London Olympics: A travelers guide

Arriving at Heathrow, travelers face a bustling airport and then a bustling, often-baffling city. But with some coaching, you can be an Olympic-caliber visitor. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images)

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.

Hidden garden

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.

Walk

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

My favorite

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

Zoo ahoy

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.

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