London - An Insiders' Primer for First Timers

Discussion created by erc on May 27, 2013
Latest reply on Apr 27, 2014 by tommo781
Whereas it may not take a village to plan a trip, using the Insiders team certainly enhances your travels; saving you time, headaches, and money, while providing many terrific ideas for making the most of your trip. Many thanks to sg1974, jerrycoin, arkwright, zukracer, stelzer001, chrisf, gemprincess, blava007, psudad,  @andrew_p,  and many, many others for sharing their photos, ideas, and tips - it made for a terrific vacation. For the first time visitor to London the research for a wonderful trip is all right here in Insiders, I'll focus less on my activities, since there are so many different options and more on the tools provided by the forum.

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Left photo - taken from the London Eye. The classic Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey.Bottom right shows the City Cruise tour at Westminster Pier. Right photo shows Marriott County Hall (curved building) from the London Eye. At the top is the Westminster Bridge, where you come out of the tube at the far right, cross the bridge and turn left into the side of the Marriott coming through the arch at side of Marriott. Easy access from Heathrow via the tube.


The Lonely Planet London book found on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble (<$15) is a rock solid overview book for maximizing all of the references throughout Insiders. It also has one of the best working maps for carrying around with you.
Links provided by Insiders (with thanks to sg and jerrycoin for doing much of the heavy lifting, including dress code thoughts)  The go to resource for ground transportation all around London   A section of the above link - Oyster Card - as I write below, IMO, the way to go  A section of the link above - map of the tube. I printed a copy, referring to it many times as I researched. Once in the tube they have free pocket maps, grab one, it's invaluable.   Currency exchange - AAA also provides as do many others, but my friend who works in currency, (he's probably just a brain surgeon and gives me close to spot price just to be a big shot!) says this is one of the fairest prices around and sg swears by it as well.   Excellent for deals about everything London, jerrycoin's go to tess miller site.   Great for theatre (legitimate deals, true savings), including (which, btw, if anyone knows of a comparable Broadway site, please share, theatermania is the closest I've found, but no comparison) reviews on seating, which proved very helpful  the monkey above doesn't do shakespeare but kindly shares one that does   as the pros advised, London is great for walking, here's some free routes, the overall londontoolkit site is good for general info as well  at times requires persistence and double checking, but solid tool    gives you a ballpark cost range of taxi service fares  part of America's OpenTable - snagged several bogos and deals, they send you specials two, three times a week and provide a list of restaurants offering set menu deals (2,3,4 courses etc)- good value of food you would eat - excellent for booking reservations and printing out (w/address and phone)  a real money saver (also in America as well) on meals and activities similar to travelzoo above - between these two sites, we saved enormous money on activities we were doing anyway allowing me to afford my, covering two time zones, four meal a day habit (one CL, three out of pocket). sg1974 there's a dinner in my nation's capital waiting for you when you arrive - thanks for all the savings.
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TOWER BRIDGE / Old Royal Naval College Greenwich   On a Travelzoo City Cruise bogo. Catching the 11:30 am from Westminster Pier we were fortunate enough to hear Big Ben chime 12 times, see the Tower Bridge raised, and see the ball drop at 1pm at Royal Observatory in Greenwich at the prime meridian. The cruise makes a roundtrip and you can get on and off throughout the day until around dinner, a great value. Don't you dare pay face value.
There are, of course, many ways to have a great trip (several highlighted in our forum), I'm not saying that the following is the only way, I'm just pointing out that it worked great for me and could serve as a structural backbone for all different properties, transportation modes, and activites. I will skip most of my specific activities (will reply to any questions or comments) and focus mostly on an overview for the first timer. As always, build in some slack time for unexpected occurences, opportunities, or of course, London weather.
I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that Marriott County Hall is the ideal location for first timers, due to its proximity of numerous key sites (it's also a lovely property with a terrific and friendly staff). I dovetailed two weekends out at the Heathrow Renaissance at great  weekend rates around a points five nights for four at County Hall, maxing the CL exposure (booking both properties in August for May) which provided us with nine full sightseeing days and nights for excellent lodging costs, which is important, because as the forum pros warn us, London is expensive. We had a roast chicken lunch (delicious) with one beer and one wine at Harrod's and with VAT and service charge, easily bypassed the 60 GBP mark, which at any currency exchange rate tops $90, whee doggies! That's why planning ahead is worth the time invested.
Heathrow Renaissance - Excellent weekend rates (the Marriott Heathrow, a quarter mile down the road, is also priced relatively attractively to downtown and can be interchanged with the following transportation comments). A former Ramada, reminding me of my baseball tournament days, the property is nothing special, but does the job of providing a rate $250-$350 per night less than the city and with good planning, serves as a solid basecamp for sightseeing. The rooms are small (bathrooms/shower tight, but manageable), but are quiet due to double windows; interior rooms ( room 3213, mine by request) are fine for charging up (out of the four nights, the longest we were there was our last night watching the second half of the Champions League final as we got ready for our early flight). Many exterior rooms offer views of Heathrow (iahflyr, kharada46, pluto77 take note) and gets similarly good marks for quiet. The Club Lounge (also with runway views) is next to Room 3022 and is open (not manned) on weekends from 6am-11pm providing sodas, coffee, water and computer w/printer. Buffets in the restaurant (as of this date) is provided for plats and golds. Note: dine early or late, the Ren books huge tour groups and it's a mess after 7:30 am. Speaking of dining, we enjoyed the bar menu (pizza, club sandwiches, burgers) with our All German Soccer final and one night we walked down the street (1/4 mile) to the local pub, The Three Magpies and found it pleasant enough enjoying a Fuller's from the brewery we saw in Chiswick on our tube/bus transfer.
TRANSPORTATION from LHR to the LHR Renaissance or Marriott courtesy of skiadcock
If you're coming into T1/2/3 (I've not flown in/out of T5, so my directions are for T1/2/3), just follow the signs for the Picadilly Line/Bus Station (Central Station). When you get to the Picadilly line entrance, either take the elevator or escalator upstairs to the bus terminal. You’ll see the signs for it. I took the free bus from Heathrow. I took 111, but 105, 140 also go past the hotel. Stands 19-20 are the stands you want to pick up the bus at Central Bus Station. If you're concerned about being on the right bus, just ask the bus driver when you get on if he stops near the Renaissance or Marriott. On returning to LHR, you exit the Marriott, turn right & cross the street to pick up the bus.  It will make one more stop near Ren (the bus stop is out the front door to the left of the Ren) & then go on to LHR.
Back to erc notes - we took 10 legs of this trip and never waited more than 5 minutes for a bus, often it was there and we left. The bus is free, other transportation modes (found in the first link provided above) start at 51/2 GBP p.p. - you make the call.
TRANSPORTATION from LHR to Marriott County Hall using the tube - allow an hour for bus/tube/walk, (other modes in first link);
Take Piccadilly line (blue on map) to Hammersmith; transfer to District line (green on map) going east to Upminster and get off at Westminster. Follow the Way Out sign and take EXIT #1 Westminster Pier, you will come out facing River Thames, London Eye and County Hall. Walk up the stairs, cross the bridge (after first admiring Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey) and enter the hotel walking through the arch on the side (see my photos above, jerrycoin provides a nice photo ). There are other entrances on the river through Gillrays and London Film Museum that you will learn easily, but with bags and coming from the tube, the side is the way to go. Bags are also the reason you transfer at Hammersmith and not South Kensington or other stops (tip of the hat to sg for that headache saving advice), it's the smoothest transfer.
And don't forget, Mind the Gap (threw that in for the pros).
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PHOTOS - SHARD, PARAMOUNT I have written above my love of heights and London provides many opportunities. The brand new Shard is not cheap at 25 GBP per person, but we went at 9:30 am, virtually had the place to ourselves stayed for over an hour and a half, experienced weather from sunshine, to rain, to hail, back to grey. What the heck, it's one of those do it once activities, and so what if the kids go to one less Lollapalooza Festival, we had a blast. Shot looking east toward Canary Wharf,(Olympic Stadium can be see to left of high rises) below is the HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, and City Hall. I believe you actually need to be placed on their list in order to enter, but it is worth the effort. For another lovely view, at a different part of town (near the British Museum) the Paramount provides a great spot for sipping a drink, taking in the view or as we did, enjoying a very tasty lunch. Ordering the duck, the waitress said what I thought between my rock concert hearing loss and her Romanian accent was, "it comes complete" (so I pictured webbed feet, head, the whole works, ooh, exotic!), drawing from my Andy Griffith show experience where Barney Fife went to the big city of Mount Pilot and didn't ask the waitress what he was ordering at the French restaurant and got brains instead of steak, I boldly asked her to repeat herself and discovered she said, "it comes pink" which allowed me to order medium instead and have a delicious cut of duck meat. Who says you can't learn anything from the boob tube?
Tube Pointers - pay attention to what specific train of a line you are on - there are spurs, make certain you are on the correct path. It's not difficult, but you can't be snoozing or you'll end several stops past your destination and have to backtrack (no, we didn't, which should encourage everyone, but stay alert, the world needs more lerts).
To me, the Oyster Card is the way to go. It is a solid piece of plastic. You can buy in advance (see link above), you can add to the balance very easily (although we bought 50 GBP cards and only used a bit more than half) it can be scanned on either side and is quicker than the paper ticket, it automatically gets you the best fare and best of all, you can at the end of your trip, cash it back in for your balance (keep the card, it has you activation fee for future use, by anyone) which provides you with walking around money at the airport (The Harlequin in Terminal 1 is one last good shot at British ales and lagers).
I used my "tube" days as wide margin of error scouting trips doing the walking tours provided above and we had a wonderful time (jerrycoin had absorbed all of the bad weather, by time we arrived) and early on took a doubledecker tour. We also took a Travelzoo City Cruise on the Thames right at Westminster Pier (remember, your destination at the tube) and went from Westminster to Greenwich and back (you can hop on and off as well). Now these babies are bogos, all over town in ad brochures and Travelzoo (2 for 20 GBP), so shame on you if you drop 40  instead (save it for the food!).
PHOTOS - BIBENDUM  We hit several of the Insiders recommended restaurants, Bibendum, Petrus, and Hawksmoor and they were all home runs with pleasant evenings at each one. Here's a photo of Michelin's London Headquarters from 1911-1986 turned into a cafe, a market, and a top notch restaurant, named after their logo, made of tires, Bibendum.  At Gordon Ramsey's Petrus, the food lived up to it's reputation and we were given a tour of the kitchen, just missing Ramsey who was in town to open two new restaurants. Hawksmoor was another delight. Other local gems; Cafe de Amis (terrific meal and deal on Amazon Local uk), Covent Garden City Grill (great meal/deal with London Eye tickets - Amazon Local uk), Borough Market (charcuterie, cheese, juices, fruit samples and loads of fun, interesting merchants), Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor Cafe and Terrace (tasty cider).
London is a great city for walking and if you enjoy walking and are fortunate enough to catch good weather like we did, you're in for a fantastic time. Here's a couple of thoughts: I've done development work in neighborhoods and cities for over 30 years and never has my directional intuition been as challenged as it was in London. The streets change names faster than anadyr  and the signs (if at all) are on walls, often a block back, made non-visible by a doubledecker bus. No sweat, you're never really lost and if you allow an extra 15 minute cushion for the inevitable wrong turns, you'll enjoy the 'bonus' adventure and should by chance you make all the right turns, you will always find 15 minutes of interesting things to observe at your destination.
PHOTO - GORDONS (as mentioned in Insiders, we enjoyed cheeses and wine and left before it got too crowded. I'm not sure how that would feel. Coincidentally we walked up the street and ate lunch underground at the Crypt Cafe at St. Martin in the Fields before enjoying a concert in the church.
Making me feel at home (DC Metro) the Piccadilly Line was being serviced one day and we had to transfer to a bus. This was fine by us as we got to see more of the city (it would have been a 7 GBP charge if it was a tour) and we walked around the stop, Earl's Court, before returning to the tube. Unlike my hometown, where if you ask a subway employee a question, he behaves like Patty Duke in the Miracle Worker acting like you're speaking Klingon, the folks in London, to a person, are extremely friendly, helpful, and competent. So ask and learn, save time and enjoy.
Marriott County Hall - Very competent service, very friendly personnel thoroughout the property. The CL has a nice breakfast (hopefully remaining so with the new policy) and offers it from 6-11am. They have canapes at 6pm and also provide wine and beer - free. The Czech Budweiser (Budvar Brewery won copyright to the name in their trade area) and several others (Becks) made for a great start to the evening walk and meal. Way to go European properties! County Hall also has one of the nicest hotel pools I've seen, so if you like to swim, this is the ticket for you and the gym is very nice, although I must admit, this trip I just checked the gym for this write up, I came to gain pounds, not lose them and I proudly state that I accomplished my goal.
As we greatly anticipated, we saw terrific theatre in London and once again deals are there for the looking (with excellent seats) as well as the Leicester Square tkts 'day of' stand. One standout was Matilda. It's now on Broadway and the show is superbly done, very entertaining, catchy tunes and a wonderful little star (four children rotate the performances) who steals your heart. It gets a rare erc 'must see'. Asking my comedically trained (Second City) daughter why she wasn't more like Matilda, without skipping a beat, she responded, "because you weren't more like Jean Valjean", aah, money well spent.
PHOTO -Stephen Cawlston - as a film buff/theatre fan walking around Knightsbridge, we popped into this interesting shop and met artist/owner Stephen Cawston. He paints movie posters and scenes and is a joy to chat with about films and plays. While we interacted with him, he was commissioned by Sidney Poitier's co-star in To Sir With Love; a majority shareholder of Aston Martin to paint five Skyfall scenes (showing the car of course); and Jim Gillespie the director of I Know What You Did Last Summer. Steve called us his good luck charms and said he would gladly offer a 'deal' to Marriott Insiders. Just show him this picture of me closing the deal for a piece of art on tef6178's life story - CEO Rock God which tells the tale of a teenage musical prodigy who goes on to succeed in business as a turnaround artist, only to end his illustrious career doing battle with Marriott Vacation Club over unsubstantiated maintenance fees and rigged board votes; coming soon to a theater near you!  Check out Stephen's website  or  and if you ever meet Steve, he'll tell you the story of Homage vs. Hormage. Be sure to discuss price first and then negotiate your Marriott Insiders savings, you don't want one of those Marriott/Omaha Steak deals where you get 20% off of a 40% markup. But, all kidding aside, Steve's a very personable, knowledgeable, talented guy who you would enjoy meeting, purchasing or not (and no, I don't get anything, so it's really him just thrilled to have exposure to our impressive audience).
PHOTO - And speaking of homage, this photo of Stanley Gibbons a world leader in stamps and coins is my tribute to the coinman himself, jerrycoin  . Here's the Number One travel tip for all Insiders - find out where jerrycoin is traveling and be fortunate/clever enough to go there a week after him. That man has more juice with hotel managers than Tropicana.


PHOTO - here's my room view, courtesy of Mr. Insider. What a terrific vacation we had, thanks to all the ideas and help of Insiders.
Keep on, keepin' on Insiders. Here's to a great summer of travel.