The Ultimate Guide to visiting London for the first time, from a local
How to visit London for the first time?
How do I plan a trip to London England?
London for first-time visitors can be overwhelming, so preparing for a trip to London is crucial. I’ve heard people don’t organise and plan what they’re going to see and do, they’ll just go along with it once they’ve arrived in the country. It’s the wrong way to go about it, especially when travelling to London.
London has so many things to do in so little time. People can spend half a day in one area, and you won’t have time to see other areas of London. So, before booking your flight and accommodation, research, research, research. This London travel guide for first time visitors will cover all you need to know about visiting London for the first time. Here are some tips before making any rash decisions:
Firstly, book in advance. Summer is the busiest and the most expensive time of the year and there are more activities in summer than there are in winter. Although winter can be as busy as summer, during Christmas, it’s cheaper but colder. I have a link to several websites to compare flights, and accommodation, travel insurance and visa so you can organise well.
Comparing flights and accommodation
Secondly, get used to using public transport and how to visit famous landmarks and small attractions. Although buses can take longer because of traffic and it can be claustrophobic, (it’s not a nice feeling), it’s cheaper. You’ll tap £1.50 per bus ride. Taking the tube can get claustrophobic too but getting around is quicker.
There’s also a section on what people don’t tell you when you want to go to London. While you’re researching for flights and accommodation, read my safety tips in London. It can save your life.
London is always in any travellers’ bucket list when travelling to Europe. When asked which places in Europe people would like to visit, they would say London. It might not be the first on their bucket list, but London always comes up.
The best thing about London is that everything is all in one place, and everything is just walking distances from one another. From the top 10 famous attractions to the hidden gems, as well as the best neighbourhoods and markets, London has it all. London are avid walkers, and sometimes you must keep up with us. If you’re not a walker, then, take public transport, it’s also convenient.
Every adjective you’ll find in the dictionary is what London is all about. Cosmopolitan. Quirky. Unique. Cheap. Expensive (in a good way). Multicultural. Old. New. Antique. Vintage. Unusual. You name it. London is everything. So, if you’re looking for rich British history, the longest monarchy in Europe, amazing Instagram photos, delicious food from around the world, the multicultural community, and friendly and polite people, then this post is for you!
How much time do you need to spend time in London?
Only you can answer that. Ideally, if you want to go inside all the attractions, 7 days is enough for you. Most attractions take at least 1 – 3 hours to go inside. People spend half a day just hanging around in one area, like Borough Market, Portobello Market, the 8 Royal Parks and many others.
If you are on a budget, 3 days in London or 4 days in London are average length of time depending on what you want to see and do, assuming you just want to take photos outside of the attractions. There are also free attractions and areas that are quirky yet interesting to visit. Visit my itinerary guide for more information on how long each attraction takes. Focus more on how long you want to take in each attraction, and take this post as your guide, but don’t use it religiously. If you’re on a budget, read my London on a budget guide.
Don’t forget to visit hidden gems in London. You can spend 10 – 20 minutes in the hidden gems. The best thing about it that most of them are free. Read my guest post on 17 Hidden Gems here for Eternal Arrival.
What should I know before travelling to London?
When travelling to the London, you’re travelling to the UK, so it’s imperative you also know facts before you travel to the UK in this UK travel guide. Here’s more information on visas and money.
Visas in London
Before visiting London, check what visas are required. We are not in the EU anymore so, it’s crucial to check whether you need a visa to visit us. There are different regulations regarding your purpose of visit to the UK. It really depends on your circumstances. Click here for more information on visiting the UK after Brexit.
Money in London
Plan on how you are going to handle money in London. Don’t carry more than £100 cash in your pocket. I suggest bringing around £30 in cash and pay with your card when you’re eating out or visiting attractions. I’ve been living here for more than 30 years and I’ve never been pickpocketed, but tourists can be vulnerable.
ATMs are used around Central London and most of them are free. We also use the chip and pin and contactless system here. Some banks have ATM machines inside so it’s safe but be vigilant at the same time. It’s crucial that you blend in with us as much as possible. You can also use your Contactless debit cards and Google Pay on your phone. You tap your card on the payment device without entering your pin, and you can use it on public transport, supermarkets, and all shops around London.
Convenience, security, value, and options to open bank accounts are necessary if you want to stay here for at least 6 months. You can also change money at airports, major train stations like Victoria, London Bridge, King’s Cross St. Pancras, department stores, and major high streets around London.
As most know, our currency is the British Pound Sterling. London is an expensive city so it’s advisable to save and spend wisely if you’re on a budget. Even though there may be attractions that are discounted, it’s still expensive.
Visit the Tripsavvy website to find out the best way to spend money in the UK.
Transportation in London
Public transport in London is one of the best in Europe in terms of convenience and its modernism. The disadvantage of public transport is the crowds on tubes, buses, and trains, especially during rush hour. During working hours, it’s relatively quiet, as people. are usually at work. Avoid the hours of 8 am – 9 pm and 5 pm – 6 pm, especially the Central Line because the Central Line leads to Central London from the north, east, west, and south of London. This is where tourists, locals, and business people congregate.
The black taxi cabs can be expensive, and I don’t recommend you use them. I spent £14 on a half-hour journey. If you really want to use taxis, consider Uber and licensed cabs as a cheaper alternative. Ubers here are generally safe.
I cannot stress enough on getting an Oyster Card as the first thing you’ll do when you land at the airport. It’s the cheapest and best option to take.
Travel cards are mainly used for travel outside London since they don’t use Oyster cards beyond London. You can use your Oyster card on National Rail trains, tubes, buses, and trams. You can spend around £10 – £15 a day on trains and tubes entering and exiting, depending on how many journeys you take. You won’t be charged for interconnecting between tube lines though.
Tips on using Oyster Card in just 2 steps
1. At the airport, follow the instructions on the ticket machine to get your Oyster Card. It’s £5 for the card. On your last day, the remaining money in your card will be refunded back to you or you can give the Oyster Card to someone else.
2. You Top-up how much money you want to put into your Oyster Card. You can pay by cash or debit card. For a day, I usually spend at least £20 since I make a lot of journeys using tubes and buses. If I still have money on the card, I can use that the next day, you won’t lose it.
Click here for more information on Oyster Cards and other general travel cards.
In addition to an Oyster Card, download the City Mapper app to easily find your way around. Compared to TfL, City Mapper is more reliable if you need a map of London on your phone. You can compare which one is right for you.
Buses and trams
Using buses are the cheapest means of transport for only £1.50 per journey. The buses here are usually packed with people, most of the times, you’d have to stand up and be prepared to be squashed with other people. Getting from A to B can be long so it’s advisable to walk if you’re going to places nearby.
It’s advisable to walk from A to B if it’s more convenient. Londoners are avid walkers and most attractions are next to each other. Visit my Southbank Walk and 14 Things to do in Southbank as well as my West End Walk.
Londoners rarely use their cars to go to work by car unless it’s necessary. Roads can be hectic and frustrating in London. If you see a red C sign painted on the roads and a “Congestion Charge zone” sign, you are going to get charged between £10 – £16 for driving in Central London to reduce pollution. Most cars and trucks are usually construction workers, business cars, black taxis, or people living within the city because the Congestion Charge is usually paid by the company.
Parking is very inconvenient because one, it’s expensive for an hour and two, you’ll be lucky to get a spot on the side roads. Be aware that car Parks are usually more expensive than parking on the side roads.
When it comes to cycling, like cars, it can be dangerous if you’re not used to the system. Cycle on quiet roads and use the cycling paths provided. Even if you use the cycle paths on busy roads, it can still be dangerous as you may have to swerve out into the main road from parked cars and bus drivers pulling out.
For tourists, it can be dangerous because there are areas where you aren’t able to turn left, right or even both, and considering how busy Central London is, you must make sure you’re aware of your surroundings. We drive on the left side of the road here and the steering wheel is on the right. Most countries drive on the right side of the road, so if you’re not used to cycling in London, it can be dangerous.
People will frown upon cycling on the pavement. Find out more about The Boris bikes here if you want to experience cycling in Central London. If you do want to cycle, try cycling in quiet areas or in most of the major parks around London. I’ve seen people cycle in The Mall (the street connecting Buckingham Palace and Admiralty Arch) since it’s a nice and quiet open space.
10 Best things to do in London
Visit the Top 10 Attractions
Before you visit the top 10 London attractions, make sure you check out the London Pass and the London Explorer Pass for discounts of 100+ attractions combined. Be careful though, the London Pass and the London Explorer Pass are two completely different discount packages.
Buckingham Palace (link to reasons to visit BP) doesn’t need an introduction. It’s the first attraction people think of. Around fifty thousand people visit every year, and it’s people’s dreams to visit Buckingham Palace. Home to the British royal family and used for administrative businesses and state functions, Buckingham Palace has many reasons why we should visit it each year. It’s close to St. James’ Park, and the Green Park, and Trafalgar Square and Horse Guard Parade are a short walk away from Buckingham Palace. You can watch the Changing of the Guards outside the palace and the Changing of the Guards in Horse Guard Parade (link). In summer, you can visit the State Rooms. No wonder Buckingham Palace is the most visited attraction in London.
The London Eye opened a day before the year 2000 by Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, to celebrate the start of the new millennium. The first two attractions you can see are Big Ben and Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The other landmarks are difficult to make out and can be covered by trees and bushes. There are 32 capsules and takes 30 minutes to go round. It’s also the main area where New Year’s Eve’s fireworks happen just before the clock strikes midnight.
Sea Life London Aquarium
Sealife London Aquarium is a great day out for the family, and it’s in the top 10 London attractions to visit. If you’re into marines, bugs, insects, and turtles, then visit Sealife London Aquarium. Touch a live starfish, go through the arch under the big white sharks, visit the Amazon rainforest and learn and see beetles, spiders, piranha fossils and many more. Why not visit the Polar Experience and see the penguins, who are personally named? Everything you’ve always wanted to see are here.
Meet Hollywood and Bollywood A-List celebrities with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hardy and many more. Meet A-List musicians with the likes of Britney, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, and Kanye West. Take photos with the British Royal Family and step into the world of Hollywood films. Meet the face of King Kong, E.T. Audrey Hepburn and many more.
Take a train ride and step back to 250 years of British history. Meet Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. Hear wax children laughing on carousel rides, and watch an animated 4D cinema where the 4 superheroes like Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, and Batman try to save the world in London. Although terribly busy, like Sea Life London Aquarium, Madame Tussauds is a great attraction for all the family.
Step back into British history and go back to the 17th Century to the 19th Century. Experience the bloody, gruesome, and dirty London. See and hear heads being chopped off, imprisoned for no previous offenses and many more. Learn about Henry VIII and how he beheaded some of his wives for treason and adultery. Learn about the 1666 great fire of London started in an old bakery. What about learning about the life of Sweeney Todd and his so-called partner Mrs. Lovett? A barber who dropped his victims into the basement and cut their body parts and made them into pies. You can visit Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and could become her victim too. Enjoy the Drop where British prisoners were dropped to their death after their release. Whatever British history you want to hear about, check out London Dungeon. Beware. Children under 10 might find this scary.
Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour
Step into the world of Harry Potter. Do you remember Harry’s first few years at Hogwarts? You can see all the adventures he went on in this studio tour. You will see the Great Room where Harry had his feasts and where he sat under the Sorting Hat.
Explore the Forbidden Forest, Diagon Alley, Privet Drive, and many more. Have you wondered what Butterbeer taste like?
Discover and learn about the props and costumes as well as the many exhibitions and events that happens throughout the tour. The Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour is situated in Leavesden, and you can get there from Euston Station. It will take less than an hour to get there. Before or after the tour, make sure you visit Platform 9 and ¾ in King’s Cross Station, push your trolley to Hogwarts (there’s usually a line to take professional photos by the photographer, and it’s not free. An assistant will help you to put on your scarf and wand before you disappear. You can’t just take photos by yourself) and visit the Harry Potter Shop.
Visit the Golden Tours website for packages with the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio as an alternative to getting there by public transport.
London Zoo is one of the most visited tourist attractions in London. With nearly 2 million visitors a year, you can enjoy visiting some of the big 5 safari animals. From lions, tigers, giraffes, marine mammals and insects, gorillas, penguins, goats, pelicans and many more.
There are many attractions worth visiting near the London Zoo. The London Zoo is situated in Regent’s Park, Camden Town, Little Venice and Regent’s Canal, and Madame Tussauds. I suggest you visit these attractions all in one day.
Built in 1066, Westminster Abbey has more than a million visitors each year. If you want to learn about Westminster Abbey’s history, the staff will give you an audio guide in more than 5 languages. Just click on the numbers on the audio guide to find out more about the history and story about that burial, the memorial or object. You’ll see the burials and memorials of British kings, queens, poets, scientists, and writers with the likes of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking, and many more.
It’s £18 for adults and £7 for children if you buy your tickets online, and the tour takes approximately one hour. If you want to visit for Sunday services, it’s free to enter. Although you won’t learn about the history from the audio guide, you’d be able to see the beautiful interior of Westminster Abbey. Click here to find out more of what I got up to. Find out about the Abbey on their website here.
Hop on Hop Off
The Hop on Hop Off Tour takes you around London during the day. The Hop on Hop Off Tour bus is ideal for people who only have 3 days or less in London. You can cover the famous landmarks at least. I recommend you take Golden Tours, it’s the best one. Golden Tours is great because the Hop on Hop off bus takes you to London, and you get another 24 hours complimentary.
With Golden Tours, you will also get a complimentary Cruise Tour on the River Thames exploring the main sights of London. Walking tours are also available which includes The Changing of the Guards and The Beatles Walking Tour. Click here for more information on the Golden Tours Hop on Hop off packages.
Things no one tells you when you go to London
What should I know before travelling to London?
Restaurant etiquette in London
Most European countries don’t charge 12.5% on their restaurant bills, and if you go out for a meal, you’ll see a small print at the bottom of your bill on whether they charge a discretionary service charge or not. If not, feel free to ask.
Eating in the West End can be a nightmare, so it’s better to reserve a table. Some gastropubs will accept table bookings, some don’t so make sure you find out before you order your fish and chips. If you do decide to eat in gastropubs, you can either pay and order at the table or go to the bar and order there. Generally, you’ll wait 20 – 30 minutes to wait for your food to arrive. Fish & chips can be double the price in gastropubs at around £12, so if you find a local fish & chips shop, (usually found in the suburbs, away from the West End), you can save up to 50%.
You’ll often see crowds of people standing outside gastro pubs in the West End. Some high-end restaurants can be intimate and organised, but some, like Gaucho’s and Vapiano’s, can be packed. You may have to reserve a table or get there early. You’ll often see loud Londoners standing around drinking pints, squashed together watching football, and most of the time, the food and drink quality is the same as high-end restaurants. It really depends on the chef and the service.
In restaurants, they will usually escort you to your table, take your order straight away or someone will be with you shortly. Either way, you must wait until someone comes to you while you choose your meal from the menu.
When you’re ready for your bill, ask someone for attention, they’ll give you your bill on a plate or docket. They’ll usually disappear for a while and come back to you when THEY’RE ready. You must wait for them to come to you. You don’t go to them.
Shopping in London
Shopping in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road can be a nightmare. It gets remarkably busy; you’ll be swerving past people especially when they’re walking slowly, so don’t expect to walk in a straight line. However, aside from the fact it can be a nightmare, there are so many high street stores and luxurious department stores to choose from.
Shopping in Primark, the biggest bargain department store can also give you a headache. There’s a stereotype that Londoners shop in Selfridges, Harrods, and Harvey Nichols all the time. No, it’s not true, we’d rather shop in our local high street shopping centres and prefer to go window shopping in Selfridges instead. Pretty much all the shopping areas in London are terribly busy, so be prepared.
People have recommended shopping in Westfield shopping centre situated in Stratford, but it can be as busy as shopping in Oxford Street and Regent Street. As for the stores, it’s no different from the stores you’d find in Oxford Street and Regent Street. Westfield Shopping Centre is a great place to get your essentials, and there are many restaurants, supermarkets, and pharmacies to choose from. It’s also conveniently located near the tube station.
Tubes and trains to and from Central London
I advise finding hotels and restaurants outside Central London near local shopping centres as it’s less hectic and you can mix time with the locals. The downside to eating outside Central London is that prices are the same as restaurants in Central London. Prices would either be £1 – £3 cheaper or more expensive.
Tubes and trains from the North, East, South and West London to Central London is very convenient and, in some instances, you’ll be there in less than 20 minutes. I suggest reading the area in Croydon, Surrey. Although to get to Central London can be expensive, there are many hotels, restaurants, and a shopping centre to buy your essentials in Croydon.
For accessibility, you don’t need to worry about public transport. The disadvantage is that you’ll be spending more on tubes and trains compared to buses. The further you are from the center, the more you’d have to top-up on your Oyster Card and spend more. There are some areas that may take more than 40 minutes to get to Central London by tube, so research your area very well. Overall, if you want to get to certain areas quickly, take the tube.
Buses in London
Although this is the cheapest way to go around London for £1.50 per Oyster tap, it can be extremely long to get from A and B. It can also be crowded, and it can be packed to a point you aren’t able to move. You’d be lucky to get a seat, otherwise, you’d have to stand with the rest. If you happen to go out during the night, night buses tend to be quieter but less safe. Although nothing has happened to me, you should always be aware of your surroundings. Beware of drunk people during the weekends.
The West End
To many first-timers, you would think the West End is the place to be because it’s trendy, there are so many things to do and so many things to see. Well, don’t get me wrong, it is trendy and there are places to see and do but there are downsides. Food and drinks can be SUPER expensive, and locals and tourists mix. It can also be crowded, and you’ll have little patience being in a place for long periods of time.
I hope there’s a lot of useful information for you to take for your trip to London. The information here is for your guide, don’t follow it religiously. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me, pin one of my Pinterest pin, and subscribe on my homepage.