London is a city with a whole lot of self-confidence. While some destinations have had to tighten their belts during the recession, this trendsetting metropolis continues to captivate a never-ending stream of visitors with new hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and galleries. The downside? It can be outrageously expensive. Catch the Heathrow Express from the airport into the city, and a round trip for the short 15-minute journey will set you back $50. And many of the city's most talked-about attractions, from the London Eye to Madame Tussauds, cost a small fortune to get in (if you can face the tediously long lines first).
To help you navigate the pitfalls less savvy tourists encounter, here is our potted guide to where to go and what to avoid.
1. Don't… head for Harrods
A lavish, over-the-top temple to conspicuous consumption, Harrods touts itself as having become a tourist attraction in its own right, with whole areas seemingly geared to parting tourists from their cash (tiny plastic totes with the Harrods logo for around $40, anyone?). Unless you want to see its gawdy Egyptian escalator, depicting the story of the Valley of the Kings (built during former owner Mohamed Al Fayed's tenure for a cool $30 million), we suggest you steer clear.
Instead… shop at Liberty
Spend some quality shopping time at Liberty, a unique and utterly charming department store that has a mock-Tudor facade, wood-paneled interiors, balconies, glass atriums, and a quirky layout. You can still find rolls of the store's famous historic fabrics, but nowadays in-the-know Londoners come for its fashion-forward clothing, well-crafted accessories and handsome home furnishings created by leading and emerging designers and artists (ceramicist Grayson Perry recently designed a fabric collection, and Ronnie Wood a wild ready-to-wear line). Check out Liberty's scarf room (London's largest selection), its just-launched men's clothing line, and its recently expanded jewelry room.
2. Don't… hop on a sightseeing bus
Aboard one of the Original London Sightseeing Tour's open-top buses, you'll spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the backside of other buses while inhaling noxious fumes, and, if you're a family of four, pay $130 for the privilege. Many claim it is difficult to hear the tour guide over the noise of the traffic. The upper deck (where viewing is unhindered) is also often full, and the stops are not anywhere near as close to the attractions as they should be.
Instead… get on your bike
July 2010 saw the launch of London's first two cycle superhighways (dedicated bike lanes that bring you from outer London into the center) and the city's much-delayed and much-anticipated cycle hire scheme (modeled on the successful Paris Vélib program). Ten more superhighways will be launched by 2015; the self-service cycle hire offers 6,000 bikes that can be removed from around 400 docking stations, which are never more than 1,000 feet apart. In recent months, London has spawned a new breed of cycle repair shops-cum-cafés, such as Look Mum No Hands! in Clerkenwell.
3. Don't… mke a beeline for Oxford Street
The United Kingdom is awash in chain stores, and London's Oxford Street is no exception. Impressive as its array of shops is, an extended stay on this crowded strip, particularly on a weekend, can bring about a serious case of claustrophobia. A notorious magnet for jostling crowds, the Oxford Circus end is dominated by tacky gift boutiques and cheap clothes emporiums. If you can't resist the street's forward-thinking Selfridges department store, or the iconic multistory Topshop flagship, aim to get in and out quickly (just avoid weekends).
Instead… head for the edgier East End
Hip Shoreditch in London's East End is where you'll discover independent boutiques selling all things creative and edgy. Scout for some unique pieces by English product and furniture designer Jasper Morrison in his studio/shop on a rather downtrodden section of Kingsland Road. Redchurch Street is fast becoming the place to be: Look to Caravan, an interior design and gift shop, for pretty and surreal vintage charms; Hostem, for fashion-forward urban menswear; and Aubin & Wills, for quintessentially English fashion (cool tweeds and sophisticated knitwear), a top-floor art gallery, and a luxurious independent cinema downstairs.
4. Don't… seek tranquility in Hyde Park
True, Hyde Park is large, central, and offers boats for hire, summer swimming, horseback riding, tennis, bowling, the Serpentine Gallery, and two restaurant-cafés. But the thing about Hyde Park is, you're unlikely to meet many Londoners there. And while Speakers' Corner was once a place for serious public debate in the 19th century, these days it attracts the kind of folk you'd usually cross the street to avoid.
Instead… watch deer in Richmond Park
At 2,500 acres, Richmond Park, in South West London, is the city's largest. Its diverse landscape — rolling hills, woodland, grassland, ponds, gardens, and ancient trees — is a haven for wildlife, including around 650 deer. You can rent bikes at the Roehampton Gate entrance year-round or have fortifying tea and scones in the elegant Georgian Pembroke Lodge, while looking out over the Thames Valley.
5. Don't… succumb to the glitz of London's Theaterland
It's not that the over-hyped musicals and plays in the city's West End are bad — many of them enjoy great production values and star-studded casts — but they are safe, cater to mainstream tastes, and, forgive the recurring theme, far too pricey. According to the London Evening Standard, theatergoers paid £43.07 ($67.16) on average for a ticket to a West End show last year, compared with £21.36 ($33.30) in 1995 (a 100 percent rise).
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Instead… catch some radical local theater
Try the Tricycle, in North London, a theater committed to politically themed and culturally diverse writing (it recently hosted a season of 12 short plays exploring the history and culture of Afghanistan). Or check out what's on at the Arcola Theatre in up-and-coming Dalston, located in a former textile factory in London's East End. Brilliantly produced, original world theatre, music, comedy, and dance all compete for time at this emerging theatrical powerhouse. The fair pricing policies extend to "pay what you can" on Tuesday nights.
6. Don't… visit Madame Tussauds
If the lines lasting up to three hours don't suck the life force out of you, the price of getting in to Madame Tussauds just might (around $42 for an adult). Once inside, you might enjoy the interactive exhibits, scary-as-hell Chamber of Horrors, and the Spirit of London ride (which takes you from Tudor times to the present) if it weren't for the jostling and frustrated crowds and staff. The biggest problem here seems to be that the management has no concept of crowd control or full capacity.
Instead… check out the brand-new galleries at the Museum of London
Revamped to the tune of over $30 million, the five new interactive galleries at the Museum of London recount 350 years of the city's history. Highlights are a Victorian shopping street and the Lord Mayor's gaudy gold State Coach. But the absolute must-see exhibit is a reconstructed Georgian pleasure garden, with mannequins adorned in wigs, masks, and period dress as well as digital projections re-creating the entertainment on offer at the time. Not only will you learn something and have fun, this museum, unlike Madame Tussauds, is entirely free.
7. Don't… eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant (if you're on a budget)
Petrus, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's newest venture in London, is, according to The Observer's restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, "a terrific restaurant in search of a menu." The general consensus is that Ramsay is fresh out of ideas, and at Petrus is charging too much for food that is not memorable. Whether he's spreading himself too thin by building his empire at home and abroad (he's also been losing Michelin stars and has had to close restaurants in recent years), Ramsay is hanging in there. And even if you don't (or can't afford to) eat at one of his many restaurants, you may unwittingly find yourself dining at an eatery helmed by one of his protégés, such is this chef's influence in London.
Instead… eat at one of Ramsay's protégés' restaurants
Up-and-coming chef Gemma Tuley, just 27 years old, started out under Ramsay but is now wooing critics with her remarkably confident and sophisticated cooking at Manson. Swiss-born Bjorn Van der Horst, 37, has worked with Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, and he's won two Michelin stars — one of them as chef patron at Gordon Ramsay Holdings' former restaurant La Noisette. Now that he has his own restaurant, Eastside Inn, the food is gasp-out-loud good. And a Tuley or Van der Horst meal is decidedly more affordable than a Ramsay night out.
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8. Don't… go on the London Eye if you balk at paying for a view
Sure, the view from the Millennium Wheel is fabulous, but it's marred by having to endure a long wait in line and the steep ticket price ($28 if you just turn up, or you can arrange online for priority boarding, but pay around $42 for the privilege). Then there's the brevity of the "flight" (a mere 30 minutes). What's more, there is no audio accompaniment explaining what you are seeing, just a cheesy female voice telling you to get ready for "takeoff."
Instead… Visit glorious Hampstead Heath
Locals head for 320-foot-high Parliament Hill on the southern end of the Heath (also dubbed Kite Hill) for thrilling views of London icons, including St. Paul's Cathedral, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, and Westminster Palace. Once you're done, take a dip in one of the three bracingly cool open-air swimming ponds. Another top vantage point for city views and skylines in London is Primrose Hill, the 206-foot-high continuation of Regent's Park.
9. Don't… have a night out in the West End
By West End, we mean Leicester Square and its environs, which have become rip-off central, with outrageously pricey restaurants and cinemas (up to $30 for a Saturday-night screening) — and pickpockets galore. Piccadilly Circus, a sensory overload of gridlocked streets, packed sidewalks, and neon billboards, fares little better. And Covent Garden is now a touristy shopping and entertainment destination, with mainstream megastores (the biggest Apple shop in the world opened here in August 2010) and street performers on every corner (no more silver-sprayed "living statues," please). Because of these places' tourist status, it's almost impossible to find a restaurant or pub that isn't a chain, or a cocktail that won't cost the price of a meal.
Instead… head east (again)
The bars, clubs, and restaurants in London's East End are quirkier, cooler, and altogether more authentic. Construction and face-lifting in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (most of the event's venues and the Olympic Village will be located in East London) means that some areas will undoubtedly lose character, but on the whole, this neighborhood is bound to retain its gritty edge. Local highlights include the hip and lively four-story Luxe for food, drinks, and live music; Lounge Bohemia for Eastern European beer and canapés; Loungelover, for eccentric interiors and impressive cocktails; and the Star of Bethnal Green for a laid-back vibe, eclectic live music, and cool DJ sets.
10. Don't… bed down in the latest design hotel
One of 2010's much-talked-about hotel openings was the minimalist Town Hall Hotel, which takes shabby chic to a whole new level in terms of setting. Located in the fast-gentrifying East End neighborhood of Bethnal Green, it has been carved out of a former Edwardian town hall, with varying degrees of success. Some of it works well (most notably the pool, the all-glass top floor, the meeting room — a former council chamber — and some of the suites), but a lot of it will leave you cold, especially the endless corridors, gloomy breakfast room, and many of the charmless rooms and apartments.
Instead… Soothe yourself in a classic grande dame
One of London's most iconic accommodations, the Savoy, will open its doors again in October 2010 after a staggering $340 million refurb (almost twice the original budget). The hotel closed in December 2007 for an ambitious restoration of its common areas and 268 guest rooms and suites. Guests will be able to enjoy high tea and fresh pâtisseries in the stunning winter garden, dine at the Savoy Grill (run by none other than Gordon Ramsay) or River Restaurant, and swim in the hotel's rooftop pool (a rarity in the city). If you can afford it, choose one of the 38 River Suites — in this case, the experience is definitely worth the splurge.