A short stay in... London

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The Independent Travel
OK, OK, you've heard it a thousand times before. London is again a happening place. But if you've never ventured into the shrieking metropolis before, you're likely to find it more than a little intimidating. Gareth Lloyd offers a guide for the first time visitor to our own capital

WHEN TO GO

The main tourist season lasts from Easter until October, but during July and August the tourist scrums are at their worst. At any time of year you should try to book your accommodation in advance. Apart from the long- standing attractions, there are enough different festivals and events to provide an excuse to come at anytime.

HOW TO GET THERE

Travel by car may be the most convenient way to get to London, but the problem is what to do with your car once you've arrived. Buses and trains are better bets. For information on train travel call National rail enquiries on 0345 484 950. For bus information call National Express enquiries on 0990 808 080. NB - it is often more expensive to travel by bus and train on Fridays, and on most trains before 9.30am.

GETTING AROUND

By far the easiest way of moving around the city is by Underground. The 11 lines cover much of the metropolis operating from around 5.30am to shortly after midnight. A good investment is a one-day travelcard, on sale from ticket booths and machines at all stations, as well as some news agents. It is valid for as many journeys as you want on the bus and suburban rail network after 9.30am on weekdays and all day at weekends. Travel cards for central city zones 1 and 2 cost pounds 3.50.

Regular buses operate between 6.00am and 12pm. After midnight a network of night buses (prefixed with the letter "N") operates, with routes stretching out from Leicester Square. Fares are double those of regular day buses and day travel cards cannot be used. Call London Transport's 24-hour phone line for information on bus and tube services (tel. 0171 222 1234).

Expect a journey by black cab across the centre to cost around pounds 15 in light traffic. To book one in advance, call 0171 272 0272.

WHERE TO STAY

The London Tourist Board operates an accommodation booking service (Mon- Fri office hours; tel. 0171 932 2020), for which it charges a pounds 5 administration fee. Here are a few good-value recommendations:

Oxford Street Youth Hostel (Noel St, W1; tel. 0171 734 1618). The unbeatable West End location makes this the most popular youth hostel in the capital. Book in advance for beds from pounds 18.50 per night. (Oxford Circus or Tottenham Court Road Tube)

Jenkins Hotel (45 Cartwright Gardens, WC1; tel. 0171 387 2067). Guests can use the tennis courts in front of the hotel. Comfortable rooms with many amenities start at pounds 45 for singles; pounds 55 for doubles including breakfast. (Russell Square or Euston Tube)

Hotel 167 (167 Old Brompton Road, SW5; tel. 0171 373 0672). A class act. The size of the rooms varies enormously but each comes with all mod cons and breakfast. Singles cost from pounds 66; doubles from pounds 82 a night. (Gloucester Road Tube)

Blakes (33 Roland Gardens, SW7; tel. 0171 370 6701). This highly fashionable hotel prides itself on preserving the privacy of its clients (who are often rich and famous). The hotel's interior design is a mixture of decorative objects and strong colours. Singles cost pounds 152 and doubles from pounds 182. (Gloucester Road Tube)

The Ritz (150 Piccadilly, W1; tel. 0171 493 8181) With its opulent Louis XVI interior and famous Palm Court, this is probably the classiest of all London's top hotels. The special "Putting on the Ritz" weekend deals (with champagne and full English breakfast) cost pounds 290. (Green Park Tube).

FOOD & DRINK

London caters for all palates and wallets, so however traditional or eclectic your tastes, somewhere, there is a dining place for you.

Pharmacy (150 Notting Hill Gate, W11; tel. 0171 221 2442). You may well mistake the new weird and wonderful Damien Hirst eatery for a shop of the same name - people already have. While a three course modern European meal is about pounds 30 per head, toast-based snacks from the drug counter only cost a few pounds. (Notting Hill Gate Tube)

Yo Sushi! (52 Poland Street, Soho, W1; tel. 0171 287 0443). In this young, high-energy restaurant, as robots serve the drinks, guests grab whatever fish food they want as it flies past on a conveyor belt. Expect a meal to cost around pounds 12. (Tottenham Court Road Tube)

Aubergine (11 Park Walk, SW10; tel. 0171 352 3449) offers incredible quality modern French cooking. It's so popular you have to book months in advance. A three-course dinner with wine will set you back about pounds 60 a head. (Sloane Square Tube).

Mildred's (58 Greek St, W1; tel. 0171 494 1634). This packed Soho cafe provides good vegetarian food at about pounds 12 for a three-course meal without drinks. Veggie stalwarts such as stir fries, falafels and salads abound. (Tottenham Court Road Tube)

Vegia Zena (17, Princess Rd., NW1; tel. 0171 483 0192). Despite its rather modest location, Enzo DiMattei's regional Italian food has made this family restaurant one of the capital's most highly acclaimed. The set weekday lunch comes for just pounds 7.45. (Camden Town Tube)

what to see

The British Museum (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2.30-6pm; free; tel. 0171 636 1555) is quite simply one of the finest museums in the world. It has more than four million bequeathed, purchased and stolen artefacts including Egyptian mummies, the Elgin Marbles, Lindow Man and the Rosetta Stone. (Holborn and Tottenham Court Road Tubes).

The Tate Gallery (Mon-Sat 10am-5.50pm, Sun 10-5.40pm; free except for special exhibitions; tel. 0171 887 8000) is where you can enjoy the epic historical archive of British art before getting to grips with some first rate pieces in the international modern art collection. The adjoining Clore Gallery is home to the world's finest collection of Turner's paintings and has changing exhibitions. (Pimlico Tube)

St Paul's Cathedral (Mon-Sat 8.30am-4pm; adults pounds 4 children pounds 2; tel. 0171 246 8348) is topped by an enormous lead covered dome that is second only in size to St. Peter's in Rome. The cathedral's famous attractions include the Whispering Gallery and the view from the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome. (St Paul's Tube)

The National Gallery (Mon-Sat 10am-6pm [8pm Wed], Sun 12am-6pm; free; tel. 0171 747 2885) houses an amazing collection of west European painting from the 13th century to the early 20th century. Its many highlights include works by Cezanne, Piero della Francesca, da Vinci, Bosch, Poussin and Seurat. (Charing Cross or Leicester Sq. Tubes)

Victoria & Albert Museum (Monday 12am-5.40pm, Tues-Sun 10am-5.45pm; adults pounds 5, children free; tel. 0171 930 8500) is stuffed with booty gathered together under the umbrella identity of a museum of decorative art and design. Includes Samurai armour, bits and pieces from Italian churches, Tiffany glassware, four-poster beds, Asian watercolours and Vivien Westwood dresses. (South Kensington Tube)

Houses of Parliament (tel. 0171 219 4272) is arguably London's finest building and the symbol of a nation once confident of its place at the centre of the world. Anyone can watch the House of Commons or House of Lords in session from the visitors' galleries. The best spectacle is Prime Minister's Question Time (arrange tickets through your local MP). (Westminster Tube)

JUST FOR KIDS

Natural History Museum (Mon-Sat 10am-5.50pm, Sun 11am-5.50pm; adults pounds 6 children pounds 3). The best displays are in the multimedia Ecology Gallery, the interactive creepy-crawly room, and the new dinosaurs gallery. (South Kensington Tube)

London Dungeon (daily 10am-4.30pm; adults pounds 8.95 children pounds 6.50). This is a fabulously scary place where you can witness re-enactments of hangings, stretchings, and a rat gnawing through a man's chest - not exactly suitable for the very young. (London Bridge Tube)

Madame Tussaud's (daily 9.30am-5.30pm; adults pounds 9.25 children pounds 6.10; tel. 0171 935 6861). Wax dummies of famous people have been drawing the crowds here for almost 200 years. Phone ahead and book tickets if you don't want to queue. (Baker Street Tube)

Hyde Park is just one of London's many open spaces for children (and adults) to enjoy. A favourite spot for a family picnic is around the Serpentine lake. (Central or Piccadilly Line Tubes).

Hamley's (188 Regent Street, W1; open daily from 10am until late) This is the most celebrated toy store on the planet. The place is bursting with childish delights from silly Slinkys to scaled down model Porsches. (Oxford Circus Tube)

Trocadero (Coventry Street W1; daily 11am-11pm and until 12pm on weekends). Europe's largest indoor entertainment centre offer an amazing array of pay-as-you-go computer games and virtual reality rides. A firm favourite is Alien War, where you pit your wits against aliens through a maze in the bowels of the building. (Piccadilly Circus Tube)

Covent Garden always seems to have at least one busker and juggler to entertain the crowds. There's always the chance that your children will be plucked from the audience for a knife throwing display - but it's cheap! (Covent Garden Tube)

Baby sitting services are offered by many hotels and the following respectable agencies: Childminders (tel. 0171 935 2049), 9 Paddington Street, W1; Koala Nannies (tel. 0171 402 4224) 22 Craven Terrace, W2; and Pippa Pop- ins (tel. 0171 385 2457) 430 Fulham Road, SW6, which is also a creche, nursery and children's hotel.

ENTERTAINMENT

To find out exactly what's going on the essential tool is Time Out (pounds 1.80), the weekly listings magazine, with its finger firmly on the pulse. It contains details on art exhibitions and dance events, news from the club scene (Seventies pop to sado-masachism), ideas for entertaining children, gay goings on, world class theatre shows and fringe productions, national and international sporting events, and every type of music you can imagine. Edwards and Edwards - Globaltickets (tel. 0171 734 4555) can supply tickets for all kinds of events from classical music concerts to comedy plays.

SPECIAL EVENTS

The London Marathon is the world's most popular annual road race. On 26 April more than 30,000 masochists are expected to make the 26.2 mile slog from Greenwich Park to Westminster Bridge. For more information call 0171 620 4117.

The Chelsea Flower Show is widely recognised as the world's premier horticultural event. More than 100,000 gardening gurus and amateurs will attend the public open days on 21-22 May. If you would like to join them book a ticket (pounds 23-25) in advance by calling 0171 344 4343.

Lesbian and Gay Pride attracts gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and straight supporters from all over the world. This day of gay solidarity, usually held in late June or early July, starts with a march through the city and ends with a huge party in one of the city's parks. For more information, call 0171 738 7644.

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships attract the cream of the world's tennis professionals and is one of the highlights of the sporting and social calendar. Admission is around pounds 5 for a ground pass and pounds 50 for a centre court seat. For information call 0181 946 2244.

Notting Hill Carnival, a two-day free festival on August Bank Holiday, is the biggest and best street party in Europe. It is a riotous hullabaloo of colourful floats and costumes, live bands, throbbing sound systems and crushing crowds. For information call 0181 964 0544.

SHOPPING

Department stores offer the most complete shopping experience, with Harrods of Knightsbridge long recognised as the queen of them all (the Food Hall is a tourist attraction in itself). But if you want to buy the same things for less, go to Oxford Street where a series of familiar, inexpensive high street chain stores are repeated every few hundred yards or so.

For a more youthful and alternative sensation try Camden Town. The whole of Camden is basically one huge market whose nerve centre is the stalls at Camden Lock selling antiques, old books, art and crafts and fashion gear. Most places are open all week, but the most rewarding time to come is at weekends, when the whole place turns into a throbbing organic growth that has to be seen to be believed.

The south end of Portobello Road and the surrounding streets in Notting Hill is the places to find antiques that are easy on the eye (but not on the purse). People in the art market should head for Bond Street and Cork Street in Mayfair where there are a number of commercial art galleries.

Brick Lane Market (Sunday 5am-2pm) is far more interesting than its more sterilised counterparts. Streetwise hawkers ply their gold jewellery on shabby streets lined with everything from intriguing junk to antique books and stolen bicycles. The scent of spices and sweetmeats and the exotic looking people make it easy to imagine you're in some Bombay back street.

Soho, named after a medieval hunting cry has evolved into a cosmopolitan mixture of Italian, Chinese, Greek, Pole, Cypriot and Thai communities. Over the past few years the place has become increasingly gentrified, but in between the exclusive clubs, busy pubs and ethnic restaurants you can still find the seedy peep shows, sex shops and greasy spoon cafes for which Soho is renowned.

DEALS/PACKAGES

Trips can be booked through almost any high street travel agent or direct through companies such as Thomas Cook (tel. 01733 335 543), Embassy Leisure Breaks (tel. 0345 581 811), Goldenrail (tel. 01904 679 999), or Superbreak (tel. 01904 679 999).

INFORMATION

London Tourist Board (Glen House, Stag Place, Victoria SW1; tel. 0171 932 2000) Or call in at one of the offices Victoria, Liverpool Street Tube station, Heathrow Airport or Waterloo station.

BOOKS

London: The Rough Guide (Rough Guides, pounds 9.99) by Rob Humphreys. If you're interested in the past and present, try the London Encyclopaedia (Macmillan, pounds 25) by Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert.

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