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

 

A Journey In Japan

This is a throwback destination guide. People often ask me which place has been my favourite travel destination. Years of travelling around the world means it is difficult to choose a favourite place. I have been fortunate to go to so many great places but if I had to choose one favourite, it would be Japan. I visited Japan in the summer of 2017 and absolutely fell in love with the country, the culture, the food, the people etc. It’s a very special place and an easy and safe destination to travel round solo. Key tourist sites are well sign-posted, the high speed and efficient Shinkansen bullet trains make getting around the country a breeze and you will always find people happy to help you should you need guidance/directions.

Tips:

  • You need to buy your railcard before you go. I bought my pass here http://bit.ly/2LXFvV5 The pass is excellent value for money and gives you unlimited travel provided you follow the instructions. Your Japan Rail Pass entitles you to free seat reservations on valid trains. Reservations can be made in person at train stations. This site offers great advice https://www.seat61.com/Japan.htm
  • When in Japan, buy a Pasmo card (similar to London’s Oyster card) that you can top up to pay for public transport. You can buy these from Metro ticket machines.
  • Download the free Tokyo Metro App to help you navigate your way around this sprawling city.

TOKYO

Give yourself plenty of time to explore this huge city. Suggested things to see/do:

  • View Shibuya Crossing from Starbucks.
  • Visit Tsukiji Market and have a fresh sushi lunch.
  • Go to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.
  • Go up the Tokyo Skytree.
  • Visit a cat cafe.
  • Catch the show at the Robot Restaurant.
  • Visit Sensō-ji temple.
  • Stroll along Takeshita Street in Harajuku.
  • Sing Karaoke in a branch of Karaoke Kan.

Day trips from Tokyo: Nara, Kamakura, Nikko and Mount Fuji (train journeys from Tokyo)

Nara Famous for the freely roaming deer and temples.

Kamakura: An understated seaside resort with a large buddha statue.

Nikko: National Park with a famous shrine and mausoleum.

Mount Fuji

I didn’t get to go to Mount Fuji during my trip unfortunately as I had left it to do when I returned to Tokyo after exploring the country and I misjudged how much time I needed to do it. If you can, you should definitely go; you can find a suggested day trip itinerary here https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/mount-fuji It’s at the top of my to-do list when I am next in Japan…

TAKAYAMA

A city with a beautifully preserved old town. You only need a night or two here. Many travellers come here before hiking Japan’s Alps. I really enjoyed my visit here. Such a cute place with small shops, saki bars and restaurants. Stay in a traditional Ryokan if you can and you definitely have to visit an onsen (a hot spring that is a quintessential Japanese experience).

KANAZAWA

A modern city with some fantastic sites to visit. Suggested things to see/do:

  • Kanazawa Castle – impressive historical site.
  • Kenrokuen Garden – lovely landscaped garden.
  • Go for matcha tea in one of the geisha teahouses in the Higashi Chaya district.
  • See contemporary art at the 21st Century Museum.

KYOTO

Absolutely loved my time in Kyoto. It’s less manic than Tokyo, with so many beautiful temples to visit, and no trip to Kyoto is complete without a walk around the geisha district. You can see a geisha performance for an affordable price at Gion Corner. Other suggested things to see/do:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine – famous for its thousands of red torii gates. Kyoto’s most visited shrine.
  • Visit Arashiyama’s bamboo forest. It can get over-crowded so try to visit early in the day.
  • Walk the Philosopher’s Path (known for cherry blossoms in the spring).
  • Dine in a restaurant in Pontocho Alley.

OSAKA

A modern and vibrant city with a thriving culinary scene. A fun day trip is a visit to Universal Studios Osaka – go just to hear Harry Potter speaking Japanese and ensure you stay for the dementors light show in the evening. I also recommend eating your way round Dōtombori or booking a food tour.

HIROSHIMA & MIYAJIMA

Many travellers visit Hiroshima and Miyajima as a day trip from Tokyo but both places are peaceful at night and are good options for an overnight stay if you don’t want to rush. I chose to stay overnight in Hiroshima and I was glad I did this as Miyajima is a train and ferry ride away from Hiroshima, and it may take you longer to get there and back than you expect. I visited Miyajima in the morning which then gave me plenty of time to explore Hiroshima’s Peace Park. The Peace Museum is excellent, and the park itself has several monuments, such as the Children’s Monument, worth seeing.

I spent three wonderful weeks travelling round Japan focusing on the main places I had read about during my trip research but there is so much to see in this magnificent country so I will definitely be going back. For now Japan, Sayōnara. We will meet again one day.

 

Travel Tips

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Over ten years of travel experience means I’ve made many mistakes along the way. Here are some tips to hopefully make your travels easier…

  • Take pictures of your passport and any relevant important documents and store them online (I use Google Drive).
  • Carry spare passport photos with you in case you need them for visa applications.
  • Buy a passport holder with a pocket in-built – good for storing boarding passes. Some places require you to hand in your boarding pass as you leave so always keep hold of it until you have left the airport.
  • Ensure you check whether you need a visa for each destination you intend to travel to. Some places allow you to apply online in advance or pay on arrival. Other destinations have more complicated entry requirements, for example when I visited China I had to go to the Chinese Embassy in Dubai and submit a lengthy application form with copies of my passport, flights (you have to book a return ticket), hotel booking and a letter from my employer confirming they gave me permission to travel to China.
  • Buy a travel purse – a pouch with a couple of pockets would do – to store the various currencies you will use. I keep the currency I am currently using in my main purse and store the rest in a small travel purse.
  • To avoid too many ATM charges, work out your daily budget and withdraw the money you need once a week. This will also ensure you are not carrying too much cash and help keep you on budget.
  • Always pay in the local currency and watch out for ATMs that offer confusing conversion options – just select to withdraw cash in the local currency.
  • Don’t exchange money at airports unless you are desperate. Rates are too unfavourable.
  • Avoid using your money cards in general – stick to cash as much as you can. Lessens the risk of your cards being fraudulently copied/misused.
  • Hostelworld is good if you need to make a series of bookings ahead of time but can’t afford to pay for them yet. You pay a deposit to secure the booking and the remainder when you arrive. Each hostel usually gives good written descriptions telling you how to get to them and a link to Google Maps. If you are able to pay up front, it’s always worth checking prices directly with the hostel who may offer you a cheaper rate than the one offered on Hostelworld.
  • Buy a TSA approved padlock – you can use this for your bag/suitcase when you travel and for your hostel locker when you arrive if a lock is not provided (my suitcase was smashed open at an airport in the US as my in-built suitcase lock was not TSA-approved).
  • Keep your smartphone on airplane mode when not using it. It makes the battery last longer when you are out and about in the day and also stops any surprising data roaming charges if you are on a contract. I have a pay-as-you-go sim from the UK but I only use free wifi when travelling. Some countries offer free sim cards on arrival to tourists if you can’t live without data.
  • Install a VPN on your phone and laptop. I use Express VPN and have always had good service. You can’t always access the websites you need in various countries (for example, you can’t use booking.com in Turkey, I couldn’t access my Gmail in China – so a VPN is invaluable and also lets you watch your favourite TV on the go (BBC iplayer etc) if your wifi connection is strong enough.
  • Take advantage of hostel freebies such as free breakfasts, towels, walking tours or any discounts they offer – for example chain hostels have links with each other and may be able to give you discounts for staying in multiple hostels within the chain, help you book shuttles to travel between them, or offer discounted tours, for example, Envoy Hostels have hostels in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Phnom Penh. If you book a stay with Abraham Hostels they give you 10% off your stay in another one of their hostels – they have hostels in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tel Aviv.
  • Book direct with airlines rather than using third party companies. This makes it easier to make any changes you might need to or deal with any issues such as missed flight connections. Use sites like Google flights or Skyscanner to scout out which airlines fly where and then go to the airline’s own website if you see a fare you like the look of and buy it from there directly. For example, if you book flights on the Norwegian site of Norwegian Airlines using Google Translate, the price is 20% cheaper. Create a profile first and buy the ticket you want. I’ve done this and it was straightforward.
  • Sign up for airline loyalty programmes and build up loyalty points/air miles.
  • Download useful travel apps, for example, airline apps to store mobile boarding passes or translation apps like Snap & Translate. Lots of travellers use maps.me which allows you to download a map for your location and use it offline. This app also helps you search for supermarkets, restaurants etc. Many places have transportation maps you can use offline, for example London and Tokyo underground both have apps that help you plan your journey and tell you which metro lines to use.
  • Invest in a lightweight travel towel. Though some hostels provide towels for free or for a small rental fee, it’s good to have a trekking towel you can use for beach days or hikes that won’t take up much room in your day bag.
  • Stick to drinking bottled water, and in countries where the water quality is poor, you will want to brush your teeth with bottled water. Be cautious of ice in drinks and salads in such places too.
  • For travel insurance I can recommend World Nomads.
  • Things I can’t live without – a travel adapter/travel hairdryer with different voltage settings/lightweight day bag (mine is from the Columbia brand)/earplugs.

Happy travelling! 🙂