Hi Frugalistas! I’m starting a new occasional series – short travel guides to my favorite European destinations. I’m starting with a short guide to London – for no real reason, other than it seems to be start of many European explorers’ adventures. Being an English-speaking destination it’s also a good starting place for more timid independent traveller. In this newly updated post, I’m sharing the best of London in one tiny package. If you are traveling to London with children there are also some great things to do in London.
Arriving in London
You have plenty of options here depending on how you arrive. Arriving at Heathrow or Gatwick you have the option of buses, the underground train or the Heathrow/Gatwick Express train that drops you at Paddington. Taxis are very expensive and therefore best avoided. While it is the most expensive of my options, I really like the Heathrow/Gatwick Express. Costing STG19 it will have you in central London in 15minutes (Heathrow) or 30minutes (Gatwick) in style and comfort. In contrast, allow at least an hour for the underground and a long stand with your luggage (it’s a standard London underground train ie: no room to store your luggage and is one of the busiest lines).
Arriving from smaller London airports there will usually be a train to take you into central London. Distances and times will obviously vary, but allow at least an hour.
Where to stay in London
I think of London as a series of villages, each with its own particular population and vibe. I tend to avoid the heavily touristed streets of hotels cheek by jowl in areas like Kensington in favour of more residential areas. My favorites? Islington with its great (cheap) restaurants and young professional vibe or Chelsea for more traditional, monied London.
Finding somewhere to stay in London
London hotels are awfully expensive and don’t deliver a lot for your money, so it’s somewhere to moderate your expectations. Expect a small room and not a lot of amenity. More recently I stayed at the Mondrian Hotel in Southwark. It’s not frugal, but makes a lovely splurge if you are looking for somewhere stylish and comfy in Central London.
Getting around London
While Londoners might complain about it, and it can be very crowded, public transport makes getting round London easy peasy. Single tickets are expensive, so stick to either day passes or for a longer stay a re-chargeable Oystercard. At around STG8 per day either are a good deal that can be used on both the underground and the bus all round central London.
Where to eat in London
Food in London is also expensive, so again, I think laterally and try to go where the locals go. Curries in London are often a good deal – for true English experience go for the Chicken Tikka Marsala (invented in the UK and now its most popular dish) or ask your waiter for a more authentic Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi meal.
For lunches and other quick meals on the run head to the Marks & Spencers supermarket areas or Tescos, or sandwich shops like Pret a Manger or Paul.
For good cafe-style Italian food that won’t break the bank I’ve enjoyed meals at Carluccio’s, the chain of deli-come-cafes owned by chef Antonio Carluccio (allow around STG14-16 for a main course).
Museum cafes are also a good choice for light meals on the go. When you take into account that most London Museums and Art Galleries have free entry (see below) a day out and a good meal won’t break the bank.
When I want to splurge in London my thoughts immediately head to Afternoon Tea. A light lunch, followed by a formal English afternoon tea at around 4.30pm makes a satisfying and very English experience for the price of an ordinary meal in an ordinary restaurant. My favorite place for tea in London? Fortnum & Masons – the Queen’s grocers. But also consider fancy hotels such as the Dorchester or Ritz.
What to do in London
Deep breath – there’s so much to do in London I wouldn’t even pretend to be able to cover everything in one blog post. Get yourself a fantastic guidebook and study it well!
The great thing about London is that while it is expensive to stay and eat many of the best things to do are free! London Museums and art galleries have free entry and cater to almost everyone’s taste. Allow a pound or two to check your coat and get a map so you can wander round in comfort and enjoy, and do allow extra if you want to enter any of the special exhibitions (these can be expensive so allow about STG15 per person) or have a meal afterwards (again allow between STG7 and 15 per person).
Other great free things to do: the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, watching the squirrels in the London parks (for we Australians that is so novel!), window shopping in Harrods, Liberty of London or Bond St.
Shopping in London
London is a shopping mecca, and again there’s just too much to cover in one post! So here’s a (heavily) edited list of my favorites:
Cashmere for both men and women – try Burlington Arcade for a couple of options, or Brora (various shops around London)
Chocolates at Charbonnel & Walker – in the most beautiful boxes you can keep as a lovely memento. Oh, and the chocolate’s great too.
Great wardrobe basics at Marks & Spencers – where Britain shops. While everyone in England might have what you’re wearing, no one at home will.
Russell & Bromley for designer looking shoes at a non-designer price.
Men’s wear. Hit Jermyn St for classic, high end (read expensive) gentlemen’s attire. It’s worth wandering into some of these very traditional shops just to soak in the atmosphere.
Souvenirs from Harrods. The only shop I know of with its own souvenir department….. but fun, and make wonderful inexpensive gifts.
There really is too much in London to cover in one post, but trust this little taste will help you plan your trip to be just perfect.
Author’s note: this post contains a number of affiliate links for products and accommodation that you might find of use. If you make a purchase I do earn a small commission, however, it won’t cost you anything extra.