London – Tips for First Time Visitors

Share

If you’re going to London for the first time, use these London travel tips to make the most out of your trip. This guide includes the most important things you need to know on how to prepare for a trip to London.

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.

This guide includes all the essential travel tips you need to know before you visit London for the first time: How to get to London, where to stay on your first time in London, recommended tours and activities that cover the main London attractions, what to pack for London, how to get around the city and more London travel tips for first timers.

How to Get to London

Getting to London from outside the UK is very easy.

Flights to London

London has no less than 6 airports:

  • Gatwick
  • Heathrow
  • Luton
  • Stansted
  • City
  • Southend

Most major and low-cost airlines fly to London and it’s one of the most convenient places in the world to fly in and out of.

Check Omio to find all flights to London.

How to Get from London Airports to the City

The easiest option is to book your own private airport transfer from the airport that will take you straight to your hotel in London. It’s not the cheapest option, but public transport isn’t always that cheap either.

You can also find taxis parked outside the airport once you land, but I recommend booking airport transfer instead, so that you know the exact price in advance.

Here are the public transport options from London airports:

Gatwick

Take the Gatwick Express train and you’ll be at Victoria station in 30 minutes. From there you can take buses or the underground to your hotel.

Alternatively, use one of the coach services from Gatwick: Megabus or National Express

Heathrow

The Heathrow Express train will take you to Paddington station in 15 minutes.

National Express coaches will take you from Heathrow Airport to Victoria station and you can reserve a seat online in advance.

You can also take the underground train directly from Heathrow to central London (the Piccadilly line).

Buses to west London depart from the Heathrow central bus station (check the Transport for London website for details). This is probably the slowest option.

Luton

The easiest way to get from Luton Airport to central London is with the East Midlands Railway or Thameslink train.

You first have to take a shuttle bus from the airport to Luton Airport Parkway train station, which takes about 10 minutes. Then the train ride into the city should take about 30 minutes.

You can also travel from Luton Airport to central London with a National Express coach in less than an hour.

Stansted

The Stansted Express train will take you to Liverpool Street station in about 45 minutes.

National Express coaches run from Stansted Airport to central London and the journey takes about 50 minutes.

City Airport

London City Airport is the closest to the city. You can take the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) or an underground train. Check the Journey Planner on the Transport for London website for details.

Southend

Take a Greater Anglia train from Southend Airport and you’ll be at Liverpool Street Station within 52 minutes.

There are several special bus lines from Southend Airport. Check the airport website for all the details.

Travel to London by Train or Bus

If you prefer not to fly, you can reach London in other ways.

London is connected to mainland  Europe by train thanks to the Eurostar. It connects London with France, Belgium and The Netherlands.

When you travel within Europe, it’s easy to get to any of those three countries and then take a train to London from there.

You can also reach London by a long distance bus (coach) from several European cities, including Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels.

Some buses use a ferry and some use the Channel Tunnel.

The bus ride takes longer than the train, but can be a lot cheaper.

Check Omio to find all buses and trains to London.

You can also drive into London by car, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as there’s heavy traffic in the city and it’s not the most efficient way to travel. If you still want to get to London by car, read this guide by Visit London.

There’s So Much to See in London…

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.

Make a list of the things you want to do and see in London, such as:

Check the locations and make time for rest and relaxation – London’s parks are great for that 😉

Get to Know the City with Local Guides

The best way not to get too overwhelmed by London’s endless list of things to do is to take some guided tours.

I recommend you do that on your first couple of days. You’ll cover the main highlights and attractions in London and be free to select more things you want to do later.

Guided Tours to Take on Your First Visit to London

These are some of the best general sightseeing tours in London:

Themed Tours in London

There are some themed tours that are unique to London, thanks to its amazing cultural heritage.

Take the opportunity to experience some of those, based on your interests:

For Harry Potter Fans:

For Foodies:

For Music Lovers:

If you’re after more unique experiences in London:

Find more unique experiences and tours of all kinds here.

Where to Stay in London for the First Time

Where should you stay on your first visit in London?

As a general rule, you want to 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 to London.

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

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.

When you plan your first trip to London, you need to have a clear idea of where you’ll be staying and of the distances you’ll have to cross.

The Best Areas to Stay in London for First Time Visitors

These are the best areas in central London that are perfect for your first visit to London. They are quite close to each other, but offer different styles of accommodation.

  • Covent Garden
  • Mayfair
  • Soho

Hotels in Covent Garden

Covent Garden is one of the most popular places to visit in London.

Staying there on your first visit to the city is a good idea, as you’ll be able to walk to many of the main attractions and will be close to several tube stations.

It is a perfect area for shopping, dining and going to the theatre.

There are some excellent hotels in Covent Garden:

Radisson Blu Edwardian, Mercer Street – Located 5 minutes from the station, this hotel has a trendy design and super comfortable beds.

St Martins Lane – Designed by Philippe Starck, this beautiful hotel is a 5 minute walk from Covent Garden Market.

The Resident Covent Garden – A top quality hotel at a more budget-friendly price in Covent Garden.

Vacation Rentals in Covent Garden

A selection of the best vacation rentals in Covent Garden:

Trafalgar Luxury Suites – Close to the Royal Opera House and to the Covent Garden Market, the suites have a fully equipped kitchen and a seating area to make you feel at home.

Neal Street 2 Bedroom Apartment – Two double bedrooms, this flat accommodates up to 4 guests and is located on a small, quiet street in Covent Garden.

Hotels in Mayfair

Mayfair is very central. You’ll stay close to some main attractions, close to Hyde Park, Oxford Street and the West End theatres.

It’s also close to several stations and you can reach other parts of the city very easily.

It’s a super elegant part of London with top quality luxury hotels.

If you find the hotels in Mayfair are beyond your budget, a vacation rental may be a better option. I’ve picked some for you in the next section.

The Beaumont Hotel – A 5-star hotel with rooms in different sizes, from standard to suites, all with beautiful Art Deco design.

The Chesterfield Mayfair – A 4-star luxury  hotel between Hyde Park and Green Park and close to Buckingham Palace and Oxford Street.

Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane – Located between Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, this is a luxury hotel with great contemporary design.

Vacation Rentals in Mayfair

There are some really extravagant vacation rentals in Mayfair, some priced at thousands of pounds per night!

But here are some more reasonable options:

King Bed Flat – A two bedroom apartment  next to Green Park that can accommodate up to 6 guests.

King Bed Flat - Vacation rental in  London Mayfair

Luxury Studio in Mayfair – This Airbnb is a modern studio apartment and can accommodate 2 guests.

Hotels in Soho

Soho is very close to both Mayfair and Covent Garden, but has a different character.

It’s London’s gay village and so is one of the best areas in London for going out at night (but do bring earplugs, because you may find yourself sleeping in a room with too much street noise).

It is also a few moments from Oxford Street, so it’s excellent for shopping. London’s Chinatown is right next to Soho.

It’s got several underground stations nearby and plenty of buses, so you’ll can go anywhere in London easily.

The Z Hotel Soho – An affordable modern hotel with compact rooms and wonderful design.

The Soho Hotel – Close to Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, this hotel offers beautiful rooms and suites.

Ham Yard Hotel – Elegant rooms and extras like a garden, terrace and sauna very close to Piccadilly Circus.

Vacation Rentals in Soho

I found some very stylish Airbnbs in Soho:

Chic Sophisticated Flat – A spacious apartment in Soho with 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms for up to 4 guests. Verified for quality by Airbnb.

Soho London Airbnb

Soho Studio Apartment – A small and comfortable studio apartment at an affordable price.

Find more Airbnbs in London

As an Airbnb Associate, I can earn a commission when you book through the links above, at no extra cost to you.

Book Your Accommodation in London in Advance

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.

Packing for London

I’ve written a detailed post about packing for Europe, with a handy packing list. You can find it here and use it when you’re planning your trip to London.

When you’re packing for London, there are three things you want to pay attention to. These are:

  • Comfortable shoes
  • A rain Jacket
  • A UK travel adaptor

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 new shoes. She had to break them in before the trip, bus she didn’t and she suffered badly for the first couple of days.

If you don’t have a pair of good walking shoes, get one before your trip to London.

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.

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.

Buy a UK Travel Adaptor

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.

Type G plugs are also used in other countries, including Ireland, Hong Kong, Cyprus, Malta, Malaysia, Singapore and a few others.

Get a reliable universal adaptor with USB ports online before your trip.

If you buy it in advance you’ll save some money, as it would be more expensive to buy at the airport.

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 – best buy it online before you go.

Getting Around London – Essential Travel Tips

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
The 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.

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 am and 09:30 am and between 4 pm and 7 pm.

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

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.

More London Travel Tips

When you’re travelling to london for the first time, you want to avoid some common mistakes that tourists often make.

Here are some more travel tips to help you with that.

Tipping in London

One of the things I always check about each country I visit is the local tipping etiquette.

In some countries tips are not common at all (Japan, for example) and in others you just round up the bill.

In London it’s normal to tip 10-15% at restaurants. Some restaurants will add a service charge (usually 12.5%) to the bill. When paying by credit card, ask if you can add the tip to the bill.

Londoners don’t normally tip in pubs, but you can leave a tip if you like.

At your hotel, feel free to tip the staff. Sometime a service charge is already included in your bill.

If you take a black cab in London you can tip 10-15% or round up the fare.

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.

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
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.

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.

Books about London

Get a London guide book before you go to make your trip planning easier. Here are the top 3 guide books about London:

Lonely Planet have several books about London. You can also get an ebook instead of a physical book if you want to travel light:

Apart from guidebooks, there have been many books written about London, including classic novels, biographies, contemporary fiction and lots more.

It’s a good idea to read some of these before your first visit. They’ll give you a glimpse into the culture that you won’t get from a guidebook. If you’re wondering what to read, have a look at my selection of fiction books about London.

Before You Go To London…

Find Out More about London

I’ve written several London travel guides on this blog, including:

Share this London travel guide on Pinterest

Going to London for the first time - tips and advice
London for the first time - travel tips
Share

13 Comments

This is such helpful info for first-time visitors to London. We’re going in two weeks to London and I’m happy to see your post. It would help me to plan my activities.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.