Friday, April 22, 2011


Travel Dates: First week of April

London, the city that defines all cities. A true melting pot. We had a lot of expectations for this city - the history, the architecture, the grandeur and of course, the ethnic food scene! We got a chance to taste a little bit of everything during our week long trip. Here are highlights, followed by some tips and suggestions.

Highlights: Grandeur of the architecture, history of conquests, ethnic food scene, convenient public transportation

What we would do differently: We would definitely pack appropriate clothing for the ever-changing weather - layers, with gloves, scarf and a beanie/ear muffs, and a wind-resistant umbrella! We would also have liked to spend a day (and perhaps even a night) in Bath instead of just 2 hours that we did as part of the Evan Evans package tour to Windsor Castle, Bath & Stonehenge. We would also visit more of the gastro pubs to try the free-house (not affiliated with any brewery) beers and gourmet food.

If we had more time: We would try to do a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to check out a play put on by the Royal Shakespearean Company. We would also spend a little more time in the British Museum and check out the National Gallery and the Kensington Palace. The Orangery at Kensington Palace is known for its afternoon tea! We would also like to check out the Natural History Museum and the British Library which houses Shakespeare's original folio, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen's writing desk, original music manuscripts from artists like Mozart, Ravel and the Beatles, and original writings from authors Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte and Sylvia Plath among much more.

Prices: London can be "economical" If you're:
  • Checking out the open air markets (Borough/Camden/Portabollo Road Market)
  • Eating at hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries
  • Going on self-guided walking tours with free downloadable audio guides
  • Checking out the myriad free museums
  • Purchasing entrance tickets to some attractions with many 2-for-1 admissions available when you show a valid National Rail pass (any one time rail ticket or travelcard issued by the National Rail Services, *NOT* issued by the London Underground - the ticket dispensing machines you see at every Underground station)
  • A student and show your ID (but don't expect a huge discount here)
You can find Lonely Planet's list of top 20 things to do in London for free here. Everything else is expensive. Even the airfare to get there. Just swallow it with a big gulp and move on.

Transportation: London is served by five airports, the most popular and well connected of which is Heathrow (LHR). From Heathrow to Central London is either 15 mins, 30 mins or 60-90mins depending on how much you want to pay. Heathrow Express is the fastest non-stop train to Central London, costing 16.50GBP one-way if pre-purchased online (18 from the ticket machine at the airport and 23 onboard). Heathrow Connect costs 8.50GBP and takes about 25-30 mins with a few stops in the suburbs before getting to Central London (we took this train on our way back. Beware that these trains do get delayed and many times cancelled. Fortunately the service was every 30 mins!). The third option is to take the Tube, aka the London Underground, serviced by the Picadilly line. If traveling by this train (which is pretty slow and prone to delays, especially on weekends), it costs 5 GBP to go from Zone 6 where Heathrow is, to Zones 1-2 (Central London). We took this when we arrived. Beware though that many of the Underground stations are not handicap friendly, so you'll have to haul your luggage up and down many stairs!

If you want to make day trips outside of London, the National Rail Services has numerous lines connecting many frequently visited cities. Within London, one of the many ubiquitous and hallmark red double-decker buses above ground, or the Tube underground serve pretty much the entire Central London area (Zones 1 and 2) where almost all the tourist attractions are. To use these modes of transportation, you have the following ticketing options:
  • Buy a ticket each time you ride
  • Buy a day pass (Travelcard) with unlimited usage on all transportation (different prices depending on which zones they cover)
  • Buy a seven-day pass (Travelcard) with unlimited usage on all transportation for seven consecutive days (different prices depending on which zones they cover)
  • Buy an Oyster Card. You have to pay a 5 GBP refundable deposit when you purchase this card. It's a pay-as-you-go card loaded with as much credit you want on it when you first purchase it. It then deducts a discounted amount each time you take a ride, capping out at the price of a day pass. Advantage of using this card is that even when you have money left over on the card, you can use it the next day. If you only use it twice in a day, you can have the satisfaction of having paid a discounted price for each of those rides. This card works on almost all forms of public transportation, including many of the National Rail service lines.

As mentioned before, the Oyster Card or even the Travelcards purchased from the London Underground stations will not be eligible for the 2-for-1 discounts at some of the attractions. You will need Travelcards purchased from the National Rail service counters at stations like Paddington, Victoria, King's Cross, etc.

To find information on how to get to Central London from the other airports, check out this website.

NOTE: They're making lots of changes to the Underground and public transportation systems to support the Olympics in 2012, so a lot of this information might expire soon!

Best Time to Visit/Weather: May for "good" weather and spring blossoms, or September for similar "good" weather and fall colors. Be sure to dress in layers and carry a thick jacket and an umbrella just in case! We had bad weather (hail, cold, wind) for 3 days and gorgeous sunny skies with 75 degrees the rest of the time. Too bad we couldn't enjoy the rest of the time as we got sick from the first 3 days there!

Stay: We always like to be in the middle of all action especially in a bustling city like London. Hence we liked staying in Central London. Here are some suggestions for finding affordable accommodation in London. Central London is very well connected with public transportation and has all the local tourist attractions within this range.

Cuisine: We've long heard that British food is not that great, but what makes food in London great is its upcoming gourmet gastro pubs and ethnic restaurants. Here is a list provided by our friends currently live and used to live in London:

  • Mooli's (We tried it and thought it was pretty good for fast, "cheap" food!)
  • Wahaca*
  • Hare and Tortoise* - fusion asian food
  • Ping Pong* - momos/dim sum
  • Wagamama* - chain noodle place, but it's pretty good (We tried it and liked it!)
  • Busaba Eathai* - Thai
  • Thai Metro - on Charlotte Street
  • Lantana Cafe - on Charlotte Place, good for brunch and coffee
  • Monmouth Coffee - hands down the best coffee in London (We tried it and liked it quite a bit!)
  • Sacred - coffee is comparable to Monmouth
  • Strada - great pizza
  • Balfour - Italian
  • Salam Namaste - Indian (We didn't think it was all that. It was also more Bangladeshi than Indian)
  • Punjab - Indian, near Covent Garden
  • Veeraswamy - Indian (We thought it was good but too expensive)
  • Nandos* - Portuguese, famous for their spicy sauces (We tried it and thought it was good!)
  • Marks & Spencer - Sandwiches on the go
  • Eat - Food on the go (We tried it and it was alright)
  • SAF - Vegan (Tried it and thought it was pretty good)
  • Pret A Manger - you'll see these everywhere - good sandwiches
  • Kai - Chinese
  • Nobu - Japanese
  • Mint Leaf - Indian
  • Hakkasan – Chinese
  • Maroush 1 - Lebanese (Their falafels were amazing!)
  • Norfolk Arms
  • Marquis Cornwallis (We tried wasn't that impressive except for their cheesecake)
  • Fitzroy Tavern
  • The Bree Louise
  • Jewel* - Picadilly Circus, more of a drink place, not a pub
  • Ye Old Chesire - first pub in London
  • Sherlock Holmes* - on baker street
*Recommended by more than one of our friends

Afternoon Tea:
Rick Steves mentioned in his book that it is perfectly ok to share one afternoon tea between two people, so that's what we did and the portions were just right (after the sharing)! We were at the Georgian Restaurant within Harrod's, where their menu said the Afternoon Tea was 26GBP. However they charged an extra 4GBP for "Tea". No clue what that was. They charge for everything in London, so when in doubt, just ask! Here were other suggestions:
  • The Orangery at Kensington Gardens
  • The Georgian Restaurant at Harrod's (We tried this and it was pretty good)
  • The Pump Room Restaurant near the Roman Baths in Bath (outside London)
  • The Ritz
  • The National Dining Rooms within the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square
  • Fortnum & Mason's St. James's Restaurant
  • Chelsea Physic Garden

Visa: Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, and United States don't need a visa to visit UK. You can find more information here.

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