LONDON — I'm a Londoner and I love London. And 2012 is London's year. But it's not an easy city — not to navigate, not to find affordable accommodations, not to stay dry. As we approach the Olympics, here are some tips that may help you. If you're not coming for the Games, use them for later when the crowds have gone home but the difficulties remain. (Prices maybe higher during the Olympics.)
This hostel is in a converted 200-year-old magistrates' court in King's Cross. You can sleep in a prison cell and drink in lounges in the original courtrooms. It's ideal for backpackers. 78 King's Cross Road; 011-44-20-7183-9400, http://www.clinkhostels.com. Double room with bath $117, cell room $78; 16-bed basic dorm, $14.
Hampstead is one of the prettier north London villages. La Gaffe started as an Italian restaurant — it's still there — and expanded into rooms in a 17th century shepherd's cottage. It is well placed between the wildness of Hampstead Heath and the Tube station. The rooms are small but the service is friendly. 107-111 Heath St.; 011-44-20-7435-8965, http://www.lagaffe.co.uk. 18 rooms, all with bath. Doubles $117.
Sinclair Beecham, founder of the sandwich chain Pret a Manger, created the Hoxton hotel with the aim that it be stylish and comfortable without costing a fortune. The cavernous lobby restaurant buzzes, and there is even an olive tree in the tiny courtyard. 81 Great Eastern St.; 011-44-20-7550-1000, http://www.hoxtonhotels.com. 205 rooms with luxury beds. The earlier you book, the cheaper the room (from $92-297). It's nonrefundable, but you can change your dates.
Set in an 18th century Georgian block in the heart of Bloomsbury and run by Glyn, son of the founders Terry and Nest Beynon. At the back is a pretty, peaceful garden designed by another son, James. Full English breakfasts are included in the room price. 63 Gower St.; 011-44-20-7636-3199, http://www.jesmondhotel.org.uk. 15 rooms; doubles from about $155.
New Linden Hotel
This refurbished hotel is in a typical London square next to super-trendy Westbourne Grove and handy for Portobello Market on Saturdays. 58-60 Leinster Square; 011-44-20-7221-4321, http://www.lindenhotellondon.co.uk. Call or book online for best rates. 50 individually designed rooms. Doubles from $195, non-refundable.
This bar and cafe is on the top floor of Waterstones bookshop. The lovely 1930s building, once a posh clothes shop, is the largest bookshop in Europe. The bar and restaurant looks out over the Houses of Parliament. Wonderful place to meet people, and if the food is too pricey, you can just have a cup of coffee. 203-205 Piccadilly; 011-44-20-7851-2433, http://www.5thview.co.uk. Main dishes from $14.
This French restaurant has been here all my life (and then some); sometimes you just need a steak frites with a glass of red wine served by a brusque French waiter. 19-20 Monmouth St.; 011-44-20-7836-7243, http://www.monplaisir.co.uk. Main dishes from $27.
Cafe in the Crypt
In the brick vaults underneath the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Great value for lunch and early dinner. Save room after the fish and chips or the Sunday roast lunch for its famous apple crumble or bread-and-butter pudding with oceans of custard. Also fabulous tea and cakes. Or book a Wednesday night for jazz with your dinner. Trafalgar Square; 011-44-20-7766-1158, http://www.smitf.org. Main dishes from $11.
The new little sister of the lovely but expensive Indian restaurant Cinnamon Club. It serves small plates — unusual for an Indian restaurant — but it gives you a chance to sample more tastes. 5 Kingly St.; 011-44-20-7437-1664, http://www.cinnamonsoho.com. Dinner main dishes from $19.
Best for lunch, although open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. But first you must find it behind the bandstand in Arnold Circus. Ring the bell marked Canteen next to the gray door in the red brick wall and enter the garden of this former school. The restaurant is in the bike shed and offers a small menu with fantastic food. Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, London; 011-44-20-7729-5677, http://www.arnoldandhenderson.com. About $60 for two.
Jamie Oliver's restaurant, where unemployed young people get a chance to become professional chefs, with great success. 15 Westland Place; 011-44-20-3375-1515, http://www.fifteen.net. Main dishes from $30.
Venetian small plates, such as chopped liver crostini ($2.30). Reservations accepted for lunch, but dinner is first come, first served in this pop-up style but permanent restaurant. 41 Beak St.; 011-44-20-7734-4479, http://www.polpo.co.uk. Heartier small plates $9-$15.
Serving the same Anglicized Greek food — kleftico and moussaka — in a Soho basement since 1948. Even the prices haven't changed much. Expect basic Bohemian atmosphere and service. 23 Frith St.
Burger & Lobster
Serves dishes that match the name — lobster, lobster roll or burger, all with chips and each one costing a minimum of $31. It's a bargain for the lobster but a bit steep for a burger. No reservations. 29 Clarges St.; 011-44-20-7409-1699, http://www.burgerandlobster.com
Forman's Fish Island
Closest restaurant to Olympic Stadium. It's the long pink building resembling a salmon just the other side of the canal from the stadium's west entrance. Its convenience and excellence justify the price for the very best British food. The Forman family has been smoking salmon since 1905. Stour Road, Fish Island; 011-44-20-8525-2365, http://www.formansfishisland.com. Dinner packages from $235; $352 during the Olympics.
For a budget Italian pizza and pasta chain, I like Carluccio's, http://www.carluccios.com, because it's fun and noisy and the place cares about the food. Pasta dishes from about $12; main dishes from about $17.
15 FREE (OR NEARLY FREE) THINGS TO DO
Rent a bike
All over central London there are racks of blue bikes for rent; they're known as "Boris bikes" after the cycle-crazy mayor who introduced them in 2010. You need to insert your credit card at the docking station and pay £1, about $1.55, for access. After that, the first half hour is free. Go to http://www.tfl.gov.ukand click on Barclays cycle hire, the official name of Boris bikes, for details.
The Museum of London, in the middle of a roundabout, tells the multilayered, quirky history of London, starting with the skull of an extinct auroch from 245000 BC. The Lord Mayor's gilded carriage stays here when he's not using it. Free. 150 London Wall; http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk
London theater's best bargains are the National's Travelex tickets. Buy them online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or by phone at 011-44-20-7452-3000. If they sell out, you can try for same-day tickets by going to the theater and joining the queue. The box office opens at 9.30 a.m., but get there by 9 (earlier for hit shows). If you are between ages 16 and 25, you can sign up and get access to tickets for £5, about $7.75, http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/entrypasssignup. I can't wait to see Simon Russell Beale in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" this summer.
On the top of Hampstead Heath, behind the pubs of Jack Straw's Castle (now converted into condos) and the Old Bull & Bush, hides the Hill Garden, a wonderful 800-foot-long raised pergola where you can walk under the roses and wisteria. The pergola has views from central London toward Harrow, but it is the beauty and calm that are magical. When I was a child, it was surrounded by rotting greenhouses, which have been cleared away and replaced by fruit trees and fragrant herbs. Free. Inverforth Close, Hampstead.
Jump on a bus
Riding on top of a red London bus is fun wherever you want to go. I love the No. 11 bus from Victoria past Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square and down the Strand to St Paul's. Buy an Oyster card bus pass to get the cheapest fares, http://www.tfl.gov.uk/oyster; otherwise, the standard bus fare is $4.
Garden in the air
The brutal concrete architecture of the South Bank's Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre-Belvedere Road) in no way prepares you for the delightful wildflower meadow on its roof, let alone the messy rows of vegetables sprouting over the Thames. A former pop-up garden, it proved so popular they kept it. There is a coffee shop too. Free.
The best way to see London is on foot with an expert from London Walks. Many of its guides are actors, so it is easy to hear them. The tours range from Jack the Ripper Haunts to the Royal Wedding Unveiled — something for everyone. $12.50 for adults; children younger than 15 are free, http://www.londonwalks.com. For something edgier, try Alternative London's walking tour of the East End and its street art. Its tours, with volunteer guides, are on a pay-what-you-can basis. http://www.alternativeldn.co.uk
Art for adults
Some of London's greatest pleasures and bargains are its free museums, but not everyone knows that once a week they are open late. It's a lovely time to see your favorite pictures without the crowds and school groups. The National Gallery, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk, is open until 9 p.m. Fridays when it has free music and a wine bar. On the first Friday of the month is Late at Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk, a free evening of special events, talks and films. The eclectic Sir John Soane's Museum, http://www.soane.org, has a candlelight evening on the first Tuesday of each month from 6-9 p.m., but it is popular so arrive early for a free ticket. The British Museum gives free tours on Friday evenings, when it stays open until 8:30 p.m. http://www.britishmuseum.org
I love Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street because it's beautiful and the staff is intelligent. The store sells all the usual stuff, plus it has a good children's section, but it is best for travel books. There are guidebooks, maps and hotel and restaurant listings organized by country to make it easy, but the best thing is that you can find histories and novels about that country in the same place — Donna Leon's mysteries are in the Italy section. There are comfy armchairs, and if you buy enough books they'll give you a canvas bag too. 83 Marleybone High St., http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk
London Zoo is expensive, but it's free to go to Regent's Park and walk around the zoo's perimeter. You can enjoy the park and peer through the railings at the elephants and wolves. Walk along the canal that bisects the zoo to see the giraffes and the aviary on the far side. It's best to go early in the morning and listen to the whooping, growling and tweeting of the animals and birds as they wake up. If you have time, leave the park and cross the road to climb gentle Primrose Hill for a favorite view of London.
Markets, markets, markets
Until 1991, Spitalfields Market was one of London's wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. Now it is open every day with 110 stalls selling vintage and designer clothing as well as flea market ephemera, books and rugs. At its edges are cafes and restaurants, which fill the air with the smell of fresh coffee and roasting vegetables. It is all so lively and changes so fast that you never know what you are going to find to buy or to eat. Free; http://www.spitalfields.co.uk, http://www.oldspitalfieldsmarket.com. On Sunday mornings, you can walk from there to Columbia Road, where the street is devoted to a plants and flower market from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. http://www.columbiaroad.info
Harry Potter's London
King's Cross Station now has platform 9¾ marked by a shopping cart trying to get through the brick wall to catch the Hogwarts Express, even though the films used the exterior of St. Pancras station next door. The entrance to the Leaky Cauldron is in Leadenhall Market, http://www.leadenhallmarket.co.uk, a beautiful Victorian covered market that sells fish, game and meat. There also are many restaurants and shops. It was also used for Diagon Alley, as was Borough Market, http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk, a foodie paradise under the railway at London Bridge. The Ministry of Magic is in Great Scotland Yard just around the corner from Westminster Tube station, which Arthur Weasley used. Free.
Not only books
The British Library has a permanent free exhibition of its treasures, which include a copy of the Magna Carta as well as Jane Austen's tiny writing desk. Right in the heart of the library is a six-story, 56-foot glass- walled tower housing the library of George VI and his father. Sit and look at these beautiful books (and sometimes at scholars searching for the right volume behind the glass walls). The British Library receives a copy of every publication in Britain. So far there are 14 million books, which you can see from the viewing gallery. It's free, but you must reserve. Also free are tours of the conservation studios, which also require a reservation. 96 Euston Road; 011-44-1937-546-546, http://www.bl.uk
Concerts at Kings Place
Kings Place is a new arts venue on the canal behind King's Cross station with art galleries, a restaurant and bar overlooking the water and concert hall. Every week there are free concerts. 90 York Way; 011-44-20-7520-1490, http://www.kingsplace.co.uk, http://www.spitz.co.uk
Changing the Guard
The quintessential free London experience. Two morning changings: one by the Horse Guards on Whitehall and one at Buckingham Palace. The one at the palace is bigger and has a marching band. Arrive at least half an hour early. For the palace changing, stand so you can see across to Birdcage Walk, where the new guard marches up in scarlet tunics, rather than pressing against the palace railings. Schedule and times change, so go to http://www.royal.gov.uk. These days they even have their own app.