Answers from Our Experts (4)
What you really need, before you throw yourself into a city, are a few conversation starters. You'll get more out of a visit if you can tap into some local knowledge. But where to begin in London?
Here are a few ideas for your next trip:
Londoners love to complain about the weather. It's either too hot or too cold; too wet or mid-drought; too windy or too still. You'll find most Londoners react with a degree of exasperation, and perhaps a look to the heavens. But you can cheer them up with a bit of weather trivia: it actually rains more each year in Milan or Sydney than it does in London, according to data gathered by weatherbase.com.
First up, there is no "London team". Don't fall into that newbie trap. In fact, there's nothing likely to provoke a fan's ire more than a stranger expressing admiration for the neighbours. Arsenal versus Tottenham is the major North London event (the "derby", with the "e" pronounced like an "a", unlike in Kentucky). Tottenham fans are not much loved in West Ham. Fans of West Ham share with those of Fulham a distinct lack of love for Chelsea. QPR fans likewise. In fact, apart from Chelsea fans, nobody likes Chelsea. Of course, there's a bit of leeway for visitors to make the odd faux pas…
It could be "leaves on the line". It might be "the wrong kind of snow". Londoners have heard a fair crop of excuses for why the train hasn't turned up. In fact, the Underground's unreliability is a bit of a myth. But one thing's for sure: if you're running a little late, nobody will raise an eyebrow if you blame "delays on the Central Line". And remember, if you have the right London travel apps, you needn't be delayed at all.
Here are three very useful things you should know before visiting London:
1. It takes a long time to get around
London is the most populated city in the EU by a country mile – more than twice as crowded as second-placed Berlin – and is one of the world’s biggest business and tourist destinations. So whether you’re traversing the city by Tube, bus or on foot, prepare for it to be slow going.
2. The museums are enormous
It is common knowledge that London is a museum capital, with more than 250 permanent exhibitions within the city limits, but what many visitors fail to realize is the sheer scale of some of them. Three of London’s most visited museums – The British Museum, The National Gallery and the Natural History Museum – have a combined collection of around 80 million items, so if you want to see a fraction of them you'll need to leave yourself plenty of time.
3. The weather is unpredictable
While the cliché that it always rains in London is a little unfair (believe it or not, Milan has more annual rainfall) it’s true that the weather in the British capital can change several times in a single day. The trick is to be prepared for every eventuality - pack both an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses - and don’t let the weather rule your day.
You’re coming to London and you’re excited about it. But before you arrive, there are a couple of things you should know.
First, there are practical concerns to think about. London is enormous, but the centre of town is actually quite compact and the best way of getting around is therefore either on foot or by bike. Walking is easiest – and you’ll be helped along by the blue and yellow signposts of the Legible London scheme – but cycling allows you to cover greater distances in a shorter time. You can hire the famous Boris bikes (named for London Mayor Boris Johnson, under whose tenure they were introduced) for short periods and drop them off at docking points across the city. If you’re planning on using public transport, it’s wise to get an Oyster Card, as cash journeys are prohibitively expensive. Charge it up and then use it to pay for travel across the transport network.
Which brings me neatly to my next point: there’s lots of London to explore, so don’t just stick to the centre of town. Areas such as Highgate and Hampstead in north London, Dalston in east London, Brixton and Dulwich down south and Richmond in the west have all got a unique character that you won’t find elsewhere. London is really just a series of villages with overlapping boundaries, so to get a proper sense of the place, you need to do some travelling.
Finally, a word about Londoners themselves. It’s not that we’re grumpy by nature, it’s just that living surrounded by so many millions of busy people tends to bring out a certain brusqueness that visitors from elsewhere may not be accustomed to. So don’t take it personally if we don’t smile, say hello or ask you how you are. We’re lovely when you get to know us.
London can be the greatest city in the world; but it can also be the most frustrating. Here are a few points to bear in mind for your visit to make it as pleasant as possible:
Once you are in the city centre, walking is by far the best way to get around. Bear in mind though that distances between attractions can be huge and so comfortable, practical shoes are a must if you plan to get around on two legs - as are plenty of pitstops! The tube is an excellent way to travel but avoid rush hours (before 9.30am and between 5pm and 7pm) if at all possible. Use the online Journey Planner to plan your journey (there's also an app). Keep to the right on escalators and move along the platform away from the entrances to avoid incurring the wrath of busy locals!
It rains in London all the time, right? Actually, no. London gets less rain than Rome or Paris, not to mention the rest of the UK, and short, sharp showers are far more common than prolonged drizzle. Pack an umbrella and then forget about it - the weather is unlikely to do any harm to your trip.
Food in London is varied, plentiful and not as expensive as you might imagine. However, costs can rack up if you aren't careful. A good tip is to eat your main meal in the middle of the day. Many of the top restaurants offer cut-price fixed menus for lunch and you are more likely to be able to get a table as a walk-in.
Pubs make a great choice for a simple dinner, though try to pick one where locals are eating to avoid tourist traps, particularly in the West End where mediocre pubs are - in my opinion - largely to blame for the poor reputation of London's food abroad! Reservations are recommended in well-known or popular restaurants and on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Londoners like a drink and pubs and bars will be very busy most evenings, especially on Friday nights when the weekend gets started for most people with a few after-work drinks. If you don't like crowded bars, spending a little more per drink will often buy you a quieter environment and hotel bars can be a good choice. But pubs are an integral part of our culture and no visit to London is complete without joining the locals at the bar one evening.
Tipping is less ubiquitous in London than it is in America, but is more customary than it is in many other places, and there are some important rules to bear in mind. Taxi drivers should be tipped by rounding up the fare slightly. In restaurants, 10% is a standard tip, and increasingly 12.5% is added on automatically as a service charge; it is not necessary to tip in addition to this. Tips are not expected in pubs but are appreciated when ordering food - just add 10% or so to the bill.