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Wednesday 16 March 2016

What you really need to know if you are spending time in London

London is one of the great cities of the world. Whether you love the arts and museums, history and culture, or whether major sports events, live concerts are your thing, the English capital has lots to offer. 

But it is a very, very big city and perhaps the most important decision for anyone planning to spend some time in London is deciding where to stay. 

While London has an excellent public transport system it can take a lot of time and effort to get across town - and taxis are prohibitively expensive. 

If you plan to spend much of your time attending events in, say, Shepherds Bush, then it makes no sense to take lodgings in Dagenham. 

Particularly as the winters in London are long and cold, and commuting is not something you want to be spending hours on every day. 

As someone who has lived in London a few times, and who visits regularly, I was pleased to see Visit Britain recently release some questions and answers for first-time visitors to London. They offer useful advice whether you plan to study for six months, or simply want to spend a weekend watching Premier League soccer matches. 

Does it really rain all the time? No! Contrary to popular belief, London is actually relatively dry. And indeed, Britain overall has a temperate climate, but is prone to quick changes – thus the need to always be prepared with a brolly (umbrella) should there be a cloud burst. My view: When it does rain it can be cold, sleeting rain. 

How can I do London on a budget? This is more possible than you’d think! Many of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries are in London – and amazingly many have free entry. There are all sorts of ways to see the other sights with special offers and discounts, and what’s great about Britain is you know you’re going to get a good value, memorable experience for your money. You can easily walk between many of the main sights of central London, saving on transport too. Invest in a Visitor Oyster Card if you do plan to hop on and off the Tube and buses. My view: London is a great walking city in summer, less so in winter. 

What are the people like? Londoners may look like they might bite, but that’s just their resting faces. Really, they’re quite an approachable bunch only too keen to help you out if you need directions or a good pub recommendation, and they’re only too happy to spark up conversation about that easiest of topics – the weather. My view: Londoners really are friendly and helpful. But many of the people on the street may be from Eastern Europe or remote countries and not all speak English. 

How easy is it to get around? Really easy! London has the most comprehensive public transport system in the world and they’ve made it as easy as possible for you to travel your way around the city, be it by Tube (Underground), train, bus, tram, taxi, foot or even river boat! My view: Buses often get stuck in gridlocked traffic; if you are in a hurry take the Tube, or the train, if you can. And avoid taxis unless you want an awful price shock. A 50-minute journey from, say, Islington to Wimbledon (less than 20km) can cost close to £60.  But if you have time to spare there is some great sightseeing to be done from the upper levels of double-decker buses.   
Expensive and worth avoiding 
What do I do if I get lost? You can always ask a local for advice – we really are surprisingly friendly when spoken to..! And in most central areas you’re likely to see a friendly British bobby (police officer), staff in Tube stations, bus drivers and taxi drivers are all super knowledgeable about their city. My view: You very rarely see police on the beat any more. But there are good maps at most Tube station and at some bus stops. 

How do I get cheap West End theatre tickets? For excellent on-the-day deals and half-price bargains, head to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. My view: Try to avoid ticket touts selling tickets for any major event. 

What should I pack to wear? Anything goes in London! The mostly mild but changeable climate means it would be sensible to pack layers, a lightweight rain jacket and umbrella for rain showers. Warm coats and jumpers for winter. And, shock of shocks, you will need sun protection in summer as the sun does make one or two appearances! My view: One or two is optimistic - unless you strike a great summer.

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