Difference between revisions of "London"
Revision as of 11:55, 20 December 2006
London  is the capital and largest city of both the United Kingdom and of England, and the largest European city. Situated on the River Thames in South-East England, Greater London has an official population of roughly 7.5 million people—although the figure of over 14 million for the city's total metropolitan area more accurately reflects London's size and importance. London is historically one of the great "world cities" and remains a global capital of politics, culture, fashion, trade and finance.
The name "London" originally referred only to the once-walled "Square Mile" of the original Roman (and later medieval) city (now confusingly called the City of London, or just "The City"). "London", however, has taken on a much larger meaning, to include all of the vast central part of the modern metropolis, the city having absorbed numerous surrounding towns and villages over the centuries. Reflecting the massive size of the metropolis, therefore, the term "Greater London" embraces central London together with all the outlying suburbs that lie in one continuous urban sprawl within the lower Thames valley. Though densely populated by New World standards, London retains large swathes of green parkland and open space, even within the city center.
The International Olympic Committee has decided that London will serve as the host city for the Games of the XXX Olympiad, the Summer Olympic Games of 2012 . This will make London the first city to hold the Olympic Games three times, having hosted the games previously in 1908 and 1948.
Greater London consists of 32 local boroughs that—together with the relatively new London mayorality—form the basis for London's local government. The names of several boroughs—such as 'Westminster' or 'Camden'—are well-known and self-explanatory, others less so, such as 'Hackney' or 'Tower Hamlets'. A traveller's London, however, is better defined not strangely-shaped and often fairly arbitrary administrative divisions, but rather by recognised functional, cultural and social districts of varying types and sizes:
Settlement has existed on the site of London since well before Roman times, with evidence of Bronze Age and Celtic peoples. The Roman city of Londinium however, established just after the Roman conquest of Britannia in 43 AD, formed the basis for the modern city (some isolated Roman period remains are still to be seen within the city). After a short-lived decline that followed the end of Roman rule in 410 AD, London experienced a gradual revival under the Anglo-Saxons and also the Vikings, emerging as a great medieval trading city and eventually replacing Winchester as the English royal capital. This paramount status for London was confirmed by the Norman, William the Conqueror, who built the Tower of London after the Conquest in 1066 and was crowned King of England in nearby Westminster.
London went from strength to strength and, with the rise of England to first European, then global prominence, the city became a great centre of government, industry and culture. London's long association with the theatre, for example, can be traced back to the English Renaissance (witness the Rose Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe) and great playwrights, like Shakespeare, who made London their home.
With the rise of Britain to supreme maritime power in the 18th and 19th centuries, the possessor of the largest global empire, London became an imperial capital, drawing people and influences from around the world to become - for one long period - the largest city in the world. Despite the inevitable decline of the Empire, and considerable suffering during the Second World War (when London was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe in "the Blitz"), the city remains a top-ranked world city, a global centre of finance, learning and culture.
The Museum of London, located near the Barbican to the north of the City of London, makes an ideal destination (free admission!) for the traveller who wants to understand the history and ongoing legacy of this great city.
London is easily the largest city in the country, eight times larger than England's 'second' city, Birmingham, and dominates the economic, political and social life of the United Kingdom (much to the annoyance of people in "the provinces" - i.e. everywhere except London). The city is full of excellent bars, theatres, museums, art galleries, and parks. It is also the most culturally and ethnically diverse part of the country, and for a visitor, a nice side-effect of this is the wide range of cuisines available. Samuel Johnson said "When one is tired of London, one is tired of life." Whether you are interested in ancient history or modern art, opera or underground raves, London has it all.
England's royal families have, over the centuries, added much to the London scene for today's traveller: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall, and Westminster Abbey spring immediately to mind.
London possesses one of the best collections of museums and galleries anywhere in the world. World cultures throughout history are well represented, for example, at the British Museum.
Like most inhabitants of big cities, Londoners are a mixed bunch. Most are fairly private and quiet, even reserved, but with no malice intended and a wicked sense of humour. Trying to get onto a packed bus or Tube can often involve quite a bit of well-intentioned pushing. Judging the mood of people can often be difficult: You can sit on a Tube for a long time, each of your fellow passengers studiously avoiding making eye-contact with anyone else as if their life depended on it.... One chance remark from a passenger getting on board can then lift the mood and have everyone chuckling into their newspapers.... Londoners generally don't take themselves or other people very seriously, as witnessed in the sport of "Blaine-baiting" which emerged briefly during David Blaine's self-imposed incarceration at Tower Bridge during 2003 (eggs and insults were thrown at the self-important magician).
Because of its status as a high wage/high cost city, London is heavily dependent on immigrant labour for "front-of-house" staff such as shop assistants and hotel/restaurant waiters, and not all will be proficient in speaking English, leading the tourist to believe that they are quite rude and impolite. Just be prepared for this and be patient! Also, as the crowds seem to be getting thicker in and around Central London, the mood on the streets seems to be getting worse. Be prepared for a bit of pushing and shoving (and other rude behavior) on the streets, in the tube stations, and on the buses. If you feel the need to get away from the stressful crowds, your best bet is to visit one of the many fine parks in London (see "Parks and Gardens" section).
London (all airports code: LON) is served by a total of six airports - getting to and from the airports is made relatively easy by the large number of public transport links that have been put in place over recent years. If transiting through London, be sure to check the arrival and departure airports carefully as the transfer may be quite time-consuming.
In addition to London's six official airports (of which only two are located in London) there are a number of other regional UK airports conveniently accessible from London. Since they offer a growing number of budget flights, choosing those airports can be cheaper (or even faster, depending on where in London your destination is).
For transfers directly between London's airports, the fastest way (short of a taxi) is the direct inter-airport service by National Express . Buses between Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports run at least once per hour, with Heathrow-Gatwick services taking 65 minutes (£18) and Heathrow-Stansted services 90 minutes (£20.50). However, it's essential to allow leeway, as London's expressways, especially the radial M25, are often congested. Buses have toilets on board.
(ICAO: EGLL, IATA: LHR) London and Europe's largest airport and the world's busiest airport in terms of international passenger movement, with services from most available major airports world-wide. Flights landing in Heathrow often are delayed by up to an hour as a simple result of air traffic congestion and waiting for parking slots. As a result of Heathrow's size and overcrowding, disembarking the plane can also take considerably longer than at London's other airports.
There are fast food restaurants in the departure areas of all four terminals, though the food is rather mediocre and overpriced. The Mark's and Spencer's outlet in the arrivals area of terminal 3 sells excellent sandwiches at standard prices. Cheaper sandwiches can be found at Boots, but the selection is limited. Within Terminal #1 airside area, the situation is particularly poor - with most cafes closing between 9pm and 10pm, contrary to declared 'till last departing flight'.
To get to the centre of London, the following options exist (in rough order of increasing price).
Another option is the first capital connect line that runs through kings cross, farringdon, city thameslink, london bridge to gatwick. Have a look at national rail (above) for options.
(ICAO: EGGW, IATA: LTN) Has traditionally been a holiday charter airport, but is now also served by some budget scheduled carriers. As per Stansted, and for the same reasons, many choose to spend the night here before flying. To get downtown, the following options exist:
London City Airport
(ICAO: EGLC, IATA: LCY) A commuter airport close to the city's financial district, and specialising in short-haul business flights to other major European cities. To get to the city centre, the following options exist:
London Southend Airport
(IATA: SEN, ICAO: EGMC) Currently undergoing redevelopment and is set to become London's sixth international airport once the new rail link is completed. At present it serves destinations in the British isles only.
Other airports near London
London is served by one international rail link, currently operating out of Waterloo International. High-speed trains travel under the sea for 22 miles (35 km) through the Channel Tunnel from Paris (2h40m) and Brussels (2h15m) and are operated by Eurostar. Book well in advance to secure the best ticket deals. For onward travel Waterloo International is part of the Waterloo station complex (see below) and well served by tube lines, buses and taxis.
London is also well served by trains to and from other parts of the UK. There are no fewer than 12 main line terminal stations, forming a ring around Central London and each serving various parts of the country. Apart from Fenchurch Street (nearest Tube Tower Gateway), all are served by their own stations on the tube network, and most (but not all) can be reached by the Circle Line -- which may be the easiest, if not fastest, way to transfer between stations by Tube. All are served by buses and taxis.
For a detailed profile of each station, visit the Network Rail Stations website and select the appropriate station from the list at left.
In clockwise order the mainline (National Rail) train stations are:
There is also one cross-London rail service commonly known as Thameslink but officially called First Capital Connect, from Bedford to Brighton and calling in central London at London King's Cross Thameslink, Farringdon, City Thameslink and London Blackfriars. It notably connects Gatwick and Luton airports with each other and Central London.
Train times (to and from any location) can be found on the National Rail Planner  or by calling 08457 48 49 50 (local call charges apply) from anywhere in the UK.
The last train sometimes doesn't come because of changes to the schedule, variations in the weather, or for some other reason.
Many parts of London itself are best accessible by train (sometimes called National Rail or Overground trains to distinguish from the Tube) -- some solely so. South-east London in particular is served principally by trains from London Bridge, Victoria, Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations.
Travellers should note that London's bizarre lack of integration of National Rail train services with Transport for London means that pre-pay Oyster cards are not (NOT!) universally valid on the overground. Travelcards, Oyster or otherwise, are valid, but it is not possible, for example, to use pre-pay to extend a Zone 1 Travelcard to a Zone 5 station. Some of the overground lines in North London are Oyster compliant, but most south of the Thames are not.
Most international and domestic long distance bus services (UK English:coach services) arrive at and depart from a complex of coach stations off Buckingham Palace Road close to London Victoria rail station. All services operated by National Express or Eurolines (see below) serve Victoria Coach Station, which actually has separate arrival and departure buildings. Services by other operators may use this station, or the Green Line Coach Station across Buckingham Palace Road. The following are amongst the main coach operators:
London has one of the most comprehensive public transport systems in the world. Despite Londoners' constant, and often justified, grumbling about it breaking down on a regular basis, public transport is often the best option for getting anywhere in London for visitors and residents alike. Indeed, more than a third of London households do not feel the need to own a car. Transport for London (TfL)  is the body responsible for London's transport network, predominantly made up of the Underground, buses, rail and trams. London has recently been awarded the city with the best public transport in the world.
You can use Transport for London's useful Journeyplanner  to help you plan your journeys around London on public transport. They also offer a 24-hour travel information line, charged at local rate: tel +44-20-72221234 for suggestions on getting from A to B, and for up to the minute information on how services are running.
For travelling shorter distances in London there is no better way. Walking forces you to slow down and look around, and in a city like London there's always something interesting to look at if you take the time. Walking can also be the quickest way to get somewhere: check your map, central London is surprisingly compact.
Inline skating is legal in London, both on the roads and the pavement, with the exception of with the City of London (The Square Mile). Roads are not the greatest, but easily skatable. In the centre cars and taxis are more used to seeing skaters than on the outskirts of the city.
By Tube / Underground
The London Underground  - also known popularly as "The Tube" - has trains that criss-cross London in the largest underground rail network anywhere in the world (it was also the first, the first section of the Metropolitan Line dates back to 1863). This mode of transport is usually the fastest way to get from one part of London to the another, the only problem being the relative expense (go for a Travelcard, if you can), and the fact that it can get extremely crowded during "rush hours" (7:30AM-9:30AM and 4:30PM-7PM). Take a bottle of water with you on warm days. Trains run from around 5:30AM to about 1am at night. Tube maps are freely available from any station, most tourist offices and are prominently displayed throughout stations.
The Tube is made up of twelve lines, each bearing a traditional name and a standard colour on the Tube Map . To plan your trip on The Tube, work out first which station is closest to your starting point and which closest to your destination. Use the Tube Map to determine which line(s) you will take. You are able to change freely between lines at interchange stations (providing you stay within the zones shown on your ticket, or via any reasonable route for single-destination tickets). Since the Tube Map is well designed it is very easy to work out how to get between any two stations, and since each station is clearly signed and announced it is easy to work out when to get off your train. The Tube is therefore an easy method of transport even for new visitors to London. Visitors should be aware, however, that the Tube map is actually a diagram and not a scaled map, making it misleading for determining the relative distance between stations as it makes central stations appear further apart and somewhat out of place.
Travel on The Tube has become extremely erratic as of late, especially on the weekends. Many sections of The Tube are shut down on the weekends due to "planned engineering" work. Transport for London's website (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/) has constant updates about these disruptions of service.
The Tube system is divided up into several Zones in concentric circles from Zone 1 (central London, containing most of the primary tourist attractions) all the way out to Zone 6 (outer suburbs and Heathrow Airport). Fares depend on which zone you start in and how many zones you cross. Single fares for an adult are £3 for most trips, including anything within Zones 1 thru 4, or any that stays outside Zone 1. Longer trips, such as from Zone 1 to Zone 5 or 6, or from Zone 3 in the West End to Zone 4 in the East End (passing through Zone 1), cost £4. Travelcards offer much better value if you will be making several journeys - an off-peak Day Travelcard for Zones 1-2 is available after 9.30am each day, for example, at £4.90. Detailed fare information is available at any Tube station or from the TfL website . Using a pre-pay Oyster card  reduces fare prices significantly with a Zone 1 single fare costing £1.50 whilst a journey between Zones 1 and 6 costs £2 evening and weekends or £3.50 during the daytime. Oyster cards are available at every Underground station but require payment of a deposit of £3; this is refunded when the card is returned. Another advantage of using an Oyster card is that it is automatically capped to a relevant daily Travelcard price - see below.
If you buy a weekly ticket, you do not have to wait until after 9:30AM and the average price per day will be even cheaper. Oyster cards can again be used for such tickets, along with other seasonal tickets.
There is a general "underground etiquette" amongst Londoners on the Tube, and it's a good idea to learn it quickly so you don't get trampled on by stampeding commuters, and it will also help prevent you being identified as a tourist by pickpockets and touts which still frequent the large central stations.
London's iconic red buses are recognised the world over, even if the traditional open-platform Routemaster buses have been largely phased out. Over 5 million bus trips are made each weekday; with over 700 different bus routes you are never far from a bus in London.
Buses are generally quicker than taking the Tube for short trips (less than a couple of stops on the Tube), and out of central London you're likely to be closer to a bus stop than a tube station. However, London buses have become very unreliable as of late. This is especially true in and around West Central London. Also, bus lines running parallel to London Underground (The Tube) lines shut down on the weekends for "planned engineering work" can be extremely crowded. The difficulty with buses over the tube is knowing when to get off; while tube stations are clearly marked it is sometimes more difficult to work out where to get off a bus. Your best bet is to ask fellow passengers and/or to trace your route on a map. Bus drivers are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, but they're usually too busy to be able to tell you when you've reached your destination.
Bus routes are identified by numbers and sometimes letters, for example the 73 runs between Seven Sisters and Victoria. Buses display their route number in large digits at the front, side, and rear of the bus. Each bus stop has a sign listing the routes that will stop there. Standard bus services run from around 6am in the morning to 12:30AM at night. Around midnight the bus network changes to the Night Bus network. Bus routes, numbers and timetable all change with most of the buses radiating out from around the Trafalgar Square area to most outlying parts of Greater London. Night buses are identified by an 'N' at the start of the route number, for example the N73 runs between Walthamstow Central and Victoria. The night bus service is a reliable and often interesting way to get home at night.
Bus journeys are cheaper than taking the Tube, at £1.50 per trip (children under 14 free without identification, under 16 free on production of a Child Oyster card). However, unlike The Tube single tickets do not allow you to transfer to different buses. Consider purchasing a One Day Bus Pass (adult, one day, £3.50) or an Oyster card if you will be making several trips a day, or a Bus Saver booklet of six tickets for £6.00 (£1.00 each), available at rail stations, tube stations and news agents. Fares are the same for night buses as for regular services.
A One Day Bus Pass can be purchased from bus ticket machines, local rail and tube stations, and also selected newsagents for the bargain price of £3.50 (children travel free), allowing unlimited bus journeys for an entire day (and night - up till 4:30AM the next day on the night bus network) across the whole of Greater London. Travelcards and Oyster also work on bus services.
An Oyster card requires a £3 refundable deposit - however, when using Oyster Pre-Pay, a bus journey is £0.80 per trip, a considerable saving. This also applies to night buses. Another option is to charge an Oyster card with a One Day Bus Pass - it tends to be more difficult to lose or damage the Oyster card than it does a slip of paper or card.
Yellow route signs indicate you must purchase your ticket before you board. This means you must either have a Travelcard, a Bus Pass, a Bus Saver ticket, a Pre-Pay Oyster card, or have bought single ticket from a machine at the bus stop. Note that these machines don't provide change (all the more reason to use one of the other options).
The 29 bus is most popular bus (day or night) in London. During the Friday/Saturday late nights between Central London & Wood Green, the N29 runs every 6 mins. Old-fashioned Routemaster buses, with an open rear platform and on-board conductor to collect fares, run on Heritage Routes 9 and 15 every 15 minutes, every day between about 09:30 and 18:30.
Many of the most popular buses, including the 29 bus tend to be of the double-length articulated variety, known as bendy buses. This could be related to the relative ease of hopping on and off these without paying (at stops, doors open along the length of the bus and there is no on-board conductor). This is, however, illegal and can be very risky - large teams of inspectors frequently descend on these buses accompanied by police, and it's entirely possible to be arrested and prosecuted. Care should be taken as it is possible for those unfamiliar with this type of bus to get on board and then have no way of paying. Routes served by this type of bus always carry a yellow route sign as detailed above.
There's an electric tram network running between South-West and South-East of outer London (Wimbledon to Beckenham). The tram fares are the same as bus fares; Travelcards covering zones 3,4,5 or any combination thereof, and/or bus passes, are acceptable on all tram routes.
Docklands Light Rail (DLR) is a dedicated light rail network operating in east London, connecting with the Underground network at Bank and Tower Gateway. Apart from the trains looking slightly different and running slightly less frequently than the Tube, visitors may as well treat the two systems as the same. The DLR uses the same system of Zones as the Tube, and travelcards are valid on DLR services. As the trains often operate without a driver, it can be quite exciting - especially for children - to sit in front and look at through the window, whilst feeling as though one is driving the train one's self.
Travelcard and Oyster
A Travelcard is an all-in-one ticket that allows you travel on the Underground (the Tube), buses, DLR, trams and rail services within set zones. Many travellers, for example, would choose to buy a one day Travelcard that allows unlimited travel throughout zones 1-4 (all of central London, plus many outer suburbs like Richmond, Greenwich and Wimbledon) for £5.40 (April 2006). Other period travelcards such as three-day, weekly, monthly and yearly are also available.
In addition to standard paper tickets, tickets may also be purchased in the form of Oyster. This is a credit-card sized wireless smartcard that stores your ticket information instead of the cardboard ticket. Rather than inserting a ticket at the gates you simply pass your Oyster card near the yellow readers, meaning you don't need to remove it from your wallet or bag. You can put a weekly, monthly, or annual travelcard ticket onto Oyster. If you do not purchase a travelcard on Oyster, you can buy a card for a £3 deposit, then add a Pre-Pay balance to it. Swiping your Oyster card for journeys around London will automatically deduct the appropriate value from your card. This provides a level of convenience over buying ticket individually, and also gives you a discount on each fare. Single trips in Zone 1, for example cost £3 for cash and £1.50 on Oyster Pre-Pay. The amount of Pre-Pay deducted from your Oyster card in one day is capped at the cost of the appropriate day travelcard for the zones you have travelled through, less 50 pence. This means you don't need to decide at the start of the day whether to get a travelcard or just purchase single rides - using Oyster Pre-Pay will ensure you are charged the minimum fare. The major caveat though is that Oyster Pre-Pay cannot be used on most National Rail services; for these you'll need to purchase a standard cardboard ticket. If you are only using the tube, bus and tram, Oyster Pre-Pay makes a lot of sense. Detailed fare information is available at any tube station or from the TFL website.
Due to the expense of other forms of transport and the compactness of central London, cycling is a tempting option. Many improvements have been made for cyclists in the city over the last few years, even if they remain no more than gestures in most places. Noticeably, there are many new signposted cycle routes and some new cycle lanes, not to mention more cyclists since the July 2005 public transport attacks. Excellent free cycle maps detailing these routes can be obtained from your local tube stations, bike shop, or ordered online. However, London remains a relatively hostile environment for cyclists, generally speaking. A skeletal cycle lane network does not exist. The safest option is to stick to minor residential roads where traffic can be surprisingly calm outside rush hours.
The towpaths along the Grand Union and Regent's Canals in North London are the closest thing to a truly traffic-free cycle path in the capital. In summer they are crowded with pedestrians and not suitable for cycling, but in winter or late in the evening they offer a very fast and safe way to travel from east to west in North London. The Grand Union canal connects Paddington to Camden and the Regent's Canal connects Camden to Islington, Mile End and Limehouse in East London. It takes about 30-40 min to cycle from Paddington station to Islington along the towpaths.
Helmets are not compulsory for cyclists in the UK, and opinions differ on their value. In London, many cyclists, especially those seen in rush hour, also wear filter masks, but their efficacy is even more argued over. London motorists seem reluctant to acknowledge the existence of cyclists, especially at busy junctions.
Non-folding bikes can only be taken on limited sections of The Tube network, mostly only on the above-ground sections outside peak hours. There is a map showing this on the TFL website. Most rail operators allow bicycles outside peak hours also. For this reason, folding bicycles are becoming increasingly popular.
Care should be taken as to where you choose to park your bike. Many areas, some surprisingly busy, attract cycle thieves, while chaining a bicycle to a railing which appears to be private property can occasionally lead to said bike being removed.
The London Cycle Campaign  is an advocacy group for London cyclists and organises regular group rides and events. Critical Mass London  meets for regular rides through central London at 6pm on the last Friday of each month. Rides start from the southern end of Waterloo Bridge.
London has two types of taxis: the famous black cabs, and so-called mini-cabs. Black cabs are the only ones licensed to 'tout for business' (ie pick people up off the street), while minicabs are more accurately described as 'private hire vehicles' and need to be pre-booked.
The famous black cabs of London (not always black in these days of heavy advertising!) can be hailed from the curb or found at one of the many designated taxi ranks. Their yellow 'TAXI' light will be on if they are available. Black cabs charge by distance and by the minute, are non-smoking, and have a minimum charge of £2.20 They are a cheap transport option if there are five passengers as they do not charge extras, and many view them as an essential experience for any visitor to London. Drivers must take an extensive exam in London's streets to be licensed for a black cab, meaning they can supposedly navigate you to almost any London street without reference to a map. It is possible to book black cabs by phone, for a fee, but if you are in central London it will usually be quicker to hail one from the street.
A new convenient taxi-based service is Zingo  - call 08700 700 700 and you will be connected direct with the driver of the nearest available black cab anywhere in London to arrange pickup. Normal meter fares apply + £2 booking fee.
Minicabs are licenced hire vehicles that you need to book by phone or at a minicab office. They generally charge a fixed fare for a journey, best agreed before you get in the car. Minicabs are usually cheaper than black cabs, although this is not necessarily the case for short journeys.
Note that some areas in London are poorly serviced by black cabs, particularly late at night. This has led to a large number of illegal 'mini-cabs' operating - just opportunistic people, with a car, looking to make some fast money. These illegal drivers are unlicensed and sadly they are often unsafe: a number of women are assaulted every week by illegal minicab operators. Some of these operators can be fairly aggressive in their attempts to find custom, and it's now barely possible to walk late at night through any part of London with a modicum of nightlife without being approached. You should avoid "mini-cabs" touting for business off the street and either take a black cab, book a licensed mini-cab by telephone, or take a night bus. Licensed minicabs display a Transport For London (TFL) License Plate - usually in the front window. One of the features of the license plate is a blue version of the famous London Underground "roundel".
Tipping is not mandatory in either taxis or minicabs, despite some drivers' expectations..... Use your discretion - the fares are usually high enough....
Driving in Central London is a slow, frustrating, expensive and often unnecessary activity. Londoners who drive will normally take public transport in the centre; follow their example. Traffic is slow and heavy, there are many sorts of automatic enforcement cameras, and it is difficult and expensive to park.
Car drivers should be aware that driving into Central London on weekdays during daylight hours incurs a hefty charge, with very few exemptions (note that rental cars also attract the charge). Cameras and mobile units record and identify the number plates and registration details of all vehicles entering the charging zone with high accuracy.
The Central London Congestion Charge  attracts a fee of £8 Monday through Friday 7AM-6:30PM (excluding public holidays) if paid the same day before 10PM (after 10PM until midnight, a surcharge of £2 is added to encourage early payment, totalling £10). Failure to pay the charge by 12 midnight the same day (take note!) incurs a hefty automatic fine of £80 (reduced to £40 if paid within 2 weeks). Numerous payment options exist: by phone, by voucher and online. Check the website for details.
Despite the Congestion Charge, London - like most major cities - continues to experience traffic snarls. These are, of course, worse on weekdays during peak commuting hours, i.e. between 7:30AM - 9:30AM and 4PM - 7PM At these times public transport (and especially the Tube) usually offers the best alternative for speed and reduced hassle. Parking during weekdays and Saturdays can also mean considerable expense in parking fees - fees and restrictions are ignored at your extreme financial peril - issuing fines, clamping and towing vehicles (without warning!) has become a veritable new industry for borough councils staffed by armies of traffic wardens. Find and read the parking restrictions carefully! A good tip is, that outside advertised restriction hours, parking on a single yellow line is permissible... Parking on a red line or a double yellow line is never permissible and heavily enforced...
London boasts a vast number of attractions for the traveller. Following is a selection of some of the most popular and noteworthy (the rest to be found in the various district pages - get exploring!):
Through to the campaign Everyones London you will get great discounts (up to 50%) on many attractions, if you can present a valid travel ticket. These include the London Eye, the Aquarium, Madame Tussauds, special exhibitions in museums, various restaurants and shows like Saturday Night Fever. To check out how much you get where, visit the Transport of London website here.
Museums and Galleries
London hosts an outstanding collection of world-class museums. Even better, it is the only one of the three traditional "alpha world cities" (along with New York City and Paris) in which the majority of the museums have no entrance charges, thus allowing visitors to make multiple visits with ease.
Parks and Gardens
The 'green lungs' of London are the many parks, great and small, scattered throughout the city. Some of the best-known and most-popular are:
Most of the larger parks have their origins in royal estates and hunting grounds and are still owned by the Crown, despite their public access. These royal parks are now policed by a division of the Metropolitan Police Service for London. It takes over from the Royal Parks Constabulary which policed Royal Parks prior to the Metropolitan Police.
If you're feeling really touristy visit Madame Tussaud's. Here you can see (and take photos of yourself with) a lot of very realistic waxfigures of celebrities, criminals, politicians and more. There is also the creepy chamber of horrors, although if that appeals you may prefer The London Dungeon.
London has a number of outdoor ice rinks that open in the winter months. Considered by some to be somewhat overpriced and overcrowded, they nonetheless have multiplied in recent years, easing congestion and increasing competition. Most charge from £10-12 (adults) for an hour on the ice, including skate hire.
In summer (and also in winter, for the more dedicated) there is also a thriving roller skating (on inline and traditional "quad" skates) scene in London, catering to many disciplines including street hockey, freestyle slalom, dance, general recreational skating (including three weekly marshaled group street skates) and speed skating. This mostly centers around Hyde Park (on the Serpentine Road) and Kensington Gardens (by the Albert Memorial).
One of the world's great metropolises, anything and everything you could possibly want to buy is probably available in London, if you know where to look, and if you can afford it (London is not particularly noted for bargain shopping, owing to high prices and high exchange rates - though it can be done with some determination!)
Central London, and especially the West End, has a number of world-famous shopping areas and streets:
Central London shops are usually open late at least one night a week, until 7PM-8PM. West End shops (Oxford Street to Covent Garden) stay open until late on Thursdays, while Wednesday evening is late opening for Chelsea and Knightsbridge.
Tax-free shops in airports are not strong in variety, prices are equal to London, and they close rather early as well. Shop listings at airport web sites can help to plan your tax-free (vs traditional) shopping. In the evening allow extra half an hour as closing hours are not always strictly respected.
It is a huge task for a visitor to find the 'right place' to eat in London - with the 'right atmosphere', at the 'right price' - largely because, as in any big city, there are literally thousands of venues from which to choose. London has long had a reputation of not serving the best food, and this still holds true. In fact, some feel London has some of the worst food/service in all the world (well, for a big city anyway). On the bright side, there are still good places to eat, whatever your budget, particularly when dealing with the more upmarket café chains, such as Caffe Nero, EAT, ASK and Pret-A-Manger, which are a favourite with commuters, shoppers and some tourists. You can find restaurants serving food cuisine from nearly every country in the world as London is the most diverse city in the world.
London is only second to Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world to eat. But this survey hides the fact that there are plenty of good value, even cheap places to eat - you just have to know where to look.
Of course, many travellers (especially those on a budget!) prefer to help themselves; picnicking and/or buying food for preparation in your room is a great way to enjoy good food at the lowest price possible.
Following is a (very!) rough guide to what you might get, should you fancy eating out:
Prices inevitably become inflated at venues closest to major tourist attractions - beware the so-called "tourist traps". Notorious areas for inflated menu prices trading on travellers' gullibility and lack of knowledge are the streets around Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, the British Museum and the Palace of Westminster. The worst "tourist trap" food is, in the opinion of many Londoners, that served at the various "Steak Houses". Real Londoners wouldn't dream of eating here - you shouldn't either!
London has probably the highest number of fast food outlets in Europe and you can hardly miss them when in London, whether central or suburbs. The usual suspects (McDonalds, KFC and Burger King) seem to be on every street corner in Central London, but those in the middle of the West End and near major tourist areas cheekily add the odd 10p and 20p onto their prices. Sandwich shops are London's most popular places to buy lunch, and there are a lot of places to choose from. More upmarket chains such as Eat and Pret a Manger offer ready-made sandwiches made with quality ingredients. Other independent shops will make sandwiches to order, but depending on where you go the product may not be as large as you expect. Some Italian sandwich shops have a very good reputation and you can identify them easily by looking at the long queues at lunchtime. And if all else fails, there's likely to be a Subway nearby (often connected to an easyInternetCafe in case you need to check your email). Another good (and cheap) lunch option is a chicken or lamb doner (you might call it a gyro) at many outlets throughout the city. If all else fails, the central area has lots of mini-supermarkets operated by the big British supermarket chains (e.g. Tesco Metro, Sainsbury's Central etc.) where you can pick up a pre-packed sandwich.
Tipping may also be different than what you're used to. Some places include a service fee (usually 10-12%), and all meals include the 17.5% VAT tax. The general rule is to leave a tip for table service, unless there's already a service charge added or unless the service has been notably poor. The amount tipped is generally in the region of 10%, but if there's a figure between 10 and 15% which would leave the bill at a conveniently round total, many would consider it polite to tip this amount. Tipping for counter service, or any other form of service, is unusual - but some choose to do so if a tips container is provided.
London has a restaurant to suit any taste, it's just a matter of finding it. Start off with a printed guide (spend some time in a bookshops and have a free browse for some ideas, particularly Harden's London Restaurants, Time Out books such as the 'Eating & Drinking Guide' and 'Cheap Eats in London' as they are generally very reliable). If you are looking for particular nationalities these tend to be clustered in certain areas: Brick Lane is famously known for curries, but for a better quality meal (and cheaper) Tooting has a far better reputation. For a collection of good value Indian Vegetarian restaurants, go to Drummond Street (just behind Euston railway station). There's Chinatown (Soho) for Chinese, Kingsland Road (Shoreditch) for good cheap Vietnamese, Brixton for African/Caribbean, Golder's Green for Jewish and Edgware Road (Marylebone) for Middle Eastern cuisine. Also a great choice is Asia de Cuba , located in the stylish St. Martin's Lane Hotel, which combines elements of Asian and Cuban cuisine. Other nationalities are equally represented, but are randomly dotted all over London. The Dinner Deals and Toptable websites offer 2-for-1 deals and percentage discounts for some of London's hottest and most interesting restaurants.
London has plenty of vegetarian-only restaurants, and a quick search in Google will produce plenty of ideas, so you never have to see a piece of cooked meat all week. If you are dining with carnivorous friends, then most restaurants will cater for vegetarians, and will have at least a couple of dishes on the menu. Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants are generally more fruitful, as they have plenty of traditional dishes that only use vegetables.
For those of you looking for veggie fast food, Red Veg on Dean Street, opposite Tesco in Soho, has some great stuff. There are also many vegetarian Thai buffet places where you can eat somewhat unconvincing (but tasty) meat substitute grub for £5. These can be found on Greek Street, Old Compton Street and Islington High Street.
Due to the mix of cultures and religions, many London restaurants cater well for religious dietary requirements. The most common signs are for Halal meat, from burger joints to nice restaurants. There are also plenty of Kosher restaurants in London, including a Chinese Kosher restaurant (Kaifeng ).
London caters for most global tastes by hosting at least one - and sometimes - many food stores that specialise in one or more cuisines. Numerous examples exist, for example, of food stores dedicated to Chinese, Japanese, Italian and African foods.
London is home to a great many pubs, bars and nightclubs. You are reminded that London is an expensive place and that your drink is likely to cost you more than its equivalent elsewhere in the UK. Expect to pay close on £3 for a pint in an 'average' pub. However, the cost of alcohol drops significantly the farther away you go from the central area. 'Classier' bars and pubs can be much more expensive. However many local pubs, especially those run by chains like Wetherspoons and Scream tend to be more reasonably priced, the latter catering for a student audience. In the Euston area, check out The Court (near the top end of Tottenham Court Road) and The Rocket (on Euston Road, a short walk from the British Library); both are part of the Scream chain and are fairly cheap to drink in, given that they cater for students of the adjacent University College London. Directly opposite the British Library is The Euston Flyer, popular with locals and commuters alike given its close proximity to Euston, St. Pancras and King's Cross railway stations.
The Knights Templar on Chancery Lane is an atypical but very pleasant, if large, pub. As it is part of the JD Wetherspoon chain, it is cheap but, unlike most of the rest of the chain, is a nice place to drink.
The various Sam Smith's pubs are very well priced, central and as traditional as you could want. Try Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, the Cittie of Yorke on Holborn, the Princess Louise on High Holborn, the Chandos on St Martin's Lane off Trafalgar Square and the Crown on New Oxford Street.
The general rule about tourist traps applies to pubs as much as anything else - you will find plenty of "traditional English pubs" near major attractions (usually the type with mock Tudor style cladding and lots of hanging baskets decorating the outside), with inflated prices to match - avoid them all. For a cheap pint near Piccadilly Circus, check out The Midas Touch (Golden Square, just off Beak Street in Soho), is another popular pub with locals and usually has some good happy hour deals.
Gay and lesbian
London has a vibrant gay scene with countless bars, clubs and events. The nucleus of London's gay scene is undoubtedly the western half of Old Compton Street in Soho and the surrounding area, but over the last couple of years Vauxhall has seen a boom. The choice of places to go sometimes seem to be unmanageable. Gay Pride is held every year in June with parade and street parties.
You will probably find that most places, particularly Shoreditch or Camden, straight bars will have a mixed clientele. To find out what is going on during your visit, Boyz Magazine is published fortnightly and is freely available at most London gay venues, and contains listings of everything that is happening in all the major clubs in London and the South East.
London has hundreds of options for accommodations - from 4 star hotels, through apartments, to historic B&Bs and hostel beds. You can end up paying anything from £20-200 per person, per night, with most hotels anywhere near the centre charging £50 per person and up. Expect smaller than average rooms, especially at the lower end of the price range. Your budget will have a lot to do with what part of London you will want to stay in. With the excellent Tube available, where you stay won't limit what you see, but be sure to check where the closest tube station is to your hotel.
Staying further out will be cheaper, but when travelling in allow 1-2 mins per tube stop (near the centre), around 2-3 mins per stop (further out), and 5 mins per line change. This can easily total up to a 1 hour journey if there is a walk at each end. The extra cost of more zones on a travel card is probably not significant compared to hotel savings further out.
Capulse-style crash spaces are just arriving, but currently these are only in central locations. (does anyone know of cheaper capsule-style crash space further out?)
Some nice, convenient areas to stay in London include:
As of 2006, the YHA's prices were £24.80 for Bed and Breakfast per night for Hostelling International members, a £1 supplement per person per night for non-members. Like everything else, you should book online well in advance - the hostels usually fill up on Friday and Saturday nights about 14 days before. A top tip is don't be put off if there are no beds left online, phone the hostel in question to see if there are still beds available or if there has been a cancellation. Some of the YHA's properties also offer a limited number of private family rooms - expect to pay £61 per night.
In the summer season, many of the colleges and universities in Central London open up their student Halls of Residence as hotels during the summer vacation, at usually much lower rates than "proper" hotels, but expect very basic facilities and no catering. University College London  is based in the King's Cross/Bloomsbury area and offers such a service.
In an emergency, should you get stranded in London with nowhere to stay, call the Shelter 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 4444 (Shelter is a UK national charity that provides advice on housing and homelessness).
Like many big cities, London has a variety of social problems, especially begging, drug abuse, theft (mobile phones are a favorite), etc. London, however, manages to make do with a police force that doesn't need to carry guns, and is generally a safe place for the tourist to visit and walk around. In an emergency, telephone "999" (or "112" from a mobile phone). Don't take illegal minicabs (see 'Getting Around' for details). If you're planning to go out late at night and are worried about safety, frequent crowded areas such as Soho. There are always plenty of people on the street, even at 4am. Generally, outside central London, South and East suburban areas are considered more dangerous, although some parts of North-West London around Willesden are also known trouble spots. However it is unlikely that tourists will be in these areas.
Use common sense, at night in particular, but be alert at all times: Don't let anyone near your phone, wallet or valuables; don't give change to strangers; avoid unfamiliar areas at night. It's always a good idea to appear confident and take steps not to mark yourself out as a tourist - some unscrupulous locals will equate "tourist" with "mug". Don't carry your wallet in your back pocket - while London's legendary pickpockets may not be as numerous as in days gone by, they are still equally skilled. The Metropolitan Police however have placed significant resources in combating street level crime. Working in conjunction with borough councils they have been able to significantly cut and bring the level of theft and pickpocketing in major retail areas in London.
Transport is generally safe, although care should be taken on suburban tubes/trains at night; don't fall asleep. Travelling on lower deck of a night bus is generally safer, as there are more passengers around, and you are visible by driver. If you have been the victim of crime on the railways or the London Underground, you should report the crime as soon as possible to the British Transport Police, who have an office in most major train and tube stations. Elsewhere, you should report your crime as normal to the Metropolitan Police. Major train stations, particularly Kings Cross and Waterloo have problems you would normally associate with large stations. Some thieves hang around waiting for the Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted express trains so they can target disorientated tourists.
It can be a good idea to keep your credit card receipts in a safe place rather than throwing them away; and to be generally wary of "skimming" devices that may be attached to ATMs in an attempt to steal card details. Some of these are very sophisticated, so if in any doubt do not use that ATM. Ones inside shops or banks are safer. Be sure, when using ATM that there are no objects in the card slot nor any micro cameras above the keypad. If you suspect an ATM has been tampered with, you should inform the bank staff indoors or call the police.
One thing to note is that some tourist attractions are located near council estates (public housing) which may not be a safe area for tourists to wander around, particularly at night. Examples of these attractions would be Tower Bridge (the South side), Camden and Portobello Road Markets and Shoreditch.
London is, despite all this, a fairly safe city for its size, and most visits should be trouble-free. The police are generally very helpful when problems do occur. Language may be a problem at the scene, if you do not speak English, however officers make every effort to try and convey questions. In some forces, they may call an interpreter over the phone to translate.