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So, you've landed at Heathrow ready to unravel the mystery that is London. Gray skies? Check. Tweed coat? Check. Magnifying glass? Nevermind. Sherlock Holmes has got nothing on you if you pick up a copy of "A to Z" as soon as you've spotted a bookshop or kiosk. This palm-sized, three-by-five-inch book of maps will help you navigate London smashingly. Armed with your secret weapon, get thee to Paddington Station in a mere 15 minutes aboard the Heathrow Express train for just £16.50–a brilliant way to avoid a £40-70 cab ride. If you've flown into Gatwick, the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station offers the same deal. And believe us, it's worth circumventing the cabs if you can. Sure, the cabbies are quite knowledgeable and proud of their status to boot, but they're expensive. Bloody expensive.
Once you're in the city, the Tube, as the London rail system is affectionately known, will whisk you most anywhere you need to go in central London. But when the clock strikes midnight, the Tube shuts down, so plan accordingly. The Oyster Card is not a pass for all-you-can-eat mollusks, but rather a convenient reusable ticket with which to travel the Tube. Look for the "Oyster Card Sold Here" signs at convenience stores to purchase, then "top up" as needed–it'll save you precious pounds. Speaking of savings, buses can also be a great alternative to pricey cabs, but the confusing system may challenge your skills of deductive reasoning.
You don't need to be a Scotland Yard detective to figure out London's tip etiquette. Just follow these simple guidelines: tips here are customarily less than in the U.S. though more than continental Europe. At restaurants as well as lounges with table service, 10-12.5% is standard. Spa services typically command 10-15% tips. Keep it to a minimum for cabbies: just round to the nearest £. Though throughout the U.K. 10% or so takes care of the bartender, in London tipping often comes in the form of drinks, as in "Two Cosmos, one Red Bull & vodka...and one for yourself" (with a wink, if he's cute). Not every round, of course. If it's a larger order, he may simply pocket up to £2.
About those gray skies: don't despair too much about the rainy London stereotype. It's not always so Hound of the Baskervilles. Yes, take your umbrella, but average monthly rainfall isn't too drenching: between 1 to 3 inches. It can be gray, but it can also be quite lovely, thank you very much. When's the best time to go? If you like the cold, come in February. If you're after the hottest month, come in July. Really, it's elementary, my dear.
Photo courtesy of jig o'dance on Flickr Creative Commons
Tipping is slowly catching on in the UK, but it is still definitely not as institutionalized as in the US. As a general rule of thumb, except for in upscale venues, nothing beyond a small tip (rounding up to the nearest pound or two) is required, though if you’ve been impressed by the service, feel free to go above that. In posh restaurants, spas, and salons, a tip of 10%-15% is expected, though this is more often than not already included on the bill–definitely make sure you check or you’ll be tipping twice. In top hotels, bellhops should be tipped GBP .5-1 per bag, and housekeeping should get about GBP 1 per day. If the concierge has been particularly helpful, they should be tipped when you check out, rather than on a service-by-service basis. For taxis, most people just round up to the nearest pound or two, though if the driver has been particularly bend-over-backwards helpful, you could tip up to 10%. In cafés and pubs, a small cash tip (nothing more than a couple of pounds) is appreciated but not expected–sometimes there’s a tip jar on the counter. If you are drinking at a pub, tipping often comes in the form of drinks, as in "Two Cosmos, one Red Bull & vodka...and one for yourself." Finally, some tour guides will ask for a tip; about GBP 2 is fair, though it’s not mandatory.
As far as major world cities go, London is among the safest. As in most urban areas, pickpocketing and other petty theft are common, so do take care with your belongings, especially at tourist sites. Football hooliganism is something to take seriously, so be aware of major football matches happening in the city. Also exercise caution when out at night (walking alone should be avoided). Should you find yourself in an emergency situation, the Emergency Services number is 999. Finally, don’t forget that cars drive on the left in Britain. Look right, then left before crossing the street!
Etiquette, Customs, and Culture:
Londoners are not-so-nicely famed for their reserve and stiff-upper-lip attitude, but that’s a fairly antiquated view. London today is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the culture is a colorful mix of cosmopolitan influences. More than 150 languages are spoken in central London alone, Chinese and Indian food beat out "British" fare as the most popular cuisines, and major cultural events like the Notting Hill Carnival have their roots in places like Africa and Latin America. Many visitors these days find that the common denominator in this vastly varied population is a shared, cheerfully dry sense of humor. That said of course…there’s no disputing that vestiges of the culture of propriety and manners are still evidenced in the ongoing British love affair with "queuing" (standing in line): queue jumpers beware, aggrieved queuers will vocally put you in your place.
Running and Walking: London has no shortage of parks that are great for running. Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and Regent's Park are all good central London picks, but if you’re interested in going further afield, you could try Hampstead Heath or along the Thames.
Best Yoga Studios for Visitors: Triyoga (www.triyoga.co.uk) is a great pick for visitors and has three convenient locations: Covent Garden, Primrose Hill, and Soho. Yoga practitioners of all levels are welcome to stop in for one-off classes without needing to book ahead or sign up for an extended period of time. Offerings range from pre-natal and pilates to Ashtanga and Yin Yoga. Check schedules online for offerings at each location and try to arrive 10 minutes before the class starts. All classes are GBP 12/hour, and discounted passes for blocks of five or ten classes are available.
Other Key Information
Banking: ATMs are readily available in all areas of the city, and they generally accept international cards. If you plan to use ATMs extensively during your trip, check to see if your home bank has any branches or partner banks in London, as this could help you save on withdrawal charges. Travelers checks are generally accepted in UK shops and restaurants if they are in pounds sterling. If your checks are in another currency (like US dollars), you will need to change them at a bank. Be aware that most banks in the UK are only open Mon.-Fri. from 9:00am to 5:00pm. (Saturday opening hours are rare, though slowly gaining in popularity.)
Driving: In order to drive in the UK, you need either an EU or an international driver’s license.
Insurance: Purchasing travel insurance that covers baggage loss, theft, and changes to travel plans is strongly recommended. Emergency medical care from the National Health Service is generally free, though specialist care, some prescriptions, and repatriation can be expensive, so you may want to consider purchasing medical travel insurance as well.
Telephone: Though London’s iconic red phone booths (or "phone boxes" as the locals call them) may look cute and antiquated, most now accept credit cards and allow you to make international calls. If you are planning to be in London for a while and your cell phone doesn’t work in Britain, it may be worth purchasing a pay-as-you go phone; these generally cost GBP 10-30, and "top-up" credit can be purchased at almost any ATM, convenience store, bank, or supermarket.
Visas: Travelers from the US, Commonwealth, and EU do not need visas to enter Britain as tourists, although there may be restrictions on the length of stay allowed. Visitors from other countries should consult their local British consulate regarding visa requirements. Unless you have an EU passport, you will have to go through international passport control and customs to travel into other European countries from Britain.
Winter: You might be bundled up in a coat and warm woolen mittens, but the city is festooned with lovely Christmas decorations in December and spring and summer collections from the world's top designers are on view during London Fashion Week in February.
Spring: Flex your muscles at the London Marathon in April, watch others flex theirs during the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in March/April, or simply stop and smell the roses at the Chelsea Flower Show in May.
Summer: Art and music flourish during the summer, with the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and The Proms (classical music season at the Royal Albert Hall) all season long, and the raucous Caribbean-inspired Notting Hill Carnival in August. Watch the world's top-seeded tennis pros duke it out on the lawn during the June/July Wimbledon Championships.
Autumn: The fall brings cultural extravaganzas like the weekend-long outdoor arts spectacle the Thames Festival in September and the London Film Festival in October. But then things get down to business with the State Opening of Parliament ceremony in November/December (complete with the Queen in a horse-drawn carriage processional).
Best Way in from the Airport
London is serviced by five airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, London City, and Luton), each in a very different location and each with its own smorgasbord of options for getting into the city. As a general rule of thumb, rail services tend to be speedier and easier to use, while buses and cabs are awkward to navigate and get easily stuck in snarls of London traffic.
Heathrow: Sprawling Heathrow Airport is London’s largest airport and one of the busiest in the world. It services the bulk of international flights arriving in London. It’s located 15 miles west of the city.
• Heathrow Connect: (GBP 8.50 one-way/16.50 return; (44) 0845-678-6975; www.heathrowconnect.com) Heathrow Connect runs between Heathrow Airport and Paddington Station. The journey takes 28 minutes, and a train runs every 30 minutes. The first train from Heathrow is at 5:23 am (6:07am on Sundays) and the last one around midnight.
• Heathrow Express: (GBP 16.50 one-way/32 return online; 18 one-way/32 return from ticket office; (44) 0845-600-1515; www.heathrowexpress.com) Ultra-mod fast train running between Heathrow Airport and Paddington Station. The journey takes 15 minutes and trains run every 15 minutes. The first train is at 5:10am and the last one around midnight.
• Tube: (GBP 4/single ticket) The Piccadilly line connects all Heathrow terminals to central London and the London Underground system. The journey to central London takes about one hour, and trains run from 5:00am to midnight.
• National Express Bus: (GBP 5 one-way/9 return; (44) 0871-781-8178; www.nationalexpress.com) Buses run between Heathrow Central Station (Terminals 1, 2, 3) and Victoria Station. The journey takes 40-70 minutes, and buses run approximately every 30 minutes.
• Black Cabs: Metered cabs from Heathrow to central London cost GBP 48-60. Journeys from Heathrow to central London take between 45 minutes and one hour.
Gatwick: Gatwick is located 30 miles south of the city. It’s smaller and much easier to navigate than Heathrow, and it increasingly services long-haul international flights.
• Gatwick Express: (GBP 15.95 one-way/27.40 return; (44) 0845-850-1530; www.gatwickexpress.com) Trains run between Gatwick Station (near the South Terminal) and Victoria Station. The journey takes about 30 minutes and trains run every 15 minutes. Trains run from 5:30am to midnight. There are also four special overnight services.
• Southern Trains: (GBP 12.50 one-way/25 return; (44) 0845-748-4950; www.southernrailway.com) Trains run between both Gatwick terminals and Victoria Station. The journey takes 45 minutes and trains run every 15-30 minutes. (After midnight, trains run once an hour.)
• Thameslink: (GBP 9.40 one-way/17 return; (44) 0845-748-4950; www.thameslink.co.uk) This rail service connects Gatwick with King’s Cross, Farringdon, and London Bridge stations. The journey takes approximately 70 minutes.
• National Express Bus: (GBP 6.80 one-way/13.80 return; (44) 0871-781-8178; www.nationalexpress.com) Buses run from Gatwick Station to Victoria Station. The journey takes 65-85 minutes, and there are approximately 20 buses a day.
• Black Cabs: Metered cabs from Gatwick to central London cost about GBP 90. Journeys from Gatwick to central London take approximately one hour.
Stansted: Stansted is located 35 miles northeast of London and largely services no-frills flights to European destinations (à la Easyjet and Ryan Air).
• Stansted Express: (GBP 20 one-way/27.70 return; (44) 0845-850-0150; www.stanstedexpress.com) Trains run between Stansted Airport and Liverpool Street Station. The journey takes about 45 minutes and trains run approximately every 15 minutes. Trains run between 4:30am and 11:30 pm. (An hourly night bus is also available after hours.) Stop is located below the airport terminal building.
• National Express Bus: (GBP 12 one-way/17.50 return; (44) 0871-781-8178; www.nationalexpress.com) Buses run round the clock between Stansted and Victoria Station.
• Black Cabs: Metered cabs from Stansted to central London cost about GBP 90. Journeys from Stansted to central London take approximately 70 minutes.
London City: Located just six miles from central London, London City Airport is understandably popular with business travelers, though a fair few tourists can be found in the crowd. Flights are mostly domestic or Europe-bound (but do include a British Airways Business Class-only service from JFK twice daily).
• Docklands Light Railway: (GBP 4 one-way; www.tfl.gov.uk/dlr) Journeys to central London take about 20 minutes, and trains run from 5:30am to around midnight every 8-15 minutes.
• Black Cabs: Metered cabs from London City to central London cost about GBP 30. Journeys to central London take approximately 30-45 minutes.
Luton: Luton is the smallest of the London airports. It mainly services charter flights and no-frills airlines. It’s located 35 miles northwest of London.
• Thameslink Rail: (GBP 14 one-way/24 return; (44) 0845-748-4950; www.thameslink.co.uk) Trains run between Kings Cross and Luton Airport Parkway station. Journeys take 30-40 minutes and trains run approximately every 15 minutes. The service is available from 7:00am to 10:00pm.
• Black Cabs: Metered cabs from Luton to central London cost about GBP 90. Journeys take approximately 70-90 minutes.
Several companies offer helicopter transport around the city. These are generally bespoke services; you can work directly with the company to decide on your itinerary and personal helicopter needs. For travel around London’s outlying areas or into other parts of the UK, this is a surefire timesaver.
CLICK HERE FOR HELICOPTER WEBSITE: www.premiair.co.uk
If you’re hitting the town on foot, it’s worth popping by the nearest bookstore or corner shop and scooping a copy of London A-Z. This handy street atlas, which comes in sizes ranging from the pocket-sized “mini” (our fave) to the you’ll-need-a-hefty-handbag “super scale,” makes navigating the city a snap. If hard copy’s not your thing, download the atlas from www.a-zmaps.co.uk (a supported mobile phone or PDA required), and you can take a digital version with you as you traipse around town.
London’s underground system, or the Tube, is the oldest in the world (the first lines opened in 1863), and it’s also one of the most extensive, with over 250 miles of track. The Tube is unquestionably the fastest and most convenient way to get around town, especially in the city center; trains are frequent, and the system is easy to navigate. Stations are a cinch to spot–look out for signs clearly marked with the system’s iconic red circle with a blue crossbar.
Trains run from approximately 5:30am to 12:30am (from 7:00am on Sundays), and there’s generally a train every few minutes. You can buy tickets with cash or card in any station; single journey fares range from GBP 1.60 to 6.00. (Fares are based on a zone system; there are seven zones in the system, with most of central London being contained in Zone 1.) Buying an Oyster Card (www.oystercard.com) is strongly recommended. Oyster Cards are pre-paid discount travel cards which can be purchased or recharged at any station, online, or in select stores. Fares with an Oyster Card are generally about half the cost of a one-off ticket. Oyster Cards can also be used on buses, trams, the Docklands Light Rail, and National Rail services within London.
Security in the Tube system is excellent, and you should feel safe traveling by yourself, even late at night. Exercise caution, however, when leaving stations in dangerous areas of the city, especially after dark. As London prepares for the 2012 Olympics, much of the Tube system is being revamped, so expect some lines to be out of service, especially on weekends.
PRICE: GBP 1.90-19.00
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.tfl.gov.uk
London’s bus system (which has been running since 1829) is comparably priced with the Tube. Most of the city’s iconic red "Routemaster" double-decker buses have been retired (these days they only run on a few "heritage" routes through the city center), but a more modern version of the double-decker still runs most routes, so riding the bus is a great way to get good views of the city. The easiest way to purchase a ride on a London bus is to use a pre-paid Oyster Card, but you can also buy a single journey ticket on the bus for GBP 2.20. (Payment is usually by coin only.)
Though most buses run from approximately 5:00am to midnight, there are night buses and 24-hour buses available. Most night buses have a route number prefixed with "N," and their main hubs are Trafalgar Square, Tottenham Court Road, and Oxford Circus. Service on night buses is generally less frequent than on day buses, so check the schedule beforehand. 24-hour buses run the same route day and night, though they tend to run less frequently between midnight and 5:00am.
PRICE: GBP 1.30 (Oyster card); 2.20 (single ticket)
CLICK HERE FOR MAP www.tfl.gov.uk/buses
The River Thames Boat Services is a ferry service that runs principally between Embankment and Woolwich Pier, stopping at most major piers along the Thames along the way. The service is integrated with other public transport services in London, like the Tube and buses, so Oyster Cards are accepted. (You can also buy single tickets at the pier where you embark.) Boats run between 6:00am and 8:00pm Monday to Saturday, and from 11:30am to 7:30pm on Sundays.
PRICE: GBP 3.20-510.50
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/river-guide.pdf
London taxi drivers are exceptionally well-trained and professional; in order to drive a cab here, they have to pass a series of rigorous exams and interviews testing "the Knowledge of London" which require them, among other things, to know the location of every street in central London. Though the quaint design of black cabs (as they’re called in Britain) may appear quite vintage, inside they are fully up-to-date and accept cards as well as cash. Taxis can be flagged down anywhere in the city. Fares start at £2.20 and go up by 20p every tenth of a mile or minute (depending on the speed of traffic). Keep in mind, fares at night are more expensive. Hailing a cab in popular nightlife areas is notoriously tough, especially at 11:00pm when the pubs close and at 2:00am when the clubs close. If you’d like to order a cab, call 087-1871-8710. For speedier results, you can also try using Zingo Taxi (087-0070-0700), a service which uses GPS technology to connect your cell phone with the nearest available cab. Calls through Zingo cost a flat fee of £1.60, which is included in the final price of the taxi. Another fast option is Computer Cabs (020-7908-0286), which charges a £2 fee to match you with a taxi and also requires that you pay by credit card. In most cases, when you order a cab, the meter starts running from the time the driver receives the call, so you may find that there are already a few pounds on the meter by the time they arrive to pick you up.
PRICE: GBP 2.20 + 2 per mile
Minicabs are a cheaper "freelance" alternative to taxis. Unlike black cabs, they are meter-less (fares must be negotiated in advance and are typically charged per mile rather than by time) and they cannot be hailed on the street. Minicab drivers often have less experience and training, and they may not be properly insured, so unless you go with a reputable company, taking a minicab can be dicey. In order to book a minicab, you can either go to a minicab kiosk (you can find them all over the city, especially near Tube stations), or you can call a minicab company directly. A recommended minicab company for women traveling alone, especially at night, is Ladycabs (020-7282-3300), which only uses female drivers. See also Addison Lee (listed in the Town Cars section below).
Though driving in London is rarely the best option given the complicated streets and messy traffic, if for some reason you absolutely need a car, hiring a Town Car is often a far better option then renting a car on your own. It will save you the hassle of parking and navigating, and when you’re finished with it, you don’t even have to worry about getting it back to the rental lot. Addison Lee (www.addisonlee.com; (44) 084-4800-6677) is technically a minicab service but is quite high end and operates much like a car service, offering airport transfers and premium coaches on request. International town car company Carey Limousine (www.carey.com) is also available in London (020-8326-7600).
PRICE: Varies by route
Driving in London is generally a headache. Navigation is difficult, parking prices are exorbitant, and, worst of all, you have to drive on the left. If however you just can’t hack it without an automobile at your disposal, you can rent a car at the airport. Most major rental car companies have outlets at both Heathrow and Gatwick. In order to drive in the UK, you need either an EU or an international driving license.
Alamo: (44) 0870-400-4562, www.alamo.co.uk
Avis: (44) 0870-010-4068, www.avis.co.uk
Europcar: (44) 0129-353-1062, www.europcar.co.uk
Hertz: (44) 0870-846-0003, www.hertz.co.uk
National: (44) 0870-400-4581, www.nationalcar.co.uk
Photo courtesy of Alexander Savin on Flickr Creative Commons
Best Time to Go
London is notoriously rainy, though fans of the city often defensively quote the statistic that it only rains one in every three days here (compared, apparently, to bucket-loads more elsewhere in the country). It turns out though that unless you’re from the allegedly even-more-inclement parts of Britain, even rain once every three days is quite a lot, especially since there’s never a "dry season" respite. On the plus side, the rain is rarely very heavy–it’s generally just a thin drizzle that quickly passes. Always carry an umbrella with you (even if the sky is blue-as-can-be when you leave the house), but also don’t lose hope if a gray sky looks like it might rain on your parade (chances are it will blow by pretty quickly). Brits love discussing the weather, so use these passing showers to strike up conversations with the locals.
Spring is quite a nice time to visit London, especially when the flowers start to bloom. Temps range on average between 40F and 65F, so you’ll definitely need a jacket and some sweaters, but you should be comfortable walking around the city.
Summer in London can bring spots of sun and in recent years has even brought some blistering heat waves. Temperatures generally don’t top 75F (with the low hovering around 55F), but occasionally the mercury does push 90. When it’s steaming hot, expect it to also be humid (yuck), but otherwise summer weather in London is actually quite comfortable. It’s the massive queues at all attractions that you should fear more than the sweltering temps.
Autumn, like spring, can be a pleasant, less crowded time of year to visit. Temperatures range on average between 50F and 65F, so you’ll need thick sweaters and a jacket, but you should be fine trekking around town. The parks are lovely at this time of year once the leaves start changing color, and the lines at tourist attractions are itsy-bitsy.
Winter is a cold, dark, and damp time of year. While temperatures rarely dip below freezing, stepping outside can still be decidedly uncomfortable. Definitely bring a thick winter coat and gloves, and be prepared for almost daily rain and temperatures ranging on average between 35F and 45F. Winters in recent years have brought piles of snow, so you may want to consider bringing a sturdy pair of boots, too. Despite the climatic doldrums, winter in London can actually be a nice time to visit–most pubs have toasty roaring fires and warming toddies on offer, and you’ll have the tourist attractions all to yourself.
Photo courtesy of Malias on Flickr Creative Commons