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If you knew then what you know now about London

To piggyback on Ken's thread in the "To the West" section - I'm going to London for the first time in Sept. and will be there from the 22nd to the 30th. I'll take the Eurostar from Paris so I won't be dealing with jetlag. I booked my plane ticket and am starting to look at hotels, but I was wondering about any tips that people have to offer about sightseeing, public transit, etc.

Posted by
3428 posts

We started going to London more than 20 years ago. We quickly learned that it is about the easiest place to get around in the world (at least the parts we've seen). We love to wander the markets, people watch in Leciester Square, and whenever we can, we go out to Kew Gardens for a day or at least half a day and enjoy the beauty!!! Windsor is a great place for shopping, and one of my favorite small towns and favorite caslte! The one big mistake we made, on our first couple of trips, was using the big bus companies to do 'impossible' things like see Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath all in one day. You can easily arrange your trip- the trains are wonderful and easy to use. If you are interested, I wrote an article for AAA Carolina's "Go!" magazine a few years ago about doing day trips out of London by train- just private message me with your email.

Posted by
571 posts

Somehow I've always managed to stay with friends or have someone else pay the hotel bill, so I'm terrible with advice about where specifically to stay. But having stayed in the suburbs and in the center of London, I can say that being centrally located (as best you can afford) is a great benefit to squeezing every minute you can out of London. My only other real tip is to warn you that it is so very easy to start paying in pounds sterling and thinking "dollars" in your head. So you see something you like that costs £8 and you're thinking "8 is reasonable" until you get home and get your credit card statement and remember that £8 is really $12.50. I find it happens particularly when I'm buying small day-to-day things. It's easy to say yes to one more pint at the pub or add a packet of crisps to your sandwich order unless you always remind yourself what the cost in dollars is. But London is still the greatest, so enjoy!

Posted by
11450 posts

I went to London twice before I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, wish I had gone right away, loved it and have gone last two times.
Eat Indian,, sorry, I do not like some of the "traditional " type foods like fish and chips and cornish pasties,, over cooked veggies etc,, and can't afford the real nice places( which do have great food) so find eating ethnic( and Indian is super common place and popular in London) is a great way to have a tasty meal for not too much money!

Posted by
24 posts

I haven't been to Londonyetbut what I'm reading leads me to believe that while the tube is great for getting all the way across the city, the busses may be better for jaunts from one sight to another, and the 7 day travel card covers the bus trips as well as the tube. In addition, you can see more of the city from a bus than from the underground. I'd appreciate any feedback from folks with more experience in London.

Posted by
4740 posts

I don't really remember what I didn't know on my first trip to London which was 25 years ago. I lived there for a year in 2000 and every European vacation I've taken in the last 11 years has included at least a few days in London ... and I have not yet run out of things to do there yet. So here are some of the things that I recall learning: 1) The morning flight from Dulles to London is the best way (for me) to get to Europe. I love arriving the same day without losing a night's sleep. 2) The Heathrow Express doesn't necessarily get you to your hotel any faster than the tube and it costs about 5 times more. 3) My favorite London Walks (www.walks.com) are the ones that take you to a particular neighborhood (e.g. Somewhere Else London, Hampstead Village, Old Kensington Village, etc.). You always see places that aren't in the guidebooks. 4) Ottolenghi's food tastes as good as it looks; I stop there every trip. 5) The Time Out website is more useful than any guidebook. 6) The painting "Lake Keitele" in the National Gallery is the most incredible painting I've ever seen. 7) Theatremonkey.com – everything you want to know for buying theatre tickets. 8) Watch your purse in crowded tube stations (I had my wallet stolen coming out of Notting Hill Gate on a Saturday morning). 9) Check for planned works for the tube on tfl.gov.uk before you visit. It is annoying when the tube station by your hotel is closed the weekend that you are there. 10) That a good map is worth its weight in gold. I like "The London Mapguide" by Michael Middleditch best, but "London A to Z" is more comprehensive and is what most Londoners use. 11) That "Z" is pronounced "Zed".

Posted by
272 posts

As mentioned above, the tube is great. However when I first went to London I made the beginner's mistake of taking the tube between places which were within reasonable walking distance of each other. So the tip of having a good map helps out there.

Posted by
3428 posts

@ Ken- It depends! Traffic in London can be absolutely horrible- so buses aren't always effcient. And, personally, I find the route difficult to understand. So we use the tube- besides I enjoy the stations (lots of art work, sometimes even good buskers) and people watching.

Posted by
272 posts

I agree with Toni about the traffic. I once walked down Whitehall (a street in Westminster for those who don't know) and was able to keep up with a bus that was driving down that street. I wasn't even trying to keep up the traffic was simply that slow.

Posted by
1806 posts

Agree with Matt 100% about staying as central as you can afford. If you are ok with walking and don't have any mobility issues, you can actually save a lot of money by not having to take the Tube, buses or taxis that much. I have seen people post here complaining about staying too far out from the center, or staying in an area that was served by 1 Tube stop which was then subsequently closed for renovations or track repairs during the weekends and required them to have to walk much further than they expected to get to another Tube stop to get into the center of London. So not only did these people have to pay for the Tube ride, they also were inconvenienced and wasted valuable sightseeing time with a long transit ride to/from. I stayed in the Trafalgar Square area on my first visit to London and it was great to be able to walk all over. I walked to Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's, Westminster, Tate Modern, London Eye, even walked one morning along the river to get to the Tower of London. About the only time I ever took a Tube ride was to get to Notting Hill and Camden Markets. I do like to have 1 or 2 splurge meals at a nice restaurant when I travel, so I try to eat on the cheap other days to save up for those meals. I love going to Marks & Spencer to get reasonably priced ready made meals, salads or sandwiches, and as Pat mentioned, Indian restaurants are also great to score a nice lunch or dinner without breaking the bank, and also Asian or some of the farmer's markets.

Posted by
1986 posts

Have lived and worked in London and have been visiting there for over 40 years, so difficult to remember what i first thought, but here are my tips; Stay as central as you can- its really worth the extra money, time is short. Its a lot easier going places and getting back to hotel for a short rest walk, walk, walk. You will come upon places you probably read about but forgot. the joy of coming upon street names like: Gutter lane, Cheapside; Bread street Tube is quick and convenient for getting places when you are in a hurry. Busses are convenient when you are going North/South; wonderful on a sunny day when you can get the front seat upstairs (they are bringing those busses back); but awfully hot and sticky on a crowded bus in the Summer Wander the streets and alleys behind the bank of England for some wonderful pubs/lunch places Window shop (and more) the "british Streets : Jermyn Street, Piccadilly, the Arcades; bond street, regent street and their side streets Harrods food hall; Foyles book shop; hamlyns for toys; the Round templars church and the Inns of Court; the Thames embankment; Strand on the green; Hampstead ; Good indian food (not the cheap corner shops); Richmond; Londons Parks; Get out of London by car, train, bus. whatever- see the countryside

Posted by
24 posts

Thanks for bringing up traffic. I guess my choice of bus vs. tube could also be based on the fact that some days riding, even slowly, would be preferable to stressing ancient knees. In addition, we won't be on a strict timetable, so spending some extra time staring at people and buildings as we pass by might be OK. Someone elsewhere mentioned a discount department store that's in London and would be handy for such things as "emergency" clothes replacement. I expect it's a chain, but the name escapes me. Any help in that area?

Posted by
1829 posts

Ken - the store is Primark maybe? There is one on Oxford Street, but be prepared for crowds and long lines at the payment counters. Best to go first thing in the morning. It majors in cheap fashion but also has more conservative items. Also TKMaxx, like TJMaxx, again very crowded with bargain hunters. There are stores in Charing Cross Road or High Street, Kensington

Posted by
251 posts

Husband, kids, and I went to London for our first time in October 2009. We only had four days, so it seemed like a blur when I think back on it. I loved London - a sea of culture - is how I would describe it, coming from small town Oklahoma! We stayed in a small but clean hotel in the Bayswater area. We also found getting around very easy (the Tube). Husband and I are going back by ourselves this September and will be able to visit museum we didn't have time for before. On our 4 days in 2009, we took the hop on/hop off bus tour, Westminster Abbey tour, rode the London Eye, Ceremony of Keys at London Tower, Beatles Abbey Road walk, Harrods, Trafalgar Square museums, and Thames River Cruise. We are affordably at pubs and Eat. (similar to a Subway here). We have not purchased our airline tickets yet; I've heard a couple of months before you travel you get better prices. I hope that's true and I'm not waiting too late!! Have a great trip!!

Posted by
1976 posts

Thank you all so much for your replies! I've been taking lots of notes. Please post any more tips you might have, and let me know if it's okay to PM any of you in the future as my trip gets closer. I'll be coming from Paris so no jetlag, but when I make reservations at a hotel I'll have to figure out how to get to the hotel from the train station (I think the Eurostar arrives at St. Pancras?). I'd like a combination of walking and taking public transit, probably mostly the tube as I have an easier time figuring out subway systems than bus routes. The currency advice is a good idea - sometimes I focus too much on the cost of things and forget that I'm on vacation, but I will keep in mind the exchange rate.

Posted by
3428 posts

Sarah- The London tube system is so easy to understand due to a wonderful map they use. It does NOT take scale into account, but IS color coded. It is very easy to read and understand. Feel free to private message me about anything. We've been to London alot. A few years ago I wrote an article for AAA Carolina's "Go!" magazine about day trips out of London by train. If you send me your email, I'll send you a copy.

Posted by
2989 posts

I would say get a good map of London and really study it, now while you are at home. Know where all the historical sights are and group them together by neighborhood, so that you can plan each day to see things that are close together. For example, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Museum of London and St. Paul's are all in The City, so you could easily start at one and walk to all the others. This keeps you from running back and forth all over town. Likewise, the section known as Westminster includes Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament. Cover one section of the city at a time, and you will save a LOT of time traveling between sights. Also read your London guidebook from cover to cover before you leave home. It's good to have a working knowledge of the city. It's a mistake to just throw a map and guidebook into your suitcase and only use it as a quick reference once you're there. Another good time to study both is on your plane flight over or on your train trip from Paris to London. Someone else mentioned the Time Out website: it is good. Also their guidebooks are good. My favorite: "Time Out London; Cheap Eats". Most useful is Rick Steves London; you gotta have that for his coverage of where to stay & eat, sights, and walks around the city.

Posted by
6470 posts

Inside the tube stations at the window where you can buy tickets or an oyster card you will find small pocket size tube maps. I get a couple of new ones on each visit and always bring one home. In many stations there are also larger maps of the neighborhoods. Look around the ticket window areas. VERY walkable city. Pub grub is a perfect meal for the day. Cafe Nero has free wi fi and the coffee is far better than Starbucks. The later has totally overtaken London. Sigh. Time Out magazine should be your first purchase upon arrival. Theatre at the Old Globe is brilliant. Heck London Theatre every night with tickets purchased at the 1/2 price booth has never missed. Excellent ethnic restaurants all over London. Some cheap, some not. The fresh made sandwiches, salads and soups at the Pret a Managers are really good. For me Harrod's is over rated. ALWAYS look BOTH ways when crossing a street. GREAT city. Enjoy.

Posted by
278 posts

I'm going to London for the first time this summer, but I did just find a great (free!) map in pdf form online last night. Just google "Central London map pdf," and you should find it. It's terrific in that it has the various tourist spots, the tube lines, and the bus routes and major city streets all on one page. I downloaded it onto my tablet, along with the standard tube map from TfL, and will probably end up relying on those two while I'm over there.

Posted by
35 posts

Get an Oyster card if you will use the tube or buses to commute. They charge a $5 deposit (which you can allegedly get back), but the cards are good indefinitely and you just refill them as you run low and use them again on your next trip back. We used the buses a lot around the Christmas holidays so we could see the lights. We found staying near a tube station on the Picadilly line particarly useful if you aren't staying in the center of things. As long as you stay in Zone 1 on the tube lines your commute won't be bad (outside of rush hours).

Posted by
1976 posts

Thank you all again! Debra - your post reminded me of a question I had. Maybe I should read RS's London book before I ask, but since I'm here I'll ask it anyway. (I skimmed the London book months ago but now that I bought my plane tickets, I'm going to buy it and read it seriously). What is the difference between a travelcard and an Oyster card? I'll be in London for 8 nights (and out of the city for a day on a daytrip), so does it make a difference which card I buy?

Posted by
4740 posts

Sarah, regarding the travelcard vs Oyster card (they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive), I'm pasting something I posted a couple weeks ago. 1) The Oyster card is just a vehicle for storing your tickets. You can store a travelcard, pay-as-you-go money, or both on an Oyster. You can buy an Oyster card at a tube station. 2) A travelcard covers a specific period of time and specific travel zones. Most tourists sights are with zone 1-2. There are one-day, seven-day, and longer period travelcards. 3) There are essentially two "agents" that sell travelcards that are valid on transportation within London - London Underground and the Railways. 4) The Railways participate in a 2 for 1 scheme where if you buy a ticket for train travel to London, you can take advantage of certain 2 for 1 discounts. The discount is intended to encourage people to travel by rail. There is a "loophole" in that if you buy a travelcard from the Railway, you are eligible to use the discounts. You can only buy a Rail Travelcard from a rail station (e.g. Victoria Station). These cards are only issued on paper and have the railway symbol on them. The discounts are listed here www.daysoutguide.co.uk 5) London Underground (aka "the tube" or "Transport for London") also sells travelcards, but these cards are not valid for the 2 for 1 discounts. One-day travelcards come on paper and can be bought at a machine or ticket office in a tube station. Seven-day travelcards are stored on your Oyster card. 6) If you have an Oyster Card with pay-as-you-go, the system will deduct the fare until you reach the daily cap (the amount you would have paid if you had bought an equivalent one-day travelcard). If you have an Oyster with a travelcard plus pay-as-you-go, the system will only charge the pay-as-you-go for travel not covered by the travelcard.

Posted by
4740 posts

Back to your question on which you should buy ... If you are travelling solo, I'd suggest an Oystercard with a one-week zone 1-2 travelcard and perhaps 10 GBP of pay-as-you-go money loaded. The pay-as-you-go money would kick in on the extra day and if you travelled beyond zone 2. This assumes that you are staying within zone 1-2. If you want to get your money refunded when you leave, pay with cash. If there are 2 of you, get a weekly travelcard from the railway when you arrive at Kings Cross.

Posted by
340 posts

Sarah, while I getting ready to suggest you look at the thread entitled Oyster vs Travelcard from a week or so ago (and Laura's post there in particular), I see Laura provided you with the same info. I suggest finding a hotel along the Piccadilly tube line. That makes it very easy and economical to take the tube to/from Heathrow with no changes, and also getting directly to the hotel from Kings Cross. One of the places I can recommend is the London Lodge Hotel - it's a 10 minute walk from the Earls Court tube stop in a quiet residential area, there are tons of very nice and reasonable restaurants nearby, a grocery store on the way to and from the tube, the hotel is air conditioned, it has a lift, and breakfast is included. Also since London's tube system is so well layed out, getting to most of the tourist attractions is fairly quick. Our favorite museum is the Victoria & Albert - we go every trip. Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle are each fantastic day trips. Borough Market is a must - have the goat's milk ice cream, and sample - sample - sample. If you get to Greenwich, the Fan Museum is very interesting, and they have a lovely tea room for a nice cuppa. And don't try to cram in so much that you can't catch your breath - there's always next time. And speaking of next time; if you get an Oyster card, don't worry about getting your deposit or any remaining money refunded. It never expires, so just save it for your next London holiday - we're still using ours from 2008.

Posted by
15045 posts

Oyster - when you purchase the card, ask for a one-week travel card. If you aren't going to use the card much on the first day, request that the week begin on the next day. As you use the card, it deducts the cheapest available rate on the days you aren't on the weekly pass. It is easy to get a refund. But there are a couple of conditions. You can only get an on-the-spot refund if you have used only cash or only a credit card to purchase it and to top it up (if you have needed to). There is a limit -
£10 I think - for the immediate refund. So if you have more credit on the card than that, you won't be able to get it. That does not include the £5 deposit, which you will also get back. Since you are only in London for just over a week, you shouldn't need to have a lot of money left on the card, or need to top it up. The buses aren't hard to figure out. The stops for each route are listed at the bus stops. Just read the lists at the stop nearest your hotel, you may find that there is a bus to your destination. There are two advantages to the bus over the tube, first you get to see London while you ride, second it can often save walking (and time) and climbing stairs. When you get to your hotel, ask them to help you identify which buses will bring you back and where they stop. Yes, at certain times of the day, the buses can be excruciatingly slow, but at other times, they move along quite well. To make the most of your time, make a list of those attractions that are open late. Some of the very best museums are free, and always good on a rainy day. Some offer gallery talks or guided tours, also free.

Posted by
1829 posts

Also be aware when taking short journeys that the Tube map does not give an indication of distance between stops. On some parts of the line it can take longer to walk down to the platform, wait for and catch a train then walk back up to street level than to walk directly to the next stop. Something like an A to Z map will help you decide whether it's worth your while to use the Tube for a particular journey.

Posted by
1976 posts

Laura, Mary, Chani, Paula, and Linda - thank you for all of the helpful advice about transit! I finally feel like I'm getting a handle on this. My visit to London isn't for another 6 months so I may forget a lot, but I'll study diligently and have my notes to refer to.

Posted by
30 posts

You've gotten great advice here. Check also on the message boards at fodors.com for lots more info. Be sure to buy Rick's London guide and highlight things of interest to you. Buy the little adhesive tabs to put on the pages you want to access quickly, such as the page with the hours of museums. I always enjoy doing the walks he describes so well. Make sure you have a working ATM card with a good limit you can access. You'll want to notify your bank or credit union that you will be using it abroad. If you don't, you may be stuck. I find that the old impression of British food being bad is very outdated. One never knows about weather, but being ready for rain is always important. Carry a little fold up umbrella with you... Even a jacket with a hood will come in handy. You're going to have a brilliant time!

Posted by
11973 posts

If I knew then what I know now... I wouldn't have left my rain shell at the hotel on what seemed like a perfect day. We dropped our coats at our hotel at lunch time, because it was such a nice day, then hopped the tube to the British Museum. It was raining cats and dogs when we came out of the museum; we got soaked running back to the tube station.

Posted by
124 posts

I'm coming in late, but I didn't see the 'Hop On Hop Off' buses mentioned. I didn't use them on my first short trip to London, but the second time I did and was glad. They are expensive but give you 24 hours of use including a 'cruise' on the Thames (I went to Greenwich). Be sure to get on one that has live narration. They have several routes and you can ride as often as you want within the time period, getting a feel for the over-all layout of London and what you might like to get back to. The 'map' of London that is included, while not to scale, I found very useful for locating the major sites.

Posted by
103 posts

Not carry a purse! I had mine stolen last summer, and it was totally my own fault....put it on the back of a chair in a pub!

Posted by
1976 posts

Weather and HOHO buses - thanks for the additional tips! I have a 3-in-1 jacket with a zip-out lining like those sold by L.L. Bean and I'm wondering if I should bring the whole jacket or just the shell, in case of rain. I'll watch the weather as my trip gets closer. Should I plan to bring the jacket and an umbrella or is that overkill? Sandi - thanks for the reminder! I almost left my daybag in a restaurant in Italy so now I almost never take it off when I'm out of the hotel.

Posted by
1986 posts

We have travlled to London in almost every time of year. During summer we leave the linings at home, but take them in Winter. i would recommend a fold up umbrella at any time of year

Posted by
340 posts

Sarah, we've been to the UK a couple of times in late Sept., and my LL Bean jacket with removeable hood (without the lining) has always been all I needed if there was a chill or rain (even up in Scotland). As I mentioned earlier, dealing with a wet umbrella while on the tube or siteseeing is something I don't care to do; but a small folding umbrella you can stick in a coat pocket certainly wouldn't hurt.

Posted by
11973 posts

I don't normally pack an umbrella. Sometimes it's rainy and windy, so trying to go with only an umbrella can be a problem. I think it's best to pack your rainshell. If the weather is right for an umbrella, you can buy one cheaply anywhere. In September, you will want at least one warm layer, if only for cool evenings. I prefer either a non-bulky wool sweater or lighter weight full-zip polar fleece. My next trip, I'm packing a softshell as a layer (I'll wear it inside my rainshell when I need to) because it also gives me a decent jacket option on its own (the polar fleece, by itself, isn't a good look).

Posted by
1976 posts

So it sounds like bring the shell for sure, and maybe the lining and an umbrella. How cold do the evenings get in September? My ideal outdoor temperature is 60 degrees, maybe cooler if I'm out walking and moving around. I always worry about being too hot so my idea of a layer is a long-sleeved shirt. A packing issue I have is that I'll be in Paris for a week before. I'm planning to bring a dress and flats because we want to go to a nicer restaurant for dinner one night, as well as attend New Year services at a temple for part of a day. In London I'd like to attend Yom Kippur services for part of a day too, so the dress comes in handy there. The 3-in-1 jacket doesn't go with the dress but I tend more toward practicality than what looks good. But I don't want to be inappropriately dressed, either for the weather or for formal occasions. Any advice?

Posted by
3580 posts

I wouldn't have waited until my 10th visit to ride a double-decker bus across the city or visit Kensington Palace and that area.