London is two thousand years of history and eight million people condensed into one of the most charismatic cities on the planet. Even today, its cobblestone streets are alive with the creative, independent spirit that made it a cultural capital from Shakespeare’s time right up to the Swinging Sixties. That said, its streets are also alive with ticket scalpers, global chain stores and expensive tourist traps that do little to showcase the city’s charm. Here’s how to make the most of your stay.
Don’t stand on the left side of an escalator under any circumstances. The left is for walking. Few things will make a Londoner more irate than violating the Underground’s most sacred commandment. They might even get worked up enough to cough pointedly and politely request you step aside.
Instead, you should stand on the right, obviously. But perhaps consider skipping the Tube altogether. It’s fast and efficient but it’s also one of the most expensive ways to get around. A single-ticket journey around Zone 1 and 2 can cost £6.60 ($AU11). The bus, on the other hand, is a mere £1.50 ($AU2.50). Just be wary of traffic if you plan to travel at peak hour.
Don’t go to Abbey Road. The zebra crossing made famous by the iconic Beatles album cover is such a tourist magnet that Westminster Council pushed to install a permanent lollipop lady to manage the hordes of Beatlemaniacs.
Instead, lift your music cred and Instagram game by recreating some less cheesy album covers. London has served as the backdrop for album covers put out by everyone from David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street) to Oasis (What’s the Story Morning Glory on Berwick Street in Soho). Think outside the stripes.
Don’t pay full price to see theatre shows in the West End. Yes, it’s still cheaper than New York’s Broadway and the architecture at some venues is worth the price of the ticket alone. But for cash-strapped travellers, dinner and a show is one of the quickest ways to deplete travel funds – premium tickets for the most sought-after productions can command more than £200 pounds ($AU337).
Instead, get your culture and history at the same time at Shakespeare’s Globe, a faithful reconstruction of the famous Elizabethan playhouse on the south bank of the River Thames. Seats cost up to £45 ($AU76) but you can stand in the yard – just like the commoners in the Bard’s time – for only £5 ($AU8.50).
Don’t stay in West London. Admittedly, Notting Hill has some beautiful boutiques and restaurants but by the time you’ve fronted for accommodation, you won’t be able to afford either.
Instead, stay in East London. Formerly gritty addresses like Shoreditch and Hackney have well and truly gentrified with a spate of new design hotels. Qbic Hotel in Whitechapel and The Luxury Inn in De Beauvoir Town put you among the happening cafes, galleries and bars for a reasonable price – leaving you with a few extra quid up your sleeve for when you do hit Portobello Market.
Don’t get Indian food on Brick Lane. Though famed for its Asian cuisine, it can be a gamble unless you know exactly where you’re going.
Instead, do a little research and decide what regional specialities you’re keen on – London has a wealth of restaurants that do authentic takes on dishes from all over the subcontinent. Southall has the monopoly on Punjabi and south Indian food (the family-run Brilliant Restaurant is repeatedly featured in top-five lists) while Michelin-starred Gymkhana in Mayfair does a fancy, contemporary spin on traditional dishes.
Don’t go to Madame Tussauds. While it was once a London novelty, every city from Prague to Sydney now has a wax museum. Is it really worth queuing for hours just to snap a selfie with a life-sized rendering of Benedict Cumberbatch?
Instead, check out one of London’s many under-the-radar museums. If you liked Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors, you’ll be into the Old Operating Theatre, which used to be an operating space for patients interned at St Thomas’ Hospital in the 1800s. Back then, medical equipment was primitive and there was no anaesthesia – the whole thing is brought to life in harrowing detail by the museum’s weekly talks. The less macabre tourist may prefer Keats House, the beautiful manor where poet John Keats wrote some of his most famous works; the Freud Museum London, which includes the famous doctor’s couch.
Don’t shop on Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus or at Harrods.
Instead, go literally anywhere else. London has so many interesting thrift stores and markets to explore. Old Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower markets make for an enjoyable day out that’s unique to London. If you’re after a high-end alternative to Harrods, try Liberty for the best luxury fashion, homewares and beauty.
SEE ALSO: Insider’s Tips to London