First-timer's guide to London (practical tips for your visit)

Traveling to London for the First Time (Tips & Tricks)

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Traveling to London for the first time and not sure where to start? Planning a trip to London might be overwhelming indeed and especially so if this is your first time in the city. How long do I need to spend in London? When to visit? What are the best places to stay in London? How to save time and money and still see the best that London has to offer?

To help you plan your first trip to London, I selected some of the best tips for visiting London. This no-nonsense practical guide will not only help you plan your London trip, but will also show you how to make the best of your trip, time, and budget. Find out!

Disclaimer: This post featuring some of the best tips and suggestions for traveling to London for the first time has been brought to you in cooperation with Expedia.com, one of the world’s leading online travel services.

Everything you should know before traveling to London for the first time

 

1. Stay in central London

The question that gets asked a lot by the first-time visitors is what are the best places to stay in London. Hotels in central London can be expensive, yet while it might be very tempting to choose cheaper accommodation outside the city centre, it’s a choice that you’ll quickly regret. First, commuting into the city every day will cost a lot of money and time. Precious time, that you could otherwise use for sightseeing.

Visiting London for the first time? Stay in central London! By staying in central London you can see much more in less time. Ultimately this will save money not just on transportation, but also on your overall trip budget, because you’ll need less days in order to see just as much.

Now that we established that central London is the best place to stay when visiting London for the first time, you might be wondering which neighbourhoods are the best for sightseeing. There is probably no single best answer to this, but here are the short list neighbourhoods that we personally looked at when planning our recent trip to London with kids: Westminster, Covent Garden, Soho, Bankside, and South Bank. Ultimately we chose for a hotel located on the South Bank close to London Eye and we loved being in the centre of the action. Staying in the centre makes visiting London so much easier, because many of the main attractions are within easy walking distance or just a short bus drive away.

In general, I’d say just look for the best deals that you can find for your group and travel dates and as long as it’s in Central London, you know you made a good choice. You can find great deals for your accommodation on Expedia.com London hotels. Check it out!

TIP: Once you select your travel dates, you’ll be able to click on the map of London and choose accommodations based on their location. The more you zoom in, the more choices you get and you immediately see the price of each hotel. I always use this map function when researching accommodations – it’s so handy and eliminates any chance for mistake of coincidentally booking a hotel with a similar name in a completely different location (believe me, it does happen).

Big Ben or Elizabeth Tower in London

If you can, stay in the city centre. Central location will make exploring London so much easier!

 

2. Avoid bank holidays and school breaks

London is an extremely popular destination that attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. The busiest times to visit London are July and August, as well as European bank holiday weekends and school breaks. If you can, try to avoid these peak periods for less crowds and better prices.

If you plan to see London during Holiday Season, it’s best to avoid the main shopping streets on the weekends and the last days just before Christmas.

London's Oxford Street during Holiday Season

London is beautiful, but extremely busy during Christmas season ©Jamie Davies via Unsplash

 

3. Foresee enough time and don’t try to see everything

If you are traveling to London for the first time, you are probably wondering how much time you need in London. You have to realise that London is huge and there is no way to see everything in just a few days or even a few weeks… So don’t come to London thinking that you can see it all in just one or two days. For first-time visitors I recommend to spend at least 3-4 days in London. This should give you sufficient time to get acquainted with the city, see the main landmarks, and visit a few attractions.

Also, don’t try to see ‘everything’. This is simply not possible and will leave you tired and frustrated. Plan to visit no more than two or three bigger attractions every day and leave some time for unexpected discoveries.

It's always fun to watch street artists in London

Don’t plan every minute of your time in London – you’ll enjoy the trip more

 

4. Book as much as possible in advance

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when visiting London is not to plan your visit in advance. Starting with flights and accommodations and ending with London attractions and activities – booking in advance means more choice, better prices, and less time wasted queuing. After all, you want to make the most of your trip to London and not spend all your precious time standing in line.

TIP: Often tickets for the main attractions are cheaper if booked online at least a day in advance. For example, you can get cheaper tickets for Madame Tussaud’s or London Eye.

If you want to go see a musical in London, book your theatre tickets well in advance. There are sometimes last minute tickets available as well, but not to the most popular shows, and the seats you get are usually far from great.

TIP: If you are looking for last minute theatre tickets in London, check the TKTS ticket booth on Leicester Square. You can buy theatre tickets only in person for performances on the same day, or up to two days in advance.

Les Miserables in London - book London theatre tickets well in advance

Book London theatre tickets well in advance

 

5. Visit London’s FREE attractions

Free museums in London

Visiting London is not cheap, but there are so many great things to see and do completely for free. Here are just a few London museums that can be visited free of charge: British Museum, Natural History Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum, Museum of London and many more.

London’s parks and gardens

London has many gardensparks and playgrounds that are free to visit. It is also a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

London’s shops

Don’t understand me wrong – shopping in London ins’t cheap by any means. But visiting the shops is of course absolutely free and can be an attraction in itself. Don’t miss Harrods and Oxford street! Kids will love Hamleys (world’s largest and oldest toy store), Lego store, and the m&m’s store.

TIP: Try to avoid shopping streets and big department stores on the weekends and just before Christmas.

Changing of the guard

The Changing of the Guard is one of the free things to do in London that are not to be missed. The ceremony is free to watch and takes place at Buckingham Palace 10.45AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays (weather permitting).  It’s very popular among tourists, so make sure to arrive early in order to secure a spot with good view.

For the exact location and up-to-date schedule, please consult the website of Household Division.

British Royal Guard in London, UK

Royal Guard ©alfcermed via Pixabay

 

6. Save time and money on London’s major attractions

Visiting London for the first time means visiting all the main landmarks and attractions. However, if you aren’t prepared, it’s very likely you will waste hours and days standing in lines.

If you want to make the most of your time in London, consider skip-the-line tickets and priority passes at the most popular attractions. Yes, they are expensive, but think of it this way. What’s the point of paying all that money to travel to London to then spend all your time queuing instead of sightseeing…

The London Pass

One of the best ways to see a lot of the major attractions in London with a priority entrance is The London Pass. For example, it includes FREE entrance to places like The Tower of London, The View from the Shard, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, or London Zoo and experiences like Thames River Cruise or Hop-on Hop-off bus tour (to mention just a few)… However, it only makes sense to get the pass if you visit at least 2-3 of the included attractions per day, so you need to decide if it’s worth it for you.

If you are planning to visit a lot of major attractions in a very short time, then London Pass is definitely worth it, but plan well and make sure you get the most of your pass during its validity period.

TIP: If you are staying in London longer, buying a pass for multiple days is more beneficial than just getting a pass for one day. Note that there are several different choices of passes in London (The London Pass, London City Pass, London Explorer Pass). My research shows that London Pass is one of the best options.

Fast track and skip the line tickets

The London Pass includes free entrance to 60 top attractions in London, but some of the most popular attractions like London Eye are not included in this pass. Queues here can easily be 2-3 hours long, so believe me, a fast track ticket is a real life saver.

We visited London with our three kids and used fast track tickets wherever we could. I can’t imagine how different our experience would have been if we had to wait in line everywhere. We could have never seen half as much in the time that we had, not to mention our sanity, standing in line for hours with young children…

For example, you can buy fast track tickets for the London EyeSt Paul’s CathedralTower of London and Tower Bridge, Hard Rock Cafe, and many others.

London Eye is not to be missed if visiting London for the first time

London Eye is a very popular attraction. Fast track tickets will save you at least 2-3 hours.

 

7. Use public transport and get the Oyster card

London is a big city and visiting everything on foot just isn’t feasible. Good news is that London’s public transport system is very efficient.

One of the best and quickest ways to get around in London is metro, aka London tube. The biggest advantages of the tube is that you can quickly get to the other side of London without having to waste your time in the traffic. Here’s a tip for you I once got from a local. Avoid the tube during the rush hour and during Christmas.

However, traveling underground, you don’t see anything of the city, so for shorter distances I recommend taking one of the city’s buses. Riding these original red double-decker buses is a typical London experience you should try at least once.

TIP: Get the Oyster card. It’s a sort of electronic ticket that can be used for all public transport in Greater London and is much cheaper than paying for single-ride tickets. You can find more information about the Oyster Card here. Note that children often travel free of charge (more information here).

TIP: Uber or a traditional London cab are the best options if you have lots of luggage. You really don’t want to take the tube with young kids and big suitcases, take my word for it. We took a cab twice in London and it was much more affordable than we expected. Furthermore, riding traditional English cab is part of the experience of visiting London for the first time.

Red double-decker bus on the Westminster Bridge in London

Red double-decker buses are perfect for covering short distances in London

 

8. Walk or rent a bike

I know that I just told you that seeing London on foot isn’t feasible. However, you’d be missing a great deal if you take a tube or a bus every time. After all, one of the best ways to see a new city is to explore it on foot. London is no exception.

TIP: Another great way to see London and easily cover bigger distances is by bike. There are lots of self-service city bike stands where you can rent a bike, or you can join a guided bike tour. There are several great options, e.g. this half-day bike tour that covers the main highlights of London, or this bike tour that brings you to the less known places of London.

Santander public bike rental system - bicycles for hire in London

City bikes for hire in London ©Yomex Owo via Unsplash

 

9. Use hop-on hop-off buses and river cruises

There are so many ways to see London and for the complete experience I recommend you try as many different means of transport as you can.

Hop-on hop-off buses are extremely popular and are a great way to see the city and major attractions.

One of my favourite ways to see any city is by taking a boat where possible. There are so many boat trip options in London, so you really have no excuse not to see London from the Thames.

TIP: Hop-on Hop-off bus tickets usually include a FREE Thames river cruise and a FREE walking tour.

Thames river cruise is a great way to see London

Thames river cruise is a great way to see London from a different perspective

 

10. Get off the beaten path

It’s understandable that you want to see the main landmarks when traveling to London for the first time. However, London is so much more than the Big Ben or the Buckingham Palace! There are so many quirky neighbourhoods, local markets, less known museums, and beautiful gardens in London. Visiting a few less known places like this will just make your first trip to London even more special and memorable.

TIP: Check this out for some ideas for different things to do, the hidden gems of London.

Little Venice is a true gem in London

Little Venice – one of the hidden gems of London © stockinasia via iStock

 

11. Eat like the British

London is an expensive city and dining out can be a pricey experience. Furthermore, restaurants located close to the tourist attractions don’t always serve the best food, so researching restaurants in advance can be a good idea.

Here are some insider tips on where to find the best food in London and save money:

  • Try traditional Fish&Chips where locals eat (e.g. Poppies Fish&Chips or The Golden Chippy).
  • Local supermarkets offer lots of affordable options for sandwiches or salads – perfect for a picnic in the park.
  • Borough market is the best food market in London.
  • Ottolenghi deli sells delicious packed lunch.
  • Harrods food hall is not to be missed.
  • Lots of fine restaurants cost a fraction of the price if you go there for lunch rather than dinner.
  • Traditional afternoon tea experience is a must in London and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. We had afternoon tea with kids at St. Ermin’s and loved it!
Typical English afternoon tea

Afternoon tea is a typical British experience – don’t miss it!

 

12. Don’t forget the little important details

Here are some more practical tips to consider when traveling to London for the first time:

  • You can pay by credit card pretty much everywhere, but it’s always useful to have some cash as well. And no, you can’t pay in Euro or US Dollar, you really need to get Pound sterling from an ATM.
  • You are not expected to tip in the UK and service charge is often included in your restaurant bill. Locals say they never tip at the bar, but would usually leave a 10% tip at a restaurant if the service was good.
  • Don’t forget a travel adapter. UK uses Type G plugs, which are very different from other European countries, or the US.
  • You’ll be walking a lot, so wear comfortable shoes.
  • Look right(!) when crossing a street in London. Yes, right, because they do drive on the other side of the road in Britain.
  • You may want to consider buying a local SIM card to save on roaming charges.
  • Pack an umbrella. It rains a lot in London.
Traditional black London cab is a must when tarvelling in London

Look right before crossing the street in London!

 

So, these are some of the most important practical tips you should know when traveling to London for the first time. Do you have any questions or maybe want to share your experience when visiting London? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

If you found this post useful, don’t forget to bookmark it and share it with your friends who are planning their first trip to London. Are you on Pinterest? Pin this image!

First-timer's guide to London - practical tips for visiting London for the first time

 

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Comments

  1. Very useful information since i will be traveling to London by march, especially when i don”t have an ideal of where to stay but now i know (hahahah) central London.

    Thank You

    1. Author

      🙂 Yes, Jemima, the more centrally-located your hotel, the easier it is to explore the best of London without wasting too much time in the traffic. Have a great trip!

  2. Very informative. Going on October 11, 2019 for 4 days and hope to see a changing of the guard. Do they do them in October?

  3. Hi Jurga,

    It’s been awesome seeing some of your articles.

    My family and I are coming to the UK and hoping to do a Europe tour in July 2019. That’s my husband and I (27 & 30), my brother (15), and my parents (in their 50s)
    We were firstly looking at doing a tour with a tour company but thought it could be limiting.
    A lot of people said for us just to use public transport, and that driving in Europe is very hard.
    I guess I am asking for your recommendation on whether we should use public transport (trains, uber etc) to get around, or if it would be beneficial in us hiring a car.

    Many Thanks in Advance
    We are from New Zealand btw

    1. Author

      Hi Dipal, it’s really hard for me to advise much because ‘Europe’ is really big and every country has its own special ways.
      In general, you definitely don’t need tours in order to see Europe. Figure out the places you want to see and how much time you want to spend in each. Depending how far they are from each other, it might be wise to take a train, or otherwise you should really look into flying. There are some really cheap flight deals all over Europe, so if you want to visit UK and e.g. Italy, you better fly.
      If you are mainly staying in big cities, do yourself a favor and don’t rent a car. You can’t do anything with it. In most countries you can use Uber in the cities, but public transport is usually very good too. For places like London or Paris, public transport is the way to go.
      However, if you want to see the countryside, then yes, driving is still the best way to do it.
      I can’t really say that driving in Europe is difficult, but then I live in the country where we have the most traffic jams in the world I think. 🙂 Also, except for the UK, all the other countries drive on the other side than what you are used to… Imagine the worst traffic day in New Zealand and then multiply it by two, that’s pretty much what you can expect around any big city in Europe. Once you get further from the cities, it’s usually quieter, but still, compared to NZ, it will always be busy…
      Hope this helps a bit. Enjoy your trip!

  4. Coming from London Originally I can say that NO it does NOT rain a lot in London. This is 15 Jan 2019 and have had few days where it rained !!

    1. Author

      🙂 I have to agree with you – this past year has been incredibly dry here in Belgium as well. Still, plenty of rain compared to most other places in Europe, so I think it never harms to check the weather forecast and pack an umbrella if it shows rain. Don’t you agree?

  5. We are planning first trip to London with kids in June. Very useful information.
    Please share which country side we can visit in England and Scotland along with London.
    If we will come, will definitely post the experience.
    Thankyou so much.

    1. Author

      Hi Sidhi, please check our article with some suggestions on what to see and do in London with kids. It has a couple of suggestions outside the city, but for the rest we aren’t that familiar with the English countryside, so I’m afraid I can’t help.
      As for Scotland, Isle of Skye is amazing. Here you can find suggested Isle of Skye itinerary for up to 5 days. My husband also did a Scottish whisky tour and loved it, but not sure if it’s something I’d do with kids :).
      Enjoy you trip!

  6. Ah, would love to return to London soon. Thanks for all these great tips! Agree on those fast skip the line tickets, saves so much time.

    1. Author

      They sure do! And London just does that to you, doesn’t it? Once you’ve been there, you always want to go back for more.
      Happy travels!

  7. Great tips and very useful. Saving for my first visit to London.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Madhu. Glad you found this useful. Enjoy your first trip to London. It will definitely leave you wanting to return.

  8. Thank you – always love your tips. We’re from Australia, and having a short but hopefully full trip in November for 3 weeks to London, onto Europe then Iceland & can’t wait, as a taste before we do a 2 month to in 2020. I’ve read lots of your tips & find them practical & useful. Keep them coming!

    1. Author

      Thank you Evette, glad you found it useful. Sounds like an amazing trip you have planned. 3 weeks and then again 2 months next year – wow!
      Enjoy London and Iceland. If you are looking for some tips for traveling in Iceland in November, or general travel tips, check our Iceland travel page for more information.

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