Good to know in London: tips & practical information

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  2. Good to know in London: tips & practical information
Practical tips and information in London

Travelling abroad always has its share of unforeseen events. Before leaving for the UK, it's a good idea to find out what you need to know to avoid any unpleasant surprises. gives you some useful tips for your stay in London.

Practical information

Money: The £ sterling, worth 100 pence (p), comes in £5, £10, £20 and £50 bills and £1 and £2 coins (yellow gold). The 1 penny and 2 pence (copper) coins are followed by the 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p (silver) coins.

Banks : Banks are generally open from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., Monday to Friday. Most have ATMs.

Bureaux de change: Bureaux de change are regulated. Their rates are displayed together with the amount of the commission, which may be flat-rate or calculated on a percentage basis. Many bureaus charge no commission at all, but check their rates, as they are sometimes less advantageous than their counterparts.

Payment cards: Most accept major credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard. American Express and Diners Club are less widely accepted.

Post office: Post offices throughout the city are generally open from 9.00 to 15.30, Monday to Friday, and until 12.30 on Saturdays. Stamps can be purchased in hotels, stores and other outlets. The main West End post office, near Trafalgar Square, provides a poste restante service and holds mail for one month. American Express provides its customers with a similar service.

Telephone: Most phone booths accept coins (minimum 20p) and credit cards. For an international call, you'll need at least £2. If you can't get a number, call a local operator (100) or an international operator (155). Emergencies 999 or 112.

Phone codes: The London area code and 020 , which you don't dial when you're in the city. When calling from abroad, the leading zero should be omitted (020). If you're calling abroad from London, dial 00 followed by the country code.

Health and safety : If you need to make an emergency call to the police, fire department or ambulance, dial 999. The operator will direct you. This number is free from any public phone.

Theft: Leave your passports, tickets and traveller's cheques in the hotel safe. Report all thefts to the police, especially if you wish to claim reimbursement from your insurance company. Contact the police in places such as Leicester Square and Oxford Street, or go to the police headquarters.

Lost and found: Anything found on the bus or Tube is sent to the London Transport Lost Property Office. You must go there in person. London Transport Lost P¨roperty 200 Baker Street NW1, open Monday-Friday 9.30-14 020 7918 2000

Hospitals: There are a number of hospitals in central London, with 24-hour emergency services, including dental care. Emergency treatment for accidents can sometimes be free of charge for tourists.

Chemists: Chemists are open at the same times as stores, sometimes later. Bliss Chemist, 5-6 Marble Arch W1, open tlj 10-minuit

Dentists: Hotels can provide you with addresses of dentists. For free emergency care, visit Guy's Hospital Dental Department, near London Bridge.

Avoiding the crowds

Rush hours: If possible, avoid travelling between 8 and 9.30 a.m. and between 5 and 6.30 p.m. from Monday to Friday: subways and buses are overcrowded and cabs hard to find. It's often much quicker and more pleasant to get around on foot.

Lunchtime : Londoners usually eat lunch between 13 and 14.00: cafés and fast-food outlets fill up, and huge queues form outside sandwich bars.

Early-morning visits: Most of the capital's sights, especially the most famous, such as the Tower of London or Madame Tussaud's, are less crowded when they open. But you'll have to brave the rush hour.

School vacations: During the school vacations, London's museums and other sites are packed (family and group visits...). Summer vacations generally last 6 weeks, from late July to early September, and 2-3 weeks at Christmas and Easter. The same applies to the half-term vacations at the end of February, May and October.

Matinées: Tickets for London's most popular shows and cultural events are booked well in advance. Some are still available for mid-week and Sunday matinees.

Reservations: for major exhibitions, staggered visits are organized with reservations specifying the time of entry, to avoid crowding. Try to book well in advance.

Nocturnes: Shops and gallerias often offer nocturnes, attracting smaller crowds than during the day. Stores on Oxford Street, for example, close later on Thursday evenings. The Royal Academy does the same for major exhibitions. The Victoria and Albert Museum stays open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and the last Friday of the month. The Tate Modern also closes on Fridays and Saturdays.

Weekends: Some areas like the City are deserted. It's the ideal time to stroll around the city and visit the sites, avoiding the crowds and traffic jams.

Bank holidays: London becomes less frenetic on public holidays, as many of its residents go away for the long weekend. Apart from Christmas and New Year, the UK's main public holidays are: Easter, May 1st, Whitsun and the end of August. On these occasions, some sites close their doors completely. Some museums and galleries simply reduce their opening hours, except at Christmas and Boxing Day (December 26), when they remain closed. Stores and supermarkets are increasingly open on public holidays.


Shopping districts: Covent Garden offers the latest clothes, shoes, jewelry and gifts, while Oxford Street is home to department stores, ready-to-wear boutiques and music stores. Bond Street and Knightsbridge are where you'll find the most expensive brands and products. Discover the best antique and fine art dealers in Mayfair and St James's.

Opening hours: Stores are generally open from 9.30 to 18.00 Monday to Saturday, with late-night opening until 20.00 on Thursdays in the West End and Wednesdays in Kensigton and Chelsea.

Payment : Many stores accept all major credit cards and cheques, subject to certain conditions. VAT (17.5%) is almost always included in the price. Duty-free stores have a special sign and provide non-EU residents with a form to be validated by customs when leaving the country, enabling them to claim VAT refunds.

Faulty items : Even if stores are required to sell faultless items, always keep your purchase receipts.

Sales: Department stores and many fashion boutiques hold end-of-season sales in January and July.

Fashion : Designer boutiques are spread across Bond Street, Knighstbridge and Sloane Square, Oxford Street offers mid-priced fashion for the budget-conscious, and try Camden, Portobello, Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields markets.

Music : HMV and Virgin offer a huge choice of CDs and DVDs. Many specialist, second-hand and collectors' stores sell the ever-popular vinyl records. For hi-fi equipment, go to Tottenham Court Road.

Gifts and souvenirs : Covent Garden is the place to buy gifts, as are department stores such as Selfridges, John Lewis, Liberty, Harvey Nichols and Harrods. The major museums, galleries and tourist sites are home to interesting souvenir stores.

Art and antiques : The major art dealers are located in the West End, around Bond Street and Cork Street. Bohans and Sotheby's auction houses are also located here. For antiques, go to Porto Bello, Kensigton Church Street and King's Road (Chelsea).

Suburbs : There are 3 huge shopping centers outside the capital: Bent Cross, self-proclaimed the "West End of North London"; Lakeside Shopping Centre, in Grays, Essex; and Bluewater, Europe's largest shopping complex, in Greenhithe, Kent. Stores and entertainment venues close even later.

Cheap London

Accommodation: There are several youth hostels in London. Universities also offer rooms from June to September; the International Students House takes in residents all year round. You'll also find a large number of inexpensive bed & breakfasts.

Getting around: Buses are cheaper than the tube. If you use the tube more than twice a day, Travelcards are interesting. They give you access to buses and the Docklands Light Railway (but not before 9.30 a.m. on weekdays). Booklets of 10 tickets for zone 1 and Oyster cards are also very useful.

Museums and galleries: Some museums are free, while others become free in the late afternoon and early evening. If you want to visit a paying venue more than twice, take out a season ticket. Take advantage of free lunchtime lectures. An International Student Identity Card (ISIC) offers discounts.

Street entertainment : Covent Garden offers entertainment all day long. At weekends, painters hang their works on the railings of Green Park and Hyde Park.

Free music: Churches and music schools (during school terms) offer free lunchtime concerts. You can also enjoy music at the South Bank Centre in summer, at the National Theatre and the National Gallery, and at venues such as Hays Galleria and Canada Wharf.

Budget tickets: Go to the Half-Price Ticket Booth called "Tikts", on the south corner of Leicester Square, which sells same-day tickets. Avant-garde theaters are much cheaper. On Mondays, all seats are £7.50 at the Royal Court Theatre. The Royal Opera House offers standing tickets from £4-8. On Leicester Place, the Prince Charles cinema is the cheapest in central London.

Fashion : Visit the designer clothing depots (The Loft 35 Monmouth St WC2) and L'Homme Designer Exchange ( 50 Blandfort St W1).

Markets: London's markets offer discounted food, clothing, jewelry and antiques.

Parks : Sports events in Regent's Park. Orchestras and bandstands in St James's Park.