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!
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 center, 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 fewer 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 neighborhoods are the best for sightseeing.
There is probably no single best answer to this, but here are the short list neighborhoods 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 this hotel located on the South Bank close to the London Eye and we loved being in the center of the action. Staying in the center 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. Here you can find great deals for your accommodation in Central London. 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 a mistake of coincidentally booking a hotel with a similar name in a completely different location (believe me, it does happen).
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 fewer 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.
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 realize 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 spending 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.
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.
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.
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 gardens, parks and playgrounds that are free to visit. It is also a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Don’t understand me wrong – shopping in London isn’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 (the 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 at 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 a good view.
For the exact location and up-to-date schedule, please consult the website of Household Division.
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 Explorer Pass). My research shows that the 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 the 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 lifesaver.
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…
7. Use Credit Cards
These days, you hardly ever need cash for payments and pretty much every place accepts credit cards. You may want to get some cash for small purchases, but it’s so much easier to just use your credit card.
You can use all major credit cards in London, but VISA and Mastercard are by far the most accepted cards. Amex is not widely used in Europe and Diner’s Club is pretty much useless. Debit cards (or cash-only cards) are also accepted pretty much everywhere.
One thing you should know is that you really need a card with a chip and a 4-digit PIN. Make sure that you know your PIN number by heart! You’ll need a credit card with a pin for all payments all over Europe.
Good to know: When using an ATM or paying for purchases, you’ll be asked to choose currency – either local currency (UK pound sterling) or your own currency (US dollar if you’re traveling from the US, or Euro if you’re from Europe). Always choose to pay in local currency (UK pound sterling) and let your own bank do the currency transaction, or you risk losing a lot of money. A lot.
TIP: If you don’t have the right credit card with a chip and a 4-digit pin, check out this selection of the best American credit cards for travel. I recommend choosing a card with no foreign transaction fees.
8. Use Public Transport – Use Contactless Credit Card or 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 advantage 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. Alternatively, just use your contactless credit card. You can scan it when entering the metro, then scan it again when you leave. It works the same way as the Oyster card and if you use public transport several times a day, the maximum amount you spend will be capped at a daily ticket rate.
Note that children often travel free of charge (more information here). However, for older kids where kids’ tariff is applicable, you better get a ticket. Using your credit card for the kids as well would mean that you’re paying adult rates for them. On top of that, you need one card per person anyway.
TIP: Since the recent Uber ban in London, a traditional London cab is the best option 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 a traditional English cab is part of the experience of visiting London for the first time.
9. 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.
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.
If you are visiting London for the first time and don’t know the city well, renting a bike without a guide is maybe not the best idea, unless in the parks. London traffic is really busy, it comes (for most of us) from a different side than what we are used to, and if you also need to read the map, it can get quite dangerous.
TIP: If you want to explore London by bike, book a tour with a local guide. 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.
10. 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 favorite 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.
11. 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 Big Ben or Buckingham Palace! There are so many quirky neighborhoods, local markets, lesser-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: Here you can find some great ideas for different things to do, the hidden gems of London.
12. 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, but there are also so many other smaller markets and food stalls.
- 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!
13. 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. In most London restaurants, you’ll get charged 10-15% in addition to your bill. Locals say they never tip at the bar, but would usually leave a 10% tip at a restaurant if the service was good and not yet included in the bill.
- Don’t forget your 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.
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!
More inspiration for your trip to England:
- Things to Do in Greenwich
- Yorkshire Day Trips
- London with Kids
- Isle of Skye Itinerary
- Scotland Whiskey Tour
- One Day in Glasgow
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