Aah, London. I had always wanted to go to London, more than anywhere else in the world – it was a big dream of mine since I was a child.
It was the first place I visited on my first big trip to Europe in October 2014, and since then I’ve been lucky enough to visit three times. Being all in the last two years, the memories and feelings of excitement arriving for the first time are still very fresh.
To me – London was everything I had imagined and more.
The history of the city, the enormity of it. I still struggle to fathom it! There are more than twice as many people living in London than there are in my whole country – it really did blow my mind. It is full of so many hidden treasures, beauty and wonder.
I wouldn’t say I am a London expert at all, but it was a city I quickly fell in love with, and as a recent London first-timer myself, I thought I could share some of my top travel tips in case you might be going there for the first time too.
This is the first part of my London guide series. For specific recommended places to visit, check out part two: L O N D O N | 25 Top Spots to Visit!
1. Plan well
I had a lot much fun planning my first trip to London because there were just so many things I wanted to do, and as I was going for nearly two weeks I thought there was plenty of time. Sadly, I was wrong and missed out on quite a few things on my to-do list (not surprising as it was very long!).
However I did prioritise and booked certain things in advance, and my top things I most wanted to do I did first, so I was more than happy with that – I just knew I needed to go back!
London is a massive city. If you plan too many things you want to do in one day (like I did), you might be disappointed. There are more often than not long lines, tube delays and probably a whole lot of getting lost, so try to pick just two major things you want to do per day and stick to those and group the activities together that are in nearby areas.
If you happen to have time for more then great, but also don’t exhaust yourself, you want to enjoy your time there and not run yourself down!
If you are going to popular tourist attractions try to go as early as you can.
For example, if you’re going to The Tower of London, aim to arrive slightly before the opening time, as the lines get very long after that.
|I was lucky enough to visit the Tower of London during the 100 year anniversary of Remembrance Day|
2. History, museum & art heaven
If you are interested in history, science and art you will be very happy, as London is home to so many world-class museums and art galleries – and most are 100% free! Many also have complimentary wifi.
Absolute must-sees are the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs!) and the British Museum. If you love art then be sure to visit the National Gallery (full of historical art) and the Tate Modern (modern art).
Other popular museums and galleries include: Imperial War Museum, Museum of London, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Air Force Museum, Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and many more, there’s really something for everyone.
|The Natural History Museum|
3. London theatre
Spoiled for choice, London has some of the world’s best theatre with musical shows, world class plays and West End performances. The talent is amazing and most shows play at least twice a day, so there is always something on.
My favourite was The Lion King musical which was astounding. It really brought the movie to life and the Disney child in me was very happy! I also saw The Book of Mormon which was very funny (written by the creators of South Park), and Wicked.
I absolutely would love to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – I need to go back to London stat!
4. Budget advice
I’m sure you’ve heard that London is an expensive city – and in some cases it can be, but overall I don’t think it’s that bad. Don’t let those rumours put you off! I went to London expecting it to be very pricey, but was quite surprised to discover that my own city (Wellington, New Zealand) was more expensive. Then again, I know New Zealand is also (clearly) pretty expensive.
I found spending in London as a whole, to even itself out. As in – one day you could spend hardly anything (going to the free museums and art galleries, walking around), which would make up for the other days where you would spend more on the likes of theatre tickets or perhaps a Harry Potter studio tour.
I think the most you will spend your money on in London is definitely accommodation which yes is expensive, that’s a given.
But the shopping is really good. You can buy quality branded clothing, shoes, makeup, all sorts of products for half the price that I was paying for at home.
Food and drink are also very reasonable, with large pub meals often going for 10 pounds, and a pint going for 5.
So overall considering it’s London– I was not offended by the cost of things.
When saving for a trip I like to roughly budget $100 a day (50 pounds) including activities, food and drink. Some days I’d spend more, some days less, but as mentioned it evened out pretty well.
Set yourself a budget depending on what you can manage and research prices to get a good idea of how much you’ll need.
5. Book online
Many big tourist attractions and tours are available to book in advance online.
This is both a convenient money saver as well as a time saver. You can choose a time slot for yourself and beat those alarmingly long queues. I’m not joking – lines for The London Eye for example, are often at three hours waiting time. If you book online you can skip this and save yourself 20% as well. Win win.
The London Pass and Madame Tussauds as well as many more are other examples you can book online for to save time and money.
|The London Eye at South Bank in the evening|
6. Getting around
I highly recommend purchasing an Oyster card as soon as you arrive and using the tube (London Underground) as your main method of transportation (even directly from the airport). The Oyster card gives you discounted fares on the tube and you can also use it on buses. When you leave you can hand in the card and get your money back for it.
Walk where you can if the weather’s nice – it’s a fascinating place to walk around.
The streets of central London are filled with beautiful historical buildings and amazing shops. The South Bank walk is one of my favourites. Start from the London Eye and if you’re up for it walk all the way down to Tower Bridge. It’s a bustling walk full of people, buskers, eateries and fantastic views of London’s landmark buildings across the river Thames. See Big Ben, Old St Paul’s, the ‘Cucumber’, the Shard, the Tower Bridge.
Catch a big red double decker bus at least once, it’s definitely a novelty! Try to get a spot at the top and do a loop around the main city area. It’s a lot cheaper than getting a bus tour of London and you get to see the same things (minus the commentary). But if you want to do the Hop on Hop off tour by all means go for it, it’s a great way to see more of London and you learn a lot about the history as well (it’s just rather pricey).
There is also the famous black London taxi cabs if you need to get somewhere fast, and you can even get around by boat on the river Thames which is really pleasant if the weather is nice.
7. Download the tube app
This one needs a whole point to itself because it is actually a lifesaver! If you are using the tube for the first time and are not used to massive transportation systems and underground maps – you need this in your life!
It’s free to download and you don’t need wifi to use it. It is very simple to use and makes navigating around London a breeze. Simply input where you are, and then where you want to go and it will come up with a list of easy steps to get there (often you have to change lines and directions). It is colour coordinated, as are the different lines in the underground which make it easy to follow and it also gives you an estimate of how long it will take to get there, so you know in advance what time you will need to leave by if you are heading somewhere further away. Highly recommended app!
|The many lines of the Underground!|
8. Free attractions
As mentioned, most of the museums and art galleries are free and there are many other attractions around London that don’t have to cost a penny either.
A great one I would recommend starting with if you are new to London is doing a free walking tour. These are run by volunteers and the tour usually goes for about three hours walking around the highlights of London. It’s a great way to be introduced to the city, get your bearings and learn a lot of interesting facts and about the history as well.
It is of course free to see the many famous landmarks (from the outside) such as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, you can go for a walk across Tower Bridge. hang out and people watch in Trafalgar Square, browse the giant M&M World, visit the Greenwich Meridian Timeline, explore the many excellent markets, watch the Changing of the Guard – there’s no shortage of fun free things to do!
London is also home to many fantastic royal parks, including Hyde park, Kensington Palace gardens, Greenwich park, St James’s park. A walk through any of these is wonderful, and not just because they’re full of squirrels!
9. Dress for the weather
Known to be a tad damp at times, bring a waterproof light rain jacket with you and wear waterproof and comfortable shoes, as you will be walking around a lot.
Packing a small umbrella that fits easily in your bag might be a good idea too if it looks a bit gloomy. London does have some very nice days as well, but in case it’s not, don’t let the weather spoil your time. Perhaps just expect it to be drizzly so you’re not disappointed, and if it’s not – hooray!
10. Enjoy the food & drink
London is full of delicious and enticing food and drink. Home to the Full English breakfasts, scones with jam and cream and Sunday pub roasts, you will find them no better anywhere else!
Being such a culturally diverse city, London offers a vast range of cuisines.
If you love Asian food there are fantastic Indian and Japanese restaurants, and China Town is a must see and place to eat. Spanish, Italian, Greek – they have it all.
A traditional Cornish pasty is sublime, really filling and a perfect lunch option. Similar to a New Zealand and Australian pie – it’s a delicious pastry filled with savoury meat and veg on the inside.
There’s also the classic Fish and Chips with mushy peas to try (yum!), Bangers and Mash, Beef Wellington, Eton Mess if you like your sweet things, and if you have the budget for it, having a ‘High Tea’ is a delightful treat in the afternoon.
(Can you tell I love food? Don’t even get me started on their Sunday roasts with Yorkshire puddings soaked in gravy!)
A traditional English pub is perfect for a pint of your favourite ale and they offer great ciders as well. There are plenty of riverside pubs and rooftop bars to enjoy a drink at.
|The Sherlock Holmes Pub near Trafalgar Square|
Bonus number 11 tip!
Of course, there is so much more to London than just it’s bustling city centre, but for first timers it’s a good idea to stick to it if you aren’t there for that long, as there is more than enough to do.
If you do happen to have the time however, then I would highly recommend exploring wider and taking a day trip. There are so many surrounding places that are wonderful to visit.
I took a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath and absolutely loved it! There is also Cambridge and Oxford nearby if those places tickle your fancy too.
My first time in London I stayed in Trafalgar Square which was perfect, but the second and third times I stayed in Tooting which is in South London, and I really enjoyed that too (apart from the exorbitant tube fares!).
I got to experience a different side of London, with its classic British rows of matching brick houses, the cultural diversity and the best part about it were the foxes that ran around the streets at night – so cute!
|The classic British street I stayed down in Tooting|
|Pin it! 🙂|
I hope you enjoyed my travel tips and found it helpful. It’s hard to really explain my love for London, but I hope it shows in my writing how much of a huge spot it has in my heart.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to over 20 countries recently, including many many cities, probably well over 50, and still London – my first love, is undoubtedly my favourite city in the world.