It’s modern. It’s ancient. There are hip clubs and high-brow orchestras. A city where the Shard, the tallest building in Europe, needles the sky within the same camera frame as the medieval Tower of London. A place where you can shop amidst dense crowds or wander solo in Royal parks. Have dinner in a restaurant with waiters so stiff they nearly snap or supper in a disused car park from a food van. That’s London.
All cities like to claim they are diverse but London’s eclecticism spans architecture, landscape and people like nowhere else. The city has changed dramatically in the past 20 years in both looks and personality. With the rise of skyscrapers (endearingly named, of course) like the Shard, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Walkie-Talkie building, and more than 200 other proposed tall buildings, London has lost its distinctiveness as a low-rise major world city.
But reflected in these shiny new facades is an increasingly modern outlook that makes London a trend setter in urban planning, fashion, theater, arts, and dining. That modernity, combined with visible history dating from Roman times and a passion for Royal pomp and ceremony, is the cornerstone of London’s appeal. An undercurrent of British eccentricity helps too.
The challenge of visiting a city with so much to do is not falling into a mechanized state of checking off “must see” sites, especially for first-time visitors. Of course you wouldn’t want to leave without seeing a few of London’s iconic emblems. But you must veer away from the classics to appreciate London’s extraordinary range.
Much of the action has moved to the east, especially for those under 30, where the areas around the original Roman settlement are pulsing with new bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries and shops. The steady spread towards the northeast shows no signs of abating. Visitors will miss a vibrant part of London’s personality by clinging to the city’s more traditional neighborhoods.
Embrace the contrasts. Wander through edgy, slightly frayed streets of Dalston for a taste of hipster life and balance it with a stroll through immaculate, tree-lined streets of Chelsea or South Kensington for the polished perfection of the superrich. At dawn, stand amidst the banter of fishmongers at Bermondsey Fish Market and end the day in Soho as audiences spill out from theaters.
And get out into the green because this is truly what makes London so unusual. Few other major world cities boast as much as 47% of green space. In addition to the city’s glamorous royal parks, there are many smaller, enriching green spaces. Try Camley Street Park in the shadow of King’s Cross, London Wetland Centre in Barnes, and Chelsea Physic Garden. There’s also 150 small but enchanting gardens in the Square Mile.
London’s riverside has gone from neglected to enriching. The Thames Path opens up walks on both south and north sides. South Bank is the city’s busiest cultural center. Further downriver, Bankside, with the delights of Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market, is equally vibrant.
These itineraries are designed to help you plan time here from an insider’s perspective. You can structure days out with a blend of popular tourist sites and lesser-known hangouts. You’ll find the best nearby options for eating, and schedule reasonable time frames so that you’re not frazzled and fraught.
It’s no surprise that London has been voted the world’s most popular tourist destination five times in the last seven years. In 2015, London hosted 31.5 million visitors, a sure indication that there is something here for everyone.
Exploring London’s Thames River … the Victorian warehouse district, Tower Bridge and Shad Thames
London at Christmas is Magical with Pop-up Skating Rinks … Including the best place for a holiday selfie
London Icons from the Number 11 Bus … a 3-mile jaunt for those short on time
London’s Bankside – Discover a Food Market and Shakespeare … a stretch of riverside stuffed with treasures
London’s South Kensington for Museum Lovers … exploring Albertropolis and the Victorian museum quarter
London’s West London for Kids … playgrounds, hands-on museums and boats
What’s New at London’s Kings Cross … from no-go to let’s go
There is no best time to come to London although some seasons are better than others for particular interests. it depends on what you are looking for. Flower and garden lovers will want to come in spring when the royal parks dress up in their finery of croci and daffodils, followed by magnolias, cherries, tulips and bluebells.
Shoppers might favor December and January to catch the famous sale season; museum lovers will appreciate the slightly smaller crowds in the grey winter months; and outdoorsy types should come in summer to hang out with locals in one of the city’s many parks.
How long is a piece of string? There is enough to see and do in London to fill all time. One week is a realistic time frame to get a really good sense of the city’s diversity and to allow a bit of time to just hang out rather than rushing from site to site.
It also enables you to go further afield to Hampton Court, Windsor Castle, Greenwich, Kew Gardens and the many other splendid sites just outside of central London.
Try to spend at least three days…
Three days is probably the minimum amount of time to stay without feeling frustrated that you didn’t see anything. When planning how much time to spend, think about which activities you want to do most. The Tower of London, for example, can easily take a good portion of the day. In three days, you can see most of the major iconic sites, walk along the river, and get a good feel for central London. With more than three days, you can start to branch out of central London and experience the city as a local.
With nearly 19 million annual visitors to London, it’s tough to beat the crowds. If there is an “off” season, it is November to March when the weather is grey and gloomy and there are fewer special events. The down side to visiting then is that days are shorter and wetter. The upside is that you’re likely to get better deals on lodging and airfare and there will be fewer crowds.
The exception is in shopping districts like Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and the large Westfield malls which are mobbed from about mid-November until mid-January.
Because there are pros and cons to every season , following is a brief guide to highlights to make planning a bit easier.
Fares to Great Britain are often lower due to grey skies. Tourist numbers are down so museums and attractions are comparatively less busy. January sales offer great bargains although they are hugely popular with Europeans so Knightsbridge and Oxford Street are clogged with Italian and Spanish bargain hunters.
But away from the shopping districts, you’re likely to enjoy London as locals do. Strolling through one of the city’s great parks in early morning with only diehard runners and dog walkers is one of London’s great pleasures. If you’re a culture lover, it’s a good time to be inside revelling at the city’s many free museums. Afternoon tea and dinner reservations at trendy restaurants are easier to come by.
Be aware that for most of the events listed below, tickets must be booked ahead. Events to look out for:
•New Year’s Day parade – central London
•Chinese new year (end January/early February) Enthusiastic celebrations in Chinatown with traditional lion dances and fireworks, claimed to be the largest celebration outside Asia
•Shrove Tuesday (Pancake day) February
•Robert Burns night (26 January)
It’s no surprise that visitor numbers peak during these months: English gardens bloom and there is usually lots of sunshine but not insufferable heat.
Watch out for Easter school holidays, attractions are busy, not only with British families, but European ones as well.
Events to look out for:
•Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race (March/April)
•Oxford-Cambridge Goat Race (yes, really, April)
•London Marathon (April)
•Museums at night (May)
•Chelsea Flower Show (end of May) must book tickets ahead
Summer in London can be glorious, especially in August when a lot of residents are away. London is becoming increasingly convivial, particularly in the east end, with street festivals, outdoor cinemas, theaters and concerts (including Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park), pop up restaurants, and a thriving food van culture. If you can afford the higher air fares, there is no better time to enjoy the city. Days remain light until after 9 and the city has a permanent party feel. Heat waves can be grim, especially on the non-air-conditioned tube but you can cool off under a tree or paddle a boat in one of the many parks, or even swim in a lido or pond in Hampstead Heath.
•- Trooping the Color (June) celebration of the Queen’s birthday (which is actually in April)
•- Wimbledon (last week June; first week July – tickets must be booked ahead)
•- Pride London (July) gay march for Pride London (the biggest street party in Europe)
•The Proms (July-Sept)– series of classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall
•Notting Hill Carnival (late August)
Residents know that September is London’s charmed month. Although the flowers aren’t as grand as in spring, the days are often sunny and mellow and the trees in royal parks sport glorious, muted yellows and oranges. By October, many tourists have gone home (although watch out for UK half-term which due to the overlap of public and private schools means that children are loose on the streets and museums for much of October).
Events to look out for:
•Open House London (September) WEBSITE public access to normally private buildings
•Thames Festival (early September) – events celebrating the River Thames, mostly between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge
•London Film Festival (October
It’s the rainy season but crowds are down and there is a cozy feeling in the build-up to Christmas. Residents begin to draw in so museums tend to be less crowded while locals busy themselves with Christmas shopping. The exception is children’s activities which are busy with residents on school holidays. Christmas lights go up on Regent Street, pop-up skating rinks appear all over town and fire-side seats at the famous hotel teas are in demand.
Christmas day is quiet; it’s one of the few days of the year when you can walk the streets in virtual solitude.
Events to look out for:
• Guy Fawkes night- also known as Fireworks Night because of the myriad of pyrotechnic displays all over town, usually on the closest Saturday to 5 November. Blackheath celebrations are worth traveling for.
• Lord Mayor’s Show (November) a huge parade through the City of London followed by late afternoon fireworks in the River Thames.
•London Jazz Festival (November) venues all around town
•Christmas tree lit in Trafalgar Square (early December) after which regular singing groups perform carols regularly throughout Christmas season.
•New Year’s Eve – fireworks display on the River Thames
London’s reputation for constant fog and rain is exaggerated and there are often weeks of sunshine with just occasional spats of rain. Statistically speaking, December is the wettest month and July is the driest. Hours of sunshine follow a tidy bell curve that peaks in May-September and narrows into the grey ends of January and December.
Planning a trip to London around the weather will inevitably bring disappointment. The British climate is unpredictable, even within a single day. Assume it will rain during your visit and pack accordingly. It rarely rains torrentially; it’s usually just for short spells so you can nearly always get outside at some point in the day.
Climate is temperate. Aside from a few sharp bursts of cold in winter (usually January) and a week or two of insufferable heat in summer (often in July) temperatures are mild.
There are six permanent bank holidays each year in England. They are technically not the same as public holidays like Christmas and Good Friday, but are official days in which bank and many other business, are closed. Although the dates may vary from year to year, the public and bank holidays in London are:
•New Year’s Day (January 1)
•Good Friday (the Friday before Easter)
•Easter Monday (the Monday after Easter Sunday)
•Early May bank holiday (the first Monday of the month)
•Spring bank holiday (usually the last Monday of May)
•Summer bank holiday (usually last Monday of August)
•Christmas (December 25)
•Boxing Day (December 26) Note that if Boxing Day falls on a Monday naturally, the next Tuesday is the bank holiday)
Christmas is London’s quietest day of the year and potentially a difficult time to be a visitor. There is no public transport; nearly all shops are closed and many restaurants. Nearly all tourist attractions will be closed. On other holidays, many shops are open but often with reduced hours.
Many shops and restaurants will be open on bank holidays with the exception of Boxing Day which tends to be quiet. Public transport runs reduced service on Sundays and bank holidays.
Special events in London are highlighted in “High & Low Season”.
London is casual except for certain afternoon tea ceremonies (most notably the Ritz) when a tie and jacket is required and dinner in a few very posh restaurants. Otherwise London has an “anything goes” sense of style and you’ll fit in wearing anything except for workout clothes. Having said that, some restaurants won’t allow t-shirts and most require closed footwear in summer.
In winter and early spring, wear layers to accommodate temperatures that fluctuate all day long. And always carry an umbrella, even on days that start out clear and sunny. It’s probably wise to pack a decent looking pair of trousers (both men and women) to cover any circumstance. Londoners tend to dress up a bit more than might be standard elsewhere.
Pack comfortable walking shoes. The best way to get to know London is to walk and it’s so easy to do here. But try to avoid gym shoes (see below) unless you don’t mind standing out as a foreigner.
If you want to go beyond comfort and dress like a local, here are a few tips.
•Never wear shorts if you are a woman. Few females wear them here except oddly, in winter, when they appear with tights. You can get away with them if you are male but if you really want to fit in, leave them at home.
•Do not even think about going out in Crocs.
•Although you see them more now than ever before, avoid matching tracksuit bottoms and tops.
•Ladies, same as above for athletic shoes. Women do wear athletic shoes but not the long-distance running kind. If you must wear comfy walking shoes, go for trendy Or better yet, flat-bottomed boots.
•Ladies, again: Even the most stylish London ladies wear very little make-up.
•Avoid bright colors. Londoners tend to wear blacks, blues, and other dark colors and not too many patterns. A brightly-colored, patterned garment is instantly tied to America.
•Did someone say baseball cap? Oh I don’t think so!
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in £.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £10 per person
$$ => Tickets £10 – £20 per person
$$$ => Tickets £20 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
$ => Rooms less than £45 for a double
$$=> Rooms £45 – £75 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £75 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
$ => Rooms less than £75 for a double
$$ => Rooms £75 – £110 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £110 for a double
$ => £4 – £8 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => £8 – £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £20 per person
$$ => £20 – £40 per person
$$$ => £40 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo (www.momondo.com) also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings. European operators such as easyJet, Ryanair, Air France-KLM, Jet2, British Airways, flybe and Lufthansa offer an extensive range of routes in Europe.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transport, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about €8/£6 a month; rentals are about €8-13.50/£6-10 per hour; fuel and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, such as Uber, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
All the major car rental companies such as Avis, Sixt, Hertz and Europcar operate throughout Europe. It is not normally possible to rent in the UK and take the vehicle to mainland Europe or vice versa.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) Europe goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Travellers within Europe from European Union member states should obtain an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) card which entitles them to healthcare on the same terms as citizens from the country they are visiting. This is a reciprocal agreement which means for example that EEA visitors to the UK will receive free care in NHS hospitals in the same way that UK residents do. Some countries e.g. France make a charge known as a patient contribution for GP visits or stays in hospital for both their own citizens and visitors from the EEA. Even so, travellers are well advised to have additional medical insurance to cover for example the cost of repatriation, mountain rescue in ski resorts and other emergencies.
For travellers from outside the European Union the cost of health services in Europe, while not as high as in the US for example, can be relatively expensive for the uninsured. For this reason it is essential to consider purchasing medical insurance. If you have a Health Care Plan back home it may cover you for most situations which arise abroad but you need to check this out and in any case additional medical travel insurance will cover you for private health care or other expenses.
Some countries outside the European Union have a reciprocal agreement for healthcare with certain European countries. For example Switzerland has an agreement with all European Union countries and Australia has agreements with the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and others. It pays to check before leaving home.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travellers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip is expensive it’s essential and even if it isn’t it’s certainly a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Your English or other European language skills are also crucial because insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
In Europe the largest insurers are Allianz, Axa and Zurich but there are many smaller providers such as insureandgo and Direct Line.
Pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition or charge an additional premium related to the condition. Some companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
Gone are the days when tipping wasn’t expected in London. Although standard tip rates are still less than other major cities, tipping is becoming more of the norm.
The standard tipping rate is 10-15% of the bill, depending on the total charge and caliber of service. Restaurants often add an optional service charge of 12.5% for large parties but this is becoming increasingly common for smaller parties as well. It’s not always pointed out so check the bill if you don’t want to tip twice. And remember, you have the right to refuse it if you feel service was poor.
You don’t need to tip in pubs unless you’ve had table service, in which case about 10% is adequate. But if you’re standing around the bar, it’s nice to leave your change in the tray that will undoubtedly be there.
Many locals just round up the bill to the nearest pound and tell the driver to keep the change. But that is increasingly met with a frown, if not a downright tirade. If you want to be truly polite, best to tip 10-15%, and add extra if the driver has been helpful with luggage.
Most porters will expect a tip and certainly doormen in upmarket hotels as well. But hotels generally add a service charge to the final bill so it’s up to you if you tip individual staff members.
Cloakrooms and coat attendants
At higher end and hotel restaurants, cloakrooms are often staffed. It’s definitely polite to leave £1 in return for the dispensing of soap and towel. Similarly, coat check staff are usually given £1 per item.
Watch out for…
Mobile phone data charges. This can be the biggest zinger while traveling, especially for people from the U.S. You can inadvertently be charged without even realizing it by leaving on your data settings and turning on your phone upon arrival. Best to turn off 3G (or 4G), all cellular data and data roaming before you leave.
You might also want to consider changing your usage statistics settings so you can monitor your data usage while traveling.
London public transport is expensive, more than Paris, New York and Hong Kong. But despite Londoners’ perpetual groaning about their transit system, it operates efficiently.
London is a great walking city and distances can be closer than you think. Quite often, it’s very quick to walk between two tube stations or even four bus stations so always consider walking before you ride.
London Underground is engaged in a massive redevelopment project which is disruptive on many Tube lines. It can be very frustrating but replacement buses do operate, or again, consider walking.
Much of the disruption is related to the tunnelling work for the Crossrail line which will link existing rail services from the west and east with London stations. During the last three years, 26 miles of tunnels have been dug and works should be completed in 2018.
Night Time Service
London is behind the times in terms of 24-hour transport. Talks have been underway for years to institute a 24-hour tube but they are mired in controversy and seem to be perpetually stalled. In the meantime, if you’re out late, check when tubes stop running; it is slightly different on every line. Night buses run all night.
All that sounds negative. But for an ancient city that’s evolved to a modern one, transport is reasonably good. You can find out about delays before you travel by using Transport for London’s journey planner.
Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, is just 15 miles west of the city but that can be a long 15 miles. To get into central London, you can take a bus, taxi, train or tube. Details follow:
Tube: The best option unless you have a lot of luggage. Heathrow is served only by the Piccadilly line so plan carefully if you have to change trains – the hassle can outweigh the savings. Easiest place to change to District Line (for Victoria) is at Hammersmith where you only need to cross the platform.
It can be a pain getting down to the tube platform at Heathrow (there ARE elevators down) but once you’re on the train, it’s easy, particularly if you are staying near a station on the Piccadilly line.
Trains: The Heathrow Express is efficient and quick but expensive at £19. Trains go to Paddington Station where you can get the tube or a taxi onward. But that central London taxi fare added to the train ticket can be nearly as much as a taxi straight from the airport, especially if there are enough people in your party to defray the cost. Look out for the DuoSaver ticket (£50) which applies to two people returning to the airport within 30 days. Heathrow Connect is less expensive than the Express but only runs every half hour and every hour on Sundays. This line is used by airport workers so it makes stops on the way into town and it does not serve terminals 4 or 5, only Heathrow Central. (As with the bus, you need to take the Heathrow Express (free) from terminals 4 and 5 to the Central Station.)
Taxi: Most expensive option. Metered fare in a black cab averages from £40-£70 depending on time of day. If you have 4 people and not too much luggage, this can work out to be cost effective. Consider a pre-booked private taxi which can be cheaper, but not always, than a black cab from the airport rank. There are many options, some suggestions are Addison Lee (expensive but reliable and comfy) www.addisonlee.com; Uber www.uber.com) Never take a private car with someone who approaches you in the airport.
Bus: National Express operates 3 buses per hour to Victoria Station from the Heathrow Central Bus Station which is in between Terminals 1, 2, 3. Note that from Terminal 4, you need to take the Heathrow Connect train (free within airport) to the Central Bus Station. It’s cumbersome but cheapest option at about £5 per trip. Takes about an hour. Good for people staying near Victoria.
Gatwick, London’s second largest airport, is 28 miles south of the city and not serviced by tube. Best option is a train.
Train: Gatwick Express, which travels to Victoria Station in central London is the easiest option and also the most expensive (about £20.00) other than a private car. From Victoria, you can take taxi or tube to final destination. But it’s worth considering other train lines if you are not staying near Victoria. Thameslink trains, cheaper than Gatwick Express, are useful for destinations in the City (financial district). Trains stop at St Pancras (where Eurostar operates) and also Farringdon, City Thameslink, Blackfriars and London Bridge. Southern Trains follow the same route as Gatwick Express but are nearly half the price. The journey takes longer because they are not express trains. The Clapham Junction stop, just before Victoria, is useful because you can transfer to Waterloo Station which puts you on the south side of the river.
Caveat for both these lines is that they are commuter trains so will be very crowded in early morning and afternoon. No one will be sympathetic about your luggage.
Bus: National Express buses run every half hour and take as long as two hours. But it’s cheap with fares from £8. Book ahead; cheapest fares sell out early. Easybus operated by Easyjet, can be the cheapest option with fares starting at £2 if you book online and ahead. Fares are £10 at the airport. But the drop-off is in West Brompton, a short walk from the tube station and only useful if you are staying near Gloucester Road, Fulham or South Kensington.
Taxi: Don’t even think about it. Black cabs don’t come out this far and the chequered car service available will be close to £100. If you must have a car, pre-book one through a reputable car company (see above).
BUSES AND TUBE
If you are here for more than one day, purchase an Oyster card, a smartcard that you top up as you need. Not only are single journeys on buses and tube trains cheaper, but there is a capping point, calculated on your 24-hour usage so that after a certain point, you no longer pay.
If you are only in town for one day, get a paper travelcard which gives you unlimited travel all day without a deposit. Never, pay by single ride.
A full explanation is in “Tickets.”
DOCKLANDS LIGHT RAILWAY (DLR)
The DLR came in to its own with the development of Canary Wharf and the subsequent Olympic games in Stratford. The driverless trains whiz through east London, including London City Airport, Canary Wharf, as well as Greenwich and the 02 arena. All usual payments, including Oyster, apply.
Major connections to the tube are at Bank, Tower Hill and Canary Wharf. If you are traveling with children, try to get the front seat of the front car for a driver’s view.
London’s railway network largely serves commuters from the south and southeast. Most visitors’ needs are met by the tube but occasionally an overground train can be faster, for example getting to Wembly.
Railcards – Full Details
The Railways 2 For 1 Promotion
The railways sponsor a hugely popular and long running promotion that allows people using the train to visit leading attractions to get two people admitted for the price of one.
When visiting London you can you can get 2 for 1 admission to many of London’s major sights including the Tower of London. The full list is very, very long and covers all of Great Britain. If you have train tickets to London and you are doing some sightseeing its a very worthwhile promotion to look into.
Railways 2 For 1 Promotion More Details
In recent years there has been a movement to encourage commuters to use the river to get around. In theory, it’s a great idea but it remains prohibitively expensive for daily use. But it’s something to consider because you get great views for a fraction of the price of a designated tourist cruise. Thames Clippers (http://www.thamesclippers.com/) boats run between Putney in the west and Woolwich in the east. If you are spending the day visiting sites along the river, including Greenwich, the Tate galleries, the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market, consider purchasing a River Roamer for unlimited passage. Otherwise, you can use an Oyster card for single trips, which incorporates a 10% discount. However, travel on the river does not count towards the capping sum.
Not for the faint-hearted, cycling on major roads in London is truly taking your life in your hands. The narrow roads, already clogged with off-road vehicles and delivery trucks, don’t really have room for bicycles.
London is desperate to be included among green cities where cycling is standard fare but its ancient roads and huge population make it difficult. But that doesn’t stop the hundreds of intrepid cyclists who commute daily. And with a bit of care, it shouldn’t stop you either.
Citywide Cycle Sharing: Santander Cycles
Mayor Boris Johnson introduced London’s excellent bike hire scheme (popularly known as Boris Bikes) which offers 10,000 bikes at 700 docking stations all across town. All you need to do is go to any docking station with a credit or debit card and follow the instructions on the screen. You pay £2 for the privilege of hiring a bike for 24 hours but don’t keep the bike for the full 24 hours. Bikes are intended for short use so each 30-minute ride throughout the day is free. After that, each extra 30 minutes costs an additional £2. So in theory, you could cross town in a series of free 30-minute journeys.
If the docking station is full when you arrive, select “no docking point free” on the touchscreen and you will get an additional 15 minutes to take the bike to the nearest free station.
Remember that cyclists in London must follow the same rules of the roads as vehicle drivers. It’s possible to cover a lot of distance in public parks and back roads.
Transport for London publishes an app with maps to plan your journey https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling/santander-cycles/community?intcmp=5390 .
Tip: Make sure that you see the green light when you return the bike. Push it in firmly so that your return time registers, otherwise you will continue to be charged.
Seriously. Not only do you see more, but many points in central London are closer than you might think, even on different sides of the river. Walking from Covent Garden to Southbank takes about 15 minutes, about the same time as the bus and much quicker than messing about with the tube. Similarly, if you want to visit Tate Modern but are north of the river around St Paul’s, it’s just a quick five-minute stroll across the Millennium Bridge with some of the best views in town enroute.
Transport for London publishes a map that shows walking distances between stations http://content.tfl.gov.uk/walking-tube-map.pdf. If you’re going to Covent Garden, it’s easier to get off at Leicester Square as the stations are only 300 meters apart.
Remember that London’s street pattern evolved rather than being carefully laid out. Arm yourself with a handy map app or a good old-fashioned paper A-Z map.
Why would you? If you can find a road that isn’t so congested that you can actually drive, there will be nowhere to park your car when you get where you’re going. You’ll also have to pay the daily congestion charge for the privilege of sitting in traffic. Oh, and be sure not to stop in a “box junction,” designated by yellow lines on the road at congestion hotspots, or make a left or right turn in one of the many places where it’s not allowed, be aware of the many one-way streets and above all, don’t drive in an unclearly marked bus lane. One of the 400 traffic cameras will catch you (yes, even with a rental car) and you’ll receive a penalty charge that nearly matches the cost of renting.
As locals know, a car in central London is more of a hindrance than a help. But if you must drive, there are rental car outlets all around town from all major and minor companies. Best to check a car-hire price comparison website such as www.carrentals.co.uk or comparecarhire.co.uk.
Oyster card for daily travel
If you are here for more than one day, purchase an Oyster card, a smartcard that you top up as you need. Not only are single journeys on buses and tube trains cheaper, but there is a capping point, calculated on your 24-hour usage so that after a certain point, you no longer pay.
Oyster cards cover all underground trains, red buses, Greater London railways, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and trams (south London). Oysters also provide a discount on some river services and the Emirates Air cable car in east London.
If you are only in town for one day, get a paper travelcard which gives you unlimited travel all day without a deposit. Never, ever pay by single ride.
There are two types of Oyster: a visitor card that you can purchase outside of London or a regular Oyster that locals use which can be bought from London underground ticket machines. Staff can help you work out what to buy but not all underground stations are staffed anymore.
Buy before you arrive
You can purchase a visitor card online from Transport for London (www.tfl.gov.uk) and put money on it before you leave home (about £15 for two days). There is a £3 nonrefundable fee, and postage costs, but if you’re coming into Heathrow you’ll bypass the chaos at the ticket machines. Visitor cards can be topped up at underground stations, some neighborhood shops, National Rail stations and Travel Information Centers (Liverpool St, Piccadilly Circus, Victoria, Euston, King’s Cross and Paddington, Heathrow and Gatwick). You cannot top up online or on buses.
When you leave, you can save unused credit for your next visit, or you can get a refund of up to £10 at a Tube ticket machine.
Buy in London
Regular Oyster cards that locals use require a £5 refundable deposit. They are the same as a visitor Oyster except that when you leave, you can get your deposit back. The only drawback is that you can’t purchase them before you leave home.
How to use Oyster
Touch your card on the yellow disc reader at the entrance to all trains and again at the exit. Always touch out at the exit, even if the gates are open, or you will be charged a maximum fare. Touching in and out is the only way the system knows how far you’ve traveled. Daily journeys are capped so the card is better value as you make more trips. Oyster will charge more at peak times (Mon-Fri 6:30-9:30; and 4pm-7pm).
Contactless payment cards
Contactless payment cards are as cost-effective as Oysters. Your journeys will be capped both daily and weekly, provided you always use the same card. Drawbacks for visitors are that they don’t factor in child fares and that each member of your group must have his/her own card. Also, American visitors are unlikely to have contactless cards and you may be charged transaction fees at every use.
The Underground system is divided into 9 zones, beginning in central London around Piccadilly as Zone 1 and fanning out towards Heathrow at Zone 6. Fares rise as you travel through further zones. Buses do not use zones so are obviously better value as you move outside of central London.
You cannot use cash on London buses. You need a paper travelcard, an Oyster or a contactless payment card. You only need to touch in on buses, not out. You will receive a penalty fare if you touch out on a bus. Buses charge a flat fee for all journeys, so it’s great value if you’re going a long way but expensive to ride one stop.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Children under 11 travel free anywhere at all times on buses but must be accompanied by a full-paying adult for free passage on all other transport. For children 11-15, you need to buy a Visitor Oyster at a TfL visitor centre (https://tfl.gov.uk/) and get a Young Visitor discount added. The child must be present at the point of sale. These are only valid for two weeks.
It might be easier to just purchase a daily or weekly paper Underground Travelcard for children at an underground station.
Another option is to purchase an Oyster photo ID card for young people that locals use. But you need to order it online with a photo three weeks in advance and then collect it at selected stations in London. It’s a hassle.
Refund for unused credit
If you have credit on your card when you leave, you can save it for another trip, give it to a friend, or apply for a refund of up to £10.00. Refunds will be put on the credit card you paid for or you can get cash if you initially paid that way. You can also post the card back to TfL but your refund will arrive as a GBP check.
1.Say thank you all the time, the British do. So when a cashier takes your money, you say, “thank you.” He or she will say, “thank you” back and then you say, “thank you” when the transaction is completed. Basically just keeping thank you and you’ll be well respected.
2.Apologize for everything. If someone steps on your foot, the proper response is not “Ouch, get off my foot,” but “I’m sorry.” And you might even want to thank the offender too.
3.It’s an unspoken rule that on escalators and stairs, you ride/walk on the right and walk on the left. Never, ever stand still on the left side of an escalator or you will incur the wrath of a tired, London commuter. Similarly, don’t stand at the top of the escalator while you figure out which way to go. Move quickly to the side and then determine your whereabouts.
4.Shhhhhhhhh…Londoners don’t speak loudly unless they are hard of hearing or very drunk. One of the easiest ways to stand out is to shout or speak at loud volume.
If you are from America and think you speak the same language as Londoners, think again. So many words and expressions are different. Here are a few to know to avoid confusion or even embarrassment.
1.Never refer to your fanny pack. It’s a bum bag here; fanny means something else entirely and could get you slapped. Dispense with the “bum bag” completely; it screams tourist.
2.The term “holiday” is a generic term for vacation – as well as referring to a day off work.
3.Footwear: wellies is the general term for rain boots; trainers are sneakers.
4.Bringing up baby: Nappy is a diaper; pram is a stroller.
5.Mobile is the term for your cell phone.
6.There are no drug stores here; get your aspirin at a pharmacy.
7.What you know as soccer is football.
8.Theater is where you see plays and musicals; cinema is for films (not movies).
9.Pants in the UK refers to underwear. If you need to buy what you think of as pants, ask for trousers.
A city that loves to eat out
London’s restaurant scene is sizzling. Some 180 restaurants opened here in 2015, reflecting Londoners’ appetites for change. While the constant motion of the restaurant world is exciting, the surrounding hype means it can be hard to get a table at one of the hotspots.
New establishments fly to the top of the popularity list and almost as quickly come crashing down. Londoners love to go where celebrities hang out and when a new restaurant becomes the “place to be seen,” waiting lists get long, sometimes as long as one year. If you want to go the latest trendy spot, you’ll need to reserve a table well before your arrival in London. Popularity doesn’t always equate with phenomenal food but hotspots usually deliver on atmosphere.
If you don’t know what you want, the reservation website OpenTable is helpful by listing restaurants with reviews. Members earn points to use towards discounts.
Out with fussy, in with funky
The current trend in high-end eating, including Michelin-starred establishments, is towards no-frills simplicity, in both food and décor. Young, talented chefs who push boundaries in flavors, style and presentation, tend to open restaurants where rents are cheaper (usually the east end) and they can focus on food rather than furnishings and fuss. That translates to gourmet food in an informal setting – especially if you are willing to travel to less traditional neighborhoods.
A taste for the east
Chicken tikka masala (an English invention) long ago replaced fish and chips as the UK’s favorite dish and the country’s love affair with Indian and other eastern flavors is well represented in London. The majority of new restaurants in recent years have been Korean and Japanese, with increased interest in Middle Eastern flavors and Asian/fusion cuisine, as well.
Current dining trends
Tapas-style dining is the current fashion, where diners share small dishes rather than ordering individual meals. Shared tables are on the up too, in keeping with the more relaxed dining scene overall. London diners also are keen to know the provenance of their food so chefs proudly present local and organic ingredients in many restaurants.
Nose to tail dining, made famous by Fergus Henderson at St John, a London landmark in the cuisine world, is becoming more widespread as a “waste not” mentality spreads through London generally.
The rise of street food
What started as holiday pop-ups has turned into a permanent fixture. From traditional British pies to Spanish paella to Korean kimchi, it’s all here. It won’t be as cheap as you might think; many of the stands serve carefully-prepared, gourmet meals. But it’s still less expensive than a restaurant meal and often a lot more fun.
The Real Food Market behind Royal Festival Hall; Kerb at King’s Cross; Portobello Market and Broadway Market are just a few places where you can find regular food trucks. Keep track of newcomers here.
Pop-up to catch top chefs
Savvy gourmands know that the way to catch up and coming chefs is through pop-up tables. You have to love spontaneity and be open to adventure as locations can be anywhere from arches under major bridges to a disused gallery in a far-flung postcode. But if you’re open-minded, this can be a fun, sociable experience and a way to taste outstanding food at low prices. Keep track of openings here.
Get out your wallet
Although London has a tremendous variety of restaurants, the city is not very good at providing low-cost, high-quality options. Good value in London is a relative term; so-called “cheap” venues will still seem expensive relative to other cities. Expect to pay between £30-£50 per person for a three-course meal with house wine at a mid-range establishment.
How to save money
Best choices for the frugally-minded are noodle bars, hamburger joints and the growing number of street food vans, where you can taste cutting-edge food at low prices.
At the other end of the spectrum, many top-end dining establishments offer good value set menus and pre-theater menus. Having your big meal of the day at lunch is another great way to partake in fancy restaurants at a lower price.
Don’t be scared off by food chains; just choose wisely. Some of the best are Wagamama and Bone Daddies for ramen; GBK and Byron for burgers; and Pret a Manger for fresh sandwiches.
To tip or not to tip
There is no hard and fast rule as to whether a restaurant includes a standard service charge. For restaurants that do, it’s usually 12.5% of the bill. Otherwise, etiquette is to tip between 10-15%.
Restaurant hours vary but generally most establishments serve lunch from 12-2 and dinner from 6-9:30. There are many exceptions, including all-day dining but kitchens tend to close earlier than other major cities like New York, Paris and Hong Kong.
English is still the mother tongue but in London it has a lot of competition. Some 300 languages are spoken within the capital and in some boroughs, there are more than 100 languages spoken.
Although it’s pretty standard English here; there are some key differences, particularly for visitors from America. Following is a brief guide to help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.
If you are from America and think you speak the same language as Londoners, think again. So many words and expressions are different. Here are a few to know to avoid embarrassment.
1. Never refer to your fanny pack. It’s a bum bag here; fanny means something else entirely and could get you slapped. Dispense with the “bum bag” completely; it screams tourist.
2. The term “holiday” is a generic term for vacation – as well as referring to a day off work.
3. Footwear: wellies is the general term for rain boots; trainers are sneakers.
4. Bringing up baby: Nappy is a diaper; pram is a stroller.
5. Mobile is the term for your cell phone.
6. There are no drug stores here; get your aspirin at a pharmacy.
7. What you know as soccer is football.
8. Theater is where you see plays and musicals; cinema is for films (not movies).
9. Pants in the UK refers to underwear. If you need to buy what you think of as pants, ask for trousers.