these bulk-buying affairs make for a fascinating glimpse of the capital doing business. Smithfield’s array of meat may be a bit much for the squeamish but the fantastic Victorian hall and next door ‘60s poultry market are architectural treats. Open Monday to Friday, they’re at their busy best between 3 and 6am; for a bit more background take an informative tour (cityoflondon.gov.uk). The deceptively named New Covent Garden Market (it’s actually in Vauxhall just south of the river) is the largest fruit, veg and flower market in the UK and sells a wonderful rainbow of produce and a huge range of blooms. The most frenetic period of trade is midnight to 4am, after which things are a little calmer – arguably the best time to come.

Getting around

The standard tube service stops around 12.30am and starts again at around 5.30am. Transport for London offers a handy rundown of first and last tubes on each line (tfl.gov.uk). From 12 September 2015, parts of the Central, Northern and Piccadilly, plus the entire Victoria and Jubilee lines, will run all night (see tfl.gov.uk).

Nightbuses (tfl.gov.uk) will ferry you to points all across the city; often packed with partiers, these can make eye-opening rides in themselves. The very early hours are also a good time to try hiring a Boris Bike (www.tfl.gov.uk), as the sometimes-intimidating traffic will be lighter and more manageable.

For something a little speedier, hail a black cab, seek out a licensed minicab office (don’t accept unsolicited offers of rides), or try the app-based taxi service Uber (uber.com).

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