10 insider tips for exploring London like a local

Sep 21, 2020

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If you’re a first-time visitor to London, you might be a bit overwhelmed by all of the options available to you. So much to see, do, eat, drink, watch, listen to and experience. So we’ve created a beginner’s guide of sorts that covers our best basic tips if you’re new to town.

But what about if you’ve upgraded to expert-level visitor now? Perhaps you’ve visited a few times before and no longer think there’s anything to see or do that you haven’t yet? Are you looking for some tips you won’t find from other travellers — those little bits and pieces that you only learn from actually living in a city? Read on.

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1. Don’t bother with Oyster cards

Like many other global cities, London has transport cards you can load with any value for getting across the Transport for London network. While these cards were great for tourists to get around the city 10 years ago, there’s another way to pay that is far easier. You can tap any credit or debit card with pay wave capabilities (look for the Wi-Fi-like symbol of three small curves on top of your card), without the need to either buy a card to start with, top-up or worry about the balance falling below zero. Nor will you have to faff around with individual tickets.

You simply tap in and out on the ticket gates on the Tube and Overground/DLR entrances, or on the machines near the front door of London buses — you don’t need to tap out on buses. You’ll automatically be charged the correct (lowest) fair and any daily caps will automatically apply. Just make sure you tap in and out with the same card so you’re not charged twice.

Related: London Underground 101: A guide to getting the Tube in London

andrea_san via Twenty20
(Photo by andrea_san via Twenty20)

2. Get a discounted day seat at theatres

While London’s famous West End theatre district is, unfortunately, shut right now, in normal times, there’s a great trick to scoring seriously good theatre seats at very low prices. While full-price tickets to popular shows can regularly cost more than £100 per seat, if you’re visiting in the winter low season, the theatres are unlikely to be full. You can visit the theatre’s box office as soon as it opens (usually 10 a.m., but check websites for individual times) and ask if there are any seats available for that day.

Most theatres will have a small number of seats for a low fixed price (£20 or £25), which are usually seated right near the front — often front row. You can score one of the best seats in the house for far less than the people in the row behind you who bought a ticket six months ago.

These days, seats can sell out in minutes, so it’s best to arrive just before the box office opens. Some particularly popular shows like “Hamilton” or “Harry Potter” won’t offer day seats because they don’t need to, but plenty of shows do.

Another tip is if you find the front row a little too close to the action, especially for a big show like “The Lion King”, you can ask an usher during the interval if you can move to an empty seat. They’ll usually happily oblige if the theatre isn’t full.

Related: 17 best hotels in London for every type of traveller

So_Victoria via Twenty20
(Photo by So_Victoria via Twenty20)

3. Time Out magazine has all the inspiration you need

There’s always something happening in London. There are regularly new things to do, from exhibitions, themed bars, gigs, festivals, freebies to competitions. It’s hard to keep up with so many options, so grab a copy of Time Out magazine for a neat summary of the options that week.

Time Out will often have details on opening nights where you can score free drinks, samples or products just by knowing exactly where and when to be.

If you’re a regular visitor to London and feel like you’ve done everything, I can just about guarantee Time Out will have new options you haven’t done before, each and every week.

Time Out is free and available at most Tube stations every Tuesday.

Related: From skyscraper cocktails to a Rolls Royce chauffeur: 7 ways to upgrade your London holiday

4. Some amazing views of London are on a public bus

London’s two-story bright red buses ferry thousands of people around the city each day. They’re frequent, cheap and a pleasant alternative to the Tube. There are also a few seats on these buses that provide an amazing, very affordable view around London. Upstairs, the front seats have enormous windows and you’re sitting so far forward (above the driver basically) that you’ll feel like you’re driving the bus yourself.

These seats give fantastic views of the city, especially if the route takes you past famous landmarks. If you can score these seats, you can stay on the bus for as long as you like. Rather than paying for an expensive guided tour, you could listen to some podcasts of the famous landmarks you are passing to learn more about the city as you enjoy the great views from your front-row seat.

If these front seats are taken, grab a spare seat nearby upstairs, and as soon as they’re vacated, grab your prime position.

Related: The complete guide to London’s parks and green spaces

Chalabala via Twenty20
(Photo by Chalabala via Twenty20)

5. The Christmas lights are chaos

Christmas is a wonderful time of year in London. There’s plenty of festive cheer in the air and Regent Street has well-known Christmas lights that draw tourists from near and far.

The lights are certainly pretty to look at. There’s just one small problem: the crowds. Regent Street is one of the city’s busiest retail areas in the city. Combine tens of thousands of Christmas shoppers racing about and all the tourists coming to see the lights and you have an overwhelming sea of humanity. If you’re not familiar with the area and there is nowhere you can stop and get your bearings, check the map on your phone for a quiet side street to duck into.

If you don’t like crowds, I would recommend giving this a miss — it can be very overwhelming. Definitely do not bring children in a pram. Winter Wonderland at nearby Hyde Park — London’s version of a classic European Christmas market is a similar experience — enormous crowds that may be what you remember far more than the festive cheer.

magicbones66 via Twenty20
(Photo by magicbones66 via Twenty20)

6. The weather is unpredictable, but it doesn’t rain that much

London’s climate is as talked about as its famous Royal Family. Yes, London doesn’t receive an abundance of warm sunshine. Many days are decidedly grey and overcast, and in winter it starts getting dark shortly after lunchtime. Even in the middle of summer, you aren’t guaranteed great or consistent weather — August 2020 saw all sorts of rain, storms and heatwaves.

There’s no ideal time of the year to visit, though summer tends to be better than winter.

What you might not know is that it doesn’t actually rain that much in London. Officially, the capital receives around 100 days of rain each year, which means that for more than two-thirds of the time, there’s no rain at all. You don’t need to worry about leaving the house without an umbrella. They can be a bit of a menace anyway navigating through crowded streets and in and out of Tube carriages. If you have a waterproof coat, you’ll notice a lot of locals simply pulling their hood over their head and walking through the rain, if it does occur. You might get a little damp but it will be short-lived.

It’s also perfectly normal to pop into the nearest pub if you do get caught in the odd downpour — have a cheeky drink, catch your breath and wait for the weather to pass.

Related: 8 ways to spend a rainy day in London

mi.london via Twenty20
(Photo by mi.london via Twenty20)

7. London has six airports

You probably know Heathrow Airport — you may be landing in there for your visit, especially if you’re travelling long-haul. But if you are flying somewhere short-haul, make sure you search from “LON” (being the airport code for the city of London), rather than just LHR.

You’re likely to find cheaper short-haul fares from non-Heathrow airports. The low-cost airlines tend to operate from Stansted (STN), Luton (LTN), Southend (SEN) and Gatwick (LGW). There’s also London City (LCY) Airport, a favourite for business travelers. Now, these airports are spread out right across Greater London and the travel time to each one varies hugely, depending on where you are coming from and the time of day.

Related: Everything you need to know about London’s 6 airports

Also, remember to triple check which airport you are flying from. I had a friend who booked a flight from London City Airport (LCY) and turned up instead at Heathrow (LHR) for his flight because he thought Heathrow was the “City of London’s airport”. It wasn’t, and he had to do a mad dash across town in an expensive cab.

Related: London Heathrow vs. Gatwick: Which airport should I fly into?

(Screenshot from Google Flights)

8. Affordable fine dining with Open Table

There’s a dizzying array of restaurant options in London — from fast food through to haute cuisine. You can easily drop hundreds of pounds per person on a truly gourmet dining experience.

But here’s a tip to experience amazing food without blowing your whole trip’s budget. Open Table allows you to book thousands of London restaurants online in advance, and many offer special deals to encourage you to dine with them. It’s particularly popular mid-week and for earlier reservation times (ideal if you’re heading to the theatre afterwards) and you can enjoy a free course, a free glass of wine or discounts for set menus. A fancy restaurant that usually has main courses for around £20 might offer an Open Table special of three courses for £25. I’ve enjoyed plenty of very fancy dinners in London for very reasonable prices by booking these offers online.

The restaurant will likely be aware of this when you arrive, but just let them know of the offer you booked when they seat you so that you can enjoy it.

Related: 10 awesome things to do in London for free

9. You can watch Shakespeare as it was performed 400 years ago

The Globe is a unique theatre on the South Bank where you can watch the works of the famous playwright in an outdoor, traditional round format right on the River Thames. The original theatre has seen war, fire, plague and famine, causing it to be destroyed and rebuilt several times.

The current version of the theatre was constructed in 1997, staying faithful to the original one. COVID-19 has temporarily halted the live performances of Shakespeare’s famous works, though the theatre is now running guided tours to show visitors a unique behind-the-scenes experience of this amazing building.

Once performances recommence, anyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare should go. You don’t need to understand every word that is being said onstage — don’t be put off by the Shakespeare you may have been forced to learn at school. Performances are always entertaining, as is witnessing them by stepping back in time in this very unique and authentic structure.

(Photo by nixaletta via Twenty20)

10. Pick your supermarket carefully

London has a range of different major supermarket chains, though they stock different products at very different prices.

Chains like Iceland, Lidl and Aldi have by far the cheapest groceries. The quality is okay, though it won’t be the name brands you know and love. You can expect long queues at the registers, minimal staff and a bit of jostling for position in the aisles. Rather than having a range of different types of each product, they might only have one, similar to Costco — great value but very little choice.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons are in the middle of the range and likely more what you are used to if visiting from abroad. They have reasonable prices for most items and stock name brands you will recognise.

If you have more money to spend consider M&S or Waitrose. The prices are higher than in other supermarkets but you can expect high-quality ingredients (especially for meat and seafood). The overall shopping experience will be more pleasant — queues will likely be shorter and there will be more staff on hand to assist you.

For my money, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have everything I need at fair prices. I always enjoy shopping at Waitrose though I can’t justify the prices to shop there every week.

Related: From jellied eels to afternoon tea: 5 London foods and where to find them

Bottom line

You can read all sorts of beginner guides to London that will give you handy tips, like the best times of the year to visit, what to do for free and how to get around. Even after several visits, there were still some things you didn’t realise or get to experience — like me, at least until I had moved here properly.

Don’t try and see the entire city in one visit — it’s so huge you can’t possibly. Hopefully, whether you are a new visitor looking to really maximise your travel or have visited more times than you can count, this list will give you some tips to make your time here as enjoyable as possible.

Featured photo by Chalabala via Twenty20

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