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Looking for tips on traveling to London for the first time? You’ve come to the right place! After visiting London more than 5 times, I’ve put together my complete list of things to know before traveling to London plus all the must see things in London for first time visitors.
London was the first city in Europe I’d ever visited and my travel style back then was what I would call “clueless tourist.” I arrived with my Top 10 London guidebook, ready to take the city by storm, leading the expedition 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 in one week. 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). Thank goodness I had the Oyster Card to get all around the city!
Thankfully, I’m more of a slow traveler nowadays and have visited London enough times to see the error of my ways – and to determine what you should actually do your first time in London – not just what that top 10 guidebook tells you to do.
So if you’re visiting London for the first time, I’ve included everything you need to know, where you should go, and the best area to stay in London for first time visitors. Keep reading!
Table of Contents
Things to Know Before Traveling to London for the First Time
London is HUGE
For some reason, I always forget this, despite having visited multiple times. I don’t know if it’s because the Tube (subway) map makes everything look so well-connected or something, but it’s a lot larger than I’d initially expected. Because of this, first time visitors to London should group the attractions they plan to visit by area. Although most attractions are located in Central London, you should still aim to visit only 2-3 of the big ones per day because some of these have timed entries, long lines, etc.
Learn some local lingo before you go
I remember the first time I went to London and someone asked if I was in the “queue.” It took me a full ten seconds to realize they meant in line (or on line, as New Yorkers say). Other fun British words that might trip you up include the lift (the elevator), a cashpoint (ATM), chips (french fries – potato chips are called “crisps”), biscuits (cookies), a jumper (a sweater), and a trolley (a shopping cart), just to name a few. Those are the common ones.
They drive on the other side of the road
There are only a handful of countries that drive on the other side of the road and England is one of them. That means, be extra careful to look right when you’re crossing the street, not left. I’m overly cautious and look both ways so I don’t get tripped up.
Some of the big museums are free
Yes, you read that right. I’m not talking about the small, quirky museums that nobody would visit on their first trip to London either. No, I mean places that tourists likely have on their list when traveling to London for the first time like The British Museum, The National Gallery, Tate Modern, and more. You can find a complete list of the top free museums here. Make a point to add a couple to your itinerary during your first visit to London – they’re a great way to delve deeper into history and culture and an excellent rainy day activity.
Book as many attractions as possible ahead of time
If there’s one thing Londoners love, it’s a good line (aka a queue). And, unfortunately, because there are tourists in London year-round, lines are often particularly long for popular attractions. Therefore, I strongly recommend purchasing as many of your entrance tickets ahead of time and/or getting a London Pass. Not only will you save time by not having to stand in line to purchase a ticket, but some of them have a skip-the-line perk for entrances as well. Even better – some attractions actually offer discounts for buying ahead so it’s a win all around. I’ve listed some ticket links to popular attractions below:
- London Pass
- The London Eye: Skip the Line Fast-Track ticket
- Tower of London Entrance Ticket Including Crown Jewels and Beefeater Tour
- Harry Potter Fully-Guided Studio Tour
- Buckingham Palace Tour Including Changing of the Guard Ceremony & Afternoon Tea
- Westminster Abbey Entrance Ticket
- St Paul’s Cathedral: Skip the Line Admission Ticket
- Madame Tussauds London Admission Ticket
- Hampton Court Palace Entrance Ticket
- The London Dungeon Entrance Ticket
- Churchill War Rooms Entrance Ticket
- Kensington Palace Entrance Ticket
Note: Depending on what you plan to do while in London, you should consider getting a London Pass. This digital sightseeing pass includes entrance fees and discounts to the majority of London’s attractions and can save you some serious money if you plan your itinerary right. Check out all the inclusions and prices here.
Public Wi-Fi is readily available, but you’ll want a VPN
I normally rent a Travelwifi portable hotspot when I travel to make sure I can use Google Maps and just to generally stay connected (I travel solo often). If you aren’t super concerned about being connected 24/7, then there’s no need for that in London because there’s free Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere from cafes to department stores. Download the O2 Wi-Fi App to easily find the nearest hotspot.
One thing I do recommend getting is a VPN, which helps make public Wi-Fi secure by securely routing your internet through a server so nobody can steal your information. I’m a huge fan of NordVPN – it’s highly secure and really affordable. Yay for internet security!
Eating out adds up quickly but grocery stores have great meal deals
At the time of updating this post, USD $1 equals approximately GBP £0.87. London is an expensive city and the pound is stronger than the dollar, so it’s really easy to blow through your budget. However, one recommendation I have for saving a bit is to only eat one meal per day in a restaurant. Groceries are really inexpensive so it’s easy to stock up on items for breakfast. Most big grocery store chains like Tesco’s, Marks and Spencer, and Sainsbury’s also have a daily meal deal with a sandwich, chips crisps, and a drink for £3 – £5, which is a steal. Lots of them also have a sort of fresh-food salad bar as well.
Plus, some restaurants and coffee shops also offer a set menu of the day (although they’re more than £3) so check those out if you’re over the grocery store sandwiches. Either way, you’ll have plenty of options for eating on a budget while in London, so you can splurge a bit on some of your other meals.
Get an Oyster Card for transportation
An Oyster Card is a refillable, pay-as-you-go card that allows you to use the London transportation system (both buses and the subway) without having to purchase single tickets or day passes. If you buy the Visitor Oyster Card ahead of time, you can get it delivered to your house before you travel. It’ll save you money because the pay-as-you-go system is actually cheaper overall. In fact, it has daily capping which means you can travel as much as you’d like in a single day and the amount you pay for your travel is limited. Lastly, there’s the added bonus of special promotions at participating restaurants and attractions. There’s really no reason not to get one ahead of time!
Walk / bike as much as possible
I know I just told you to get an Oyster Card in the previous section but London, like New York, is still a very walkable city (provided it isn’t raining). For distances that are less than 4 Tube stops, I tend to walk. It’s an awesome way to get around the city, see the sights, and stumble upon something not on your itinerary. Plus, lots of the top tourist attractions are close to each other anyway, which makes traveling by foot that much easier.
Biking is also another great transportation option in London although be warned: the city is busy and has a lot of pedestrian traffic. I only recommend this for people that are used to biking in busy cities. If that sounds like you, you’re in luck: London has a bike-share system called Santander Cycles, where you can easily rent and return bikes from one of the many docking stations around the city. Alternatively, if you aren’t up for biking on your own, consider doing a guided bike tour around London instead.
Stand on the right side of escalators
Whenever you ride the Tube, there will be escalators leading you to the exit – and there will always be people running up the left side of the escalator, in a hurry to get wherever they’re going. Don’t be the annoying tourist that doesn’t know any better and stands on the left side of the elevator, blocking someone on a mission. I did it the first time I visited London and was definitely guilty of being *that* tourist. Londoners are a lot nicer than New Yorkers in the sense that nobody will actually yell at you for not knowing but just remember – stand on the right!
Central London (near a Tube stop) is the best area to stay in London for first time visitors
I know the term “Central London” is a tad vague, so let me break it down a bit. Basically London is split into what is technically 9 Tube (subway) zones, although the furthest you’ll likely go is into Zone 6, where Heathrow Airport is. Central London is anything in Zone 1. Zone 2 is the circle around Zone 1, Zone 3 is the circle around Zone 2, and so on. I always recommend that those traveling to London for the first time stay in Zone 1 so they can easily reach all the attractions.
No one neighborhood is better than the other but all of them have different vibes, if you will. Rather than making it complicated and having you pick which neighborhood to stay in, I’m sharing my hotel recommendations below for every budget.
Wombats City Hostel (Backpack)
Located just minutes from the Tower Bridge near the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood, this modern and spacious hostel has everything you’ll need: 24-hour reception, gender-segregated dorms, mixed dorms, private rooms, linens, high-tech lockers, and plenty of fun games. There’s a communal kitchen for those who want to cook and a courtyard and lounge for those that want to socialize. To top it all off, Wombats has won numerous awards for cleanliness and spaciousness. What more could you need?
Located less than 2 minutes from Paddington Station, this ultra-modern hotel is perfect those that are looking for centrally-located accommodation on a budget. Stylotel features clean and comfortable rooms with funky decor, a spectacular breakfast, a 24-hour reception, and a nice lounge for socializing. The service is excellent and the prices are incredibly reasonable as well.
Wilde Aparthotels (Mid-Range)
For those that are looking for affordable luxury with the amenities of a hotel and the comfort and privacy of an apartment, look no further – Wilde Aparthotels is for you. Located in the trendy Covent Garden, it’s the thoughtful details of these apartments that truly make your stay here memorable. Think touch-panel controls, gramophones, a mini-kitchenette, Nespresso machines, healthy snacks, comfortable mattresses and luxurious rainfall showers. It’s comfort on another level! if you’re looking for a central place to stay with all the comfort amenities you need (and a fun Oscar Wilde theme to boot), Wilde Aparthotels is it!
The Hari London (Splurge)
If you want to treat yourself, there’s no nicer place than The Hari London, a five-star hotel located in the posh Belgravia neighborhood. This luxury hotel boasts just 85 rooms, all of which offer ultra-comfortable beds and plenty of natural light. That, combined with excellent service, an on-site fitness center and restaurant, and a spectacular breakfast makes The Hari a pinnacle of understated elegance and the perfect location for looking for a luxurious oasis within the bustle of London.
Always have an umbrella
I’ve actually learned this lesson the hard way over multiple visits to London. You see, the first time I ever visited was in December, and despite the cold, it didn’t rain the entire week we were there. Which is a miracle of epic proportions. All of my visits after that happened in the summer and I was caught in the rain twice without proper clothing or an umbrella. I finally brought a travel-sized umbrella with me on third visit and now I always pack it whenever I’m visiting London because it almost always rains.
Credit cards are widely accepted
Europe seems to always be one step ahead of the United States when it comes to credit card technology and London is no exception. Not only are credit cards widely accepted, but the majority of machines use the tap feature. I got some looks from people when I told them I needed to use my chip because my card isn’t tappable (yet). So although you can always withdraw a little cash for small purchases, I recommend saving on conversion and withdrawal fees and just using your credit card instead.
Get out of Central London
If you’re traveling to London for the first time, I imagine you’ll want to do the touristy things first. I certainly did. However, if you have a lot of time in London or do want to experience at least some of the “lesser visited” parts of the city, check out my alternative guide to London.
Must See Things in London for the First Time
As I mentioned, London is huge and you won’t be able to see everything your first time in London. Depending on how much time you have in the city, pick a few of these activities that you really want to see and save everything else for another trip. I’ve easily spent a total of two months in London over the course of several visits and I still haven’t done everything. Plus, cool, new things to do in London pop up all the time. So don’t fret if you won’t be able to do it all. The below list contains my recommended activities for those visiting London for the first time but there’s a lot more things to do in the city.
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. You can easily snap a photo of this bridge from along the Thames River or enjoy a leisurely walk across it. However, if you’re an architecture nerd, you can actually go inside the bridge and get a view through the glass floor, visit the Victorian engine rooms and browse the exhibitions. How cool is that? You can get tickets here or – if you’ve purchased the London Pass, tickets are included!
Ride the London Eye
The London Eye is a essentially a slow ferris wheel with insulated glass capsules that offers amazing, 360 views of the entire city of London. I rode it during my first trip to London and loved it (plus I got lots of photos, although I wasn’t such a stellar photographer back in the day). It’s an awesome opportunity to see the whole city from above, which is great when you’re in London for the first time. Plus, ticket prices are really reasonable. If you do plan to ride it, I strongly recommend buying your ticket ahead of time because the London Eye almost always has a long line.
Brush up on history at The Tower of London
The Tower of London, one of London’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, has served both as a prison and as a castle in the past and is honestly one of the coolest things to do when visiting London. Here, you’ll be exposed to a 1000 years of history, and hear captivating stories of prisoners and royals. The world-famous Crown Jewels are on display here, as are the Royal Armories. It’s really fascinating, even if you aren’t a big museum or history buff. My family and I had a great time here, despite the fact that we almost never visit museums when we travel together. Tickets are included in the London Pass if you get one. Otherwise, purchase them ahead of time here.
Explore Parliament Square
This area known as Parliament Square is home to three iconic buildings in London: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and, of course, Big Ben. My family and I decided that just taking pictures around here was enough, so we didn’t go into any of the buildings, which I regret. I would have loved to explore Westminster Abbey, one of the most important Gothic buildings in all of England. If you do decide to go (I’ve head it’s amazing from fellow travelers), be sure to get your ticket ahead of time if you haven’t purchased a London Pass, where it’s included.
Shop at iconic shops and local markets
Does it even get more iconic than Harrods, the world-famous luxury department store opened in 1849? Didn’t think so. Although I personally didn’t buy anything there, I had a great time browsing through the store. You can also do high tea at Harrods, which I’ve been told is awesome. For those that want to do proper British / European (window) shopping, but maybe not quite at the luxury level of Harrods, check out Oxford Street for all the brand name shops. It’s a shopaholic’s dream. If flea markets and eclectic shops are more your scene (like me), then head over to Camden Market – it has everything from vintage furniture to arts and crafts to alternative fashion. And, seeing as you’re in London for the first time and will need souvenirs, it’s a great place to pick up original trinkets.
Channel your inner Harry Potter nerd
If you’re a Harry Potter lover, you’re in luck. London also loves Harry Potter so this is your chance to pack your wand and imagine you’re headed to Hogwarts and you can sort of do it at Platform 9 ¾! A little backstory: the first time I went to London was actually 2008 (when the above photo was taken) and we had no idea that an actual Platform 9 ¾ had been built at King’s Cross. We were just hoping to take a photo between platforms 3 and 4. So imagine my delight when we found this! I went into full fangirl mode and I’m not even embarrassed about it. You can get a photo just like this at King’s Cross Station (expect to wait in a line).
If this isn’t enough Harry Potter for you (no judgement), then don’t worry, there’s more! You can actually go on a Harry Potter Tour at Warner Brother’s Studio! This guided immersive tour features a ton of props, costumes, and sets used on all the Harry Potter movies. I’m talking Diagon Alley, Dumbledore’s office, the Sorting Hat, and more! It’s legitimately as close as you can get to visiting Hogwarts for real (I mean, if it were real. Not that we really know). Anyway, note that the tour is actually a bit outside of central London – about an hour or so with public transportation. That’s worth keeping in mind when booking the time slot for your ticket, which you have to get in advance, since Harry Potter mania isn’t going away anytime soon. Tickets are timed since the tour is guided so although it is a little less crowded if you go earlier in the day, it’s totally fine if you want to go later in the morning as well. Get your ticket ahead of time here.
Lastly, if you still can’t get enough of Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing in London (at the time of updating this post). It’s the eighth story in the Harry Potter series following grown up Harry and his three kids and was developed specifically for the theater. I’m not here to spoil any other information but it’s gotten rave reviews and awards so you should consider seeing it if you have some time in your busy first time in London schedule. Like all theater tickets and anything Harry Potter related, you should get your tickets ahead of time. You can purchase them here.
Partake in afternoon tea
Easily one of the most British things you can do if you’re a first time visitor to London (or anytime you visit, really) is participate in afternoon tea. This isn’t just a simple tea-and-a-scone set up. No no. Afternoon tea involves cakes, scones, and tea served on pretty floral china. Some of the fancier afternoon teas also include finger sandwiches and some heartier food options. Scones and clotted cream are a must, as is tea, obviously. Fortnum & Mason is known for having one of the best classic afternoon teas in London but I also thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the funky Sketch – an eccentrically decorated cafe for those that want a more modern vibe.
Sample fish n chips
I know Londoners don’t eat fish n chips as often as it seems like they do on TV shows, but it’s still a really common fast-food. Most fish n’ chips shops are little take out stores with a menu that offers a menagerie of fried foods served with chips (french fries). Still though, this is a classic British meal that you’ve got to try when you’re visiting London for the first time, and what better place to try it than at the Golden Chippy? This restaurant was ranked as one of the top 25 restaurants in all of London on Tripadvisor. It’s that good. Plus, there’s actual outdoor seating, so you don’t have do take out and eat at a park or in your hotel room or something. Win win!
Ride a double decker bus, or ten
I don’t know about you but I actually hate taking buses in other countries because I manage to *always* get lost. Like, always. Thankfully, most the bus drivers are nice and will tell me to get off, but I still opt for taking the subway or walking whenever I can.
But you shouldn’t do that in London – at least, not all the time. You should ride an iconic double-decker bus at least once and if I’m being honest, they’ll never lose their thrill. Sure, the Tube is incredibly efficient but the bus is a much cooler way to see the city. It is ridiculously easy to navigate the London Public Transportation system…and it’s kind of fun, too! Plus, bus admission is included in your Oyster Card, so why not take advantage of it?
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.” So, don’t get on every Londoner’s sh*t list by doing so.
Anyway, Trafalgar Square is sort of the London version of Times Square (but thankfully, way less crowded) and is considered the center of London. It’s an excellent place to people watch, marvel at the statues and fountain, and take in the architecture. On the north end of the square is The National Gallery, which is free to enter and hosts a collection of paintings from the 13th to the 19th century.
Eat your way through Borough Market
I have a somewhat embarrassing confession about how I stumbled upon the once-unknown Borough Market back in 2008. I had recently watched What a Girl Wants, the ridiculously cheesy Amanda Bynes rom com that takes place in London. In the movie, she goes to a fun outdoor food and flea market along the Thames River, so I went hunting for it. Although it doesn’t actually exist, it did lead me to Borough Market, the now-popular foodie market. Back in 2008, though, this market was virtually empty, with just a few food stalls here and there. My family and I ate an incredibly Thai curry there and returned again the following summer during my second visit to London. Now, Borough market is super popular, but with good reason – there are tons of mouth-watering food stalls there! The vendors there sell everything from proper meals to artisan cheese to fresh oysters. No first timer’s visit to London is complete without a visit to this foodie heaven.
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? There are seriously tons of things to do within London’s version of New York’s Central Park including the beautiful Serpentine Lake, the Princess Diana Memorial, the Peter Pan statue and more. It’s the go-to place to hang out outside on a sunny day for both locals and tourists.
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 a really official-looking ceremony and quintessentially British and can’t be missed. The ceremony schedule is available here but you can take it one step further and do a whole tour of Buckingham Palace (which includes watching the changing of the guard and a high tea). No matter which option you choose, watching the changing of the guard is a must when you’re in London for the first time.
Take a boat to Hampton Court Palace
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 instead of taking a train or a bus. It’s what makes visiting Hampton Court Palace that much more special. Get your entrance ticket ahead of time here.
Note: Hampton Court Palace is located over an hour from Central London by train (depending where you’re coming from) and three hours by boat. I visited Hampton Court during my second visit to London when I stayed in Kingston-upon-Thames, which is a lot closer to the palace. Therefore, if you’re very short on time, I recommend saving this for your second visit to London.
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. 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. If you’re up for it, consider booking a Thames Circular Cruise to experience a different side of London! Get tickets ahead of time here.
Embrace being a tourist
I was, admittedly, a bit of a clueless tourist when I went to London and my siblings were no exception. My brother bought and actually wore this hat on the Tube and near Buckingham Palace. I’m sure the Brits were not amused so I don’t recommend doing that. We all laughed really hard when we spotted the Cockfosters stop at the Tube. Because that’s what mature people do. And lastly, we all took “talking on the phone” photos at one of the red phone booths, which I’m actually not ashamed of, at all. In fact, I encourage one. It’s okay to be a bit touristy during your first visit to London. It’s part of the fun!
Other Practical Travel Tips for Your First Time in London
Visas for England
U.S. citizens do NOT need a visa to visit any country in the United Kingdom. You’re allowed to stay in the UK for up to 6 months without a visa.
Best Time to Visit London
England is notorious for year-round not-so-great weather, but with proper clothing (and an umbrella), you can easily visit the country anytime. Although summer technically has the best weather (no guarantees), it’s peak tourist season and better avoided when possible. Instead, visit during spring and autumn for decent temperatures and fewer tourists.
- March – May: Although springtime in England is still on the rainier and cooler side, it’s a great time to visit for beautiful blooming flowers without the frigid cold of winter. The temperature is usually in the 50s Fahrenheit.
- June – August: This is peak travel season in England and with good reason: it’s when the weather is the best: around 70s and 80s Fahrenheit, with infrequent rain. This is also the most expensive and crowded time to visit, however, so keep that in mind.
- September – November: Crunchy leaves, cooler temperatures, and fewer tourists: this is arguably the best time to visit England, with temperatures in the 50s to 60s F.
Safety in London
I’ve visited London multiple times both solo and with my family. I also have quite a few friends that live in various parts of London and can assure you that London is safe – at least, as safe as any other big city. There’s the occasional pickpocket on the Tube (this has never happened to me but has happened to friends that live there) but i find that having a lockable purse solves that issue. Just use common sense – don’t flash valuables around and don’t wander anywhere sketchy at night – and you should be fine!
Currency in England
The United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) use the British Pound (GBP £) and at the time of updating this post (March 2020), the rate was about USD $1 to GBP £0.86. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATM machines for withdrawing cash, if you’d like to (it’s not necessary though). Just be sure to go to an ATM that doesn’t charge withdrawal fees. You can also easily exchange money at money changers but the best way to spend money is to just use your credit card.
Transportation in London
It’s incredibly easy to get around London, thanks to their extensive subway, train, and bus system (walking is also great if it isn’t too cold and rainy). There’s also a well-connected bike-sharing system. Taxis and Uber are readily available as well, but prices can easily add up. Overall, I recommend getting the Visitor Oyster Card I mentioned above and using that as your main mode of transportation. If you have a lot of luggage coming from the airport, consider booking an airport transfer ahead of time.
Note: Because of parking costs, I don’t recommend renting a car unless you’re doing a road trip around the United Kingdom, in which case you should rent it when you’re leaving London.
All in all, your first visit to London will include lots of tourist attractions and that’s totally fine – they’re usually popular because they’re cool and/or have some historical significance. I know it’s tempting to squeeze in as many activities as possible but embrace the fact that there’s way too much to do in London in a few days (or even a week) and pick a few activities from this list that appeal to you. It’ll be sure to make traveling to London for the first time both fun and memorable.
More England ResourcesPlanning a trip to England soon? Check out ALL my posts on England below:
Tell me: When did you visit London for the first time? What were your favorite sites? Let me know in the comments below!
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