London Travel Tips, Attractions & More
Thirty-two boroughs. Eight million people. More than 20 different cultures. Three hundred spoken languages. These are what make up the eclectic city of London.
Under constant gray skies is a vast megalopolis of historic, cultural, creative, and economic importance, a metropolitan whose streets are bustling with life, whose people are fervent with energy. It has made its claim as one of the most important cities in the European Union and it has proven itself an unrivaled travel destination not only for tourists but also for culture, art, and history aficionados.
Whether you’re looking for an urban holiday or a cultural or historical immersion, you’ll find what you’re looking for in this great capital.
Season Suitcase Essentials
City Logistics – Getting Around the City
As a world-class destination and a global city, London is served by six airports, so you can have your pick if you’re coming into the city by plane. You may also need to consider your transport to and from the airport. As public transport can become quite expensive if you are using it everyday, maybe hiring vehicles may be your best bet. If you are coming down to London with your family, it may be best to rent out a mini van so you can all go around together. Plus, it will save you from having to pay large amounts of money for black cabs. Make sure you get insurance too, especially for over 25 van insurance, where you’ll be able to find cheaper insurance. This will be in the best interests of you and your family. You want to make sure you have a memorable time in this city, even before you’ve started to explore what London has to offer.
All of these airports are connected not only by direct inter-airport buses but also by the city’s extensive public transportation system so transferring from one airport to another as well as going into the city from one is fairly easy and inexpensive. These six airports are Heathrow, Gatwich, City, Stansted, Luton, and Southend.
The city also serves as the hub for the British rail network, which means that every major city in Britain, those that are in the mainland, are regularly served by trains to London while many of the smaller towns and cities are served by direct rail connections. These trains make it easy to go into London from anywhere in England, Wales, and Scotland. It’s the same way with the road network in the UK, except if you’re travelling by car or by domestic or international long distance bus (Eurolines, National Express), you’d have to take heavy traffic into consideration when nearing the city.
Speaking of traffic in London, driving should probably be your last choice to get around in the city. You’ll be wasting a lot of time and effort, not to mention gas, trying to maneuver through traffic. And you’d have to spend more money on congestion charge and parking. You’d be better off walking, as London is one of the most gloriously walkable cities in the world, and/or taking its extensive public transportation network. Consult Transport for London (http://www.tfl.gov.uk) to plan your daily trips and remember to look to the opposite side of the road when watching for incoming traffic.
Weather-wise, London has a reputation for being cold, gray, rainy, and unpredictable. It is especially cold and miserable in the wintertime when it’s snowing and particularly unpredictable in the springtime when you don’t know if it’s going to rain or if the sun’s coming out. But the city does have its fair share of warm days in the summertime and early fall, which would probably be the best times to enjoy the sights.
Where to Stay in London?
London isn’t what you would call a modest city. On the contrary, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world. For this reason, a vacation in this English capital isn’t going to be cheap. Still, you have a lot of budget alternatives available to you.
You can, for example, spend more than £200 a night for a hotel room at mid-range to luxurious hotels like The Savoy, The Dorchester, Claridge’s, or The Lanesborough. Or you can go the cheap route and stay at hostels or budget hotels.
Palmer’s Lodge Swiss Cottege, Clink 78, and the YHA hostels are the best hostels while MyHotel Chelsea / Bloomsbury, B+B Belgravia, and Montagu Place are among the best budget to mid-range hotels in London.
Condé Nast Traveller has a terrific list of lodging possibilities for any type of London traveller if you’re looking for more options.
Top Things to Do
As far as attractions go, London will never leave anyone wanting. The attractions within and outside its city limits are too many to see in a month, let alone a week! There are, however, a few essentials that you can prioritize during your short visit, must-sees that you shouldn’t miss especially if it’s your first time.
Here’s a list of the top things you can see and do in London:
- Buckingham Palace. As the British royalty’s most famous and enduring icon and the official London residence of the reigning queen/king, this great Neoclassical palace has witnessed many historic and lavish events as well as endured attacks during the World War II. It should be at the top of your must-visit list while in London.
- Westminster Abbey. At the heart of town is a Gothic church that has played host to coronations and many well-publicized Royal weddings and serves as the final resting place for several monarchs and aristocrats, important military figures, and other equally notable people like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton.
- The Houses of Parliament. Across the street from the abbey is one of the best examples of English architecture – the Gothic revival Palace of Westminster, the primary meeting place for the two houses of the British parliament and famous for its iconic clock tower (recently renamed Elizabeth Tower) and the Big Ben (bell).
- The London Eye. A gigantic Ferris wheel situated on the South bank of the River Thames, the London Eye is a permanent and notable fixture in the city. It has 32 capsules that could hold up to 25 people, and offers a breathtaking 30-minute ride to the top where you can enjoy London’s beautiful skyline and renowned landmarks!
- Trafalgar Square. As the city’s largest square, it is often used for political demonstrations. However, because of the commemorative sculptures and monuments, the water fountains, and the National Gallery nestled within its boundaries, it’s also one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
- Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is more of a road junction than an actual traditional circus. Think of it as London’s smaller version of NYC’s Times Square, what with its neon signs, nearby shopping and entertainment spots, and heavy foot traffic.
- Greenwich. A district in South East London, it is home to the Royal Observatory where the official Prime Meridian is based and marked and where you can stand and honestly say that you’re in two hemispheres at the same time. It is also home to the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, a British clipper ship, and the Greenwich Market.
- London parks. For a bit of R&R or a lovely picnic with friends and family, spend some time in one of London’s beautiful parks. St. James’ Park, the oldest royal park in the city, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens are the best ones, but make sure to visit the Royal Parks’ website for more information on London’s other parks.
- London architecture. While the Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Houses of the Parliament are representative of the city’s architecture, there are a few others worth seeing, including the impressive Tower Bridge, HM Tower of London, Kensington Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the modern Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe) and the Shard.
- Subterranean tours. Experience London’s history in the unique way – by going underground. See and explore the Cabinet War Rooms, the Chislehurst Caves, the London Tombs and underneath the London Bridge, the London Underground, and Brunel’s Underground Tunnel.
- London museums. The city has some amazing (and free) museums that are worth checking out, and not just on your downtime. At the top of this list are the British Museum, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Science Museum, and the collective Royal Museums in Greenwich.
- Changing of the Guard. Also called Guard Mounting, this old military practice that happens every other day in the winter and every day in the summer on the grounds of Buckingham Palace is a tradition worth seeing while you’re in town.
- River Thames. While it is the longest river in England and holds significant economic and strategic importance to the city, the River Thames is also a major attraction in London. A boat tour on the Thames will reward you with beautiful views of the city’s landmarks.
It seems there’s always a new hip and stylish restaurant or bar or hotel that pops up overnight in this amazing city. For a list of establishments that just opened or is opening this year, check out LondonTown’s awesome list.
Who says that you’d have to spend to have fun in London? One great thing about it is most of its renowned museums, including the British Museum, Tate Modern, and the National Gallery, are always free. On top of these, there are also other free attractions in the city. Check out Visit London’s site for their list.
Explore London’s Best Neighborhoods
Like many major cities, London has its share of good and bad neighborhoods. It’s important that you know which neighborhoods to avoid when you’re travelling to a big city but it’s equally important to know which neighborhoods to explore and spend your holiday in.
Here are London’s best neighborhoods:
- Notting Hill. It’s more than just a Hollywood movie. Notting Hill is a lovely sophisticated district frequented for its quaint coffee shops, high-end shopping, the Notting Hill Carnival, and the Portobello Road Market.
- Richmond. A suburb of London, Richmond is a charming town that boasts pleasant riverside views, attractive historic architecture, and the Richmond Hill that offers wonderful views of the river and the surrounding countryside.
- Covent Garden. Famous for its shopping area, which used to be a fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden also boasts the Royal Opera House, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and St. Paul’s Church. Additionally its street are alive with street performers, pubs, and bars.
- Kensington. Museums, parks, and shopping are Kensington’s main draws. It is home to the Natural History, Science, and V&A Museums (in South Kensington) as well as Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and the affluent shopping area of Knightsbridge.
- Chelsea. A now affluent district in London, Chelsea used to be London’s bohemian neighborhood. Many writers, musicians, and artists were based here, including Oscar Wilde and the Beatles. Attractions in this neighborhood include Wilde’s old house, and the Chelsea Harbour.
- Westminster. More an inner London borough than a neighborhood, Westminster is home to the Buckingham Palace, the Houses of the Parliament, 10 Downing Street, Piccadilly, and the neighborhoods of Soho and St. John’s Wood, where the famous Abbey Road crossing (from the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover) is located.
- Camden Town. Alternative lifestyle and music venues are Camden’s fortes. This district is always vibrant and alive with its colorful markets, pubs, shops, music venues, and restaurants.
- Bloomsbury. Intellectuals and academic institutions as well as coffee shops, gardens, and museums make up the Bloomsbury area, which is the center of London’s academia.
London Shopping Trips
Shopping and London are almost synonymous. As a stylish city, it is full of fashionistas and shopaholics that demand the best of the best. London is right up there with Milan and Paris as far as shopping destinations go.
The illustrious Oxford Street, Knightsbridge, King’s Road, and Brompton Road are well-known for their famous department stores like Selfridges and Harrods and prominent shops that sell the latest and classic trends in fashion. These spots are frequented by locals and tourists alike.
Vintage and market lovers will also find London a shopping paradise. The city has more than its share of vibrant and colorful specialty outdoor markets, both indoor and outdoor, that sell everything from clothing to food to antiques. Visit London has an extensive list on their website but we have our favorite markets as well. Check out our favorite London markets here.
Foodies – Where to Eat & Drink
British food may have an unfortunate reputation for being bad but this is a mostly a myth, especially in a multicultural city like London where different ethnic cuisines are as accessible and delicious as the traditional English dishes. French, Greek, Middle Eastern, Thai, Turkish, Caribbean, Indian, and Bangladeshi are just some of the ethnic cuisines you can find in the city.
For an extensive list of restaurant recommendations, check out TimeOut’s 50 Top Restaurants in London. It has everything from bistros to noodle places to classy sit-down places and you’ll definitely find something that fits your mood and budget.
Also check out strips and places like Brick Lane, Portobello Road Market, Borough Market, Edgware Road, and the Real Food Market, where there are an abundant number of restaurants and cafes.
While in London, do partake in the popular English tradition of having afternoon tea, which involves serving hot tea with savories, scones, and pastries in the afternoon, usually around 4 or 5. Afternoon tea is usually taken in somebody’s sitting room but London also has a number of tea rooms, the best of which include The Ritz, The Athenaeum, The Goring Hotel, and The Modern Pantry.
Coffee lovers need not worry. While tea is preferred in this city, London has a lot of amazing coffee shops and cafes as well. Check out the London Coffee Guide website to find the best coffee shops near you.
And of course, it won’t be a complete London experience without a visit at one of the local pubs. Grab a pint or two at one of these favorites – The Harp, The Mayflower, Ye Olde Mitre, The Faltering Fullback, and The Jerusalem Tavern.
Late Night – Nightlife in London
London is a great city for nightlife. It is, in fact, famous for it. It is as vibrant and pulsating at night as it is as bustling in the daytime, perhaps even more. This means that you have a lot of late night options at your disposal.
One such option is the rare experience of going to an exclusive secret venue and attending a chic 20s speakeasy style party. It’s all the rage in London right now – there are several clubs that host these theme nights – and it’s an experience you will never forget. I know I’ll never forget my own 1920’s prohibition night party Havana style!
For other late night adventures on the town, check out the Late Night London or Visit Britain websites!
London may be a busy and demanding city but it leaves plenty of room for romance, especially if you’re travelling with your honey. Take in the sweeping city views at the top of the Shard, ride the London Eye at sunset for a gorgeous golden ride while sipping champagne, or have a lovely picnic at the Kew Gardens. For a unique experience, go on a mesmerizing candlelit night tour of the beautiful Dennis Severs’ House.
For more romantic things to do in London, check out Tea Time in Wonderland’s amazing list.
Special Events in London
Because it is one of the most culturally advanced and artistically progressive cities in the world, London hosts a lot of festivals and special events throughout the year. From music and film to food and flower festivals, London has everything you could possibly think of. The city even celebrates India’s colorful Holi festival.
Timeout keeps an updated list of the upcoming events and festivals in the city so you can look up which events are taking place during your visit. For a complete list, see London Town’s website instead.
Best Day Trips Outside the City
While London has a lot of amazing attractions to see and offers many exciting things to do, you shouldn’t miss out on taking a trip outside the city, where are there are more lures that are just as beautiful.
The best day trips outside London include:
- The Stonehenge. Ever an enigma, this gigantic prehistoric stone circle was erected sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As one of the oldest and most famous sites in the world, it’s worth driving two hours from London for.
- Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle. Less than an hour away from the city are the beautiful royal residences of Hampton Court (for Henry VIII) and Windsor Castle, two structures of magnificent architectural styles. Hampton Court is in Richmond upon Thames while Windsor Castle is in the town of Windsor.
- Leeds Castle. An hour away is the splendid and elegant Leeds Castle, the old residence of Catherine of Aragorn, Henry VIII’s first wife. It’s a little further away but it’s a wonderful and peaceful retreat in the country where you can rest your cares away.
- Blenheim Palace. The birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill, the Blenheim Palace is not only magnificent in its English Baroque architecture, it is also home to an impressive collection of art and artifacts.
- Bath. The wonderful thing about this World Heritage Site in Somerset is it is home to many of England’s geothermal springs, which has been attracting millions from all walks of life since even before the Roman period. It is also home to some beautiful examples of Georgian architecture.
London City Map
Whatever you fancy, whether you’re looking for a big city holiday, a progressive cultural experience, or an immersion in history, you will find it in London. Bump this city up to the top of your list of destinations this year.
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