Over the past 3 years, I’ve been to London probably 20 times. All of those trips, save 2, were for business. Probably 10 of those weeks were in 2013. I’ve been there at all times of the year, seen it rainy for a week, seen it boiling hot for a week (like July, 2013, where it was 36C, or 97F for several days), seen it sunny and cool, and even seen London in the snow (quick, everyone panic!). I get asked about going there all the time by all sorts of people. So, I decided to just write this up and share. Here’s an amalgamation of stuff I can share.
Important: Above All Else!
If you’re from the US, or another left-hand drive/right side of the road country, pay attention. It is engrained in your brain to look left first when you approach a street corner, and then start to step into the street. If you keep doing this in London, you’re going to end up a stain on the front of a vehicle. Look right first. It bears saying again. Look right first. Conveniently, they know this, so at most street corners, look down first – it’s probably painted on the ground – “Look Right”. Sometimes, on 1-way streets, or in the middle island of a street, it may say “Look Left”, but for the most part – LOOK RIGHT first.
Before you leave home – Smartphone Apps you want
I’ve got an iPhone, but I’m sure there are Android equivalents to these. These are (in my opinion) indispensable apps to have. Many of these chew data – be sure before you just start doing data roaming in another country. Your carrier will often have international plans that will make it more affordable to do stuff like this. Alternatively, if you use an unlocked phone (like I do), you can pick up a Pay as You Go (PAYG) SIM card from any of the many carriers over there. I do T-Mobile, and use their £10 pack that gives me 200 minutes, a bunch of texts and 1G of data. I can also call the US for 3p/min. For an iPad, I use 3, where for £10, I get 1G of data, and 4G speeds.
- Tube Map Pro
- Citymapper – Bonus: works in loads of other cities too
- Google Maps – Do you really not have this yet?
- Hailo – For hailing a black cab, right to you, and pay with a card instead of cash!
- Kabbee – Mini-cab (private hire car service) app
- Uber – Car Service app, works in loads of cities
Transport From the Airport
I’m going to assume you’re flying into Heathrow (or LHR if you’re into the whole airport code thing). Maybe you’re flying to Gatwick (LGW) or London City (LCY) too. Some of this will still apply to you, but obviously, not many of the specifics. Upon arrival at LHR, there are two primary methods for getting into town – public transport and a private-hire car service.
Public transport options range from the bus (which takes absolutely forever to get into town on), to the London Underground, aka The Tube (which takes slightly less than an eternity), to a combination of services like the Heathrow Connect or Heathrow Express. For a single passenger, the Heathrow Express is a pretty decent deal. It’s going to cost you about £20 to get an express train from LHR to Paddington Station (yes, the one the bear is named after). After this, you can hop on the tube (Hammersmith & City, Bakerloo, Circle, or District Lines all stop there). What’s the absolute cheapest way to get to Central London from LHR? The Tube. The Piccadilly Line runs all the way out to LHR, and will cost you £5.70 (as of July, 2014) to ride all the way into Zone 1 (i.e. Central London). That ride’s going to be an hour or so, depending on where you’re going, and if you need to change trains anywhere along the way. I did this once. I absolutely hated it. I made a solemn vow to never do this again. If there are 2 or more of you, it’s almost certainly bound to be cheaper to just hire a car service to drive you to your hotel.
Often times, your hotel already works with a car service that will add the charges directly to your hotel bill. This convenience often comes at a fairly steep price. You’ll almost certainly get a very nice ride in a very nice car like an E-class Mercedes, but it’s probably going to run you £100+ for that nice ride. So, what’s to do? You’ve got options. You can use Kabee (that app above) to book in advance, and you’ll know exactly what the cost will be. You can also phone or email ahead to various other car services (go get your Google on already…) and set it up. I’ve used Blackberry Cars in the past, and had reasonably good success. I’ve also got a guy I just phone up directly and use as well. The cost? He charges me £40 to pickup at LHR and drive me to Central London, typically in the Covent Garden/Leicester Square/Trafalgar Square area. I pay him in cash – so hit the ATM before you leave the airport.
The bulk of London’s public transport options can be paid for with a single ticket – the Oyster Card. You want to get one right away. There’s a £5 deposit and a minimum £5 top up, but you can get the deposit back by returning the card before you head for home. Oyster is a touch-less system that uses RFID technology. Be careful though – if you have other touch-less cards in the same wallet as the Oyster, and you just wave your wallet at the sensors, you can end up with “card clash”, and you don’t want that. So, keep the Oyster apart from your regular cards. If you’ve got a chip & pin credit card, you can use the machines to buy & top-up the cards. If not, you’ll need to go to the assistance window, which is a pain in the rear sometimes, with long lines. Call your bank/card issuer and see if they can hook you up with chip & pin before your trip.
London’s also a very cycle-friendly town. You can do short-term rentals on bicycles with the Barclay’s bicycles you see all over town. People generally refer to these as “Boris Bikes”, in honor of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who got the scheme off the ground.
As always, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). So, take what I say with a large grain of salt. I don’t know (or in reality, actually care) about what your hotel preferences are – this is just what I’ve seen & experienced. :) First off – prepare yourself – it’s expensive, no two ways about it. Unless you want to stay way out by Heathrow and spend your life traveling back & forth to town, you’re either going to pay a lot, or have a somewhat crappy room. Do your homework – not all hotels have AC. If you’re used to having it, and it’s a warmer time of year, you may be in for a big surprise. During much of the year, you don’t need AC there, which is why many less costly properties don’t have it.
When I first started going to London, I stayed near where the bulk of my customers were located – Canary Wharf, aka the Docklands. It’s a big hub for Financial Services companies. I’ve stayed out there in the Marriott as well as the Four Seasons. Both hotels are very nice. One of my customers got a good rate at the Four Seasons (£175-200/night), so I stayed there more. It’s a gorgeous hotel, with an impeccable staff. Very high end. BUT, it’s in a terribly boring part of town. Since I last stayed there, there’s a little more nightlife in the Docklands, but it still pales in comparison to the rest of the city. This is why I don’t stay there any more. We ended up spending oodles of time in cabs, on boats, or in the Tube/DLR going back & forth in the evenings.
Ok, so no Canary Wharf for you, eh? Good move. I stay in a specific area, and have been at 3 hotels, all within a 10-minute walk of each other.
My most recent stay (July, 2014) was at the Waldorf Hilton, located on Aldwych (post code: WC2B 4DD). This is a VERY nice hotel, and many rooms have been recently renovated, including the one we stayed in. Reasonably good AC, decent TV for those times that you’re lounging around in the morning or before bed. Not cheap – 4 of our 6 nights were paid with Hilton points, and the other 2 ran us £240/night. Pretty short walk to Covent Garden tube (Piccadilly), Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo), Embankment (Circle, District, Northern), Temple (Circle, District) and Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly). Across the street is the ME Hotel, which includes Radio, a VERY cool rooftop bar.
My last stay before that (December, 2013) was at The Trafalgar, located at the bottom of Trafalgar Square (SW1A 2TS). Weird AC controls here. Very nice location though. For Tubes, it’s a short walk to Charing Cross and Embankment, not too far to Leicester Square and Covent Garden too. Nice rooms, ran about £200/night. Cool rooftop bar.
My usual is the St. Martins Lane Hotel, on St. Martins Lane. It’s a block from Leicester Square, and a short walk to Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Embankment, and Charing Cross Tube Stations. Very nice rooms, often with an included breakfast in the hotel restaurant. If you catch it right when booking, you can often get it, including breakfast for under £200/night.
What’s important to know when you’re arriving early in the morning, having taken an overnight flight – check in time. Many times, the hotels have a check-in time of 3pm, and you’re landing at 7am, followed by getting to the hotel. So, you show up 8 or 9 am, and are hoping to get a room. Sometimes you can, but most of the time, you can’t. So what to do? Often times, the hotels will offer an optional early check-in for a fee, or you just book the night before. In other words, if you’re leaving Saturday night and getting in early Sunday, and want to guarantee a place to shower and take a nap – book for Saturday night.
Stuff to Do
Like any major city, you could spend months and fail to get all the cool stuff done. Think about this as a highlight film. There are a million things to do that I’m leaving out here.
Everyone wants to ride the big ferris wheel. Tube to Waterloo (Northern, Jubilee, Bakerloo, Waterloo & City), and then a walk to Jubilee Park, where the Eye is located. You can (and should) book tickets in advance online. If it’s a hot or a busy day, you want to pay a few £ more for the Fast Track tickets, which will let you skip the majority of the queue. Great views of the city. If it’s a hot day, the AC inside the big pods is VERY welcome.
The Shard is the tallest building in Western Europe. You can go all the way up to the very top to The View From the Shard, where the observation floors are 68-72, which only leaves the spire above you. There’s nothing above you there (for now!).
Gong / Ting – in the Shangri La Hotel
Want to combine the high-floor view in the Shard with some cocktails or dinner? Book a table in Gong for cocktails, or Ting for dinner. Those are both in the Shangri La Hotel, in The Shard. Both are located on the 52nd floor. The view from Gong is absolutely fantastic. Tables at Gong don’t come cheap – when we went it was a minimum £30/person minimum. Ting is the restaurant. As the names should tip you off, these are Asian-influenced places.
These days, the majority of pubs you’ll come across are chains. The major ones are All Bar One, Taylor-Walker and Fullers. Of those, I tend to frequent Fullers locations. My favorites would be the Artillery Arms, on Bunhill Row, near Old St Tube (Northern) or The Cat & The Canary, in Canary Wharf. I also like the Henry Addington, also in Canary Wharf.
London gets a bad rep for food. It’s mostly unwarranted. Yes, many “traditional” British dishes are bland or nasty, but there’s really no reason to eat all that stuff. London is an extremely cosmopolitan city, and there’s something for everyone there. Some of the places I like include Gig’s in Fitzrovia (Northern to Goodge St) – excellent Fish & Chips and Kebabs. If Indian food is your thing, you’re in luck. Some of the best Indian cuisine in the world is in London. Two spots, both near Aldgate East Tube (District, Hammersmith & City) include Tayyab’s and Lahore Kebab House. Tayyab’s has better ambiance, but I like the food at Lahore better. Technically, Lahore is Pakistani, but it’s in the Punjabi region, so it’s close enough. The food comes out fast & hot, and is amazingly good. Lahore is a BYOB, and there’s an off-license (a convenience store that sells alcohol) at the corner. Cobra is a nice beer to go with curry. In the mood for a good burger? London’s got you covered. There’s Byron, who makes “proper hamburgers”, and they’re very tasty. Back in the summer of 2013, it was all-out American burger chain war in Covent Garden, when both Five Guys and Shake Shack opened in Covent Garden. Other popular spots include MEATLiquor and MEATMarket, among others. One of my favorites that’s a little unusual – the Brown’s pub chain has a burger that’s a mix of Wild Boar & Chorizo, with Manchego cheese. It’s amazingly tasty. In the mood for Southern/BBQ? Check out Joe’s in Covent Garden – great fried chicken and pulled pork. High end Asian? There’s always Sushi Samba or Roka – both excellent.
London is chock full of history and museums. There’s the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, among others. Some slightly different ones we’ve checked out and enjoyed include the Churchill War Rooms (Westminster Tube) – where Winston Churchill and his cabinet lived & ran World War II from, or the Geffrye Museum (Hoxton on the Overground). The Geffrye is a very interesting museum. It’s the museum of the living room. It features 16 living rooms, all done up in period style dating from the 1600s through about 2000.
Harry Potter Stuff
Into Harry Potter? There’s tons to see & do. You can book a tour of the Warner Brothers studio where the films were made. It’s accessible by train, followed by a short cab ride. In Central London, still plenty to see. Looking for Platform 9 3/4? Go to Kings Cross/St. Pancras Station (Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan). Outside, there’s a whole setup, including a luggage trolley that’s chopped and attached to a brick wall, and a whole setup. Want to see the site of the Leaky Cauldron, including the alley that the bad guy doing his Lost smoke monster impression flew up? Go to the corner of Great Newport Street and Charing Cross Road. On Great Newport Street, there’s a small alley there between a couple of buildings..
There’s standard stuff like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. But there’s other cool stuff you can do as well. Like you can go out to Windsor Castle, in Windsor. You can get a train from Paddington or Waterloo. I’d recommend Paddington, since that goes to Windsor Central Station, which drops you right next to the castle. You’ll have to change trains at Slough, but it’s not a big deal change. Another option is Hampton Court Palace, which is reachable via a 35-ish minute train ride from Waterloo.
You can take a trip out to Stonehenge via bus that leaves from Victoria, and often involves a visit to Bath. I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve been to Stonehenge that it’s not nearly as impressive in person as you’d hope it would be. It’s been described to me as “a bunch of rocks in a field next to a car park.” If you’re really dying to do it, go for it. You can also rent a car and drive there in about an hour or so.
London has a TON of amazing places to shop. Be warned – it’s not cheap. The dollar isn’t terribly strong against the GBP. Right now, it’s about $1.70 = £1. That’s not so bad, but consider that numerical prices are pretty similar. In other words, a lunch that’s $10 in the US is probably about £10. That’s a 70% uptick in price. Be prepared. London isn’t the best for women’s fashion, unless you’re at one of the big stores like Harrod’s or Selfridge’s. For men, there’s a ton of great clothing stores. If you’re up for spending on custom, bespoke men’s clothing, you want to go to Savile Row. There’s no place finer on earth for bespoke tailoring. If you’d like to check out the oldest Toy Store in the world, go see Hamley’s on Regent Street. It’s been operating in that same location for over 250 years. That’s right, a toy store older than the USA. Are you an Apple Store junkie? Go to their Covent Garden location. It’s easily the most beautiful Apple Store I’ve ever seen. Not the standard white, glass and light wood. It’s utterly gorgeous. Why are you still reading about it? Go already!
Men’s Grooming & Shaving
Those who know me well know that I’m an old-school shaving junkie. I’ve long since tossed cartridge razors in the trash. They’re terribly expensive and just do a lousy job. Gillette’s famous “lift & cut” action is little more than pulling hairs up to cut them off, leaving you red, irritated and susceptible to problems like razor burn and ingrown hairs. A single double-edge blade is a much better shaver. One sharp blade is far better than 4 or 5 mostly dull ones, any time. Plus, real shaving cream & soap, whipped with a brush in a bowl or mug is far better for your face than aerosol-propelled goop. With all that in mind, take a stroll through St. James. You can hit all the big names, like Geo. F. Trumper, Truefitt & Hill, DR Harris, Floris, or my favorite, Taylor of Old Bond Street. In addition to high-quality shaving products, one can get a traditional hot-towel straight razor shave from many of those companies as well. At Taylor’s, I’ve seen two gentlemen (Neil and Kierry), who have always given me very good service and a high quality shave. I wasn’t wow’d by the experience at Truefitt & Hill, so I wouldn’t go back.