Monday, May 21, 2012

8 common mistakes first time visitors to London make

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Despite the chill and the occasional hail, the calender dictates that summer has arrived. With the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and London 2012 Olympic Games, London will be swamped with visitors and I have no doubt many of whom are visiting London for the first time.

Assuming that they are able to get pass Heathrow unscathed, I'm sure London has much to offer. Even so, it always serves well to be more prepared. Here are 8 common mistakes made by the first time visitor to London.

1. Leichester Square or Lester Square?

The question 'where is Leichester Square?' would often get a puzzled look. Leicester Square, the second most famous square in London (most famous being Trafalgar Square) is often mispronounced by tourists. Can't blame them, who would expect Leicester Square to be pronounced with a silent 'c'; the correct pronunciation sounds more like 'Lester' Square. (Read also what NOT to do in Leicester Square)

2. Seeking out McDonalds and Burger Kings

London has the dubious reputation of being expensive though with the plunging pound, it's less so now. Even then, budget travelers to London often head straight to the nearest MacDonald's and Burger Kings.

I can very well see myself doing the same if I were to be in a city that I'm unfamiliar with and would like I have a fuss free meal. How far wrong an you get with a hamburger and fries? But London, being one of culinary capitals of the world has no short of eating places, even for the budget conscious (see five cheap eats in Leicester Square and London Cheap Eats guide). If all else fails, my personal favourite for grabbing a quick bite is Pret. It's infinitely healthier than the fast food chains.

3. Forgoing the Oyster Card

Always, always get a stored value Oyster card instead of going for a one trip ticket. That's even if you are going to take only a single trip. The Oyster card requires a refundable deposit of £5 (making it a rather expensive souvenir) and a trip using it costs just £2 compared to £4.30 for a one way ticket. For buses, it's £1.35 and £2.30 respectively. It's a no brainer really.

Frankly, I would advised against getting a travelcard. While it doesn't require a refundable deposit, you pay the daily cap of £8.40 upfront, which is a bad deal if you don't travel that much. For more fare information, visit Transport for London.

4. Keeping to the wrong side of the escalator

All British roads function on right hand drive (i.e. cars drive on the left side of the road) unlike most European continental countries. Yet, its escalators including those in the London Underground have their 'slow' lanes on their right. In other words, the escalators have it the other way round.

So the rule again: if you're driving slow, keep to the left, if you're walking slow, keep to the right. Forget this and face the wrath of Londoners, or rather the occasional 'tsk tsk'.

5. The big fuss about Big Ben and Tower Bridge

London is probably the only capital in the world that have its most iconic buildings' names mixed up. The clock tower at Westminster isn't called Big Ben. Big Ben is actually the big bell within the top of the clock tower.

The Tower Bridge with its twin towers, is often mistaken for London Bridge, which is comparatively mundane looking and lies further up River Thames. That said, you do get a good view of Tower Bridge if you stand on London Bridge on a clear day.

6. Giving Tower of London a miss

Aww, that's too expensive. Granted, an admission ticket with no concession to Tower of London cost just over £20, not exactly the cheapest tourist attractions around. But with nearly a thousand year of history as a backdrop, the Tower of London is bound to leave a deep impression.

Despite the reputation of the Tower, only a handful of the condemned had the privilege of being executed within its walls and away from the mob. Throw in the fact that it used to be an armoury, mint and zoo. Presently, it's the home to the British Crown Jewels. That with its infamous Beefeater tour, the Tower of London is not to be missed.

7. The deckchairs aren't free

When summer beckons, rows of deckchairs will appear in the parks in Central London. When I first arrived in London a couple of years ago, I often wondered why some would rather lay a groundsheet beside these deckchairs instead of plonking down onto them.

I quickly realised why when a chap with a ticket machine strapped to his waist approached me within minutes of me settling down on a deckchair. "That'd be two pounds please," he mumbled nonchalantly. Regardless, it is a small price to pay to stretch out a bit for a couple of hours when the sun is out. Funnily, I heard a couple protesting that they were "tourists" so do not know about the fee, yet refused to vacate the deckchairs. It takes all kind.

8. Missing the Changing of Guards

No first time visitor to London should miss the changing of guards at Buckingham Palace. Unless you're in town for just a couple of hours, you are almost certainly able to catch a glimpse of the most showy piece of pomp that British monarchy has come to known for. Taking place at 11.30am every summer morning (May till July) and every other morning for the rest of the year (see schedule here), thousands of visitors would line The Mall to ooh and aah at the procession.

The best spot to be? Definitely at the small roundabout where Queen Victoria's statue is just across the road in front of Buckingham Palace. But you have to be there a bit earlier to stake out a spot else you risk being run down by the household calvary should you decide to make a mad dash across the road later on.

These are the 8 most common mistakes made by a first time visitor to London. Have I missed any?

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