Last Updated on April 13, 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
As the capital city of the UK, London has no shortage of wonderful things to see and do. Between sightseeing major landmarks, discovering hidden gems, and simply relaxing over a long weekend, you’re sure to never be bored. But what about the essential information you need to know before you go? Here are over twenty insider London travel tips to bear in mind before your visit London visit, as well as London mistakes you should avoid!
As someone who has studied and lived in London for years, many customs and practices that seem normal to a Londoner may well seem surprising to most. From the words we use to describe the metro to the best cheap eats the Big Smoke has to offer, here are the little things I’ve learned from living in London that you need to know as a visitor!
#1 You can’t see everything in one go!
This may well go without saying, but try not to see everything London has to offer in one go! There’s a reason that the city is one of the top travel destinations in the world, and this is by and large because of the sheer volume of activities on offer.
Whether you’re in search of foodie experiences, cool museums, or want to see some street art, London offers all of this and more. As a result, the best way to enjoy London in a relatively short time frame is to pick an area or district and to focus on getting to know it on a more local level.
For example, spend a day exploring the City of London, followed by a day in Bloomsbury, and another day in Greenwich if you have just a long weekend! I personally wouldn’t recommend planning a London day trip unless you’re in the city for at least three or four days or more.
After all, London has more than enough districts and green spaces to provide a variety of experiences all on its own! Last but not least on the point that you absolutely cannot see everything in one go, there’s still plenty to pack in, even if you only have a day to explore the city. For a sample itinerary, check out how we recommend spending 24 hours in London.
#2 Dress for the weather and pack appropriately
While, of course, a complete London packing list is the subject for an entirely other post, there’s no denying that one of the best London travel tips I could give you would be to pack appropriately. What this means is being prepared for rain pretty much all year ’round!
London has approximately 106 rainy days each year, and you’re more than likely to encounter one or two of these if you’re visiting outside of the summer (and even during the hottest months of the year, bad weather is not unheard of!)
As such, you’ll want to pack shoes that are a little waterproof, as well as a rain jacket or umbrella. Layers are an absolute must so as to keep warm when exploring outside but to keep cool when travelling on the tube or dining in a restaurant!
#3 The best time to visit London is in the spring or autumn
Indeed, when it comes to deciding the best time to visit the capital city, there are a number of factors you’ll want to consider; cost and weather being the most important too! While it’s true that the longest days and the best weather is to be found during the summer, this is also when the queues are at their longest and the prices are at their highest.
As such, if you have a little choice as to when you can plan your visit, plan your trip so that you’ll be in London during the late spring or early autumn. Spring provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy delights such as cherry blossom and wisteria, whereas fall in London is all about the beautiful autumnal colours! Whichever you choose, also try and avoid school and bank holidays as prices will be elevated then as well.
#4 Book your London accommodation well in advance
In the same vein, London is an incredibly popular destination for both business and leisure travellers. As such, you’ll want to book your British accommodation almost as soon as you know your travel dates. Don’t stay too far away from Zone One as otherwise, you’ll lose lots of travel time! Check the best prices for places to stay in London here.
#5 There are plenty of free things to do in London
The city may well be one of the most expensive cities in Europe to visit, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of budget activities on offer! When it comes to experiencing London, you don’t have to break the bank; some of the best free things to do in London include visiting many of the major museums and art galleries, as well as relaxing in one of the many green spaces the city has to offer.
#6 The UK capital has a plethora of hidden gems
Did you know that you can see the auto-icon of a famous philosopher in a University cloister? Or that it’s possible to stroll along a Victorian Market that was used to film scenes from the Harry Potter series? Well, London offers all of this and more. For a closer look at unusual things to do in the city, check out this guide to London’s best hidden gems.
#7 Book tickets to major attractions in advance
So as to save time, and in some cases, money, be sure to book tickets well in advance so as to avoid disappointment on the day. Many online options offer skip-the-line functions that allow you to save your precious time exploring London for actually enjoying the city as opposed to waiting in queues!
When it comes to landmarks and attractions you should book in advance, there are several that I definitely recommend. For example, the London Eye only has a limited number of spots each day, as do theatre performances, and several exhibitions at museums. Otherwise, Madame Tussaud’s always has a long queue and so it’s well worth reserving these tickets in advance too! We personally love and use booking activities through GetYourGuide.
#8 Use an oyster card or contactless card for public transportation
Though there’s no denying that public transportation in London is certainly more expensive than many other European cities such as Amsterdam or Paris, the easiest way to avoid extra hefty fees is to avoid buying single-use tickets.
Instead, use a contactless card to tap in and out of the public transport system. Worried your foreign bank will charge fees? No problem! You can also purchase an Oyster Card from a ticket machine with a £5 refundable deposit. More details for purchasing Oyster Cards can be found here.
#9 Drivers in the UK drive on the left-hand side of the road
Be careful when crossing the road because people in the UK drive on the left-hand side of the road. As such, also bear this in mind when hailing a cab (in London, ‘taxis’ are known as ‘cabs’), getting on and off buses, and checking you’re taking public transportation in the right direction!
#10 Much of central London is best explored on foot
I would advise not renting or using a car in London as traffic is terrible and the ‘congestion’ charge for using a car in central London is high. Once you’ve arrived in a district that you wish to explore, more often than not, the city is then best explored on your own two feet.
This way, you can enter into any of the museums or monuments that you wish to see. This is also how to stumble upon to hidden gems and off the beaten path locations that you might have otherwise missed! As a result, comfortable walking shoes are an absolute essential for exploring the city.
#11 A note on where to eat in London
London is one of the most diverse cities in the world and, as such, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of places to eat where there’s a range of delicious dishes and foodstuffs. ‘Traditional’ British food includes fish and chips (though this is best enjoyed at the seaside as opposed to in London) and
For affordable eats in the city, there are plenty of options. Most of the larger supermarket chains and chemists (Sainsburys, Tescos, Boots) offer a ‘meal deal’ for lunch. This is essentially where you can get a sandwich/ salad, snack (crisps, fruit, chocolate bar), and a drink for a reasonable rate.
Otherwise, be sure to check out many of the fantastic food markets that are dotted across London. Among some of the best London markets are Borough Market (dating back to the 13th-century, hands down this is the best foodie spot in the city), Berwick Street Market (located in Soho), and Boxpark Shoreditch.
#12 Check out a pub
Head to any town, city, or even the tiniest of villages in the UK and you’ll soon discover that pubs are a staple of British life. London has no less than three and a half thousand taverns, bars, inns, and drinking establishments!
While it’s certainly true that some are better than others, for a true taste of British culture be sure to frequent a pub at least once. The legal drinking age in the UK is 18 and Challenge 25 is in operation, which means that if you look younger than 25, you’ll be asked for some kind of government issued ID (driving license, passport, etc.)
#13 You may need a travel adapter
The UK uses different plug sockets to those of North America, the rest of continental Europe (with the exception of the Republic of Ireland), and much of the rest of the world. As such, you’ll probably need to purchase a travel adapter before your UK visit! Bring along a universal travel adapter like this one to help you keep your electronics charged on the go!
#14 There’s much more to the UK than just London!
Of all the London travel tips I could give you, this one might seem the most unusual. However, whenever I tell people that I’m from England, I’m often met with ‘so, London?’ Considering that the city is the capital of the UK this isn’t unreasonable.
However, there is so much more to Britain than just London! Some of the best day trips from the city include visits to Stonehenge, Salisbury, the countryside of The Cotswolds, and the seaside of Brighton. If I were to recommend just one excursion from the city, it would probably be a day trip from London to Oxford, the university city often referred to as ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’!
#15 Learn the local London vocabulary & pronunciations
The London Underground is locally known as the ‘tube’ as opposed to the metro. Otherwise, you should note that pretty much no place names are pronounced how they’re written down! Case in point: ‘Marylebone’ which is pronounced more like ‘Marleybon’. Many people assume that the nearby town of ‘Reading’ is pronounced as if you were ‘reading a book’. Instead, it’s pronounced more like ‘redding’.
#16 Be wary of common tourist scams
Though London is generally regarded to be a safe city for visitors, you should be sure to keep an eye on your belongings at all times. This is especially true in crowded areas or when you’re travelling on the tube. Be sure to travel with a bag that can be zipped up and be especially careful when using your mobile phone!
#17 Many of the best views of London are free
Of course, everyone knows that some of the most beautiful viewpoints in London can be found in the form of The Shard and from the viewing tower at Tower Bridge. However, what you may well not know is that there’s also a plethora of stunning free views to be discovered as well.
For example, the Sky Garden can be found in the very heart of the City of London and is free to visit. However, you’ll need to book a free ticket in advance so as to reserve your place as there are only a limited number of spots available each day. Otherwise, the Garden at 120 is also free to enjoy and currently has no ticketing process.
#18 Tipping may well be already included in your bill
Unlike in many other European cities, many restaurants in London add a discretionary 12.5% tip at the end of your bill. As such, read your receipt carefully as you may well have already tipped when paying for your food or drinks! Compared with the US or Canada, the UK and Europe, in general, doesn’t really tend to have a tipping culture at all.
#19 Sometimes it’s quicker to walk between tube stations!
London’s tube system looks more like a system of rings as opposed to a spider’s web, and so it’s often easier, quicker (and obviously cheaper) to walk between tube stations as opposed to hopping on the underground. As a result, online maps are your best friend and plan your journey before you set off!
#20 Remember to utilise the Hopper Fare
And while we’re on the subject of public transport, it’s also worth noting that taking the bus is considerably cheaper than taking the tube. The recently introduced London hopper fare also means that if you’re a contactless method of payment (card or Oyster card) then you can take unlimited bus and tram journeys for free within one hour of first touching in.
Hint: The bus is a free and very inexpensive way to enjoy a self-guided tour of the city in a limited amount of time! With this being said, be sure to avoid rush hour (i.e. 8 – 10 AM and 4 – 6 PM) as this is when the roads become busy with traffic.
#21 *Sometimes* Pret gives out free coffee
Instead of a loyalty or rewards programme, Pret has a scheme whereby employees are allowed to give out free coffee at their discretion. This is a great idea as it gives customers an extra incentive to be nice to their barista (not that you should need one!) And no, the free coffee is not just a rumour. I’ve been lucky enough to get several coffees for free!
#22 It’s possible to get cheap theatre tickets
Want to see a performance but don’t want to spend a fortune? Well, the good news is that it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a theatre performance or play for a reduced fee. All you need to do is to head to the TKTS booth in the very heart of Leicester Square and see what tickets are left for showings that same day. Unsold tickets are often heavily discounted and are only available to purchase in person.
#23 Don’t hire a taxi from the airport
One of the biggest London travel mistakes you could make would be to take a taxi from the airport to the city centre. The cost will be great and the traffic is likely to be pretty heavy. Instead, make use of the great public transportation city between the airports and London’s centre.
#24 The best view of Big Ben is not actually at the Houses of Parliament
It’s a common misconception that you can actually ‘see’ Big Ben. Instead, the name ‘Big Ben’ is what locals call the bell that rings out from within the Elizabeth Tower in the Houses of Parliament. The best view of the Neo-Gothic building is to be found from the other side of the River Thames.
#25 Stay in central London
Of all the tips I could give you for visiting London, it would be to make sure you book your accommodation in central London. London is a particularly sprawling city and you don’t want to waste your precious time in the city commuting to and from your accommodation. What’s more is that the money you’ll save in booking a place further out is what you’ll likely end up spending on commuting in and out of the city!
#26 There’s a world outside of London worth exploring
Many visitors go to London and then leave the UK before taking the time to go anywhere else. This is a mistake. The UK is a diverse and beautiful nation and you should be sure to set aside a little time to venture out at least once on a day trip from the British capital.
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