I’ve been to London about 10 times in the past 26 years and find it one of the very best places to visit in the world. It’s loaded with history, museums, interesting walks and some of the nicest people in the world. Recently I spoke with a friend who’s worked for an airline for 30 years. Yet, he’s never been to London because they were uncertain about getting around, the different foods, customs, money, etc. I told her, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the USA and England are “two nations divided by a common language”. Beyond a few different words and the accents, Britain and the USA have much in common. It is perhaps the easiest country to visit for this reason. Below you will find a London Guide that outlines everything you’d want to know about the destination.
Weather in London
London’s weather has few extremes, as the average high in January is 47 degrees and 75 degrees in July. Despite its reputation for rainy weather, London gets less rain each year than Minneapolis and Boston. A friend moved there in the summer of 1980 and related the following story: After enjoying several beautiful summer days with no humidity and highs in the low-80’s, he picked up a local paper and saw the following headline: “Heat-wave Continues! No End In Sight!”. Few homes have AC. The English simply aren’t used to warm weather.
London is as far north as Edmonton (Canada), and as such has long days in the summer and short days in the winter. Sunny days are far more common in the summer months, though I’ve always found non-reving in the summer much more difficult because the flights tend to be full then. I have lucked out on several occasions and been in England for as long as 10 days in a row in the winter without seeing a drop of rain…but then again, on several trips it was gloomy and rainy every day without fail. But there’s enough to do so it hardly matters…
London was a Roman city called “Londinium” that was originally settled almost 2000 years ago around 50 AD. By 2nd century AD, it boasted a population of 60,000 and was the capital of Roman Britain. After the Roman Empire fell, the city declined and was all but abandoned by 800 AD. The Normans invaded England in 1066 and soon moved the capital and royal court form Winchester to London. As England’s empire grew, so did the size and power of the city. Most of medieval London burned in 1666. Only the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey were spared. Consequently, the city was rebuilt using a city plan with wider streets and parks. London’s population exploded from 1 million people in 1800 to 6.5 million in 1900 to 8 million today. The city became and still is one of the world’s foremost financial capitals and tourist destinations.
Getting to London
My first visits to London was via Gatwick Airport, about 35 miles south of London. It now costs 32 pounds to take the Gatwick Express train to Victoria Station in central London. This is where you can get on the London “Underground” affectionately called “the tube”. The last 5 years I’ve flown into Heathrow Airport, 15 miles west of downtown London. I’d consider this airport to be a much better alternative to Gatwick because the tube goes from Heathrow to London. The tube costs about 8 pounds a day with unlimited rides. Getting cash in London is easy, as you can find cash machines the moment you get to the airport.
NOTE: Like most big cities, London has those that prey on tourists. On our first trip in 1987 my sister-in-law had her bag stolen right out from under our noses at Victoria Station, so keep a close eye on your belongings.
Getting Around in London
The tube is the oldest and arguably, the best subway system in the world. It’s unimaginable to envision London without it. When you first get to a tube station, I recommend getting an “Oyster” card for 3 pounds. You can add money to it and have the money is deducted when you enter or exit a tube station. If you have money left on it, the card will work for many years later for when you visit again. Before your trip, I recommend finding a London tube map online. Printing a map and bringing it along will prove extremely beneficial during your travels.
Riding the Tube
The tube is occasionally crowded, especially during rush hour or peak shopping times. On our first trip in 1987, we got on a train near Harrod’s department store and a large crowd squeezed in. We were squished together for a few minutes. I ended up face-to-face with my sister-in-law. We were squeezed together so tightly, I joked that I’d been closer to her during those 5 minutes than I’d ever been with my wife!
Using Taxis in London
Above ground taxi’s are expensive. I’ve never once taken one. Also, buses can be jammed and slowed to a crawl by traffic. Given the availability of the Metro, I’d advise to use it as your sole means of transportation.
Where to Stay in London
I usually stay west of central London in the Paddington, West Kensington, Gloucester Road or Earl’s Court area. You can find great hotel deals using ID90 Travel. Keep in mind, London is a fairly expensive city to visit and $100 or more for a 3-star hotel is typically a good deal. Make sure you make note of the closest tube stop to your hotel. It’s nice to be close to a tube stop, but too close can be a problem. In one case I was almost on top of the station and could hear and feel the trains underneath the hotel.
Many hotels include a “full English Breakfast” with the room. This usually includes eggs, bacon (more like ham), toast, beans, a fried tomato, mushrooms, and cereal. The meal comes out to about 8-10 pounds. When shopping for hotels, make sure to use the ID90 Travel amenity filter to ensure your hotel comes with breakfast.
Mueseums in London
London has so much to do that you could write about book about it, and many have. Depending upon the weather and how long you visit you’ll want to have some “inside days” planned because London is not necessarily known for its nice, sunny weather: Bring an umbrella no matter what and plan for some rain or drizzle. And go to some of the world’s greatest museums, several of which I’d strongly recommend:
The British Museum
Northeast of the Holborn tube stop, you will find the British Museum. This is considered the best museum in Britain and perhaps one of the best in the world. I’ve visited the museum several times. Each time, I end up walking around for hours. It’s amazing to view unique items such as the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian, Roman and Greek statues, relics from the middle east and around the world. Oh, did I mention it’s free?
Oddly enough, more than half of what you’ll find in the British Museum is not British at all. Rather, it was collected and brought to Britain during the height of British imperial power. You can also find a copy of the Magna Carta, the Lindow Man and other British historical artifacts.
The National Gallery
Overlooking Trafalgar Square, just south of the Leicester Square tube stop, you’ll find Britain’s finest art museum. Also free, it houses many of Britain’s best works of art. Not to mention, it usually has visiting shows. I’d recommend visiting the National Gallery for a couple hours.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
A few blocks northeast of South Kensington tube stop, you’ll find another great museum filled with art, artifacts and English cultural items. Some exhibits have a charge, but otherwise, it’s free. If you’re in the area, the Natural History Museum is also across the street.
London has a large theater district with dozens of shows on stage on any given day. The quality rivals Broadway at less than half the price. And the price gets even better if you buy tickets on the day of the performance from a “half price ticket store”. You’ll find many of these stores in the Leicester Square area. I have gone there in the morning and bought tickets for a show that evening several times.
Pubs and Resturants in London
As you might expect, London has quite a few pubs. Many thousands to be sure. I have always made sure to visit as many pubs as possible when in London. Enjoy tasting beers you can’t fin in the USA. The atmosphere and character of the typical English pub alone is worth the trip to London.
The Beer in London
You may have heard that people drink warm beer in England. This is categorically not true! The English have cask ales, or beers drawn up with a hand pump and therefore less carbonated. These beers are stored at “cellar temperature”, which is to say around 50-54 degrees. This is not ice cold, but definitely not warm. Ale lovers will tell you if a beer’s too cold, it has little taste. I have to tell you though, English ales are as tasty as they come. You can find other beers (on tap or in a bottle/can) refrigerated like in the USA.
Pubs are an integral part of the social fabric in England. People meet at pubs on a regular basis and act as the primary social gathering spot for many. Others watch football (soccer), play darts and enjoy those around them. Don’t be surprised if someone strikes up a conversation if they notice your American accent. The food, often maligned, is generally very good with pub dishes like shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and liver and onions.
Parks and Walking Around in London
If the weather is nice (note this is a big “if”, especially in the winter), I have always taken advantage of that rarity in London to walk through some of its wonderful parks, including Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park and James Park. Bring your walking shoes and enjoy a park stroll while you’re there, or you can walk along the Thames River near Parliament and see the scenery and the ever-changing architecture of central London.
Along the Thames you can take a ride on the “London Eye”, a 450 tall Ferris wheel with passenger “capsules” that carry passengers on one revolution that is across the river from Big Ben and Parliament and affords a great view of central London for 20 pounds. And just last year “The Shard” opened, an 87 story building with an observation deck 804 feet up that is the highest in the European Union, which costs 25 pounds.
The London Tower
I have to recommend seeing the Tower of London, which is found near the Tower Hill tube stop. The oldest part of the building, “White Tower” was started by William the Conqueror in 1080, and the rest of the castle was added on over the centuries. And though admission isn’t cheap (over 21 pounds now), it’s a place that must be seen at least once in your life. You get a tour guided by one of the protectors of the tower (called Yeoman Warders…think Beefeater), which is well worth it and part of the charm of the place. And you get to see the British crown jewels…when was the last time you saw a 530 carat diamond?
Train Trips in London
From London you can easily take a day-trip by train to any number of places in southern England such as Cambridge, Oxford, Windsor, Canterbury, Winchester, etc. I have traveled to Cambridge (about an hour by train) for a day and found it quite easy to do, though train travel isn’t cheap. (Driving is an entirely different thing in England and I will leave that for a separate blog.)
I have twice travelled to London and taken the “chunnel” train for about $100 (one way) to Paris…if the circumstances work out you should consider that because the airport departure tax from England is about $100 more than in Paris. This means that you fly to London, see it for X days, take the chunnel to Paris, see it for Y days, then return from Paris for about the same price as just returning from London. (A Paris blog will be forthcoming.)
Ruturning to London
To really see London I believe you have to be there for at least a couple of weeks. I have been there for a total of 35 days in the past 26 years and feel like I’ve only the scratched the surface, not to mention that there are many places I enjoy seeing more than once. So plan on returning, because you’re going to want to come back for more…it’s simply a great city. And there are many other places to visit, including Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Notting Hill, Piccadilly Circus, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and dozens more.
About The Writer
Bill Peck just turned 60, though his wife Cindy says he doesn’t look a day over 59. He is a native of Williamstown, Mass., and holds a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Union College. Bill’s parents gave him his love of travel, and by the time he was 17, Bill had been to 14 states and 10 countries as a ‘revenue traveler.’
In 1987 Bill and his wife were hired by Northwest Airlines in the IT division to work on their computer systems. Bill left after 2 years for other IT opportunities, but his wife remained there through the merger with Delta, and retired in 2010. As such he has been a frequent and avid non-rev flier on NWA and DL ever since.
Bill has traveled to England and Europe over 30 times in the past 27 years, as well as Asia (5 times) and New Zealand. His many trips include a dozen cruises (3 in Europe) and he has nothing but memorable experiences from his journeys that have included now over 30 countries. He started summarizing his trips with detailed “trip reports” to his extended family about 10 years ago; fortunately most of his family still talks to him in spite of this.
Author: Roger Ximenez
Roger Ximenez is the Director of Product at ID90 Travel. He has over 5+ years experience working alongside engineering teams to build the next generation of features. He is also the data and automation evangelist, promoting the use of data to streamline automation strategies.