London is, quite simply, an amazing city. It’s the largest city in the UK, and according to some measurements, in the entire EU. It’s a meltingpot of cultures and experiences, and has been for at least the last 2000 years since the Romans founded it, calling it Londinium.
It’s the home of dozens of world-class museums and art galleries, many of which are free to enter, as well as boasting thousands of excellent restaurants, theatres, fashion houses and attractions. Plus, it’s a central transport hub — a perfect jumping-off point for a larger tour of Europe.
London is a sprawling metropolis that grew up along the banks of the River Thames, which weaves through the city like a serpent. The M25 motorway marks the outermost boundaries of the city, but most of the city’s attractions are a lot more central. Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are located on the northern bank of the river, with the London Eye and the aquarium just on the other side. A wander along Southbank will take you past a wide variety of theatres and galleries, and you’ll soon see the Tower of London (on the north side) and Tower Bridge.
From Big Ben, Mayfair and Hyde Park are to the west, Regent’s Park is to the northwest, the City of London is along the river to the east, and Greenwich (of Greenwich Mean Time fame) is to the southeast.
There’s something for everyone in London, from dorm beds in hostels to the most luxurious of options. Consider couchsurfing, but be aware that as London is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, hosts are often inundated with requests, especially if they have a central location.
Featured hotel: The Great Northern Hotel
The perfect choice if you’re on the hunt for a lovely boutique hotel in Kings Cross. The Great Northern Hotel is one of London’s finest hotels, located seconds from King’s Cross Station and 25 metres from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International.
Take advantage of the first class restaurant and bar during your stay as well as other nice touches like free in room entertainment, pantries on every floor with free tea and cake plus super fast wi-fi, available free of charge to all guests.
Dorm beds start at around £8 on Hostelbookers, double rooms start at around £20 per person. When booking a hostel or hotel, make sure you check that it has everything you require: a good location, wifi, proximity to a Tube station, good reviews – and if breakfast is thrown in, all the better.
London is one of those cities where you can find almost anything. It’s also one of those cities where restauranteurs can charge you almost anything! When speaking to Londoners, they’ll often refer to any meal under £20 pounds as “cheap” or “reasonable” – not our idea of a cheap eat!
For the budget traveller, the supermarkets are probably your best bet, or head to one of the many, many chain pubs. Chains like Wetherspoons have a beer and burger deal for about £6: it seems prices fluctuate depending on where you are.
Near the Tower of London we always eat at “powerballads and chicken” (not its real name), a cheap chicken-and chips place. The next level up are places like Wagamamas and Nandos, which serve quick, delicious and fresh food, and most mains will be £12-17.
There are some quintessentially British foods that are good to try in London, such as a pasty; fish, chips, and mushy peas; or Chicken Tikka Masala, that famous Indian curry which was actually invented here in London or in Glasgow.
Getting around London is easy, with its excellent metro system. Yes, the locals complain about delays and heat in the trains in the summer, but it’s really a very comprehensive system that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. A single ride on the Tube will set you back a whopping £4, but an all-day pass bought after 9.30am is a much more reasonable £5.60, which you can also use on the buses and overground trains.
If you’re staying for more than a couple of days, invest in an Oyster card, which gives you discounted travel on all forms of transport. You pre-load the card with credit, then touch the card to a reader when you enter and exit a train or underground station or hop on a bus. You’re charged a lot less for a single journey, and there’s a maximum daily limit that you can pay. You can also get a seven-day pass loaded onto an Oyster card, which is quite a good option for tourists. Taxis in London aren’t cheap but tend to be safe and clean.
Getting to and from the airport can be a mission or not at all depending on which airport you’re flying into or our of. To get to London Heathrow, just hop on the Piccadilly Underground line and pay the normal Tube fare. London City is accessible from the Docklands Light Railway (part of the Tube network too). Gatwick and Stansted have their own special trains (Gatwick Express and Stansted Express respectively). The Gatwick Express is £28.80 return, £16.90 one-way, the Stansted equivalent is £25/£15. Luton also has a train service but the train station is linked to the airport by a free shuttle bus, one-way tickets to the city cost £9.90.
Attractions — free
London is an amazing city architecturally, just wander around its streets and look at the buildings. People-watching is equally rewarding, as is wandering around one of London’s many markets. Many of London’s museums and art galleries are free to enter, start with a wander along Southbank to visit the Tate Modern.
Attractions — seasonal
There’s always something going on in London, from sporting events like tennis at Wimbledon and the Ascot horse races, to events like the Chelsea Flower Show. There are celebrations all over the city for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and almost every other major holiday will be well-represented somewhere in town.
Attractions — paid
There is an overwhelming large number of attractions in London, from theatre performances to family attractions like Legoland and the London Dungeons. The London Eye is expensive but gives an awesome view of London, while the Tower of London is a must for history buffs. Kew gardens is a feast for the botanical senses, and Greenwich is the place to go if you’re interested in the measurement of time.
Another thing you might want to check out is the London Pass, which has a lot of the really popular touristy attractions on it. By looking at passes like this you can see the kinds of things that people find attractive, then decide if it’s for you. You don’t get some of the non-commercial recommendations but you get a good idea of what’s around.
Name: London, England.
Place: Capital of the United Kingdom, located in the central south-east of England.
Population: 7.6 million.
Known for: Red double-decker buses, Big Ben, the London Eye.
Temperatures: Winter 2-9ºC, summer 11-23ºC.
Airports: Heathrow (LHR) is the largest of London’s five airports, you can also fly to Gatwick (LGW), Luton (LTN), Stansted (STN) or London City (LCY).
Price of a pint: £3.25.
Price of a dorm bed: £8 – £20.
Price of a public transport ticket: Underground £4, bus £2 (or £5.60 for off-peak all-day travel).
There are so many guidebooks for London it’s a bit of a joke. When we first visited we had the Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring and that was enough to get oriented with. Now, we don’t tend to use any guidebook at all, although we’ve recently been playing around with the mTrips London iPod/iPhone app, which has some pretty good recommendations on things to do.
Where to next?
London is a central transport hub for trains and coaches to the rest of the country, and for flights to Europe and the rest of the world. From London, the entire world is your oyster – go wherever you want!
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You really should have a listen. Look for episode 178 in iTunes. And yes, it’s free!