London is one of the world's greatest cities. Diverse, ethnically and linguistically, it offers an intoxicating mix of grandeur, history, style and culture. From ancient streets, leafy parks and grand architecture to iconic landmarks, neon lights, world class shopping and a cool arts scene, there's nowhere in the world quite like this thriving metropolis.
Known as Londonium to the Romans, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. The City of London is the capital's 1.12 square mile historic nucleus and modern financial center and often is referred to as the "Square Mile." The rest of London stretches for a remarkable 45 kilometers on both sides of the River Thames.
Contemporary museums, such as the Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery, add an option to beloved standards like the Victoria and Albert Museum (better known as the V&A) and the National Gallery. You can splurge on Saturday morning along Portobello Road or stroll Jermyn Street for gentlemen's shops bearing royal warrants. (Prince Charles gets his pajamas at Turnbull & Asser.) But it's also fun to join the flocks of shoppers at fashion-forward boutiques along New Bond Street, Regent Street or -- less expensively -- within the markets and funky shops of Brick Lane in the East End.
Visitors typically spend most of their time in and around the West End, where London's main attractions -- Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Road's book shops, Covent Garden, Soho, Regent and Oxford Streets, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Carnaby Street -- are located. Farther west are the pricier neighborhoods of Belgravia, Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum), Knightsbridge (Harrods, Harvey Nichols), Mayfair, Chelsea (Kings Road) and Notting Hill (Portobello Road).
The City of London's financial district (home to St. Paul's Cathedral, Fleet Street, Tower of London) is a must for history lovers. In medieval times, the City constituted most of London, but over the years, urban areas sprawled far beyond. As the City's boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis, though holds city status in its own right.
Tilbury does not have too many facilities for passengers. There is an information desk, a cafe/restaurant in the passenger lounge, a small general store, free Wi-Fi and public pay phones. A taxi rank is immediately adjacent to the terminal. The nearest ATMs are in Tilbury's town center or Asda Supermarket, about one mile away.
There is not a great deal to see round Tilbury, though Tilbury Fort is worth a look. It is one of the U.K.'s finest examples of 17th century fortifications and is near the site where Queen Elizabeth I rallied her troops to face the Spanish Armada in 1588. Tilbury owns a couple of claims to fame other than the royal association. In the remake of "Alfie," scenes of what was supposed to be Pier 49 in New York were actually shot at Tilbury, and scenes from the 1989 movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" were filmed there, too. In 1948, SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing Caribbean migrants. The arrival was seen as pivotal in the emergence of modern multicultural Britain.
You can visit plenty of attractions in London for free or inexpensively. Our favorite freebies are the museums (charge for special exhibits). These include the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum of London and Science Museum. Other free attractions include the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and the craziness of the ad hoc speechmakers who do their thing at the Speakers' Corner of Hyde Park. We also love the city's markets, which offer a chance to view local life and pick up some bargains.
What many visitors aim to see is atop St. Stephen's Tower near the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben is named for the 13-ton bell inside the clock. When it was completed in 1859, it had the largest bell in the U.K. Its accuracy is controlled using old pennies. The coins act as counterweights in the clock's mechanism to ensure it keeps time to the nearest second. A photo is a must-do. Only permanent residents in the U.K. are permitted to visit the clock tower; tours must be arranged through your member of Parliament (MP) months in advance.
The spectacular Gothic buildings overlooking the Thames, known as the Houses of Parliament are home to the British government. They comprise the House of Lords and the House of Commons. U.K. residents can arrange tours of the Houses of Parliament through their MP, but tours are not available to overseas visitors. U.K. residents and overseas visitors can book tickets for a guided or audio tour of the Houses of Parliament on Saturdays throughout the year and on selected weekdays during Parliamentary recesses. There is also the option to book a table service afternoon tea. U.K. residents and overseas visitors may watch debates free on current issues or proposed new laws in both Houses by visiting the public galleries. (Westminster; +44 (0)20 7219 4272; open to the public when Houses are sitting (meeting), from Monday to Thursday and on "Sitting Friday," 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sitting Friday)
Free tickets are necessary for entrance to Prime Minister's "Question Time" and are issued to U.K. residents through their MP. Overseas visitors and U.K. residents without tickets can queue but will only gain entrance if there is space after ticket holders are admitted. Expect heavy security and airport-style searches when entering.
London's largest museum, the British Museum is one of the most visited attractions in the city. Highlights include the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures and architectural features acquired by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul. Originally, they were part of the Parthenon in Greece, and every now and then, the Greek government asks for their return. To date, however, they can still be seen in London. Another important exhibit is the Hoxne hoard, a collection of more than 15,000 gold and silver coins, gold jewelry and items of silver tableware, which was buried a 407 or 408 A.D. and discovered in Sussex in 1992. (Great Russell Street; +44 (0)20 7323 8299; galleries open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, most open until 8:30 p.m. Fridays, Great Court, information and ticket desks open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and until 8:30 p.m. Fridays)
It is fun to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Queen's 600-room London residence -- Buckingham Palace. The Queen's Gallery is worth visiting to see hundreds of objects collected by George III and Queen Charlotte after 1762, when George III purchased the house for his bride. You can also get inside 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms adorned with works by Rembrandt, Rubens and others in August and September, when the royals decamp to Balmoral in Scotland. The Royal Mews is home to a grand collection of historic carriages and coaches -- many still used today -- such as the Irish State Coach the Queen takes to the opening of Parliament and the nearly four-ton Gold State Coach that has carried every monarch to their coronation since 1821. (St. James Park; +44 (0)20 7766 7300; State Rooms open summer only 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. daily, The Queens Gallery open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, The Royal Mews open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 31, but hours vary, so check ahead)
Carnaby Street is a five-minute walk from the Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus Tube stations in the heart of London's West End. It has regained its Swinging Sixties vibe with fashion and lifestyle stores galore and is known for holding fantastic shopping events, live music gigs and pop-up concepts.
The world famous store Harrods, a British institution, attracts about 15 million customers annually and is London's largest retail space, spread over seven floors. It is well worth a visit, even if it is just to admire the architecture and interior design. For those who have money to cast to the winds, some of the most expensive items sold here include a yacht costing £102 million, Ambootia Snowmist tea at £4,900 per kilogram and a handmade bed at £52,000. This place is so posh there is even a pedestrian tunnel that leads straight from the Kensington Underground platform to the store entrance. Rules at the store include no photography in certain departments, presentable clothes -- no torn jeans or rucksacks -- and unaccompanied children younger than 16 are not allowed. (Knightsbridge; +44 (0)20 7730 1234; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, browsing only between 11:30 a.m. and noon)
Once a venue for duels, executions and royal hunts -- and a giant potato field during WWII -- Hyde Park is a manicured park filled with idle sun-seekers along the Serpentine Lido swimming venue and joggers running a broad swath through an urban English countryside. Check out the Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein sculptures dotted throughout. Head to the northeast corner, and you'll see rambling orators astride soapboxes at Speakers' Corner going on about anything they want -- a kind of retro standup act that started in 1872 in response to serious riots. The only rule is they can't be obscene or otherwise breach the law.
Kensington Palace is the birthplace of Queen Victoria and the former home of Princess Diana. The unprecedented outpouring of grief after Diana's death brought the biggest collection of flowers there. The seven-mile-long Diana Memorial Walk winds its way in a figure-eight and is marked by 90 handsome circular plaques. Current Palace residents include Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. The three men are the queen's cousins. In fall 2013, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge moved into Princess Margaret's former apartment, and Prince Harry also now lives at Kensington Palace. Permanent exhibitions include "Victoria Revealed," which explores the reign of one of the palace's most famous residents, Queen Victoria; the King's State Apartments, which tell the story of the Hanoverian court; the Queen's State Apartments, which offer a more modern and theatrical display to tell the story of William and Mary up to George I; and Fashion Rules -- dresses from the collections of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales, which is open until summer 2015. While at the palace, have a light lunch or afternoon tea in The Orangery. This 18th century greenhouse was built for Queen Anne. They don't take reservations. (Kensington Gardens; +44 (0)20 3166 6000; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. year-round, except December 24-26 and January 26-30)
The Natural History Museum is housed in one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings; prime exhibits include "Visions of Earth," where you can see a piece of the moon; the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish still living in the Indian Ocean; and the Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery. The Darwin Centre offers behind-the-scenes access to Charles Darwin's collection. There is a charge for some temporary exhibitions. (Cromwell Road; +44 (0)20 7942 5000; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily)
Notting Hill, which gained prominence after the 1999 film of the same name, is relatively new by London standards. In the 19th century, the area was dominated by potteries and pig farms, but it is now one of London's fashionable areas. The Notting Hill Carnival takes place in August, while the extensive Portobello Market is always a draw for bargain hunters. Arty folks will enjoy the small, independent galleries that abound in the area.
As the gateway to the West End of London, Piccadilly Circus is where five of London's busiest streets meet. By day, it's a bustling area filled with tourists, shoppers and business people. By night, it springs to life with high-voltage hues of neon and a big party vibe. Have a seat at the statue of Eros in its center before joining the throng to shop, dine and sightsee.
Created by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, St. James's Park is one of London's loveliest. You'll see ducks, swans and even pelicans, a large lake and the central bridge that offers great views of Buckingham Palace. Nearby St. James's Palace (also built by Henry VIII) is one of London's oldest buildings. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, but you can try to get the two ever-present Royal Household Guards standing guard in their cherry red tunics and "busby" hats to smile. (They won't do it.) (SW1; +44 (0)300 061 2350; open 5 a.m. to midnight)
St. Paul's Cathedral is Sir Christopher Wren's 17th-century Baroque masterpiece (the only cathedral to have been built by a single architect and completed in his lifetime). The dome (second in size only to St. Peter's in Rome) and 295-step climb are the best part. Try a touchscreen multimedia tour in which zoomable close-ups of breathtaking mosaics and paintings help you see St Paul's in depth. Multimedia guides and guided tours reveal the history, architecture and daily life of the cathedral. The American Memorial Chapel should not be missed -- it's a moving tribute to nearly 30,000 American soldiers who were stationed in Britain and lost their lives in WWII. Check out photos of Charles and Di tying the knot in 1981. After your visit, take time to enjoy a quintessentially English afternoon tea in the onsite restaurant. You can enjoy delicate sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, a sumptuous variety of cakes and perhaps a glass or two of English sparkling wine. Editor's note: Bear in mind that when you whisper secret messages in the Whispering Gallery, everyone else standing there will hear them, too. (Ludgate Hill; +44 (0) 20 72468348; open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
An impressive historical archive of British art, the Tate Britain is filled with works by the likes of J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Gainsborough. (Millbank; +44 (0)20 7887 8888; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily)
Home to a massive collection of international modern art (from 1900 to present day) by artists like Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Warhol -- along with a good showing of British upstarts -- the Tate Modern, housed in a magnificent former power station on the South Bank of the Thames, is a must-see gallery. (Bankside; +44 (0)20 7887 8888; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
When hunger strikes, head down the Thames to the Borough Market. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, near London Bridge, the market was established 250 years ago and still does an overnight wholesale trade every night, except Saturday. Make a meal of cheese from one of the dairy shops, buy a loaf of bread and some meat pies, and check out the freshest produce in London. (Southwark Street; +44 (0)20 74071002; stalls and shops operate from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday and 8. a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday)
The original London residence of the British Royal Family, the Tower of London is a walled complex of ancient buildings right in the middle of the city. It is home to the Crown Jewels, Beefeaters and Anne Boleyn's chopping block. Kids will like the cool collection of armor. It's pricey to get in (family tickets are available), but the Beefeaters give free, one-hour guided tours every half hour. Arrive early to avoid long lines in the summer to see the jewels. The Ceremony of the Keys, which is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London takes place every night. This is when the red-coated and Tudor-bonneted Chief Warder carries a candlelit lantern and the Queen's Keys to lock the tower gates as all the guards and sentries salute the keys. Visitors must apply well in advance to attend the free ceremony. Observers are escorted to the tower at 9:30 p.m., and the ceremony ends at 10:05 p.m. No toilet facilities or refreshments are available, and no photography is allowed. (Tower Hill; +44 (0)20 3166 6000; open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, last admission 5 p.m.)
One of the world's most famous spans, the Tower Bridge is an excellent example of Victorian engineering. Opened in 1894, it still operates using the original mechanisms. Climb to the North Tower for excellent views. After the climb, make for the teapod @ tower bridge, open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday for light meals and cream teas.Check out popular musicals at London's many theaters."The Mousetrap" is still piling them in as it has been doing since 1952. Book your shows through the TKTS facility for a good deal (Leicester Square's Clocktower Building). The service often has half-price tickets available for same-day shows. Tip: Order your intermission drinks before curtain to avoid the mad rush to the bar.
Highly pedestrianized Trafalgar Square is great for people watching and soaking up London ambience. Built in 1805 following Britain's naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, the square is adorned with fountains and statues, the most famous being that of Admiral Horatio Nelson (a triumphal memorial to England's victory over Napoleon). Stop to see the National Gallery and the nearby National Portrait Gallery, featuring famous British personages.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is where you'll see thousands of items, including the enormous Great Bed of Ware mentioned in "Twelfth Night" and which is said to be haunted, an 8-feet-wide petticoat and glorious hanging panels from Oxburgh Hall that were painstakingly embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment from 1569-1585. If you're after newer items, you can see pairs of Elton John's spectacles and Adam Ant's jackets. The museum has indoor and outdoor cafes. (Cromwell Road; +44 (0)20 7942 2000; open 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, until 10 p.m. Fridays)
Westminster Abbey is the site of every British Coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066 and is also the final resting place for countless Royals and nobility since the 13th century. The church was also the site of Princess Diana's funeral service. Elizabeth I is buried on the North Aisle of the 1519 Chapel of Henry VII (he's behind the Altar); Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Carroll are over in Poets' Corner with William Shakespeare. Check out the 700-year-old oak Coronation Chair and High Altar of the Sanctuary. Guided tours are offered throughout the day. (Westminster; +44 (0) 20 7222 5152; open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, open for worship only on Sundays and religious holidays)
Military history buffs will want to stop by at the Cabinet War Rooms to see the underground bunker from which Winston Churchill directed the British efforts in WWII. The rooms are exactly as they were during the war, and there are lots of photographs and wartime memorabilia. (King Charles Street; +44 (0) 20 7930 6961; open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily)
Another haunt for wartime buffs is the Imperial War Museum. (Lambeth Road; +44 (0)20 7416 5000; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily)
Among the numerous royal haunts, Hampton Court Palace is famous for its giant hedge maze, planted in 1690, as well as its ghosts; we like to arrive by boat, via the Thames. The palace gardens are a joy as is seeing the oldest tennis courts in the U.K. The Tudor and Baroque palace itself is magnificent. It is the oldest Tudor royal residence in England. (Surrey; +44 (0)20 3166 6000; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, last admission 5 p.m., last entry to maze 5:15 p.m.)
Gardeners will want to ogle the orchids inside the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Gardens. Established in 1759 and home to more than 40,000 varieties of plants, the Princess of Wales Conservatories offer 10 environments. Make sure you see the Palm House (a lovely, 19th-century, wrought-iron and glass pavilion), the 10-story pagoda and 1631 Kew Palace, which was a country retreat for King George III. There's also an on-site restaurant. Located along the banks of the Thames, it's an easy, no-climbing walk. (Kew Road, Richmond; +44 (0)20 8332 5000; open 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily)
Westfield is a relatively new, –upscale and elegant shopping mall offering a designer section and flagship stores for everything from Hollister to Topshop to Prada. The mall contains several restaurants, decent bars and a multiplex cinema -- perfect for rainy days. Take the Underground to Shepherd's Bush station.
One of the world's largest observation wheels, London Eye serves up great views of London's best from 32 capsules during a 30-minute ride (though it might seem like a lifetime because it moves at a snail's pace). If the weather is clear, you can see Windsor Castle from the top. Book in advance to avoid long queues. (Jubilee Gardens; +44 (0)871 781 3000; open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Sunday, hours vary depending on season)
For those fascinated by nautical history, head to Greenwich's National Maritime Museum. Greenwich also has a fabulous crafts and antiques market every Saturday and Sunday. (Park Row; +44 (0)20 8858 4422; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, reservations suggested)
A domed jewel, Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871 and features three Italianate porches and a mosaic frieze around a crown. Check out the Promenade Concerts (Proms to locals) -- a series of classical music concerts in July and August. (Kensington Gore; +44 (0)20 7589 8212)
Exhibitions change frequently at the Saatchi Gallery, an art museum that houses many interesting works. (Duke of York's HQ, King's Road; +44 (0)20 7823 2363; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, free admission)
If you have kids in tow, they'll love the chance to touch 2,000 hands-on exhibits and visit more than 40 galleries heralding major scientific advances from the past 300 years at the Science Museum, the largest museum of its kind in the world. The Wellcome Wing is exceptionally cool. You can change your gender (simulated, of course) or see what you'll look like in 30 years. (Exhibition Road; +44 (0)20 7942 4000; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
On a warm, summer evening, the best place to pay homage to the bard in London is at Shakespeare's open-air Globe Theatre. There are no performances from October to April in the theater because it is an open-air venue. An exhibition and tours are available year-round. The original 16th-century playhouse was accidentally set on fire during Shakespeare's performance of Henry VIII. This venue was recreated to near-exact specifications. (Bankside; +44 (0)20 7902 1400)
There's so much to see in London you might not want to stray, but if you do, Windsor is a lovely town to visit. At the castle, the official residence of the queen, you can visit the State Apartments, furnished with art from the Royal Collection; see Queen Mary's famous Doll House; and visit St. George's Chapel, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England. Take the old cast-iron bridge across the Thames to historic High Street in Eton -- where you'll spot antique shops galore and well-heeled boys in their walking coats among the venerable old buildings of Eton College. The school was founded by Henry VI in 1440 and attended by Prime Minister David Cameron. Tours of the school are available March to September. The train from London to Windsor takes around 35 minutes. (+44 (0)20 7766 7304; open 9:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. March to October, closed on holidays and dates when the queen visits)
Take the hour-plus train trip to Althorp. This is the childhood home of Princess Diana, and where she is now laid to rest. The Spencer home for 19 generations during 500 years is filled with works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Diana is buried in the gardens in the center of a small island called Round Oval. (Northants; +44 (0)16 0477 0107; open May to September, though not daily, gates open 1 p.m., last admission to house is 3:45 p.m.)
One of Europe's first seaside resorts, Brighton is less than an hour by train from Victoria or London Bridge Station. Go there to see the spectacular Palace Pier, awash in old-fashioned charm. You can also shop in the area called North Laine with its independent shops and have afternoon tea at one of many traditional cafes.
Stratford-upon-Avon is only two hours by train from Paddington Station. This is a must for Shakespeare lovers, in spite of the summer crowds. You can see the house where he was born, as well as his grave at Holy Trinity Church. The town is pretty as a picture -- with well-preserved, timber-framed buildings and graceful white swans swimming on the Avon. You can also see the thatched roof cottage that was the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, the bard's wife. The big draw is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where some of England's most famous actors hit the boards from April to January. For spotting the actors, eat at Marlowe's Elizabethan Restaurant.
On Foot: Walking is a great way to get around London. Look out for black and yellow street signs and maps -- they give useful information about the area, including key landmarks, with realistic five- and 15-minute walking times.
By Subway: Because distances between points of interest can be too far to reach on foot, there is always an Underground station within reach. Tourists can recognize locations by means of the Tube's logo, "the roundel," a red circle crossed by a horizontal blue bar. The Tube is hugely efficient and the world's oldest underground railway. The nickname originally applied to the Central London Railway, which was called the Twopenny Tube because that was the fare, besides the fact it had cylindrical tunnels. Now it refers to the whole system.
Made up of 11 lines (plus the separate Docklands Light Railway), six zones and hundreds of stations, many Tube stops are within steps of major attractions and shopping districts. For the most part, the service is very good with trains running every few minutes on most lines.
On Tube escalators, remember the unwritten rule, "stand on the right, walk on the left."
Services run regularly from around 5 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. (Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) on most routes. Check www.tfl.gov.uk for details. Avoid morning or evening rush hour if possible -- before 9:30 a.m. and between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Starting in 2015, tubes will operate 24 hours a day on weekends.
Note: The shortest distance between two stations on the Underground network is 260 meters (853 feet). The journey between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line takes around 20 seconds but costs £4.30. It remains the most popular journey with tourists -- many of whom don't realize it's better to walk the short distance.
By Bus: London's buses are a little more complicated to navigate, but they have the added incentive of letting you see the city through their windows. Bus routes good for sightseeing are the No. 11 (the City, St. Paul's, Fleet Street, Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben) and the No. 9 (Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Piccadilly Circus).
Another more touristy way to get around is by hopping aboard any one of many double-decker tour buses. Some allow you to get on and off over a 24-hour period, making it one of the best ways to see the sights. The Big Bus Company offers several routes, with either a live guide or recorded commentary and the opportunity to cruise between Westminster Pier and Greenwich. The company also offers three walking tours: St. James' Palace and Buckingham Palace, Harry Potter film locations and "Ghosts by Gaslight." Principal starting points are Baker Street Station, Marble Arch, Trafalgar Square, Green Park and Victoria Station. Tours run approximately every 10 to 20 minutes.
The Visitor Oyster card is a plastic smartcard to use instead of paper tickets. It is preloaded with money for travel around London. The system automatically calculates the cost of each journey you make based on the service you use, when you travel and in which zone(s). It is the cheapest way to pay for travel on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services in London. Peak travel is from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Travel is more expensive during peak hours. London's public transport network is fully integrated, so it's easy to switch between services. Buying a Visitor Oyster card before you leave home makes it even easier to travel around. See www.visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk. When using the Tube, you need to validate your Oyster upon entering and exiting -- so keep it handy to exit at your destination.
By Taxi: The drivers of London's famous black cabs -- which actually come in a variety of colors -- know every nook and cranny of the city. Cabs can be hailed in the street or at designated ranks, often in front of railway stations. If the yellow TAXI sign at the front is illuminated, the cab is available for hire. They are legally obliged to take on any job for journeys up to 12 miles (20 miles at Heathrow Airport taxi ranks). Fares are metered, and there is a minimum charge of £2.40. Additional charges apply on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. Many black cabs accept payment by credit or debit card, but check with the driver before the trip starts. You can tip taxi drivers what you like, but most people round up to the nearest pound. All black cabs are wheelchair accessible and carry assistance dogs at no charge.
Reputable, licensed minicab companies, though less regulated, can offer a cheaper alternative to the black cab. They should be booked at an office, by telephone or email. Their fares are not metered, so ask how much the trip will cost when you make a booking.
Other Transportation: You also can get around London by sailing along the Thames on a London River Services boat trip, flying through the air on the Emirates Air Line cable car or exploring at street level courtesy of the city's cycle hire service, "Boris bikes," so called after the cycling mayor of London and available across the city. You need a credit or debit card to use the bikes -- go to a docking station with your card to get started. (+44 (0)20 8216 6666; bike access costs from £2)
Obviously in a city as huge as London, visitors can find the flavors of the world at prices for every pocket. There are more than 50 Michelin-starred restaurants in London. Head to a pub where you will often get a satisfying lunch -- perhaps bangers (sausages) and mash, grilled chicken salad or fish pie for under £10.
London also has some of the most exciting and diverse ethnic cuisine in the world. There is everything from Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (try Chinatown in Soho for the real thing), to Middle Eastern, Italian, French and more eclectic styles -- like Russian, Ethiopian and Syrian, for example. There are Indian restaurants everywhere, and you'll find south Indian, north Indian, vegetarian Indian, gourmet Indian.
If you're going to the theater, check out the pre-show menus in restaurants around the West End. They're lighter and will be served in time for you to get to your seat before the show.
Editor's Note: It's common practice for restaurants to add a service charge to your bill. If not, leaving 10 percent is customary, with a jump closer to 15 percent at posh places.
There are plenty of take-out fish and chip shops, too, including the oldest surviving one in London, Rock & Sole Plaice. First opened in 1871, it isn't the cheapest fish and chip shop in town, but it has a cult following and indoor and outdoor seating (and rather tasty fish and chips, too). (Covent Garden, WC2; +44 (0)20 7836 3785; open 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday)
Traditional Cockney (East End) London food includes pie and mash, so for a touch of the authentic, go to Goddards at Greenwich. This is one of London's most famous pie-and-mash shops. It has been in business since 1890. Pie and mash is a meat pie with mashed potato and a green sauce made from parsley and the water used to cook stewed eels. (King William Walk, SE10; +44 (0)20 8305 9612; open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. Sunday)
The menu changes daily at Hereford Road, a restaurant on a street of the same name. Starters might be marinated smoked haddock, potato and horseradish, while main dishes include corned beef (salt beef), falafel, potato pancakes, hummus and imaginative salads, with plenty for vegetarians. Puddings like blueberry ripple ice cream or buttermilk pudding and cherries hit the spot. Dinner will cost you around £25. (3 Hereford Road, Westbourne Grove, W2; +44 (0)20 7727 1144; open noon to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Gaby's Deli, which opened in 1964 and is still run by Gaby, is a hit with celebrities, penny pinchers, vegetarians, those looking for Jewish and Mediterranean offerings and more. You'll pay an about £15. (30 Charing Cross Road, WC2; +44 (0)20 7836 4233; open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday)
Since it opened in 1828 as a coffee house, Simpson's-in-the-Strand has been a London institution. The restaurant is famed for its traditional English fare, especially roasts that are carved at guests' tables from antique silver-domed trolleys. Simpson's also serves its Great British Breakfast on weekdays. A three-course lunch costs about £40. (100 Strand, WC2; +44 (0)20 7836 9112; open for lunch noon to 2:45 p.m. Monday to Saturday and for dinner 5:45 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday)
One of London's best Indian Sunday lunch buffets can be found at Bengal Clipper, a restored warehouse that's walkable from Tower Bridge. The restaurant is open every day for a la carte dining. A stunning "Simple Indian Food Menu" lunch or dinner costs £12 per person. (11-12 Cardamom Buildings, Shad Thames, SE1; +44 (0)20 7357 9001; open noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday)
Afternoon tea is something all visitors should try, whether you choose the Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester or any of the various teashops. Brown's Hotel is where Queen Victoria sometimes had tea. Its offerings include a modern take on an old-fashioned tradition, appreciated by those watching their waistlines and those who strive for healthy lifestyles. Expect a low-fat, low-sugar spread, which is still utterly delicious and somehow manages to keep rich flavors. Relax to the sounds from the baby grand piano and indulge in a choice of 17 teas, including the restaurant's own blend. Other afternoon tea options include finger sandwiches, delicate pastries and freshly baked cakes. You will be allocated a table for 90 minutes. Cost is £41.50, and champagne afternoon tea costs £55. (Albemarle Street, Mayfair, W1; +44 (0)20 7518 4155; open for afternoon tea noon to 6:30 p.m. daily)
London is a major port of embarkation and debarkation, although few ships actually dock on the Thames. If you are docking within the city, it means you're on a small, luxury vessel. Tower Bridge is the most scenic place to dock, with the Tower of London and the City easily accessible by foot. There are also fashionable shops, restaurants and delis at Butler's Wharf on the south bank. Greenwich, a fascinating, historic suburb is within easy reach of the West End. Greenwich is a great place to be moored; the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and the shops and weekend market are all walkable.
Besides Tilbury, the nearest ports to London for larger cruise ships to dock are Dover and Southampton; see individual port profiles for travel hints and tips.
The Port of Tilbury is home to purpose-built cruise facility, the London Cruise Terminal. This is situated within an hour of London airports. Links into town have been improved with the Thames Clipper, fast catamaran river buses carrying 220 passengers, taking 50 minutes to reach Tower Bridge.
London is a big, crowded city, and like other big cities, petty crime is common. Take care of your bags and belongings at all times.
The national currency is the pound sterling. Currency exchange can be made in airports, banks, post offices and travel agencies. For up-to-the-minute currency exchange information, go to www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Traveler's checks should be exchanged at banks or exchange offices. For the best exchange rate, use ATMs, which are found almost everywhere.
If you are visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back some of the VAT (Value Added Tax) you pay on certain goods. Not all shops participate, and stores that do set a minimum purchase level. You need to carry your passport with you and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to customs officials at your final departure from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents probably will ask to see the goods. Visit www.globalblue.com for more information.
English is spoken and understood everywhere, of course, as are many other languages.
If you want to spend your hard-earned cash on a souvenir from London, you have plenty of choices, from mugs featuring the royals, toy Routemaster buses and Union Jack cufflinks to tea towels with tube maps emblazoned on the front. If you're looking for something with a bit more taste and originality, head to Liberty of London on Regent Street, with its Tudor frontage, wooden balconies and glass atriums it is a sight worth seeing in its own right. The shop has its own line in fabrics, so look for scarves or accessories. Harrods offers a good line in non-tacky gifts -- leather diaries embossed with Harrods crest, luxury tea from its Food Hall or iconic teddy bears and bags in Harrods colors green and gold. Fortnum & Mason also has a lovely food section with lots of ideas for gifts.