The West End
If you can afford it, staying in the West End is still the quintessential London experience. On your doorstep is a glorious whirl of all that the city stands for -- world-class theatre, historic sights, and shopping that spans the full range from the dirt-cheap to the wallet-batteringly expensive. Of course, all this comes at a price -- don't expect to stay in the West End cheaply, or for your room to be particularly spacious or quiet. But do expect the wild mish-mash of London life right on your doorstep.
Bloomsbury teams quiet, tree-lined streets and Georgian terraces with access to Oxford Street shopping and Theatreland, while near-neighbor Covent Garden is noisier, smarter, and right at the heart of the action. Marylebone is more "villagey" than either, with a mix of high-end hotels and smaller, family-run establishments. If London's just one port of call on a larger trip then consider King's Cross; it's not the prettiest of central locations, but unparalleled transport links to the north of Britain and continental Europe make it a fine base. Turn-of-the-century London -- with all the gentleman's clubs, royal buildings, and gracious hotels you'd expect -- is on show in St. James's (at decidedly 21st-century prices). But for the full-on, 24-hour, everything-on-your-doorstep feeling, it has to be Soho. Just remember to bring your credit card, and earplugs.
There's a good reason why so many hotels are based in West London. Great transport links mean that it only takes minutes to reach the sights and sounds of the West End, but your home from home is in a quieter, leafier, and much more reasonably priced district. And there should be a hotel for every taste. Paddington and Bayswater throng with terraced family-run hotels that don't offer much in the way of glamour, but with Hyde Park on your doorstep and the West End minutes away you won't be home much anyway. Notting Hill is more self-contained, with a mix of upscale boutiques, celeb-rich restaurants, and the clamor of Portobello Road market. Hotels here are more expensive, but also more elegant. Nearby Maida Vale might be West London's prettiest locale. Canals, coffee shops, and calm wide streets make it a great spot for those who relish their peace and quiet. Expect to pay a little more for the privilege.
All of London's classic attractions -- shopping, royal life, and green spaces -- without the frenetic whirl of the West End, make Southwest London a popular choice for first-time visitors. If you're going to splurge on a hotel, Knightsbridge has the smartest -- classic town houses with haute cuisine in the restaurants, Hyde Park for a garden, and Harrods as the local store. Kensington and Chelsea, like Knightsbridge, are heavy on grand Edwardian accommodation, but with less flash, and less expense, than their neighbor. Victoria and Pimlico are cheaper still -- don't expect doormen and drawing rooms here -- but have great transport links. With plenty of smaller hotels and B&Bs, they make a practical sightseer's base. Westminster puts you at the seat of British politics and royal grandeur. It's the place if you want to live like a visiting dignitary, just don't expect to do it on the cheap.
The South Bank
The South Bank is where Londoners and tourists come out to play -- the stretch from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge takes in museums, theatres, and galleries, and is populated with a mix of visitors, street performers, and skateboarders. Hotels are so concentrated north of the Thames that it's easy to forget that the majority of London is south of it, and rooms in prime spots such as Waterloo and the South Bank are closer to the London Eye, Tower Bridge, and that strip of world-class arts venues than most of their West End counterparts.
Time was that hotels in and around the Square Mile were just for businessmen -- they were staid, reassuringly expensive, and internationally bland. There are still plenty of these identikit rooms available for short stays, but the City's hip neighbors -- Shoreditch and Clerkenwell -- have injected some cool into the area. As an added bonus, weekend rates around here can be the closest thing to a bargain you'll find in London.
The story of London in the 21st century has been the eastward drift of its center. As the old East End becomes increasingly gentrified, it's here that the most interesting new hotels are opening. Design hotels, hip crashpads, and historic conversions make this the new hangout for fashion-conscious travelers. Better still, improved transport links mean that all this is just a hop, skip, and a jump from central London.
North & Northwest London
Traditionally this isn't a great part of London for hotels, but Regent's Park is a fine area for mixing green space with easy Tube access to the central action. Hampstead is home to a multitude of tiny, family-run B&Bs for that village vacation feel, just a short hop from the center.
Near the Airports
Heathrow -- In this land of chain hotels, the Heathrow Airport Hilton, Terminal 4, Hounslow TW6 (tel. 020/8759-7755; www1.hilton.com), wins out for its unrivaled access -- a covered walkway whisks you from bed to plane without ever setting foot outside. However, the Holiday Inn, Sipson Way, Bath Rd., Hayes, Middlesex UB7 (tel. 020/8990-0000; www.ichotelsgroup.com), is better value and the Radisson Edwardian, 140 Bath Rd., Hayes, Middlesex UB3 (tel. 020/8759-6311; www.radisson.com), has the best facilities, with elegant Edwardian furnishings and a fabulous spa and pool.
Gatwick -- The story's similar at Gatwick -- the Hilton London Gatwick Airport, South Terminal, Gatwick Airport, West Sussex RH6 (tel. 01293/518080; www1.hilton.com), is similarly bland and uncomplicated, but is under increasing pressure from Yotel, South Terminal, Arrivals Concourse, Gatwick Airport, West Sussex RH6 (tel. 020/7100-1100; www.yotel.com), a Japanese-style capsule hotel that's great value if you're just looking for a bed and a shuttle. When we have longer to wait for our flight, we treat ourselves to the sprawling, neo-Tudor Manor House Hotel, Bonnetts Lane, Ifield, Crawley, Sussex RH11 (tel. 01293/518046; www.manorhouse-gatwick.co.uk). It's family-run, comfortable, and quirky.
Luton -- For ease of access, the Express by Holiday Inn, 2 Percival Way, Luton LU2 (tel. 01582-589100; www.hiexpress.com), is hard to beat -- it's the nearest hotel to the terminal buildings, with utilitarian rooms and a decent free airport shuttle (across the road). If you're looking to explore the area, you might prefer Live and Let Live, Pegsdon, Hitchin, Herts SG5 (tel. 01582-881739; www.theliveandletlive.com). The pub offers seven basic rooms on the edge of the pretty Chiltern Hills.
Stansted -- Most passengers skip staying out in Stansted -- there's really not much to do nearby. However, if you're stuck for a night, the Radisson Blu, Waltham Close, Stansted Airport, Essex CM24 (tel. 0127/966-1012; www.radissonblu.co.uk), ticks all the boxes. Its ultra-modern design fits well with the sci-fi atmosphere of the airport, rooms are modern and spacious, and best of all, a covered walkway runs all the way to the terminal -- it's about a 10-minute walk.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.