London is divided into 33 boroughs, including Islington, Camden, and the City of London (the financial district, otherwise known as the City or the Square Mile). It's also loosely divided into north and south by the snaking Thames. Most of London's big sights are located north of the Thames (although the south is catching up, with Tate Modern, the London Eye, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre). Central London (including the West End) is home to the major tourist areasOxford Street, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circuswhile the more upscale neighborhoods, including Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Kensington, are farther west. The traditionally working-class, and still gritty, East End, which includes Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and Hoxton, is the place to hang outfor the moment. London's second financial district, the rejuvenated Docklands and Canary Wharf, is in the east. The most run-down areas of the East Endthe site of the 2012 Olympicswill be transformed as part of a massive rejuvenation program in preparation for hosting the Games. While some imagine London's urban sprawl to be a gray old place, it's actually 30 percent green, with eight Royal Parks, including Regent's Park and Hyde Park, and 39 urban ones that provide plenty of places to escape the madding crowd.
WHEN TO GO
Go anytime. London has no off-season. The weather is famously unpredictable but rarely extreme. That said, recent summers have featured a run of hot weather (up to the 90s), which is hard to take in a city in which air-conditioning is exotic. Rain happens anytime, so bring an umbrella. November through New Year's is festive, starting with fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night (though if you visit over the Christmas to New Year's period, when everyone takes time off work, expect the city to be dead). Spring, from April to early June, is lovely, and in summer everyone's spirits get a liftlocals pack the sidewalk tables, spill out of pubs, and lay out in the parks on their lunch hour.
HOW TO GET THERE
Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, lies 12 miles west of London (www.heathrowairport.com). After many teething problems, British Airway's flagship new Terminal 5 (T5) is now open (800-247-9297; www.britishairways.com). Eventually the majority of BA's flights to and from the United States will operate exclusively from T5. The majority of other airlines flying to and from the States use Terminal 3 or Terminal 4. There are several ways to get to central London from Heathrow; the best is via the Heathrow Express rail link, which reaches Paddington Station in West London in 15 minutes (44-845-600-1515; www.heathrowexpress.com). Licensed taxis are also available; fares are metered and traffic can be very heavy, so expect to pay at least £55 (about $110) for a trip to the West End. Alternatively, many car-service companies offer fixed-fare advance booking online (www.carrentals.co.uk/car-hire/london-guide.html). There's also the Tube, including a new station serving T5 customers (44-20-7222-1234; www.tfl.gov.uk/tube).
Gatwick Airport is 28 miles south of London (www.gatwickairport.com). Flights from the States use both the North and the South terminals. Gatwick Express transports passengers to Victoria in 30 minutes, though it takes a bit longer on Sundays (44-121-410-5015; www.gatwickexpress.com). Other trains service London Bridge and King's Cross. All leave from the rail station at the South Terminal; there's a free transit train from the North Terminal. A taxi into central London takes approximately 65 minutes and costs around $145, depending on traffic. The airport's official taxi partner is Checker Cars, which operates a fare-quote system so you can pay in advance (44-129-356-7700; www.checkercars.com).
American Airlines is now operating a daily service to New York's JFK (two flights each day from August 2008 onward) from Stansted Airport in the county of Essex, situated 32 miles northeast of London. The Stansted Express runs every 15 minutes (with a journey time of 45 minutes) to and from Liverpool Street in London's financial district (44-845-600-7245; www.stanstedexpress.com). The airport's official taxi partner is Checker Cars, which operates a fare-quote system so you can pay in advance (44-127-966-1111; www.checkercars.com).
The London Undergroundor the Tube, as it's generally knownruns from approximately 5:30 a.m. until just after midnight. Its 12 lines, plus the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), are a quick and relatively cheap way of getting around. London is divided into six zones; ticket prices rise each time you travel between zones. Most visitors will stay in Zones 1 and 2, except to go to the airport. Tickets are required for both entry and exit and are available from automated machines (some take credit cards, some are cash only) as well as the station ticket office. Tickets can also be purchased before arrival at www.ticket-on-line.com.
There is a confusing number of ticket types available for travel within London. An Oyster card is the ticket of choice for most Londoners and the best option for visitors. An initial fee of £3 (about $5.80) can save you up to £1.50 (about $2.75) per trip. Single-journey tickets and unlimited Travel Cards (for one, three, or seven consecutive days) are also available. The price increases depending on how many zones you include.
Sadly, London's iconic red double-decker buses have been phased out, retained only as an attraction on two heritage routes. Their modern replacements admittedly do have better access for disabled passengers and strollers. Either pay the driver the exact fare (£1.50, or about $2.75), show your Travel Card, or swipe your Oyster. If there's a yellow sign at the bus stop, you need to buy your ticket at the machine before boarding. Buses use the same zone system as the Tube. If you find yourself stranded after the Underground closes, catch one of the night buses, clearly marked with a large N, which run from 11:30 pm to 6 am. Go to www.tfl.gov.uk/buses to check routes.
Drivers of London's legendary black cabs have to pass the Knowledge, a two-year series of study and exams, before they can join the ranks. The meter starts at £2.40 (about $4.75), and the final price depends upon distance, taxi speed, and time of day. A one-mile trip taking five minutes will cost approximately £4.35 (about $8.50) during the weekday, about £4.80 (about $9.45) after 8 pm and on weekends, and £5.45 (about $10.75) after 10 pm or on public holidays. Taxis can be hailed on the street or ordered (for a minimal surcharge). Several black-cab companies can be reached via telephone through One Number taxi bookings: 44-871-871-8710. Check www.tfl.gov.uk/pco/ for more taxi information.
Minicabs are another option, especially late at night. Beware of unmarked minicabs; only order one by telephone or at a minicab office (see a licensed list at www.tfl.gov.uk/pco/). Minicabs are unmetered and charge by distance.
Rush hour is horrendous, parking is difficult and expensive, there's a daily "congestion charge" for driving in central London, and other drivers show little mercy for the uninitiated. Oh yeah, and the Brits drive on the left. If you insist, the major agencies all have offices here.
British Tourist Authority
1 Regent Street
Tel: 44 207 234 5800
Open Mon 9:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Tues–Fri 9:00 a.m.–6:30 p.m. and Sat–Sun 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
551 Fifth Avenue (at 45th street)
New York, New York
Tel: 800 462 2748
Open Mon–Fri 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.