Anyway, I've been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time there thanks to an internship in college and subsequent visits, and I know the city fairly well. Since I am often asked for travel tips, I decided to transform my usual cut/paste email into a post that I can distribute instead. If any of you have other tips or recommendations, please leave a comment!
[Disclaimer: I'm familiar with London, but not an expert, and I do not live there. I'm sharing what has worked for me, and how I save money and time, but you might totally hate it.]
image by me (as are all of these, unless otherwise noted)
If you're flying from the US, you'll likely end up at either London Heathrow or Gatwick airports. Both are pretty far from the city center, and unless you've booked in advance for a large group, a taxi is not an economical option. Seriously, it's about $150 USD for a cab from central London to Heathrow.
However, the Underground runs all the way out to Heathrow, and you can buy day passes at the terminal and ride all the way to the city center in about an hour, but isn't a great idea if you've got lots of luggage. You can also take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station in about 15 minutes, and then transfer from there via Underground or taxi.
You'll probably find the Underground (aka the tube) and bus system easy to use once you take a moment to sit down and study the map. The Transport for London site has several online tools and maps that you can download, including bus routes that take you to major sites. To avoid confusion, I recommend buying a multi-day pass (for Zone 1) and paying the small deposit for the plastic card that you scan in/out of stations and on buses. It's much simpler than keeping single fares on hand, and you can get your deposit back at any station before you go. I buy mine at the Heathrow terminal before heading downstairs to the trains.
Only take the official black cabs if you are hailing one on the street. Unmarked "minicabs" can rip you off, unless you book them in advance through a reputable company. I use a service called UniCab to book taxis, and they have an app for your phone/tablet. You can put in your start/end destination and then reserve a cab and pay in advance online. It's safe and the car companies are legit. This will be cheaper than hailing black cabs, but you need a mobile phone number to confirm everything if you're booking online.
Where to Stay
You will not hurt for choice in London, and you can rent hotel rooms or flats for a huge range of prices. However, it's worth paying for a central location. I recommend a place near a Central line station (the red line on the tube map) because it has connections to pretty much every line you would need and makes coming home at night quicker.
Before you book anything, use Google Maps to see how long it will take you to walk to the nearest Underground station and bus stop. You may be doing this in the rain, and with sore feet.
Here are my thoughts on the main sites in the city (in no particular order):
Tower Bridge: The best spot for scenic photos IF the day is somewhat clear. It's much cheaper than a ride on the London Eye. However, the tour is very boring and I would not do this if you are pressed for time or really enjoy giant pulleys and drawbridges. (Tube Station: Tower Hill)
Tower of London: If you like history, this is a must see, and you should allocate about 3 hours and take one of the free guided tours. Personally, I LOVE it! (Tube Station: Tower Hill)
Westminster Abbey: I’m a history nerd and I find this church to be fascinating. You can see where the old kings and queens are buried, and many of the old coffins have effigies on top so you can see what the person looked like (and how short they all were!) The audio guides are included with admission, and make it a pretty interesting couple of hours. Plus, it's just really amazing to stand and say a little prayer in the same spot where people have been worshiping since 1066. (Tube Station: St. James Park or Westminster)
St. Paul's Cathedral: If you are pressed for time, choose to visit either St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey. However, I love both places and if climbing to the top of domes is your thing, Christopher Wren designed a very fine one. (Tube Station: St. Paul's)
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre: Go see a play here, if you're a fan, but beware that the "seats" are wooden benches (as they were in the original theatre) and it's not your usual plush velvet seat experience. (Best reached by foot, see tips here)
Covent Garden: This is not a garden, but a plaza of sorts and there are stalls set up for different vendors and lots of small shops. Several photographers sell prints of their work here, and you can get some really awesome photos for about 10 pounds. There is also lots of handmade jewelry and you can negotiate the prices a bit. (Tube Station: Covent Garden)
Leicester Square: This is part of the theatre district, and the official discount ticket booth is called TKTS. You can buy discount tickets the morning of the show – we got 5th row seats once and then I met Aaron Eckhart. There are also tons of restaurants nearby, but be aware that London is big on table reservations, so you may want to get a recommendation and call ahead. (Tube Station: Leicester Square)
Hyde Park: It’s huge, with lots of good picture spots and lots of artists selling their work along the sidewalks. You can rent rowboats and lawn chairs and just hang out if the weather’s nice. However, if the weather is bad and you're pressed for time, go ahead and skip it.
For the mandatory Parliament/Big Ben picture take the tube to Westminster and walk toward the River, then take photos from the other side with the landmarks behind you. You can also take pictures of the River here and ride on the London Eye if you want (but its expensive and you need a reservation). You can also catch a cheap boat tour down the river that will provide lots of photo ops. (Tube Station: Westminster)
It's fun to go to Trafalgar Square and take photos by the famous Lion statues and fountains (with everyone else). There are two museums there as well, The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, both are free and full of world famous art. (Tube Station: Charing Cross)
Buckingham Palace: The changing of the guard is nice to see in the morning, but not if you can’t get there early. It officially starts at 11:30 but you'll want to get there at least an hour beforehand. There isn’t much to see if you’re in the back, and picture taking is fruitless unless you’re in the front. But, the band plays ABBA and other random songs and it’s fun, so definitely make time to get there and wait and just bring breakfast with you and enjoy the morning. (Tube Station: St James Park and then walk through the park to the palace. You can also walk from Victoria Station)
Do NOT go to the London Bridge Experience unless you like haunted houses.
If you are in town on a Saturday morning, you must visit the famous Portobello Rd. Market in Notting Hill. Get there between 9-10am, bring cash, and a reusable shopping bag. Once you're done shopping, you can buy lunch from a street vendor or hit up a trendy cafe or bakery. (Tube station Notting Hill Gate, then follow the crowds and signs).
I have yet to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum, but I really want to. I hear it’s amazing!
I LOVE the British Museum, and it’s humongous. I could, and did, spend a whole day there.
I highly recommend getting out of the city, if you're in the country for more than a few days. Hampton Court Palace is only a 30-minute train ride away, and I think it's a must-see if you're a Tudor aficionado. I couldn’t go into a room without announcing “I bet Anne hung out in here!”
I also enjoyed our tour to Stonehenge (90 minutes by bus), but if I had it to do over, I would save Bath for when we had another day to spare. It's a beautiful little city, but we spent more time on the bus than actually sightseeing that day.
Some people like to take the train out to Greenwich and stand with one foot in two hemispheres, but I think it’s not worth the ride unless you’ve got plenty of time to spend. It’s just a red line on the ground. However, there is a maritime museum if you like boats and the Navy.
Check out the English Heritage site for ideas on historic sites to see, if that’s your thing. Certain stately homes are open for tours and I’ve always wanted to see them. http://www.english-heritage.
What to bring
- A jacket or blazer. It gets chilly at night, even in the summer
- No heels! I lived in my flats because of puddles and uneven streets, but if you're just repulsed by the thought then pack a wedge. You don't need to pack wellies unless you're going to be out in the muck, or the forecast calls for terrential rains, but I do recommend a sturdy boot or shoe that will keep your feet dry. Do not plan to only wear Toms or ballet flats.
- An umbrella, although it gets hard to navigate when everyone has one
- Several scarves that you can use as wraps if you get cold, plus you’ll blend with the locals
- A debit card w/ 4 digit PIN - London is not a credit card everywhere city (lots of minimum charges, etc) so you’ll need to get some cash for little things. The ATMs will take your card, but check w/ your bank about the currency conversion fees and let them know what dates you'll be using the card abroad. I would get out a lot at once and then keep what I wasn’t carrying in hotel safe. Be sure to let your bank know that you’ll be traveling overseas.
- A cross-body purse that you can hold in front of you in crowded areas where there may be pickpockets (tube stations and bus stops, especially)
The main streets for shopping in London are Oxford Street (Tube Station: Oxford Circus) for high street brands and the flagship Topshop store, and Bond Street (Tube Station: Bond Street, or just walk down Oxford Street for 10 minutes) for luxury retailers.
Although the exchange rate has improved in recent years, Americans are still better off buying most things at home unless they just cannot be had stateside.
Harrod's is definitely worth the trip, but it is VERY crowded on weekends. Try to go in the morning, if you can.
London is a very safe city, but you need to behave as you would in any urban area. Don't stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take a picture, or carry an open-topped tote bag and then be surprised that your wallet or camera was lifted out of it.
If you can swing it, get data access for your smartphone or tablet. There are tons of options, and it's worth it to be able to find things near you. If you can't do this, TripAdvisor has some great offline city guides that have a GPS based map.
I love me some Rick Steves travel guides. He's the best, and you can get them on eBay for a steal once people have returned from their trips. They don't change much from year to year, so last year's version is fine.
You do not need to leave American sized tips for all services. 10% is sufficient for good service, and many restaurants include a "service charge" on the bill, so check for that before leaving cash on the table.
A good, cheap place to eat is Pret. It's like a fancy Subway with to-go sandwiches that are amazingly fresh and delicious. You'll find them all over the city.
Good lord, that's a lot of information! I hope you find it helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions, and I'll make updates here as needed. Bon voyage!