20 Secret Bargains of London
Insider tips on how to save cold cash in Cool Britannia's red-hot capital
There's just nothing in the world like my hometown - the architecture, the colorful street life, the even more colorful nightlife, the rainbow of eccentric and fairly friendly inhabitants, and better dining than at any time in its history (no cracks, please). Sadly, Cool Britannia has earned another nickname courtesy of our local tabloids: "Rip-off Britain." But the truth is that especially away from the touristy downtown areas, London doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. If you aren't afraid to take the bus, the train, the tube, or to arm yourself with a street map and walk, you can dig up some brilliant bargains in exciting places. (To call London from the United States, first dial 011-44-20. From within the U.K., first dial 020 for London; for other cities, dial 0 before the city code.)
Notes from the Underground
No question, the best way to get around is the weekly Travelcard (you'll need a passport photo to get one), which covers the Underground (the world's most extensive subway system), those red double-decker buses, and British Rail trains - especially good for navigating the further reaches of town. If you plan to explore only central London, buy a Zone One unlimited travel pass for £15.30 ($22.25); other passes cover up to six zones (£35.40/$51.50), but four will get you pretty much anywhere you'd want to go except Heathrow. The cards are available at all train and tube stations and tourist offices. There's also a transport advice line (7222-1234) to help you get exactly where you want to go.
Tips on the Thames
Get started even before you leave the States, by visiting the vast londontown.com (which also has special offers on lodging and events) or calling the British Tourist Authority at 877/899-8931 for a free info pack; ask for the brochures Where to Stay on a Budget 2001 and the London Planner. Once over here, there's lots of useful help at the London Tourist Board's main information center at Victoria train station (whose tube station has the same name) and the Britain Visitor Centre at 1 Regent Street: mostly leaflets, booking services for tours and bus trips, and accommodation services. The weekly Time Out (£1.95/$2.85) still runs the top listings guide, but several newspapers now publish their own; the best is "Hot Tickets," free with the Evening Standard (35p/50cents) on Thursdays. The free morning newspaper Metro (available at tube stations) also has listings for that day.
Remember the scruffy local eatery that features prominently on the Brit soap EastEnders? (You can frequently find the series stateside on public TV.) Colloquially known as "caffs," these cafes are the English version of diners - a real blue-collar experience, with simple food and sometimes gruff service. Here, they close at 6 p.m. and are beloved by construction workers and celebs alike. An all-day breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, and toast hovers around the £3 ($4.35) mark; make sure you try some "bubble and squeak" (fried mashed potatoes and cabbage, very tasty local delicacy) with your brekkie. I recommend Mike's Cafe (12 Blenheim Cres., Notting Hill, W11; tube: Notting Hill or Ladbroke Grove), Borough Cafe (11 Park St., around the corner from Borough Market, SE1; tube/train: London Bridge), Dishes Cafe (23 Cromwell Rd., near the Natural History Museum, SW7; tube/train: South Kensington), and Mario's Cafe (6 Kelly St., near Camden Market, NW1; tube: Kentish Town/Camden).
Even cheaper lodging options? Try university residence halls, which offer a bed and a full English breakfast in clean, simple twins with a washbasin in the room, and shared bath, kitchen, and TV facilities during vacation periods (generally mid-April and mid-June through September) in very central locations. Best picks: the beautiful Wellington Hall (71 Vincent Sq., SW1; 7834-4740, tube: Victoria) with twin rooms at £42 ($61), breakfast included; Great Dover Apartments (165 Great Dover St., SE1; 7407-0068, tube: Borough) has twin rooms with private bath (or, as the English refer to it, "en suite") at £47 ($68). Both of the above are available through King's Conference and Vacation Bureau (7848-1700), firstname.lastname@example.org. Wigram House (84-99 Ashley Gardens, SW1, 7911-5796, email@example.com; tube/train: Victoria), with twins from £48 ($70.50), about 20 percent more for ages 27 and over. Year-round, the London Hostels Association (7828-3263) has a roster of ten centrally located, pleasantly sedate - i.e. not full of boozy Aussies - hostels with weekly double rates from o88 ($128) per person (usually breakfast and dinner included). The rock-bottom option is Tent City Acton (Old Oak Common Ln., W3, 8376-3432, firstname.lastname@example.org, home.fastnet.co.uk/iandavey; tube: East Acton), open June to September, with beds in big dorm-style tents from o6 per person ($8.75).