If you haven't been to London lately, or at all, I completely understand. For a few years, the exchange rate was bruising -- it cost nearly two American dollars to get a single British pound -- and that scared off visitors. Finally, though, the numbers have simmered to about $1.50 per pound, not bad as rates go. There hasn't been a better time to visit London in a while, and anyone who has been putting off a visit should spring into action while the getting's good. London is one of the hippest, most multicultural, forward-thinking cities in the world, so there's a lot of discover, whether it's for the first time or even if you think you know it already.
1. Because London has a huge collection of free museums, you can tour it for almost nothing. It's a long British tradition to let the masses see its top museum treasures for free (blame Dickens, because he made the upper classes ashamed about how the poor were excluded from the party). London, as the capital of the United Kingdom, has the best stuff, and most of it (including the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the V&A, and the archeological finds of the Museum of London) don't cost a thing to see. With the exception of just two major attractions (Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London), you could spend a whole week plumbing the best the city has to offer and only spend money on your hotel and your meals. London, it turns out, is not as expensive as you'd think.
2. America's Liberty Bell is actually British. What's more, the foundry that made it in the eighteenth century is still operating, and it gives tours on two weekends a month. The cramped, dusty floors of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (32-34 Whitechapel Rd., E1; tel. 020/7247-2599; www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk), which has been making bells since 1420, are cluttered with huge, recently poured metal bells cooling in their frames. That's not the only direct link to American history. Like all of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was born a British subject, and he lived in London for 16 years--only the Revolution sent him back to North America. His old London home, the Benjamin Franklin House (36 Craven St., WC2; tel. 020/7839-2006; www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org) is now a museum, something that Philly can't claim. In many ways, London's past is America's past, and you can learn nearly as much about the United States' origins there as you can in Washington.
3. London's Tube is famous, but it's much easier, and cheaper, to walk. A one-way ride on the city's subway is now more than $7. That's ridiculous. Even locals think so. So it's much smarter to skip that expense, and all those stairs, and walk as much as possible. Lots of stations are much closer to each other than the Tube map suggests (St. Paul's and Barbican, for example, are a 5-minute walk apart, but a Tube ride would require three connecting trains). And now that the Eurostar trains to Paris have moved to St. Pancras station, the surrounding neighborhood of King's Cross is quickly rising as the best choice for affordable guest houses. You can happily walk to the West End from there, which you can't say for the fading champs for low-cost lodging, Earl's Court and Paddington.
4. Inexpensive budget hotel chains are booming in London. Many people like to think of London as being crowded with quaint guest houses and grande dame hotels charging $600 a night, and it is, but the past eight years have seen an explosion in reliable, corporate hotel brands that charge well under £100 ($150) a night. You'd never know to check into these places if you didn't know they existed: Premier Inn (www.premierinn.com), Travelodge (not the same as the American version; www.travelodge.co.uk), and Ibis Hotels (www.ibishotel.com) all have multiple, central locations that are clean, well-run, and often housed in purpose-built facilities. And if you book many months ahead, you can often find rates as low as $50 a night, especially at Travelodge properties.
5. London has a fantastically eccentric side. Forget about kings, queens, stiff upper lips, and tea. The true character of London is decidedly offbeat. Here are just a few of the local oddities: An entire East End house that was stuffed with Victorian antiques and dressed to look like someone still lives there—the smell of cooking food, a cat sleeping by the hearth--all so visitors are tricked into feeling like they've traveled back in time (Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate St., E1; tel. 020/7247-4013; www.dennissevershouse.co.uk); and a twisted but well-funded hodgepodge of world artifacts—tattoos snipped from flesh, torture implements, a lock of Mad King George's hair —collected by a bizarre man who was obsessed with anything to do with the human body (The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Rd., NW1; tel. 020/7611-2222; www.wellcomecollection.org).
Jason Cochran's award-winning Frommer's guidebook to London is available at www.frommers.com/store.