With a beguiling blend of Old World culture, fast-paced nightlife and bold restaurants, London has something for every sort of traveller. Despite its immense scale, this cosmopolitan city’s highly developed infrastructure and efficient public transportation make it easy for visitors to take in the sights no matter where you stay. Here’s what you need to know to navigate the best of the British capital.
1. About Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Airport is a busy place—to the tune of 205,400 passengers arriving and departing each day. Take a quick look at the airport map before landing to plan the best exit route and scout out amenities available along the way. For example, if you’re traveling with kids, some terminals offer play areas for children who need to get their wiggles out after a long flight, and certain airport restaurants allow kids to eat for free. For parents looking for a gourmet bite on the go, dozens of dining venues—some connected with prominent chefs such as Gordon Ramsay or Heston Blumenthal—are available to please even the most discerning palates.
Once you’ve made it out the door, the Heathrow Express makes it a breeze to get from the main airport to downtown London. Most low-cost carriers fly to smaller airports, such as Stansted or Gatwick, which also provide regular train service to the city. Although buses are available for a lower price, they often get mired in commuter traffic jams.
2. Technology needs
Appliances in the UK operate on 230 volts with a frequency of 50 Hz—nearly twice the standard voltage used in the US, Canada and Japan. Although many battery-powered electronics, such as laptops, can step-down voltage automatically, North American and Japanese travellers will want to bring a voltage adaptor for other devices, such as hair dryers, as well as a three-pronged adaptor to adjust to local sockets. Visitors from Continental Europe and most other Asian countries should be fine with a socket adaptor.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available in many museums and businesses, while 250 London Underground stations provide it for a modest fee. Use Google Maps to find places to connect for free throughout the city.
3. Getting around London
A comfortable pair of walking shoes is essential in this sprawling metropolis. For longer trips, London has an extensive network of public transit options available, including bus, the London Underground (the Tube), tram, light rail, the London Overground and more. To avoid the hefty price and inconvenience of multiple tickets, pick up an Oyster card, a pay-as-you-go smartcard that works with all of those public travel options. Or, if you know your transit needs can be met by the the Tube network alone, consider an unlimited week pass.
Be aware that although the Tube closes at midnight Monday through Saturday, some stations may close earlier. Also, London cab drivers are famously knowledgeable, but fares are high compared to other European capitals. Alternatively, night buses provide an economic means of transportation around the clock.
4. London weather and what to pack
The city’s famously fickle climate can put a damper on your holiday if you’re not careful. Pack a portable umbrella wherever you go to ward off sudden showers—virtually every convenience shop stocks them. Should you find yourself caught in a deluge, duck into a café or one of the many local bookstores.
To combat sudden spikes and dips in temperature throughout the day, bring a lightweight cardigan or jacket that can easily be stowed in a bag when no longer necessary. Fortunately, many of the city’s most famous attractions are indoors. A relaxed attitude and flexible sightseeing schedule help visitors cope with London’s quickly changing weather.
5. Tip London-style
Restaurants often automatically include a 12.5 percent tip on the bill. If they don’t, 10 to 15 percent is considered polite, including at pubs where you’ve ordered food through table service. The same rate is customary for cab drivers. A little extra is appreciated for additional services, such as when drivers help with luggage. When it comes to ordering drinks in bars and pubs, you can keep your cash for another round of ale; tipping isn’t expected.
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6. Sightsee for free
Many of London’s finest museums are open to the public free of charge, including the National History Museum and the Tate Modern, although special exhibitions may have a separate entrance fee.
The royal family provides visitors with an array of uniquely British experiences at no cost, such as the famous changing of the guards and the lesser-known Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.
You can avoid both the crowds and the steep admission prices at historic churches such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey by staying for a service. Both offer live music sung by a choir in the evenings.
7. Eat the best pub grub
Thanks to high-profile chefs such as Theo Randall, who rose to Michelin fame at The River Café and currently presides over his eponymous restaurant at the InterContinental London Park Lane, the local food scene has undergone a revival over the last decade. Fine dining temples serving everything from sashimi to molecular-gastronomy are sprinkled throughout the city. Even the local pubs now serve superb Sunday roasts and contemporary renditions of classic British dishes for affordable prices.
For example, at The Devonshire Arms, diners can enjoy slow-braised lamb rump with heritage potatoes or fish and chips made with sustainable line-caught cod in a crisp cider batter, while The Blackbird bakes up flaky pies with fillings such as sweet potato and stilton. Despite the fancier fare, both places, which are located within walking distance from the Hotel Indigo London Kensington – Earl’s Court, are blissfully unpretentious — don’t be surprised if you end up making a few friends over a pint.
8. Try theatre ticket tricks
The London stage rivals Broadway as capital of the thespian world, but ticket prices are often steep. If you’re willing to take a chance and visit a few different box offices, many theatres offer discounted standby tickets—those that were returned or remain unsold—for that evening’s performance. With so many show options available at all times, if your taste is flexible, this strategy can result in catching some incredible performances at a great price.
Alternatively, the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, run by the Society of London Theatre, sells last-minute tickets for as little as half the standard rate.
Visitors planning for a full weekend of culture may want to invest in a London Pass, which includes free entry to more than 60 attractions and up to 40 percent off select West End shows. Finally, fans of the Bard should try to snap up one of the 700 standing room slots at each performance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. These prized tickets sell for just £5 each.
9. Take time to browse the markets
Restaurants and pubs are just one way to sample local foods. There’s no better way to experience London’s burgeoning culinary scene than by checking out its lively food markets. The most iconic of these is Borough Market, where vendors hawking everything from artisanal bread to southern Indian delicacies vie for space. Other options worth a visit include the sustainably-minded Real Food Market, which features more than 40 stalls selling eco-friendly offerings, and the trendy Brixton Market, where shoppers can also prowl for second-hand clothing and vinyl.
10. Visit this hipster hangout
Tourist attractions can only reveal so much about a city. For a glimpse of London’s more current cultural pulse, check out the Shoreditch district. In recent years, this formerly working-class neighbourhood has morphed into a hipster hangout worth exploring. Plan to set aside an afternoon to hunt for vintage clothes, relax in third-wave coffee shops or take a street art tour to see works by the likes of Shepard Fairey and Banksy.