London Calling: A Guide for First-Timers

Check out my Flight Path page for other destination guides.

London is one of the greatest cities in the world and a first-time visit can feel daunting/overwhelming for London novices. I’ve been coming to London for years as a tourist and I made London my home in May 2019. This blog post offers tips and suggestions to help you get the most out of your visit. As Samuel Johnson famously declared, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’  I hope when you visit that you love this city as much as I do…

USEFUL WEBSITES AND APPS

ARRIVING

Heathrow Airport and Gatwick Airport are the two main arrival points for international flights. Flights to Gatwick can sometimes be cheaper than Heathrow so it’s worth checking flights destined for both airports to compare.

  • Heathrow Airport – you can avoid the expensive cost of the Heathrow Express by taking the Piccadilly Line on the Tube for under £5.
  • Gatwick Airport – take the Gatwick Express. You could take an National Express coach but it’s a longer journey (90 minutes to London Victoria Station) and not much cheaper than the Express.

GETTING AROUND LONDON

London is a fantastic city to walk around but it is also huge with lots to see and do. London consists of 33 distinctive boroughs but you will probably spend most of your time in the boroughs of Westminster, Camden, Kensington and Chelsea during your first visit. If you are short on time, use public transport to get to key areas which you can then explore on foot.

  • Oyster card – definitely buy one of these. You can buy them from ticket machines in London Underground Stations. You will need one to travel on all forms of public transport. Whilst you can now travel contactless with your bankcard, not all International bank cards work. My bank card works but I feel more comfortable keeping my travel card separate, not flashing my bank card in public. The oyster card can easily be topped up using ticket machines or the TFL Oyster app https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/terms-and-conditions/tfl-oyster-app
  • Don’t bother buying a travel card – Oyster cards have a daily capped rate of £7 zone 1 – 2 on the Tube and £4.40 for unlimited bus travel
  • Download the Tube App and CityMapper App to help you navigate the city.

WHERE TO STAY

  • Wombats City Hostel London – I’ve stayed in many London hostels over the years and this one is my favourite. It was awarded London’s best hostel by Hostelworld in 2019. Great facilities and location. Maximum length of stay is two weeks https://www.wombats-hostels.com/london/
  • The Hub Premier Inn – if you can afford to spend more than the cost of a hostel bed, then The Hub could be for you. I like the one in King’s Cross. They offer compact and comfortable modern rooms with TVs and AC https://www.premierinn.com/gb/en/hotels/england/greater-london/london/hub-london-kings-cross.html
  • Good Hotel London – if you fancy staying somewhere unique, I stayed at the Good Hotel London earlier this year. It’s a boat hotel with an amazing socially conscious mission. Read about my stay here Good Hotel London
  • LHA Hostels – perfect for people looking to move to London and who can’t afford expensive deposits and rents. A £200 deposit will secure you a place and you can select to stay in a private room or shared room in various properties around London. These hostels are not designed for backpackers or short term travellers (stay at Wombats City Hostel instead) as you need to provide your own toiletries, kitchenware etc. Check out their website here https://lhalondon.com/

THINGS TO DO

Free gems in the city:

  • View London from Primrose Hill, or Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.
  • Stop by the British Library – the Treasures Gallery is unmissable and free (extra charge for some exhibitions) plus the outside seating area is lovely in the summer.
  • Prepare to be amazed at the Wellcome Collection – a fantastic place that showcases artefacts exploring ‘the connections between medicine, science, life and art’. The free temporary exhibition I visited about the psychology of magic was brilliant.
  • Spend time in one of London’s most-loved galleries – National Portrait Gallery (extra charge for some exhibitions) – I much prefer this to The National Gallery next door.
  • Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – has to be seen at least once.
  • Get an art fix at Tate Modern – a modern and contemporary art fan’s dream (extra charge for some exhibitions) and Tate Britain – housing British art dating back to Tudor times.
  • Peruse thought-provoking exhibits in the Imperial War Museum (a charge to visit the Churchill War Rooms).
  • Lose hours at the British Museum (extra charge for some exhibitions) – home of the Rosetta Stone and other treasures.
  • Shop til you drop in Covent Garden – known for street performers, markets and designer stores.
  • Pause for thought in the ‘Actor’s Church’, St Paul’s Church, when browsing round Covent Garden.
  • Drink tea in the Twining’s Tea Bar, Strand – the oldest tea shop in London (free to look, charge for tea).
  • Visit the V&A (extra charge for some exhibitions) – has 4.6 million items!
  • Mooch around Harrods.
  • Harry Potter fans can get a photo taken at Platform 9 3/4 Kings Cross.
  • Pose with a lion at Trafalgar Square.
  • Swot up at the Natural History Museum – a stunning building housing a vast collection.
  • View London from the Sky Garden – beautiful views of the city but you have to book in advance to visit.
  • Pop in to the neon paradise of God’s Own Junkyard and pick your favourite sign.
  • Walk The Line – London’s first dedicated modern and contemporary art walk http://the-line.org/#/home
  • Have a coffee in a restored Victorian public convenience (free to look, charge for coffee) at The Attendant Fitzrovia.
  • People watch in Leicester Square. Check out actor handprints outside Vue Leicester Square cinema. You may get lucky and see a premiere taking place.
  • Pose with Eros in Piccadilly Circus – a mini Times Square.
  • Stroll round Chinatown – a vibrant area of the city.
  • Imagine London during the Swinging Sixties when shopping in Carnaby Street.
  • Walk through the Baker Street Wonderpass – the city’s most unusual underpass.
  • Head to Hackney City Farm – home to a variety of rescued animals.
  • Drop by the Design Museum (extra charge for some exhibitions) – the recent Stanley Kubrick exhibition was phenomenal.
  • Explore Camden Market – for shopping and food on the go. Grab a beer canal side and people watch.
  • Ride the Emirates Air line, a cable car that spans the Thames.
  • Meander round Little Venice – for some serenity in the city.
  • Another serene space to help you find your inner zen – Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park.
  • Go deer-spotting in Richmond Park – home to over 650 deer.
  • Snap street art – key areas: Shoreditch, Brick Lane and Camden.

Ticketed Places:

  • Tower of London – a history buff must.
  • St Paul’s Cathedral – a visit up to the Whispering Gallery is unmissable.
  • London Eye – the big wheel with majestic views.
  • Westminster Abbey – pay your respects to some historical giants.
  • Jack the Ripper Museum and Walk – a must for Ripper enthusiasts.
  • Sherlock Holmes Museum – again a must for fans.
  • Greenwich’s Royal Observatory – go to stand on the Meridian Line.
  • Stay overnight at London Zoo – book a night at ZSL London Zoo Lodges.
  • Kayak on the Thames with Kayak London.
  • Go up The Monument, built to commemorate the Great Fire of London.
  • Slide down the ArcelorMittal Orbit – the UK’s tallest sculpture. If you fancy a swim, the London Aquatics Centre is nearby, offering one of the cheapest swims in the city.
  • Open air swimming – Hampstead Heath Ponds and London Fields Lido.
  • Picturehouse Central – catch a movie at my favourite cinema.

Tip: look out for small round blue plaques on buildings around London. They tell you where famous writers, artists etc lived.

FOOD & DRINK

You can find all international cuisines and a multitude of drinking spots in London. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Borough Market – one of the city’s largest and oldest markets. Eat a pie at Pieminister.
  • Rules – oldest restaurant in London.
  • Savoy’s American Bar – longest surviving cocktail bar in London.
  • Netil360 – laidback rooftop bar in East London.
  • Abeno – the go-to place for Japanese Okonomiyaki (one of my favourite eats).
  • Hawksmoor – for your Sunday roast dinner.
  • Best fish and chips – the award-winning Poppies (available for delivery).
  • A must-try: a sausage roll from bakery chain Greggs.
  • Places with meal deals to grab lunch on the go – Boots, Tesco, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer.
  • Coffee on a budget – the Pret a Manger chain do a filter coffee for £1.
  • Cheapest food shop if self-catering – Morrisons.

SEE A WEST END SHOW 

  • Get cheap tickets from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square.
  • My recommendations: Hamilton; Book of Mormon; Come From Away – book tickets for under £20 direct with the theatre online. No need to shell out for pricey tickets – you get an excellent view from the back of the Phoenix theatre.

MY FAVOURITE WALK

  • Start at St Paul’s Underground station, visit St Paul’s Cathedral, then walk over the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. Lovely views of London from the bridge and tower of the Tate Modern. Facing the Thames, you can either go right, walk by the Globe Theatre to Borough Market, a perfect spot for lunch or go left and you’ll get to the National Theatre and BFI Southbank.

DAY TRIPS FROM LONDON (reachable from under 2 hours).

Other suggestions: Bristol; Bath; Windsor; Canterbury; Margate; Cambridge; Oxford.

IMAGES OF LONDON