Learning to Love London
It sounds so easy, right? The city's charms are legendary. But as Dave Herndon found out when he moved there for all the right reasons, the dropping dollar has London playing hard to get.
I'll pass on those, thanks--but it's fun to know they're there. These excursions were never really about the food or the shopping, anyway. They were about urban adventure. Yes, I was armed with clippings and guidebooks, but, in fact, that was all a matter of putting ourselves into position for the unexpected: We were never disappointed when we simply relaxed and let serendipity take over. London is endlessly rewarding that way.
On the first of our many trips to Richmond--a posh movie set of a village on the Thames at the southwestern city limits--on our first picnic on the first weekend we ever spent together, we settled in for a nap under a tree by the river. We were joined by a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen and a few charming children, whose energy and volume levels were running a bit higher than our own. Before long, the senior member of the party loomed over us, and, in a courtly tone, said, "Good afternoon. We are from Baghdad, Iraq, and we would like to invite you to join us for some tea."
Soon we were sipping minty chai from tiny glasses, toking cranberry-flavored tobacco from a hookah, and discussing world events at a time of fraught relations between our home countries. At least we were doing our part for world peace. Then talk turned to London. The éminence grise expounded a bit, as was his wont. London, he said, was the crossroads of the world, first because of traditional patterns of immigration from the Commonwealth, and more recently from the new waves of strivers flooding in daily from Eastern European nations being added to the EU. Furthermore, as one who had lived in the U.S. and France during his long exile, he was of the opinion that London was the business and creative capital of the world, here in the early years of the third millennium.
The New Yorker in me recoiled reflexively, but now that I've lived there, I can't say he was wrong. London is all go, go, go these days; you can feel it everywhere. And when my boy is old enough to ask about where he comes from, I'll tell him, "Son, you are a child of the universe, your mother's a Foxy French Girl, your daddy's a Yank with itchy feet, and you were conceived at the end of a Perfect Day in the capital of the world."
The first places to look for London deals
General: Londontown.com is a comprehensive tourist site with lots of special offers on tickets, rooms, etc. It's particularly strong for attractions and events listings: Enter your dates and get a menu of what's happening, or click on the annual calendar. Visitlondon.com, the official tourist site, is promotional rather than critical, but also full of useful information.
Dining: At squaremeal.co.uk, an authoritative restaurant site, you can search by neighborhood or ethnicity, browse readers' favorites, or just click on Best Gastropubs.
Markets: Try Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, for antiques and clothing (portobelloroad.co.uk); Spitalfields for goods by young designers of fashion and home accessories (visitspitalfields.com); Borough Market, located near London Bridge, for food, glorious food (boroughmarket.org.uk).
Theater: London Theatre Guide (officiallondontheatre.co.uk) provides one-stop shopping for the West End, including daily listings for its discount TKTS booth in Leicester Square. For the National Theatre, go to nationaltheatre.org.uk--and note in particular the $19 Travelex Season offerings and the summertime series of free events called Watch This Space.
Transport: The Tube starts at $3.75 per ride, but the map is not to scale--walking may be quicker. And buses are cheaper ($2.25 per ride). Find info on both at tube.tfl.gov.uk. --D.H.
Live like a local--by renting yourself a flat
Apartments aren't cheap, but you'll get more space than at a hotel, and you'll save money if you eat some meals at home. (Restaurants may charge 10 percent less for take-out orders.) Apartments have compact kitchens with appliances, dishes, and utensils, and some throw in amenities like newspapers or Internet access. "Serviced apartments" come with daily maid and linen service, and generally rent by the night, while unserviced rentals tend to require a week's stay and include weekly cleaning. When renting, be sure the price includes the VAT of 17.5 percent and any charges for maid service. You can usually get a deal on stays of longer than a week. And if you require an air conditioner or elevator, ask: Not all older buildings have them. June and July are the most popular months, but everyone offers specials in the off-season.