Back before William met Kate, before a boy wizard named Harry Potter saved the world...
...before German bombs ripped through the city and Jack ripped through his victims, before Shakespeare’s verses and Sherlock’s cases and Henry’s marriages, before the whole bloody thing burned down and was built up again, before anyone could have guessed what it would become, the Romans founded a small town on the River Thames and called it Londinium.
Zoom forward about 2000 years to you, intrepid traveler, fresh off the Underground, sipping a pint in a pub and anxiously staring at a map of the massive city. The question is obvious: where to begin?
The official crown jewels are housed in the Tower of London, but cheaper treasures are nearly everywhere you look. There’s the touristy but worthwhile spires of Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, theater in the West End and Southbank, vast and beautiful parks, and more art, literature, and greasy food than you can shake a crisp at. It seems as though every pub holds a wide-ranging history, and every museum a work of great cultural significance.
Connected by a network of convenient underground stations, containing individuals (and food!) of every race, creed, and religion, and bolstered by an eager-to-help tourism industry, London is a visitor’s paradise. Go to museums all day or bars all night, stick to the well-trodden paths of Central London or venture into quirkier regions, stay for a weekend or stay for a year—the only mistake would be to stay home.
London can sometimes feel more like a collection of cities than a city with any singular identity, given its multitude of distinctive neighborhoods. Perhaps the best place to start is the City of London, the square mile of oldest settlement just north of the Thames. High on history but low on actual residents, here you’ll find the likes of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Just across the Thames is the neighborhood of Southbank, which was the sight of theaters like the Rose and the Globe back when it wasn’t considered a part of London proper. Today, this theatrical spirit remains with the recreation of the Globe and historic theaters like the Old Vic. Moving West of the City, you’ll find the West End and Westminster, two of the most tourist attraction-heavy neighborhoods of London. The West End is London’s answer to Broadway, with shiny marquees on every street. It’s also home to Soho, thriving enclave of gay culture. Westminster is the seat of government, with Parliament, Downing St., and Buckingham Palace all within walking distance of one another; expect crowds. Just north of the West End are Marylebone and Bloomsbury where you can find plenty of museums and the British Library. In the western part of central London, the well-coiffed neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Notting Hill, South Kensington, and Chelsea are some of the most pleasant places to visit. South Kensington and Chelsea are famous for their museums (The Victoria and Albert among them), and Hyde Park and Notting Hill houses its eponymous park and the beautiful rowhouses, respectively. Outside of central London lie the less well-defined neighborhoods of East London, South London (which would be more aptly named Southeast London), North London, and West London. Here you can visit the party center of Camden Town in North London, the impressive Hampton Court Palace in West London, Greenwich to the east, and Peckham to the south, but plan to spend lots of time on the Tube.
London’s main airport is Heathrow (www.heathrow.com, 0844 335 1801). To get from the airport to central London, you have several options: you can take the faster and more expensive Heathrow Express, which departs every 15 minutes, or opt for the much cheaper but slower Underground (see: Getting Around). You can also take a bus to Earl’s Court or Victoria station. Another flying option is to arrive at Gatwick Airport, which has an express train to Victoria station. If arriving by train, London has multiple train stations that are connected to the Underground, making it easy to get to your ultimate destination easy. National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk) connects cities throughout the United Kingdom.
By far the easiest, cheapest, and most quintessentially British way to get around the sprawling city of London is the Underground, or Tube. When you arrive, immediately pick up a wallet-sized Tube map (available at Heathrow and most hostels) and purchase an Oyster Card. This allows you to load money onto the card periodically and then tap in and out of the station to pay instead of buying a ticket every ride. Fares for individual routes depend on time of day and zone (the city is divided into nine zones, with one zone being the most central—you will probably rarely get outside of zone two). The Underground’s website is www.tfl.gov.uk, and here you can find information about closures, although you’ll rarely need to because they are announced frequently in the stations. You can also download the “Tubemap” app, which includes a route planner that will help you figure out where to change lines. The Tube runs about 5am-midnight M-Sa, with reduced service Su. Tube maps clearly indicate which stations are wheelchair-accessible, and this information can also be found on the website.
Tourist Offices: City of London Information Centre (St. Paul’s Churchyard, 020 7332 1456, open M-Sa 9:30am-5:30pm, Su 10am-4pm).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: Banks, ATMs, and currency exchange centers can be found on almost every street, so you should never find yourself cash-strapped—even then, almost everywhere accepts credit card. Withdrawing pounds is almost always cheaper than exchanging currencies, and be weary of enterprising currency exchange shops. Here are two centrally-located branches of Barclay’s: 191 Earl’s Court Rd, and 2 Victoria St., 0345 734 5345, both open M-F 9:30am-4:30pm.
Post Offices: Unsurprisingly, a city the size of London has quite a few post offices. Here are two: 167 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, Pimlico, 0845 722 3344, M-F 9:30am-5:30pm, Sa 9am-12:30pm; 6 Eccleston St., Belgravia, 0345 611 2970, M-F 9:30am-5:30pm, Sa 9am-12:30pm.
Internet: Free Wi-Fi is easy to find in London. Most cafés provide internet access, but, for a sure bet, Starbucks and Prêt à Manger (which is on every street) always have Wi-Fi. Public areas also sometimes have free Wi-Fi. Additionally, many of London’s famous telephone boxes have upgraded for the twenty-first century and now provide Wi-Fi; this will be clearly indicated on their exterior.
BGLTQ+ Resources: There is an BGLTQ Tourist Information Centre on 25 Frith St. in Soho, a neighborhood famous for queer culture and gay bars. Its website is www.gaytouristoffice.co.uk. Visit London, the city’s official visitor guide (www.visitlondon.com), also has a section for BGLTQ+ travelers where you can find BGLTQ+ friendly hotels and ideas for things to do. In June, London goes all out to celebrate Pride, culminating in a massive parade.
Emergency Number: 999
Police: There is a visible police presence in London, especially in crowded areas. For a non-emergency, they can be contacted via 101. More information and your nearest police station can be found at www.met.police.uk.
US Embassy: The U.S. Embassy in London is at 24 Grosvenor Sq., Mayfair. It can be reached at 020 7499 9000 or www.uk.usembassy.gov, and it is open M-F 8am-5:30pm.
Hospitals: London has many hospitals. Here are two:
- University College Hospital (235 Eudston Rd., 020 3456 7890, open 24hr).
- St. Thomas’ Hospital (Westminster Bridge Rd., 020 7188 7188, open 24hr).
Pharmacies: Pharmacies are almost as ubiquitous as ATMs. Here are three:
- Boots (020 7262 7434).
- Zafash Pharmacy (020 7373 2798; open 24hr).
- Nelsons Pharmacy (020 7629 3118).