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The thing that always surprises me about London is how the city combines historical and modern, sometimes even on the same street. You might, for instance, encounter an outrageously hip clothing store on a block where Charles Dickens once observed harsh surroundings, or modern cuisine served in a tavern that's been around practically since Shakespeare's time. There is a dazzling duality between history and tradition and everything that's cool and new. One minute, it feels like you're in a History Channel show full of royal households and churches; the next minute, you're in a place totally on the cutting edge.
Local chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are now as famous as rock stars though a tourist requisite is still traditional afternoon tea. Contemporary museums, such as the Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery, add an option to beloved standards like the Victoria & Albert (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 pyjamas at Turnbull & Asser.) But, these days, it's also fun to join the flocks of shoppers at fashion-forward boutiques along New Bond Street, Regent Street or (less expensively) around the markets and funky shops of Brick Lane in the East End.
London is a major "port" of embarkation and debarkation, although very few ships actually dock on the Thames. (We'll say, however, that it's a thrill to actually dock right in the city, which usually means you're on a small, luxury vessel.) Far more common are England's three major passenger cruising ports: Dover, Southampton and Harwich. Each offers something to see, whether in town or in surrounding hamlets. Still, we're betting that most folks will want to add a couple of days' stay in London before heading out (or returning home).
London is a big city geographically. The majority of visitors 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. Further west are the pricey neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria & 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 -- it is where London began the original "square mile," built by the Romans. It still exists today as its own self-governing entity.
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Anything with the red, white and blue Union Jack is a great bet: T-shirts, caps, socks and tea towels. Also look for biscuits, lemon curd and tins of tea from Fortnum & Mason, and for big spenders, anything in Burberry's signature tan plaid (but you may find cheaper prices on eBay than in London
English is spoken and understood everywhere, as are many other languages; London is a complete cultural melting pot.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the sterling pound (quid in slang, although using this word will get you laughed at as a visitor). Currency exchange can be made in most banks, post offices and train stations. (For up-to-the-minute currency exchange information, go to www.oanda.com or www.xe.com .) Traveller's checks should be exchanged at banks or exchange offices, as very few businesses will accept them. For the best exchange rate, use ATM's, which are found almost everywhere.
If you are visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back some of the 17.5 percent VAT (Value Added Tax) you pay on certain goods. Not all shops participate, and stores that do set a minimum purchase level. You will need to carry your passport with you and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to Customs at the final departure from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents most likely will ask to see the goods. Visit www.globalrefund.com for more information.
Editor's Note: ATM's in England require a PIN to be only four digits long, so plan ahead. Also, many display only numerals on the keypad. For pin codes that include letters, commit to memory, or jot down the translation to numbers.
Where You're Docked
Ships tie up at Dover, Southampton and Harwich -- see individual port profiles for travel hints and tips.On some occasions, though, smaller ships can actually dock in London. There are three possibilities: Tower Bridge, the most scenic, which is only available to the smallest ships; Greenwich, a fascinating and historic suburb that's within easy reach of the city and West End; and Tilbury, where there's a small cruise terminal. Tilbury is particularly grim and industrial, with no local attractions.
There is nothing to see around Tilbury, apart from the 17th-century Tilbury Fort, a few minutes' walk. Tower Bridge is 35 minutes away by train. If you're docked at Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the city are easily accessible by foot on the north bank of the Thames; there are also fashionable shops, restaurants and delis at Butler's Wharf on the south bank. Greenwich is a great place to be moored; the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and the shops and weekend market are all walkable.
London is still largely a baffling medieval layout. Make like a local, and carry an A - Z street finder, which can be picked up at most newsstands. Otherwise, we strongly suggest you at least look at an Underground map for best bearings.
Walking is the transportation of choice. Still, if you need to hop on to something, the Underground (London's subway system, also known as the "Tube") wins the prize for efficiency. 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. The trains run from 5:30 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Underground is currently undergoing a big modernization process with sleek, new escalators and animated billboards. As such, there are a lot of station closures on weekends. Check http://www.tfl.gov.uk before travel for details. If you want to avoid feeling like a trapped sardine, don't get on during morning or evening rush-hour, which take place before 9:30 a.m. or between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
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.
If you plan on using the Underground and buses a lot and only have a day, consider a Travelcard; it can be purchased at travel agencies in the U.S. before you depart or at tourist offices and major train stations (such as Victoria) once you're there. Regular Underground fares are £4, one of the highest rates in Europe. Far better is to buy an Oyster smartcard and load it with enough cash for your stay. With an Oyster card, the £4 becomes £1.80. The cards cost £3 deposit, which you can reclaim from a tube station before leaving the country.
Another fabulous way to get around is by hopping aboard any one of many tourist-oriented double-decker tour buses. Some allow you to get on and off over a 24-hour period, making it one of the best -- albeit touristy -- ways to see the sights. The Big Bus Company is one that offers several routes, departing every 15 minutes from Green Park, Victoria and Marble Arch. Each lasts a few hours, and all offer live commentary (http://www.bigbus.co.uk ).
Cabs in London include the beloved black cabs driven by drivers who are famous for knowing every single nook and cranny of the city. They are easy to hail, but fair warning: though cabs use a metering system, with fares automatically starting at around £4, weekend, holiday and evening surcharges can make the ride steep. (Those fares can run as much as 50 percent more than basic weekday fares; the meter will display the surcharges.) A 10 percent tip isn't compulsory, but it's common practice. The cabs operate 24/7, 365 days a year and take up to five passengers. Newer models have wheelchair access, and they make U-turns quicker than you can say "crumpet" for fetching you from the other side of the road.
Hints: When using the Tube, you need to validate your ticket or Oyster upon entering and exiting -- so keep it handy to exit at your destination. Bus routes good for sightseeing are the #11 (the City, St. Paul's, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace) and the #9 (Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Piccadilly Circus).
Watch Out For
London is a big, crowded city, and petty crime is common, so take care of bags and belongings; never leave your purse slung across the back of a chair in a restaurant or on the floor. Londoners are not great at speaking clearly to foreigners, and some may find the Cockney accents of street traders difficult to understand. Finally, as the city simultaneously upgrades the Underground, installs a new rail link that cuts straight through the West End and prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2012, there is roadwork and building work everywhere. You may find traffic delayed and pedestrian routes blocked.
There are plenty of attractions in London you can visit for free or little charge. Our favourite 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 & Albert, 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 free chance to view local life and pick up some bargains.
What everyone wants to see is atop St. Stephen's Tower near the houses of Parliament. Big Ben celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009 and 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 U.K. residents are currently permitted to visit the clock tower; tours must be arranged through your local MP several months in advance.
Editor's Note: There are 334 spiral steps to climb!
The spectacular Gothic buildings overlooking the Thames, known as the Houses of Parliament (http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/), are home to the English government. At one end is the House of Lords. At the other is the House of Commons. U.K. residents may take free tours throughout the year, while overseas visitors may only tour the building in the summer; however, non-U.K. citizens may attend debates and committees all year round. Expect heavy security on entering.
The largest museum in England, The British Museum (http://www.britishmuseum.org), is the most visited attraction in London. Highlights include the 2,200-year-old Rosetta stone, Egyptian mummies, suits of armour from the time of King Arthur and the Portland Vase, the 2,000-year-old corpse found in a Cheshire bog. Galleries are open Saturday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., as well as Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Great Court is open Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. The museum is located on Great Russell St. (Highlight Tours operate at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. daily.)
Don't believe the naysayers! It is fun to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Queen's 600-room London residence -- Buckingham Palace (http://www.royal.gov.uk). It's always at 11:30 a.m. (on alternating days in winter and daily in the summer). Get there early, and you can practically push your nose through the front gate. The Queen's Gallery is worth visiting to see hundreds of objects collected by George III and Queen Charlotte since 1762, when George III purchased the house for his bride. You can also get inside 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms adorned with Rembrandts, Rubens and such in August and September, when the royals decamp to Balmoral in Scotland. The Royal Mews is home to the most amazing collection of historic carriages and coaches -- many still used today -- such as the Irish State Coach that the Queen takes to the opening of Parliament and the nearly four-ton Gold State Coach that has carried every monarch to his coronation since 1821. State Rooms are open in summer only, daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. The Queens Gallery is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Royal Mews is accessible through October 31 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but hours will vary, so check ahead. The palace is located at St. James Park.
Carnaby Street (http://www.carnaby.co.uk/) has regained its "Swinging Sixties" rep with plenty of funky shops along what is really a collection of cobbled roads behind Regent Street. Check out Great Frog for cool, handmade jewellery and Stockholm's superstar jeweller, Efva Attling.
"If they don't have it they'll get it." Harrods (http://www.harrods.com/harrodsstore/) is called the world's biggest department store, and you can't possibly see it all. There are some 330 departments, including a department where they fit coats for dogs, and more than 30 food venues. The 155-year-old landmark is handsomely dressed up in Edwardian terracotta, and the famous Food Halls will knock your socks off. It's well worth a visit, even if you're not a shopper. Store hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; The store is located in Knightsbridge.
Westfield (http://uk.westfield.com/london) is London's newest, coolest shopping mall -- very upscale, very elegant -- offering a designer section and flagship stores for everything from Hollister to Topshop to Prada. There are several restaurants, some decent bars and a multiplex cinema – perfect for rainy days and an absolute must if you have teenage girls in tow. Take the Underground to the Shepherd's Bush station.
Once a venue for duels, executions and royal hunts -- and a giant potato field during WWII -- Hyde Park is now a manicured park filled with idle sun-seekers along the Serpentine Lido 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 stand-up act that started back in 1872 in response to some very 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. Though Diana's apartment is not open to the public, the State Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection are. One-hour tours leave every 15 minutes. FYI: You can have a light lunch or afternoon tea in The Orangery -- an 18th-century greenhouse, built for Queen Anne -- throughout the year. They don't take reservations. The palace is open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For advance tickets, visit www.hrp.org.uk .
The Natural History Museum (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/) is housed in one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings; prime exhibits include the Mammal Hall, the Blue Whale and the moonlit rainforest in the Ecology Gallery. The Darwin Centre offers behind-the-scenes access to Charles Darwin's collection. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is located on Cromwell Rd.
Editor's Note: If you want to avoid hordes of school kids, skip the dinosaurs.
You're wrong if you think Notting Hill only got popular after the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film. Truth is, this place has been at the corner of Right Now & Fabulous for years. (The Portobello Road antiques and flea market came on the scene around 1948 and remains popular today.) Check out The Travel Bookshop at 15 Blenheim Crescent, where Hugh met Julia. While you're on Blenheim Crescent, stop in at Books for Cooks -- an incredibly well-stocked shop with five tables tucked away in the back for lunch. The area boasts many hip restaurants and funky shops, secret gardens and seriously grand homes for rich types like Stella McCartney and Richard Curtis, who wrote the Notting Hill film. Head to Westbourne Grove for cool home goods from Space and shoes and bags from Emma Hope.
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 centre before joining the throngs to shop, dine and sightsee.
Created by Henry VIII in the 16th century, St. James Park (http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/st_james_park) is one of London's loveliest. It's filled to the brim with ducks, swans and even pelicans, a large lake and the central bridge that offers super Buckingham Palace views. Nearby St. James' Palace (also built by Henry) 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.)
St. Paul's Cathedral (http://www.stpauls.co.uk/) 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), and it celebrated its 300th birthday in 2008. The dome (second in size only to St. Peter's in Rome) and 295-step climb are still the best part. The American Memorial Chapel should not be missed -- it's a very moving tribute to nearly 30,000 American soldiers, stationed in Britain, who lost their lives in WWII. If you're curious, see photos of Charles and Di tying the knot back in '81. Try to leave time to see the amazing collection of clothes worn by past monarchs. It's open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and it's located on Ludgate Hill.
Editor's Note: Bear in mind that when you whisper secret messages in the Whispering Gallery, everyone else standing there will hear them, too.
An impressive historical archive of British art, the Tate Britain (http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/) is filled with works by the likes of Turner and Gainsborough (and also produces interesting artist shows).
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 (http://www.tate.org.uk/modern), housed in a magnificent former power station on the South Bank of the Thames, is a don't-miss. Hours are Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; it's located at 25 Summer St.
When hunger strikes, head down the Thames to the Borough Market (http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/), a must-do stop for foodies. 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. For us normal folk, stalls and shops operate Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 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.
The original London residence of the British Royal Family, the Tower of London (http://www.hrp.org.uk/) is a walled complex of ancient buildings right in the middle of the city. It's home to the Crown Jewels, Beefeaters and Anne Boleyn's chopping block. Kids will like the cool collection of armour. It's pricey to get in (though they do sell family tickets), but the Beefeaters give free, one-hour guided tours every half hour. If you want to avoid long lines in the summer to get close to the jewels, get there early. We love the Ceremony of the Keys: At exactly 9:53 p.m., 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. Then, they all proceed through the Bloody Tower archway and up toward the steps, where the main guard is drawn up. Followed by the Warder, who halts at the foot of the steps, the main guard raises his Tudor bonnet high and calls, "God preserve Queen Elizabeth." (Request free admission to the late-night ceremony in writing: Queens House, HM Tower of London, EC3N 4AB.) The tower is open through October: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday and Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Tower Hill.
One of the world's most famous bridges, 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. Since you deserve a break after the climb, head down the street to the Cat and Cucumber for a spot of tea.
Theatre (http://www.londontheatre.co.uk/): Hot tickets to "Sister Act", "Legally Blonde" and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's "Love Never Dies" continue to fill the house every night. Backstage tours are available at many of the theatres, too. Try TKTS (http://www.tkts.co.uk/) in Leicester Square, where half-price tickets are available for same-day shows.
Editor's Notes: Book your interval (intermission) drinks before curtain to avoid the mad rush to the bar. Black cabs are scarce at 10 p.m., so head for Greek Street in Soho for a minicab, or pre-book a cab at your hotel if you're staying in town.
Highly pedestrianised and a bit overrun with pigeons, Trafalgar Square is great for people-peeping and soaking up London ambience. Built in 1805 following Britain's naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, the Square is adorned with fountain and statues, the most famous being that of Admiral Horatio Nelson (a triumphal memorial to England's victory over Napoleon). We also suggest stopping to see the National Gallery and the nearby National Portrait Gallery, featuring famous British personages.
It's just wonderful to see Henry VIII's writing desk, James II's wedding suit, the enormous Great Bed of Ware that's mentioned in "Twelfth Night" and Dickens' original manuscript of "Oliver Twist." These are among the thousands of eccentric items on exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum (http://www.vam.ac.uk/). You can check it out from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily (Wednesday and last Friday of month until 10 p.m.). Enjoy a "cuppa" in the outdoor courtyard cafe. It's located on Cromwell Rd.
Westminster Abbey (http://www.westminster-abbey.org) 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. (It 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 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. at Broad Sanctuary. Guided tours are offered throughout the day.
For More: Virtual Tourist's Things to Do in London
Been There, Done That
Downstairs at Dunhill's very first store ever, there's a museum that houses the Alfred Dunhill Collection. View the vintage pipes and historic lighters used at royal occasions and such. When you're done, have a seat on one of the comfy leather sofas. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's located at 30 Duke St.
Take a guided walk around some of the older, lesser-known parts of town with London Walks (www.walks.com). The walks only cost £8 and operate every day with different themes; the Jack the Ripper walk, for example, goes from the Tower Bridge Underground station every night at 7:30 and explores the locations associated with London's most evil serial killer. There are ghost walks, too, for the brave.
There's so much to see in London that you may not want to head out of town, but if you do, the cobbled streets surrounding Windsor Castle are terribly sweet. (Albeit, McDonald's golden arches are a bit disconcerting.) At the castle, an official residence of The Queen, you can visit rooms that include 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. The castle is open from 9:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. (last admission at 4 p.m.), March to October, but is closed on holidays and other dates when the Queen visits. (Check www.royalcollection.org.uk for details.) Back in town, 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 amongst 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 from March through September. The train from London to Windsor takes only about 35 minutes.
Take the hour-plus train trip to Althorp to see the childhood home of Princess Diana and where she is now laid to rest (open July 2 through September 2). The Spencer home for the past 500 years, it's one of England's most beautiful country homes -- filled to the brim with works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Out in the gardens, in the centre of a small island named Round Oval, is where Diana is buried. It isn't necessary to book in advance, as tickets are available each day at the West Gate, and all profits go to the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund. Gates open at 11 a.m., and the last admission is at 4 p.m.. It's located in Northampton.
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. Still awash in old-fashioned charm, English's is a fun place to stop for fish and chips. You can also shop North Laines (we like the Garden Boutique) and have afternoon tea at the Mock Turtle Tea-Shop.
Military history buffs will want to stop by in London at the Cabinet War Rooms (http://www.iwm.org.uk/) to see the underground bunker from which Winston Churchill directed the WWII British effort. The rooms are exactly as they were during the war -- plus, there are lots of photographs and wartime memorabilia. It's open daily through September, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and it's located on King Charles St. Another haunt for wartime buffs is the Imperial War Museum, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, located on Lambeth Rd.
Among the numerous royal haunts, Hampton Court Palace (http://www.hrp.org.uk) 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 wonderful, as is seeing the oldest tennis courts in the U.K. The Tudor and Baroque palace itself is magnificent. (It's the oldest Tudor royal residence in England.) It contains oodles of art, tapestries and furniture. You can visit through October 30, Monday from 10:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Gardeners will want to ogle the orchids inside the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Gardens (http://www.kew.org/), established in 1759. Home to more than 40,000 varieties of plants, the Princess of Wales Conservatories offer 10 different 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 George III. There's also a lovely on-site restaurant. Located along the banks of the Thames, it's an easy, no-climbing walk. It's open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (depending on the season). It's located on Kew Rd., Richmond.
One of the world's largest observation wheels -- the London Eye (http://www.londoneye.com/) -- serves up London's best in 32 capsules in 30 minutes (though, to some, it may seem like a lifetime, as it moves at an interminably slow snail's pace). If the weather's clear, you can see Windsor Castle. Hours vary throughout the year: June, Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; July through August, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; September, Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. It's located at Jubilee Gardens.
Editor's Note: Book in advance to avoid the long lines.
For those fascinated by nautical history, head to Greenwich's National Maritime Museum (http://www.nmm.ac.uk). We suggest advance booking. It's open from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily. Greenwich also has a fabulous crafts and antiques market every Saturday and Sunday.
A domed jewel, Royal Albert Hall (http://www.royalalberthall.com/) opened in 1871 and has 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. It's located on Kensington Gore, opposite Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens.
The advertising magnate's massive collection at the Saatchi Gallery (http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/) includes the Damien Hirst animals in formaldehyde and Tracy Emin's unmade, dirty bed. Pay a visit Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., or Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. It can be found at Duke of York's HQ, King's Road.
If you have kids in tow, touch 2,000 hands-on exhibits, and visit more than 40 galleries heralding major scientific advances for the last 300 years, all at the Science Museum (http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/) -- the largest museum of its kind in the world. The Welcome Wing is exceptionally cool. You can change your gender, or see what you'll look like in 30 years. Check it out from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily on Exhibition Rd.
The best place to pay homage to the bard in London is at Shakespeare's Globe (http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/). The original 16th-century playhouse was accidentally set on fire during Shakespeare's performance of Henry the Eighth (and has recently been re-created to near-exact specifications). The season runs through September at New Globe Walk.
Stratford-upon-Avon is only two hours on the 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 just beautiful with the well-preserved, timber-framed buildings and graceful white swans swimming lazily on the Avon. You can also see the childhood thatched-roof cottage 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. We also highly recommend the Avon cruises.
London is enjoying a new "best eating town in the world" reputation -- evidenced with a respectable showing of one-, two- and three-Michelin-star eateries. But, eating out doesn't have to be expensive. Many pubs serve a light lunch for less than £10, and many have reinvented themselves as gastro-pubs, with a new take on traditional British pub grub (sandwiches, salads, chicken and chips, pies and cold meats). There are plenty of take-out fish-and-chip shops, although fish and chips is no longer served in newspaper for health and safety reasons!
London also has some of the most exciting and diverse ethnic cuisine in the world. You'll find everything from Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese (try Chinatown in Soho for the real thing), to Middle Eastern, Italian, fast food and more eclectic styles -- like Russian, Ethiopian and Syrian, for example. There are Indian restaurants everywhere; Brits eat as much Indian food as they do "British" food, and you'll find south Indian, north Indian, vegetarian Indian, gourmet Indian -- the choices are enormous.
If you're going to the theatre, check out the pre-theatre 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.
Restaurants listed below are also excellent dinner options.
Cinnamon Club: The attraction there is exquisite, high-end Indian cuisine with dishes like tandoori prawns and lamb braised in saffron and rose water. A three-course lunch is about $80 per person. Lunch is served Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. It can be found on Great Smith St.
Gordon Ramsay: Americans might know him from his TV show "Hell's Kitchen," but Ramsay has more than TV credits as a three-starred Michelin chef with nine restaurants in London. For a taste of Ramsay's treats, like fried oysters with tart lemon and fennel salad and duck carpaccio with red beets, try the set lunch ($50 per person for three courses) at Boxwood Cafe at The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge. Lunch is served from noon to 3 p.m. (or until 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays).
Gaby's Deli: For a cheap meal (the most you'll pay is $18), head to 30 Charing Cross Road. This deli, which opened in 1964 and is still run by Gaby, is a hit with celebrities. (See photos of Matt Damon and others on the walls.) Dishes include corned beef (called salt beef here), falafel, potato pancakes, hummus and wonderful salads, with lots of offerings for vegetarians. It's open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m.
Jamie Oliver: To sample the food of the Food Network's super cute "Naked Chef," head to Fifteen, where a portion of the proceeds go to a program to support disadvantaged youths in training. There's a casual cafe on the first floor, but serious cuisine is the thing in the basement, where you can sample dishes like buffalo mozzarella and peaches or Welsh lamb and wild sorrel risotto. A set lunch menu of three courses is $50 per person. It's open Monday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. and is located at 15 Westland Pl.
Simpson's-in-the-Strand: For bread pudding that'll make you weak in the knees and other traditional British fare, this is the place. A three-course lunch runs about $45. Lunch is served Monday through Friday, noon to 3:30 p.m., and Saturday until 2:45 p.m. You can find it at 100 Strand.
Bengal Clipper: One of London's best Indian Sunday lunch buffets can be found in a restored warehouse that's walkable from Tower Bridge. The restaurant is open every day for a la carte dining, but the Sunday lunch, at £9.75, is a bargain and is absolutely spectacular, showcasing regional Indian dishes. It's open Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.-11.30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11.p.m. The location is 11-12 Cardamom Buildings, Shad Thames.
Lanesborough: This is your best choice for afternoon tea. A silver service is sumptuously served on Royal Worcester, a la tiny pots, milk jugs and pretty strainers, from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the chinoiserie-draped Conservatory. It will put you back about $50 per person, but it's oh so worth it. A box of house-blended tea choices is presented, and the intricate brewing process is explained. Indulge in delicate sandwiches like tuna on tomato bread and curried chicken on herb bread. Your just-out-of-the-oven scones will be accompanied by a luscious sweet-but-tart lemon curd and clotted cream that'll make you purr. Just when you think it can't possibly get better, you're presented with a wonderful assortment of petite pastries. Dress up; the Lanesborough is very posh and is located on Hyde Park Corner.
Editor's Note: London is among the most expensive hotel cities in the world. You may want to lower your expectations and prepare for smaller-than-usual rooms. On the up-side, many London hotels include full breakfasts. Among the booking services we've had luck with is Priceline. (We wound up at the Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington for a little more than $100 a night.)
On a Shoestring: Thistle Kensington Gardens is steps from Kensington Palace and offers modern, clean rooms. Other options include any one of well-located Thistle Hotel properties.
Total Splurge: The Lanesborough at Hyde Park Corner. The Royal Suite comes with a 24/7 chauffeured Bentley and two butlers. Another good choice is the Phillippe Stark-designed Sanderson London Hotel for luxuriously appointed rooms in the West End -- some of the deluxe rooms even have their own private fitness area!
Middle of the Road: The Churchill at 30 Portman Square has a 24-hour health club and its own private tennis court. Another good choice is The Beaufort near Harrods; the hotel is housed inside a pair of wonderful Victorian homes in Beaufort Gardens.
Close to the Port: The Tower, on St. Katharine's Way is a big, 801-room, four-star hotel right on the river, overlooking Tower Bridge. Have a drink in the Xi lounge at night to enjoy views of the spectacularly lit bridge.
Best for Families: The Millennium Hotel London Mayfair, Grosvenor Square, has interconnecting rooms for families and is close to the parks, Oxford Street and the West End. The Athenaeum, at 116 Piccadilly, has a Kids' Concierge, special family rooms and apartments with kitchens. Children are provided with books, toys, Nintendo Wii, DVD's and cookies at bedtime.
Staying in Touch
There are easyInternetcafes at Trocadero (Leicester Square); 76 Mortimer Street, W1; and 116 Gloucester Road. Most Starbucks locations offer Wi-Fi, and all the main hotels have business centres.
Here are our choices for the best ship-sponsored shore excursions.
Best Choice for London-Lovers: The 10.5-hour London Sightseeing tour makes for a long, tiring day, but you'll see all the main sights, from the Tower of London to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. There are many, many variations on this tour -- some include a riverboat cruise and a ride on the London Eye, for example, and many will drop you off at Heathrow Airport afterward.
Best Choice for Castle-Cravers: Offered from ships calling at London or Dover, the seven-hour Leeds Castle & Canterbury excursion into the Kent countryside includes a visit to one of England's most beautiful castles and to historic Canterbury, a medieval, walled city with a stunning cathedral that was key to the development of Christianity in Saxon England.
Best Choice for Royalists: On the six-hour Day at Windsor Castle Tour, you'll visit Runnymede (where the Magna Carta was signed), the Kennedy Memorial and Windsor Castle, home to the royal family for 900 years. Tours include free time in the charming towns of Windsor and Eton, with riverside pubs and old-fashioned tea shops. As Windsor is close to Heathrow, some lines offer this tour on the last day of a cruise, dropping participants off at the airport after the visit.
Best Choice for Train Enthusiasts: On the half-day Kent and East Sussex Steam Railway Tour, take a ride on a traditional English steam train for 45 minutes as it puffs its way along a restored railway line through the rolling countryside of the southeast. The tour includes afternoon tea with jam and scones and is offered from either Dover or London.
For More Information
Contact the London Tourist Board at 44 08701 566 366
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
The Independent Traveler: England Exchange
--Updated by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor