London Travel Guide: All You Need To Know For Your First Time in London
Traveling to London for the first time? This London holiday guide will tell you everything you need to know to plan your first trip to London including what airport to fly into, how to get around London, how to get internet in London, and many more tips!
London is an amazing place to visit and it is often the first place in Europe people visit. There are over 20 millions of visitors to London every year. Why is London so popular? London is a beautiful, historical, safe and fun city to visit, with a lot to see, do and eat (no British food is not bad, it is delicious).
Most people who visit Europe tend to go to London first, because it is an English speaking country (so that helps for North Americans). Because of its proximity to other countries in Europe, London is extremely diverse with many languages spoken (so you can never get lost!).
London is a huge city but it s extremely easy to get around. You can spend as little as one day or as much as a week in London and not feel bored.
Having lived in London for about 2 years, I am excited to share all that I know to help you plan your first trip to London. In this First Time in London travel guide, I will tell you literally everything you need to know to have a wonderful London holiday.
This London travel guide includes how to get to London, how to get around London, where to stay in London, where to visit for a first trip to London, when to visit London, how to buy a sim card in London and many many more!
This blog contains occasional affiliate links, where I receive a small commission on sales of the products/hotels that are linked at no additional cost to you. In addition, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. The commission I receive helps me to pay for the cost of running and maintaining this blog. Thank you for supporting my blog.
A brief crash course on London geography
London is a city that almost everyone has heard of. But I don’t think many people know that London is actually a Metropolis and there are various different boroughs in London (kinda similar to how New York City has 5 Boroughs and how Los Angeles is actually a city and a county). The various boroughs in London include the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark, Camden, Islington, etc.
When you are in London, you can actually visit the “City of London”, which is a small part of the Metropolis of London. The Romans settled in this part of London during the 1st century AD to the Middle Ages; now the City of London is the central business district of London.
The Thames is a famous river that runs through London, dividing it from North to South. Most of the historical and touristy places are north of Thames whereas there are more residential areas South of the Thames.
What you should know for your first time in London – London Pre-Travel Guide
Don’t travel to London without reading these tips on this London travel guide!
Visa/ Passport/ Entry Requirement
English is of course the official language in London. But as you tour around London for the first time, you may hear a lot of different languages (especially European languages) spoken there.
Since London is such a diverse city, there are so many Europeans, Middle Easterners and South Asians that live there. You will be able to get around London not even speaking English.
You will be using the British Pounds in London (not Euros, not USD, etc). The British Pounds come in both coins and paper currency. Be sure to bring a wallet for all the coins.
You will need an outlet converter
Look right first
Cars in London drive on the “other side” of the road. If you are coming from North America, Germany, Italy, South America, this is the opposite of what you are used to.
When you cross the street, be sure to look to the right first (a lot of the side walks will actually have words written on the ground reminding you to look right). This will help to prevent accidents when crossing the street
Be prepared to walk and take public transit
London is a very walkable city, so make sure you wear comfortable shoes and be ready to walk around a lot. Walking is the best way to enjoy London for your first time visit.
Public transit is also very convenient there (much more than taxi or Uber). Be prepared to navigate London’s public transportation network, which is actually very impressive and I will cover more on that later.
Tap Water in London
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in London. Bring a reusable bottle and refill your bottles from the faucet directly.
You need to tip in London
London has a tipping culture: tip is generally 10%; increasingly restaurants in London are charging 12.5% service charges automatically with your bill. It’s not as crazy as US tipping culture but some tips are appreciated.
London airports are very strict
I have flown to countless airports around the world but airports in London are the strictest airports I have ever flown out of.
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.
London airport security actually take this very seriously. If they find any liquids (even make up like gel eyeliners) in your carry on luggage that’s not in the Ziploc bag, they will open your carry on and check items one by one (this has happened to me numerous times).
When is the best time to visit London?
One of the most frequently asked question when it is someone’s first time in London is when should you visit London? Doe London rain all the time?
Contrary to popular belief, London does not rain all the time as you can see in the chart below.
London rains a lot in the fall and winter and you will see a lot of sunny days in the summer. It rarely rains super hard in London, but it is the constant drizzle/ light rain that can actually be pretty annoying. If you are visiting London for the first time, I would highly recommend to bring an umbrella (or buy one here) because it could rain randomly.
Ok sure about the rain, so when is the best time to visit London then?
The most popular time to go to London is in the summer, from June to September. Note I said “the most popular” but not “the best” time to go to London because to some people, crowds is not a good thing.
In terms of weather, summer in London is the warmest and it also does not rain as much. When I was in London in the summer, it was mostly sunny days with mild temperature (although there were heatwaves once in a while).
Summer is a great time to visit London because there are a lot of summer activities, festivals, outdoor concerts and music festivals in London in the summer. The Wimbledon takes place every July; the Notting Hill Carnival takes place every August.
Spring (April to May) is another great time to visit London because of the drier and warmer weather and clear sky. This shoulder season is a good time to visit since you avoid the summer crowds with cheaper airfare and hotels.
Flowers in London start blooming in April, including wisteria and cherry blossom. As you walk around the city, you will randomly run into these beautiful flowers. But if you really want those fantastic cherry blossom photos, you will need to stop by Greenwich Park, known for their rows and rows of cherry blossom in April.
Winter is the most festive time to go to London. Even though most people don’t like the cold and wetness of winter in London, but the holiday spirit in London is strong. Similar to New York, London is known for its holiday decorations and festivity; major streets in London (such as Oxford Street and Regent Street) all have beautiful lights and decorations.
There are many Christmas markets in London in the winter, the biggest one being the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. There are also many outdoor ice skating rinks in London that you can only enjoy in the winter.
Which London Airport Should You Fly Into?
There are 5 airports in London.
Yup, you read that right, FIVE! I don’t know any other city in the world with so many airports (ok, maybe Los Angeles, but you can’t compare LA to London).
Heathrow International Airport
Heathrow is the most well known airport in London. Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. You will most likely fly into Heathrow if you are arriving from outside of Europe. Getting to/from Heathrow to Central London is fast and painless and I highly recommend flying into Heathrow especially if you have a layover in London.
There are a few ways to get to city center of London from Heathrow Airport.
Gatwick is an international airport about 30 miles south of London. A lot of European flights go to Gatwick. If you are flying on Ryan Air or Easyjet, you will most likely land at Gatwick Airport.
It is easy to get from Gatwick Airport to Central London, but even the fastest option takes longer than arriving from Heathrow.
Gatwick Express that takes 30 minutes to London Victoria Station.
Taxi/Uber/Car: I personally would not recommend taking a taxi unless you have a good reason. It takes just as long as taking a bus but much more expensive.
Stansted is an international airport about 30 miles northeast of London. Just like Gatwick Airport, a lot of European flights, especially on budget airlines, fly to Stansted.
There are not as many options from Stansted Airport to Central London compared to Heathrow and Gatwick.
Luton 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
London City Airport
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. First time London visitors most likely will not fly into London City Airport.
DLR: You can take the DLR from various locations in London. See below for the DLR map
How do I get around London if it’s my first time in London?
Lucky for you, London is a city built on a massive and efficient transportation networks, with buses and the underground (and overground) that can get you almost anywhere at a low cost. You do not have to worry about not having a car in London, as long as you have Google Map on your phone you are set!
London Underground, otherwise known as The Tube, is the best way to get around London.
Unlike New York City, London Tube charges by distance so the further you are going, the more expensive it is.
The tube is not 24 hours except Friday and Saturday on Victoria Line, Jubilee Line, and most of Central, Northern, Piccadilly Line. Hammersmith & City, Circle, Bakerloo, District, Metropolitan and London overground do not run 24 hours. The hours are typically from 5am to midnight.
London Tube Zones
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.
Taking the Bus in London
London has a very efficient and extensive bus network. Similar to the Tube, you can use Oyster Card or Contactless when boarding a London bus. The buses do NOT charge by distance (so you do not need to tap out like you do when riding the Tube). There is also a daily max you can spend riding on the bus in London.
The great thing about taking a bus in London is that the buses run 24 hours! So even if the Tube stops running around midnight, you can always get around London by bus.
Pro tip: when riding a bus in London, go to the upper deck and ride in the front! This will give you an unobstructed view of the road so it is almost like a free city tour. 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.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
Biking in London
Walk Around London
London is a very walkable city, especially in the popular touristy areas. I suggest you take a stroll along the Thames to enjoy the view of some of the most famous London attractions.
My favorite walking route in London along the Thames is to walk from Tower Bridge to Borough Market to Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral to the London Eye and finally to Big Ben and Parliament.
Black Cab and Uber in London
Do I need cash in London?
One question I always get asked from first time visitors in London is “Can I use credit card in London” or “Do I need cash in London”?
London is a very credit card friendly city. Tube stations, shopping centers, super markets and most restaurants and shops accept major credit cards.
However there are some restaurants (especially the smaller ones and the ones in Chinatown) and farmer markets only take cash. Even black cabs technically should accept cards but there can always be drivers that only want to take cash.
Where do I exchange money in London?
The currency in the UK is British Pounds. If this is your first trip to London, don’t worry, it is very easy to exchange money or better, take out cash from ATMs in London.
Exchange money at the Airports in London: There are currency exchange places at the airports in London. However as you can expect, exchange rates are generally terrible at these counters in the airport. But if you urgently need cash, exchange perhaps £40 first (then exchange more once in you are in Central London).
Exchange money in Central London: London is a city where you frequently see currency exchange places, especially in touristy areas like Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. There are exchange booths on Baker Street (home of Sherlock Holmes), on Oxford street (where Central Line Station is), etc. You can always do a Google search to find one near you.
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 20 British pounds of cash on me and the last couple of times I was in London I managed to not spend any cash at all!
How to get local sim cards in London?
How can I call this a complete London travel guide if I do not address the most important question: how do I get a sim card in London? Unless you have international roaming enabled on your cellphone, I would highly recommend getting a local sim card in London.
Prepaid sim cards in London are very cheap and easy to buy, as long as your phone is “unlocked” (you can use other companies’ sim cards). If you are coming from the US, you should double check with your cellular service providers to see if your phone is unlocked.
You can generally find sim card shops after you land at the airports in London. If you cannot find anything in the airports, there are plenty of sim card shops in the city.
If you are looking for specific brands of sim cards in London, 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). In addition, 3 allows you to roam in other European countries for free.
All the brands I had just mentioned (3, EE, Vodafone) have their own stores in London and it should be easy to find them on Google map search.
Giffgaff was one of the cheapest options for Sim cards 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 in London.
If you are coming from the US and you use T-mobile, you should have free roaming (up to 5gb of high speed data) in London if you have the MAX and Plus plans. Check with T mobile to see if your plan qualifies.
What If I only have a layover in London?
London is great for layovers, long or short!
Due to the proximity and convenient of getting from the different airports in London to Central London, London is one of the easiest cities in the world to transit and lay over.
Doesn’t matter if you only have 6, 8 or 10 hours (or the whole day) in London, you can still see some famous attractions in London.
How much does it cost to travel to London?
London is one of the more expensive cities to visit in the world (but if you are coming from cities like New York, San Francisco, Singapore, then London is not that expensive to you).
As with any cities in the world, you can make London as expensive as you can or you can do London fairly cheaply. The major factors in determining how much it costs to visit London are mostly hotels and food. Another factor that affects costs is when you visit London. Visiting London is February or March is a lot cheaper than visiting in July due to hotel costs.
Let me give you some examples of price ranges based on your budget, assuming you are traveling to London during peak summer season. The budget is per person per day.
|Total cost per day
Budget assumes that you are staying at a dorm in a hostel during peak summer season or if you find a cheap airbnb room rental. Food can be cheap if you cook your own food or grab something cheap to eat like a kebab or sandwiches. You can take the Tube/bus everywhere and hit the daily Oyster Card cap. Budget traveler can go to the free museums and attractions in London and not pay for any entrance fees.
Mid range budget assumes you will find a mid-range hotel in London during peak season (and you are traveling with a companion so the room cost is split). You will most likely eat out both lunch and dinner at reasonably priced restaurants or food markets. You will take public transportation for the most part. You may pay for one ticketed attraction such as St. Paul’s Cathedral or the London Eye.
As you can see, you have a lot of control and flexibility over your London holiday bucket. London does not have to be expensive if you do not want it to be!
Where should you stay in London
For your first time in London, you should stay near all the touristy spots or somewhere close to the Tube. I highly recommend staying in Zone 1 of London (the most central areas of London):
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 and really want to be walking distance to everything during your first time in London, 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 this area too touristy and too quiet at night. There aren’t that many good restaurants here so I highly suggest you stay at the West End instead especially for your first time in London.
Waterloo Station or London Bridge: I recommend these two areas south of the Thames because they are huge transportation hubs in London. 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, South Kensington: 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 London visitors to London would choose to stay but I think they are missing out!
Shoreditch is an arty and trendy 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.
How to stay safe in London especially if it’s your first time visiting London
London is a pretty safe city. but as with any major city in Europe, there are petty crime and pickpocketing in London so you should always be aware of your surroundings.
The one thing I would warn anyone on their first trip to London is to try NOT use cellphones when you are walking if you are female.
While I was studying in London, 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. If you do need to use a phone, stand further away from the road so someone on a bike or motorcycle cannot just grab the phone from you that easily.
Another trick that some criminals do in London 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, ignore them and grab your money and leave.
A scam I’ve seen in London is the “cup and ball” scam on Westminster Bridge (the bridge in front of Big Ben). What happen is someone will have 3 cups and a ball, and they let people bet money (£20 to start with). If you can identify which bowl the ball is under then they double the money, but of course you will never win.
These scammers usually have “spectators” in the audience that win a few times to lure people in because it looks so easy to win. But in reality these “spectators” are actually their friends and when it’s your turn, they will use tricks to take the ball out of the bowl before you even realize. Therefore you will never win!!
What are the best things to see in London for first time visitors
This London travel guide will show you some of the “must-see” things in London especially if this is your first time in London.
Big Ben & House of Parliament
Big Ben and Parliament are the No.1 thing on all London first time visitors’ list. They are pretty much the symbol of London and what comes to mind when anyone thinks of London.
Big Ben is the the bell tower in the city of Westminster, next to the Parliament building. Completed in 1859, at the time Big Ben was named “Clock Tower” and it was the largest and most accurate chiming clock in the world.
Starting in 2017 there was a multi-year renovation work on Big Ben and that has been completed at the end of April 2022. If you visit London now you can see Big Ben again without construction covering it.
Unfortunately you cannot go inside Big Ben unless you are an UK residents (UK residents need to request a free tour to Big Ben from a member of Parliament or House of Lords). As a visitor, you can do a tour inside the Parliament Building.
Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous churches in London. It is the traditional place of coronation and where the royal wedding of Prince Williams and Kate Middleton took place. British monarchs and famous people such as Newton are buried at Westminster Abbey.
Buckingham Palace is walking distance from Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. It is the residence of the monarch, but most likely you won’t see the Queen or the royal family there normally!
You can visit the inside of the palace with a multimedia guide for £30.00. But if you just want to see the outside of the Palace (and the Changing of Guards) then it’s free. The Changing of the Guard is every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 11am. Get there early and expect huge crowds.
The British Museum is one of the most renowned museums in the world. It houses antiques and paintings from all eras and countries (although one could argue that some of the collections were stolen from other countries). The interior design of the museum is an attraction in itself.
The British Museum is located in Mayfair and is free to visit. But if you want to see the special exhibitions you will need to purchase tickets or book ahead of time online.
National Gallery/ Trafalgar Square
National Gallery houses 700 years of greatest paintings in the world and it is free to visit. Similar to the British Museum, you have to pay for special exhibitions. If you know and love art, you can spend the entire day at National Gallery.
It is located in the world renowned Trafalgar Square, which is symbolized by 4 lions guarding the Nelson’s Column. Trafalgar Square is about 15 minutes walk to Big Ben and Parliament.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a beautiful church in the city of London. It has a long history and has been re-built and restored numerous times throughout history. The cathedral was designed using neoclassical, baroque and gothic elements. The famous dome of the cathedral is a prominent feature of the London skyline and can be seen in numerous movies and British TV shows.
London has no shortage of bridges connecting the North and the South across the Thames. All of the bridges have different designs and functionalities but one of my favorite bridges in Lnodon is the Millennium Bridge right outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian only bridge with modern sleek design. It also makes an amazing night shot.
Tower Bridge & Tower of London
London is known for outdoor markets, but Borough Market is a must-visit food market for first time visitors. It is a big space with a lot of different food and produce vendors, coffee shops and restaurants. Borough Market is located at the Southern base of London Bridge (You can see Tower Bridge from London Bridge). It is open everyday except Sundays.
How many days do you need in London?
London is a fantastic place to visit with so many things to do and see. So how many days should you spend in London?
However I think ideally to get the most out of London you need 4 days in London, this allows you to see all the famous places in London and perhaps even a day trip outside of London.
Other things to do and eat in London even if you have more time
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
- Enjoy Indian food at the most popular Indian restaurant Dishoom
- Picnic in Hyde Park and explore the hidden spots in the 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 the view (for free) at Sky Garden or go up the Shard Observatory
- Grab brunch at Granger & Co or The Breakfast Club
- Visit a Christmas market in London. The biggest one is in Hyde Park
- Do a River Thames Cruise and see the most iconic buildings in London
- Sip Coffee at Monmouth Coffee
- Visit the Turkish lantern shop in Camden Market
- Order a drink at Connaught Bar and Tayēr + Elementary (best bars in the world)
- Go wild at parties in Shoreditch
- Marvel at the Natural History Museum
- Go to a music festival but don’t forget your rain boots!
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.
Like This Post? Pin This First Time in London Travel Guide to Pinterest!