Alex's Guide to Visiting London
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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
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.
- Painting, sculpture, photography, and other media (eg woodcuts). Portraits,
landscapes, urban, still life, and so on.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- The new Millennium Pedestrian Bridge, now had the wobble removed
(it was closed on the first day of opening as it wobbled too much
with the beat of the pedestrians walking in step!).
- Great view from the bar of the Tate Modern. Actually the whole of the
South Bank warrants a walk along the river, from Southwark
Cathedral, Vinopolis, the Globe, Tate Modern, South Bank Centre, London
- London Zoo and Aquarium are held up as being prime examples of their
genre if that interests, though there are more impressive
- Markets, some of which are famous might be worth a visit if that
sort of thing interests you. Check your GB for information.
- The House of Commons and Buckingham Palace probably warrant a
tour, though we do not have specific recommendations. Getting a
ticket for the House of Commons may be difficult, but equally it
is quite different from other legislature buildings.
Art and artefacts
The variety of material on display in London is amazing. Here
are some issues to think about:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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.
- Resistance is futile in a museum gift shop.
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
Elizabeth gave helpful insider ideas.