“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
Johnson was right then and would be today. No matter the length of your visit, you’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do in London.
At the height of the British Empire, London was the most important city in the world. While it might have lost that claim to New York City and Tokyo, there are still plenty of theaters, restaurants and clubs for contemporary entertainment, and museums, mansions and memorials to remind you of the past.
London can be pricey but, with knowledge, you can make it affordable. Start with the money-saving London Transport Travelcards, available at major Underground stops and at various other places around the city. The cards are good on the Underground, buses, even British Rail services in Greater London.
They are available in a number of combinations and lengths. The shortest and cheapest is the One Day Off Peak Travelcard. The seven-day version is the best, but requires a photograph.
Learn where everything is by investing in one of the two- to three-hour sight-seeing bus tours of the West End and the City of London. The colorful double-decker buses are well marked, and allow you to leap off and jump back on at their many stops.
Most start on Coventry Street between Piccadilly Square and Haymarket, a block from Leicester Square. The Original London Sightseeing Tour, The Bus, Eurail’s London Day Tour and others compete to show you London’s landmarks.
Before jumping on a tour bus, buy the A to Z Mapguide for orientation and for finding places on foot later.
Touring London on foot can be an awesome experience. For ideas, pick up The Original London Walks brochure at a tourist center. Each day, a dozen or more walks cover a variety of interests. Interested in the haunts of Jack the Ripper? There are walks to some of them conducted by local guides, including a few by professional actors.
The walks usually begin at an Underground station and, after two hours of discovering London at ground level, often end in a historical pub. Subjects include Haunted London, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Spies’ and Spycatchers’ London, the British Museum Walk and various pub walks. They all go, rain or shine.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, rock fans can explore London’s rich, cutting-edge musical history on the Beatle Sites & Rock ’n’ Roll London tour. Have your photo taken a la the Beatles while crossing the zebra-striped crosswalk opposite the Abbey Road Studios. See the former London church where Bob Marley’s reggae revolution started.
Another suggestion: Buy a copy of Time Out at any newsstand. This weekly entertainment bible contains listings of London theaters, large and small films, concerts, comedy, dance clubs, discos and more.
Enjoy a stage play at one of London’s many theaters in the West End, most not more than a few blocks from Piccadilly and Leicester Squares. Few are sellouts and usually you can buy a cheap seat in the balcony from the box office for about 10 pounds, or about $18.
With a student ID, card you can buy the best remaining seats in the theater 90 minutes before the curtain rises for somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds.
Talk with your congenial British hosts and fellow tourists while standing in line — “queuing” to the locals — outside Tkts (formerly the Leicester Square Half Price Ticket Booth). The booth sells tickets for many shows at half-price plus a 2 pound fee. Hours are 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for evening shows, and noon to 2 p.m. for matinees, usually Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Find inexpensive eats at one of the more than half-dozen restaurant chains with the words “pizza” and/or “pasta” in their names. Garfunkles is a chain noteworthy for its fresh do-it-yourself salad bars. Indian and Chinese restaurants usually are bargains. London’s colorful Chinatown is tucked away in Soho just above Leicester Square. On its fringes are a few delightful and inexpensive Japanese restaurants.
Today’s most trendy Japanese eatery is Wagamama. Not only is it a great value but it also might be the easiest place to meet university students and 20-somethings.
Because of Wagamama’s popularity, you probably will stand in a 30-minute “queue,” but don’t worry: The line is probably the coolest place in London for young men and women to meet.
If you haven’t connected with new friends by the time you’re in, you have a second chance as you are seated at long, crowded tables where everyone sits elbow to elbow. If you leave without meeting anyone, look in the mirror: You almost certainly have the wrong approach or an attitude problem.
Pubs are everywhere and are great places to meet people. Many serve tasty and inexpensive pub-grub lunches. The British prefer to drink ale or bitter at room temperature. Try a pint, you might like it, although many Americans prefer cold lager.
If you are still looking to connect, try the discos and dance halls in Soho. Find them by word of mouth and, if that fails again, look in Time Out. Ask around at the huge record stores, Tower Records right on Piccadilly Circus and the two Virgin megastores on Oxford Street, one by Marble Arch and the other by Tottenham Court Road. You can book concert there, too.
Limelight, a huge disco carved out of an 1754 church on Shaftsbury Street in Soho, goes from 8:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. Legends, the Wag Club and the Hippodrome are nearby. Or dance at hip and happening Bar Rumba.
For trendy shopping for anything from clothes to crafts, hike out to Camden Lock — tube stop Camden Town — London’s equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village. The jumble of eclectic shops tumbles out of an abandoned railway freight yard by the Camden Lock on Regent’s Canal. And, yes, you can take an urban cruise on one of the colorfully painted canal boats. On Saturdays and Sundays, it’s a glorious madhouse.
If you’re looking for slightly more genteel events, catch the impromptu street entertainers in Covent Garden just outside of Soho.
For some other offbeat sights try these:
• Madame Tussaud’s: Admire the late Princess Diana and other members of the Royal family, even Henry VIII’s many wives, at Madame Tussaud’s. Remind yourself that Saddam Hussein and Moamar Kaddafi are just wax figures. Madame Tussaud is also responsible for the lifelike Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, et al at the Rock Circus, a multimedia extravaganza on the history of rock and roll by Piccadilly Circus.
• London Dungeon: Come here for a quick course on man’s inhumanity in all of its forms. The dungeon, below London Bridge Station, offers a two-hour interactive experience of political and religious murders, tales of Jack the Ripper, the horrors of the Plague and criminal trials that the hanging judge always wins.
Based around repulsive animatronics and waxworks, with appropriately gruesome sound effects, it now also boasts costumed staff members who jump out of the displays at unsuspecting tourists. If you’re in the market to buy truly repellent items, there’s a gift shop.
Just past the dungeon, come to …
• War Experience, which puts you in Winston Churchill’s Britain under the terrible World War II blitz. Experience a Luftwaffe bombing raid complete with sounds, smells and smoke, and then the horror of the V1 “buzz bomb” and V2 rocket attacks on London.
• Other war sites: War buffs should explore the Imperial War Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms (Churchill’s underground headquarters) and the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in North London.
— Dennis Cavagnaro, a retired Marine, is a frequent traveler and freelance writer living in California.
If you go
Check out these London attractions:
Wagamama, 4 Streatham St. (off New Oxford Street near the British Museum), phone 020-7323-9223; and l0A Lexington St., 020-7292-0990.
The Original London Walks, P.O. Box 1708, London NW6 4LW; 0207-625-1932; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back Roads Touring Company (Beatles & Rock tour), 14A New Broadway, London W5 2XA; phone 020-8566- 5313; e-mail email@example.com.
British Airways London Eye, Jubilee Gardens, South Bank, London SE1; phone 0870-500-0600 or 870-990-8888; Web site www.ba-londoneye.com.
Tkts (formerly known as the Half- Price Ticket Booth), Leicester Square; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 3 p.m. Sundays.
— Dennis Cavagnaro