If you’re thinking of visiting London for the first time, it can be overwhelming to decide what to see and do. To help you out, here is a complete guide for first time visitors to London!
Getting into London from Heathrow:
There are multiple options available for anyone flying in via Heathrow airport which is located 25km from the city. The London underground Piccadilly line runs through all the terminals and goes straight into London. The National Express buses also run directly from the airport terminals to Victoria coach station in central London. The fastest way is the Heathrow Express Train, which gets you to Paddington station in 15 minutes. Taxis are also available outside terminals.
Where to stay:
The Sanctuary House Hotel is a wonderful place to stay if you want to be a stones throw away from the Palace of Westminster. The pub on the ground floor serves great food too.
If you are looking for a more budget option, St. Christopher’s Inn has multiple hostel locations around London. Not only are their hostels great, they also often offer free walking tours and food discounts to their guests.
The London underground (or the “Tube”) is the most popular and convenient way to get around the city. Almost everywhere you want to visit will be close to a station, and the trains depart frequently. You can buy your tickets at any of the stations, and a travel card is the most cost effective way to travel as it gives you access to all buses, tubes, trams and the London Overground. A day travel card is valid for a whole day, but if you are staying for more than a day get an Oyster card. The reusable card has a £5 deposit and can be topped up with money as you go. The appropriate fare is deducted from the card as you tap in and out of the stations. You can find out more information about the card from the Transport for London website.
Maps of the underground are readily available. But if you don’t want to spend time figuring out how to get from A to B, there are plenty of (free!) apps for smartphones to help plan your journey. The paid versions of some apps even tell you which exit out of the station to take. I use this app, which works well for me. Also keep in mind that it might be a lot quicker to walk between some of the stations, especially in central London.
If you are only in London for a few days and want to hit up quite a few of the famous spots, I highly recommend a hop on-hop off bus tour. You get to see all the highlights, and choose which attractions you want to explore and which ones to skip. They also tend to be decent value for money.
What to see and do:
The famous trifecta of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben (currently under renovation) and Westminster Abbey are all within 5 minutes of each other. You can also get some good views of the London Eye from the Westminster bridge. Then, take a leisurely stroll through St. James’s Park to get to Buckingham Palace.
Tower of London:
See the Crown jewels, learn about the tale of the ravens, and explore the castle grounds. It’s definitely a must see! You can also get some spectacular views of the famous Tower Bridge while you are in the area. If you are planning on visiting multiple attractions, considering getting the London Pass, which could save you money and allows fast track entry.
London has a ton of amazing museums you can visit, and the best part is that the State owned museums are completely free! Check out all the different museums London has to offer here. The British Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Victoria and Albert are all extremely popular. My absolute favourite? Seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.
As an astronomer, it’s only natural that I suggest a visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Not only can you learn about how awesome space is, you can also see where the East meets West at the Prime Meridian. Also at Greenwich, you can go aboard the famous Cutty Sark: one of the fastest tea clippers to be built.
If you are feeling up to it, brave the crowds on Oxford Street. Here you will find popular high street brands and the Selfridges department store. If you want to visit an iconic shopping spot, make sure to visit Harrods. If you are looking for a more relaxed experience, head to Covent Garden and shop while being entertained by street performers.
London also has many markets such as the Camden or the Spitalfields market if you are looking for quirky one-off items instead.
If you are a sucker for mysteries like I am, you don’t want to miss out on visiting the Sherlocks Holmes museum at 221B Baker Street. If you’re in a hurry, don’t worry: it doesn’t take too long to have a look around.
Similarly, fellow Potterheads will not want to miss a trip to the Warner Bros. Studio in London for the Making of Harry Potter Experience!
Afternoon tea is a great way to rest and relax for a while after hours of sightseeing. Plus tea, sandwiches and cake, need I say any more?! I enjoyed the one at Kensington Palace, though the one at the Ritz Carlton is also great if you feel like splurging!
If you want to live like the locals do, head down to a nearby pub in the evening for a pint and a hearty meal. Time Out has an extensive guide to London pubs here.
Fish and chips:
The quintessential British fish and chips can be found on almost every street. Whether you try have it in a fancy restaurant or from an unassuming chippie, this is a must try.
Chances are high that you will encounter rainy weather on your visit. Embrace it rather than spending the time in your hotel room. Keep a travel sized umbrella with you, and wear waterproof shoes. It will make your trip much more pleasant, trust me!
While the London Eye is a popular way to get a birds eye view of the city, make sure the weather is clear before you go. If it’s rainy or foggy, you aren’t going to get good views, so skip it and save your money.
Want to explore the UK a bit more? Consider taking a day trip or two out of London. You can check out my guide to the city of Bath here.
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