London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

10 Tips For A Great Time In London

23/09/2002, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 18474 votes

Everyone planning a trip to London is familiar with all the popular tourist attractions: Big Ben, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, West End Theater. But what else is there to see and do? What makes a trip unique and truly one’s own? I will attempt to pass along a bit of advice on some of the things my husband and I have discovered on our trips to this great city:

1. Try to use London as a base for venturing off to other places that you may not visit otherwise. A two-week stay in London is enough time for a side trip of perhaps one or two days. Both Ryanair and EasyJet offer unbelievably low prices. During our recent stay in London, we flew on Ryanair from London to Dublin for 8 pounds (around $12.00), and back to London for 12 pounds ($18.00). In fact, we had a snack on the plane to Dublin that, at £8.95, cost more than our airfare! We simply booked our tickets over the Internet while still at home in the U.S. With electronic ticketing, all we had to do was show up with our printed confirmation and proper identification at the airport (they fly out of and into all of the London airports, so take your choice). The prices fluctuate from day to day, so be sure to check often before you book.


At the time we booked, we could have flown to Brussels, Belgium, for 5 pounds. But we had a delightful time in Ireland. And then, should you not wish to fly, there is always the ferry from Dover to Calais, France. We did that last year. After we got to London, we simply walked into a neighborhood travel agency and bought our tickets for the P&O Stena ferry. (We had already purchased train tickets back home, but we could have bought them from the travel agency for a combined price with the ferry ticket which was cheaper than buying them separately). At 15 pounds apiece for the ferry (round trip), we certainly got our money’s worth as each of our tickets included a voucher for a complimentary one litre bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream!

2. Check ahead of time for any holidays or celebrations that may be going on that are indigenous to Britain. This information is not widely disseminated, however; I only found a complete list in a guidebook entitled London Off Season and On.

That’s how we learned of the Charles I Commemoration, a ceremony celebrated on the last Sunday in January in remembrance of the execution of King Charles I in 1649. It may be something as simple as Robbie Burns Night which is widely celebrated at the pubs with music and special food (haggis) – or something as grand as the Trooping the Colour, the celebration every June of the Queen’s birthday. Other celebrations not specific to Britain can be fun, too. We enjoyed the festivities at the beginning of Chinese New Year taking place in China Town near Leicester Square – and the New Year’s Day Parade which is the largest parade of its kind in Europe. For the parade, check out their site for pictures, information and a map.

3. Attend a service at one of London’s great churches. This is a great way to see St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey without waiting in a queue. I pull off the schedule of services from the Internet before we leave home for both St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. That way we know what choirs are performing, the dates and times of any special services and so forth. We always attend Evensong at St. Paul’s, a very moving experience. (But don’t go after a trans-Atlantic flight like we did this year because as we relaxed with the music, jet lag kicked in with a vengeance! Our entire bodies turned to jelly and we nearly fell over as sleep overcame us.)

Portobello Road

4. Take advantage of the wonderful street markets. I know that this is something that the guidebooks strongly advise, so it really isn’t our own little piece of advice. But as well as displaying a fine array of merchandise, the vendors can themselves be very colorful and fun to talk to. We made a great “friend” in Laurence whom we kept running into at all the bigger markets – Portobello Road, Covent Garden, Bermondsey. (He always seemed glad to see us – I lost all self-control and bought many lovely china pieces and British Royal commemoratives from him, so I think that perhaps boosted our “friendship!”)

5. Have your taxi driver take you to the British Airways check-in door at Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express. This was a lifesaver and we owe a great debt to the kind taxi driver who did this for us. You don’t have to be flying British Airways to walk through that door. Heavy laden as we were with suitcases far exceeding the weight limitations (full of Laurence’s lovely china pieces and British Royal commemoratives), we were able to board a lift right inside the door. As we disembarked, the Gatwick Express stood only a few feet away from the elevator door. Overtipping the porter (who is probably disabled at the time of this writing), we fell into the train with a sigh of relief. It certainly beat walking for what seems like miles and miles through endless terminals looking for our train as we have done in the past.

6. Get to know your neighborhood. We always rent a flat (the same one each time) that we enjoy for many reasons including its proximity to a Sainsbury’s grocery store and Bobo’s Bubbles (a laundromat we enjoy if for no other reason than its name). A visit to Sainsbury’s is a delight in itself just to see the differences and similarities from supermarkets in the U.S. And not only that, it is a superb place to buy gifts to take home. Teas, soaps, boxes of candy and multi-colored tins of cookies or biscuits – often bearing the Royal warrant -- are only a few of the items we have taken back as gifts.

The best part is that they are extremely inexpensive – so much so that I have to avert my eyes as I am thanked profusely by a friend or co-worker who most likely imagines the venue of the origin of their gift as an elegant department store with thick, rich carpets where people speak in hushed tones, the likes of Fortnum & Mason. That way I can buy for more people, you see. Look, I bring them something from Harrods, too. Honestly. But I digress. Back to neighborhoods -- let me add that there are often great little restaurants to be discovered right there in your temporary London neighborhood. We particularly liked a little Italian one on Cromwell Road that we passed on our way “home” from the tube stop. Always exhausted and often a bit hungry (the British have a perfect word for this, which is “peckish”), we would stop there if only to have nothing more than pizza and a glass of wine.

7. Read London newspapers on-line before you go to get a flavor for life in London. This happens to be a favorite pastime of mine. I feel you really get into the heart of a nation by immersing yourself in its daily life through the newspapers. A good source for political news, the newspapers are also full of interesting and amusing stories that one would never hear about otherwise – such as the story about the man who picked up his holiday pictures only to find an additional set of photos included with his own. The face looked very familiar, but it took him awhile before he finally realized at whom he was looking. It was Tony Blair on holiday in France or Italy (I forget which) with his family! The man contacted the photo developer who later called back to say, very firmly, that Downing Street requested that he return the photos immediately.

8. Study maps of London. This is important because you are bound to find out later that something you wanted to see was only a block or two away from where you were. There are many places of interest that could too easily be overlooked if your focus is too narrow. We had a fairly general map that we took with us each day because it was lighter and easier to carry than the more cumbersome “London A to Z” (which is an extremely detailed map of every street, passageway and mews in London). We would pour over the A to Z to pinpoint our destination, then leave it back at the flat.

9. Write ahead for admittance to special sites and events. Tours of Mansion House (home of the Lord Mayor of London), Royal Albert Hall and even the clock tower of Big Ben can be arranged by contacting the proper authorities well in advance of your trip. These are not heavily promoted, but remember: you don’t want them to be. You want to do something a little special that not everyone else does on a trip to London. No doubt can help with any addresses you may need. And don’t be afraid to ask about something you may want to do or see. I wrote a letter to the former Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (Conservative Party), someone I had admired for his wonderful sense of humor as well as other qualities, and asked if we could possibly meet him and shake his hand. He was, unfortunately, going to be out of the country at the time we were coming to London, but what a lovely letter he wrote to tell me that, on creamy, portcullis-embossed House of Commons stationery, in which he briefly spoke about his time as Leader of his party and commented on some of the statements in my letter to him. That is something I will always treasure.

10. Check Internet sites before your trip. You have probably already discovered Lord Bradford’s splendid sites. These can be invaluable since they are kept up to date as to current happenings. Or they can be helpful in gaining knowledge about Britain and its customs, in particular the intricacies of the Parliamentary system. BBC has a very thorough website in this regard. You may even end up on BBC radio. Yes, this can happen and has. I once posted some comments on the BBC website and returned from lunch to find an e-mail from someone at the BBC saying that their producers had noticed my comments and wished to have a chat with me and would I kindly provide a phone number. My fingers were barely off of the keyboard after typing my number when the phone rang and it was someone from the BBC, who quickly interviewed me and asked if I would consent to being on the air – “Drive Time with Sonia and Henry.” So I had my 15 minutes of fame (more like five) with the largest news gathering organization in the world.

All right, so maybe I am not your average, typical tourist. But with a little ingenuity, initiative and information, I believe your trip to London can be one of the best experiences in your life. You will never regret it or forget it. Go, and have a terrific time!

Candice Caster

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Re: 10 Tips For A Great Time In London

By Wendy Johnson 01/10/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 17517 votes)

Candice Caster has some wonderful ideas for seeing London to the full. I feel I must add one more. The Original London Walks do some excellent walks at all times of the day. Each day has different ones, the guides are extremely knowledgeable and you get to walk through some of the little streets of London that you might ordinarily pass by. We have done about 10 of these walks and each one has been very worthwhile. In November we hope to do a couple more. We always try to visit one of the 'villages' of London each time we are there and a walk brings each one to life. There is a website which describes these walks: or you can pick up a brochure in any London hotel lobby. Each starts and ends at or near a tube station and costs 5 pounds (less for seniors).

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Re: 10 Tips For A Great Time In London

By Candice Caster 01/10/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 17473 votes)

The Original London Walks are truly wonderful. You can read about one I took in the August and September issues of the Lantern -- "A Walk in the City (and Beyond)."

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Re: 10 Tips For A Great Time In London

By Rea in California 01/10/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 17498 votes)

This was a very informative article with novel ideas for things to do. However, it would have been nice to include web site addresses for items mentioned, such as "Lord Bradford's splendid sites". Thank you, Candice, for the great tips. We too have stayed in a flat and highly recommend it. Ours had a washer/dryer in the flat so no need to scout out "Bobo's Bubbles". We'd pack a lunch each day and take it in our backpack (with a fold-up cooler). Then at lunchtime we'd find a pleasant park, a bench at a museum, etc. to eat and watch the people pass by. We'd often get to strike up a conversation that would add to our enjoyment of our London trip.
Looking forward to another London trip.

<b>Editor: Rather a lot of sites, but you can find each one from the other, and more.</b>

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Re: 10 Tips For A Great Time In London

By Chris Becht 02/10/2002, (Rating: 2.9 from 17277 votes)

One of my best tips for a wandering tour of London is to pick out one major attraction for each day and then fill in the other time with whatever you find on the way. I always seem to run across an interesting shop or eating-place as I wander. Don't forget, one of the best reasons for travel is to experience the way of life of the country you visit. A grocery store certainly isn't listed on a tour guide as a must see but a few minutes wandering the aisles of Sainsbury’s or Safeway can be time well spent.

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Re: 10 Tips For A Great Time In London

By swissing 30/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17073 votes)

hello!! I live in paris, and I love this city, but when I visited London it was magic, actually, it was so fantastic that next year i want to study there!!
so if you want to go there, stand up, take your laguages and go there!!
have an excelent time!!

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