21 Tips For First-Timers That Will Help You Explore London
Before you arrive
London has six different airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, City, and London Southend- so figure out which one you’re flying into. From there, find out ahead of time how to make it to your accommodations. This will make your arrival a lot easier, especially if you’re fighting jet lag!
Another trip planning tip is to mentally prepare yourself for an expensive city. Unless you’re from the U.K., the British pound is probably a higher value than your currency. When I was there, the pound was nearly double the Canadian dollar. Now factor in expensive transit cost (keep reading for my transit hack), expensive restaurant bills (keep reading for my lunch hack) and expensive accommodation (consider AirBnB). All in all, I’d recommend having a bit of a cushion in your budget.
Stereotypical London is a bit rainy, but it was bright and sunny during my stay there. Be sure to check the weather about a week before your trip, and double-check it the day before you leave so that you’re prepared for any weather!
If you’re planning to see a West End show while you’re in London, try to book it at least 2 months in advanced. It is possible to book 1 month out, but it’s double the ticket price. Otherwise, there is the option to buy discounted tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, but there may be a long line.
To see the London skyline for free, be sure to book Sky Gardens at least a week before you go. It’s generally easier to book a weekday, as Friday through Sunday are nearly impossible to book tickets.
If you’re a royal buff, take a tour of Buckingham Palace! Be sure to book your tour ASAP, as the palace tour is only open from the end of July through October.
Splurge and stay in Zone 1/2
London is broken up into six transit zones. Zone 1/2 refers to central London, where most of the attractions are. This is where you will likely spend most of your time. It’s important to understand that London is huge. It’s more than double the size of New York City. So even though you might want to save on accommodations, you’ll end up paying more money and spending more time on transit.
Use offline maps on your phone
This is a tip from my 7 Tips for First-Timers in New York City post, but it’s such an easy lifehack that it’s worth mentioning again. Log into your gmail account and enter your destination in Google Maps. Click on the three vertical dots next to your destination and hit download offline map. There should also be an option to send the map to your mobile device. For an image by image demonstration, check out this post by How to Geek.
Don’t forget your umbrella!
At one point or another during your London escapades, you’ll see the stereotypical rainy and dreary London. Sometimes it will be consistently rainy all day, but often times it’ll randomly start sprinkling. Save yourself from being cold and wet and pack a small umbrella before you head out for the day!
The good ole’ English Breakfast
Whenever I think traditional English meals, I automatically think of fish ‘n chips and bangers ‘n mash. But the Brits are also known for their hearty English Breakfasts! This generally includes bacon, poached or scrambled eggs, fried or grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms, buttered toast, hash browns, baked beans and sausages. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can usually substitute items or find a location with scrambled tofu in lieu of eggs. So start the morning off with a big breakfast! You’ll walk it off by the end of the day.
Buy an Oyster card… and keep it forever
If you’re in London for more than 2 days, I’d recommend getting a London transit card, otherwise known as an Oyster card. You can get it very easily from the airport or nearest tube station. It works on London busses, tube lines and over grounds. If you’re traveling on national train lines, however, you sometimes will need to buy a different ticket. (For a list of national rail services that accept Oyster cards, click here.)
An Oyster card costs £5. I found that £20 generally lasted me a whole week, if I took the tube twice a day. To use it, tap it at the gate when you enter the tube station and tap it at the gate again upon exiting. You can top up with card at easy self-serve kiosks at every tube station. It also lasts forever, so if you buy one now, you can use it again the next time you’re in London! (Or get brownie points and give it to a friend who’s visiting!)
London is known for its hustle and bustle, so it’s best to keep out of the way. When entering or exiting tube stations, stay on the right hand side of the escalator if you’re standing. It may seem counter-intuitive, as the Brits drive on the left side of the road. But only use the left hand side of the escalator if you plan to walk the entire way up.
The law of the escalators doesn’t apply to walking on the sidewalk. From my experience in central London, the sidewalks are a free-for-all, so just watch where you’re going. (And be prepared for the sudden stoppers, who stop dead in their tracks right in front of you.)
The Tube is expensive- take the bus!
You’d think that one-cost-fits all when it comes to public transport, but not in London! For a single tube trip, it costs £2.40. For a single bus trip, it costs £1.50. So take advantage of London’s iconic double decker red buses! You’ll save on London’s expensive transportation system AND take the scenic route through the city.
Quick, cheap and easy lunch eats
When you’re out exploring London for the day, you’re bound to get hungry – no matter the size of your big ole’ English Breakfast! Instead of spending an hour at a restaurant (and paying £15 to do so), why not grab a quick, cheap and easy lunch to go instead? London’s grocery stores have a premade lunch section! Stop into a nearby Marks & Spencer’s (M&S), Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and grab a sandwich, an apple and a packet of nuts to go!
** Gluten-free and vegan tip: There are lot of food options for you at M&S! Check their “made without” sections!
Take advantage of the free attractions
London may be one of the world’s most expensive city, but there’s actually a lot of free things to do in the city! Hit up all the sights, like Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guards, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge! Visit some of London’s free museums! Get lost in Hyde/Regent/St. James’ Park! Enjoy the hustle and bustle of a weekend street market! And the best part is that many of these free attractions are all a quick tube (or bus) ride away from one another! The options are endless, and your wallet won’t feel the pinch!
… But don’t be afraid to venture out to lesser-known neighbourhoods
Although many of London’s free attractions are close to one another, don’t be afraid to venture out a bit farther on the tube line. Some of London’s hippest neighbourhoods are closer to 30-45 minutes on the tube, but are worth every minute of the longer commute. For instance, Shoreditch has Brick Lane, which is known worldwide for its curries! Up and down the street, there are a number of authentic Indian restaurants. The smell alone is heavenly! Brixton has some incredible, innovative restaurants, like Pop Brixton, which is essentially a food court inside old shipping containers. There’s also Camden, which has the Cereal Killer Cafe. And yes, that is an entire cafe dedicated to making you a bowl of cereal.
Check out London’s weekend markets
One of my favourite parts about visiting London’s ‘lesser-known’ neighbourhoods is their weekend markets. Londoners love their markets. From fresh produce to vintage cameras and clothes to custom handbags, London has a weekend market for it. My personal favourites are the Portobello Market in Notting Hill, which is known for its antiques; the Broadway Market in Hackney, which is known for its vintage clothes; and the Columbia Flower Market in Hackney, which is pretty self-explanatory.
Get cultured in London’s free museums
London is known world-wide for its incredible, free museums. From artifacts to art galleries, the British capitol has it all! One of my personal favourites was the Tate Britain. With stunning paintings, sculptures and contemporary art pieces dated from 1500 until present, the Tate Britain is an incredible showcase of British artists. From David Hockney to Francis Bacon to William Hogarth, this museum had me in absolute awe in every room!
There are so many activities and places to visit in London that you’ll have to accept that you won’t be able to do them all. (Heck, even a Londoner wouldn’t be able to do everything in their lifetime!) So make a bucket list of everything you’d like to do during your trip. This will help you maximize your time in the city and makes it a bit easier to budget your trip! Everything else can be earmarked for your next trip to London.
Avoid shopping on Oxford Street on the weekend
Oxford Street on the weekend is a bit of a nightmare. The sidewalks are congested, shops are over-crowded and the line to the fitting room sometimes just isn’t worth the 30+ minute wait. Sometimes it’s so bad that a 7-minute tube delay will completely block the sidewalk, as people appear to overflow out of the tube station. So avoid it altogether, and visit during the week instead!
East end and South London are where it’s at
If you’re wondering where all the youngins’ go on their Friday and Saturday nights in London, it’s most likely in the East end or South London. In East London, I had a blast going dancing in Shoreditch. There are also a number of secrets bars in the area as well.
South London is also a trendy area for London’s nightlife. My roommate and I went to a comedy show at The Miller, which is just over London bridge, and had an amazing night! Not only was the stand-up comedy very theatrical and story-driven, it also had the perfect amount of audience participation. I was also able to have a gluten-free and vegan burger, and a gluten-free beer at the venue, which was a huge plus!
For more on trendy areas to visit in London, check out Lucy Moon and Evan Edinger’s video about life in London, Lucy Moon’s favourite spots in London, and Hannah Witton’s favourite places to eat & drink in London.
If you’re visiting London for the first time as a North American, drinking with friends at the pub might be a different experience for you. Instead of buying just yourself a drink, the Brits prefer to buy rounds of drinks. If you’ve been invited to the pub with a Londoner, freshen up your ‘buying rounds’ manners with this guide from the Guardian.
Round-up with tips
Tip customs are always tricky to figure out, as they vary from country to country. In London, it’s customary to tip your server 10-15 per cent at a restaurant. But at the pub, club or in a cab, tipping is optional. Most Londoners will round up to the nearest pound.
Londoners are super friendly
Despite the hoards of (mostly) unsmiling faces walking up and down London streets, Londoners are super friendly. I’ve had the best luck meeting Londoners at the pub in the evening. If the pub is fairly busy, chances are most people will be standing, making it less awkward for you to swoop in and join their friend group. Another option would be to try a dating app that has a “meet a friend” option. My roommate used Bumble, and we ended up making friends with some amazing people!
Black cabs can be faster
In an age of black cabs vs. Uber, black cabs still have an advantage – they’re allowed in the carpool lane. So if you’re in a hurry during rush hour, opting for a black cab instead of an Uber will send you time and money (especially during those surge prices)!
Get outta here!
There is so much more to the UK than just London, so take a train out of the city for a day trip! Some of my favourites are the beachside city of Brighton, the university towns of Cambridge and Oxford, and Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Do you have any tips for first-timers visiting London? Did you friends give you any noteworthy tips before your first visit?
Share your tips in the comments below and let me know if I forgot any essential London tips!
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