London can be a chaotic city for first time visitors. It’s easy to get lost, spend too much money, and what is going on with the tube etiquette? Lucky for you, I’ve now lived here for 7 years, and have some local tips for visiting London for the first time.
One (probably the only) similarity between my North Carolinian hometown and London is the crowds of tourists that flock to these places each year. Once the transportation and hotels are sorted, the next question for any visitor is what they are going to do on their trip.
But possibly just as important is what to avoid doing in your host city. London is a place that comes with a unique set of do’s and do not’s, and there’s a few tourist activities that you are better off skipping. Here’s some recommendations and local tips for visiting London:
Getting Around London
Stand on the Right
On the Tube escalators. Don’t stand on the left. This is probably the most important advice anyone visiting London should have. If you do this, best case, everyone will passively aggressively tut and huff at you. Worst case, you’ll nearly get shoved over.
And Adhere to Tube Etiquette
Let people off first please. Oh and don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Actually probably best just to stare forlornly at your feet if you really want to fit in.
I’ve also never understood the people that run for a tube train when there’s another one right behind it with the same destination, what’s the point of that?
Don’t Lose Your Way
One app will save you: Citymapper. I remember my early days in London, those dark days before I had an iPhone, forced to memorise directions in my head. And, in many cases, forget them two seconds later, leaving my friend waiting in a bar for half an hour before he had to come find me. But Citymapper changed my life. Even the ultra directionally challenged can find the best way to get somewhere. For those from overseas, you can download journeys whenever you have WiFi to view later offline; no data charges.
If you are navigating the tube, it’s not nearly as scary as it looks. Get the tube map app, follow Citymapper, or keep an eye out for maps in stations and on carriages.
Don’t Take the Tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden
The distance between these two stations is the shortest out of any on the tube network at just 1/4 mile. It’s so much quicker to walk, and it means you won’t have to deal with the horrific choice between an overcrowded elevator or the longest staircase in the world to get out.
Stay Away from Major Stations at Rush Hour
Stations like Bank and Waterloo between about 8:30-9:30 am and 5:30-6:30 pm on weekdays are the worst places on earth. In fact, try to avoid the most of the tube lines and trains during these times unless you enjoy spending your journey crushed into someone’s armpit.
If you have to travel during these times, patience is key. When you arrive, check the board and look for trains that are arriving with one or two minute gaps. The second of these trains will likely be much less crowded.
Seeing the Sights in London
Don’t Get Taken in by Tourists Traps
By this I chiefly mean avoid places like M&M World. Why does it exist? And why does nearly every tourist go there? I once got lured in while some friends were up for the day with their kids under the suggestion that they might have peanut butter ones. They didn’t. Or any other awesome/weird American flavours. Just wall to wall of pointless colours and screaming children. I still have nightmares about it.
Skip Gimmicky Attractions
I can’t say I have first hand experience of places like the London Dungeons and London Bridge Experience. But I do know they are crowded, overpriced, and lacking an authentic London spirit. Madam Tussaud’s will give you some fun pictures, but it’s expensive, crowded, and you’re better off prioritising other sites.
Save your time for some of London’s great (and free) museums. Spend your money on top-notch theatre, historical sights, and maybe even a spot of afternoon tea.
If you have kids, there are some great, less expensive things you can do. I recommend the Horniman Museum, which, along with its indoor curiosities, including a small aquarium, has a musical playground and a little zoo outdoors the kids will love. Or try the Science Museum, which has multi-sensory areas to keep them entertained.
And a few do’s for visiting London
Journey Off the Main Tourist Routes
If it’s your first time in the city, the main sites in Westminster and the City are likely to be top of your list. But if you have time, journey out of Zone 1 for a different experience.
Take the District line to Richmond or Kew Gardens to enjoy a sunny day, explore the sights in Greenwich, or grab some food/cocktails in the Clapham area. Bonus points if you make it to Balham, my favourite little part of London.
If you end up in the City (the square mile roughly between St Paul’s and the Tower), go to Leadenhall Market. It’s slightly hidden, but utterly charming, even if many of the places within it are now chains. You may even recognise it, it was used as Diagon Alley in the first Harry Potter film.
Go to the Pub
Most are family friendly (and some are dog friendly!), full of cosy places to sit and, of late, often have tasty, high-quality grub. Grab a pint and a booth (or go sit outside if they have a beer garden!) and enjoy the very best part of British culture. Skip obvious one around Covent Garden and look for ones out of the tourist areas.
If you are looking for somewhere historic to enjoy your ale, try one of these.
Embrace Street Food
Matt and I have a goal when it comes to getting food in London: Try as many street food stalls as possible. Reasonably priced, great variety, and some of the tastiest eats I’ve ever had, street food markets throughout the capital are the perfect way to grab something on the go. There’s plenty to choose from, and Time Out has some great recommendations. One of my personal faves is the Southbank Market. It takes place near Waterloo on weekends and has a great variety of stalls.
And Do Enjoy London’s Must-Sees
Yes, there are some places that attract the tourists that are definitely worth the visit and I still love to this day. See the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, explore around St Paul’s, and (once the renovations finish) hear the chimes of Big Ben. These are the things that makes this city so memorable, and that I love to this day.
Want more local tips for visiting London? Check out my other London guides: