London is a large, diverse and constantly changing city. Not only is it an amazing place to live but it’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. However, visiting London for the first time can be a little scary for those who haven’t done their research in advance.
Having spent the majority of my life calling the capital home, I decided it was about time to impart some of the things I’ve learnt onto first time visitors to London.
12 things to know before travelling to London:
1. London is huge!
One thing that many people don’t realise before their first time visit to London is quite how massive the capital actually is.
Spanning an area of 600 square miles, London is made up of numerous areas, neighbourhoods and attractions that are all more than worth visiting.
Therefore it’s advisable to give yourself a good amount of time to explore the city. You might be able to visit the main tourist attractions in a couple of days, however, a good 4-5 days will give you a better chance to experience much more of one of the world’s most exciting cities.
You should also consider its size when deciding where to stay in London.
While hotels in the most central areas of the city might be a little out of some people’s budget, try and stay as central as you can afford. If you end up staying on the very outskirts of the city you could spend as long as an hour commuting back and forth each day.
2. Plan your itinerary in advance
Following on from the previous point, with London’s huge size and abundance of attractions spread out all across the city, it’s advisable to roughly plan your daily itineraries in advance.
If you don’t plan in advance, you’ll probably end up spending the majority of your time in London on public transport travelling back and forth to different areas.
Planning your itinerary in advance means that you can focus each day on attractions in the same area and that are easily walkable from each other.
3. Book attractions in advance
With London being the busy city that it is, some of the most popular attractions are best booked in advance to guarantee your desired date and time, as well as to get discounts for booking ahead.
What to book ahead in London?
- Theatre – for some of London’s most popular West End shows (currently including Book of Mormon & Harry Potter), you’re going to want to book tickets at least a few months in advance.
- The Sky Garden – London’s highest garden and one of the best views over the city is completely free to visit, however, you do need to book a date and time slot in advance (bookings available 3 weeks in advance).
- The View from The Shard – book 2 weeks ahead to get discounted tickets.
- The London Eye – a couple of days ahead or on the day for a later time.
- London Dungeon – a few days ahead to get the date and time you want.
- The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London – to see this special ceremony you’ll need to book tickets pretty far in advance, however, tickets to enter the Tower are available on the day.
- Warner Brothers Studio Tour – ideally book a couple of months ahead to get your date.
4. Use a contactless card or an oyster card
Unfortunately, a lot of first time visitors to London are still wasting their time and money on buying individual paper tickets each time they travel on public transport.
But did you know it’s cheaper and easier to simply use your contactless bank card to tap on and off at the machines each time you travel?
And if you don’t have a contactless payment card, purchase an oyster card from a ticket machine on the first day of your trip and load some money onto it. You can then use this to tap on to the tube and buses. Oyster cards are just £5 and if you return it at the end of your trip you’ll get the money back.
5. Stand on the right
The number one way to distinguish yourself as a tourist, and to p*ss off every single Londoner, is to stand on the wrong side of the escalator in tube stations.
Therefore, one of the most important things to know when visiting London is…
Stand on the right, walk on the left!
6. You don’t always need public transport
Although the London underground system is an extremely useful way of travelling around most of the city, many people visiting London for the first time do have a tendency to overuse it – bet you didn’t realise that was a thing?
There are quite a few underground stations that are so close to each other that it’d take you longer to get on the tube than it would to just walk the distance instead. For example, you can walk between Leicester Square and Covent Garden in as little as 3 minutes.
7. London Museums are free
Something which many people visiting London for the first time don’t realise is that unlike many other cities around the world, the large majority of museums in London are completely free to visit.
From the massive British Museum in Holborn to South Kensington’s Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the V&A, pretty much all of London’s most popular museums won’t eat into your travel budget whatsoever.
However, if you do have some spare change and want to support London’s cultural institutions, just pop it in one of the donation boxes you’ll see in each museum. No obligations either way!
Check out these 22 free museums in London.
8. Last minute theatre tickets can be cheaper
What’s a trip to London without a night at the theatre right!?
If you’re desperate to see a particular show in London’s West End, you’re ideally going to want to book a few months in advance to ensure you get tickets for the particular date you’re visiting. The most popular shows can book-out a long time in advance.
Although, if you’re more worried about the experience rather than seeing a particular show, leave it last minute instead.
Head to the TXT’s box office in the middle of Leicester Square on the day you want to see a show and see what last-minute tickets are still available – you’re sure to get a bargain!
9. Avoid public holidays and school holidays
Visiting London in the summer may have the draw of al fresco dining in the city’s cafes or sipping cocktails in a rooftop bar, however, the sun also brings swarms of tourists to the city as well.
The school summer holidays in July and August are the peak months for tourists in London, leading to crowds, queues and hiked up prices for everyone.
If it’s sun your after, try visiting London during the shoulder months of May, June and September instead.
Equally, other holidays including the easter break and Christmas period can be particularly busy too, so just keep this in mind when you’re planning your trip to London if you’re not a fan of big crowds.
10. Don’t waste your time looking for ‘British food’
Okay, yes I am a culprit of hunting out ‘local food’ whenever visiting a new country too, but in my defence, that is because most other places actually have a unique local cuisine worth looking for.
England, on the other hand, is not a country which is particularly well-known for its traditional local food, other than stereotypes such as beans on toast, fish and chips and a Sunday roast. Nothing particularly worth going out of your way for.
However, with London being an extremely diverse and multicultural city, what the city does have is an amazing international foodie scene. From high-end restaurants to street-food markets, you’re guaranteed to find any dish you can possibly imagine somewhere in London.
Try Brick Lane in Shoreditch for the best Indian curry in the capital, tasty authentic Middle-Eastern cuisine in Knightsbridge and delicious dumplings in Chinatown. Plus Italian, French, Spanish, German, Mexican, Peruvian, Japanese, Ethiopian, Filipino, Israeli, Polish and literally anything else you can think of.
So if you really want to eat the way the locals do, eat internationally instead.
11. Carry an umbrella
Another one of the most important travel tips for London is to bring an umbrella no matter what time of year you’re visiting.
Even if its the most beautiful summers day in London, rain can come out of nowhere and drench the unprepared (aka tourists).
Welcome to England! We would apologise but we have to deal with this every day of our lives.
12. Don’t fly into Southend Airport
This is among the more controversial tips for travelling to London, but I’ll say it anyway…
Southend is not a London airport!
London already has 5 international airports; Gatwick, Heathrow, City, Stansted and Luton. So why they insist on classing Southend as a London airport truly baffles me.
Southend is a seaside town on the eastern coast of England in the county of Essex. There are trains between the two and a journey from Southend to London takes around 1hr15 to 1hr30.
However, my advice is that if you can, avoid flying into Southend and pick one of the closer and more convenient London airports instead.
I hope you found this list of things to know before visiting London for the first time helpful.
Let me know if I’ve missed any important things to know before going to London in the comments below…
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