Guide To London
A brief guide to London. Includes some alternative places to visit, suggestions for how to stay safe and general hints on getting about the city.
Many tourists who come to London visit Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and Madame Tussauds. A trip to London would not be same without seeing them, but there’s a lot more to London than this. There are over one hundred other museums in addition to the well-visited British Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum. The Museum of London, for example, takes visitors on a tour from Roman Londinium to the present day. And excavation in the ancient parts of the city is still going on so there are always new things to see. Sherlock Holmes, that famous literary Londoner has a museum dedicated to him or you could just go and see his statute outside 221B Baker Street.
In addition to current-day celebrities like Madonna and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who have all bought or are buying homes in London, many other famous folk have been London residents including Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas and in more recent times, Douglas Fairbanks. Sigmund Freud made his home in London after Nazism forced him out of his homeland. His former house, complete with consulting room, is now a fascinating museum. And some will never leave London. Check out Highgate cemetary for a fascinating tour which includes Karl Marx’s grave. For full spooky effect, visit it on a winter afternoon - a world away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and Soho.
I’m including just a handful of the thousands of things you could do while in London. Vinopolis - the city of wine, for example, is well worth it if you enjoy the odd glass of wine. At the BBC Experience, visitors can become a weather forecaster or direct a soap opera with lots of 'hands-on' displays to keep the kids occupied. Alternatively, as Buckingham Palace is only open to the public for two months per year, you could visit Hampton Court Palace, only 30 minutes by train from Waterloo Station and the oldest Tudor palace in England. Open for most of the year you can visit the State apartments, check out a Tudor kitchen and of course try to find your way in, and out, of the famous maze! If you have taken a trip to see Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, why not check out County Hall, too, which, until the 1980s, was the centre of local government in London. Now it houses the London Aquarium with sealife from all over the world.
The London Underground is the largest metro system in the world and covers virtually anything a tourist might like to see. Tube fares are based on a system of zones with a range of travelcards available for cheaper tickets. The under fives travel free and children get reduced price tickets as well. The Tube starts to wind down after midnight but starts again at 5am for early birds. The bus network is extensive and cheap and night buses run through the night to make sure you get home. Unfortunately London’s traffic often means the Tube is a quicker option.
Black-cab drivers pride themselves on knowing London very well. They can be booked by phone but it’s easier just to hail one in the street when the yellow Taxi sign is lit. The fare is shown on a meter but for longer journeys, over 10km, particularly if they go outside London, you may need to negotiate a fare in advance. Avoid taking a black cab through the rush hour though because the price is calculated not just on the distance covered, but the time it takes to complete. Tipping is not compulsory but most passengers offer a 10-15 percent tip. Minicabs, on the other hand, are unlicensed and some don’t know the city as well as black cab drivers. The standard of driving and the condition of the car itself are extremely variable. You can’t hail minicabs in the street but often drivers will hang around busy areas touting for trade. Minicabs do not use meters, so always fix a price before you travel, ideally with the cab company itself and stick to it. They can work out cheaper for longer journeys, say out to an airport but be warned, there have been cases of people pretending to be minicab drivers and then assaulting their passengers, so only go through a reputable advertised firm.
Millions of visitors come to London every year - over three million annually from the US alone - and the vast majority enjoy their time without any problems. Fortunately London is a pretty safe city for visitors but if the worst happens, for emergency access to the police, fire brigade or ambulance service make a free call on 999 for assistance.
There is no need to carry your passport with you when you’re in London so it’s far safer to leave it at your hotel, preferably in the hotel safe. Like most major cities, London does have a problem with pickpockets and muggings, which are often a drug-related crime. However, if you apply sensible precautions you should be fine. Don’t carry large amounts of cash around with you. If you buy your presents and souvenirs with a credit card then they are often automatically insured. Keep an eye on your bags and belongings and don’t wander around with an expensive camera dangling from your neck. Much better to keep it hidden under a jacket or held against your side with your arm. If you are robbed, inform your embassy or consulate, as well as the police.
Wherever you come from in the world, you don’t need to bring a supply of your favourite food. The days of bland English cuisine are long gone (the favourite take away meal in England these days is Indian curry!) Whether it’s couscous, sushi or just a decent-sized steak you’re after, London can cater. If you have the time (and the money) follow in the footsteps of celebrities and the Royal family and visit the tailors of Savile Row for a fabulously fitting suit. If you want something a little retro, and a lot cheaper, the markets of Portobello Road and Camden can kit you out with clothes, shoes and the odd antique.
When you arrive in London, whether by plane or train, it’s useful to have some cash on you (say £30 to £40) to get you to your destination without needing to exchange travelers’ checks or visit a bank. The main airports servicing visitors to London for example, (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton) are up to an hour away from the centre of the city and although all are well-serviced by trains, tubes, buses and taxis you will need to have some money handy to get wherever you need to go. Bank openings are limited (9.30 to 17:00 on average in the city) but they are the cheapest place to change money. Bureaux de change are all over the centre of London and have more flexible opening hours but will charge you more to get at your cash.
In the past, London used to virtually close on public holidays and Sundays. Nowadays, with the exception of Christmas Day itself most things remain open. Banks are closed on Sundays and in some cases Saturdays too and several Mondays a year England has Bank Holidays when, as the name suggests, the banks are shut and most English workers have a day off.
US visitors may be surprisd at the amount of smoking in restaurants and public places in London. Our European counterparts are similarly surprised at the amount of non-smoking areas across the capital. Most offices and shops are smoke-free but you will find that most bars and pubs are smoker-friendly with the occasional non-smoking section (which is invariably empty). Non-smoking sections or a total ban on smoking are more common in restaurants and cafes as Londoners are often happy to have a drink in a smoky atmosphere but prefer not to eat in one. Several hotels and clubs have followed the US trend of establishing cigar bars for the dedicated smoker.
Yes the Brits drive on the left, but unless you’ve come from Europe with your own car, you’re likely to be in a right-hand drive car which makes it a lot easier - honest. The main thing about Londoners driving on the left is for pedestrians to take extra care. When you cross the road, it’s only sensible to look both ways, but make sure you look to your right. Several tourists every year forget this and step out into the road only to die under a bus or taxi.
Britain is part of Europe and as such has adopted the metric system for many things - for example food packaging in supermarkets and shops. However, the British people still talk, and think, in terms of feet and inches, pounds and pints and drive miles rather than kilometers. But watch your alcohol intake, a pint of beer in London is larger than elsewhere (20 fluid ounces as opposed to 16)!
One last thing. Every movie made by the non-English suggests it’s permanently raining in London. It does rain, after all, this is Northern Europe but it actually rains less in London than it does in Paris. Furthermore, London’s climate is temperate rather than continental so you never need to worry about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards or extremes of hot and cold. Another blessing is that you’re unlikely to be bothered by earthquakes, killer crocodiles or spiders! For most Londoners, that makes up for having to carry an umbrella now and then!