London now friendlier, more affordable

Three years have elapsed since I was last in London, and because I firmly believe that every human being should go there at least yearly, I returned — with a guilty conscience — in late August. The experience was better than ever.

The radical change in the exchange rate of the British pound — now worth only $1.55 and no longer costing $2 to $2.10 — has made all the difference. You no longer feel a pauper in a world of riches denied to Americans; you find that prices are more or less the same as you'd pay in New York or San Francisco. You no longer tremble when the bill for a meal is presented.

The cheaper cost of rooms and meals also is helped by the decision of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to eliminate entrance charges to most British museums. Though places like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London charge hefty admissions, many other attractions — ranging from the National Gallery to the British Museum to the Victoria and Albert — are free of charge.

Amazingly, the newest and most intriguing attraction of all, the magnificent Tate Modern — a giant museum of current artistic masterworks supplemented by the most advanced interactive electronic displays — doesn't charge a penny to visit. So, on your first day in the new London, you memorize the name of the Underground (subway) stop nearby (Southwark, which isn't pronounced "south-wahrk" but "suth-urk"), inquire at the ticket booth about the line to take, and in a few moments, you approach one of the world's most exciting collections of provocative art (from Jackson Pollack to Francis Bacon) without once dipping into your pocket or purse for payment.

Later, as you wander the streets of London, you'll be surprised by the absence of American tourists. We are no longer the largest group of visitors to London (the Germans, among others, now possess that title), and you'll also find that the residents seem more outgoing, friendlier and less inhibited than before. That's because, aided by the former mighty value of the British pound, they are themselves heavily traveled, and will tell you about their own experiences as tourists in New York City or Colorado. Almost everyone you meet has made that trip — a sharp change from what used to be the case. And somehow, this makes conversations and encounters with them more open and effortless.

The city has never seemed more dynamic and prosperous, despite an ongoing recession that compares to ours. As you read the London newspapers, the subject matter is almost identical to what you'd see in ours: a high percentage of unemployment, a drifting stock market, a concern about economic prospects. And yet the streets are jammed, the restaurants and theaters full, the shops crowded, exactly as they are in New York or Chicago.

I didn't experience the difficulties I expected in using credit cards; they were accepted without question (and because I notified my bank in advance, they weren't blocked by their issuers). My cell phone worked perfectly, but that's because I equipped myself with a British converter for attaching a recharging cord to an English wall outlet.

Some miscellaneous notes: Each morning after 9:30, buying a one-day pass for unlimited use of the city's Underground system for about 6 British pounds ($9) worked best for us, and brought the average cost of a subway ride to about $2, figuring about five rides a day. A fashion note: The young men of London seem to enjoy wearing a several-days growth of beard and black shirts with black or dark-purple ties. The dress in restaurants is becoming as informal as in the States; the city's theaters — which are always showing several productions of Shakespeare and thought-provoking plays on the frontiers of various political and psychological subjects — are, as always, the high spot of your stay; the Churchill Museum and adjoining Cabinet War Rooms where the British government conducted the last war from an underground headquarters, are the latest must-see of the city, though there is an admission charge.

London remains an enlivening, intellectual cocktail, a refreshing change of pace from one's own daily routines, a place that still deserves to be called "the city of the century."