London Travel, England

Tower of London in the City of London, England

Tower Bridge and the Tower of London in the City of London. London Travel.

Why London Travel?

London is innovative, dynamic, and outrageous, with history and culture leaking from every brick and individual style around every corner.
It’s a supremely cosmopolitan city , with excellent restaurants, quirky pubs, avant-garde shops, unparalleled museums – most of which are now free – superb theatre and similar attractions and a blitzing nightlife.
The streets are mostly easy to walk, relatively safe (thanks in part to CCTV) and offer endless little peculiarities.
This is one of the most interesting capital cities on earth, whatever your needs.
And London Travel best view? From Primrose Hill at dusk if the weather’s fine, of course. Take a picnic!

Downsides

However, the city frequently has terrible weather and always has overpriced hotels and taxis, grubby places both under and overground and too many homeless street people. There is also some talk about the quality of the air but when I checked today it was good.

Main Tourist Attractions (Underground, Zone 1).

London has a very walkable centre with plenty of parks and major sights in easily manageable clusters.

changing the guard at buckingham palace, London, England

The Queens Guards and the Queen Victoria Monument,  in The Mall, the avenue that leads to Buckingham Palace. Photo by Cristian Bortes.

A London Travel  ‘Power’ Walk could start at Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard at 11. 15am every day May-July and alternate days August-April.

The guards, sometimes with music, march/ride down Pall Mall or Bird Cage Walk from Wellington Barracks to the Palace and the ceremony takes about 45 minutes, but is cancelled if it’s raining hard.
State Apartments Palace tours are impressive, though the gardens are a disappointment. Buckingham Palace tours are only available thru August-September.

Nearby, and beside the River Thames, are the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, which you cannot enter unless attached to a tour or have a ticket from your local MP or a Lord, and Westminster Abbey, which you can, at a price. This is a dramatic Gothic Abbey where most British royals have been and still are crowned, married and buried.

You could walk 15 minutes south to the wonderful and relaxed Tate Britain (our favourite London art gallery) or hop on many kinds of tour boat at Westminster Bridge, just looking at or jumping off at places such as Tate Modern gallery or the Tower of London downstream or even way upstream to Hampton Court.

Alternatively, immediately north of the Houses of Parliament is Whitehall, a grand broadway and the centre of British government, including 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s tiny terraced house, and Horse Guards Parade with one poor sap of a guard on duty for tourist photocalls.

At the north end of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square, the modest centre of London, sporting Nelson’s Column, fountains and two fine, free art galleries, the National Gallery (some say the best art gallery in the world) and National Portrait Gallery.

Another two or three hundred metres north of that are Piccadilly Circus (not very attractive, nor is it a circus in normal terminology) with the superb Royal Academy of Arts gallery on one side, Leicester Square pedestrian area for cinemas, mediocre eating and dumb street theatre, Soho for sensational Asian cuisine and mediocre sex shops, and Shaftesbury Avenue for last minute theatre ticket buying.

Covent Garden arcade, London, England.

Covent Garden arcade, London, England. Photo by Henry Kellner

A ‘City’ Walk requires a turn to the east, a short walk across to Covent Garden for good eating, pretty fair street theatre, some excellent unusual shops, and major theatres all around, including the Royal Opera House.

Ten minutes north gets you to the unmissable and free British Museum, or south to the river, and 18thC Somerset House, offering OK museums and an interesting central court – skating rink in winter and fountain display the rest of the year.

The third option is to continue east into the City of London (see below for meaning), past some very pretty buildings, old and new , including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Bank of England, the Gherkin and finishing at the Tower of London.
At the Tower excellent tours are led by a ‘Beefeater’ guide with fascinating historical stories and sights, including the stunning Crown Jewels. The Tower is busy so arriving promptly at opening time is a good idea.

Adjacent to the Tower is spectacular Tower Bridge, with some excellent bankside restaurants and cafés on the other side. This walk will be spookily quiet at night and at the weekend, with nothing open.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the South Bank, London, England

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank, with Tate Modern tower hovering behind.

The South Bank walk runs from County Hall and the Millennium Wheel (London Eye) downstream to Tower Bridge, and is particularly enjoyable on a sunny, summer day but also works well at night for romantic strolls.

The main items of interest after a ride on the big wheel are the National Theatre, an unattractive series of concrete blocks but offering good theatre, some of it free, the stunning Tate Modern – again partly free and tourists must see the Turbine Hall, down to Shakespeare’s recreated Globe Theatre which is not at all free and will need advance booking, past the Mayor of London’s ‘Glass Testicle‘ to Tower Bridge and a well earned drink on the south bank.
There are plenty of pubs, cafés and restaurants all along this route.

And if you’re not so sure about best routes and things to see you could join a tour of London

Walks on the (River) Thames Path: Opened in 1996 the Thames Path National Trail is an easy, view-packed and characterful walking route that. . . more

Weather

Best: May-September, summer gets crowded and could be sticky in late July or August with averages of around 22C (70F) and extremes of 30C (90F); the weather can change several times a day so layered clothing, hats and umbrellas are usually advisable!
Avoid: January-March. London travel in winter is not only often cold (around zero), grey and wet, but daylight is in short supply.

London Transport

– Taxis are expensive (though knowledgeable and trustworthy).

– Minicabs that cruise late at night (not the traditional shape) are unreliable, lack knowledge of the city AND will probably try to charge way too much.

– Buses are good over short distances and better value than the tube, tho’ complex routes and queues can be a pain.

– Tube: The London travel transport of choice for the masses is the ‘Tube’ or Underground (subway/ metro). This is often a bit grubby but usually efficient and safe.
The tube is not cheap, but most sights are in Zone 1, so if you stay in Zone 1 too and get a Zone 1 travelcard then value improves dramatically. Tube Maps are clear and free and all lines are well colour-coded, so once you’ve got that worked out it’s easy to use. Buses are included on the card so you can mix ‘n’ match according to your needs.

How to save money on the tube and buses

if you’re in town for just one or two days, at the start of each day buy a one day Travelcard, it’s WAY cheaper than buying individual tickets (and more convenient for frequent journeys).

If you’re in town for a few days buy an Oyster card. It’s inexpensive, stores money in it and can be topped up easily when necessary. Then simply touch it on the yellow pad on entering a bus or going thru a ticket barrier. This will deduct the correct amount for your trip, with a discount. On buses you use it only on entry, on tubes you use it twice, on entry and exit. It’s VERY convenient and reasonably priced.

Car Use

Drive your own cars? NO! We wouldn’t recommend London travel by your own auto or car rental as parking is a nightmare and the city’s ‘Congestion Charge’ (CC) is unclear, automatically applied to any car entering from outside the area – whether you are British or not – and may result in you being chased all around the world by an increasingly absurd fine. We know Japanese who paid several hundred pounds weeks later in Tokyo!

If you want to tour the UK in a rental car

We suggest you get to London by train from the airport, then, once you have finished visiting the city centre, hire a car for trips out of the city – and make sure you have full car insurance. The UK’s prettiest roads can be narrow and winding but are really worth the trouble. . .

If you are visiting from Europe in your own car pay attention to CC information and pay the charge as soon as possible. Motorcycles and electric cars are free of Congestion Charge.

– Starting your London experience on the top deck of a guided bus tour is a good way to get your bearings.

Free Organised Inline Skating in London

Friday nights starting at 8pm, the LFNS (London Friday Night Skate) starts from Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner every Friday but weather dependant.

Sunday afternoons starting at 2pm, the Sunday Stroll starts from Serpentine Road in Hyde Park every Sunday, but weather dependant.

These occasions are open to all skaters able to stop, turn and control their speed on hills. The Sunday Stroll is a relaxed slow paced skate; the LFNS is faster, more technically demanding and may involve hills and sprints. Both inline (‘rollerblade’) and quad (‘roller skate’) skaters are welcome. More information from LFNS

More on our London Transport page.

Festivals

Dec 31, midnight firework display beside the big Wheel. Huge but not very subtle and extremely crowded. To see the New Year’s fireworks in relatively uncrowded comfort try the Skylon bar in the Royal Festival Hall or take a boat on the Thames.
Jan 1, New Year’s Day Parade, wacky English folk and plenty of foreign imports, such as American marching bands but a bit lacking in pizzazz, especially if you have a hangover. More effective for families and kids.
Early May, the London Marathon.
June, Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s birthday military parade. Outdoors, impeccable performances and free.
June, Wimbledon tennis tournament.
July, The Royal Tournament, a massive military show, indoors at Earl’s Court.
End of August, Notting Hill Carnival, 2/3 days. Not really up to Caribbean standards but colourful and lively.

For some precise dates or more information see: European Festivals or Arts Festivals.

Also here’s a summary with approximate dates of England’s great Sporting Events

Arts/Culture

Museums

An altar retable collection in Victoria and Albert Museum, London travel, England

One of many glorious rooms in the (free! ) Victoria and Albert Museum (aka V & A)

There are a number of truly wonderful and well-presented collections, mostly entry free. e. g. The British Museum – the world’s oldest and most important museum, the Natural History Museum (gorgeous Gothic building with interactive, kid-friendly exhibits), the Victoria & Albert (stunning decorative arts, the sensational, new, 5* Medieval and Renaissance Galleries among other things), and the Science Museum (also interactive and kid-friendly). These last three are located near each other.

Pay to see Madame Tussaud’s waxworks and adjacent London Planetarium which are are popular but getting a little dated in this high-tech age, as is the Museum of the Moving Image (fly like Superman! ), near Waterloo.

Then there’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a faithful rendering of the 400 year old theatre, with performances in the summer; standing room (just like in medieval times! ) is a cheap and cheerful way to experience it.

Art Galleries

Tate Britain gallery of painting and sculptures, London, England

Tate Britain gallery of painting and sculptures, London, England

Set in lovely buildings old and new, mostly free of charge. e. g. Also free are some galleries such as the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the weird little Serpentine in Hyde Park, Royal Academy (fantastically eclectic Summer Exhibition June-August) Hayward, and White Cubefor provocative stuff.

Classical Music: The Proms in Royal Albert Hall (July-Sept), Covent Garden Festival (May/June), free summer lunchtime concerts in churches all over the place, Kenwood Lakeside Concerts, South Bank Centre, Wigmore Hall etc.

Dance/Opera: Try the restored Royal Opera House, the Coliseum, the South Bank Centre, Sadler’s Wells + ICA + Riverside for more avant-garde stuff.

Theatre: the city is packed with big shows as well as little fringe things, mainly in ‘theatreland’ area. Try SOLT in Leicester Square for half price same day tickets, or call Ticketmaster/First Call. And don’t forget Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank for an authentic medieval performance.

Comedy: Plenty of this. The Comedy Store is #1 and Fri/Sat nights best, but avoid August as all the funny people are in Edinburgh at the festival.

Live Music: Plenty of this too, but avoid mega-shows at Wembley and don’t buy from touts. Some good medium-size venues are: Astoria, Brixton Academy, Forum, Hackney Empire, Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Check excellent ‘Time Out’ magazine for event info/listings.

Free lunchtime classical concerts at St Martins church next to Leicester Square or St James, off Piccadilly.

Spas: the very best is apparently the Sanctuary in Covent Garden, women only but not too pricey.

Hotels

London hotels/hostels are notoriously pricey and the more central you get, the more money you need. The Earls Court area is favoured by Aussies. To be near the tourist heart of the city try a hotel near Piccadilly Circus, but they won’t be low cost unless you are ready for a youth hostel. Make sure you book accommodation before you arrive.

Some cheap London hotels are (at the time of writing): lovely Holland Park YHA hostel (High Street Kensington tube) or YHA at King’s Cross or Oxford Street offer refurbished double rooms; Main House in Portobello (near Notting Hill); the City Inn in Westminster; Holiday Inn Express near Old Street; Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch; Dean Street Townhouse.

Also consider private rental apartments (flats in British English) or serviced flats that do a nightly rate, such as The Apartments in Chelsea.

London Suburbs

Camden Lock canal, London, England

 Camden Lock Market, (Camden Town tube), has an extensive, permanent market, partly covered, with wild and wacky offerings. This is a must for souvenirs, rebellious teenagers, goths, and indeed anti-establishment persons of any age. However, make sure you see the real thing, not one of the many extensions/alternatives in the area. Foodstuffs of all kinds are available at low prices, from genuine Venezuelan arepas to tapas and sushi, so plan to eat when you get there. Best time to be there is weekends (for the wackier offerings) 10-12 noon as the place heaves with tourists later on. However, it is open daily till about 6pm.

From Camden Town tube walk right up the street, past other ‘markets’ and OVER the canal bridge. Immediately on the left is the original market, with the best extension continuing along on the left and morphing into the pretty good Stables Market area. We love it all but particularly mad, loud and Matrix-ish is Cyberdog, more-or-less on the border between Camden Lock and Stables markets.

 Walks on Hamstead Heath, swimming in the free summer lidos (open air pools) or summer picnics at Kenwood House concerts will suit tranquil music lovers perfectly.

 Kew Gardens in Richmond is a 300 acre collection of gardens, parks and Victorian conservatories full of beautifully presented plants of all sorts.

 O2  is a fine place for shows, concerts, films and roller-skating but disappointingly plain for eating, drinking and shopping. Get there via Jubilee Line to North Greenwich, by Docklands Light Railway, bus or best of all take a high-speed Thames Clipper ferry down the river from Westminster or London Bridge.

London city vs the City of London

Map of the City of London

The City of London, not the city of London!

The first is what you would expect, all of the large city.
The second is the medieval city of London that is now mostly a core business and legal district on the north bank of The Thames river, roughly stretching from Covent Garden to Tower Bridge, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the ‘Erotic Gherkin’ and the Tower of London.

Food

Forget traditional British food which is truly terrible and look for adventure in the more modern restaurants with which London is stuffed or superb, diverse and authentic foreign cuisine along the lines of Thai, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Italian, Brazilian, Malaysian. . .
Excellent healthy/tasty fast food places are all around. The Pret-a-Manger chain is especially efficient, tasty, healthy and fast for quality snacking.

Young tourists
Entry to many attractions, such as the Tower of London, is much cheaper if you have a student or youth card.

Shopping

Liberty's fabric store in Regent Street, London, England

Liberty’s fabric store in Regent Sreet.

Classy: The new kid on the block is Westfield roofed shopping centre, a very classy and comfortable browsing environment in any weather, with plenty of upmarket shops from Armani and Apple to Zara. Get there via Shepherd’s Bush tube.
Always popular with the affluent shoppers are Bond Street and Knightsbridge (Harrods etc) for very high quality branded goods, Kensington, Chelsea and Regent Street (especially Liberty’s, above) for more variety and less price, but still upmarket.

Regular folk looking for reasonably modern style at the right price shop in Oxford Street or for tech and gadget bargains try Tottenham Court Road.

Wacky stuff: Camden Lock Market, Portobello market (weekends), Covent Garden, Neal Street.

Short Trips out of London (a day or two)

London travel from Europe

By Air: Most international airlines fly to London which is served mainly by Gatwick and Heathrow airports which are both well linked by fast trains to the city centre. Information on getting to/from Gatwick (30 minutes on Gatwick Express train) and Heathrow (15-20 minutes by Heathrow Express train).

Cheap Flights to London: Charter companies and some budget airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet use Luton which is 30 miles (48kms) north of the city centre but still well provided with transport systems. Getting to/from Luton.

Stanstead airport is the last option and least pleasant for cheap flights, 40 miles (64 kms) out but still reaching London’s Liverpool Street station (not a brilliant hub) in 45 minutes by train or bus.

Paris to London by train

The fast Eurostar rail line links Gare du Nord in Paris (or Brussels) with London’s St Pancras International in just over two hours. St Pancras is linked to many other stations in the UK. It’s now possible to buy a through-ticket, to or from Paris, to 68 regional stations in Great Britain. Eurostar booking.

London By Bus

Eurolines is an association of 30 national and private bus companies linking Paris to destinations all over Europe including London. Paris’ international bus terminal, The Gare Routière Internationale de Paris-Galliéni, is in the inner suburb of Bagnolet.

By car Paris to London

The easiest route is via Eurotunnel from Calais to Folkstone (tourists drive their cars onto a train at the tunnel entrance) and then the M20 and/or other motorways, taking at least 7 hours, door-to-door. This is an expensive way to reach London, not to mention the pricey and sometimes tricky-to-pay congestion charge for inner-city driving. So. . . only consider this route if you need the car to explore England afterwards.