I love London. So much so that I entertain fantasies of living there permanently. The vibrancy, the hustle and bustle, the masses of people, the efficiency of the Underground system, the sounds, the streets, the museums, the shopping and more. Exciting and interesting, no doubt about it. Yet, most likely mostly a fantasy. The masses of people, the noise and business, the endless trips on the Underground squeezed up against strangers, the crime rate, the homeless people, the insane cost of somewhere to live, all conspire to make London a less than idea place to live for the long term.
For a visit though, London is pretty awesome. The first time is always mind-blowing, even if most people head straight into the centre and spend their time wandering in the area between Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. Some keep doing that same visit the second and third times, and then experience a feeling of having “done” London and seek new destinations. So what happened to the famous quote by Samuel Johnson: “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Well, you have to do a little more preparation than just booking flight and a place to stay. London is huge and has something more everyone, whether you seek knowledge, experiences or shopping. You need to do a some research first though if you are to get the most of it. This is how I do it.
For travel the Underground is king. You get a superb and easy to read map, it’s easy to stitch together a route that will bring you close to wherever you wish to visit, and if you order your travel card in advance, it is incredibly cheap. A one-day travel card for the Underground is normally 12 pounds for an adult. It comes in 2 variants, depending on whether you want all-day in zones 1-4 or off-peak for zones 1-6. If you’re in central London the zones make no difference, so I recommend getting the all-day one as you don’t have to wait till after 9:30pm to get started on your busy day. Pre-order a 7-day card though and it’s only 32.10 pounds for a full seven days of travel in central London (zones 1-2), or 46.10 if you need zones 1-4. That’s 4 free days of all-day travel. A bargain! More info about travel cards here.
I won’t offer any advice on where to stay, but suffice to say that the online hotel booking sites offer a huge variety of hotels in and around London now and it pays massively to spend some time looking for what you need. Gone are the days of booking cheap and disgusting howels in Bayswater, with broke-ass beds, questionable hygiene and full ensuite carpeting that extended all the way into the shower. These days there are lots and lots of really decent hotels in London, so there is no need to go medieval in that respect. One tip though, make sure there is a full breakfast included in the price. That saves you around 10 pounds a night and ensures you have a belly full of nutrition when you set off.
So, what to do and where to go? I’ve often picked up Time-Out, the long-standing guide to all things London. I confess though that I’ve never found it at all useful and gave up on it years ago. I was recently tipped off about a couple of new ways of finding out what is going on though. The website Londonist appears a much more usable and decent option over Time-Out. In addition, Dojo, a smart-phone app brings things up to modern times, using your location to give you even better tips. And make no mistake, there is always stuff going on in London.
Musicals and theatre, not something I often find myself taking an interest in, but I never fail to be pleased when I do take on in. Really mainly theatre, as I think I have only seen a single musical ever. “The book of Mormons” was tremendous though, with great performances and an excellent script (in typical South Park style). I’d almost say to pick one at random just for the experience. It pays to do a bit of work when buying tickets though, there are many places selling them and none of them are registered charities. I buy mine at the actual theatre, and if you do that you may be lucky enough to be upgraded to a better seat if the front rows have sold poorly. Theatre is even better right up close!
I find food can be a bit tricky in London. Being a town that attracts so many tourists there are no end of vendors and establishments that cater to the most basic of needs. I tend to be very put off by a lot of them though as while the prices tend to be high, a lot of them appears very grotty and nasty. There is something to be said for the familiar, so a few times even a Jamie Oliver restaurant has been the saviour. Not a culinary highlight, but it’s reasonably priced and unlikely to make you ill. There are plenty of popular burger places now though, which makes for a time-efficient and nutritious meal. I also recommend having a steak and kidney pie if you pass a pie place, for some classic British grub. I’ve tried to find rat-on-a-stick, but I think that may be a Pratchettism that hasn’t actually become hip yet.
London has museums, lots and lots of them. Some are still proper museums, such as the British Museum, where you can wonder around on your own looking at oddities from all around the world. A fantastic place I never tired of visiting, especially the antique clockwork engineering and Egyptian relics. Many museums now are being “upgraded” to provide the full multimedia experience where you have to follow a set path, press the buttons, read the screens and follow the queue ahead. For me this doesn’t work at all, and please don’t try to visit one of these museums on a rainy summer day as shuffling along in a clammy line will drive you crazy. I do recommend the Imperial War Museum though, that is really great and only partly modernised. Great fun for spotting the sartorial clues as well.
Something I never thought would work in London was cycling. The mere idea of riding a bike in London traffic seemed so incredibly preposterous and dangerous as to be totally out of the question. Arranging a trip for a group of colleagues there was demand for a cycle tour though, so I had to book one. If there is something that sounds worse than cycling around on my own, it has to be having 16 Norwegians trailing behind, all calibrated to cars driving on the other side of the road! It was easily solved though by booking a tour through the London Bicycle Company. Two guide, two groups of tourist, about three hours cycling. And we all made it safely back, much the wiser and all had a great time. I think having guides made a big difference though and still wouldn’t trust a large group of Norwegian engineers our on their own.
Shopping? Yes, most certainly, but do your research first. There are many areas and they have their various flavours. For hip gear try Shoreditch, Lambs Conduit Street or Covent Garden. For more touristy stuff there is Carnaby Street, Regent Street and so forth. Expensive fashion could lead you to Kensington. You really need to have an idea what you’re after and plot your route.
Speaking of which, to avoid expensive data roaming charges I tend to search out the interesting places on Google Maps, mark them and print them. Retain enough of the map to show you the nearest Underground stations and you have a cheap and efficient way of getting from place to place. For maximum efficiency you can string them together, plotting your course, planning the Underground trips necessary. Done right you can dash like a madman all over London, popping up like a mole near your Places of Interest, and disappear again when the mission has been accomplished. Engineered tourism, it will surely catch on.
Oh, when not worried about data roaming charges I also find it efficient to use a journey planner app for the Underground. There are a few available, they can be worth looking at, especially when doing advanced engineered trip planning.
That’s about all that came to mind right now, I hope it was of some assistance, sir!
Oh, and if you really (heart) London, this is a song that will trigger in your head overtime you see some “I (heart) London” merchandise (something you will see a lot of…)