London, the capital city of Great Britain, is recognized as a vital hub for fashion, theater, and the arts. The city is the home of the British royal family, and it welcomes millions of visitors every year. It straddles the River Thames, creating scenic vistas in the midst of a bustling city. Visitors come for the culture, the shopping, the history, and the many outstanding museums.
Few cities have as many different exciting sites and locations to visit as London, but you have to start somewhere. If you have only a few days, soak up the rich history of London with a few key places.
The Tower of London
Famous and infamous in equal measures; this medieval monument has been a royal palace, a fortress, an armory, and a treasury. Part of the building dates back to the Norman days of the 12th century, and a tour of the Tower and the fortress is an excellent place to begin a visit to London. Tours include a peek at the famed Crown Jewels, an introduction to the ravens that guard the tower, and a tale or two of the ghosts that may haunt the buildings.
Houses of Parliament
No visit to London is complete without a stop at the Houses of Parliament. This complex, originally a royal residence, houses Victoria Tower and the fabled Big Ben, as well as the rooms where Britain's government argues and makes laws. Visitors can visit the House of Commons Visitor's Gallery, when in session, as well as take a tour of the public areas.
Westminster Abbey is unique in that it is neither a parish nor a cathedral. Called a "royal peculiar," it is controlled by the Crown instead of the Church of England. The Gothic-style Abbey, built between 1215 and 1517, is the traditional site for royal coronations, weddings, and funerals. Many English Kings are buried here, including Henry III, along with a number of notable British subjects, such as Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and David Livingstone. The Poet's Corner here holds the tombs of several British authors, from Chaucer to Rudyard Kipling.
The London Eye
Conceived and constructed in partnership with British Airways for the turn of the 21st century, the London Eye is a huge Ferris wheel, with passenger cars completely enclosed with glass for spectacular views. Over 1700-feet high, the sweeping views encompass all of the city and even stretch to the surrounding countryside. Make your "flight" extra special by choosing a champagne flight or reserve a private capsule for up to twenty-five of your friends and enjoy brunch while you enjoy the sights. One of the newer sights in historic London, it has also quickly become a must-see attraction for many.
Given how extensive London's history is, it's hardly surprising that the city has so many museums. However, you may be surprised to know that many of the biggest museums are actually free to the public, and while a donation is welcome, you will not be particularly pressured to give one. You can easily get lost in one of the big museums for an entire day, and spend nothing but the cost of a lunch.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A, as it is casually called, is technically a museum of art and design. That term covers a lot more ground than you might expect. Tiny decorated pillboxes are on display one gallery away from the great masters of renaissance art, which may be just across the hall from vintage movie posters, or a new exhibit on the significance of David Bowie.
The British Museum
Think of the British Museum as the history of civilization under one roof. It is here that famous cursed mummies have found their permanent homes, along with the Rosetta stone, and many other iconic symbols and artifacts of history. If you want a whirlwind tour, check out a digital museum aide for the day, and let it guide you to the most significant pieces in the museum for a whirlwind tour of history.
Two national museums carry the name of Henry Tate, a sugar magnate who left his vast art British collection to the public. This has led to the creation of two museums, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern. The Tate Modern covers everything modern and contemporary, while the Tate Britain, called "The Tate" in conversation, holds art from Britain, dating as far back as 1500.
An American, Sam Wanamaker, came to London excited to see the site where William Shakespeare's plays had been performed. He was very disappointed when he found out there was no such place. He dedicated the remainder of his life to such a project, and Shakespeare's Globe is the result. It is a performance venue, a museum, and a learning facility all in one. Check the online calendar to sync your visit to a production so you can check out a show.
London has always been, and remains, one of the biggest and most important locations for live, English-speaking theatre in the world. The majority of the plays are in the Theatre District in London's West End (take the Leicester Square Tube exit), but smaller shows are all over town.
You can find "day of" ticket booths in the theatre district. Visit these booths, or inquire directly at the theatre box office windows for deeply discounted tickets for that evening's performance. To keep up-to-date on what's showing, subscribe to the Theatre Guide newsletter. It will give you updates on shows that are currently playing, along with reviews that may help you decide what you want to see.
Where to Stay
Prices are generally predictable based on a hotel's location - with proximity to central London or location in a fancier neighborhood commanding the highest rates. If you're watching the bottom line, avoid the more upmarket areas like Mayfair, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge. East and South London, at the far reaches of the Tube (but still less than an hour away from London proper) are where you should look for lower-priced accommodations.
If you're looking for a luxurious experience, Threadneedles offers luxury and comfort close to the Tower of London, which makes the whole city accessible. This boutique hotel is part of the Eton Collection, and it is located in a former Victorian bank. It has just 70 rooms, and impeccable service.
The Mad Hatter
For a mid-budget option, The Mad Hatter offers 30 comfortable guest rooms and a cozy English pub on the premises. It is across the Thames from the Blackfriars train station, and a short walk to the Southwark Tube station. It's also just a few blocks from the Tate Modern art museum.
The Bridge Hotel
Although not as close to London Bridge as you might assume from the name, The Bridge Hotel offers some of the lowest rates in the city. It resides on the edge of the Waterloo district, and is a short, easy walk to the Tube stations, thus offering proximity to the entire city.
If you're under 35, and don't mind foregoing a few amenities, checking out the local youth hostels may well be worth the effort. The best place to see your options is through the Youth Hostel Association, although there are other hostels not associated with the YHA. You can get a bed for as low as $22 or a room for about $50 (USD equivalent). Hostels are not for everyone though. In exchange for a cheap place to crash, you are likely giving up a private bathroom, room service, and other typical amenities that you'll find at a hotel. Still, if you're on a budget, the hostel option is well worth it.
Getting from place to place in London is surprisingly easy, given how big the city is. The London Underground, or "The Tube" is a fast, reliable subway system that serves the entire city.
Visitor Oyster Cards
An Oyster Card is free, and can be loaded with currency. When you get on and off the Tube, you simply scan the card and you are billed for the journey. The card is good for all the city's major public transportation including the buses, trams and railways. It's ideal for traveling short distances within the city, and if you are traveling within the same zone, there is a cap on the amount you will be charged, so it won't break the bank.
Children between the ages of 12-15 cannot use a visitor Oyster card. They either need to have a photo Oyster card, or use a Travelcard. (Children 11 years and under can use public transportation for free.)
If you plan on seeing all of London via public transportation, get a Travelcard. For one fee, you can get on and off all the major public transportation options including buses, trams and railways in the zones that you purchased the tickets for. While you can buy off-peak Travelcards, and they are cheaper, tourists will probably want either the 7-day card or the single day card so that they are free to come and go as they wish. Travelcards are usually the best option for children ages 12-15.
Of course, the traditional black cabs are still around, but they can be very pricey for all but the shortest jaunts. However, the taxi drivers pride themselves on their mastery of London's streets and addresses. A tour from one of these knowledgeable cabbies can be a wonderful way to discover the city.
Money Saving Tips
- Avoid buying food near tourist locations. You'll pay a premium because of the eatery's location.
- Look for bakeries, or fast service sandwich shops, to get a drink and a portable lunch for less than five pounds.
- Goods and services are often priced similarly to in the United States, so don't forget the exchange rate. You'll be paying, on average, a 50 percent markup on just about everything.
- If you plan to spend at least a week in London, you can pre-pay for seven days on your Oyster Card. If you plan to get around via the Tube a lot, it can lead to substantial savings.
- If you plan to hit a lot of the major attractions in London, consider the London Pass. It includes admission to many top attractions, and line-skipping privileges at some of the highest-traffic sites, like the Tower of London.
The London Experience
London is a remarkable city, with discoveries waiting for every visitor, but your first glimpse of it can be very intimidating, whether it be the urban sprawl seen from a plane, or stepping out from a Tube station into the hustle and bustle of a busy street. Don't forget to take your time. As big a city as it is, London moves fast, but it doesn't mean you have to. Plan to visit only one or two destinations per day, and leave the rest of the time for the journey and what you may find along the way.