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.
I’ve been in London three times now and I had the luck of never needing an umbrella. I always had some beautiful weather, I’ve visited all the museums and impressive building the center of the city.
I’ve used the metro a lot to travel through London and as you’ve said, it’s much cheaper to pay with the credit card…. sometimes. I had a card in Germany and the exchange rate at the time was mad, I’ve lost around 6 % of my money of the exchange rate. Better to pay for a day ticket if you are outside UK.
I only traveled to Nottingham when I was in the UK, and I was amazed that the train was kind of slow and the buses as well. I am used to the Autobahn and 80-90 miles / hour speed limits, it weird to go only 70 on a 3 or 4 lane motorway.
In the town, the traffic is actually not bad. Guess the congestion charge kicked a lot of the cars out of the city center.
I’m glad that you warned about the driving part, Sophie. Still, London is a beautiful place.
This is fabulous Sophie! I hope to make it to London sometime soon as I hear it’s absolutely wonderful; will have to keep these tips in mind!
Being from the UK and making regular visits into London for work and pleasure purposes it is easy to get used to how it works. Like any big city first time visits can be daunting especially if you don’t speak the local language.
One of my top tips would be to plan your trip in advance and try to arrange places to visit that are close to each other for the same day. Also the underground may be quickest but take some buses, this way you will see so much more of the city than when you are on the tube.
Great job at highlighting the main things to do in London whilst not overwhelming the reader.
Excellent post! Love the recommendations for budget activities. Just proves a trip to London doesn’t have to be too costly. Thanks for sharing!
I spent about 18 months traveling the world on the cheap.”Let’s Go” books are indispensible an more than pay for themselves.Michelin guides are most comprehensive.Cosmos tours are a great way to get your feet wet. Then go it on your own.
It’s my dream to travel to London and hopefully one day I can get to visit such a wonderful country. Anyways, I’ll save your blog for my future reference. Thanks for sharing this with us! Safe travel always.
Great post! We’ve been in London for a short trip and definitely will come back to see more, especially those less popular places. Best Regards 🙂
I love visiting London. SO much to see and do, there really is something for everyone.