London's calling, and I ain't got no swing.
May 31, 2011 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to London! As a travel noob, what do I need to know?

In a few days, I'll be flying to London to spend most of June visiting my boyfriend. Hooray! However, while I've traveled extensively in the US, I've only been out of North America once before (to Switzerland, ten years ago, on a very structured group trip), and I don't know what I need to be prepared for.

"Why don't you just ask your boyfriend?" --Great question!

He was born and raised in the US and is only living in London temporarily for his job. He's been traveling throughout Europe since he was a kid, so a lot of the "obvious" stuff I would need to know isn't so obvious to him.

Like, for instance, I only recently realized that not all outlets in the world look like this. I mean, I guess I knew, sort of, but I had never really thought about it. This is something he assumed that I just knew about.

Basically, I need help!

My living arrangements will be set while I'm there, but what else should I be prepared for? What do I need to bring? What do I not need to bring? Is there anything the US has that I overlook every day that London doesn't have? Immigration and customs is a completely new world to me--is there anything I can't bring? It's very foreign to me to have "travel" mean something other than "pile crap in car, start driving," so I welcome any and all tips and suggestions.

Bonus questions:

What things must I absolutely do while I'm there? Limited-funds-friendly options encouraged. I'll have pretty much every day during working hours to myself. I live in a city, so I'm used to just walking and exploring and am very comfortable taking (an admittedly much less vast system of) public transit. My home base will be very near the Shoreditch High Street tube stop.

We might also make a trip to Bath and/or Bristol.

Also, his company comped business class tickets for me. (I KNOW!) I'm a coach kid. I don't drink, which, as I understand it, is one of the biggest perks of premium seats. I'm flying on American Airlines: what other ways can I milk the indulgences of what were surely very pricey tickets?

Thanks so much!
posted by phunniemee to Travel & Transportation around London, England (51 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And yes, I did see this question. I won't need a phone, I've got my money situation figured out, and I know how to get from the airport to my boyfriend's workplace, so the specific answers there don't help me much.
posted by phunniemee at 1:29 PM on May 31, 2011

I don't mean to sound dismissive, but you did address "Why don't you just ask your boyfriend?" but not ""Why don't you just buy a guidebook?"

So: Just buy a guidebook! Good ones will not only have a "must see" list or "suggested two (or three-, or four-) day itinerary, they will also have a "Essential information
section" in the front, with sections outlets and other issues that you might not have thought about, like tipping, telephones, health, transportation, etc.

Lonely Planet is always a good standard, as is the Michelin Guide for a little more cultural focus. But there are dozens of good ones.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:33 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding a Lonely Planet guidebook. What do you like to do? Museums? I like the Tate Modern and the War Museum, and most museums in London are cheap or free to get in to. Shopping? I love Selfridges - go there during the week during working hours so it's less crowded. It can be pricey, though, so you can go there for window shopping and then head to some of the high street chains that are more affordable. Honestly, I'd just pick a neighborhood or two and wander around looking at things. You can even do the touristy thing and jump on a tourist bus, one of the hop-on, hop-off ones, to get your bearings - it's a good way to see highlights of a city and decide what you want to go back to and explore in-depth later.

Business Class on American to Heathrow is decent. They will provide two meals, and for international flights you can request special meals if you're vegetarian or keep kosher, etc. The meal selections on their international flights are pretty good, usually a few meat dishes and a meatless pasta dish. They also make sundaes after the main meal service, so definitely take advantage of the heaping helping of ice cream! (pro tip: the butterscotch sauce is delicious)

The main advantage of flying business, aside from the free booze, are the seats. They recline to an almost fully flat configuration, very good for sleeping. They will also give you a little amenity kit on-board that has an eye mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush, teeny toothpaste, and usually lip balm and lotion. Use it! The other good thing is the in-flight entertainment - each business class seat has an individual screen with an in-flight entertainment system, with a bunch of movies and tv shows to choose from. They'll hand out some Bose noise-canceling headsets for you to use during the flight, too. When you deplane at Heathrow, you'll get a little priority card to go through customs in the priority lane, so you won't have to wait in line for long.

One other thing - because you are flying business class internationally, you will have access to American's lounge in both Chicago and London, which you should definitely take advantage of. The Admiral's Club in O'Hare is ok-ish, but the lounge in London is much nicer.

Have fun!
posted by bedhead at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: What a great trip!

First, get yourself a good tube'll use it a lot. Then, I'd start with a look at Time Out London. That will give you a good idea of what's going on around town. You could also start with a trip on the London Eye (expensive but at sunset, it's stunning.)

All of the museums are free, and on my "must" list would be the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Modern, Kew Gardens, Westminster Abbey, and Hyde Park. The Maritime Museum is fun and you can stand directly on the prime meridian. I've never done it but have always wanted to go to Hampton Court, particularly for the gardens. Oh, and definitely catch a play. You can get last minute tickets at a TKTS booth.

I know I'm missing or forgetting much more but that might get you started.

Have fun!!
posted by Gusaroo at 1:55 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreed with everyone else. London is super awesome and you'll be able to get anything you need/accidentally forget easily. The Tube is really the easiest public transportation system I've ever encountered, and it's a great city for just walking around in.

Also, I can verify that London MeFites are super nice and awesome (and probably know more about crosswords than anyone should :) so you should go to any meetups or call one!

Immigration and customs are usually food or major cash/purchases related. So if you bring fruit/nuts/meat/snacks on the plane just make sure to finish or trash them.
posted by grapesaresour at 2:12 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hampton Court is quite good, I'd pick the Tower of London above it, though. It's crowded, so get there early. But hey, you're unlikely to have too many castles in Chicago, right?

Shoreditch is hipster central in London. If that appeals to you, you could have a good time just wandering around the area.

Definitely propose a meetup, or come along to one.

But the key advice that no-one has given yet: STAND ON THE RIGHT. Yes, this is important enough to shout. It applies to escalators, moving walkways, and basically any situation where yu have a choice about where to stand.

Get an Oyster card for the tube, check for tube timetables and directions.

Immigration and customs should be fine: you won't need anything other than a passport, and be able to explain to them that you can support yourself (e.g. "I have several thousand dollars on my credit card" or "I am visiting my boyfriend for a few weeks, he's got money"). You can't bring in certain food items or large quantities of cash (as in notes), but I imagine you wouldn't be doing that.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:24 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are some random thoughts on my home town:

Practical Essentials
An Oyster Card - this is a card for the Tube (Metro) and the Bus system - you tap it on the yellow patch on the ticket barriers and they open. You can buy it, and can load and reload it with money at any Tube Station, or load it with a season ticket (day week or month), known as a travelcard . For some reason paper tickets cost twice as much. More than 10 journeys a week means its better to get weekly travelcard.

Buy an A to Z, the definitive map of London.

Buy a copy of TimeOut, the weekly london listings magazine.

Things to see

Most of the major museums in London are free.

If I had to pick only one, it would be the British Museum. Over the centuries of rampant imperialism, this is where we stashed all the cool stuff we nicked. One day we'll have to give it back, so go see it. The most famous item is the marbles freezes from the Parthenon in Athens. My particular favourite is a long series of Assyrian reliefs showing a Lion hunt. The totally amazing History of the World in a Hundred Objects podcast should warm you up for the British Museum. They also do free tours, which are usually interesting.

If I was to leave one out it would be the Tate Modern. Lovely building, but a basically rubbish collection of Modern Art, relative to New York or Paris.

London arguably has the best theatre in the world. Best way to see it on a budget is to queue up at the National Theatre one morning, and get some of the £10 tickets they hold back every day. You need to get there about 830 to be sure of getting one of the front row seats (although 845 is usually OK). Doors open at 930. TimeOut reviews are trustworthy.

If you're a foodie, go to Borough Market on a Saturday. Foodie Mecca. In fact there are lots of good markets, for all sorts of things. Portobello in Notting Hill is still fun (friday is better than saturday), Broadway market is cool.

The major irritations of London are:

1. Its expensive
2. The pubs close at 11pm
3. The Tube shuts around 12/1230. Black cabs are brutally expensive, and night buses are complex and slow, so late at night is usually best to order a minicab (a licenced taxi, but one that has to be preordered). Addison Lee are respectable and reliable, if a bit more expensive than some.

Finally two minor points of etiquette.

1. On average Americans talk 10-20% more loudly than English people. Talk slightly more softly than you normally would, I promise you'll get a better reaction.

2. On the Tube, when on an escalator, there is a simple rule. If standing still, stand on the right. If walking up or down, walk on the left. Londoners find it intensely irritating when this rule is broken.

Hope that is helpful, and have fun.
posted by Touchstone at 2:29 PM on May 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

posted by Freedomboy at 2:30 PM on May 31, 2011

If you're taking a cellphone with you, check what your international plan (especially for data) is. Very easy for the neophyte traveller to run up huge data bills just by using e.g. an iPhone as they normally would in the US. Unless you're going to need data (and google maps is handy in a new city!), might be worth turning off data roaming and using the phone just for (limited - they're still expensive) talking and texting.

If you're in Shoreditch and have even the slightest ability to eat spicy food, go for a curry in Brick Lane.

Bath's definitely worth a visit, as might be a day-trip to Brighton, easy to get to on the train.

In any setting involving waiting, be aware that even if us Brits aren't lined up in a queue, we are still mentally aware of who arrived before and after us, and thus when our turn to e.g. order a drink at a bar is. The US style scrimmage to the bar to get the barman's attention does not go down well. There's a great book called Watching The English which details other such anthropological learnings, but I wouldn't say it's an essential read.
posted by momentofmagnus at 2:45 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: "First, get yourself a good tube'll use it a lot"

You can get these for free at tube stations! All of them will have one.

"All of the museums are free"

Not all of them - the Design Museum, some of the smaller museums, St Pauls and Westminster Abbey all charge, as does Kew Gardens (which is why I haven't been yet as I want to make a daytrip and get the most out of it).

Avoid travelling on the Tube during rush hour if at all possible. It costs more, but mainly it is very, very busy and you will get pissed off. Night buses aren't as hard as you think - in six years of living here I've only taken a taxi when I had a broken foot and couldn't get to the station any other way.

If you get a guidebook, get one written by a British person if you can - the list of British/Yankee slang on Rick Steves' site is iffy to say the least. But then I'm not from the US so it may seem obvious to me!

It doesn't have to be an expensive city - there are branches of supermarkets all over the place to get snacks/sandwiches, and I'd highly recommend looking beyond the usual tourist things - go to Highgate Cemetery, see plays outwith the West End at the Lyric or the Tricycle Theatre, find a street market, visit the used bookstore in Notting Hill Gate or sit in St James' Park and relax. I really like taking photos around Shoreditch - there is a lot of street art and it's a nice area to explore, depending n your tolerance for Shoreditch Twats. What kinds of things do you like to do? Are you likely to go shopping for anything, for yourself or souvenirs? Are you a big drinker or a foodie?
posted by mippy at 2:47 PM on May 31, 2011

Oh, and one other thing, if you're getting the comped business tickets, make sure you join AA's frequent flyer programme before you fly (if not already a member). You'll get a lot of miles just from that one flight; shame to waste them.
posted by momentofmagnus at 2:48 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you'd be into getting an overview of London's history, I found the Museum of the City of London interesting. It's also an easy way to see the Roman city wall which otherwise is pretty much buried beneath the streets and buildings of modern London. Most Londoners think I'm crazy for liking the place (and I'm not at all sure I understand what their objections are...), but there you go.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 2:51 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: Museums in London are amazing. My favorites are the V&A and Tate Britain (because I'm kind of old-fashioned). The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is fun, too. Kew Gardens and Westminster Abbey are beautiful, but neither are free (actually, they're both quite expensive). A lot of museums also hold late evenings; for example, the Science Museum does a headphone disco on the last Wednesday each month! Each museum has a different night.

And I would recommend a trip to Bristol and Bath! Bristol's just a cool city (virtually everyone I've met agrees with me) and there's a fantastic bookshop called Mr. B's Emporium in Bath.

A few random things: Maybe try to carry a small folding umbrella with you just in case there are showers. Make sure you try different teas and ales while you're there! Visit charity shops-they're my favorite places to find unique presents, even if you have to sort through junk to find them. Spend time wandering-London is well signposted and the tube makes it easy to find your way back if you get too lost.
posted by bibliophibianj at 2:52 PM on May 31, 2011

I don't drink, which, as I understand it, is one of the biggest perks of premium seats.

Oh, yeah, and this... The biggest perk of Business Class is a seat that will comfortably accommodate the American Ass, and only ever two across. Anyway, not drinking is actually the key to arriving in London and being able to enjoy that first day: alcohol dehydrates you, and dehydration is the primary cause of the physical symptoms of jet lag. Drink lots and lots and lots of water, even if you have to pee like every five minutes. It will be worth it.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 2:54 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: I think a tour of the really great stores--Harrods (including the famous food hall) Liberty of London, Selfridges and such are worth visiting--you don't have to shop of course. Have a drink at Bibendum.

Also, the Transit Museum, the Tower, the British Library, the silkweavers house in Spitalfields, the Museum of Garden History, and the Museum of Brands.

Quirky places

posted by Ideefixe at 3:01 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Lots of great suggestions here!

I was already planning to stop by my library and pick up a city guide before I left, so it's good to know which ones are good.

I'm a huge museum and history geek, so I'll definitely be hitting up as many of those as possible. You guys have provided a really awesome list for me to work through.

My biggest concern about London itself is getting lost. Chicago is laid out on a perfectly numbered grid, which helps me out a lot. I've also been warned that folks in London aren't as...ah...friendly as we are in America. (My boyfriend has racked up a number of stories of him asking passersby how to get to X or where Y is on the underground, only to be met with "I don't work here" as a response. I've always relied on the kindness of strangers. Any insider hints?

And I'd totally be down for a meetup while I'm in town! Chicago has great meetups, and it would be great to meet some new MeFites!

Oh, and I want to bean people who don't stand to the right here in Chicago, too. YOU'RE NOT SO SPECIAL, LONDON!
posted by phunniemee at 3:06 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: I haven;t been to Bristol or Bath (though have heard both are nice) but definitely get to the seaside if you can. Brighton is very cool, the smaller resorts like Eastbourne and Margate are v.English. If you are a thrift-store person, the charity shops in seaside towns are cheaper and have more pickings.

There is a great tea shop (to buy tea) in Covent Garden, and a chain called Whittards if you want to get tea to take back. Sam Smiths pubs tend to be a bit cheaper in central London and have plenty of ales on tap - there's one right near Trafalgar Square, the Chandos, so you can go to the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery, wander down Colet St nearby (a cute little street with antiquarian bookshops, and near Charing Cross Road where there are yet more) and stop for a ginger beer or an ale if you feel like trying one.

Museum of Brands might not be so great if you've never lived in the UK - it's basically a museum of old packaging, which is a Proustian rush if you remember Mintolas - but if you're an Anglophile, definitely take a look.

If you like Dickens, there;s a museum dedicated to him in Bloomsbury - can't remember the street other than 'the one round the corner from work'. There's also, nearby, a Foundling Museum which I keep meaning to go to. Personally I quite like American tourists - they're usually enthusiastic and less irritating than the teenage field trips that shout across carriages on my way home!
posted by mippy at 3:09 PM on May 31, 2011

Oh! Two blogs - don't have the links to hand - google 'diamond geezer' and 'ian visits'/
posted by mippy at 3:10 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: Lots of good advice here already. I'm halfway through a year here so am bursting with London-y knowledge to share (and live quite close to you). You can fill a lot of time with museums. The British Museum is the most important, but I love the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery and both Tates. Oh! and the V&A. The Wellcome Collection is fun as well (and the current exhibition on dirt is really cool). Highgate Cemetary is a must (pay the extra pound for a map). (You should also do the big historic sites - Westminster Abbey, the Tower, etc. They aren't boring at all. I haven't made it to Hampton Court yet but I'm planning on it.)
The best cheap food you'll find will be in street markets.
The best coffee I've had in London is from the coffee bar in Present (which is a men's clothing shop) on Shoreditch High Street.

Another theatre option is the Globe. Its season is on in the summer and you can buy standing room tickets for like 5 quid; we went last week and it was a lot of fun, assuming you don't mind standing for 3 hours.

Other things that might not be obvious: tip about 10-12.5% at restaurants - check the bill to see if it's included (as lots of times it is), don't tip at pubs, you can drink in most public places here (you say you don't drink but it's good info to know I guess?).

In terms of finding your way around, it is really confusing for someone who is used to the grid system. I definitely got lost a lot in my first couple of months. There are lots of maps and signposts, but I found it was worth my while to invest in an A to Z (which you can find at any bookstore or corner shop) to carry around. People aren't rude here but they definitely aren't Chicago-friendly.

You're going to have such a good time though!
posted by SoftRain at 3:13 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots and lots of previouslies on this.

Buy an A to Z, the definitive map of London.

Though increasingly these days, the definitive map of London these days is on your smartphone, at least for the people I was visiting last year. You're used to big-city navigation, but having GPS and route-finding at hand, along with real-time timetables, really transforms the way one gets around London. Still, an A to Z is useful at times when you're not wired in. Or underground.

Take the Tube first, but gravitate towards buses [pdf] as soon as you feel comfortable, and they'll help you join up the map. The 8, 26 and 388 from Shoreditch High Street take you through the City and most of Westminster: they're cheap alternatives to tour buses.

Brick Lane curries are ubiquitous, but you can do much better at a lower price. Shoreditch also puts you near the self-deprecatingly-named Silicon Roundabout, so if you want to see techies in their natural environment, hop up towards Old Street.
posted by holgate at 3:16 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and for what it's worth, I don't have a smartphone. I only make about 10 calls/texts a month on my cheapo phone here in the states, so I think I'll be able to get along ok without one over there. Downside is that I won't have any GPS or map apps to access.
posted by phunniemee at 3:20 PM on May 31, 2011

Then you definitely need an A to Z, and probably a bus timetable leaflet for Shoreditch High Street, and it's worth doing a bit of bus-related orienttion so you can put together a mental map of where one part of town becomes another.

You're not too far from the Barbican. Fun to explore and hang out, and there's often interesting artsy stuff going on there.
posted by holgate at 3:28 PM on May 31, 2011

The best thing about the business class seats is the space! Enjoy it. Figure out how to manage your jet lag and sleep or don't sleep on the plane accordingly. The food is also much better. Read the Simon Schama books before you go if you want a good overview of British history.

Otherwise, buying your own Lonely Planet London guide will answer most of your questions as well as the ones you didn't even know you had. It's great to have with you as a reference while you're there.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:31 PM on May 31, 2011

About getting lost, it will happen. I've gotten lost every time I've been in London, even with a smartphone! An A to Z will help, but generally I've been able to figure out what I did wrong within 10-15 minutes by just wandering around until I hit a major street or Tube Station. So also just don't freak out!

And as mippy alluded to above, packaged sandwiches in London are actually good. They are VASTLY superior to the 'sandwiches' we can generally get packaged over here. They can be found all over the place (supermarkets, Boots, Pret a Manger, etc...) and are cheap. This is handy when out wandering around.
posted by grapesaresour at 3:41 PM on May 31, 2011

Definitely get a tube map, but remember that it bears very little resemblance to what the world looks like above ground. It's often far quicker to walk. So get an A-Z as well - if you're going to be based in Shoreditch a pocket sized one should get you most places you want to go. And also check out bus timetables - including Night buses - you're going to be based fairly centrally and the buses are often a lot easier than the tube (and some run all night! Just don't expect that the Night bus with the same number as the Day bus has the same route - that's not always the case).

If you are going somewhere during rush hour, please please please don't just stop in the middle of the footpath (sidewalk) when you want to check your map. Move to the side to avoid a pileup...

If you need to ask for directions, try and pick someone who's meandering rather than someone who's walking purposefully with their eyes to the ground. Or nip into a shop - shopkeepers are more likely to know the local area better than someone who just works around the area. Or ask a Big Issue seller (and have a chat while you're at it - gives you a new perspective!)

TimeOut online is fab - or just buy a copy of the weekly version - loads of things to do and see, tells you what is free, and includes all the standard stuff as well as things only on for a short time.

Language - don't worry, we'll understand you, but some words are different. Some examples - "pissed" = drunk, "annoyed" = pissed off, "pants" = underwear, "trousers" = pants, "eggplant / zucchini / cilantro" = aubergine / courgette / coriander. Loads more - check out a couple of websites before you leave!

Columbia Flower Market on a Sunday morning is lovely - some fantastic brunch places on Colombia Road too.

There's a great book called Secret London (possibly based on a website, I'm not sure) which highlights some great things to see and do that may not be in the main guidebooks.

Enjoy! London is a fabulous city, especially in summer...
posted by finding.perdita at 4:21 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My biggest concern about London itself is getting lost.

Don't be afraid of this. Get lost! Get lost a lot. It works wonders.

When I first came to London, I was terrified of the Tube. Took one look at the map and freaked out. My hometown only had about 5 lines in its Metro system, and the Tube map looked like someone had just upended a can of multicoloured spaghetti with no concern for the resulting mess. Not to mention negotiating the ticket machines with the weird British money. I resolved to stay the hell away from the Tube.

But every day, I went out walking and got lost. The more lost I got, the more I'd keep walking. I didn't even take a map, just relied on occasionally finding them at bus stops or in the hands of friendly tourists. I'd find markets and old buildings and parks and places mentioned in books or Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I'd have lunch in unexpected places, and find unexpected museums-- it was lovely. When I finally came here to live, I was able to put the city together in my head from all the places I remembered being lost.

What I learned was: In central London, if you know where the river is, then you know where you are. You're right that London has no grid as such (though certain major streets do run straight north-south or east-west). But if you can find the river, and you know that along-a-bit-that-way are the London Eye and Westminster and Chelsea, and along-a-bit-the-other-way are Tate Modern and London Bridge and the Tower, then you're fine.

So, go out walking. Do take a map or an A-Z, but don't be afraid to get good and lost.

Other stuff:
The Tube is fine if you need to get somewhere fast, but I would get an Oyster card and get a 1-month bus pass on it (or a succession of the 1-week ones). Double-decker buses are, in summer, much pleasanter than the Tube, and you'll see more of the city. Most of them have light-up information boards and recorded stop announcements now, so it's hard to miss your stop.

On a weekend, bits of the Tube won't be working, because that's when they do the engineering work. Check the website when making plans.

You mentioned socket concerns. I'm sure your boyfriend will have adaptors lying around, but because of the different voltage here in the UK, certain appliances will also require a voltage transformer (an adaptor shaped like, and weighing about as much as, a brick.) So do a search depending on what items you'll be taking. As I recall, phone chargers require this.

Great things near Shoreditch include Spitalfields Market, Denis Severs House, and Brick Lane/Petticoat Lane Market on weekends. Borough Food Market, across the river at London Bridge, is a great place for foodstuffs. Go on a Thursday or Friday; it's a madhouse on Saturdays. If you go at the end of the day, you can get good deals on a lot of tasty stuff.

London doesn't have a lot of violent crime, but it excels at sneaky crime. Keep your handbag zipped shut and always know where it is; never hang it on the back of a chair in a café; if your wallet is in a pocket, keep your hand on it or keep the pocket zipped or buttoned; and be on guard if anyone tries to distract you (even by asking for help) at a Tube or rail ticket machine. I think Chicago probably has similar "being sensible" standards.

But mostly, have fun! Get lost a lot!
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:39 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great advice in this thread. Personally, I wouldn't hesitate to ask people for help. I've been asked plenty of times, and I've always been happy to help, and I can't be especially unique. The people who work at the Tube are usually pretty friendly, so make them your first port of call if you're underground.

As for getting lost... well, you're right, it is more complex than a grid-based city. I occasionally get slightly disoriented, and I was born here. Try to look up your destination on Google Maps before you go out, and sort of familiarise yourself with the shape of the streets and where the various tube stops are in relation to one another. You don't have to go overboard on this, but it might help to make things a bit less scary.

One thing that nobody's mentioned is Hampstead Heath. It's a big, beautiful piece of bucolic greenery in North London. It's an amazing thing to have in a big city. I highly recommend getting to Kenwood House before 11.30 one morning and having a full breakfast (vege option too). It's not that cheap (£7 a head, IIRC), but it is fantastic and wildly British. Plus, afterwards you can wander around the (free) house and look at paintings by Rembrant and Vermeer and others. Alternatively, take a picnic and enjoy the beautiful grounds. It's a half hour walk or so from either Highgate or Hampstead tube stations.

Have a great time!
posted by Magnakai at 5:29 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

People have said this, but:

THE TUBE IS OVER RATED. (it is still very good.)

Seriously, you see more, get less lost and kind of know where you are when you Bus.

Bus bus bus! Buses are nice. Take the bus!

Oh, and as a female, you'll probably get people to help if you smile nicely- I know I know, feminism and all that, but when travelling, we found we got best results when the girls asked, rather than my dad!

definitely remember the 110v America versus 220/240v (pretty much everywhere else) thing.

Have fun!

You can find anything you *need* in the UK- maybe you won't find your favourite brand of *insert toiletry product here* but you should be fine, this is one of the exciting things about travel. :) Travel light.

Here is a quick list of 'Don't Brings' from the Heathrow website.
Prohibited items for residents and non-residents include: meat or meat products, poultry, narcotics, absinthe, plants, seeds, vegetables, fruits, soil, live insects and other living plants or animal pests. Fish is prohibited unless it carries disease-free certification. Wildlife and animals or their by-products carry restrictions. Dairy products and eggs from specified countries are not allowed. Firearms and ammunition are not allowed without the necessary license and permit.,+eat,+relax+and+enjoy%5ECustoms+allowances/

If you haven't done plane travel in the last 5 years remember as well as no knives or other weaponry, you aren't allowed to have more than a certain amount of liquids (ie, toothpaste, peanut butter, lotion, etc) in your hand luggage.
posted by titanium_geek at 5:45 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: Do get an Oyster card. Immediately - probably the first time you use the tube, which may be from Heathrow, although the overground rail to Paddington is much quicker than the tube, which takes forever. Oyster cards are usable on all public transport and they will pretty much halve the price of your travel. Be aware that you need to swipe them when you leave tube and rail stations as well as when you enter (unlike with most US subways)

Do not fear the tube; it is your best way to get around if you're in a hurry. If you really need a taxi only use the black cabs for short distances (you should do this once as the black cabs are very cool). Anything longer, find one of the countless mini cab offices (usually near tube or rail stations). They're about half the price for medium-to-long distances.

On no account take a black cab from Heathrow to the city. Unless you're okay with taking a second mortgage out.

Ride on the top deck of one of our double-decker buses. You have to, really.

All the museums are pretty great.

Oxford Street and Piccadilly circus are usually hellish and probably best avoided. For good food in the Wets End Soho is worth a look, as is the area north of Oxford Street, running up to Goodge street. There are some very nice eating places there. I particularly recommend this one if you want to get your pan-Asian thing on.

It's going to be pleasantly but not excessively warm, but hey, this is England. Rain is always a possibility. Bear that in mind when packing your clothes.

I know you said you don't drink, but do try the pubs; they're a part of our culture. If you get the feel for a good pub you'll get something of the feel of what makes Britain tick. Seriously. Be aware that there is no table service in British pubs: you go to the bar, get your drinks, then sit down. Also, you do not need to tip the bar staff. It honestly is not done. In fact we don't tip much at all in the UK. We tend to give cabbies a quid or so, but that's about it. When you eat in restaurants an "optional" service charge will automatically be added to your bill, almost always. Check for that. If it hasn't been included then a tip is a good idea (assuming the service didn't suck).

For God's sake have an Indian meal at a recommended Indian restaurant. You will be knocked out by good Anglo-Indian food.

Speakers' Corner is rather touristy now, but I still find it a good laugh, and you can wander in Hyde Park afterwards.

Visit the parks and commons. One of the best things about London, for me, is the amount of green space in the heart of the city, and on the outskirts. Hampstead Heath, Kew Gardens and Richmond Park are particularly recommended. Have a picnic there. Take wine. You can do that in the UK, you know - drink alcohol openly in public. It's nice. We're the real land of the free. Oh wait, you said you don't drink. Ah well... :-)

There is just too much to do in London, so try not to overdo it. Just wander around and enjoy the vibe. And relax - Londoners can come off as a bit cold and intimidating, but we're not, really. Especially after a few beers!
posted by Decani at 5:54 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh... and go on the Eye. Hell of a view. And maybe take a boat ride on the Thames.
posted by Decani at 5:59 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: London toilets. It's famously hard to find public toilets in London. When walking around, plan ahead!
posted by Tom-B at 7:04 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're a fan of theatre - make sure you ask at the theatre box office for the cheapest way to get tickets. For example, lining up early in the morning will get you £30 front row seats for Wicked when the box office opens at 10 am. Turning up to the Legally Blonde theater two hours before the show will let you enter a lottery for £25 front row seats (in December when I did this I was one of three people in the draw for 20 seats).
posted by cholly at 11:36 PM on May 31, 2011

Oh, and if you get lost- the maps on the side if the road are fabulous. Correctly orientated and with walking estimates. Makes it so easy to find your way back!
posted by cholly at 11:39 PM on May 31, 2011

Best answer: As an American having lived in London for 3 years and having lived right next to the British Museum where I am always helping lost tourists...Here's some random tips

--You don't need an A-Z in Central London. In the past couple years they have installed these Legible London posts everywhere. Look out for them. They are extremely well laid out and will tell you whats around you and how to walk there.

--Getting pleasantly lost in Central London is a good thing. Ask Londoners for directions. They are very friendly and used to tourists. London is also very safe compared to most large cities of the world.

--Look for crosswalks with Belisha beacons. These give pedestrians right of way. Be careful, of course, but traffic should stop to let you cross.

--Be VERY careful of contraflow lanes. This means that what looks like a one-way street actually has a lane with traffic (usually buses) going in the opposite direction. I've seen many people almost get seriously hurt. The best advice I can give is to look both ways always even if you are sure its a one-way street.

--When paying for something - a coffee, a pastry, whatever - the price you see is the price you pay. There is no sales tax here.

--Finally, you will be doing lots of things that easily mark you out as an American. So don't be surprised that people have pegged you as one before you even open your mouth. Don't worry about it. In fact, go with the flow and be yourself. Central London is full of tourists from around the world so there's no need for these tips on how not to look like a tourist.
In case you're curious, Americans speak louder and more nasally, they're also the only ones who wear any of the following: baggy jeans, white sneakers, baseball caps, sweatshirts, khaki pants. The young women wear less make-up. My wife also swears Americans have a wider gait when they walk down the street.
posted by vacapinta at 1:03 AM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of great advice.

Regarding asking for advice, and the rumored unfriendliness of London culture: I've heard Americans describe the English as "standoffish," but that's not my experience at all. I think that belief springs from a simple difference in etiquette rules. In America, if there's a stranger who might need help but might prefer to be left alone, the polite thing is to err on the side of offering help. In England, the polite thing is to err on the side of leaving them alone. (It's obviously dangerous to generalize about an entire nation, but I think this works as a very broad and rough rule of thumb.)

When your boyfriend asked for help and people responded "I don't work here," I suspect he was running into this cultural difference. As an American, he approached a stranger with an attitude of, "I have no doubt this person is going to help me, and I'm not violating any norms by asking." The Londoner saw his confidence, and thought, "He doesn't seem at all apologetic about violating my privacy. Either he's a rude person who doesn't respect privacy, or he's clueless and he thinks I work here." (I'm not suggesting this was a conscious thought process-- I'm just trying to articulate an unconscious reaction that probably happened in a fraction of a second.)

So, this is a long-winded way of saying: people are generally very helpful, as long as you apologize in advance for invading their privacy. Preface your request with a slightly self-deprecating look, and say, "Sorry, would you know how to get to XYZ?" and I bet you'll get very positive responses.

If it helps, imagine that you're asking to borrow one of their personal possessions for a moment -- because you are, in fact, borrowing their private space for the duration of your conversation.
posted by yankeefog at 3:31 AM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: There's so much great advice here. I'd add:
- Try our exciting new bikes! There are 'docking stations' all over central London and you can use your credit card to take one, then return it to any other rack. If riding on the road feels too scary, you can go for lovely rides in some of the big parks.
- Go on a walking tour. These are affordable and fascinating, with brilliant tour guides. They don't just cover the obvious top ten tourist sites - you can go on tours that specialise in specific areas, or literary or historic periods. As a life-long Londoner, I've been on a few and learned tons every time.
- As you can already see, there's loads of London knowledge here. Feel free to ask specific questions once you arrive - we'll do our best to help out!
posted by sleepy boy at 3:46 AM on June 1, 2011

Ah, forgot about sales tax. I believe some retailers (M+S is one) might rebate non-EU customers on VAT as well (which is included in prices here but is 20% so a pretty big chunk) but as I live here I'm not 100% sure how this works. If you want to buy gifts or clothing here it's worth knowing about.

One tip: international chains like Gap and US products (cosmetics is one that comes to mind) do cost more here if you find you need to pick up anything or have left something behind. Clothes and shoe sizes are different (we don't have separate sizing for men and women) as well.
posted by mippy at 3:57 AM on June 1, 2011

Best answer: The tube map is not (remotely) drawn to scale. Stations that look quite far apart on the map may be just across the street.

Also, the buses are safe, fast, and all around wonderful if you can figure out where they're going. London's street grid is frighteningly complicated. On the fortunate side, most bus stops have a map nearby that tells you where the bus is going...

Not sure that either of these things are particularly *easy* to figure out, but it's something to consider.

Also, if you're a history buff, the Imperial War Museum is pretty much the de-facto museum of the first half of the 20th century. It's very nicely put together compared to other "modern history" exhibits I've seen. Do the British Museum first, but definitely pay it a visit if you've got time.
posted by schmod at 8:15 AM on June 1, 2011

mippy: "Ah, forgot about sales tax. I believe some retailers (M+S is one) might rebate non-EU customers on VAT as well (which is included in prices here but is 20% so a pretty big chunk) but as I live here I'm not 100% sure how this works. If you want to buy gifts or clothing here it's worth knowing about."

What you need is called a VAT receipt. If you make a large-ish purchase, ask for one from the cashier.

And, yes. International brands are very pricey in the UK. London especially.
posted by schmod at 8:17 AM on June 1, 2011

TFL Journey Planner

Sir John Soane's Museum

If you like walking, you can walk almost everywhere once you're in the centre. Perhaps even from Shoreditch - stroll down to Tower Bridge and then along either embankment, see how you like it (though the walk along the northern embankment from Tower Bridge to Southwark Bridge is less than user friendly).

Nthing A-Z - also makes for good souvenir.

If you decide to make a trip to Oxford, check out the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums
posted by Grangousier at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2011

Oh, and we like excuses for meet-ups.
posted by Grangousier at 10:27 AM on June 1, 2011

For travelling on the tube, print out this map. It's the tube but with dashed lines where it is quicker to get out and walk.

A zone 1-2 travel card (loaded onto your Oyster card, naturally) will get you around 90% of the touristy things in London. You don't need a 1-4 and if you do head out of zone 2, then stick some cash on the card and it'll just bill you for the excess.

The Oyster cards cost you £3, but it's a little known fact that when you return it you get your deposit back. You can also get the money on it back - although there may be some restrictions so ask when you get it.

Avoid eating out in the restaurants directly on Covent Garden. They are all tourist traps, especially the outdoor pizza place.
posted by mr_silver at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2011

I've only been to London once. What I wish I'd known first to make London and myself more comfortable with my visit:

Carry the smallest bag you can manage to survive with for the day. The tube is lovely for travel, but there are people with Places to Go and Things to Do and they will be wanting to pass you while you orient yourself: a large bag obstructs them. Make yourself as unobtrusive as possible; your oversize bag is an inconvenience to them and if they can't crowd past you on the escalator they'd planned to get up, you may make them late.

English stand-off-ish-ness is either a myth, or a relic of another era's literature. I was hugged more by near-strangers in England than I've been when anywhere in America (and I was raised in the very touchy-feely South). Maybe they've just been told Americans expect you to hug them? Maybe they've been hugged freely by Americans themselves, and are trying to make you comfortable? I didn't expect that in the least... I wish I'd been a bit less speechless!

Head lice are not viewed with the horror that they are in the United States. More of an inconvenience than a trauma. Don't overreact.

Be on the lookout for fabulous public art. Great statuary throughout the city. As a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, I liked the classic Tate, too. I loved seeing the marks on Waterhouse's Lady of Shalot where he'd scratched out and painted over some bits ... it made me feel happy and secure as a fledgling artist.

Do lower your voice. Do smile with fewer teeth until you know someone. If you're with someone on the tube or a train, sit or stand RIGHT next to them, and stay there, or someone will push in between you, and it's rude to try to talk to your companion while someone's armpit is in your face. :-)

There was a marked lack of trash cans/waste receptacles on or near public transport/bathrooms when I traveled. Carry a plastic bag folded discretely in your purse in case you have something messy to dispose of, but are forced to carry with you.

If you ever ever ever take antihistimines/Alleve/migraine meds, take a few travel packs with you in their original packaging, and decant into Tiny Purse as needed. Wasted far too much valuable tourist time trying to track down a forgotten OTC med.

Eat the fish and chips.

Have a lovely time! I found Londoners (when I wasn't accidentally blocking them on the escalators) to be uniformly gracious and friendly. (Other than the surprising number who asked me, in a rather accusing tone, "You're an American, right? Did you vote for George Bush?") (One guy told me, "I've asked so many of you, and not found one who'll admit it!")
posted by theplotchickens at 1:15 PM on June 1, 2011

Eat the fish and chips.

The fish and chips is hugely variable, and I wouldn't want you to waste your time on anything suboptimal, however many union jacks they have on the fronting, so might I recommend Masters on Waterloo Road - keep going south from Waterloo Station, past the Old Vic. I'm not pretending it's the best fish and chips in London - (that might well be The Seashell, near Marylebone), but it's much more than good enough and decently priced with good portions and you can go in and eat in the restaurant for a sit-down meal. I took a musician from an internationally revered stadium rock band there, and he raved about it.

It's often full of cab drivers, which I think is a strong recommendation.

(Takeaway cod and chips from Masters is our Saturday treat - Saturday slobbing out, Doctor Who, then fish and chips, possibly with beer: Bliss!)
posted by Grangousier at 3:28 PM on June 1, 2011

Oh, and I'm a huge fan of the weekend buffet at the Indian vegetarian restaurant Chutneys on Drummond Street (near Euston Station). One of those places where I translate "eat as much as you like" into "eat as much as you possibly can" because it's so nice.

Yes, I am hugely fat, why do you ask?
posted by Grangousier at 3:32 PM on June 1, 2011

There are no bins/trashcans on the Underground, and possibly not in mainline rail stations either - they were all taken out when the IRA were about, I think - same reason you'll struggle to find a public bin in the City/financial district.

Never nbeen to The Seashell, but if you go to the British Museum or anywhere round Bloomsbury, take a walk to The Fryer's Delight on Theobald's Road. Fish and chips will set you back about £6.

The new food thing in London seems to be ice cream (MrM still won't accompany me to the place where they make instant ices with nitrogen) and frozen yoghurt, plus cupcakes are everywhere too. Your boyfriend may have a copy, but Time Out's guide to Cheap Eats in London is great. DO NOT go to an Aberdeen Steak House. Or an Angus Steak House.
posted by mippy at 3:47 PM on June 1, 2011

Ice cream in London has definitely gotten much better, but I would respectfully disagree that it's something a visitor from the US should seek out, just because the US is home to so much amazing ice cream, and a randomly selected ice cream place in London unlikely to top it. That said, there is one amazing exception: Gelupo, near Picadilly Circus. Their gelato is as good as anything I had in Rome. Especially try any flavor with ricotta in it. (It's expensive, though.)

Also, I want to recommend the book that I always recommend to anybody visiting London: Londwalks by Anton Powell. It is far and away my favorite guidebook to the city. It consists of five or six really detailed self-guided walking tours. It will take you into some fascinating corners of the city you'd never stumble upon on your own. Unfortunately, it's been out of print for a long time, so some of the information is out of date-- but 95% of the stuff he tells you about is still there, and it's a wonderful way to see the city. Especially for somebody on budget, since you can buy a used copy for a few bucks, and walking is free! (Do make sure you suplement it with a more recent guidebook for stuff like restaurant recommendations and opening times.)
posted by yankeefog at 2:14 AM on June 2, 2011

Oh, I'm not pro-London ice-cream, just pointing out that it's fashionable now, for what it's worth. The rest of the world turns as normal.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on June 2, 2011

I posted a meetup proposal for 12th June (date chosen because the Whelk will also be here on that date).
posted by Infinite Jest at 5:23 AM on June 2, 2011

Since we're on ice cream, I would like to praise The Greedy Goat at Borough Market. They're geniuses with flavour, and their product is much lovelier than you would ever think goat's milk ice cream could be.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:32 AM on June 2, 2011

Lots of great suggestions here. One thing I'll add: the London Popout Map is my all-time favourite map of London, and I wish I'd had one from the moment I landed. It's pocket-sized, and includes maps of the Tube, major bus routes, and Central London. You'll still need an A to Z, but it's tremendously useful to have this basic information in a compact, easily accessible form.
posted by hot soup girl at 5:47 AM on June 4, 2011

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