The most important advice I can give to anyone visiting London is: Wear comfortable shoes.
The second piece of advice I would offer is this: If you’re staying within Greater London, don’t even think of renting a car. First of all, there’s the issue of learning to drive on the left hand side of the road, to say nothing of differing signage and road markings. Second, London is among the most congested cities in terms of traffic – to the extent that transport authorities have wisely instituted a congestion charge of £11.50 for private vehicles operating within central London between 7:00am and 6:00pm on weekdays. The result of this is one sees relatively few private vehicles operating within central London during these hours – the majority of traffic is double-decker buses, London’s characteristic Taxis, and service vehicles including police cars, ambulances, and trash/recycling trucks. (The few private vehicles seen during this time are invariably Mercedes, BMW, and other luxury cars.)
So, how to get around in London? The best way is to purchase a Transport for London Oyster Card after reclaiming your baggage at the airport. One can purchase an Oyster Card for seven days unlimited travel in Zones 1 & 2, and top-up with additional funds for more extended travel – all for less than the cost of a single taxi ride from the airport to Central London. You simply tap the Oyster Card on the card reader when you enter a tube station, and tap out at the exiting station. It’s that simple. One can use the Oyster Card on the Underground, the famed Double-Decker buses, some Ferry services, and Light Rail. We made use of all of these except, sadly, the buses. We just never got around to taking one, as they were not as easy to manage in terms of learning the routes. But I suspect the buses will still be running the next time we visit London.
The London Underground (52% of which is actually above ground) was our primary means of transport while in London. The “Tube”, as it’s best known in London, is an engineering marvel, with some 250 miles of track. The oldest subway system in the world, the first part of the Tube opened in 1863 – when Abraham Lincoln was President. It has grown into a vast network, part of a larger public transport network that includes the other options mentioned above. (Tube stations were even used as air raid shelters during The Blitz.) Consider that London has been populated for some 2,000 years, grown in fits and starts, endured plagues, burned down, been bombed from the air – a continual process of development, tear-down, and redevelopment. All through this period, modes of transportation were being devised, implemented, revised, and discarded. It’s amazing people can get anywhere with convenience and relative efficiency, given the organic nature of London’s growth.
We ventured beyond Central London twice, both times using alternate transportation. The first time was to Bletchley Park, some 50 miles north, where we took the National Rail from Euston station. The ride was smooth enough that we dozed off on our way back into London. The second time was to Greenwich, a borough southeast of London, to see the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory. Although the tube does go there, we decided to make use of the ferry out of convenience and to get a better view of London from the Thames. The boats operated on time and featured well designed interiors, including a coffee/snack concession, and comfortable seating. I will blog more extensively about our trips to Bletchley and Greenwich in a future post.
As someone who spent nine years in Boston and made extensive use of that area’s excellent public transport, I am not easily impressed. But London decisively put Boston in its place. The convenience, orderliness, and cleanliness of London’s public transport are unsurpassed. As you approach each station, a pleasant recorded voice tells you which station you’re approaching, which transfer lines are available at that station, and reminds you to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.” If the next station ahead is closed or in limited service, that information is also included. The volume is modulated to be clearly audible, yet not harsh or overwhelming.
Even New York, which has been trying to build a particular subway branch for 90 years, is left in the dust - to say nothing of the very limited public transport options offered in my hometown of Cleveland. Of course, to compare Greater London - with nine million residents, to Greater Cleveland - with under two million for Cuyahoga County, would be like comparing coconuts to grapes. It would be impractical for Cleveland to attempt the comprehensive public transport system that London has. But we can do better than our present, inefficiently run bus and rail lines.
Back to my first bit of advice about comfortable shoes: Londoners walk, and they have the rules of foot based commuting down to a fine art. When on an escalator, stand on the right, pass on the left. Do not enter a rail carriage until people have exited. Never cut in line. Those who violate these courtesies risk an angry glare, along with possible verbal reprimand and public embarrassment. Partly as a result of their extensive walking, there are relatively few overweight residents. Most Londoners look astonishingly fit, and the men – unlike in much of the US – wear relatively form-fitting trousers. As a somewhat overweight person, I blend in here in the US, but in London I stood out like a sore thumb. You can also tell the tourists from the natives – the natives look directly ahead and walk briskly to their destination, while the tourists gawk – and there’s plenty to gawk at in London.
Enjoy your time in London. Remember to always keep calm and Mind the Gap.