Must-See's in London

2014-11-16 10.55.00.jpgOverview

For North Americans, London, while big and chaotic, offers a wonderful, comfortable familiarity that can't be found anywhere else in Europe. The people speak an English you can almost understand. The food is good, and it's different without being overly exotic (and it's served with good quantities of beer and cider). Their history ties in and blends so nicely with ours. And despite their reputation as being formal and proper, Londoners know how to have a tongue-in-cheek good time.

London is chock-full of things to see and do, but it's very expensive. It's a great starting point for many North Americans starting a vacation in Europe because it's an hour or more closer than most other European destinations. And with two major intercontinental airports (Gatwick and Heathrow) and four more regional continental airports (Standsted, Luton, City, and Southend), London often serves as your transportation hub for all of Europe. More than likely, you'll see London at the beginning or ending of your trip (perhaps both): plan at least three days. More if you really want to experience London.

What to See in London

2014-11-17 11.44.21.jpgLondon is the capital of the United Kingdom and the capital of what's left of the globe-spanning British Empire. History is at the core of all to see in the UK in general, and London is the historical epicenter for Britain. Spend an hour or so just wandering around Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. Stroll by 10 Downing Street on your way to St James Park. Walk the length of the park on your way to Buckingham Palace. This is a great and easy walk to do the day you arrive, jet-lagged, in London and you haven't spent a pound sterling yet. And if you time it just right, you might get to see the changing of the guards at the Palace (11:30, but to get anywhere near the fence to actually see something, try to arrive around 11:00). If you have time, go on to Hyde Park, after which you'll probably be ready to find a pub (see Where to Eat in London below).

2014-11-16 15.50.05.jpgIf museum-going is your thing, London's biggies are free. For history, make the British Museum a priority (especially the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian rooms). For dinosaur bones and stuffed animals, hit the Natural History Museum (also a great way to entertain kids of all ages). For decorative arts and a touch of history, including an excellent collection of 16th to 19th century musical instruments, the Victoria and Albert (adjacent to the Natural History Museum) is worth an hour or two. For portraits of monarchs and historical figures see the National Gallery, and for modern art go to the Tate Modern. Finally, the Tower of London, though not free, is worth a visit, especially for history buffs and for a glimpse of the Crown Jewels. 

For churches, London has several of interest, but the must-see's are Westminster Abbey (mentioned above as a walk-by) and Saint Paul's Cathedral. Both are Church of England landmarks, and both charge entry unless you're there specifically to attend service. There's no charge to attend a service, but your access will be limited to where the service is being offered. If you've never seen Westminster Abbey before, it's especially worth the admission fee just to see the who's-who of famous people buried in the floor, from Queen Elizabeth I to Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens to Winston Churchill. The lines, however, can be dishearteningly long: either go first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.

2014-11-18 15.46.58.jpgWe have two top must-see recommendations for London: go see a show, and take a walking tour or two. London's "West End" is like "Broadway" to New York. It's full of theatres offering, well, "Broadway" shows. Even if you're not into big lavish musicals, you'll find a show to suit your tastes. A week or more before you arrive, find out what's playing and create your short list. Plan to attend mid-week, and the day you're thinking of attending, go first thing to the theatre's ticket office and ask for any specials. If you're attending a current or popular show, understand that special deals just won't be offered. Our other must-see recommendation is to take a London Walk. We like London Walks, especially the Jack the Ripper Tour (there's also an understandably popular Harry Potter Tour walk); just show up at the designated place and at the appointed day and time with cash in hand.

Where to Stay in London

Unfortunately we don't have any specific, strong recommendations for lodging in London. The hotel we stayed at on our first visit to London, a great Rick Steves recommendation, has unfortunately closed for business, but the area was super-convenient. With that in mind, we can recommend staying within a few blocks of London's Victoria Station, but the same could probably be said of the convenience of staying close to any of London's major rail stations. 

No matter where you stay, London lodging is expensive. The only way around that is to stay further out, but even with a 1-hour commute each way you'll find the nightly rates still pretty steep. There are thousands of AirBnB listings in London, but expect to pay around $150 a night for a private room and a shared bathroom. Even hostels top $100 a night for a couple. Because of the cost of lodging, plan your time wisely: unless you can land a house sitting gig, London probably isn't the best place to settle in for a couple of weeks of touring with a few days of remote work. 

What and Where to Eat in London

We have no idea why English cuisine has such a bad reputation. What's not to like about fish and chips, bangers and mash, and steak and ale pie? Speaking of ale, the British have a seemingly endless list of beers and stouts and porters, from big international English and Irish brands to local, seasonal craft brews you've never heard of. And then there's the cider: "fruit brews" that come dry to sweet, cloudy to crystal clear, amber to gold, all with about as much alcohol as their hardier, grain-based cousins.

Pubs are where it's at when it comes to dining in London. Sure, there are lots and lots of great restaurants in London, but our must-see recommendation is to enjoy pub fare as do Londoners. Not only will you find good food, it's often the best meal deal you'll find. Pub meals are English comfort food in a fun, casual environment. With beer. We've been working our way through this list, and can readily recommend any of the five we've already visited, but especially Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and Princess Louise. Cheers!

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