Once again for currency exchange, we used an American Express office before we traveled to London. (Update: 2008, American Express exchange rate was no longer competitive–try other banks, check the airport or use ATM). Of course, since London is a large city, we also could have used an ATM card—Cirrus networks were widespread. We saw at least one that touted no service charge regardless of which bankcard you were using. Exchanging money by using an ATM is becoming much more popular and is worth a look if you are traveling. Research each foreign country to determine if there are ATMs that match your network (cirrus, pulse, etc). Make sure you know your pin number before you leave!
Getting Around London
Because we were in London a week, we purchased a travel card for use on the subway and trains inside London. We purchased ours before leaving the United States. There are several websites that allow you to do this, but beware some of them charge huge fees to mail you the travel cards.
We used: Ticket-on-line.com We had no problems or complaints. Note that they will not issue the cards until close to your travel date. The cards came with a few discounts to some attractions.
These cards allowed us to get on and off the underground without worrying how much any given segment cost. You can get day passes once you’re in London or just buy tickets to a given location, but we didn’t want to figure out fares every time we went somewhere.
Rush hour was crowded and a couple of times a particular segment was blocked or a train cancelled, but we were able to route around any problem areas. The 7 day passes were cheaper than a U.S. car rental for a week. Which brings up another point: I wouldn’t drive in London even if I were paid to do so. The lanes are narrow, the traffic is horrendous and yes, they drive on the opposite side of the road!
London is broken into “zoned” areas—the vast majority of museums and sights are within zone 1 and 2 so a travel card covering just these zones will work for most people. If you must travel outside these zones, such as to see Kew Gardens, just get the extra leg for that day. You’ll want to make sure your hotel is within zone 1 and 2 also—if it isn’t, get the more expensive travel card that covers zones 1 through 6.
Where to Stay
I had the most awful time finding budget accommodations. Prices in London are high—what with the exchange rate being 1.7 to 1 U.S. dollar, everything was almost twice as much as here!
The price in pounds sounds reasonable at first glance: the average budget room ranged from 60 to 100 pounds. Unfortunately, when you convert dollars, your room goes to 120 to 200 dollars a night. Also, be warned, the rooms are small and for the money, you won’t be spoiled. London has a lot of old buildings—the city has been there a while. That means that a lot of the hotels are remodeled Victoria homes or other remodeled buildings. Not all rooms are “en suite,”– meaning for those that aren’t, the shared bathroom is down the hall. You can save money if you are willing to share a bathroom or get a room with partial en suite. This might mean the toilet is in the room or just a wash stand, so make sure you know what you’re getting ahead of time. Also make sure taxes are included in the price you are quoted because the “VAX” is not a small amount.
For us, we wanted en suite and clean without anyone taking an arm or leg. I spent days researching prices and finally came up something outside the theatre and museum district, but that was part of the plan. We had our travel cards and we wanted to be away from main tourist crowds.
The Charlotte Guest house was within travel zones 1 and 2, in West Hampstead, ten to fifteen minutes by train to main attractions. The guesthouse supplied travel cards for stays of seven days or longer. The room was worn but clean. We were in one of their larger rooms and it did have a private bathroom and shower. The shower was so small, I met myself coming and going when I turned around.
We were on the third floor, so there was some sort of water pump in the bathroom that ran the entire time we took showers. It was a little noisy. The price was 55 pounds per night with travel card and included a full English breakfast or continental breakfast. The breakfast was in a very nice indoor patio and quite casual. Help yourself orange juice, milk, fruit, cereal and yogurt. The English breakfast was two eggs, toast or croissant, baked beans, sausage and bacon.
The people that worked there went out of their way to be kind and helpful.
The other place that would have been our second choice was a bed and breakfast website. A lot of the places on the site were also located a bit out of the main excitement area. We did not inspect any of the properties, but the person running the website answered my questions promptly and the price was a lot more reasonable than many other places I checked.
You might also try: Cherry court hotel This one was booked for the dates we needed it, but it was recommended on Rick Steve’s website and they did send a nice email. Rick Steve’s site gives a description and info. His site had a list of restaurants submitted by readers that I also found helpful.
London had more sightseeing opportunities than we could cover in one week. Luckily some of the best museums are free. All of them have donation boxes and after you see these places, a donation seems a small price to pay! It is good that the museums are free because everything else in London is quite expensive. If you have more than a couple of days in London, get a guidebook, read it and prioritize what you want to see.
We used “Daytrips: London” by Earl Steinbicker. It gives good general information about what you can see in each museum, but isn’t much on outdoor sights and gives no hotel information. I’ve listed the museums in order of enjoyment, but remember, a lot depends on what interests you. There were also several other museums and places we did not get to see.
Victoria and Albert—A free museum with a lot of “life” objects from many countries: clothing, jewelry, furniture (including Chippendale), beds, art, lots and lots of porcelain, and other artifacts. Mind you these are not ordinary, everyday objects, rather the masterpieces of centuries past made by highly talented artisans. The V&A was huge and we spent over a day there; the emphasis of many displays was of European artifacts, but other countries were certainly represented. Favorites included a Wilkes detector lock, Wedgwood porcelain and some of the period furniture. There’s something for everyone at this museum.
British Museum – Also free. I liked this museum at least as well as the Victoria and Albert. Again, much to see here from all over the world, but probably the most fabulous were the Egyptian displays: mummies, coffins and stone sarcophagus; stone sculptures of sphinx, falcons, and various Egyptian rulers. The Rosetta stone is also here. The Rosetta was found in 1799 and was the key to translating hieroglyphs. (The stone contains the same decree in three different scripts: Greek, everyday Egyptian script and hieroglyphs. The known language allowed the hieroglyphs to be “translated” for the first time.) The sculptures, (Greek and Roman sculptures, Parthenon sculptures) were stunning at this museum.
Tower of London – About 13.50 pounds per person. This is not a cheap place to visit. We found a two-for-one coupon on the National Rail website. We had to have a rail pass that was good for the day and the printed coupon. It may be that the discount was available because we visited in November, which is off-season. Check the various rail sites for discounts. Here’s the link I used, but it will likely change or expire. http://www.londontrainsoffers.co.uk/phpversion/index.php
The Tower of London’s main attraction is the crown jewels. These are quite decadent.
Was it worth the entrance price? For us yes, but we had 2 for 1. The jewels were spectacular. The original Cullinan diamond was cut into nine different stones, and at least two of them are part of the crown jewels. The largest is called the Star of Africa (530 carats) and is in a sceptre that is on display. The second largest is in the Imperial State Crown—the one that Queen uses to open parliament—also on display. Since there were very few tourists, we were able to go through the display a few times and ask lots of questions.
In the height of tourist season there are two waiting rooms—count them, two rooms with films running to keep people from being completely bored while they wait to get into the display room. The waiting rooms have roped lines snaking through them—the same kind of lines you have while waiting for an amusement ride. A moving sidewalk trucks people along in front of the actual jewel display so you can’t stand there and gawk. I would go either very early or late in the afternoon (everyone else will be leaving) if you are in London during tourist season.
Also at the tower is a display that explains how the diamonds were cut. It is hard to find because it is located in one of the many “towers.” Ask one of the beefeaters how to reach the tower because it wasn’t obvious to us. Go to this display before you see the jewels if possible
Here’s a website that we found after we got back that has great information on the Cullinan diamonds.
Right after the crown jewel display there is a fascinating collection of opulent tableware—gold plates and goblets from various kings’ dining services. There are some very nice “salt shakers” and I am not talking K-Mart bluelight specials here. Some of these things were a foot high with all kinds of knobs and drawers and decorations.
One of the yeoman was kind enough to explain that in days gone by, salt was quite valuable, thus special plates that contained salt receptacles (and sometimes receptacles for other spices) were designed for the wealthy. Those on display were quite incredible.
There were also christening fountains, punch bowls large enough to bathe in and other tableware.
The armor in the “white tower,” is also at the Tower of London. It contains armor, swords, canons, guns, and the like. Quite interesting and worth a look. It’s the only other large display of relics at the Tower of London.
A few of the other towers contained information about prisoners that were kept at the tower along with some of the graffiti that the prisoners left behind. A dungeon room contains scant information on a couple of torture devices.
Museum of Natural History – Another free one, donations accepted. What more can I say besides, dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and dinosaurs! There were also whale bones/displays, mammoths and other animals, not all of them extinct. Very fun way to spend the day.
Kenwood House – Free, off the beaten path. Rembrandt paintings and many other famous portraits. This house is really a mansion and contains good period rooms with appropriate furniture. The library is fantastic and filled with old books. There are old clocks, a collection of miniature portraits and cameos.
One of the best things about this museum is that it is a bit out of the way in Hampstead and surrounded by a two very large parks. We got lost in the one park, but it was a great walk. If you have a nice day, this is a nice area to visit. We ate outdoors at the Kenwood House cafeteria and the food was good, if a little pricey.
Museum of London – Also free. I can’t say much about this museum because we only spent an hour or so here. It’s not that it wasn’t worth more time, but we had a business appointment that day and never got back to it. This museum struck me as a hodge-podge of items. Old printing presses, dollhouses, clocks, watches, coaches, displays detailing the great fire and the great stink of London (I’m not making that up either). If you want the history of London, this is the place to go! One of the more interesting displays was the sample dungeon.
Places to Eat
Everyone told us to avoid English food, so we did. The main complaint is that it is bland and the one time I ate English food, it was bland. Unbelievably bland. We did eat the English breakfast, which was also bland, but satisfying and hearty. (While I personally am of the belief that all eggs should be served with a side of salsa and melted cheese, I really don’t expect to be accommodated everywhere.) Eggs really aren’t that exciting anyway, except as an ingredient in chocolate chip cookies.
Oh—the food at the Kenwood house might be considered English cuisine and it was not bland. It was very tasty although because it was a tourist location, the portions were a little small. The prices weren’t bad for a tourist location.
We ate Thai food, middle eastern food and Chinese and every time they were fabulous. The prices were very reasonable also.
Highly Recommended Food Favorites
Number one favorite place to eat was Karahi Master located near our hotel. This place was FABULOUS. We had never eaten middle-eastern food, but this was a great introduction. For the more timid, they also had burgers and fries. The place was spotless, the owner, (Bass?) was extremely helpful, as were all the employees. The food was EXCELLENT, no matter what we ordered and we tried: curried rice, lamb kabobs, chicken kabobs, chicken curry, and another type of rice.
The naan, a type of bread that resembles a tortilla, was stupendous. I could have eaten about five of them and would dearly loved to have had one for breakfast with that bland egg and some salsa! Generally speaking the two of us ate there for under ten pounds total, but rather than order a dish for each of us, we tried one large dish and a couple of sides such as fried rice or the naan bread. I would go out of my way to eat here!
Second favorite: Banana Tree. Very reasonably priced Thai food. Food and service were very good. Generally we ate there for about twelve to fifteen pounds total. Worth a stop if you stay anywhere in the area.