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The title of this post, “How to be a Tourist in London”, is a bit tongue-in-cheek. You see, when I visited London for the first time, it was the first city I ever visited in Europe (not counting any time spent there under the age of 3). I arrived with my Top 10 London guidebook*, ready to take the city by storm, leading the expedition like Christopher Colombus with my family trailing behind.
I look back and laugh at my eager 18 year old self. I mean, I was determined to visit every single London landmark. And for the most part, I did. I was the epitome of a bad tourist – running from landmark to landmark, starting the day way too early, and never really taking the time to appreciate local London. (And apparently taking bad photos. Stock photos FTW).
Luckily my travel habits have relaxed significantly since then. I’ve become, as my friend fondly says, a type A- traveler, rather than a type A traveler. Relaxing beach vacations, more often than not, annoy me to no end, but nowadays I visit cities and sometimes miss a couple of sites here and there. And I’m okay with that.
So, now that I’ve gone on a sufficient tangent, I want to offer you this London guide. This is London for the first time(rs), seen through the eyes of 18-year-old über tourist Sally. I’ve since returned to London three times, so I promise to write an alternative / local guide to London for you all in the next few weeks, but let me just say: the places listed below are actually a LOT of fun if you’ve never been to London, and are totally worth seeing!
1. Take pictures at Tower Bridge.
Oh, London, you’ve managed to fool us all. We all thought that London Bridge was the impressive one, but alas, it turns out that Tower Bridge is what makes an appearance in all the movies and TV shows. You have to admit, that architecture is pretty spectacular, though, so we can forgive the Brits this time.
2. Ride the London Eye.
So, the London Eye is, in a nutshell, an overpriced Ferris wheel. BUT, it does offer amazing views of the city and you get to observe it all from an insulated capsule, which makes for cool pictures. It’s a good opportunity to see the whole city from above, which is great when you’re in London for the first time.
3. Brush up on history at The Tower of London.
A world heritage site, the Tower of London has served both as a prison and as a castle in the past. Here, you can see things like the Royal Armories, Traitors’ Gate and much more. My family and I had a great time here, despite the fact that we almost never visit museums when we travel.
Giggle every time you hear “Mind the Gap.”
Every time you ride the London Underground, aka “the Tube”, they warn you to mind the gap between the train and the platform edge. Because, apparently, people trip all the time. For some reason, I found “mind the gap” to be hilarious (probably because the gaps weren’t that big), but please don’t take a shot every time you hear it. Otherwise, you might actually trip over the gap. Side note: day passes or multi-day passes are the best way to get around. Single trip tickets add up really fast.
5. Explore Parliament Square.
This area houses three key buildings in London: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and, of course, Big Ben. The five of us decided that just taking pictures around here was enough, so we didn’t go into any of the buildings, but if you’re interested in medieval architecture, then Westminster Abbey is (probably) right up your alley. I know this thanks to both pictures and other travelers, but if it sucks, well…I’ve never been inside.
6. Shop at iconic shops and local markets.
*British accent* Harrods, darling. I mean, it doesn’t get any more iconic than that. If you want to do proper British / European (window) shopping, check out Oxford Street for all the fancy brands. It’s a shopaholic’s dream. If flea markets and eclectic shops are more your scene, then head over to Camden Market: it has everything from vintage to arts and crafts to alternative fashion. And, seeing as you’re in London for the first time and will need souvenirs (see later), it’s a great place to pick up cheap and original trinkets.
7. Go to Hogwarts.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Harry Potter, you have to admit that you’re secretly dying to go to Hogwarts via Platform 9 ¾. No? Just me? Okay, fine. For the Harry Potter fans out there, rejoice! You can get a picture just like this one if you head on over to King’s Cross railway station.
8. Ride a double decker bus, or ten.
I mean, hello. Those double deckers are the bomb, and they’ll never lose their thrill. Plus, they’re hands down the coolest way to see the city. We redeemed ourselves by not taking the double decker bus tour and frankly, unless you’re seriously pressed for time, you shouldn’t either. It is ridiculously easy to navigate the London Public Transportation system…and it’s kind of fun, too!
9. DON’T feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
If you ever see a picture of London that includes a ridiculously large amount of pigeons in one place, you’re probably looking at Trafalgar Square. Ironically, there are signs everywhere that say “don’t feed the pigeons”. Being the ultra terrible tourist I was, I fed the pigeons (and am probably now on every Londoner’s sh*t list, oops). Either way, it’s an iconic place to visit in Central London…and if you’re feeling artsy, The National Gallery is on the north side of the square
in case you don’t think feeding pigeons is as cool as I apparently do.
10. Go to Hyde Park
On the off-chance that you catch some good weather in London, then you absolutely have to spend it outside. What better place to soak up the (rare) sunshine than Hyde Park, where you can rent boats, swim, or even picnic near the gorgeous lake?
11. Catch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
Thanks to a law that passed in 2014, guards are no longer stationed outside the gates of the palace. Sad times for people
like me who make fools of themselves trying to get those guards to laugh. Even though the guards outside are gone, you should definitely come here for the changing of the guards. It’s really official-looking and stuff. The ceremony schedule is available here, and it’s a must when you’re in London for the first time.
12. Take a boat to Hampton Court
Located a bit outside the main city, this palace is huge and has gorgeous Tudor architecture. Not only does it have cool exhibitions, but it also has a fun garden maze that you can get lost in. On a nice summer’s day, you can turn this into a leisurely day trip by taking a boat from Kingston or from Westminster. Otherwise, the train is always at your service.
13. Take a walk along the River Thames
Stroll around the area called the Southbank and you’re guaranteed at least a few hours of entertainment and leisure. Funnily enough, this area is both a business / commercial district and an entertainment district, so it’s always packed with people. Depending on the season, there are plenty of changing pop-ups, markets, and art exhibitions, but come here year-round for access to delicious restaurants, beautiful art galleries, and fun people-watching along the Thames.
Lastly, if you want to be a real tourist, there are three things you must do when you’re in London for the first time. The first is buy ridiculous souvenirs and actually wear them around town. My brother wore this hat* on the Tube and near Buckingham Palace. I’m sure the Brits were not amused. The second is, of course, to take a picture “talking on the phone” at one of the red phone booths. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a photo of myself in one. And lastly? Laugh really hard when you spot the Cockfosters stop at the Tube. Because that’s what mature people do.
Honorary mentions (aka cool places I didn’t go to): St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the London Dungeon, the Tates, and a bunch of other famous museums and galleries. You might not get to these when you’re in London for the first time, but do try get there on your second, at least!
All in all, I do have to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with visiting tourist attractions. They’re popular for a reason – because they’re cool and/or have some historical significance. The point I was making earlier is that there is always more to the city than these top ten lists (yes, I recognize the irony of writing that in this post), so be sure to branch out and explore a little outside of your guidebook. To help you do so, check out this guide to alternative London.
When did you visit London for the first time? What were your favorite sites? Let me know in the comments below!