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13 Things to Know Before Your First Trip to London

I still remember my first trip to London and the moment when it became one of my favorite cities in the world. I arrived, jet-lagged after not sleeping on my first transatlantic flight and hoofed it to a bicycle tour. We stopped to admire the view of Parliament at the exact spot pictured above, and I realized: wow! I’m in London! I was hooked, and I’ve been back over a dozen times since – I even moved to London for a year because I love it so much.

If you’re planning your first trip to London, I’m excited for you. You’re about to explore one of my favorite places on earth! You’re going to (hopefully) fall in love with the sights and smells and tastes of (what I consider) the world’s greatest city. But let’s be honest: there are a lot of things to know before your first trip to London that will make your whole trip easier.

In this post, you’ll find my best tips for visiting London – especially for your first trip to London. From timing to packing to on-the-ground advice, the tips below will help you feel more confident about planning your London trip, and once you arrive in this awesome destination.

This post was originally published in June 2017, and was updated in May 2022 for the summer travel season.

1. Visit during Summer for Better Weather

London Parliament at Sunset

Personally, I think London has delightful weather year-round, but I get the rainy grey isn’t for everyone. If you’re trying to decide when to visit London, here are the basics of London weather by season.

In the winter (November through March), London experiences a cold, grey, and often rainy climate. Temperatures can get down to freezing and it’s possible to get snow in the coldest months of the year (January and February). If you’re visiting London during this time, bring layers and rain gear to stay warm and dry.

In the spring (March through May), London comes to life as the temperatures rise and the sun returns. You may still experience rain more often than not, but you’ll also get to see magnolias and daffodils in bloom and a few glorious days of sun.

View from Tower of London

In the summer (May through September), London is at her finest. London has a delightful, warm, and sunny summer that makes up for all the terrible weather during the rest of the year. It’s sunny most days in the summer (rain is, as always, a possibility, so be sure to check the forecast), but you can theoretically catch a tan if you decide to take a rest one day in one of London’s famous parks. Unsurprisingly, summer is London’s peak season for tourism.

In the autumn (September through November), the weather turns slowly colder and wetter. London experiences a nice autumn with some good foliage colors, but you should prepare for wet weather and stops to warm up over a pint in the pub.

During a weeklong trip to London (or longer), be sure to check the 10-day forecast so you can get a sense of what’s coming. In autumn, winter, and spring, even if the forecast doesn’t call for rain, it’s best to assume there might be some and plan accordingly (museum day, anyone?).

2. Compare Flights to All London Airports

St. Paul's Across Millennium Bridge

Did you know London has six major airports? And they’re all easy to travel to/from Central London?

This once local’s-only secret is increasingly well known: you can fly internationally to Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City, and Southend airport. From Europe you can find great deals into Stansted, Luton, and City airports; us North Americans should always cost compare Heathrow and Gatwick… Increasingly, Gatwick is a cheaper way to fly to London!

Be sure to compare flights to try and save, especially if you’re traveling in peak season.

3. Use Credit Cards (Skip the Cash)

It’s widely known that Europeans still prefer cash over credit cards. However, as a tourist, there’s no real need to bring cash (British pound) to London.

Pretty much all London businesses accept credit cards and contactless payment, with VISA and MASTERCARD as the most accepted ones. You can also use credit cards for transportation, including the Tube, taxis, and buses. Remember to check with your card issuer if they add a fee for overseas transactions. 

Still, I think it is worth carrying some cash with you, in case you lose your credit card or you visit a place where they don’t accept them. You don’t need to exchange money before your trip. There are ATMs at airports if you decide you need some cash when you arrive – it’s the easiest and most advantageous alternative.

4. Pack Clothes according to the Season

V on Millennium Bridge

What to pack for London depends a lot on the season you plan to visit. I already broke down each season above, but as you can imagine, visiting in the rainy winter or spring requires a very different list of what to pack than the sunny summer or brisk autumn.

I put together a list of what you actually need to pack for London based on the seasons and London’s unique fashion scene (rain boots! sunglasses! Burberry trenches!). Check out my London packing list for the full list.

5. Don’t Stay in Central London

St. Paul's Cathedral

A lot of people will advise you to stay in Central London on your first trip… but that’s a sure-fire way to blow your vacation budget and be located in tourist-central. Instead, get out of Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus and stay in one of London’s neighborhoods:

  • West London, like Kensington, Chelsea, or even Brompton, is still the poshest part of town. It’s a bit more spendy but has a more residential vibe.
  • North London, or should I say near-North London like Angel or King’s Cross, is in close proximity to Central London but often quieter and a bit cheaper.
  • East London, including Brick Lane, Shoreditch, and Aldgate East, is the place to be especially if you love the nightlife, street food, and street art.
  • South London, like Bankside or Bermondsey, is a lesser-visited part of the city, but still has an urban feel and great public transit access (mostly bus).

If you have your heart set on staying in Central London, look at neighborhoods like Hoxton or Clerkenwell. These neighborhoods are away from the crowds but within walking distance of attractions like Covent Garden, the West End, and the British Museum.

6. Get Around London on Public Transit

Tube entering London Underground Station

Do. not. rent. a. car.

That might be rookie mistake #1, and hopefully, it didn’t even cross your mind. You don’t need a car to get around London or even most of England, so don’t waste your money renting one!

Instead, opt for public transportation. London’s Underground system (the Tube) is efficient if crowded and connects all the major parts of the city. The buses make up the difference, and on my most recent trip to London, I actually traveled more by bus than by tube. You can get literally everywhere in London by tube or bus and with a little bit of walking.

To make the most of your vacation budget, get an oyster card and buy a 7-day pass for zones 1-2. This is the most cost-effective option as it will allow you unlimited rides within the core zones in London. As this itinerary is made for 10-days, I recommend purchasing a 7-day pass and then adding another £25 pay-as-you-go after that expires. In zones 1-2, you pay a max of £6.80 per day, so that will cover any additional sightseeing you want to do.

For travel to/from the airports, purchase a separate ticket for those rides.

7. Download the Right London Apps

Visitors will find tons of London apps to help their trip run smoothly. There are apps for landmarks and the best cafés. You also have apps to know about the accessibility of a place and for renting bikes.

However, the most convenient and useful apps are for the city’s public transportation. London’s public transportation is amazing. No question about that. Nonetheless, it can be confusing for travelers to understand the different lines, stops, and schedules. 

There are tons of London transport apps that will help you avoid standing in front of the Tube map trying to decipher it. For example, the TfL (Transport for London) has its own app, the TfL Go, with info about the lines, bus and train times, and stations.  

A London transport app is also useful to manage your time efficiently as you get live updates to know when the services are arriving at your station. Because you don’t want to waste a second of your time in London! 

8. Choose Low-Cost or Free Attractions

British Museum Atrium

Many of London’s museums are free (like the British Museum, pictured above), and some attractions offer discount days for admission. London’s parks are also always free. Also, if you’re considering a walking tour, you can often find a self-guided option instead of paying for a guide.

If you’re like me and are planning your London itinerary down to the minute for this first trip, be sure to research opening dates and hours as well as the admission fee – you might find those great deals that save you a few pounds. (Which you can later spend at the pub!)

9. Purchase a London Pass

Buckingham Palace

I don’t typically promote pre-set tours or passes, but I booked a London Pass for my first trip to London… and I have to admit it made it so much easier to see the main sights during that first trip when I was overwhelmed and disoriented. If you like the idea of a pass to the main attractions in London, it’s a great option. You’ll get free or discounted admission to tons of them.

A couple of notes on using the London Pass:

  1. You’ll purchase your London Pass for a certain number of consecutive days, and it only works for those days. If, for example, you’re in London for five days and you only want a 3-day pass, it will only work three days in a row during your trip.
  2. You receive discounted or free access to 80+ attractions in London including the Tower of London, the View from The Shard, and Buckingham Palace. Trust me when I say you can’t see them all, even with a 10-day pass!
  3. Plan ahead to visit popular attractions early each day; go off the beaten path in the afternoon so you don’t waste your days waiting in line.

Interested? Visit the London Pass website.

10. Book Everything in Advance

No matter what you choose to do in London, tickets and admission are almost always cheaper if you book online in advance. Also, London is one of the world’s top destinations, and attractions/showtimes do sell out.

If you have your heart set on experiencing something, book it in advance.(Otherwise, you’ll be like me on my most recent trip where I waited to purchase my tickets to the WB Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden and then they were completely sold out!)

11. Enjoy British Food & Drink

If you believe that food in London is terrible because it’s British, prepare to have your mind blown.

The culinary scene in London is one of the best in the world, buoyed by immigrants that have flocked to the city for centuries. Yes, you can find staples like fish and chips and bangers and mash, but you can also find those done up right, on menus alongside stunning Indian and Bangladeshi dishes, tasty Thai options, and plenty of American foods (burgers have been having a five-year moment).

Heck, Bourdain showed us that British food is having a renaissance.

Clerk & Well Pub

In terms of drinks and drinking culture, the pub is central to your experience in London. You should try to eat in a pub at least once, and if the first one is terrible, try another.

Many pubs in London are owned by several big companies and offer a bit more ‘cookie-cutter-ish’ experience than I like, but I still have a few favorites that are either independently run or still doing it their own way. (A couple of my favorites include the Clerk & Well and the Lady Ottoline, both near my former school, and the Princess of Prussia near Tower Bridge.)

When it comes to pints, you can enjoy pretty much anything you want: classic British ales like London Pride and Doom Bar; craft beer like Camden Town Brewing, Meantime Brewing, or Brewdog (out of Scotland); or cider (both craft and big-batch). You’ll also find beer bars and tasting rooms popping up more as London steps beyond its hand-pulled cask ale days; there are also plenty of other great London drinks to try too.

12. Pace Yourself

Tower Bridge in London

London is a huge city, and there’s more to see than you can ever possibly try to fit into 10 days (much less 3, 5, or 7 days which is more common!).

Instead, you’ll need to pick the sights and experiences that are most important to you, and plan to fit those into your London itinerary. If you have extra time, you can add more. What you don’t want to do is pack in so much that you’re so tired by day 4 that you can hardly enjoy (or remember) the rest of your trip.

After so many of my own trips to London trust me when I say you have to pace yourself.

V in front of Street Art Wall

It was my first trip to London, way back in 2011, which made me fall in love with the city. Now, even after living there for a year, I miss London almost every day. I try and make every trip have that same magic of my first London trip, and heck – even I need a reminder of these tips if it’s been too long since my last trip!

13. Add a Day Trip to your Itinerary

London has no shortage of things to do and see – you’ll need multiple trips to the city to cover them all! However, there are also other stunning parts of England, Britain, and Europe you can reach from London.

Thanks to its public transportation and proximity to mainland Europe, London serves as a perfect base to explore, too. Travelers enjoy plenty of alternatives, depending on how long they’re staying in London and what interests them most.  

A day trip to Windsor is a fantastic option for those fascinated with British royalty. Paris is a two-hour train ride away from London. Stonehenge is a great day trip for history buffs. Plus, you can get a glimpse of the English countryside on the way there. If none of these strike your fancy, there are plenty of other great day trips from London to choose from.

Have other questions about planning your first trip to London that I didn’t cover with these tips? Let me know in the comments!

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    Valerie fell in love with London on her first trip to the city way back in 2011. Since then, she spent a year living in London and visits as often as she can. Join her to explore my favorite city on earth and learn everything you need to discover the best London has to offer!

    6 Comments

    • Maureen

      Great information and tips! Will be helpful for my first trip next year (hopefully). How do you get from the airport to London? Do you take the train/underground? Or is it best to do a car hire?

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        Valerie

        Thanks so much, Maureen. My top suggestion is to take the Piccadilly Line from the airport (Heathrow) to Central London – I do that every time I visit London. It’s just easier and often faster and *certainly* cheaper than any other way to get to town!

    • Alexander Fisher

      Thanks a lot for sharing such valuable information about London travel but when it comes to plan a day trip, it is good to hire a private London airport transfer service as the public transportations are quite full & crowded. Plus, you will get a reliable driver.

    • Alyssa Strength

      Thank you so much! This is my dream trip and this information will be so helpful when I’m actually able to go. My plan is for the coronation of Charles III. Talk about once in a lifetime trip. Hopefully it’s done at a time when I can actually go.

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        Valerie

        I’m so glad to help, Alyssa! I actually happened to be in London this past week for the events leading to the Queen’s funeral and heard the pronouncement of Charles III and I’m hoping to come back for the Coronation as well!

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