Often cited in opinion polls and by travel experts as the No. 1 place to visit in the world. Whatever your tastes are, the sheer diversity and dynamism of London will not disappoint you, nowhere else in Europe or even the rest of the world as quite the same aura.
You’re more likely to bump into Japanese tourists that the Queen or even minor members of the Royal Family, but London brims with relics from the old world order of regality, classic architecture and Victorian values – met head on with the pace of a boutique, retail, fashion and lifestyle consumer driven thriving culture.
London hidden secret? The best bits are all free – all of London’s major museums are free to enter, and the view across the Thames to Tower Bridge is priceless. Which is lucky to the shoestring traveller, as this is one of the most expensive cities to visit on earth…
– Walk through centuries of history in the Tower of London
– Take in the sheer size of London from the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, the London Eye
– Marvel at the amazing range of artefacts in one of the world’s oldest museums, theBritish Museum
– Enjoy the frenetic pace of an evening in Soho, London’s noisiest district with its restaurants, bars, theatres and clubs
– Imagine life during the career of Shakespeare, one of the world’s greatest writers, at the reconstructed Globe Theatre
– See the Houses of Parliament in the flesh, a masterstroke of neo-Gothic architecture that adorns many a chocolate box
– Take a ferry along the Thames, then spend the evening at a performance in theNational Theatre
– Spend a weekend in the East End of London; visit the trendy bars and clubs of Old Street and Clerkenwell on Saturday night, then wander around the Sunday markets ofBrick Lane, Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields, relax at a Sunday afternoon club session in the area and round it off with a curry back on Brick Lane.
London’s underground network, known as the tube, is almost 150 years old and, because of decades of under investment, it certainly shows its age. You’re almost guaranteed to encounter delays at some point on your visit – sometimes whole sections of track go out of use for a period – and there’s always the threat of union strikes against the proposed privatisation of the network. On top of that it’s extremely expensive; for access across the first four zones of the tube you’ll pay over double what it costs in the New York subway or Paris Métro, around $8 for a day travelling after 9.30am. Despite this the tube is still the best way to get around the city until it shuts down between 12 and 1am – then you’re at the mercy of the night buses, black cabs or, more dangerously, unlicensed mini-cabs.
There are eleven lines criss-crossing London taking you as far a field as Amersham to the northwest and Heathrow to the southwest. They vary in reliability; the Circle Line is particularly unreliable while the Jubilee, with its recent extension into the Docklands, is generally very fast. The network is divided into six concentric zones and your fare is dependent upon which zone your destination is in. The cheapest way of getting around is a Travelcard which can be used on all modes of transport after 9.30am; it costs about $8 to cover up to 4 zones.
London has a very extensive bus network with over 5,500 buses in operation, used by around 3.5 million people per day. The introduction of congestion charging in Central London (a scheme that requires drivers to pay a toll to enter the centre) was meant to ease the traffic gridlock that the city suffers from during the week and improve the bus service. The Mayor claims it’s made a radical difference; bus passengers are still frustrated by the ‘three at once’ phenomenon (in which no bus comes for ages and then three appear in convoy). So, if you’re not in too much of a hurry, a bus can be a good way of getting around and taking in the sights of the city – all for the price of a one-day bus pass, cost about $4. Good routes are the No.24 running north to south from Hampstead Heath to Pimlico taking in Camden, the West End, Whitehall and Victoria and the nos. 9 and 10 running from Hammersmith through Kensington and Knightsbridge to Hyde Park Corner. For travel in the wee hours, most night buses run from Trafalgar Square to most of Greater London all night long, so head there.
In Central London a new and successful scheme running since August 2003 means that you now have to buy a ticket before you board the bus which has resulted in a cut in stopping times. The scheme is running within the area roughly bounded by the Paddington, Kings Cross, Waterloo and Victoria. All bus stops have been fitted with a ticket machine (you can also buy advance tickets from newsagents, tobacconists and confectioners) and participating bus stops all have yellow signs telling you that you must buy a ticket before the bus comes. You still pay the driver on all other bus routes.
Train and DLR
As well as the Underground, London is criss-crossed by a number of overland train lines as well as the Docklands Light Railway, a driverless train line that runs from Bank station in the City and Tower Gateway at Tower Hill with Beckton and Stratford, Greenwich and Lewisham. Fares are the same as on the tube but there’s also a range of tickets available that are unique to that line.
The Silverlink or North London Line links Richmond in the south-west with North Woolwich in the south east as well as running a service between Watford Junction and Euston.Thameslink (fondly known as the sardine line!) runs between Elephant & Castle and London Bridge in the south through the City to King’s Cross and north to Luton.
It’s safe to say that driving in and around London is best avoided if possible. The roads are choc-a-bloc and when you do make it to your destination you’ll be faced with whopping parking fees. If you fall foul of the traffic wardens and car clampers a parking ticket costs up to $150 to pay off and the removal of a clamp is around $200. If all this hasn’t put you off remember that Central London is now subject to congestion charging, a scheme started in 2003. It will cost you $8, you’ll need to register your vehicle (even if it’s a hire car) and the fine for non-payment is about $150.
The black cab is as synonymous with London as the yellow cabs are with New York. If there’s a group of you, it can be economical to take a cab during the day but avoid it if you’re on your own. Taxis cost more at night but it’s then that they become the Londoner’s first choice along with the night bus. Don’t expect to hail a cab (just stick your arm out at any cab that has its yellow sign above the windscreen illuminated) in busy nightlife areas such as Soho. Here you might find it better to take a minicab but beware, many are unlicensed, and sex attacks by driver (often illegal immigrants) are not uncommon. It’s best to prearrange a pick-up with a reputable firm whose drivers are insured and will get you home in one piece!
London is far from being the cyclists’ paradise that, say, Amsterdam is; with its heavy traffic and fumes you’re likely to feel that you’re doing yourself more harm than good. That said, the number of cyclists in the capital has been increasing in recent years and the London Cycling Campaign is trying to get cycle lanes introduced right across the city.
The closest London comes to a city centre is Trafalgar Square, home to the National Gallery and St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, but clogged by traffic and hardly a civically minded place for people to gather and relax. From here you can take The Mall southwest through the perfectly coiffured St James’ Park to the royal seat of Buckingham Palace, take a trip through the machinery of government along Whitehall, with a stop at the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s residence, Downing Street, and ending up in Parliament Square, bounded on all sides by magnificent buildings including the Houses of Parliament andWestminster Abbey.
Going northeast from Trafalgar Square takes you along the Strand, through the edge of Theatreland and on to the centre of the UK’s legal system where you’ll find the various ‘Inns of Court’ and the Royal Courts of Justice. For more light-hearted endeavours head northwards along Charing Cross Road, the centre of London’s sadly vanishing independent book trade, from where you can wander along Shaftesbury Avenue, London’s equivalent of Broadway, and on into Soho, a busy, trendy yet sleezy nightlife centre that attracts all sorts and is probably the closest to 24 hour culture that London has. North from Soho you’ll find Oxford Street, London’s most famous shopping street – now a mixture of tourist hell, high street convenience and department store chic (Selfridge’s is a must-visit store).
If more high-end culture interests you, head to the Southbank, the other side of the Thames which is home to the National Theatre, National Film Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall where you can take in shows by international artists. Further east down the Southbank you will find Shakespeare’s re-created Globe Theatre and the fabulous Tate Gallery of Modern Art which houses collections of Dali, Rothko and Warhol. Don’t forgot to take a walk back to the Northbank on the famous Millenium Bridge built in 2000, known to Londoners as the ‘wobbly bridge’ for it’s slight moveability!
Walking into the Abbey for the first time is breathtaking. Aside from the favourites such as Poet’s Corner (Tennyson, Dickens and Hardy are just three of the many buried here), there are delights such as The Lady Chapel, where the knights of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath have their chairs. Prince Charles is currently the Great Master of the Order.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Christopher Wren’s masterpiece is currently undergoing its first proper clean in 300 years, meaning that some scaffolding is obscuring the magnificent dome. It’s interesting to see just how time takes its toll though!
The London Eye
An absolute must – this giant Ferris Wheel next to the Thames offers ‘flyers’ the best view of London you’ll get anywhere, except from a plane!
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
If you are here over the summer, come and see a performance here. Sam Wanamaker’s theatre is a beautiful tribute to Shakespeare. With its thatched roof and open-air stage, it’s a step back in time. Or if you fancy a more active role, join one of the Globe’s many workshops.
Houses of Parliament
Tours are available for overseas visitors from July to October. Please see the website for specific details.
London sprawls out for miles upon miles but its northern-most central area reaches from St John’s Wood in the west to Islington in the east. Within this area you’ll find St John’s Wood and Maida Vale, Euston and King’s Cross, Islington and Stoke Newington, Camdenand Kentish Town, and Hampstead and Highgate. These areas present a cross-section of London society from the working class enclaves of Stoke Newington and Kentish Town that are beginning to feel the effects of gentrification to the staunchly affluent areas of St John’s Wood and Hampstead. Although these areas (excluding King’s Cross and Euston) are basically residential parts of the city they nonetheless provide some great, less trodden places to visit, as well as several restaurant and nightlife scenes of their own – especially in Camden, Islington, Hampstead and Stoke Newington.
Picnic Concerts at Kenwood House
If you’re in London over the summer you can spend a delightful evening up at Kenwood House. A stage is set across the lake amongst the trees where concerts are performed; take your own picnic too. The setting has a very special atmosphere and the evening always ends with a firework display.
Although not brimming over with the attractions they have northside, there’s still plenty to do south of the River Thames; don’t be scared off by north London talk suggesting there’s nothing of importance south of the river! If there’s one comment you’re bound to come across in London it’s the one that conveys the rivalry of the two sides of the river.Greenwich is the major attraction southside – it was made a World Heritage Site in 1997 – but there’s also the colourful yet notorious area of Brixton (now equally well known for its interesting nightlife), the leafy suburb of Dulwich with its gentile architecture and the world-famous suburb of Wimbledon, home of tennis and Wombles.
National Maritime Museum & Royal Observatory
It is possible to get a riverboat to Greenwich to visit both these sites. During the race to invent a clock that would keep time even at sea, one chap invented what he called the Powder of Sympathy. A dog would be cut with a knife covered in the powder. The same dog would be taken to sea. At noon the knife would be plunged into the powder in London & the dog at sea would yelp. The crew of the ship would therefore know it was noon in London. Just one of the fascinating stories associated with the history of time to be found in the Maritime Museum! You can even walk on the ‘Greenwich meantime meridian’ which marks the point of the first zone in the world time clock.
Without a doubt the best food market in London, although very touristic and more specialist than cheap. Get there after 3pm for some closing deals. Eat your way around all the free samples! Darren Brown’s seafood stall is one of the highlights – ready to eat crayfish-tail pots with mayonnaise for a few pounds or a stir-fry of fresh scallops for a little more. Darren dives for all his produce himself off the coast of Dorset.
The East End is on the cusp of the City but the districts of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and Whitechapel have a resolutely different feel about them. This was the working class area of London and has been the destination of waves of immigrants, giving it an interesting blend of heritage that becomes apparent as you walk around – cultural vestiges include Irish, French Huguenot, Bangladeshi and Jewish. It’s also been undergoing a renaissance over the last decade as a trendy area of London and it’s now a premier nightspot area.
136 Kingsland Road, E2
This delightful little museum is contained within 14 almshouses originally built to house the poor in the late sixteenth century. Now they’re a showcase for English middle class interiors from the Elizabethan times to the present day. Its original chapel also remains.
Columbia and Spitalfields Markets
Columbia Road’s Sunday flower market is a great way to ease into the last day of the weekend with its bountiful array of cut flowers and bedded plants. Also along the road you’ll find a couple of gift shops, the best of which are the Pot Luck and The Pot Centre. Spitalfields Market used to be one of London’s biggest wholesale fruit and vegetables markets until it moved to a modern site in Hackney Wick in the early 1990s. Nowadays the huge Victorian building is home to arguably the best Sunday market in the area, superseding the nearby Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane markets with its high quality arts and crafts, furniture and interesting music stalls.
Columbia Road Market: along Columbia Road, east of Ravenscroft Street to Barnet Grove. Spitalfields Market: West side of Commercial Street between Folgate and Bushfield Street
West London sprawls off into some dilapidated suburbs in the same way as the rest of London does – and there are few places in the world as depressing as wilting London suburbs on a typically English grey day. However, there are plenty of things to see here – probably more than in the east so don’t miss West London off your itinerary. Hammersmith offers warm pubs by the Thames in the company of hearty rowers, Fulham has its seventeenth century bishops’ palace, Kew Gardens makes for a wonderful afternoon of wandering while Richmond is replete with cool Georgian architecture and a wonderfully wild park. Do go to Neasden for the Hindu temple but, you have been warned, get out of the area again soon – it may sap your soul!
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew
Recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kew Gardens has the flora of the world in one place. The Palmhouse is particularly popular, and is housed in a spectacular setting. Events are held all year round.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Hindu Temple)
One of the most unexpected sites in the city, this beautiful Hindu temple is well worth a visit. Visitors should be respectfully dressed and shoes must be removed before entering.
Top Sights Outside the City
Hampton Court Palace East Molesy, Surrey
Known as the ‘playboy mansion of Henry VIII’ Hampton Court lies in the south-western outskirts of London next to the semi-wild Bushy Park, home to grads of red and fallow deer. The palace was actually built in the sixteenth century by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, to reaffirm to the nation his self-importance but later presented to his king, Henry VIII to placate him after he failed to persuade the pope to grant the monarch’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. As soon as Henry acquired it he set about expanding it and by 1540 it was one of Europe’s grandest palaces. Nowadays, it’s England’s biggest, most impressive Tudor building, brimming with history and capped by beautiful gardens and a famous 300 year-old maze. Set aside lots of time for your visit; the costumed guides are full of interesting facts, the maze is lots of fun and you can take a look at the world’s second oldest vine – which still produces 300kg of grapes per year. Hampton Court can be reached by riverboat from Central London.
The world famous Cambridge University was founded in the thirteenth century, several decades after its equally famous rival, Oxford. Both towns are extremely popular tourist attractions and the debate over which is more beautiful is one subject that neither of their debating societies is ever likely to settle. The best advice is to visit both cities to make up your own mind but if time is short choose Cambridge; it’s an architectural treasure-trove and unlike Oxford, many of the university’s colleges are open to the public. Wander round the various colleges, making sure you take in the amazing King’s College and its chapel, started by in 1446 by Henry VI and finished around 1516. It was subsequently elaborated on by several monarchs including Henry VIII who installed the intricate fan vaulting.Punting (navigating a boat using a long pole that reaches the bottom of the river) is a well-famed past time along the River Cam but beware, it’s not as easy as it looks!
Cambridge is two hours from London by road and an hour by train from London’s King’s Cross and Liverpool Street stations.
Canterbury is a history-laden city south east of London in Kent that’s home to one of Europe’s most magnificent cathedrals whose original remnants date back to the eleventh century. After the murder and martyrdom of Thomas á Becket in 1170 the cathedral became a focus for one of medieval Europe’s most important pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer, still one of Britain’s most revered writers immortalised the practice in his book the Canterbury Tales, a story of the tales 29 pilgrims told as they wound their way to the renowned shrine.
Brighton’s reputation as a swinging town dates back to the mid-1780s when the fun-loving Prince Regent (later George IV) began throwing lavish parties here by the sea. His obsession for India informed the construction of the Royal Pavilion, an incongruous Mogul-inspired building in the centre of the town. Over the last couple of decades the town has been under-going a renaissance as weary Londoners jump ship and move to the coast – sending property prices sky high. Despite this Brighton also remains a bastion of counter culture with a vibrant student population, hot clubs, a strong arts scene and exuberant gay population.
Listings from Globe Trekker: London
Places to Stay
34-36 Sussex Gardens
Hyde Park, W2
Tel: 0044 (0)20 7262 0905
For such a cosmopolitan city, London has a shortage of quirky affordable accommodation. The Pavilion is the exception. Each room is themed – our personal favourite is the Cosmic Girl room where you can sleep on a bed of illuminated glass bricks. Prices start at just $100 per room.
69 Elizabeth Street, SW1
0044 (0)20 7259 9605
Philip Treacy is simply THE best hat designer in the UK and one of the best in the world. His boutique is in the exclusive area of Belgravia and his designs range from the simple and funky to the totally outlandish and outrageous.
Where to eat
61 Junction Road
Archway N19 (tube: Archway)
Tel: 0044 (0)20 7561 0991
Megan tucks into an authentic English breakfast at the Junction Café – if you fancy tightening up those arteries a little, this is the place to come. Famed as the hangout of Morrissey and Johnny Marr from the 1980s band The Smiths.
Vortex Jazz Bar
139 -141 Stoke Newington Church Street
The best jazz bands in the UK and beyond come to play here. So if you need a break from Soho to hear some real music, head for Stoke Newington.
Notting Hill Carnival
This is London’s biggest street party and often turns out to be Europe’s largest too. Held annually on the Bank Holiday weekend in August, this party is dedicated to all things Afro-Caribbean – most notably, letting your hair down! Spanning two days, there’s a massive parade of colourful floats and dancers and dozens of sound systems set up around the area to shake your booty to. If you’re in London at this time you really can’t miss it.
Bognor Birdman Festival
Absolutely hilarious. Take the hour and a half train trip to Bognor Regis on England’s south coast in August and see the ‘bird men’ jump off Bognor Pier for a large cash prize to the winner who can fly (no one has won it so far!).
A Jack the Ripper Tour
One of the most notorious inhabitants of Victorian London, Jack the Ripper, the infamous 19th century prositute murderer, comes to life with a tour. Richard Jones has been taking people round the Ripper’s murder-scenes for over 20 years. Immensely passionate about the subject, he has many interesting theories of his own.
– London can be a daunting city when you realise just how big it is! You may find it easier to think of it in terms of many smaller towns / areas instead (Notting Hill, Brixton etc). The first thing to do is invest in a London A-Z.
– As one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth, London has every cuisine imaginable. Most street food (hamburger/ hot dog stalls) is perfectly safe to eat, if not at all appetising! Like everywhere in the world, just exercise a bit of common sense – if something looks bad then it probably is. Indian restaurants are especially good value for money in a notoriously expensive city. The golden rule is to eat (and drink) away from the main tourist streets, such as Oxford Street. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of tourists in certain areas means a steady supply of new customers without actually having to maintain any standards. Just moving down a side-road can mean a huge difference in the price and quality of a meal.
– The licensing laws in London are the bane of many British lives – last orders are at 11pm every night of the week (except Sundays when it is 10.30pm). However this only applies to pubs; many bars and all nightclubs can serve alcohol until the small hours (except on Sundays) but you will often be asked for an entrance fee’ and, once inside, the drinks are overpriced.
– For reasonable clothes shopping, head to Camden Market (tube: Camden Town) orPortobello market (tube: Ladbroke Grove), both on Saturdays and Sundays, and both as popular as ever. High street shops such as New Look and Top Shop (both on Oxford Street) can also be good value. On and around Oxford Street, US Dollars and Euros are widely accepted in the shops. For more exclusive shops, Bond Street is a favourite as areCovent Garden, Carnaby Street (tube: Oxford Circus), the Kings Road (tube: Sloane Square), Upper Street (tube: Angel), Hoxton Square area (tube: Old Street) and of course Harrods (tube: Knightsbridge).
– London has kinder weather than most of the UK – spring, summer and autumn can see blue-skied days with plenty of sunshine. But it’s always worth bringing a waterproof jacket and a warm jumper – just in case!
– If you are travelling outside of London, Britain has a massive rail network, although, since privatisation, its efficiency and safety has been a subject of debate for some years now. The trains are expensive – there is no debate about this – unless you book well in advance (weeks, not days). For example, the approx. 3-hour journey from London to Edinburgh would cost the equivalent of $200 bought at the station, but maybe as little as $80 bought two weeks in advance. National Express runs a reliable and inexpensive network of frequent coaches to major cities.
London is a fascinating city with an incredible history and so much to see and do that chances are you will never fit everything into one trip. Do some reading before you arrive and see what aspects interest you the most.
Guide by Kate Griffiths