England

15 USEFUL TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME IN LONDON

St Pauls Cathedral, London
St Paul’s Cathedral, London

London is one of those bucket list destinations.

It’s the setting of countless favourite movies, from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Love Actually. A city filled with ancient buildings and palaces everywhere you turn. A place bursting with history, culture and the queen. And also cold, big and full of rude people.

That’s what I thought. During my five days in London I absolutely fell in love with the city. Though it was cold, big, and I did see someone get knocked off their bike on my first day, London should absolutely be on your bucket list.

If it’s your first time in London it can be a little overwhelming. There’s so much to see, and if you’re like me the sheer amount of information out there can make it harder to figure out what to do. When you’re reading 101 Top Things to do in London but don’t know where to stay, how much to budget and you’re freaking out about how to navigate the damn tube, it’s not so helpful to read about the Victoria and Albert Museum when you’re probably not going to go.

Instead, dive straight into these (hopefully more helpful) 15 tips for your first time in London.

15 USEFUL TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME IN LONDON

What To See in London (For Your First Visit)

1. Warner Brothers Studio Tour

The Warner Brothers Studio Tour was one of the most magical things I did in London. So magical I might have cried happy tears in Diagon Alley… If, like me, you grew up with the Harry Potter franchise then this tour is a must while in London.

The tour offers a fascinating look into the behind the scenes of the movie, with props, costumes and sets used in the films on display. You can summon a broomstick, see a goblin at Gringotts, sip a Butterbeer and even board the Hogwarts Express. For a girl who used to play Harry Potter as a kid, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour was a dream come true. I’m still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts, though.

You do have to book tickets in advance (at least several weeks), and give yourself enough time to get there as it’s located outside of Central London. Tickets are £45 for adults.

Hogwarts Express, Harry Potter Studio Tour, London
All aboard the Hogwarts Express!

2. Take a Tour With a Yeomen Warder

Visiting the Tower of London was another highlight of my time in London. The castle is an iconic site and I found the history to be incredibly interesting, straight out of the pages of Horrible Histories.

Get there as soon as it opens and make straight for the Crown Jewels. After, loop back to the entrance and join a tour with a Yeomen Warder. Popularly known as ‘Beefeaters’, these guardians of the Tower of London give anecdotes about the tower’s most famous residents and take you to the historical sites within the grounds.

Tickets to the Tower of London are £24.70 online, and it’s included in the London Pass.

A Yeomen Warder talks about the Tower of London
The Tower of London should be on your London bucket list

3. Enjoy a Glass of Champagne from the Shard

During my first time in London I either wanted to go up the Shard or ride the London Eye. The Shard was included in the London Pass, so that made my decision easier.

For the best views of the city go on a clear day – rain and fog won’t give you much of a view. As the highest building in the United Kingdom, you’ll be able to look down at all the places you’ve explored. Bonus tip: if you do get the London Pass you get a discount on a glass of champagne.

4. Eat Your Heart Out at Borough Market

I love a good market, especially one with food.

Existing in one form or another for over 1000 years, Borough Market has a staggering variety of stalls selling everything from fudge, fresh produce and paella, to tasty sandwiches and a variety of cheeses. Take your time wandering around the market and definitely coincide your visit with lunch. The prices are reasonably cheap and you’ll probably have one of your best meals in London for less than £10.

French Deli stand complete with checked tablecloth, hanging garlics and cheese, Borough Market
Hand holds up souvlaki against colourful mural backdrop, London

First Time in London: Getting Around

5. Get an Oyster Card

London is a huge, sprawling city home to over 8 million people. While a lot of the top tourist sites are in Central London and within walking distance you’ll need to use the tube to get around. For someone as notoriously bad with directions as me I actually found the tube easy to navigate. Plus, if you get stuck there’s normally someone at the stations who can help point you in the right direction.

Buying an Oyster card will make using the tube a lot quicker and easier. You can buy an Oyster card at the airport when you arrive. You can also preorder a Visitor Oyster card to arrive in your home country before you leave. Only don’t order it two weeks before you go, like I did, as it’ll turn up two days after you’ve landed in Singapore and you will have wasted (eek) £50… Don’t do that.

6. Do a Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour

Yes, it’s super touristy, but doing a bus tour is a fun way to see London.

If you buy the London Pass you get a free bus ticket for one day, so make the most of it. I went with Big Bus; they offer four different routes, so you can pick what you really want to see – if you get off the bus, that is. I didn’t, I just enjoyed the novelty of sitting on a double decker bus in London driving past all the iconic London sites. Honestly, I felt like Amanda Bynes in What a Girl Wants (arguably her second best movie after She’s the Man).

If you don’t have a London Pass 1-day tickets with Big Bus start from £35.10 when purchased online.

7. Walk Everywhere

I know I said you should get an Oyster card, and you should. If you want to go to the Warner Brother Studio Tour or snap some pretty shots in Notting Hill you’ll need one.

But for a lot of the main tourist attractions in Central London walking is your best bet. Even though the tube is great it’s sometimes misleading figuring out how long it will actually take, and walking might end up being faster.

Also, London is such a great, interesting city and the best way to soak that up is through walking. You won’t spot moody street art or famous buildings if you’re underground. Walking is my favourite way to see any city and that’s especially true in London.

Gritty London street art with subway carriages on top of building
Shoreditch, London

Read More: A 7-Day Scotland Itinerary

How to Save Money For Your First Time in London

8. Buy a London Pass

There’s no denying it; London is an expensive city. If you’re travelling on a backpacker’s budget one of the biggest expenses you’ll come across is entrance to the city’s various attractions.

Depending on how long you’re staying and what you’re planning on seeing, a London Pass could save you a lot of money. You can select a 1, 2, 3, 6 or 10 day pass for varying prices (there’s often sales too), and I found the 3 day pass perfect for my 5-day stay.

Beforehand, I worked out which attractions I wanted to visit, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. Then, I calculated how much I would save by getting a London Pass. It turned out to be £142.50 without the pass, and £105 with the London Pass – a saving of £37.50!

9. Make the Most of London’s Free Art Galleries & Museums

When it comes to free museums and art galleries London has something for everyone. If you love museums you might like checking out the British Museum. Established in 1753 the museum houses a staggering display of ancient and interesting artifacts (some rather dubiously obtained).

Art lovers will never get bored in London. Fans of contemporary and modern art should check out the Tate Modern. I loved geeking out at the Rothko’s, Pollock’s, Braque’s and Mondrian’s I had studied in High School Art History. For a more classical look at European masterpieces, head to the National Gallery (personally I preferred the Tate Modern as I’m not a massive fan of religious art).

Whatever you’re into, make sure to squeeze a museum or gallery into your plans – after all, they’re free!

Mondrian painting with lines and orange square, Tate Gallery, London
Picasso painting of guitar, Tate Modern, London

10. Eat Dinner at Tesco

This one is for the budget-savvy travellers. I get it, London is an expensive city. Between the attractions, transport and accommodation, you likely won’t find it easy to be a budget traveller here. One easy way to save is by buying your dinner at Tesco. They do a great meal deal; £3 for a sandwich, salad or wrap with a drink or snack. Plus if you’re a solo traveller like me I sometimes find it easier to grab a meal and find a park to enjoy it in. That way I can people watch without actually having to talk to people! #Introvert.

11. Explore London’s Beautiful Parks

For a huge concrete city, London has a surprising number of lovely green spaces. (Wikipedia says there are 3000 of them, in fact). Make the most of your first time in London and check out a park or two. Bonus; it’s free!

After seeing if you can spot Queen Lizzie at Buckingham Palace why not go for a stroll around St James’s Park? Complete with ornate flower gardens, a pond and cute grey squirrels, St James’s Park is your quintessential London park. Try and get there for 2:30 and you’ll even get to see the famous pelicans being fed.

12. Book Top Attractions in Advance

If you’ve bought a London Pass (as I recommended) then you won’t need to book your tickets in advance. The London Pass includes fast-track entry at many of London’s top attractions, saving you time as well as money.

Even if you decide not to purchase a London Pass, you can still beat the crowds (and score better prices) by booking tickets in advance online. There’s so much to see and do in London that you really need to plan your time so that you don’t waste a second of it queueing.

Things like Madame Tussaud’s and the London Eye are often cheaper when you book online at least a day in advance. If you’re planning on checking out a show on the West End it definitely pays to buy your tickets in advance. You can score tickets on the day but popular shows will often be booked out and they may not be the best seats.

A misty day at the Tower of London with Tower Bridge in the background
Tower Bridge, London

Other Tips For Your First Time in London

13. Stay in Central London

London is a HUGE city. Like, almost twice the population of New Zealand in one sprawling city.

There are so many different boroughs and neighbourhoods in London that it’d likely take a lifetime to see the whole city. But for your first time in London, plan on staying in Central London.

It might be more expensive – London is pricey, and even a dorm bed is likely to set you back at least £30 – but staying in Central London will save you time and prove to be miles more convenient. Look for a hostel close to a tube station and ideally within walking distance of some of London’s attractions. I stayed in Whitechapel and my hostel was only a 10 minute walk from the Tower of London.

Hand holds up polaroid photo in front of Tower Bridge
St Pauls Cathedral peeks out from behind buildings

14. Plan on Spending at Least 3-4 Days

However long you spend in London on your first visit, it’s definitely not going to be long enough. London is one of the most incredible cities in the world, and it’d be impossible to squeeze everything into one trip.

With that in mind, know that you won’t get to see or do everything on your list. And that’s ok. Pick and choose the things that most interest you, one or two art galleries, maybe one museum, and accept that the rest will have to wait until a future visit.

Whatever you do, plan on spending at least 3-4 days in London. Four days isn’t enough time to see it all, but it’s just about enough time to get a taste of what London has to offer.

15. Make the Most of London’s Epic Food Scene

Think on any cuisine, any at all, and you’re like to find it London.

While Tesco is a good meal option for the budget-savvy traveller make sure to splurge on at least one meal while in London.

I’ve already mentioned Borough Market, and that should definitely be on your London bucket list. Another great cheap food option is Pop Brixton, a colourful shipping container village containing an array of street food stalls. Check out the souvlaki stall; their souvlaki were amaaazing. Harrods is another quintessential London experience, and the food court there has a huge selection of gourmet foods.

Sunset over the Thames
Sunset in London

London is an incredible city. Five days there on my first visit was barely enough to scratch the surface, and with a plethora of amazing things to do you’ll never find yourself bored. London 100% needs to be on your bucket list!

Stay: I stayed at Wombat’s City Hostel in Whitechapel, and paid £34 a night for a 6-bed female dorm. The hostel was super clean and new, and was within a 10 minute walk to two tube stations and the Tower of London.

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15 Useful Tips For Your First Time in London
15 Useful Tips For Your First Time in London