London's less obvious must-see places

The Olympic rings decorate a lawn at the Royal Botanic Gardens, or Kew, near London. Beginning in July, England’s capital is hosting the Summer Olympics. (Andrew McRobb / Kew Gardens / April 17, 2012)

Low-cost London

London didn't make the Economist's Intelligence Unit top 10 list of the 10 most expensive cities in the world — Zurich, Switzerland, can chant, "We're No. 1!" — but you may feel penny-pinched compared with pricey L.A. as your point of reference. We don't, for instance, pay $30 for a one-way express train ride into the city from LAX. Oh, wait. We don't have an express train. Never mind.

For transportation other than the Heathrow Express, here are two words for every London traveler: Oyster card. You'll save major bucks and time if you have this tube/bus/rail card and perhaps feel a little smug as you place it smartly on the ubiquitous "circle" that gives you safe passage onto your chosen mode of transport. You buy the card and load it with however many pounds you like. For instance, if you're riding from Paddington to Piccadilly Circus, you'd cough up almost $7 if paying cash but only $3.20 with the Oyster, a budget aphrodisiac for sure.

Meals too can be budget wreckers. I'm tickled at having found a couple of good places near my hotels that didn't break my bank.

Some critics sneer at Masters Super Fish (191 Waterloo Road, 011-44-20-7928-6924) about a block from the H10 London Hotel, where I stayed for about $220 a night, but my early evening fish and chips dinner was tasty, and the place was full of regulars. If you're going for the décor, don't. If you're going for a nice meal of fresh fish (which doesn't have to be fried) for about $15, do.

My best find (thanks to Time Out London) was Bonnington Café (11 Vauxhall Grove, http://www.bonningtoncafe.co.uk), not far from the Kia Oval cricket ground, which puts it off the path. But I did have a sit-down lunch of vegetarian squash/chickpea curry over rice and a nice green salad for $8 (also open for dinner). It's about the dishes, not the décor, at this community-run eatery. Afterward, stroll around the square and you'll see Bonnington's pocket park (and head over to the Harleyford Road Community Garden while you're at it). Because especially in the coming weeks, London promises to be anything but an oasis of calm.

Low-key London

Perhaps because we think of London as stately, we also think of it as sedate. This would be incorrect. Victoria station at afternoon rush hour makes an L.A. SigAlert look like a garden party. Eventually, you're going to need to remove yourself. You can leave London (see below) or you can remove yourself from the chaos. Or both.

London is loaded with gardens — more than 2,500 of them — chronicled at http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk. I sampled several but fell madly for the Royal Botanic Gardens, or Kew. You have to want to visit Kew — it was a 90-minute bus/train/bus ride for me — but the Sturm und Drang is worth it for the sheer absence of Sturm und Drang.

The 300-acre Kew is dotted with structures (Waterlily House, Kew Palace, the Orangery restaurant and more), each of which is a little magic pocket of surprises. I suggest taking the tram ride ($6.35) around the garden and then putting on your dancing shoes to hobnob with the birds, bees and, alas, the jets that break the reverie.

Admission: $22 adults, free for children 17 and younger. Info: http://www.kew.org.

Contrast Kew's open spaces with the nine-mile Regent's Canal, a waterway and towpath enclave that's a buffer from urban insanity. Start at the Canal Museum, a one-time ice house, near King's Cross. Its history lesson on ice cream is more interesting than its discourse on the man-made canals.

On the mile and a half walk from the Canal Museum to Camden Town, I encountered bikers, joggers, strollers, moms, babies, dogs, swans, ducks and the occasional graffito. Water trickled through the locks like the tinkle of aquatic piano keys.

The bubble burst at Camden Town, reminiscent of the Orange County swap meet but with more global food offerings and less charm. A sugar infusion at vegan Cookies & Scream buoyed my spirits, as did embarking on the London Waterbus Co.'s canal boat bound for Little Venice. The 50-minute ride (about $12.30 one way) put me back in the bubble as it glided past Regent's Park, through the London Zoo and by Italian manor houses, depositing us at Browning's Pool near the renovated Rembrandt Gardens. There, willows wept but a bride and groom beamed as they posed for post-nuptial pics. Blue skies and young love — does it get better than this?

Canal Museum: http://www.canalmuseum.org. Admission about $6.35. Regent's Canal: http://www.waterscape.com/canals-and-rivers/regents-canal. London Waterbus Co.: http://www.londonwaterbus.com.

Liquid London

London is all about the liquid — the 60 billion cups of tea Brits drink each year, the 27 million pints of beer quaffed each day, the 23 or so inches of rain that fall, on average, in London each year. You'll find enough tea/coffee houses and pubs (although they're said to be disappearing at the rate of two a day) to slake your thirst, but your personal shelter from the storm needs a special place, and that place is James Smith & Sons, which sells umbrellas and walking sticks. It's been a going concern since 1830. I could not leave without buying an umbrella, silly for a Southern Californian.

James Smith & Sons, 53 New Oxford St., http://www.james-smith.co.uk.

Although it was raining, I didn't need the umbrella for my trip down the Thames on the Thames Clipper, which is really an enclosed commuter boat. It's an overlooked way of seeing London like a local — a local in a hurry. It leaves slowly from the London Eye, but just past the Tower Bridge, it goes full tilt on its run to Greenwich. No narration, but you can figure out the sites yourself.

Round trip: http://www.thamesclippers.com, about $12.75 with an Oyster card discount.

It seemed only right on my liquid tour to stop at the Cutty Sark, an 1869 clipper ship that in its prime carried tea from China (and later wool from Australia). Queen Elizabeth II reopened the ship last month, almost five years after a fire gutted it. Now it sits in a steel cradle, its beauty restored, pointing proudly at this section of the 205-mile Thames as if to say, "Landlubbers are lame." You walk enough in London, and I promise that's true.

Cutty Sark, part of the Royal Museums Greenwich, http://www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark. Admission: About $20.

Leaving London

What's more romantic than dinner in London? Just about anything, but definitely dinner in Paris. I'd booked the Eurostar for this fast train trip to France, leaving on the 3 p.m. speeder to Paris and returning about 9 p.m. (You gain an hour, so you'll arrive about 6:30 p.m. at Gare du Nord station.) The countryside blurred by, fields of yellow rapeseed exploding with color amid patches of vibrant spring green. From the Gare du Nord, I walked across the street to Terminus Nord, ordered a glass of wine, some escargot and a steak with béarnaise sauce and fries, which sound less sinful as pommes frites. Tab: $75, not including tip. Effect: Made me giggle at the silliness of it all. Next time: I'll stay longer. Or be more adventuresome with my restaurant choice. Or go to Brussels, which you can also do for less than a day. If you book far enough in advance, a standard nonrefundable ticket for Brussels or Paris can be about $100, round trip. Leaving London made me long for it, and I returned, happy but tired, just before midnight to log a little more shut eye before continuing one L of a trip.

Eurostar, http://www.eurostar.com. Terminus Nord, http://www.terminusnord.com.

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