Sure, London has the London Eye, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, and a host of other historic attractions. But did you know that it also has hundreds of sports books and more than 20 full-fledged casinos? This makes the English capital a legitimate gambling destination. So long as you know how to roll.
My family and I have spent the bulk of this fall living in London (while my wife, a college professor, teaches a study abroad program) and I’ve spent most of my free time exploring some of the gaming options in and around town.
Not surprisingly, at least on the surface, many of these casinos are just like what you’d find at gambling destinations in the U.S., offering slots and table games (including poker!), restaurants, and bars. Three of my favorites have been the Grosvenor Victoria Casino, near big hotels in the West End; and the Hippodrome Casino and the Casino at the Empire, both in Leicester Square. Wander around the gaming floor of any one of these gambling establishments and it’s easy to forget you’re not in Las Vegas. All the games are the same – including craps (these are some of the only casinos in London to offer dice). The Hippodrome even has an intimate cabaret-style concert hall.
Beyond these similarities, however, gambling in London does have some eccentricities. The first difference: it’s everywhere. Sports books are like Starbucks here in London; there are at least two or three in every neighborhood, and they are designed to look just like any other storefront. Many of them sit right alongside restaurants and grocery stores. Their names: Ladbroke’s, Coral, Paddy Power, and William Hill.
The front of the Empire Casino
While most of these outposts focus on sports that are popular here in England (i.e., soccer, cricket, and the like), the storefronts also offer betting lines on contests farther afield, such as American football in the U.S. and (sometimes) rugby in other countries. If you don’t see odds on the game you want, you also can ask for some; most of the time the bookmakers will do some research and offer you something on which you can bet.
The second unique aspect to gambling in London: a night at a casino is a swanky affair. Unlike the U.S., where casino culture revolves around dressing down, in London most casinos have dress codes that prohibit open-toed shoes and t-shirts. I saw this first-hand; during my lone visit to The Sportsman Casino Bar & Restaurant, an uber-swanky establishment in the West End, I observed bouncers ask two different customers to remove their caps. At other casinos, I also got a number of dirty looks for rolling in with jeans.
Viewfinder Tip: Before you go, check out casino websites for deals and promotions that could net you free food, free drinks, or free cash to play at the tables.
The third and final unique characteristic about gambling in London: a handful of the swankier casinos require customers to pay “membership fees” in order to get in. After talking with a number of different floor managers about these fees, I determined that they are like glorified cover charges – a formality to add to the exclusivity of a place. In some casinos, especially the old ones, membership can be steep. (At Crockfords, the most highfalutin of the bunch, membership is reported to be a one-time fee of 1,000 pounds).
Even among those casinos that no longer charge these fees (the Hippodrome, for instance, lets you walk right in), identification is required, so plan ahead and take a passport or license. Doing so will eliminate potential problems at the door. What’s more, when you win that multimillion-pound jackpot, you’ll be glad you brought it along.
Where are your favorite gaming destinations around the world?