Alex's Guide to Visiting London


Introduction

This guide is the most definitive, reliable and complete guide to London that you will ever encounter. If you fail to follow its advice your visit might be less than perfect. The entire guide, including this sentence should be taken very seriously indeed.

The advice assumes that you will be spending about a week in London. That is about enough time to sample a range of options. If you spend less time, then there is no way that you can "do London". If you have longer, you will have the chance to explore in more depth.

Resources

There are two key types of information. I don't have many recommendations. Any really good URLs would be welcome, but you should probably search the web independently of this.

Guide Books (GB)
These are aimed at the unfamiliar visitor.
Current Listing (CL)
Perhaps the most detailed publication with current information is Time Out (TO). Some Saturday and Sunday newspapers also contain listing sections. Try looking on the internet. When you are in London, the daily local paper, "The Evening Standard" has up to date listings, and on a Thursday has a free equivalent publication to Time Out.
CLs tend to provide information about temporary exhibitions, and events. For example, TO will make very cryptic mention of permanent exhibitions. On the other hand, GBs cannot be truly up to date. Temporary exhibitions and one-off events should not be dismissed even if this is your first visit. There are often special activities that you will not get at home. This means that you should try to be flexible, and obtain a CL on arrival. A souvenir copy of a CL might be useful for planning a future trip or lending to a friend.

General strategy

I think that it is a good idea to plan a mix of activities. One approach is to list out areas of interest and aim for at least a sampling of each. This might involve a lot of selectivity. For instance, suppose that you allocated a half day to the British Museum. This is so big that you might choose a specific area, such as Egyptian galleries. But realize that even then you may only want to see a subset of that collection.

It is a good idea to plan some orientation time at the beginning. A lot of things are within walking distance or a short tube ride.

Here are some loose suggestions. In each case think of - and perhaps list - the range and possiblities.
Art
Painting, sculpture, photography, and other media (eg woodcuts). Portraits, landscapes, urban, still life, and so on.
Museums
Some ideas: art, science, geology, natural history, textiles, Egyptology, glassware and ceramics, military old and recent, treasury, manuscripts and documents, engineering, fashion, musical instruments, ceremonial and ecclesiatical. And material from all over the world.
Theatre
London theatre can be outstanding, and I not necessarily as pricey as elsewhere. Before you say that it is expensive, find out the price of tickets for international-calibre performers at home. Look for acting quality (not always big names), fine productions, and enjoyable locations. For instance, when in season, the Globe is interesting, but the best performance that I have seen there was not Shakespeare. Firstcalltickets is a good source of cheaper tickets.
Classical Music
While you shouldn't assume that all performers at major venues are stars, there are a lot of excellent performances. It does seem to vary a great deal, and there is a large element of "luck" involved as to what is on during your visit. If you coincide with the summer BBC Proms (see BBC web site), you should definitely consider one of these. I don't see a lot of opera, but have enjoyed performances at the Coliseum over the years.
Gardens and Parks
Kew Gardens is a little way out, and would require at least a half day for a visit, but the palm houses and greenhouses are very good, and maybe a perfect change of scene. The gardens in central London are not special enough for attention in a short visit.
Etc
London has great cinemas, nightlife activities, sport, and so on. However, you can do most of these at home. Perhaps you might consider timetabling in some down-time relaxation. But it strikes me that the best downtime is spent in a cafe, park or something similar. If you must do shopping, then look at a GB. You might be interested in a sporting event, such as tennis (Wimbledon), cricket (Lords or Oval), or soccer (White Hart Lane or Fulham). Potentially a unique experience, if to your taste.

Getting around

The easiest methods for getting around are walking and the Tube (underground mass transit system). You can get day cards for the whole mass transit system, and these are often better value than 2 or 3 single trips. You may only need the innermost zones. However, it is often possible to get around without using the tube. The central area is not enormous. Some tube segments are very short, and quicker to walk: look at your street map rather than the diagrammatic tube map. Also some tube stations are deep or far from the entrance, and some line interchanges require long walks. Carry an umbrella if it might rain. I have used buses only occasionally, but many Londoners swear by them for getting around in the centre of London, since you can easily jump on and off. In any case, you might find the official Interactive journey planner helpful.

Sightseeing and orientation

I am very unsure about giving advice on this, but GBs should be very helpful. Perhaps some sort of orientation early on would be a good idea. However, you won't be able to get the full picture, so expect to build a jigsaw as you visit specific locations. Open topped boats leave from Embankment Pier, by Embankment tube station, and an hour's trip should get you to Tower Bridge in the east to the Palace of Westminster in the west. The London Eye is good, but maybe something for later on, since you won't be able to learn the layout from it but should be able to recognize places that you have been to. Also, consider skipping it if the weather is poor. It is extremely impressive at night, but perhaps that is something for a second visit. Do, however, find time at night to walk over a central bridge at night.

Recommendations

I don't make many. This is largely because it is up to your tastes. A good GB will help to sort out the good from bad. London, at least in art, has a mix of general coverage and specialities. For instance, the National Gallery has fine examples across a range of genres, and it can be interesting to get an overview. But it has a room full of Rembrandts: when you gaze unhurriedly at his painting of Paul, smile at the thought of the hordes queueing for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in Paris. Music concerts can be great, but there are lower-standard pops performances that are not as good as standard fare at home. Some theatre, sights, galleries, concerts, etc, are basically tourist traps. Look for quality. Here are some suggestions that I have received:

Art and artefacts

The variety of material on display in London is amazing. Here are some issues to think about:
  1. When reading about the British Museum or V&A you can lose perspective, because of the scale and diversity, and each gallery has more than an ordinary museum.
  2. It is easy to over estimate your capacity and reach saturation during a visit before getting to the items that interest you most. Do not be embarrassed about skipping exhibits in order to be selective and savour a subset.
  3. Some things sound might attractive but not be to your taste. For example, you might try to view some Turners on the internet before deciding to visit the Tate's collections to see them. That said, there is a case to be made for seeing a speciality, such as British art at the Tate, even if it is not your favourite genre.
  4. There is a case for seeing famous exhibits at a museum but you should be prepared to tell your friends back home that "at the British Museum we didn't go to see the Rosetta stone because we wanted to spend time in the Sutton Hoo gallery". (Personally, I prefer the charm of the Lewis chess pieces to the Rosetta stone.) Avoid a constant rush from one tourist hotspot to another in the quest to "do London".
  5. It is often worth checking at the information desk when you arrive, and you can always ignore their suggestions. You might, for instance, tell them what you are interested in and ask what they think is special to that museum, what galleries are closed, or special exhibits worth consideration.
  6. Resistance is futile in a museum gift shop.
I am only gradually learning to be ruthless. For instance, I would like to think that if I wanted to see the Lindisfarne Gospels (and similar artefacts), I would plan a trip to the British Library's galleries, skip most of the displays, and concentrate on the items of most interest. Often I get distracted, going to another exhibition first, reach saturation, and try to see everything.

A final word

Do not expect your visit to be uninterrupted wonder and excitement. You need to take risks if you want to experience something special, and not everything will work out. Also, there are so many possibilities that planning down to the last detail is not essential to, and might get in the way of, having a good time.

Acknowledgements

Elizabeth gave helpful insider ideas.