I moved to London at age 18 from the English countryside. Although it was exciting, exhilarating and rewarding, at times it was also pretty scary and confusing! I mean, I went from having sheep as my nearest neighbours, to living in a city with over 8 million residents! I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way (read: a lot of overcharges on the tube and not enough time spent exploring all of the free activities on offer), so now I’m sharing my top 5 tips for first-time visitors to London with you:
Take advantage of budget activities.
As a student, I’m always looking for new and interesting places to go… on the cheap, that is! London can be incredibly expensive if you let it be. However, there are plenty of interesting, cultural and adventurous activities on offer in London if you know where to look. Some of the best views of the city include The Monument (a monument to the Great fire of London that’s less than £5 to go up) and the Sky Garden (free at certain times of the day if you book your tickets in advance).
Oh, and did I forget to mention that most of the permanent exhibitions in the major museums in the city are free? Check out The Victoria and Albert Museum for fashion and art, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum if you’re looking for a rainy day activity. If you’re more interested in smaller museums, then you can always check out the Sir John Soane Museum for drawings and architectural models or the Hunterian Museum which houses a 17th-century collection of anatomical specimens.
Escape the city at least once!
People often say that there’s nothing quite like the English countryside and ‘they’ wouldn’t be wrong! There are plenty of amazing day trips from London, both into the English countryside and into other vibrant cities around the country. Take advantage of the great transport links readily available to really make the most of your stay in the country’s capital!
Some day trip highlights from London include Stonehenge (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and mystery – no one knows why, who or how the stones were erected) and The Cotswolds (if you want to really get to know the English countryside)!
You don’t necessarily need an oyster card.
If you’re using Transport for London, then it’s often cheaper to use an ‘oyster’ card to get around rather than buying a fairly expensive day ticket. This will give you reduced fares on the normal rates and an oyster card can be purchased for £5 at most ticket stations. However, I say you don’t necessarily need an oyster card anymore because in the past couple of years, TFL have introduced contactless and phone payments to all transport entry points.
This means that you can tap your smartphone app or contactless bank card for the same price as an oyster fare when you get on a bus, train or tube in the Big Smoke. However, be wary of overseas bank charges that your home country bank may impose and always make sure to use the same method of payment to leave as you did to enter (otherwise you may be significantly overcharged – a mistake I’ve made more than a few times)!
Bring an umbrella and rain shoes!
British people are known for complaining about the weather an awful lot. But the irony is, there’s actually some truth behind this ‘urban myth’. The reality is that it rains for about a third of the year, meaning that if you spend a long weekend in London then you’ll probably have at least one rainy day to contend with. Similarly, bring waterproof shoes; there are plenty of puddles to avoid on particularly rainy days!
Watch for traffic on the left-hand side.
This final point is more about safety than anything else. Always double check both ways to see if it’s safe or not to cross the road, even if it’s a one-way street because. After all, the UK is one of the few countries in the world where everything operates on the lefthand side. I mean, everything apart from the tube system; sometimes the escalators to go down are on the left, sometimes they’re on the right – pretty confusing, I know!
If you’re only visiting London, then I wouldn’t recommend renting a car because the transport links are generally fantastic! However, if you decide to take a day trip from London and rent a car, then it’s worth noting that most cars are manual drive (ie. with a gear stick). Even if you’re used to manual drive back home, using the gear stick with your other hand and trying to stay on the left-hand side of the road can become kind of complicated.