London is, quite simply, an amazing city. It’s the largest city in the UK, and according to some measurements, in all of Europe. 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.
Note: this article was first published in 2010, but prices in this article were updated in late 2017.
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.
Dorm beds start at around £7, reasonable double rooms start at around £40 per room. 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 you’d like to eat. 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 as “cheap” or “reasonable” – which might not be your 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. For lunch or a light dinner, meal deals at supermarkets and Boots pharmacies (among others) can be great value. They tend to include a sandwich, snack and a drink, but some offer salads too — healthy and fairly priced at £3-4.
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, known as the Tube. 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 £4.90 if you pay with cash — but there are cheaper options!
If you’re staying for more than a couple of days, consider investing in an Oyster card, which gives you discounted travel on the Tube and buses. 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 just tag on and off with a contactless credit card.
Taxis in London aren’t cheap but tend to be safe and clean, and Uber can be a more economical option.
To and from the airport
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). Luton also has a train service but you’ll need to hop on the free shuttle bus to the nearby station.
We don’t recommend taxis, since they’re horrendously overpriced, but if you’re looking for a door-to-door service, transfers a company like MyDriver will allow you to get to the airport or your accommodation in London in affordable luxury.
We usually travel to London from Luton, Gatwick and Stansted by coach as it tends to be cheaper — though it does take longer! Check out National Express, easyBus and Terravision; buy tickets in advance for cheaper fares.
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.
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.
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.
Also check out our top 5 things to do in London article!
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 — though we do occasionally download different apps and have a play with them.
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!
You really should have a listen. Look for episode 178 in iTunes. And yes, it’s free!