How does the reality of a week in London, with sightseeing, shopping and trips to the theater, stack up?
We've all seen the ads. Does it pay to invest time and money in one of these brief trips?
After my fourth London week away in three years, I'm ready to go again.
I used a hotel offer by British Airways. It's the President, Guilford Street in the Russell Square section of London. It's a moderate-sized place that ran $66 a day, double occupancy, in March. The rate included an unremarkable breakfast of unlimited toast, rolls tea, coffee and watery juice.
The tab for the week, including taxes and airfare via British
Airways from BWI, ran $667 per person, double occupancy. This would rise to about $950 in the peak summer season.
The Russell Square neighborhood, near the British Museum and Bloomsbury neighborhood, functions like a dormitory for visiting tourists. Because of handy bus and subway connections, this locale proves a good basic value. These tourist-budget hotels are not fancy but they do offer cleanliness, reliable plumbing and a good front-desk staff.
One day I walked across the Guilford Street to the more posh Hotel Russell, where I treated myself to a full breakfast of cereal, eggs, bacon, pastry and beverages. The tab was $16.80. I decided I did not need this much food every day.
Food can be expensive in London, but there are many easy ways to keep to a budget. For some day trips we made out of the city, we found the sandwiches at the local Safeway (each about $3) to be excellent values and tasty.
Most pubs also serve food. There are daily specials, generally written on a blackboard at the entrance. Pubs often function as neighborhood meeting spots as well. We found it was helpful to ask at the hotel or local museums for suggestions as to which were worth visiting.
On the day we took the train to Greenwich to see the Titanic exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, a helpful salesperson at the museum gift shop directed us to the Plume of Feathers, about a five-minute walk away. There we had one of our more memorable hot lunches, heavy on potatoes, meat and cabbage.
Each time I go to London I indulge in one superb luncheon at the Hotel Connaught on Carlos Place in the Mayfair neighborhood.
The daily set-price midday meal is $40 (tax and service included, but not alcohol), and it's worth every penny. The Connaught is an 1890s piece of architecture, with a formally dressed doorman and liveried staff.
The hotel, which is not overly large, delivers in every aspect: fresh flower arrangements, beautiful hotel table service, attentive waiters and excellent food. The creme brulee for dessert was superior to the same dish I was served in Paris. Make a reservation, and wear appropriate clothing. This is not a dress-down spot.
Around the corner from the Connaught is a beautiful, secluded, flower-filled garden lined with benches. Also worth a visit is the Gothic Revival Church of the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street) and the Thomas Goode china and glassware shop on Audley Street.
Another favorite luncheon spot of mine is Fortnum and Mason's on Piccadilly. Within this famous purveyor of packaged teas, coffees and confections are three restaurants designed for shoppers. A pot of piping hot tea and a plate of cucumber sandwiches here will restore even the most sore-footed tourist. If the main dining room seems too crowded, try the seats at the fountain counter in the rear. Watching the staff make the dessert confections is a treat in itself.
For those interested in shopping, here are some suggestions: Harrod's department store in the Knightsbridge section of London is world-famous. It is said that 50,000 people, many of them tourists, pass through its doors daily. I went on a Monday, supposedly a less busy day. It was uncomfortably crowded, and there didn't seem to be any bargains.
Some British friends suggested two of their favorite stores -- each not as large as Harrod's but interesting. Peter Jones, in Sloane Square, is a classic department store featuring housewares, china and a large fabric department. Sloane Square abounds in interesting stores and is a great neighborhood for browsing. British clothing seemed especially high compared to American prices.
The more fashion-conscious go to Harvey Nichols (in Harrod's neighborhood of Knightsbridge). Harvey Nichols is a stylish emporium that should satisfy most shopping needs.
There are a number of ways to get around in London. The underground system, called the Tube, is well-marked, fast, clean and generally efficient. But I suggest that American tourists will be better served if they use the London buses.
The London double-decker buses are an excellent way to see and learn about this visually exciting city. Climb the steps to the upper deck and get the windows at the front. This will be your crow's nest for seeing London. If you get confused about directions, many of the buses in central London still have conductors who collect fares and make change. They will also help you find your way.
London cabbies know the city well and take pride in their skills at finding arcane addresses. They are very polite, but cab fares are costly, often in the $6-$12 range. Invest in a London Transport Travel Card. A seven-day pass runs about $17. You will need a 2-by-2-inch photo of yourself for the weekly pass. There are also other passes that require no photo.
The one consistent London bargain is the theater. This extends from the Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacles to intimate pub theaters in neighborhoods such as Islington and Shepherd's Bush Green. The more creative you get with your selection of plays, the more you will enjoy yourself. Demand for tickets is at its lowest for the Wednesday matinees, so this will be a good time to get into a hit.
A word of advice: Do not be afraid to line up at the box office for sold-out hits. Just before show times, unsold tickets are often turned back by brokers. It is possible to get great seats at the last minute by waiting for returns. Also, find the half-price ticket // booth at the southern end of Leicester Square. Many shows that aren't sold out offer tickets here the day of the performance. I've used this place many times and have never been sold a poor seat. Cash only, no credit cards.
For a current guide on what's happening around town, Time Out ($2.40) is a weekly London magazine that lists all the theatrical attractions with capsule reviews, along with restaurant advice and other tips. It could save you from making a lot of mistakes when selecting which plays and musicals to see.
And if time permits, visitors should not miss the London gardens -- the English are famous for their gardens. Most parks and squares are beautifully tended, but try to visit the 4-acre Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Hospital Road, in the Chelsea neighborhood. It's a 10-minute walk from the Sloane Square underground station. This walled garden is open Sunday and Wednesday afternoons from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5.60.
IF YOU GO . . .
For information about British Airways packages to London, call (800) 247-9297. Agents can suggest hotels at different price ranges. Baltimore-area travelers who depart from BWI will land at Gatwick Airport, a 40-minute train ride from London. The fare from Gatwick to Victoria Station is $14.25 one way.
The Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, is open Sunday and Wednesday afternoons. It is also open during the Chelsea Flower Show, May 22-26. Admission is $5.60.
Hotel Connaught on Carlos Place in the Mayfair neighborhood is a great place for lunch. Reservations are suggested, along with appropriate dress. Call (071) 499-7070.
As for getting around, a London Transport Travel Card allows weekly bus and subway access. The cards are sold at subway station ticket offices. A weekly pass is $17.64 Call (071) 222-1234.