The ultimate beginner’s guide to London
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London is a wonderful city to visit, especially if you’re looking for a gentle introduction to Europe. It has a rich history, a very diverse population, some famously royal residents and English is the official language.
It’s a huge city — the largest population of any city in Western Europe, so you’ll need to do a bit of planning before your visit. You could stay for a year and not see and do everything the city has to offer.
This guide will give you all the basic information you need to know about visiting London, as well as some unique insider tips.
- Location: The capital city of the United Kingdom, located in the south-east of the country.
- Timezone: GMT 0 hours.
- Currency: Pound sterling (GBP). £1 = $1.30 at the time of writing.
- Language: English, though expect to hear countless other languages during your visit to this very multicultural city.
- Climate: Mild winters, temperate summers. Average daytime air temperature is 11 degrees Celsius (52 F), with 5.5 degrees Celsius (42 F) in January and 18 degrees Celsius (65 F) in July.
- Size: 1,572 square kilometres, which is larger than New York or Los Angeles.
- Population: 9.12 million, the largest city in Western Europe.
When to visit
According to Skyscanner data, November is the cheapest time to fly to London from the U.S. During this time, there’s Guy Fawkes Night (also known Bonfire Night on 5 November), with fireworks in many parks.
In January and February, there will be fewer crowds but it may get dark around 4 p.m. The benefit of this is easy access to tickets to the best shows and restaurants in the evening, and far fewer tourists during the day.
September and early October are still pleasantly mild and it’s very pretty, as the leaves start to turn. It is also a time for art, film and fireworks. If you want maximum sunshine, June and July are great options — the sun doesn’t set until after 10 p.m.
How to get there
London is so big that it has six official airports, in different areas, with different airlines, serving different purposes. There’s not really one perfect choice.
Heathrow, Gatwick and London City tend to see more premium airlines, while Stansted, Luton, and Southend are for low-cost airlines and have fairly low-cost facilities for passengers. You might be faced with similarly priced flights from multiple London airports to your destination — be aware of transport options. Depending on where you are in the city, it could make sense to pick one airport over another purely for the time it takes you to travel to or from there.
Where to stay
To help you, we have a list of the best hotels, with some stylish options, some luxury options, points redemption options and some that are affordable yet comfortable and safe.
One of the great things about London is that feels like a collection of different villages, each with its own quirks and personality.
Soho is great for nightlife and restaurants and has a fun vibe night and day.
For a more upmarket experience, Knightsbridge has some of the most expensive properties in the whole country.
Related: How to spend a Sunday in London
For hipster heaven, Shoreditch in east London is edgy but very energetic. The birthplace of David Bowie and the home of the Caribbean in London, Brixton is a great place to experience vibrant music, food and shopping. If you want an easy but different day out, try Greenwich — you’ll feel a million miles away without really leaving London.
For a village feel with cobbled streets, decent restaurants and artisan bakeries, Hampstead is a sure bet — you might even spot some of its famous celebrity residents. If you’ve seen the film “Notting Hill”, you can visit or stay in the neighbourhood. It has fantastic food and restaurants.
To stay really central, consider King’s Cross which has excellent transport links all around London, as well as to airports and mainland Europe via the Eurostar. The train station is home to London’s most famous train platform — 9 3/4 of “Harry Potter” fame).
There are some truly upmarket areas of London, especially in the west of the city. South Kensington might not be the most exciting neighbourhood but it is well connected and home to some wonderful museums. There’s also Mayfair. You might know it from the monopoly board, and as you might guess, it’s fancy, classy and, well, rather expensive.
Where and what to eat
Where do you choose to eat in a city with over 20,000 restaurants? They vary hugely in their cuisine, locations, service and prices — a cheap meal might be £5 per person, but you could easily spend 100 times that at the fanciest places in town.
There’s an overwhelming selection
If you are dining with kids, we also have some great family-friendly suggestions.
We previously brought you a guide to traditional British foods and where they hail from — from Bakewell tarts to Yorkshire puddings — but London has its own unique dishes, too. Some you may have had before, some may seem completely foreign to your tastebuds. From jellied eels, pie and mash and curries to afternoon tea, here are 5 London foods and where to find them.
Coffee is a great start to any day in London and can keep you going after tackling the capital all day, too.
We think that the best coffee in London is undoubtedly from independent spots so we’ve put together a guide of some of our favourite coffee shops. You may have walked past some of these and wondered what the coffee is like — we’ve tried them and love them. You’re unlikely to go back to a chain shop coffee after you’ve tried our recommendations!
A Sunday roast is an iconic British tradition and is highly recommended even if you’re vegetarian (you’re covered too). It’s available at just about every pub in the city but the quality varies hugely. To help you decide where to feast on your next chicken, beef or nut roast with all of the gravy, we put a list together of some of our favourite roasts in London.
What to do for free
If you’ve seen “The Crown” on Netflix, then you can experience a great slice of royal pomp and circumstance with the Changing of the Guard ceremony, four times a week from 11 a.m. at Buckingham Palace.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite there are wonderful street markets to explore all around London, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, fine wines and craft beer and spectacular fresh flowers. We love Portobello and Borough Markets.
For a great view of the city, you can walk across iconic Tower Bridge as often as you like — from there, you’ll spot some of London’s most famous landmarks including the Tower of London, the Shard and, of course, the River Thames. There’s a great combination of street fashion, food, music and cultures from around the globe to be discovered in Brick Lane in the east of the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the street art too.
There are plenty of free museums to visit in London, including the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, Bank of England Museum and many more.
Other things to see and do
Here are some ideas for activities in London with children:
- Hop-on, hop-off bus
- London Eye
- Sea Life London Aquarium
- Shrek’s Adventure
- Boat tour of the Thames
- Buckingham Palace
- Changing of the Guard
- Horse Guards Parade and Household Cavalry Museum
- Hyde Park and Kensington Garden
- Science Museum
- Natural History Museum
- Afternoon tea
- Tower Bridge
- Tower of London
- London Transport Museum
- Lego Store and M&M Store
Love the British Royal Family? Here are eight truly royal places to visit in London, from Buckingham Palace to Kensington Palace.
London is a fantastic shopping destination, whether you want some great bargain pieces for your wardrobe or something truly one of a kind for a special event.
Shopaholic or not, this guide can help you make a plan, figure out where is best suited to you and most of all — find something to buy that no one else has!
We also have some great tips to upgrade your London visit, like:
- How to hit the town refreshed and relaxed.
- A cocktail with a free view at the Shard.
- Hire a professional photographer.
- Find the impossible with a hotel concierge.
- Luxe up your ride.
- Book a free personal shopper.
- Take afternoon tea at The Ritz.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the city, or just feel like doing and seeing something a little different, you won’t believe you’re in London with these nine days out.
It doesn’t rain every day in London, but if you do find the forecast looking dreary for your visit, here are our tips on what to do in London in wet weather.
How to get around London
Use the Tube to get around the city. It’s fast, very regular (you’ll rarely wait more than a few minutes) and locals use it to get around every day.
There are some unwritten etiquette rules to taking the Tube, which might seem strange if it’s your first time in the city — you can read our full Tube guide here.
London’s famous two-story bright red buses can be seen everywhere around the city. You can ride them and get a fantastic view of London at the same time. Upstairs, the front seats have huge 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 offer amazing 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.
If you prefer two wheels to four, read our ultimate guide to London’s best cycle routes. It includes information on:
- Planning your route.
- Picking a destination and how to get there.
- Some of the best places to cycle in London including Greenwich Park, Regent’s Park, Regent’s Canal, Richmond Park and Chiswick and Kew.
- Apps to help with your ride.
Regardless of your transport method, you’re likely to pass one of London’s 3,000 green spaces. Did you know that a whopping 40% of London is a well-maintained green space for you to enjoy?
These range from those barely larger than a standard house block, through to vast Richmond Park, made up of almost 1,000 hectares.
Here’s your guide to the different parks and green spaces you may come across on your visit to London as well as some dos (and don’ts) for your visit.
Mistakes to avoid
- Only getting the Tube everywhere;
- Not “Tubing” correctly;
- Drinking chain coffee;
- Eating in the wrong places;
- Paying for great views; and
- Queue jumping.
Related: 6 mistakes tourists make in London
There’s lots of information in here for your trip to London but don’t be overwhelmed — it’s impossible to experience the entire city in just one visit.
Follow the links in this guide if you would like more information on any of these topics and enjoy your visit!
Featured photo by Ingus Kruklitis via Shutterstock.
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