Of all of the cities that I've visited, London remains my absolute favorite. Why? It's a combination of the deeply layered history, the vibrant and distinct neighborhoods, and the dozens of iconic sites. I've had the chance to visit five times over the last 13 years, and I find something new to discover--and love--about the city every time I go.
London was the first city I visited on our first European trip. It was my home away from home during my study abroad program in college. It was where I realized the depth of my British literature obsession...which would ultimately lead me to get my graduate degree in English.
Yes, the weather can be moody (to put it nicely) and you'll never be fully dressed without an umbrella in your bag, but if you can look past that, London can be one of the most phenomenal trips of your life.
In this article, I'm going to share what you need to know for your first trip to London. It's by no means a comprehensive list of things to see or do in the city, as that would be nearly impossible on just one trip (or even 10!). What I've offered below should give you an overlook into this fascinating place and, hopefully, whet your appetite to come back and explore even more deeply.
Where to StayYou could probably stay in a different London hotel every night of your life and not have too many repeats as there are a ridiculous number of offerings in the city centre and beyond. While I can't speak to every accommodation option in London, here are a few that I have personal experience with and can wholeheartedly recommend:
- Avni Kensington is located close to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, and Kensington Palace. It's a five minute walk to Gloucester Road Tube station and is well situated close to other hotels, restaurants, and pubs. The hotel sits inside several refurbished rowhouses; while the hotel is basic and the rooms are small compared to American standards, the place is very clean and comes with a continental breakfast. It's not the most glamorous of hotels, but it is in a fantastic location in the heart of one of London's nicest neighborhoods.
- Holiday Inn London Bloomsbury is a great choice for budget travelers who still want to be near transportation. Located just a few blocks from both the Euston and Kings Cross train stations, this Holiday Inn is also an easy walk to the British Museum. It's not the prettiest building, but it is clean and well-situated (it's practically on top of the Russell Square Tube stop). All guests get to eat off of the breakfast buffet, and there's an onsite bar and restaurant. The rooms can be quite tight if you're traveling with more than 2 adults--I stayed here with my parents and sister, and once the fold out bed was in position, we didn't have much room to walk around. That being said, if you're looking for a clean place to sleep (and not a resort to lounge around in all day), this is a solid choice.
- Sheraton Grand Park Lane really couldn't be better located. It's in the heart of the city, and many major attractions can be reached with little effort on foot. Buckingham Palace is a quick five walk through Green Park, Piccadilly Circus is less than 15 minutes away, and the Parliament building is just under a mile from the hotel. The hotel was built in the 1920s, and has a fantastic Art Deco feel to it. The Palm Court is a light, airy spot for cocktails or afternoon tea. It is an older hotel, but it's undergoing refurbishment, so look for a facelift in the rooms. The bathrooms and bedrooms are some of the biggest that I've seen in Europe: the space and the location are well worth the price.
If those don't suit your fancy, I'd suggest staying in the city centre so you have access to all of the major tourism sites via Zone 1 of the Tube and the bus system. Everyone in London has their own favorite areas, but mine include Chelsea (shopping and celebrity sightings), South Kensington (posh rowhouses and fantastic museums), Covent Garden (theatres and daily market), and Bloomsbury (literary history and the British Museum). Hotels within this areas will put you in easy walking distance of all that London has to offer, and they are generally safe neighborhoods, even if you're coming in after a late night.
What to Eat
Historically, London hasn't been known for its cuisine, but that heritage has quickly been turned on its heels in the last few decades. Today, you can find just about any type of food at any hour of the day--whether its street food at one of the markets or a 5-star restaurant, London's got it. When I visit London, I can't leave until I've had:
- Afternoon tea. Not to be confused with high tea (which, even though it sounds fancier, is actually a traditionally working class meal), afternoon tea is an exquisitely perfect excuse to don your best frock and eat dainty sandwiches while harp music plays. There's no end to the number of spots serving afternoon tea in London these days, so pick one and revel in the cucumber sandwiches, neat dishes of sugar cubes, and tiny petit fours. This list compiles one of the most eclectic and diverse afternoon tea options I've seen lately, and I need to try a few of them out myself. Many museums and attractions have their own tea offerings; the British Museum has a particularly good one.
- Cornish pasties. These flaky handheld pastries hail from the county of Cornwall, but you don't have to go nearly that far to find one in London. You can get one stuffed with traditional ingredients like meat, potatoes, and carrots, or you can try a more modern take with cheese, chicken, and broccoli. They're cheap, they're tasty, and they're easy to take away.
- Street food. If you don't go to one of London's markets during your visit, you are missing out. Wander Portobello Road Market each Saturday, and try one of the massive, freshly made doughnuts straight out of the vat. Go shopping in Spitalfields Market and munch on a bagel, pizza, or falafel. It's not the most glamorous food, but it is delicious.
- Fish and chips. Can it get any more British than fish and chips? I think not. While most places have done away with serving them on newspaper, there are plenty of variations on this classic dish. Don't go home until you've tried a few versions and found your favorite.
|The perfect Saturday morning in London: antiquing at Portobello Road Market and eating a fresh doughnut!|
If you're on the run around town and want something quick, you're also likely to come across a variety of quick dishes with prawns in them (prawn sandwiches, prawn salad, etc., all of which are a no-go for me since I have a shellfish allergy), many Indian take-away options (chicken tikka masala and curries are super popular), and my beloved jacket potatoes (basically a baked potato topped with things like cheese and bacon, or broccoli and cheddar). If you want self-catering options, Marks + Spencers and Waitrose have good premade salads, pastas, and veggies.
What to SeeSeeing as how many people have written complete guidebooks on this topic, I'll boil down what you absolutely need to see on your first trip. This is the stuff that, if you don't go see, people back home will wonder if you actually went to London or if you're just making it up.
|Pictures from our tour of Parliament|
- Parliament and Big Ben. If there's one thing to see while you're in London, it's this iconic building on the banks of the River Thames. Hop on a tour of Parliament (Saturdays year round and most weekdays if Parliament isn't in session), then pose for an iconic picture with the tower. Big Ben actually refers to the bell inside the tower (which is called Elizabeth Tower), but colloquially, both the bell and the tower are called Big Ben.
- Westminster Abbey. You probably know it as the wedding location of William and Kate, but this Gothic structure has so much more to offer than royal nuptials. Take a self-guided audio tour or a verger guided tour to see the coronation chair of King Edward I, the Stone of Scone, Poet's Corner (where Ben Jonson and Geoffrey Chaucer are buried), and more than 20 royal burial plots. It's a working church, but it's also a fascinating walk through 700 years of English history.
- Buckingham Palace. If you're visiting during the summer, when the palace is open for visitors, take the time to go in. If you're visiting other times of the year, take a picture of the exterior and keep moving. Unless you are willing to devote 2+ hours of your precious sightseeing time for a good spot to see the Changing of the Guard (or, you know someone who knows someone who will let you see it from inside the gates), I'd skip this pretty uneventful ceremony.
- Harrod's. This massive department store in Knightsbridge is worth a few hours of your time because there's so much to see inside. Come hungry and head straight to the food hall; find a seat to try some of the offerings, or grab a few things to have a picnic in nearby Hyde Park. If you want even more high end shopping, wander down Brompton Road or Sloane Street, and bring the platinum card.
- St. Paul's Cathedral. Designed by famed architect Christopher Wren, this massive cathedral was one of the cornerstone buildings for the new and improved London post-1666 fire. Until about 40 years ago, it was also the tallest building in London, and it was a major target during the Blitz (you can still see the scars on the walls from the extensive bombing). Today, it's famed for its intricate detailing, views from its dome, and the Whispering Gallery.
- The Tower of London. William the Conqueror built it. Anne Boleyn died here. The Crown Jewels are still held here. No matter which part of England's history interests you the most, you'll find some tie in this fortress. Be sure to visit the White Tower to see Henry VIII's massive armor, imagine the prisoners' fear as you trace the graffiti in the Beauchamp tower, and marvel at the sparkly diamonds in the Queen's personal collection.
- British Museum. With antiquities spanning from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece to Ancient Egypt, there's something here for every history buff. The museum is massive and you can't see everything in one visit, so pace yourself. I went to school just around the corner while I was studying abroad in London, so I visited often and still didn't see everything. The mummies and Ancient Egyptian artifacts are popular, as is the room with the Elgin marbles.
|British Museum, 2011|
|Nerding out at Warner Brothers Studios|
- Harry Potter sights: Platform 9 3/4ths at Kings Cross Station and the Warner Brothers Studio Tour at Leavesden Studios. If you call yourself a Harry Potter fan, you do not want to miss either of these experiences.
- London Eye. What's not to love about a gigantic Ferris wheel? The pods hold about 30 people each and take half an hour to make the full rotation. It's a great way to see London from a new perspective.
- One of the markets. These are such a good way to get a feel for London, so add one (or more!) into your itinerary. Portobello Road, Brick Lane, Camden, Petticoat Lane, and Spitalfields are all excellent choices. Bring cash, come hungry, and see if you can find the perfect souvenir.
- Trafalgar Square. This is another iconic spot in London, but there's not much here to see other than a fountain and some stone lions. The National Gallery is just off the square, and it comes highly recommended if you have extra time.
- Kensington Palace. It's not as well known as Buckingham Palace, but it is a great place to learn more about recent royal history.
What to Know
|At Trafalgar Square, 2005 |
(P.S. I have no clue what it is up with my outfit.)
The pronunciation isn't always what you think. Thames is "Tims" and doesn't rhyme with James. Leicester is "Lester," not Lie-chester.
When they say "Mind the Gap" in the subway stations, you should listen. Some of the platforms can be more than a foot away from the subway carriage!
Spring for the Oyster card while you're there. Buy one of these cards for the Tube, and you can top-up as your funds run low. Using an Oyster card is also cheaper than buying individual tickets since you're guaranteed to get the best rate on each trip.
Everything you need in London will likely be in Zone 1. Don't bother upgrading to a more expensive Tube ticket that includes multiple zones since everything you're going to see will be in the city centre. Better yet, just spring for the Oyster card and make everything simple.
Skip the hop-on, hop-off bus tours and get on one of the big double decker city buses instead. Here are 3 great local routes, but I'm partial to the 11 (or the 211) since I used to take it all of the time when I lived there!
The Gatwick Express and the Heathrow Express trains are worth the extra expense. While the Tube is a great way to get around Westminster and the City of London, it can be quite slow if you're traveling from way out. Hop on one of the express trains from the airports so you can get started on your London adventures sooner.
The best seats on the bus are on the upper deck all the way in the front. This is also the most touristy spot on the bus, but I'm okay with the eye rolls from locals since the view is what I flew all the way over there for.
You can easily use London as a hub during your vacation. There are several easy day trips from London that you might want to add onto your trip including Stonehenge, Blenheim Palace, Oxford University, Bath, Cambridge University, and Windsor Castle.
So, I just wrote and wrote and wrote about London, and I feel as if I didn't scratch the surface. There's still SO much more to see and do, but that will have to wait for another post. This first-timer's guide will definitely get you started in the right direction when planning your trip to London.
And, if you've got questions, email me! I'm always happy to help.
Have you visited London? What was your favorite thing to see or do?
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