London has been a popular tourist destination for centuries. The city is filled with historic buildings, top-notch museums, well-known squares and monuments and music and arts venues. Whether you're looking for world-class art, centuries-old gardens or shopping districts, London is a perfect destination. While London's accommodations and restaurants are on the expensive side – London is a financial and government center as well as a tourist destination – you can experience London without leaving your life savings behind.
Where to Stay
London's hotels are known for their high prices and less-than-impressive standards, but you can stay in London inexpensively if you plan ahead. The best budget hotels to book are well-known and fill quickly during peak travel times.
London's budget chain hotels are, increasingly, the frugal accommodation option of choice for many travelers. While you don't have the ambience and history associated with a family-run hotel or bed and breakfast, you do get a decent, clean room, usually with the option of a free or prepaid breakfast. Some of London's good-value hotel chains include Premier Inn, Travelodge and Express by Holiday Inn. (Tip: Pay close attention when you research your Express by Holiday Inn hotel to make sure you do not reserve rooms in another InterContinental Hotels property.)
If you prefer a more traditional London hotel experience but don't have hundreds of British pounds to spend, consider the Luna & Simone Hotel (book direct) in London's Victoria neighborhood or the Morgan Hotel, near the British Museum.
Both of these hotels offer good-value rooms with TV and full English breakfast. Neither the Luna & Simone Hotel nor the Morgan Hotel has an elevator ("lift" in British English), and the Luna & Simone, like many British budget hotels, is not air conditioned.
You can also save money by staying at youth hostels or bed and breakfasts.
If you prefer to stay at a B&B, be sure to ask about smoking, pets, accessibility, shared bathroom facilities and distance from London's tourist attractions.
While you'll pay less for accommodations outside the Congestion Zone, you'll incur higher transportation costs and spend a lot of time each day just getting to and from your room. You may decide that it's better to pay a little more and stay closer to the museums and neighborhoods you plan to visit.
London's restaurants feature every imaginable type of cuisine; prices range from big-city budget to completely outrageous. That said, you certainly don't have to eat at Pizza Hut and Burger King every day; you can enjoy low-cost meals and skip the fast food. Some visitors fill up on the full English breakfast served by their hotel, eat a light lunch and look for good-value dinners. Other travelers eat a larger midday meal and pick up fish and chips or other takeout at dinner to save money. Eating in pubs is not only fun but is also a London tradition; the Museum Tavern near the British Museum is a popular choice with foot-weary travelers.
If you're looking for a reasonably-priced meal and a great beer list, head straight for one of the four Belgo restaurants in London.
This Belgian-themed local chain has a beer selection that will astound you. Belgo's £7.50 express lunch includes a glass of wine, beer or soda, an entrée and side dish from the set menu and is available from 12:00 noon until 5:00 p.m. daily. (The mussels and frites – fried potatoes – are excellent.) My Old Dutch Pancake House serves up huge crèpe-like pancakes filled with meats, cheeses and veggies for £5.50 - £7.95 at each of its four London locations. Save room for a dessert pancake (£5.50 - £7.95).
Indian food, long a budget traveler's best friend, is available all over London; try Masala Zone's lunch special or regular thali, both under £9.00 (seven locations). If you prefer Asian food in general and noodles in particular, fill up at Wagamama. Each of the 15 Wagamama restaurants serves noodle and rice dishes, salads and appetizers for £7.35 - £11.00.
Next: London Transportation, Attractions and Events
You can reach London by air from any one of the city's five airports. While most flights from the U.S. arrive at Heathrow, you may also get to London via Gatwick, Stansted, London Luton or London City Airports. Whichever airport you choose, you'll need to decide how you'll get from the airport into London itself. In most cases, you'll take a train or the Tube (subway) from your airport to the area of London you're staying in.
Plan to use public transportation and / or taxis to reach your London hotel. Not only is traffic intense during rush hour, driving on the left side of the road is best learned on a quiet country lane, not in the UK's largest city. Parking is expensive and the city imposes a "congestion charge" for the privilege of driving in certain areas.
London's public transportation system includes an extensive bus network and the famous London Underground (the "Tube"). While all of London's buses, except for a few Heritage Route buses, are wheelchair accessible, the Tube is not yet very wheelchair- or slow walker-friendly. This situation is slowly changing; Transport for London is systematically upgrading Tube stations and expects that all 274 Tube stations will be fully accessible by 2012.
Transport for London publishes several downloadable accessible travel guides to London which have up-to-date information about Tube stations and accessible public transport within the city.
Whether you travel by bus or Tube, consider using an Oyster Card to pay for your trips. Transport for London introduced this prepaid travel card, good on buses and the Tube, as an alternative to printed tickets.
Paying for your travel with an Oyster Card is less expensive than using traditional tickets, and the Oyster Card is easy to use.
London's famous Black Cabs are a local, if somewhat pricey, tradition. You'll really feel like you've seen London once you've bounced and slid across the back seat of a Black Cab. Minicabs are less expensive but also less convenient. You can hail a Black Cab on the street, but you'll have to telephone a minicab office if you'd rather use this less expensive option.
London is full of wonderful park pathways, amazing historic buildings and incredible museum exhibits. Most visitors to London find they're so fascinated by each place they visit that they can't see everything on their list. Many of London's most famous sights and museums are free to the public; you can fill your sightseeing itinerary with 20+ attractions, walks and activities and keep all of your money safely in your money belt.
The British Museum is not only free but also wheelchair accessible. It's easy to spend an entire day here, taking in the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, Assyrian relief carvings and artifacts from ancient, medieval and Renaissance Europe. The British Library Gallery's permanent collection includes the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible and other famous manuscripts and musical scores.
London's renowned art museums, most of which are free to the public, are great late-afternoon sightseeing destinations because many offer late opening hours once or twice each week.
Many visitors to London head for famous buildings, including the Tower of London (a must-see), Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Others prefer strolling through London's many parks and gardens, including Regent's Park and Hyde Park, home to the Diana Memorial Fountain. I highly recommend a leisurely walk through a London park; you'll become part of pathways back through history, made famous by kings and queens, as well as see modern Londoners relaxing and enjoying their city's green spaces.
Events and Festivals
London is known for its royal pageantry, especially for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Other London rituals, while less formal, are equally famous, like lining up for half-price theater tickets in Leicester Square.
If you visit London in mid-May, don't forget to set aside time for the Chelsea Flower Show. Celebrate the Queen's birthday with the locals in June (even though her birthday is really in April). The City of London Festival runs from mid-June to early August, with free outdoor concerts and ticketed indoor events. November's Guy Fawkes (or Bonfire Night) celebrations light up the late autumn sky with fireworks displays.