Today we’re all about London. More specifically, going to London for the first time! I’m currently daydreaming about the day airfare drops below $400 so I can jet off to Londontown. Getting cheap airfare is a topic for another day.
This post is an all-in-one guide to help you plan the most epic trip to London, England – the best city in the world.
Brace yourself, this is a long post – it had to be. To get your fully prepared we have to cover EVERYTHING from planning and packing to useful apps and mistakes to avoid. Oh, and a list of the best things you 100% need to see on your very first trip to London.
Going to London for the First Time (FAQs)
Before we get into all the fun things to do in London, let’s first answer your burning questions.
My mission is to give you a feel of the land before you get on the plane – from the best time to go and expected costs to packing essentials and top things to see. These are questions people typically ask me when planning their trip.
How many days in London do I need?
I recommend spending at least a week there. However, you can do it in less but will have to be choosey with what you see and do.
London is the third-largest city in Europe as far as population goes. That being said, you will need quite a few days to experience it all plus a few days to relax and take in the fact that you’re in London.
Seldom do we live in the present, so slow down and appreciate what you do see when you see it.
If you plan for 7-days that will give you ample time to enjoy London and surrounding areas. Day trips are always fun. You can go to Windsor, Bath, etc.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume you will be visiting for 7-days.
What is the best time of year to visit London?
The best month to go to London would be the end of Summer to early Fall (Septemeber – November) or Spring (March-mid June)
Like most cities, you will get a high influx of tourists in the summer season (June-Late August). I don’t recommend visiting during the busy season for a few reasons:
It’s crowded and you will be waiting for everything from tourist attractions to cafes and metros.
Flights are more expensive.
Hotels are more expensive.
If you visit during the Fall and Spring you will get:
Greater chance of rain (London rains almost as much as Seattle)
The prices for hotels and flights do start to drop, but if you’re looking for super cheap flights then consider middle of winter.
If you go during winter you will get:
Cold weather but nothing a warm jacket can’t fix.
Way fewer crowds (unless visiting over Christmas and New Years).
Cheap travel expenses YAY!
How Much Does a 7 Day Trip to London Cost?
I actually wrote about this in a former blog post that breaks down my cost of London for 1-week. Read that if you want to know exactly how much I personally spent.
For moderate budgets, plan to spend between $150-175 per day.
Below is a chart that breaks down the cost of London for three different budgets: cheap, mid-range, luxury. Click from the drop-down menu your travel style and currency (default is USD).
Let this serve as a general starting point. I traveled to London on a “budget” and still spent almost 100 pounds per day which comes to almost 130 USD at the time of writing this. So, guess the question is, “what by your standards is budget traveling?”.
If you answered $50 per day then maybe it’s not your time to visit London for one whole week. Maybe skim the surface over a couple of weekdays. Keyword: weekday. Weekdays are often cheaper than weekends (I.e. hotels and airfare).
What Do I Need to Travel to London? (Packing List)
Let’s just call this the London layers packing list. London fashion is heavy on the layers. Some go clean and classic and others with an edgy design. Why not venture to both sides and pack a little bit of both?
No matter where you find yourself in London, you are going to need some essentials. I’m almost certain at least a few of those adventures will consist of afternoon tea, wild nights out on the town, and strolls around the city.
Here are a few things to bring with you that are practical, comfy and insanely stylish. If you’re visiting in the hot summer months you won’t be needing a trench coat, vice versa – these are simply all the things I have packed when traveling to London for the first, second. . . and third time hehe.
As a disclaimer, I am by no means a “fashionista”. I like to think of myself as a mannequins shopper meaning I typically get my inspiration from the outfits on mannequins. Ha! I would never be able to build that myself.
With that said, these are some findings I think would make you fit right into the London style.
Band Tee: I love that rockstar, too cool for you look. If you do too then you most certainly need a band tee
Lace Bralette: Throw one of these under your loose band tee or v-neck shirt to give a little style to it. Amps up the casual look a bit.
Kimono: One of my go-to styles when traveling are jeans, tee, and kimono. Pair with some booties and you have yourself a comfy street look.
Tank Tops: A must if you’re visiting during the summer. When I visited London for the first time back in 2012 is was in the middle of summer, which meant hot and sticky humid. I basically wore shorts, tanks, and Toms every day.
Newspaper fitted long sleeve: I feel like a Spice Girl in this shirt and I’m not mad about it.
Off the Shoulder Ruffle Blouse: I always recommend bringing at least one nice shirt with you if possible. I love how clean and sexy it looks.
Faux Leather Pants: Ok I normally go for black ones BUT these red ones OMG!!
Bold Mom Jeans: I’m going there. Yes, I am all for these leopard pants. Prove to your friends back home that you can travel while looking high fashion fo’ less. But seriously, don’t you love Topshop?
White Jeans: Becuase Instagram and Meghan Markle. That girl does white jeans and beige trench coast so well. *applause*. And if you’re going for sweet ‘gram pics, the brighter the clothes the better.
Denim blue jeans: Necessary and goes with everything. I personally buy my jeans these days from Old Navy. I wear them out so quickly, I can’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on jeans. Dresses yes. Shoes yes. Jeans meh. Maybe in a few years when the Benjamins really start to come in haha.
Sundress: This one is super cute and colorful. Screams I’m sexy and fun and in London.
T-shirt Dress: I am a huge lover of t-shirt dresses. They pack nicely, wear comfy, and give you a style that’s effortless.
Afternoon Tea Dress: Half the fun of high tea is dressing up.
Jackets & Sweaters
Blue Knit Sweater: I love a good sweater. This is a crisp blue to leave you looking fresh.
Moto Jacket: I don’t know why I just feel like every badass woman needs one. So all women.
Rain Coat: It surprisingly did not rain on my last trip to London but that’s not to say I didn’t come prepared.
Oversized Black Trench Coat: I just love this one so much. I wear it with all black to give me an edgy look.
Statement Flats: So happy animal prints are back in. These flats are the perfect addition.
Ankle booties: These make me look so slim when paired with jeans or a dress. Plus, they are comfortable for a long night out on the town.
Comfy & Fashionable sneakers: Daddy is(shoes) what can I say.
Where Should a First Time Visitor Stay In London?
When you’re visiting London for the first time you are going to want to stay somewhat close to attractions, affordable, comfy -and all that jazz.
If you’re looking for a little more you can check out these pretty London hotels with balconies.
Getting to London City Center from Airport(s)
Depending on where you are flying in from you could arrive at one of two major airports in London: Gatwick or Heathrow
Both airports are outside the city which means you will need to take either the train, tube, taxi, or rent a car.
Gatwick airport is 64 miles from downtown London
Heathrow airport is 19 miles from downtown London
For the shortest travel time (15 minutes) consider the Heathrow Express to London Paddington (central station). Depending on how in advance you book your journey tickets prices will vary anywhere from 5-35 pounds per person in the middle of summer.
Yes, it’s long, but use that time to open this post and get to planning your schedule.
Cheapest Way to Travel Around London
The cheapest way to get around London by far is the Oyster card – a reusable ticket for London’s public transportation (i.e the Underground, Buses, etc.).
The Oyster Card provides an affordable option for getting around London’s major zones.
You will want to purchase the reusable Oyster card for 5 Pounds and load trips on the card for days at a time. This will be a huge time and money saver.
As soon as you get to London, head to the nearest underground to a station teller and purchase your ticket. I highly recommend you read up a bit before minimize the questions being asked.
Going to London for the First Time: Top 15 3/4 Things to See
#1 Feast on market days
Markets are a must. Not only do they cut the food bill in half they are so much fun. It’s a great way to join in on local life while trying tons of different foods and drinks.
Read this guide to London Markets.
#2 Hyde Park
Hyde Park is to London what Central Park is to New York City. It’s a gorgeous and massive park where you can always find something to do from people watching to Christmas markets in the winter.
#3 Climb St. Pauls Cathedral
Besides the exercise and gorgeous view from the top, St. Pauls Cathedral is also where Princess Diana and Charles got married.
#4 Afternoon Tea Experience
Quite possibly the best restaurant experience of my life was afternoon tea at Sketch. So worth the splurge. This is more than a dining room but an art gallery. It’s hard to summarize. You just have to experience it.
London might possibly be the tea room capital of the world. Don’t quote me on that. I just feel it is. There are dozens of places to choose from but Sketch is still my #1 recommendation.
#5 Visit the Oldest Pub
Many pubs claim to be the oldest and many are including the Prospect of Whitby. Standing since 1520 once serving sailors and smugglers, the Prospect of Whitby (aka Devils Pub) is a must if you’re into old English Pubs and classic fish-n-chips.
#6 Explore Westminister Abbey
A royal church where William and Kate got married. It’s a beautiful church in the center of London not to be missed.
#7 Tower of London + Tower Bridge
It’s free to cross Tower Bridge. Right next door is the Tower of London which has multiple museums. Admission starts at 22 Pounds, but you can get the London Pass which includes entry to the Tower of London and more.
#8 Go shopping on Oxford & Regent Street
These are the most popular shopping streets in London offering brands of all sorts from luxury to local boutiques. Beware. You will want to buy everything.
#9 London Eye
The London Eye is Europe’s tallest observation wheel and my favorite. The views from the top are so amazing. It’s a great way to see the city from above while taking a break from walking. Tickets start at 27 Pounds.
#10 A night out at Ministry of Sound
I love how Ed Sheran’s song, New Man, talks about the new man owning every Ministry CD haha. This place is a club filled with characters but you have to have at least one wild night out in London. If not for the club but for the people you will meet and hang out with at the after-parties.
#11 Changing of the Guard & Buckingham Palace
Changing of the Guards was exciting to see. They do it flawlessly, and honestly, it shows the pride of the Motherland.
I know it’s mostly for show these days but I think it’s an experience not to be missed. A great way to start your trip.
Times vary given the season, day and weather. If the weather is bad they will cancel. It’s always best to check the official schedule for current updates.
The ceremony does last around 30-minutes and the best place to view is from the palace gates, Victoria memorial, or along The Mall Road. Just remember to get there extra early if it’s during the busy summer season.
#12 Harry Potter Studio Tour
If you’re a Potterhead like me you will appreciate a visit to the movie set. You need to book a tour in advance. See below for my recommendations.
#13 See a show on the West End
London is similar to NYC with incredible theater. Broadway is no stranger to the West End. You can always search online to see what shows are currently around or take your chances when you get there and can see for yourself.
I’m sure you will have no problem finding some sort of theatrical performance on short notice.
#14 Take a day a trip to Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge or Stone Hedge
Stop by Windsor Castle where Harry and Meghan wed. Apparently I’m obsessed with royal wedding locations haha. But this place is really pretty. Of course, Oxford and Cambridge are equally stunning.
I haven’t been to Stonehedge, but it is something I plan to see on my next trip. I really want to take a month-long road trip through the UK.
#15 Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station
Gather in line for your own photo at Platform 9 3/4. I wish I remember how much the photos were but it couldn’t have been much because I never purchase photos. It was super cute though and it made our mom happy when we gave it to her.
Next to the platform is a great Harry Potter shop. They have tons of items in there I found to be better than the shops at Harry Potter World Universal Studios. I may or may not have snagged me a Slytherin keychain.
Looking for even more things to do in London? Check out these 40 epic things to do.
Apps & Passes to Get ASAP
I spoke on this topic in a previous post on London for budget travelers. To summarize, here are some apps I recommend getting – even more so if visiting for the first time.
Download these apps for food, drink, and entertainment deals around London:
Smith Finder: The ultimate guide to London pubs.
Wriggle: For finding food and drink deals.
Dusk: Discover all the best bars in town.
Hype: For finding unique experiences from festivals to smaller engagements.
Frugl: For finding local deals on dining and activities.
Hidden London: Find hidden gems around the city.
TimeOut London: For trip planning and local guide to the city
First Timer Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
Listen, this is a judgment-free zone. You will read this part and probably still make these mistakes. I’m merely here to bring it to your attention and if you remember, great. If not, then read more because I hear it improves memory. At least that’s why I read.
Mistake #1: Looking both ways in the wrong order
Looking left then right before crossing the street. If I had a Pound for every time I did this my first time in London. Get it? Because the Pound is their currency haha. I tried.
Please PLEASE don’t get hit by a car because you looked left then right and walked out into traffic. The Brits drive on the opposite side of the road; therefore, look right then left before crossing the street.
Mistake #2: Tipping at Restaurants
Unlike the U.S. where tips are usually 20%, in London, they are 10-15%. Although lower than you are used to, it’s actually quite higher compared to most other European cities.
Before you jump to leave a tip, fist look over your receipt. Auto-gratuity (aka service charge) is very common.
And another thing.
In U.S. restaurants, you ask for the check, the server brings the check, you agree and give a card, server charges card, you sign and leave tip.
Well, not here.
When you ask for the check, be prepared to pay as soon as you ask for the check. They bring the card machine to your table and ask how much you want to charge including a tip if not already accounted for.
Something to be mindful of.
Mistake #3: Mistaking Coins for Chump Change
Not using your coins. Americans are so used to paper bills from $1 and up. Well, the Pound is coin heavy. Don’t forget to peak at your change because you could have loads of pounds. It’s not chump change.
Pounds in coin form go up to 2 pounds.
This is especially important if you plan to travel to other countries around Europe. You don’t want to hoard up a ton of change only to realize you have 20 pounds worth of coins that can’t be used anywhere else outside of the UK.
So when are you going to London and can I come with you? This moment right here is why I love blogging. Getting to share invaluable tips with you while reliving my own memories. Ahhh. So happy right now.
As always, I hope this guide helped in preparing for your first trip to London. It’s a magnificent city. Expensive, but magnificent and you are going to have so much fun.
I always say, “London is exactly what you expect it to be”. The expectation being quintessentially amazing.
Psst. . . Looking for more Europe getaways? Check out these guides:
Still have more questions? Ask in the comments below so I can help!
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