A spot of tea and nod to the Queen is all well and proper but for the real London, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. From dodgy to posh, London has plenty to leave everyone chuffed — reinvented British cuisine, stellar cocktails, and plenty of historical gems to keep grandma occupied. Grab that brolly on the way out.
London is all about the pomp and pageantry. The British empire's crown jewel has produced (sometimes excessively) every possible facet of arts over the centuries: from groundbreaking literature to timeless theater and enough rock bands to keep us wailing for generations to come. Helmed by the royal family, London is steeped in history far beyond its city limits — and it knows how to celebrate this achievement, too. But behind the royal veil, there is a hipper London that exists to the East, where trendsetters are making a name for themselves through art, cuisine, and music. The resurgence led by a cohort of millennials has helped revitalize once dodgy areas that attract countless tourists today, and keep the city a living, breathing, global hub. London does a lot of things exceptionally well, including the afternoon tea. But most importantly, this 2,000-year-old settlement knows how to honor the old, while still making room for — and embracing — the new.
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British author Alfred Wainwright once said, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing." That pretty much sums London's unpredictable weather: quotidian gray skies and incessant drizzles — you're either prepared for it or not. But don't fret, there is the occasional sunny, warm day in the City as well. Spring (March-May) tends to see London at its most colorful, with resplendent green parks and blooms reaching a high peak. Temperatures are mild and optimal, with the expected showers. Warmer temperatures, price surges, and thickening crowds arrive between June and September. Summers won't get too oppressive or humid, as temperatures typically hover around 73F/22C, but it is not uncommon to see a spike into the high 90s/over 32C. Carry around a light jacket for chilly summer nights.
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The charming fall foliage attracts visitors to London in the autumn. The season is highlighted with events like London Fashion Week and Guy Fawkes Night that take place between mid-September and November. Mild temperatures (50sF/~10-12C) make sightseeing pleasant, too. While you can save a pound or two by visiting between January and February — considered the low season — keep in mind that December holidays attract major crowds to London's celebrated Christmas markets and events. Temperatures are milder than some European countries but cold enough for hats, gloves, and scarves. As always, keep handy your brolly because you're likely to see more rain than snow during London's winters.
The Underground (Tube)
An extensive underground railway system, also known as the Tube, is one of the most efficient ways of traveling around London. The Underground is made of 11 lines divided into nine zones. Zone 1 covers central London, while zones 6 through 9 are on the outskirts of the city. Although it varies from line to line, typical Tube services operate between 5am and midnight Mondays through Saturdays, with reduced operation on Sundays. Currently, five lines run a 24-hour service on Fridays and Saturdays (Piccadilly, Northern, Jubilee, Central, and Victoria lines). Off-peak prices apply to the Night Tube. Otherwise, peak fares are Monday to Friday between 6:30am and 9:30am and 4pm to 7pm, except on public holidays.
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The fare depends on how far you travel and the time of day you're traveling. To determine the fare, we must first understand the various payment options which affect the final price:
Docklands Light Railway & Overground
The famed red, double decker buses are so iconic to London that it would be a pity not to ride one. Service generally runs from 5:00am to 12:30am, while some bus routes run 24-hours on Fridays and Saturday; others run 24-hours seven days a week. Fares are a flat rate of £1.50. Passes are available, including a 1-day pass (£5), 7-day (£21.20), 1-month (£81.50), and an annual pass (£848). There is a 1-day bus only cap for Oyster & Contactless Payment Cards (£4.50), meaning if you've reached that amount in one day, the rest of your rides that day are free. All London buses are cashless, so purchase your Oyster card in advance, use a contactless card, a bus pass, or Travelcard to enter. Transfer to a second bus for free within one hour of touching your contactless or Oyster card on the first bus.
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London also offers trams that run in certain parts of the city including Wimbledon, and river bus and river tour for commuters and sightseers. River boats generally run every 20 minutes on the weekdays and every 30 on weekends, and tickets can be purchased either at the pier, onboard, or by using Oyster/contactless cards on Thame Clippers. The system is part of the London fare zone. Lastly, you can take the sights on two wheels with Santander Cycles. Access bikes at a docking station using your credit or debit card for £2; journeys longer than 30 minutes cost an additional £2 for every 30 minutes.
The black cabs, known as Hackney carriages, are also available for hire. They are metered and start at a minimum of £2.60. Benefits of hailing a black cab: all cars are wheelchair accessible, can have an assistance dog at no charge, and are allowed to access bus lanes during traffic, which could speed up your travel. That being said, if bus lanes are congested, the fare tends to get pricey quickly.
Major ride hailing services like Uber are popular here. As always, Uber provides a fixed price depending on distance and demand. Note that Lyft is currently not available in the UK, but there are other ride hailing apps including Gett UK, Addison Lee, and TaxiApp UK. Still unsure on how to get from point A to B? Plan your journey here for the best transport results. Or opt for the CityMapper app, a favorite among locals, which even has a rain safe option that'll keep you from out of the rain during your journey.
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The British pound is the official currency. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but it's not a bad idea to keep some bills on hand for small transactions or for picking up the tab at the rare cash-only establishment. Britain's version of cents are called pence. Pence are oftentimes called "p" (pronounced "pee") and written out "10 pounds and 50 p." "Quid" is slang for pound, a "fiver" is a five pound bill, and a "tenner" is 10 pounds. The smallest paper note you can get is five pounds; £1 and £2 come in coins, as does 50p, 20p, 5p, 2p, and 1p.
Although English is the official language of this mighty island nation, there are a few differences between American and British English that might have you lost in translation. Here are some phrases that'll help you speak like (or understand) a local:
British cuisine has accrued many labels over the years: bland, tasteless, and uninventive — the typical image of meat pies, mushy peas, and gravies come to mind. But the Brits, resilient as they are, have come a long way since wartime rationing, and nowhere can you find a better celebration of this than in London. The city has undergone an evolution so drastic that the result is a food landscape that is unrecognizable from just thirty years ago. Notable chefs have not only opened award-wining restaurants but unstuffy, approachable establishments that attract even those least likely to go out for dinner. Other factors revitalized Londoners' interest in food, including increased use of local produce amid the mad cow disease scares of the the 1990s, and the rise of the ever popular cooking shows that have put so many celebrity chefs on the map.
This food renaissance has stretched outside of Central London and into the less commercialized neighborhoods to London's East, including Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. You will still find much of the fine dining in Soho, Covent Garden, or West End, but no matter where you're bound geographically, London has moved past the days of stodgy puddings. These days you can find everything from upscale take away to molecular gastronomy, Mediterranean, Basque, Indian — a cuisine that has become synonymous with the United Kingdom in itself— and supper clubs.
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Despite all the epicurean innovations, some things remain sacrosanct. For starters, drinking a pint of ale at a pub (short for public house) is still one of the most quintessential English experiences you can have. The legend has it the first pub was a Roman wine bar in 43 AD. Over the years the concept saw many iterations: from alehouses and taverns, which served food and drink, to inns, which provided travelers with accommodations. During that time wine was phased out as the native brew and pubs became the center of community life across Great Britain. You can still visit some of the oldest pubs in London, which date back before Shakespeare, and others that have survived the Great Fire and World Wars.
Markets are also paramount to British culture. Many of the markets that sprinkle London's streets today originated during the Middle Ages. They have come a long way, serving everything from fried chicken and vegan tacos, to artisanal breads and works by local artists. Borough Market is one of the biggest and also one of the most expensive. The crowds and lines can get big, but whatever you're in the market for (pun intended), you're sure to find it here. While many of the markets carry an array of items, some are dedicated to selling select products, like Smithfield Market, which specializes in meats and poultry, as well as cheeses. From Brick Lane to Maltby Street and Camden to Broadway, you'll never have to set foot inside a Tesco again.
Afternoon tea is a fairly new tradition that began in 1840 with the seventh Duchess of Bedford. What started as a need for an afternoon snack became a social event 40 years later. Today, afternoon tea consists of finger sandwiches (including the sliced cucumber sandwich), scones with jam and cream, small cakes and pastries, and of course, the tea. While donning floor length dresses and gloves are no longer necessary, many hotels across London do offer afternoon tea services that require a more sophisticated dress code than jeans.
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And while more than enough has been written expounding upon English staples like the English breakfast, fish & chips, and the Sunday Roast, a visit to London without sampling at least one of them isn't really much of a visit at all.
Americans and Brits sometimes use different words to describe foods. Here are a few to keep in mind when eating out:
Good to know:
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There is no better place to start a British shopping spree than at Harrods in Knightsbridge. The shopping emporium was founded in 1849 and continues to bring the latest designer fashions to the London masses. The luxury department store is so large that it claims to have its own postal code! If you can't make your wallet stretch far enough to shop here, come for the window displays and twinkling lights during the holiday season. The bustling main drag of Oxford Street in Mayfair seems tempting, but skip it. Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury is a better option, thanks to its wealth of curio stores and old-timey, Dickensian charm. Persephone Books, which specializes in new and lost writing by women authors, is a must.
Portobello Road in Notting Hill may get all the praise for its collection of boho chic shops, but Golborne Road in North Kensington promises less people and the same quality finds: antique furnitures at Phoenix, rare vintage at Rellik, or original and out-there home goods at Universal Providers. Trendy Shoreditch is another trove in the East End that's giving the mecca shops of the West End a run for their money. Its got everything from Parisian label APC to avant-garde morning suits at Hostem and functional kitchenware at Labour and Wait. The Brick Lane flea market will fulfill your bric-a-brac needs, from clothing to second-hand furniture to kitsch collectables you never knew you needed.
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Many of London's museums are free or donation based, meaning there is little to no excuse why you shouldn't visit at least one. Admirers of decorative arts head to South Kensington to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art and Design (with also has mini pet cemetery in the back!), while science lovers dabble in seven floors of hands-on activities at the Science Museum. The beloved life and earth science collection of the Natural History Museum is not to be missed. More than 80 million artifacts are stored inside a building that could easily be mistaken for a cathedral. In nearby Kensington, the Design Museum, which explores contemporary design and architecture, attracts lovers of all things minimalism (and recently won one of the most prestigious museum awards in Europe).
The mother of all London museums is the National Gallery located in Trafalgar Square (St. James's). The space, founded in 1824, houses more than 2,300 paintings that span the 13th to 19th centuries, with heavy hitters that include Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Diego Velázquez's "Rokeby Venus." You can also dedicate an entire day at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, with its gargantuan collection of some eight million artifacts, art, and other cultural pieces, including the Rosetta Stone. In Bankside sits the Tate Modern (one of four in the Tate network), an electricity generating station turned modern art museum. For contemporary art, head to Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Keep in mind that although admission is free to most museums, there may be a charge for special exhibitions.
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There are over 400 green spaces in London to date; royal parks alone make up eight of these, five of which are located in central London. This means you don't have to travel far to get some nature into your day. Sandwiched between Mayfair and Kensington, Hyde Park spans 350 acres with a famous lake known as the Serpentine, a lido for public swimming, concert venues, and plenty of walking paths and picnic spots. To the northeast sits Regent's Park, bordered by St. John's Wood and Marylebone. The park is home to a rose garden with about 30,000 rose variations, plush trees, and a lake, making it a countryside oasis in the middle of London. Come summer, catch plays at the open air-theater in the Queen Mary's gardens or bring the kids to the ZSL London Zoo. Primrose Hill in the northern part of the park is a major contender for best picnic spot in all of London. Victoria Park in Tower Hamlet is one of the oldest public parks in the city. Albeit not a fussy green space, the park offers beautiful walking paths and a bathing pond popular amongst anglers. To the northwest is Hampstead Heath, the nearly 800-acre green space, with Parliament Hill giving way to one of the best views of the city. It's rumored that CS Lewis based Narnia on this natural expanse.
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Whatever you do, avoid all West End clubs — they'll be packed with tourists and they're nothing short of expensive. As an alternative start in Camden Town, which has its roots in the punk and techno music scenes. A hub for counterculture, Camden hosts a slew of nightclubs, live music venues, and pubs, and has been the playground for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty, and the band Oasis. End your visit at the acclaimed World's End, arguably one of the largest pubs in Europe.
Trendy Shoreditch is a de facto hub for all things nightlife in London, and its East End, industrial feels set the atmosphere for a good night out. You can dance until 4am in the two-floor nightclub XOYO, party on the rooftop at the Queen of Hoxton, or jam out inside Flight Club, which is styled after a 20th century gentlemen's club. Once the epicenter of the sex industry in the 20th century, Soho has eclipsed its seedy past to become one of the biggest neighborhoods for entertainment in London. Cabarets abound in Soho so get ready for plenty of chandeliers, disco balls, and outlandish acts. If you don't vibe with acrobatics and glitter, try the many upscale drinking holes for a cocktail or two.
It's clear when visiting, that Brixton, the "new Shoreditch" and birthplace of David Bowie, that the neighborhood was influenced by the glam rocker. Today, Brixton is jam-packed with enough entertainment to keep you out well into the early hours of the morning — some clubs are opened until 7am. Dance to a lineup of resident and visiting DJs or chill on a terrace at The Prince of Wales; there's also a massive dance floor at the famous O2 Brixton Academy, once a 1920s cinema, now a stage for big-name acts.
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For those looking to take things down a notch, London offers a handful of urban oases in the center of the city. Kensington, for one, attracts the upper echelons of London society, including the royal family who hold a residence in Kensington Palace. The neighborhood is packed with fine dining establishments, acclaimed museums and art galleries, and a luscious park attached to the palace grounds. Once a colony for Victorian artists, Chelsea is now a playground of the rich and famous. River views, celebrity chef restaurants, and major institutions, including the Saatchi Gallery and the National Army Museum, are just a few highlights.
If you have a few pounds to spare, opt for a stay in Knightsbridge or Belgravia. You can spend your pretty pennies (or pence) at superstores like Harrods and Harvey Nics, swanky Michelin-starred restaurants, and a stay at some of the city's most prestigious hotels. Charming Notting Hill is quiet enough for a relaxing stay but with plenty to do when you get your second wind. This stomping ground for the rich features Victorian townhouses, hip cafes, high-end boutiques, the famous flea market along Portobello Road, and an annual street carnival (one of Europe's biggest).
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For families looking to stay in central London, you have plenty of options to chose from: Covent Garden, Soho, and Mayfair are located within walking distance or quick Tube ride away from some of the city's major attractions. Covent Garden especially delivers with its myriad of restaurant options, from inexpensive Indian to fine dining tasting menus. There is also a phenomenal theater scene in this area along with its proximity to sights including the National Gallery. A stay in the neighborhood of Mayfair means you're close to the annual Christmas festival, Winter Wonderland, at Hyde Park. Or opt for Marylebone, which puts you steps away from Madame Tussaud's and the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
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