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Travelling to london for the first time? This first time in london guide by a local contains helpful information on what to pack, things to do in London, how to get around the city, and where to stay for your very first trip to London.
Congratulations! You’ve decided to take the plunge and visit London for the first time. In all the excitement, it’s important to know a few things when travelling to London for the first time.
This guide will offer some advice on what to pack, how to get around the city, and where to stay for your very first trip to London.
We’ll also talk about how to make your money (aka dollar dollar bills) go a little further and how much you should be saving to make your visit remarkable.
As well as which attractions and events you may want to book in advance for your first time in London.
We’ll start with a quick word on getting ready – here’s how to plan a trip to London.
If you’re looking for more on London or planning a trip to the Big Smoke then read my London travel tips guide.
This post is chuck full of the best tips for visiting London
What to know before traveling to london for the first time
Planning a trip to London for the First Time
You’ve got to prepare yourself for Londinium – that’s what the Romans used to call it. Some say they got that word from a Celtic word meaning ‘wild’.
And yeah, if you’re unprepared, it can sometimes be. Or if you visit Richmond Park and get attacked by the protected deers, the rats of the sky “pigeons’ in Leicester Square, or the urban foxes that live on my street. Yep, London is a pretty wild place.
It’s a big city – home to almost nine million people and a few thousand urban foxes (I have a love-hate relationship with these foxes).
So, consider these useful London travel tips when preparing for your visit and while exploring London.
The UK, Great Britain and England – What’s the Difference?
First, let me save you some potential embarrassment. The UK, Great Britain and England mean different things, and confusing them might get you told off by a local. Here’s what you should remember:
The United Kingdom, or the UK, refers to the collective of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
They’re all independent countries but enjoy a political union. Great Britain refers to England, Scotland and Wales, but excludes Northern Ireland. England itself is a single country, and this is where London is.
Packing tips for your first time in London
When it comes to clothes, pack layers. Summers can be warm, and winters can be freezing, or it can be cold and grey in summer too. The season is no guarantee of good weather.
But one thing is for sure is that it will rain, so pack a sturdy umbrella. Not the cheap kind that’ll get blown away with a strong gush of wind.
Winter or summer, England loves the rain, and the rain loves it. This is not an exaggeration, it rains a lot here – about 10-15 days of every month on average.
Also think about having the ability to add or take off a layer if the temperature drops, and pack a coat and some warmer things for autumn and winter.
As a tourist, you’re likely to do some walking, so a pair of comfortable shoes you can walk in is essential.
If you think you may go out to a fancy restaurant or club, a pair (or five) of smart/fancy outfits will do.
I’ve created a simple list of what to pack for London, no matter the weather below:
Nice body con-dress in black (this works well for night and day, heels or flats). Plus you can layer a denim shirt over it, snatch your waist in with a leather belt and presto (2 outfits for the price of one).
Comfortable, stylish walking shoe – think Nike Free RN Flyknit 3.0 or Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Leather
Lightweight waterproof jacket
Two pairs of Skinny jeans (black and blue)
Two graphic t-shirts
Two plain t-shirts (white or neutral colours)
Two long maxi dress or maxi skirt
A pair of heels, wedges or boots (shoes that can go from day to night)
One hooded jumper
These are all practical items that you can mix and match, go from day to night.
You need a UK/EU adaptor as the UK uses Type G plugs. You can find these quite easily at travel stores or online. England uses a different plug shape to Europe. If you’re coming from a country that uses different voltage like the US, make sure your devices don’t need a voltage converter.
Travelling to London from The Main Airports – Your First Time In London
There are six major airports in and around London. More than likely you’ll arrive via one of these if you’re an overseas traveller.
Heathrow Airport is about 26 km west of Central London. If you’re staying anywhere close to Central London, it’s your best option. Its also my favourite of all the airports and one of the easier ones to get to. Their duty-free shopping is top-notch.
Gatwick Airport is slightly further afield – about 45 km south. If staying on the outskirts of the city – especially in zones 2-6 to the south of London – you may prefer flying into this airport instead.
Stansted Airport the most hated airport by Londoners (ooh maybe it’s just only me then), mainly received low-cost airlines from Europe and is about 70 km north of Central London.
The smallest of the airports in terms of passengers is London Southend Airport. Only a few airlines use this airport, and mostly from Europe as well.
Luton Airport is 50 km north-west of Central London, and may also be your entry point if you’re coming from Europe. If you’re staying in that direction from the centre of the city, and you have the option, it might save you some travel time.
London City Airport is in the city itself, but can only handle smaller planes. If you’re lucky enough to fly in this way, you’ll find it’s the easiest option for getting to the rest of London.
Most of the airports offer tube, rail, coach or taxi options to get from the terminals to major junctions including the city centre. Prices will vary, depending on where you’re going.
Generally, Tube or transfer coaches will be the cheapest options, while taxis will be the most expensive.
Taxis only really make sense if you are in a group of five or more and share the expense. The upside is that it will take you to your door. But you will be looking at spending £55 and up for a one-way journey
Travelling to London for the first time |How to Get Around London
Visiting London for the visit time can be a little intimidating. Greater London is spread over more than 8,000 square kilometres. The city’s transport structure is divided into zones.
This helps to determine the costs of fares on public transport, among other things.
London Zones Explained
Zone 1 is essentially central London. Zone 2 ( I live in Zone 2) forms a circle around zone 1, and so on outward unto zone 9.
No one visits the people that live in zone 9, the have to central or you see them during Christmas.
I had friends that moved to zone 5, so I got some new friends that live in zone 3. Ain’t nobody got time to be travelling to 5 zone 🙂
For more inspiration read my guide on best London Christmas markets
Once you see all the zones on the London Transport map, it makes more sense.
When you travel on the tube in London, the cost of the ticket depends on how many zones you travel through and what zone a station is in.
You will need to buy a travel card or pay as you go Oyster card according to the stations and zones you want to use on your trip.
For example, travelling from Heathrow (zone 6) to central London (zone 1) will mean you pay for a zone 6-1 journey on your travel card, which costs £18.10 (anytime) or £12.70 (off-peak).
If you’re using a travel card to get around London, check to make sure you’ve estimated the right fares.
The zones do not apply to bus travel. You can travel by bus all over London (zones 1–6) with any Travelcard/Oyster card.
Important Things to Know about London Public Transport on Your First Time In London
If you’re going to a specific place that’s too far to walk or cycle, take public transport instead of a black cab – it’s way cheaper.
You’ll need a Pay-as-you-go Oyster card, but these are available at any station throughout the city.
You can order online before you visit London or pick one upon arrival at any one of the London airports.
It’s a good idea to get one anyway because you can use it on the bus, tube, tram and train, and even on Emirates Airlines!
Just remind to tap in and out at all stations, so you are not charged extra for your journey.
Public transport services in London do not use cash, so get that Oyster Card we talked about or use your contact debit card.
You are charged according to the distance you travel, so remember to make sure you’ve tapped your card out of whatever station you used – even if the station barriers are open! So you are not charged extra for your journey. Don’t try to be cheeky and dodge paying for your fare.
Public transport is not regular on bank holidays, public holidays and after midnight. Always check Transport for London (TFL) for travel updates.
Not all tubes run all the time – especially not at night. Check an app or the schedules to make sure you don’t get stranded waiting for a tube that will never come.
Make a point of travelling off-peak in London. You will not want to be caught in the crazy rush hour in the Big Smoke. Trust me! But most importantly you’ll save money on you travel and be less stressed out.
Peak times are considered Monday to Friday from 6:30am to 9:30am and from 4pm to 7pm. Off – Peak is using public transport to travel outside of these times.
Other ways to travel around London
It may sound strange to hear, but London’s public transport can be too good for some people.
There are so many options, and your choice may purely depend on how much time you have to spend getting to your destination.
Walk – In London it is often quicker to walk than to take the bus or tube, because many attractions are very close to each other. Why wait for wheels when you can use your feet? Just don’t be caught looking the wrong way – remember we drive on the left side of the road in England!
Bicycles – If you have a credit card, you can access London’s public Santander bicycle system. Use the app to see where the closest access points are, and take advantage of the many new bicycle lanes across the city. It’s cheap, too – from £2 per day if you use it right.
Hop on Hop off – Cycling and walking are good for you, but there’s also the option just to take a hop-on hop-off bus tour. These travel the city and stop at the main landmarks, and you can usually get a ticket that is valid for a whole day, 2 days are more, allowing you to get on and off the bus when and where you like for the day.
Travel apps to live and die by in London!
London Travel Apps Every First-time Visitors Need
There are some amazing apps that can make your visit to London a lot more efficient and fun.
And if you’re worried about connectivity, don’t worry. London has excellent wifi, and there is always Starbucks for a good coffee bonus.
Here’s a shortlist of useful apps to consider installing before you get to London:
Whatsapp is your friend, whether to stay in touch with others while you wander the streets or simply to connect to family back home cheaply. Next to Instagram, it’s the fastest way to make everyone back home jealous.
The official London City app, which contains essential maps and guides to the city.
This is a great app to check public transport, helps you find your way around, and looks for any updates on routes – where is that bus?
I use this app everyday most Londoners do, and it has never failed me.
Santander bicycles are a great way to explore the city. This app shows you where to find the bikes, and assists with release codes from the docking stations when you need them – you won’t need to visit the terminal at the docking station – easy!
An online way to top up your Oyster card – great for emergencies and just plain convenient.
Useful in any travel context, from what others thought of a particular attraction, to where to get the best curry in London.
Where to Stay in London for First-Timers
It’s a question for the ages. Where should you stay in London on your first visit? Here are some tips and popular places to stay in London for the first time visitor.
First of all, try to find a place that’s close to a tube station. That way you’ll be able to get to and from sites easily.
You might spend a lot of time in Zone 1, because many of London’s most famous attractions are there. If you consider staying in Zone 1 as well, it will save on commuting time and costs.
The downside is that Zone 1 accommodation is generally more expensive than the outer zones, so bear that in mind.
Here are a few affordable options for areas to stay while you’re in London:
Covent Garden ticks all the boxes and is the perfect place to stay for first-timers in London. It’s surrounded by the best of London’s nightlife and culture, situated in the West End.
Many of the city’s most famous tourist landmarks are here or close by, like Neal’s Yard, Trafalgar Square, Somerset House, Leicester Square, and the National Gallery. You’ll also near the theatre district. Expect to pay around £150 for Airbnb per night here.
London Bridge, while also in Zone 1, may offer a few options for those on a smaller budget. Tower Bridge itself is a world-famous landmark. You will also find The Shard – the EU’s tallest building.
Shop at the Borough Market, eat out at numerous restaurants and mingle with the young, vibrant Southwark crowd. Accommodation is slightly cheaper than in Covent Garden at around £100 per night on Airbnb.
South Bank is considered a cultural hub, where the arts, film and theatre take centre stage.
The National Theatre, Southbank Centre, and BFI film theatre are all in the area, and so is the London Eye. Airbnb offers accommodation at an average of £100 in South Bank.
Is for the more eccentric traveller, who is into art, street food, great local nightlife, brunching and coffee addicts.
This is a fun area to stay in, with quirky hotels and accommodation for the trendy AKA hipster travellers. You’ll be close to the overground, tube station and have plenty of public transport options.
For a more detailed guide on the best areas to stay in London for first-time visitors.
Things to Book in Advance when Travelling to London
You’ll probably want to try to visit a few of London’s most iconic spaces. It’s not always practical to book some things in advance. The London Eye, for example, is weather dependent. But there are some things to pre-book that will save you money and disappointment.
If you’re planning a day trip from London by train, book a ticket in advance. You’ll save some money because many train routes to other towns and cities offer discounts on tickets booked two weeks or more in advance. Checkout Trainline for discounted tickets.
If your friends have suddenly disappeared (we all have those flaky ass friends that never follow thoughts with plans), you don’t want to show up in London with no place to stay, here are 3 top hotels for first-time visitors.
The LCS Covent Garden Apartments offer great value, and self-catering, so you can save a little by not having to eat out every night.
The Blackbird in Kensington is about a 1.5 km or 1 mile from the Natural History Museum. It’s got a really romantic feel, in a popular tourist part of London.
In Mayfair – which is more expensive – the best value bet will likely be The Beaumont Hotel. It’s swanky, but you’re in London, so why not splash out for a night or two?
Things You Must See and do in London on Your First Visit
Honestly, there are hundreds of things that you should see and do on your first visit to London.
But if you do nothing else, just try to get to some of these: Yes, they are clique as hell but it is your first visit and these are things that London is well known for.
After you see all these London landmark make your way to East London, have some drinks in some amazing speakeasy or blues bar.
It’s the first thing most tourists come to see and it’s got its charms, especially when there’s a changing of the guard.
Also, the Mall looks beautiful during the London Marathon, keep an eye out for that if you are visiting during the London marathon.
The Natural History Museum
It’s quite amazing, and it contains over 80 million specimens from Earth’s long life. You shouldn’t miss this. Plus it’s free = you’ll save money.
The London Eye
It’s the big wheel everyone knows in the London Skyline. It’s 135 metres high, and you can see for up to 25 miles from the top arch.
You can book a ride on the big wheel that is The London Eye, check here for ticket prices and days.
The Tower of London
Talk about a building with history. This tower is 900 years old and has been home to prisoners, monarchs, and the Crown Jewels.
You can do tours of The Tower of London, check here for ticket prices and days.
So it’s not technically an abbey anymore, but it is one of the most famous religious sites in the world. Here are 25 things to do in Westminster.
You can do tours of Westminster Abbey, check here for ticket prices and days.
A classic English Pub
Of course, you have to stop in for a lager. It’s the law. Good pub lunch or Sunday roast is a must if you are visiting England! Make sure you try Yorkshire pudding with your roast (they are one of my favourite things about a Sunday pub roast).
We can keep going, but this list would be very, very long and you would be broke by the end. I’ll just stop here.
Explore my articles on things to do in London, things to do in Shoreditch, Things to do in brick Lane, Things to do in Soho
How to Travel to London on a Budget for first-time visitors
London can be an expensive destination, but there are ways to cut corners and cost and still have a blast in the city on the cheap.
It’s called ‘Bad and Boujee’, just kidding that’s the name of a song. But you can live your boujiest life on a budget in London.
How much to save up for a London Trip
Accommodation prices can range tremendously in London. Going to a hostel can cost as little as £10 per night, while a luxury hotel can often tap your wallet for £250 or more per night (I’m looking at you Shangri-La Hotel, at the Shard where a room costs a whopping £1000 per night!). You can always investigate AirBnB or cheaper hotels.
You’ll probably need around £100 per day for eating well, and that’s with a fair amount of eating out at pubs and restaurants.
It’ll be cheaper to use public transport as much as possible with travel passes, rather than taxis or Uber. Budget around £25 per day for this.
So, if you stay at an Airbnb in Covent Garden for around £150 per night, and plan to spend £150 on food, transport and small sundries per day, you might budget £1500 for a five-day-long visit.
I’d recommend adding another £500 for shopping if you can.
That’s £2000 you should save for a five-day stay. This excludes your airfares, travel insurance, and any emergencies, of course.
Finally, add your airline ticket, and you’ll have some idea what it’s going to cost.
How to Save Money on your First Trip to London
With so much to do, you may forget to keep an eye on your wallet. Take a seat and make a few notes – here’s how you can save a few pounds and dollars.
Visit Free Museums
There are plenty at count 23 free museums, including the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. No excuses, not to take advantage of these.
Buy the London Pass
The London Pass provides free and discounted entrance tickets to more than 80 attractions. It also offers discounted public transport.
As a first-time visitor to London, you’ll save if you plan on visiting these attractions, especially over 14 or more days.
A six-day pass costs £169, which works out to only £28 per day, which you can easily spend trying to get into just one venue like the Tower of London.
The pass will allow you into several places per day for that cost.
Buy Tickets in Advance
Lots of places offer discounts for advance bookings. For cheap theatre tickets or tickets on the day check out Leicester Square ticket booth, aka Tkts. Located in Leicester Square’s Clocktower.
You can almost always find cheap and last minute tickets for West End shows if you know where to look.
Most West End shows offer day seats: good, cheap tickets released around 10am for that evening’s performance, available in person from the box office only (for popular shows, you’ll need to queue). So get there early.
Shop at the Supermarket
Skip the fast food and get snacks from convenience stores like Tesco, Boots or Sainsbury’s.
It’s a lot cheaper than getting snacks in the super touristy areas that will cost you an arm and a leg.
You can also grab meal deals from these places which includes a drink, chips (crisp) and a sandwich or salad.
Look out for reasonably priced places like Nando’s, LEON, Joe & the Juice, Caravan or one of the many local street markets.
Do Happy Hour in London
Take advantage of happy hours at bars around the city and Sunday discount deals at restaurants.
Take Your Student Card – if you’re a student
If you’re a student, keep your Student ID or International Student Identity Card (ISIC) handy.
Lots of places offer discounts for students, including accommodation and tours.
These include online discounts from:
View from the Shard, Heathrow Express, National Express, The Book of Mormon, Shakespeare’s Globe Tour, hotels.com, Urban Adventures, Inter-rail, Hostelworld, Disney’s The Lion King, Warner Bros Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter and Sandemans New Europe walking tour.
Discount in on the ground in London:
Ping Pong, Tortilla, Stansted, Gatwick Express, Crepeaffaire, Forever 21, Hard Rock Cafe, Somerset House, Westminster Abbey (concession tickets), Itsu, Tate Modren, St Paul’s Cathedral (concession tickets), Shoryu Ramen, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Houses of Parliament.
I was a broke-ass student once, and that discount helped me out when I travelled.
Things to Remember for Your First Time in London
Here’s what you need to know about your first visit to England and especially your first trip to London: It’s thrilling, but just like any other new city, there are some social rules you should be aware of. Here’s a little cheat sheet about this city.
Get a local SIM card
Expecting table service in pubs
You can use contactless debit cards everywhere
Lots of British people joke about how it’s very British to queue. Well, we aren’t joking. To get along in London, you will have to learn to queue like your life depended on it. You’ll have to queue for anything in demand here. But it’s ok, because almost everyone else will also be queueing, and there’s a sort of mutual respect about it most of the time. No queue jumpers, you will be swiftly, and passive-aggressively told off!!
Stand on the Left
That said, if you’re going to be standing around, don’t stand on the left side of an escalator. You’re going to be in real trouble if someone is trying to get past you. Especially in rush hour. It’s just one of those things that everyone knows, so don’t spoil it for everyone!
Let People off the train first
Wait for people to get off the trains and tubes first before getting on. It’s only practical, and it makes sense. Other people will thank you for it, and you’ll probably get to where you’re going faster and with less stress.
Tipping in London
Lots of foreign visitors ask about tipping in the UK. Here’s what you should know. You don’t need to tip in bars and pubs.
But in restaurants, it’s a bit more complicated. Check your bill to see if a service charge has been added (usually 12-15%).
If so, you’re in the clear. If not, it’s polite to add around 10% as a standard ‘thank you’. The staff will appreciate it. It’s not American they won’t hunt you down if you don’t tip.
Look out for cashless restaurants and coffee shops
Some restaurants and coffee shop are cashless – the only are card payments.
Usually, these shops will have signage at the tills or on their doors. Cashless shops are popping up more and more, so looking out for this.
Fee-Free ATM/Cash Machines
Watch out for ATM/Cash machines that charge you £1.50 – £1.99. Look for the free ATM if you want to draw out cash.
Visiting London for the first time Wrap Up
The only thing left to decide is when you’re coming to London!. Spring (March to May) is considered the best time to visit London.
London’s parks are green, the flowers are blooming, the weather is warming up, and people just seem to be in a good mood.
As the summer arrives, so do the bulk of the tourists, and accommodation prices may increase.
But don’t write off London over Christmas. There’s a wonderful atmosphere in the city, even though it’s cold.
You can dodge the heavier crowds by avoiding the major shopping spots, but then again, that’s part of the fun!
Here are a few more things to know before visiting London.
Hopefully, some of the London tips I’ve offered here can set your mind at ease over your first time in London.
But most of all, just enjoy your stay in London. It’s a city that can be considered one of the most important cultural centres of the world, and it has lots to offer anyone who wants to explore its charms.
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