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A list of top tips for visitors who want to get more of a "feel" for London than they may get if they follow the tourist trails.
1. Explore London's Lungs. London has more open space and green space than most major capital cities and the parks vary hugely in flavour. Many are away from the centre but are well worth the journey. Of particular note are Hampstead Heath – a large slice of countryside in a hilly part of the city, with some stunning views, tube at Hampstead; Regent's Park – a large formal park in the Victorian tradition near to Baker Street, with an excellent open-air theatre; Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – a huge open space right in the centre of the West End; Wimbledon Common – wild open countryside perfect for cycling, next to a picture perfect "village"; and the myriad tree-lined squares of Bloomsbury and Finsbury.
2. Walk! Londoners moan about the Tube. A lot. It is easy to forget that this is one of the most extensive, most frequent urban rail systems in the world, and easy to forget how convenient it is; for getting from A to B across town, there is no faster way (well, maybe motorbike or cycling is quicker, but that is not reasonable for visitors or very safe!) BUT by using the Tube too much you can miss an awful lot. One of the best things about London is the different flavour of the neighbourhoods and how quickly you can move between areas of very different types – the City and Spitalfields, for example; or Bloomsbury, Mayfair, and Soho. If you do all your travelling undergound, you miss all that. OK, so London is a very big place, but there are a lot of major attractions you can easily walk between and it will open your eyes. Do not be tempted to get off at Covent Garden station to visit Covent Garden! Nearly all the stations within two stops from it are only a ten minute walk away. Last but not least, if you go to visit Camden Town, jump off at Chalk Farm, not Camden Town station; this way you avoid the sardines.
3. Keep off the main drags. Related to the above recommendation really; the main roads, down which 99% of the traffic and 90% of the pedestrians travel, can be a noisy, dirty mass of chain stores and stalls selling cheap tourist tat. Walk just a couple of streets away and you can see a completely different London. Like the "mews" (back streets formerly for stables) in Kensington and Knightsbridge; the rabbit warren of lanes in Soho, away from Regent and Oxford Streets; the winding medieval lanes of the old City, which are still mostly there; even Westminster has quiet backstreets away from Victoria Street and Whitehall.
4. Understand a little of the history. London is, and always has been, a trading city and an agglomeration of nationalities and people from all walks of life, and this is what has made it what it is. Understand some of the history of the neighbourhoods – and the people who built them and you'll begin to understand why some of the districts look as they do. Take Notting Hill, for example: In Regency times (early 19th century) this area was developed in an attempt to catch the coat tails of the riches of Kensington across the park, but it never really took off. Throughout the early 20th century, the area declined and the large villas were split into many small flats. In the 50s and 60s, this was the cheapest place to live in London, and was settled by Afro-Caribbean immigrants brought over to the UK for cheap labour after WWII, and they created the Carnival, one of the biggest street parties in the world. Their legacy still lives on, and many still live in the area, but these days you'd need to win a lottery to afford a house in the neighbourhood. It has shot up in popularity, and gentrified and changed in just 25 years into one of the most expensive areas of town.
5. Do not blitzkrieg sights. Some people come to London and spend all of their time rushing to one site after another without actually seeing anything. Rather than rushing from Harrod's to Big Ben to Buckingham Palace to the London Eye, trying to fit every tourist sight into your stay, take the time to enjoy London's neighborhoods: Window shop in Old Bond Street, check out the crafts market in Covent Garden, walk along the South Bank. Slow down, relax and enjoy...
6. Do not try too hard to find the "real" London. As mentioned above, London is a mish-mash. Any attempt to find the "real" London, or "real" Londoners, is probably doomed to failure, especially in a short trip; you will be better off trying to wander, watch and absorb. If you want to go to "Tourist" things, that is cool; so do Londoners. Just enjoy yourself, and try to mix not trying too hard to "do" everything, with an appreciation for the noisy and sometimes frenetic pace of life here.
7. Buy an Oyster Card.
London's transport is pretty expensive, so unless you are going to make one single journey on public transport in London, then you should really be looking to either purchase an Oyster or Travelcard and not pay for single tickets. In this way you're gonna save some money. This is an absolute MUST. You will always get the cheapest available fare for the time of day and your route; you will save lots of time by avoiding the massive queues at ticket offices. And it works on the tube, buses, suburban trains, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) etc. Once you've bought one and loaded it (cash or credit card) there is no time limit on your Oyster credit and it is easy to top up at any station (cash or credit card). Pay-as-you-go Oyster is ideal for visitors; Travelcard is best for residents.