So you’re going to London, eh? Super exciting! Especially if you’re an American and this is your first trip abroad. There’s an incredible number of fascinating attractions in London, and it’s the perfect city to earn your International Traveler-Legs (I just made that up, but they’re sort of like sea-legs;)). I’m sure you have visions of what you think this historic city will be like in your head, but I’m here to tell you London is probably not exactly what you’re envisioning, it’s even better. So I’m also here to help you make the most of your trip with my top 5 planning tips for your first visit to amazing London.
During my very first trip abroad I visited London and Paris; a classic first-timer’s itinerary, but it’s definitely a solid one. This trip was a college graduation gift from my amazingly awesome big brother. He’s an Air Force Pilot, but at the time he had not yet made it outside of Germany during any of his work trips through Europe, so neither of us had any true European travel experience. We definitely made some mistakes during that trip (in our defense, this was before the invention of smart phones and having GPS at the ready), but it was nonetheless amazing. On that note, I almost feel like we all deserve to have some sort of monument erected in our honor for surviving those times (the before smart phones era). Paper maps make life hard! #AmIRight ??
So having officially been bitten by the travel bug, after Michael and I got married I promptly got him up to speed with our own vacation to London. He too fell in love with this bustling, yet history-rich city, so we’ve actually returned twice since then. This isn’t nearly as often as I would like to visit, but considering how much other traveling we do it’s pretty telling that, other than Paris, this is the only destination we’ve repeated thus far. Simply put, London has a hold of our hearts, and every time we visit it provides us a brand new and exciting experience, even if we end up at the same familiar places.
During our two most recent vacations to London, we brought along friends of ours. I did most of the itinerary planning during these trips as well, and while I’m certainly no expert in all things London, at this point I’d like to think I’m somewhat skilled in arranging a thorough overview of some of the best London has to offer. Though, you could truly spend an entire lifetime there and still miss out on some pretty incredible sights, which is why I’d love to move to London so I could put this theory to the test, but I digress….;)
After brainstorming on my own a bit in preparation for this post, I asked Michael what he wished he had known, and/or what he felt were the most valuable insights he had knowledge of before his first trip to London with me. We’re on the same page about many things, but we each came up with a couple unique tips to consider even before you book those plane tickets!
Here are our Top 5 Tips for Your First Visit to London
Life is Good When You’re In the Inner Circle
As I’m sure you’re aware, London is an enormous city, so naturally the first question your probably asking yourself is: “Where the heck should I stay?” While I can’t answer that question as precisely as most would like, as it really comes down to personal preference, I can at least offer some guidance. When looking at a handful of London’s biggest attractions and landmarks on a map, specifically Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, The British Museum, The Tower of London, and Big Ben, connect these sites clockwise to form an imaginary circle and try to book your accommodations within this circle. Sure, you could stay in the outskirts and rely on public transportation to get you into central London, where many of the tourist attractions are, but it’s your first visit, so why not stay where the action is? Use Google Earth to check out the area before booking anything, and rely on reviews to be sure there aren’t any noise complaints. Note that side streets adjacent to busy squares can be surprisingly peaceful.
Additionally, I highly recommend staying in an Airbnb rental, as we have gone the hotel route in London and found you can usually get more bang for your buck, not to mention a more authentic experience by renting a flat. Hotel rooms in London are expensive, even the “cheap” ones, due to the exchange rate, and they are typically very tiny. Often hotels are not equipped with air conditioning (the cold kind), or an en suite bathroom, so pay close attention before booking. It’s also a good idea to do your research on the different neighborhoods to see which area suits your personality best.
During my first drip to London with my brother, I was in my early 20s and wanted to be in the midst of the action, so my roommate at the time recommended staying in Piccadilly Circus, which one might equate to New York’s Times Square. At this point in my life I had never even thought of attempting to rent a flat through a website like VRBO or Airbnb (not sure either even existed back then), so we booked a teeny tiny hotel room right in Piccadilly Circus. It was indeed a very convenient location; however, our room did not have AC and we were there during the summer (windows open), and alllll night long we listened to glass bottles from nearby clubs and restaurants being dumped at some sort of collection point in the alleyway several stories beneath us. It echoed so loudly off the buildings that it sounded as if they were dumping the glass right in the middle of our hotel room. We had no clue what we were doing back then, but it was an invaluable lesson in the importance of studying reviews. So when you see people complaining about noise issues during their stay in London, for the love of sleep please take them seriously.
Keep Your Dogs From Barking
Hopefully most of you have heard the expression “my dogs are barking,” meaning ones feet are hurting. Even with the most comfortable footwear, your feet are bound to get tired while roaming the historic streets of London. A good way to minimize the agony is to be sure there’s a tube stop within a block of your accommodations. Rental property hosts or hotel websites will usually mention any nearby public transportation stops in their descriptions, but again, do your own research by looking at a map before booking, and also be sure the nearest tube stop isn’t closed for renovations. Additionally, take advantage of this form of transportation whenever it makes sense to do so. For instance, if you’re staying in Westminster, don’t walk to the Tower of London or Saint Paul’s Cathedral, unless you’re: A) not in a hurry. B) wearing incredibly comfortable shoes. C) an Olympic Race-Walker. Or D) planning to make some pit-stops at other sights on your way there. If not, save your feet, and your valuable vacation time by hopping on that Tube. Perhaps you can take a leisurely stroll on your way back, if you’re feeling frisky.
Have an Exit Strategy
During that first trip to London with my brother, we flew into London’s Gatwick Airport, and then we promptly sat and stared at the train schedules with our eyeballs crossed for a good 20-30 minutes trying to get our bearings. You’ll likely be a bit of a weary traveler upon your arrival, and if you’re not used to taking public transportation (like most Americans) figuring all of this out on the spot can be a bit overwhelming. It’s actually quite simple to get into the city, and life is pretty good nowadays with the help of smartphones and Google Maps’ transit schedule feature; but you can make your life even easier by figuring out the logistics ahead of time so you’ll know exactly how to get the heck out of that airport, and into Central London so your vacation can officially begin.
London Can Be Your Oyster
This will make sense, I promise. The “easy pass” for London’s mass transit system is called an Oyster Card, and this handy little piece of plastic will help you flow swiftly through London’s underground system like a pro, just as the locals do. Well, at least you can pretend to be a pro, right? I definitely recommend picking up one of these cards (each traveler will need one) at the airport before you hop on the train to head into central London. Or if you’re super organized, you can purchase one online here, which they’ll mail to you so you’ll be ready to hit the ground running upon your arrival. So instead of messing with the machines to purchase paper tickets each time you wish to utilize the tube, or purchasing daily passes (which also come in paper ticket form and scream “I’m a tourist” when you’re holding up the line of rush hour commuters trying to feed your paper ticket into the turnstile), you can conveniently “Top Up” your Oyster card with a healthy balance at the time of purchase, then simply tap your card on the sensor as you enter the turnstile, and off you go!
The convenience alone is reason enough to opt for the card, rather than purchasing paper tickets, but there’s the added benefit of receiving a discount on fares, making this purchase a no-brainer. Each time you scan your card when you’re entering or leaving the tube station, your balance will appear on the turnstile, so you’ll know ahead of time when your balance is getting low and it’s time to “top up” at one of the many automated machines available in the tube and railway stations. The card itself will only set you back 3 pounds, but when you’re done using it you can return your card and you’ll be refunded your 3 pounds, as well as any unused balance on the card.
Summer Time is the Best Time
Okay, so maybe don’t go during peak tourist season, but after all, it’s London….it’s always tourist season. So why not go when the weather is pleasant, and the days are long? During a first visit to London I highly recommend going during the summer for a few reasons, the most important being time management.
I’ve vacationed in London twice during the summer time, and twice over Thanksgiving. While it’s awe inspiring being in London during the festive holiday season, it really puts a strain on your itinerary. After the clocks fall back, the sun begins to set right around the time you’ll likely be emerging from some indoor attraction or museum. Or worse, it’ll set even before you make your way out, and you’ll be shocked that the night sky fell upon the city so quickly. Because of this, it feels like the day is over by 5pm and you’ve missed out on some great outdoor photo opportunities, since it’s now too dark to capture those beautiful park and historic architecture photos.
During the summer, it’s just so much easier to accomplish your sightseeing wish list, and you’re able to do so at a much more leisurely pace.
When Michael and I visited London during the summer, we typically got up pretty early to ‘get our tourist on’ and visit two or three attractions on our sightseeing wish list, and then we’d sort of chill out for the rest of the day….grabbing a couple beers at an interesting pub, strolling through the park while enjoying an ice cream cone, or wandering the historic streets looking for those off-the-beaten-path eateries. It’s not nearly as much fun to wander the streets of London in the dead of winter when it’s freezing cold, or even in the fall when it’s chilly and rainy. Not to mention London’s many stunningly colorful and meticulously maintained gardens won’t be in bloom, and it’d be a terrible shame to miss out on this. Just do yourself several favors and go during the summer.;)