By Rick Steves
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Now more than ever, you can count on Rick Steves to tell you what you really need to know when traveling through London. From the sacred stones of Westminster Abbey to the top of the London Eye, the city is yours to discover! Inside Rick Steves London you'll find:
- Fully updated, comprehensive coverage for spending a week or more exploring London
- Rick's strategic advice on how to get the most out of your time and money, with rankings of his must-see favorites
- Top sights and hidden gems, from Trafalgar Square and the Tower of London to where to find the best tikka masala or fish and chips
- How to connect with local culture: Catch a show in Soho, take afternoon tea, or have a pint of English ale with Londoners in a pub
- Beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps with Rick's candid, humorous insight
- The best places to eat, sleep, and relax with a Pimm's Cup
- Self-guided walking tours of lively neighborhoods and world-class museums like the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert
- Day trips to Windsor, Cambridge, and Stonehenge
- Detailed neighborhood maps and a fold-out city map for exploring on the go
- Covid-related travel info and resources for a smooth trip
Spending just a few days in the city? Try Rick Steves Pocket London.
Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe
Travel is intensified living—maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.
I discovered a passion for European travel as a teen and have been sharing it ever since—through my tours, public television and radio shows, and travel guidebooks. Over the years, I’ve taught millions of travelers how to best enjoy Europe’s blockbuster sights—and experience “Back Door” discoveries that most tourists miss.
Written with my talented co-author, Gene Openshaw, this book offers you a balanced mix of London’s blockbuster sights and lesser-known gems. It’s selective: Rather than listing a lorry load of museums and galleries, we recommend only the best ones. And it’s in-depth: Our self-guided museum tours and city walks provide insight into the city’s vibrant history and today’s living, breathing culture.
We advocate traveling simply and smartly. Take advantage of our money- and time-saving tips on sightseeing, transportation, and more. Try local, characteristic alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants. In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.
We visit London to experience it—to become temporary locals. Thoughtful travel engages us with the world, as we learn to appreciate other cultures and new ways to measure quality of life.
Judging by the positive feedback we receive from our readers, this book will help you enjoy a fun, affordable, and rewarding vacation—whether it’s your first trip or your tenth.
Planning Your Trip
WHEN TO GO
Before You Go
Blow through the city on a double-decker bus, and take a pinch-me-I’m-in-London walk through the West End. Ogle the crown jewels at the Tower of London, gaze up at Big Ben, and see the Houses of Parliament in action. Cruise the Thames River, and take a spin on the London Eye. Hobnob with the tombstones in Westminster Abbey, visit Leonardo, Botticelli, and Rembrandt in the National Gallery, and explore Harry Potter’s magical realm at the film studio in Leavesden. Enjoy Shakespeare in a replica of the Globe Theatre and marvel at a glitzy, fun musical at a modern-day theater. Whisper across the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, then rummage through our civilization’s attic at the British Museum. And sip your tea with pinky raised and clotted cream dribbling down your scone.
You can enjoy some of Europe’s best people-watching at Covent Garden, and snap to at Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard. Just sit in Victoria Station, Piccadilly Circus, or a major Tube station and observe. Tip a pint in a pub with a chatty local, and beachcomb the Thames. Spend one evening at a theater and the other nights catching your breath.
London is more than its museums and landmarks. It’s the L.A., D.C., and N.Y.C. of Britain—a living, breathing, thriving organism...a coral reef of humanity. The city has changed dramatically in recent years, and many visitors are surprised to find how “un-English” it is. ESL (English as a second language) seems like the city’s first language, as native Brits are now a minority in major parts of the city that once symbolized white imperialism. London is a city of eight million separate dreams, inhabiting a place that tolerates and encourages them. Arabs have nearly bought out the area north of Hyde Park. Chinese takeouts outnumber fish-and-chips shops. Eastern Europeans pull pints in British pubs, and Italians express your espresso. Many hotels are run by people with foreign accents (who hire English chambermaids), while outlying suburbs are home to huge communities of Indians and Pakistanis.
But with Britain’s vote to exit the EU (its “Brexit”), the British people have decided to pull up the drawbridge. From a practical standpoint, travelers heading to London likely won’t see much of a difference...other than having plenty to talk about with their new British friends.
London, which has long attracted tourists, seems perpetually at your service, with an impressive slate of sights, entertainment, and eateries, all linked by a great transit system. Come prepared to celebrate all the tradition and fanfare of yesterday while catching the buzz of a city that’s trumpeting its future.
Planning Your Trip
This section will help you get started planning your trip—with advice on trip costs, when to go, and things to know before you take off.
Five components make up your trip costs: airfare to Europe, surface transportation in Europe, room and board, sightseeing and entertainment, and shopping and miscellany.
Airfare to Europe: A basic round-trip flight from the US to London can cost, on average, about $900-1,500 total, depending on where you fly from and when (cheaper in winter). If London is part of a longer trip, consider saving time and money in Europe by flying into one city and out of another; for instance, into London and out of Paris. Overall, Kayak.com is the best place to start searching for flights on a combination of mainstream and budget carriers.
Transportation in Europe: For a typical one-week visit, allow about $45 for the Tube and buses (for a 7-Day Travelcard transportation pass). Round-trip train rides to day-trip destinations cost about $20 for Windsor, $35 for Cambridge, and $50 for Salisbury, where you can catch a $20 bus to Stonehenge. You can save money by taking buses instead of trains. Add $60-100 if you plan to take a taxi between London’s Heathrow Airport and your hotel (or save money by taking the Tube, train, bus, or airport shuttle).
Room and Board: London is one of Europe’s most expensive major capitals. But if you’re careful, you can manage comfortably in London on $135 a day per person for room and board. A $135-a-day budget allows $15 for lunch, $30 for dinner, and $90 for lodging (based on two people splitting the cost of a basic $180 double room that includes breakfast). Students and tightwads can do it for as little as $70 a day ($45 for hostel bed, $25 for groceries).
Sightseeing and Entertainment: You’ll pay more in London for sights that charge admission than you will anywhere else in Europe. Fortunately, most of London’s best sights are free (although many request a donation), including the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. (For a list of free museums—and advice on saving money on sightseeing—see “Affording London’s Sights” on here.)
Figure on paying roughly $25-40 each for the major sights that charge admission (e.g., Westminster Abbey—$30, Tower of London—$40), $12-20 for guided walks, and $40 for bus tours and splurge experiences (plays range $25-100). An overall average of $50-60 a day works for most people. Don’t skimp here. After all, this category is the driving force behind your trip—you came to sightsee, enjoy, and experience London.
Shopping and Miscellany: Figure roughly $2 per postcard, $3 for tea or an ice-cream cone, and $6 per pint of beer. Shopping can vary in cost from nearly nothing to a small fortune. Good budget travelers find that this category has little to do with assembling a trip full of lifelong memories.
WHEN TO GO
July and August are peak season—my favorite time—with long days, the best weather, and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. Prices and crowds don’t go up in summer as dramatically in Britain as they do in much of Europe, except for holidays and festivals (listed in the appendix). Still, travelers during “shoulder season” (spring and fall) enjoy lower prices, smaller crowds, decent weather, and the full range of sights and tourist fun spots. London’s sights are more crowded on three-day weekends, especially Bank Holidays on the first and last Mondays in May, and the last Monday in August.
Winter travelers find fewer crowds and soft room prices, but shorter sightseeing hours. The weather can be cold and dreary, and nightfall draws the shades on sightseeing well before dinnertime. While England’s rural charm falls with the leaves, London sightseeing is fine in the winter, and is especially popular during the Christmas season. For more on planning a winter holiday visit, read “Winter Diversions” (in the Entertainment in London chapter).
Plan for rain no matter when you go. Just keep traveling and take full advantage of “bright spells.” The weather can change several times a day, but rarely is it extreme. As the locals say, “There’s no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Bring a jacket, and dress in layers. Temperatures below 32°F cause headlines, and days that break 80°F—while more common in recent years—are still infrequent in London. (For more information, see the climate chart in the appendix.) Weather-wise, July and August are not much better than shoulder months. May and June can be lovely. While sunshine may be rare, summer days are very long. The midsummer sun is up from 6:30 to 22:30. It’s not uncommon to have a gray day, eat dinner, and enjoy hours of sunshine afterward.
Before You Go
You’ll have a smoother trip if you tackle a few things ahead of time. For more information on these topics, see the Practicalities chapter (and www.ricksteves.com, which has helpful travel tips and talks).
Make sure your travel documents are valid. If your passport is due to expire within six months of your ticketed date of return, you need to renew it. Allow up to six weeks to renew or get a passport (www.travel.state.gov). While Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, it’s uncertain how a “Brexit” might affect travelers.
Arrange your transportation. Book your international flights. You won’t want a car in congested London, but if you’ll be touring the countryside beyond, figure out your main form of transportation: bus or train (and either a rail pass or individual train tickets), rental car, or a cheap flight. (You can wing it in Europe, but it may cost more.) If you’ll be taking the Eurostar train, consider buying your ticket in advance; for details, see the London Connections chapter.
Book rooms well in advance, especially if your trip falls during peak season or any major holidays or festivals.
Make reservations or buy tickets in advance for major sights or shows. For simplicity, I book plays while in London (but if you have your heart set on a hot show, buying tickets in advance is safer). For the current schedule, visit www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk. For more information, see the Entertainment in London chapter. You’ll also need to book ahead for the Harry Potter-themed Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Leavesden.
Prepurchasing tickets online can often save you about 10 percent on ticket prices—and a wait in the ticket-buying line—at the Churchill War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, London Eye, Windsor Castle, and Stonehenge. To visit the stones’ inner circle, book your visit as soon as you know the date you’ll be there.
Consider travel insurance. Compare the cost of the insurance to the cost of your potential loss. Check whether your existing insurance (health, homeowners, or renters) covers you and your possessions overseas.
Call your bank. Alert your bank that you’ll be using your debit and credit cards in Europe. Ask about transaction fees, and get the PIN number for your credit card. You don’t need to bring pounds for your trip; you can withdraw pounds from cash machines on arrival.
Use your smartphone smartly. Sign up for an international service plan to reduce your costs, or rely on Wi-Fi in Europe instead. Download any apps you’ll want on the road, such as maps, translators, transit schedules, and Rick Steves Audio Europe (see sidebar).
Pack light. You’ll walk with your luggage more than you think. I travel for weeks with a single carry-on bag and a daypack. Use the packing checklist in the appendix as a guide.
If you have a positive attitude, equip yourself with good information (this book), and expect to travel smart, you will.
Read—and reread—this book. To have an “A” trip, be an “A” student. Note opening hours of sights, closed days, crowd-beating tips, and whether reservations are required or advisable. Design an itinerary that enables you to visit sights at the best possible times. For example, don’t visit the historic neighborhood known as The City on a weekend when it’s completely dead if you can instead visit on a lively weekday. Check the latest at www.ricksteves.com/update.
Be your own tour guide. As you travel, get up-to-date info on sights, reserve tickets and tours, reconfirm hotels and travel arrangements, and check transit connections. Visit local tourist information offices (TIs). Upon arrival in a new place, lay the groundwork for a smooth departure; confirm the train, bus, or road you’ll take when you leave.
Outsmart thieves. Pickpockets abound in crowded places where tourists congregate. Treat commotions as smokescreens for theft. Keep your cash, credit cards, and passport secure in a money belt tucked under your clothes; carry only a day’s spending money in your front pocket. Don’t set valuable items down on counters or café tabletops, where they can be quickly stolen or easily forgotten.
Minimize potential loss. Keep expensive gear to a minimum. Bring photocopies or take photos of important documents (passport and cards) to aid in replacement if they’re lost or stolen. Back up photos and files frequently.
Guard your time and energy. Taking a taxi can be a good value if it saves you a long wait for a cheap bus or an exhausting walk across town. To avoid long lines, follow my crowd-beating tips, such as making advance reservations, or sightseeing early or late.
Be flexible. Even if you have a well-planned itinerary, expect changes, strikes, closures, sore feet, bad weather, and so on. Your Plan B could turn out to be even better.
Connect with the culture. Interacting with locals carbonates your experience. Enjoy the friendliness of the British people. Ask questions; most locals are happy to point you in their idea of the right direction. Set up your own quest for the best pub, silly sign, or chocolate bar. When an opportunity pops up, make it a habit to say “yes.”
London...here you come!
ORIENTATION TO LONDON
Map: London’s Neighborhoods
Map: London Map Overview
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Map: Greater London
ARRIVAL IN LONDON
GETTING AROUND LONDON
Map: Handy Bus Routes
Tours in London
▲▲▲BY HOP-ON, HOP-OFF DOUBLE-DECKER BUS
BY BUS OR CAR
▲▲BY CRUISE BOAT
London is more than 600 square miles of urban jungle—a world in itself and a barrage on all the senses. On my first visit, I felt extremely small. To grasp London more comfortably, see it as the old town in the city center without the modern, congested sprawl. (Even from that perspective, it’s still huge.)
The Thames River (pron. “tems”) runs roughly west to east through the city, with most sights on the North Bank. Mentally, maybe even physically, trim down your map to include only the area between the Tower of London (to the east), Hyde Park (west), Regent’s Park (north), and the South Bank (south). This is roughly the area bordered by the Tube’s Circle Line. This four-mile stretch between the Tower and Hyde Park (about a 1.5-hour walk) looks like a milk bottle on its side (see map on next page), and holds 80 percent of the sights mentioned in this book.
With a core focus and a good orientation, you’ll get a sampling of London’s top sights, history, and cultural entertainment, and a good look at its ever-changing human face.
The sprawling city becomes much more manageable if you think of it as a collection of neighborhoods.
Central London: This area contains Westminster and what Londoners call the West End. The Westminster district includes Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace—the grand government buildings from which Britain is ruled. Trafalgar Square, London’s gathering place, has many major museums. The West End is the center of London’s cultural life, with bustling squares: Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square host cinemas, tourist traps, and nighttime glitz. Soho and Covent Garden are thriving people zones with theaters, restaurants, pubs, and boutiques. And Regent and Oxford streets are the city’s main shopping zones.
North London: Neighborhoods in this part of town—including Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, and Marylebone—contain such major sights as the British Museum and the overhyped Madame Tussauds Waxworks. Nearby, along busy Euston Road, is the British Library, plus a trio of train stations (one of them, St. Pancras International, is linked to Paris by the Eurostar “Chunnel” train).
The City: Today’s modern financial district, called simply “The City,” was a walled town in Roman times. Gleaming skyscrapers are interspersed with historical landmarks such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, legal sights (Old Bailey), and the Museum of London. The Tower of London and Tower Bridge lie at The City’s eastern border.
East London: Just east of The City is the East End—the former stomping ground of Cockney ragamuffins and Jack the Ripper, and now an increasingly gentrified neighborhood of hipsters, “pop-up” shops, and an emerging food scene (especially in the Shoreditch neighborhood).
The South Bank: The South Bank of the Thames River offers major sights (Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, London Eye, Imperial War Museum) linked by a riverside walkway. Within this area, Southwark (SUTH-uck) stretches from the Tate Modern to London Bridge. Pedestrian bridges connect the South Bank with The City and Trafalgar Square.
West London: This huge area contains neighborhoods such as Mayfair, Belgravia, Pimlico, Chelsea, South Kensington, and Notting Hill. It’s home to London’s wealthy and has many trendy shops and enticing restaurants. Here you’ll find a range of museums (Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain, and more), my top hotel recommendations, lively Victoria Station, and the vast green expanses of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
Outside the Center: The Docklands, London’s version of Manhattan, is farther east than the East End; Olympic Park is just north of the Docklands. Historic Greenwich is southeast of London and across the Thames. Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace are southwest of London. North of London is Hampstead Heath and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for Harry Potter fans.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
The following day plans offer suggestions for how to maximize your sightseeing, depending on how much time you have. For itinerary considerations on a day-by-day basis, check the “Daily Reminder” later in this chapter. You won’t be able to see everything, so don’t try. You’ll keep coming back to London. After dozens of visits myself, I still enjoy a healthy list of excuses to return.
London in One, Two, or Three Busy Days
Use my Westminster Walk to link the following sights:
|9:00||Be in line at Westminster Abbey (opens at 9:30, closed Sun) to tour the place with fewer crowds.|
|11:00||Visit the Churchill War Rooms.|
|13:00||Eat lunch at the Churchill War Rooms café or nearby, or grab a later lunch near Trafalgar Square.|
|15:00||Visit the National Gallery and any nearby sights that interest you (National Portrait Gallery or St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church).|
|Evening||Dinner and a play in the West End.|
|8:30||Take a double-decker hop-on, hop-off London sightseeing bus tour (from Victoria Station or Green Park).|
|10:00||Hop off at Trafalgar Square and walk briskly to Buckingham Palace to secure a spot to watch the Changing of the Guard.|
|11:00||Buckingham Palace (guards change most days May-July and Sun, Mon, Wed, and Fri in Aug-April—confirm online).|
|14:00||After lunch, tour the British Museum.|
- On Sale
- Feb 13, 2024
- Page Count
- 600 pages
- Rick Steves