Traveling to London for the first time? This guide will tell you everything you need to know to plan a trip to London.
London is a very popular destination with almost 20 millions of visitors every year. It’s a huge city but it’s relatively easy to navigate around. It also helps that everyone speaks English (and so many other languages) so you can never get stranded without help. In this guide, I will tell you literally everything you need to know while visiting London. This includes how to get in, how to get around, where to stay, where to visit, when to visit, and many more!
Things To Know Before You Visit London
- The best time to visit London is April to early October and during the holidays (more below)
- Bring an umbrella (or buy one) because it could rain any time and any day
- I recommend at least 3 days to spend in London
- Cars drive on the left lane (opposite from the US, Germany, Italy, Canada, etc).
- Tip is generally 10%; increasingly restaurants are charging 12.5% service charges automatically with your bill
- If you are planning to fly out of London, make sure you pack toiletry into small Ziploc bags and take it out from your luggage. Security is extremely tight at airports and if they find any liquids (even make up) in your carry on luggage that’s not in the Ziploc bag, they will open your carry on and check items one by one
- Most places accept debit/credit cards; but have some cash on hand
- You will probably not see the Queen or any members of the royal family
Most people see “London” as one city; in reality, London is the name of the Metropolis and is subsequently divided into different boroughs, such as City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark, Camden, Islington, etc. The “City of London” is only a smart part of the Metropolis of London. It was originally settled by the Romans in the 1st century AD to the Middle Ages, now it’s the central business district of London. London is divided by the Thames (a river) and almost all the historical/touristy centers are in the North with more residential areas in the South. Furthermore, London is also divided from East to West with the West being more affluent and the East more industrial. For more information on the layout of the city and some of its history, this is a pretty good read.
When To Visit London
April – May: Spring and summer are the best time to visit London. Flowers start to bloom everywhere in April, including cheery blossom and wisteria.
June to Early October is warm with the least amount of rain. Temperature never gets that hot in the summer but you do get really long days and blue sky! There are many summer activities, festivals, outdoor concerts and music festivals in the summer in London. The Wimbledon takes place every July; the Notting Hill Carnival takes place every August. If you want to watch the Wimbledon but don’t have tickets, just go early (before 8am) to queue up for tickets to get in. Or you can go later in the afternoon ~3pm, get in and buy “used” center court tickets at a heavily discounted price . That’s how I got to watch Serena Williams Play for 38 GBP. Dont’ forget to get PIMM’s, a famous British summer drink.
December is not a great time in terms of weather, but you cannot miss the holiday festivity in London. Streets have beautiful lights and there are many Christmas markets, the biggest one being the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. There are also many outdoor iceskating rink that you simply cannot miss.
Flying Into London
Airports in London
There are 5 major airports in London:
- Heathrow International Airport is probably the most famous one. It’s one of the busiest airports in the world. Getting to/from Heathrow is fast and painless.
- Heathrow Express: It’s a high speed train that takes 15 minutes from Heathrow International to Paddington Station. The train also comes every 15 minutes from around 5am to around midnight. It’s a bit pricey, priced at 22-25 GBP per one way ticket. However, if you buy your tickets online 3-6 months in advance, you can get a nice discount. I personally take this everytime I fly to Heathrow because it’s so fast and the train is comfortable and clean.
- Heathrow Connect: It’s a slower train that connects Heathrow Terminal 1, 2, 3 & 4 to Paddington Station. It comes every 30 minutes and is slower than Heathrow Express. I have never taken it.
- London Underground (aka The Tube (Piccaddily Line)): The subway goes directly to all the terminals at Heathrow but it takes about 1 hour to get into central London. If you decide to take the tube, get an Oyster Card from the Tube station at the airport. Or use your contactless card. Price for the tube from Heathrow to Central London is less than 6 GBP one way so it’s really cheap.
- Taxi/Uber/Private Transfer: I generally don’t use this option unless I have a lot of luggage. Traffic is pretty terrible in London and unlike the US, most of the city is not covered by freeways, so you have to drive through local streets which is a pain. It also costs at least 50-70 GBP to get to central London.
- Gatwick Airport is an international airport about 30 miles south of London. A lot of European flights land in Gatwick because it’s cheaper to operate there compared to Heathrow
- Gatwick Express that takes 30 minutes to London Victoria.
- Other trains include Southern and Thameslink to London Victoria and London Bridge respectively.
- Buses to/from Gatwick include National Express, EasyBus, and Megabus. Personally I have only taken National Express and it usually takes over an hour. It’s always beneficial to buy bus tickets online ahead of time, just in case the bus gets full. If you are traveling to Gatwick on a Friday, I highly recommend that you either take the train or take an earlier bus because traffic on a Friday afternoon is terrible and I missed my flight taking National Express once. The buses stop at several different locations in London before it gets to the final destination.
- Taxi/Uber/Car: I personally would not recommend taking a taxi unless you have a good reason to. It takes just as long as taking a bus but much more expensive
- Stansted Airport is an international airport about 30 miles northeast of London. Just like Gatwick Airport, a lot of flights, especially budget airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair fly to Stansted due to cheaper cost.
- Stansted Express is a rail service that departs every 15 minutes and takes 47 minutes to London Liverpool Station. It’s the fastest way to get to central London from Stansted Airport
- National Express offers bus services from Stansted Airport to Central London
- Luton Airport is 25.2 miles north of London. Many budget airlines fly to Luton.
- Train to King’s Cross St Pancras Station takes about 50 minutes
- National Express also offers services from Luton Airport to Central London
- London City Airport is located near Canary Wharf and offers a limited number of international flights. Many business people fly to their airport so they can directly go to work in Canary Wharf.
- DLR: You can take the DLR from various locations in London. See below for the DLR map
Getting Around London
London Underground, otherwise known as The Tube, is probably the best way to get around the city.
As a visitor, you should get an oyster card (nowadays people can use their contactless card to pay as well, read more here). If you are staying for 7 days, then get a weekly pass (same for monthly), but if you are only staying for 3-4 days, there is no need to get a daily travel card. Just purchase an oyster card from the ticket machine (or at the counter) or use your contactless card and there is a daily maximum amount you can spend. That means if you take 10 tube rides, you will not be paying for 10 rides. The daily cap is about 7-10 GBP based on distance.
The tube is not 24 hours except Friday and Saturday on Victoria Line, Jubilee Line, and most of Central, Northern, Piccadilly Line (this leaves Hammersmith & City, Circle, Bakerloo, District, Metropolitan, London overground, etc).
London underground is organized by different zones. Zone 1 is pretty much central London and Zone 5 is quite far in terms of distance. Unlike New York, London’s tube charges by distance. Therefore the daily maximum is different depending on which zone you travel to/from. See here for the tube map. You can also save it onto your phone for easy access. Different lines are represented by different colors on the map.
London has an extensive bus system. Similar to the Tube, you can use Oystercard or Contactless card when boarding and the bus does NOT charge by distance. There is also a daily max you can spend riding on the bus.
The great thing about the bus is that it’s 24 hours! So even if the Tube stops running around midnight, you can always get around by bus. One of my all time favorite things to do on the London double decker buses is to ride front row on the upper deck and enjoy the view. Just make sure to grab tight when you climb up as the bus drivers can be aggressive and my friend has fallen off the stairs and dislocated her shoulder before.
A lot of people bike around the city. There is also bike share scheme in London. Similar to the Citi Bikes in New York, London has Santander Cycles. The names keep changing (it used to be called Barclays Bike).
London is a very walkable city, especially touristy areas. I suggest you take a stroll along the Thames to enjoy all the views.
Black Cab/ Uber
New York has Yellow Cabs and London has Black Cabs. However, when I was living there, you have to pay the cab driver cash as they did not accept credit/debit card. Alternatively there are many ride sharing apps such as Uber and Edison Lee.
Currency Exchange in London
The currency in the UK is British Pounds. There are many places you can exchange currency:
Exchange to British Pounds at the Airport: There are of course currency exchange places at the airport. But honestly I would not recommend this because the rates are generally terrible. However, if this is your only option, then exchange some first.
Exchange money in the city: London is a city where you frequently see currency exchange places, especially in touristy areas. There are for sure exchange booths on Baker Street (home of Sherlock Holmes), on Oxford street (where Central Line Station is), etc.
Free Cash Machine in London: In the UK, instead of ATM, the term is “free cash machine”. There are free cash machine almost everywhere, even at supermarkets like Tesco. If you are coming from the US, I suggest you get the Charles Schwab ATM card because it reimburses you all ATM fees worldwide. I almost exclusively withdraw from cash machines when I travel because the rates are so much better than exchange shops.
Credit Card/ Debit Card: London is a city where you can use credit cards almost everywhere you go. I say almost because some farmers market and street food markets and Chinatown restaurants only accept cash. But you can use credit card in most restaurants, cafes, the tube (subway), train stations, shops, etc. When I travel to London I actually only carry maybe 30 British pounds of cash on me!
How to Get Sim Cards in London
That’s usually one of the first things on my mind when I travel abroad. Unless you have international roaming enabled, I would highly recommend getting a local sim card. Prepaid sim cards are very cheap and convenient in London, as long as your phone is “unlocked” aka you can use other companies’ sim cards. I believe this applies more towards US mobile phone owners.
You can generally find sim cards for sale after you land at the airports. However in case you cannot find anything, there are plenty of other options in the city.
One of the largest chain mobile phone accessories store is Car Phone Warehouse and you can see them in major shopping areas. They have sim cards from different telecom companies that you can pick from.
If you are looking for specific brands, I would recommend 3 as I had used them when I was in London and they were reliable and cheap (compare to EE or Vodafone). All the brands I had just mentioned (3, EE, Vodafone) have their own stores in London and should be easy to find on a quick Google map search. Pro tip: If you use 3, you can also use it for roaming in other European cities.
Lastly, if you have some time before you travel to London, you may consider ordering a sim card online. The one I’ve used before is Giffgaff. This was one of the cheapest option when I lived in London. You can order it online and the company will ship the free sim card to your address worldwide. All you need to do is activate it and you are set when you land.
Best Areas To Stay in London
As a first time visitor to London, you will probably want to stay near all the touristy sights or somewhere close to the Tube. I highly recommend staying in Zone 1:
- Mayfair is a very upscale area bordering Hyde Park. There are very nice restaurants and exclusive hotels. It’s close to shopping in Soho and Bond Street. It’s also very close to The British Museum. Some of the famous restaurants in Mayfair include Sketch (afternoon tea), Hakassan (Michelin Star Chinese Food), etc.
- Soho/ China Town/Leicester Square/ Covent Garden is known as the West End (including Mayfair). Accommodations are very pricey but for a good reason. You are within walking distance to theatres, restaurants, shopping, high-end hotels and bars. I spend most of my time in London in this area and even to this day I have not been able to watch all the musicals/ballets or tried all the restaurants and bars. If you have the budget, you have to stay in this area.
- Westminster & St. James: If you are thinking of visiting the Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, this is the area you would want to stay in. But personally I find it too touristy and too dead at night. There aren’t that many good restaurants here so I highly suggest you stay at the West End instead.
- Waterloo Station or London Bridge: I recommend these two areas south of the Thames because they are huge transportation hubs. Waterloo Station is very close to the London Eye. London Bridge area is close to the Shard as well as the famous Borough Market. I wouldn’t say the area is as upscale as the ones I’ve recommended above but they are convenient in terms of transportation.
- Knightsbridge, Notting hill, Kensington & Chelsea: Upscale neighborhood close to some of the best Museums in London as well as high street shopping. A bit further (west) from Big Ben & Tower Bridge, but a nice area to consider regardless.
- Shoreditch: Shoreditch is not an area that most first time visitors would choose to stay. It’s an arty area located in East London. There are a lot of trendy restaurants, bars, cafes and shops located in Shoreditch so you will definitely have fun staying there.
Safety in London
London is a relatively safe city. However in recent years there is a rise in terrorist activities and petty crime. Honestly though, despite what the news say, London is pretty safe. The only thing I would warn you is to try not use your cellphones when you are walking. While I was studying there, I heard numerous stories of girls who walk on the street with their phone out and getting their phone grabbed by someone on a bike/ motorcycle. It seems like these criminals target young females walking alone.
Another trick that some criminals do is at the ATM/cash machines. They will come up to you when you are withdrawing money to offer you free coupons or some random things and they will accidentally drop it. If you get distracted or try to help them, they will smoothly take your money from the ATM machine when you bend down. If you see anyone approaching you when you are at the cash machine, push them away!
Top 10 Things To See in London
London is full of world-famous touristy sites, and most of them are free! For a list of free things to see/do in London, check out this post.
Now some of the things you must see in London (some overlap with the Free things to see London list):
Big Ben & House of Parliament
This is probably the No.1 thing on all first time visitors’ list. The Big Ben is the the bell tower in the city of Westminster, next to the Parliament building. Note: only UK residents are able to go inside the Big Ben. However, you can do a tour inside the Parliament Building. Currently the Big Ben is under construction for the next few years, so you can’t really see it.
Pretty much located across the Thames is the giant Ferris Wheel known as the London Eye. You can go up for a nice view of London. It’s more touristy than anything and personally I prefer the view from Sky Garden (it’s free).
The Westminster Abbey is probably one of the most famous churches in London. It’s where the royal wedding of Prince Williams and Kate Middleton took place. Newton is also buried inside the abbey.
This Palace is walking distance from Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. Its the residence of the monarch, but don’t expect to see the queen or princes there! There is a changing of the guard every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 11am. Get there early and expect huge crowds.
One of the most well known museums in the world, the British Museum houses antiques and paintings from all eras and countries (although one could argue that some of the collections were stolen from other countries). It’s located in Mayfair and is free to visit. The interior design of the museum is an attraction in itself.
National Gallery/ Trafalgar Square
The National Gallery houses some of the greatest paintings in the world and is free to enter. It’s located in the world renowned Trafalgar Square, which is symbolized by 4 lions guarding the Nelson’s Column.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
It’s a beautiful church in the city of London. Every Christmas there is a Christmas Carol Service that’s open to the public. But in order to get in, you probably will need to line up a few hours before. You can also pay to go to the top of the Cathedral to enjoy a panoramic view of London after you purchase tickets.
London has no shortage of bridges connecting the North and the South. All of the bridges have different designs and functionalities but one of my favorite bridges is the Millennium Bridge right outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a pedestrian only bridge with modern sleek design. It also makes an amazing night shot.
Tower Bridge & Tower of London
One of the most famous bridges in London is the Tower Bridge (don’t mistaken it for London Bridge, it’s a different Bridge!!). Right next to it on the North side of the river is the Tower of London. It’s a historical castle and houses the Queen’s Crown Jewels.
London is known for outdoor markets, but Borough Market is a must-visit food market for first time visitors. It’s a big space with a lot of different vendors, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s located at the Southern base of London Bridge (You can see Tower Bridge from London Bridge). It’s closed on Sundays.
Things You Must Do In London
Besides the touristy places I mentioned above, there are a few other things you must do in London to have the essential London experience during your trip:
- Watch a musical in the West End
- Shop on Oxford Street and Regent Street
- Eat at Dishoom (Indian)
- Watch the sunrise from Duck & Waffle (tallest restaurants in London)
- Do a street art tour in East London
- Kayak on the Thames
- Picnic in Hyde Park
- Get afternoon tea at the Wolseley or Fortnum & Mason or The Ritz
- Watch a tennis match at the Wimbledon
- Drink Pimm’s in the summer
- Enjoy brunch at Granger & Co or The Breakfast Club
- Visit a Christmas market
- Sip Coffee at Monmouth Coffee
- Visit the Turkish lantern shop in Camden Market
- Order a drink at Artesian Bar (No.1 or 2 Bar in the World: ranking changes every year)
- Party in Shoreditch
London is a vibrant and diverse city with endless things to do, eat, and see. I envy those who are visiting London for the first time because they will be amazed at how much London can offer.
If you only have half a day in London as a layover, be sure to check out this amazing guide on 12 hours in London!