London – Tips for First Time Visitors

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London is a huge and fascinating city, and visiting it takes a bit more preparation compared to other big cities.

There are common mistakes that first time visitors make when they come to London, and this post will help you avoid them.

It’s a really fun city and the better you plan for it the more you’ll enjoy all the things it has to offer.

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London tips for first timers

 

This isn’t a post about the top 10 things to do in London or the best places to stay or eat etc. It’s solely about helping you not get lost, not get ran over, conform to some local cultural requirements and make the most out of your time in London.

There’s so much to see in London – Don’t try to see it all

No matter how many times I’ve been to the city (double figures..), I still discover more things to see and do.

The city seems to reinvent itself every couple of months, while at the same time preserving its history.

London view from above

London is huge. Massive. If you try to see it all on an average visit, you will cause yourself endless frustration and FOMO.

My best tip would be to plan your London itinerary in a way that gives you enough time to see the things that interest you most, but also relax.

Take your time.

And take into account the distances… Check on Google Maps how long it would take to get from one place to the next. Even things that look close on the map could be an hour away from each other by public transport.

Remember that even if you won’t be able to see everything, that’s fine.

It’s better than rushing around and stressing out every single day of your trip. London has a stressful side to it and if you can avoid it, it would make your experience of the city so much better.

Make a list of the things you want to do and see in London, check the distances and make time for rest and relaxation (London’s parks are great for that).

Accommodation: Book in advance and stay central

This may sound obvious, but in case it isn’t, bear in mind: London is always full of tourists.

To make sure you get a good deal, you want to book your accommodation at least a couple of weeks before you arrive in London.

If you travel during high season (e.g. July-August or Christmas), book even a couple of months in advance.

My second piece of advice is: stay in central London.

If you have a limited time in the city, you don’t want to spend a couple of hours each day on public transport. It can easily amount to that… It would be a complete waste of time, especially on your first visit.

Choose a place to stay that’s close to an underground station, ideally.

Staying in central London and close to a station means that getting around will be easier and many of the main attractions will be relatively close.

My tip is to search for hotels or vacation rentals on the map. This gives you a clear idea of where you’ll be staying and of the distances you’ll have to cross.

London hotels map - find accommodation in London by searching on a map

To find places to stay on the map, I recommend you use TripAdvisorClick this link and then click “View Map” on the left (and change the dates to the ones you need).

The site shows you the hotels on the map, plus reviews. As you move the map, you will see hotels in different areas. It also lets you add restaurants and things to do to the hotel map as extra layers.

This way you can really see what’s nearby, find the best location easily and book directly from the same page.

You can do the same with vacation rentals on Airbnb – After you enter “London Homes” in the search box, enable “Show Map” at the top of the screen and tick the “Search as I move the mouse” box.

Bring good walking shoes

This is a good tip for any traveller, but London being as massive as it is, it’s worth mentioning here.

You walk a lot in London. Even if you use public transport, you still have to walk to the station, inside the station (this could even reach a 10 minute walk inside big stations…) and then around the city as well.

I once had a friend who came to London with a pair of walking shoes. The only problem was, those were new shoes and she had to break them in before the trip… She didn’t and she suffered badly for the first couple of days.

If you don’t have a good pair of walking shoes, check Amazon’s list of top rated walking shoes (I filtered the search results to show only the shoes with the best reviews).

Always be ready for rain

British people like to talk about the weather, and they have a good reason to.

In London it might rain any day.

Whether or not it’s forecast to rain, always assume that it might, because the weather in London is known for its unpredictability. It could rain even in the middle of summer during a heat wave (true story…)

If you find yourself in London when it rains and need a place to hide or a way to pass the time, check out my post on What to do in London when it rains.

An umbrella or a rain jacket are essential items on your packing list for London.

Lightweight rain jacket - essential in London packing list

I personally prefer a waterproof rain jacket to an umbrella. I recommend a folding jacket that’s small and lightweight, because:

1 – It takes up less space than an umbrella;

2 – It weighs less;

3 – It’s an extra warm layer;

4 – If it’s large enough, it can cover your purse or bag as well.

If you don’t have one already, get a rain jacket before your trip to London. Here’s a list of lightweight rain jackets from Amazon (top reviewed only).

Buy a UK travel adaptor in advance

The power plugs in the UK are Type G and the voltage is 220-240V. If you’re visiting from a country that uses a different plug and/or voltage, you will need a travel adaptor.

Those are usually inexpensive and take up very little space in your luggage.

UK travel adaptor / adapter

Get and adaptor or two online before your trip. You want to buy it in advance, as it would be more expensive to buy at the airport.

It’s also a good investment for your future travels. You will be able to use the same adaptor in other countries, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Malta, Malaysia, Singapore and quite a few others.

My tip is to get an adapter that has a couple of USB ports, so you can charge your phone and power bank overnight with just one plug.

If you’re already in the UK and need an adaptor, beware that some shops will overcharge unprepared tourists, but there’s no need to pay too much for something so basic. I found the cheapest adaptor at Argos.

London is your Oyster!

Oyster is the unlikely name of London’s public transport card.

You buy it once and then top it up (load it) with the amount you need or with a weekly or monthly pass, depending on how long you plan to stay in London.

Don’t use paper tickets; they cost almost double.

Oyster card
Oyster card

You can use the same Oyster card across many different modes of transport – underground and overground trains, buses, trams, light rail etc.

If you get a London Pass (the city pass that gives you discounts and free entry to London attractions) you can also get it with an Oyster travelcard to save more money. Read more about how it works here.

Stand on the right on station escalators

Going on the underground train with masses of people can be quite overwhelming.

But it’s rare to see anyone pushing or shoving, even during rush hour.

That’s’ because there’s a very easy rule that everyone in London follows:

When you go on the escalators remember to always stand on the right. If you want to walk up or down – do that on the left.

Sometimes there’ll be a service announcement to remind people of that.

Londoners get annoyed when people stand on the left, and quite understandably – when you’re in a rush to catch a train you want that left lane to be available.

Carry a map of London with you

Even people who know London well still use a map from time to time.

Whether it’s Google Maps or another app or even an old school paper map – always take it with you.

London is huge and it’s easy to get lost, so a map is always handy.

You also want to pick up a tube map from any underground station and carry it with you. The public transport in London is mostly efficient, but can be rather confusing.

You can also download the Tube Map London Underground App (iPhone / Android) or CityMapper (iPhone / Android) to help you navigate, or simply use Google Maps for transport directions

Avoid Oxford Street on Saturday

Oxford Street, being the main shopping street in London, is extremely busy with tourists, shoppers, cars, buses and taxis.

Human traffic jams are a common sight any day of the week, but especially on Saturday.

It’s no fun. You can hardly cross the street or even move forward on the pavement. If you choose to do your shopping on Oxford Street, best plan to go there on a weekday.

How to cross the street in  London

Cars drive on the left in the UK, so crossing the road in London can be confusing.

Look left look right - London directions for pedestrians

One of the first things you’ll notice in London is that at every crossing there are directions for you to look left or right or both ways.

I suggest you make a habit of always looking both ways.

Don’t get locked in a park

This happened to me a couple of times in the past, even when I was hanging out with Londoners…

Many parks in London are locked at night. If you’re having a picnic or a walk in the park and forget about the time, you may find yourself locked inside.

This isn’t the end of the world, of course, as you can often climb over the fence. Still, best avoid that.

At the entrance to the park there’ll be a notice board or a sign with the opening hours. Sometimes it wouldn’t specify the hour, but just say the park is open till “dusk”…

Park opening times in London

Also, listen out for the bell – the person who locks the park would walk around with a bell to alert people just before the park is locked. I’m not sure this applies to all parks, but I’ve seen that in quite a few.

Travel on public transport outside peak times

Trying to take a train in central London during rush hour can be a pretty nightmarish experience.

Sometimes the stations are so packed that you can’t even get into the station, not to mention board a train.

Avoid the massive crowds on Monday to Friday between 06:30 and 09:30 and between 16:00 and 19:00.

Get in line!

British people love to queue.

It’s part of the culture and they have a great reputation for forming an orderly queue, even if not instructed to.

As a tourist you will encounter that every day when boarding buses or trains, entering museums and attractions, when you go to concerts, shows or festivals and so on.

It makes a lot of sense, especially in such a hectic city, and helps prevent all sorts of chaotic situations.

More links to help you prepare for a trip to London:

Hotels in Downtown London

How to visit London on a budget

Day trips from London 

London city guide from Lonely Planet

 

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London tips for first time visitors

London tips for first time visitors

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