Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting London

Parliament and Big Ben, London

London was one of the first international destinations I visited as a young Loper. My first visit actually marked the beginning of a five week backpacking trip around England and Scotland after I graduated from college. I’ve been back a couple of times since, but there are some things I really wish I knew before that first trip.

1. Everything takes longer than expected – London is a very modern, fast paced city. Unlike some other European capitals that seem more tourist centric, London is a vital international hub for business, finance and entertainment. That means the casual traveler must somehow weave themselves into the fabric of humanity when trying to get around town. Out of courtesy, I usually try to avoid the Tube during rush hours. Not only does this make life easier for the commuters headed to work, but it’s less stressful for me as I try to navigate an unfamiliar metro system. Throughout the day though, you should allocate plenty of time to get around town. Taxis get stuck in traffic and the subway may be overcrowded or experiencing repair at various times. London is not enjoyable if you’re rushing around, so take it slow and be realistic about your schedule.

2. The English are serious about breakfast – Historically, British cuisine has received a fairly bad reputation, somewhat deserved and somewhat not. Personally, I love simple, home style food, so I’ve always enjoyed English food, but for the uninitiated it can be a bit heavy, particularly at breakfast. Walking by a restaurant and seeing a sign for a full English breakfast can seem alluring, but the visitor should know what they’re getting into before sitting down. There are variations, but generally it includes two eggs, streaky bacon, toast, baked beans and a grilled tomato. In the north I have seen black and white pudding added to this feast. It’s a great breakfast, but I almost always want to go back to bed after the morning repast. Even though a large breakfast may not appeal to all travelers, it is an experience everyone should try at least once.

3. Spend a full day at the British Museum – For as much as I love history and archeological museums, I sometimes give them short shrift. Especially in London, there is just so much to do that it is hard as a tourist to devote an entire a full day to any activity, but the British Museum is certainly deserving of this honor. Without hyperbole, the British Museum is one of the most impressive collections of STUFF in the world. My beloved Smithsonians are of course more comprehensive, but the British Museum can certainly hold its own. The museum draws heavily on items ‘liberated’ from all corners of the world during the height of the British Empire and features some amazing pieces. My favorite displays are the Rosetta Stone, the Lindow Man and the Elgin Marbles which once graced the Parthenon in Athens.

Cambridge, England

4. Leaving London is permitted – London is great and can easily fill anyone’s travel schedule for a week or two, but there are many great experiences that are an easy day trip from London. Two of my favorite day trips are to Cambridge and Bath. Home to one of the oldest and most well respected universities in the world, Cambridge is very much a college town, but not in the tacky sense. The best activities are to simply walk around the grounds of the various colleges (mind the lawns) and to try your hand at punting down the River Cam. Bath is a unique place, one part Roman excavation and one part Victorian fuss, it frankly fits the image of what everyone conceives England to be like. Two of my favorite activities are to tour the mostly intact Roman baths and to take a stroll down Pulteney Bridge, one of the few bridges in the world to feature stores on the bridge itself.

5. It’s not cheap – There’s been a lot written lately about how expensive London, and indeed the entire U.K., tends to be, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. I remember my first trip there in 1998 and how shocked I was at the high cost of everything. The prices all looked appropriate had I been in the United States, but I had to keep reminding myself that the pound was 1 ½  – 2 times the US dollar. That means everything, from buying a soda to booking a hotel room is an expensive undertaking. That’s not to say there aren’t deals to be had, there certainly are, but visitors should be forewarned that visiting London is not necessarily a top budget travel experience.

What are your tips for the first-time visitor to London?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

19 thoughts on “Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting London”

  1. I actually found a good website today on this topic, gives you discount vouchers for pretty much everything. I picked up 20% off vouchers for all the main attractions and its all free!

    A lot of the main attraction to such as the British museum have on their websites suggested itineraries for visiting. The british museum has one for different lengths of time, and will point you in the right direction of the main points of interest, this would save a lot of faffing about.

    If you are not from the UK and are planning to do a lot of train trips a Brit rail pass can be good value. Its flexible so it doesn’t matter if you miss a train, you can just catch the next one. While there are good websites out there for cheap train tickets, they aren’t very flexible. Ours is working out at 23 pounds a trip.

    I have found that a certain degree of planning is required for London. If you pick a couple of attractions each day that are in the same area you can avoid a lot of traveling on the tube.

  2. Ahh London! My favorite city of all!

    One thing I always tell people headed to London is how very easy it is to take public transportation. The tube goes just about everywhere you need to go, and unlike many cities I’ve been in, the public buses are very easy to use. Best to get an oyster card at the airport as it makes journeys significantly cheaper.

    Other london tip: ALWAYS carry an umbrella!

  3. Ah! Home sweet home! London is indeed an incredible city…after a year of travelling I feel very lucky to be coming home to somewhere so beautiful and so exciting…

    I love the British Museum too – but another gallery worth checking out in The Tate Modern, it’s down on the South Bank (which is lovely for a stroll), it always has something crazy being exhibited and, best of all, it’s free!

    I know it can be very expensive but cheap food is easily available when you know where to look; one of my favourite places is the bagel place on Brick Lane, 99p for a freshly toasted bagel with cream cheese, available at ALL hours of the day and night. perfect for the night bus home (or back to the hostel) :)

  4. Your post made me smile Matt. It reminded me of my first days in London when I had just arrived as an aupair, 16 years ago. I totally agree with what you said. I would add that London is probably the best place to sample food from around the world. There is definitely something for everyone.

    My favourite museum is the Museum of London (near Barbican). It is so informative and it is not massive like the British Museum. You can easily see most of the exhibitions in a couple of hours. Perfect if you are running out of time but still want to find out about the history of London.

    I think we must not forget pubs and Sunday roast dinners. Sunday lunch time with a traditional roast and a pint of beer or a glass of wine: You can’t beat that.

    Can you tell I love London?

  5. I’ve written quite a bit about London, and I’m glad to see my advice is in accordance with this post.

    – Take the bus:
    Not only is it cheaper, but it’s also a great way to sightsee and avoid the crowds. And, uh, how iconic are they?

    – Get Out:
    While there are enough of things to do in London to fill a lifetime, as a visitor it’s always interesting to make the most out of a European trip and get out of the city for a day or two. Train connections are much more efficient in Europe than in the US, so take advantage of it and explore the country or other large cities.

    – Try New Things:
    While the British Museum and the Tower of London are classics, there are other ways to enjoy the city, listed in that post.

    And if there was one thing I wish I knew before moving to London… it’s that I would never get over it. :)

  6. Walk!

    As you mentioned, London is quite pricey, so the time I visited we had a hotel room near Hyde park, which isn’t too close to downtown.

    However, the Queen really does an excellent job maintaining these green spaces; some of my fondest memories are from wandering through the parks.

    You owe it to yourself to same some cash, and walk through both the city and parks!

  7. Just took my first trip there in March. Loved it. I wish I knew just how much it would remind me of NYC except with one glaring distinction…the food. I REALLY wish I had gotten more food recommendations before making the trek. :(

  8. When I visited for the first time a year ago, I knew it was expensive. But I didn’t realize how expensive! It is a good thing there are lots of free museums and activities. The city is so amazing though. It is worth the splurge.

    1. Consuelo Benavides

      Thanks for your comments.
      Where do I find information about the free museums and activities in London?

  9. London was my first international city too, but wow, it does blow the wallet out a bit. I think it’s a great place to visit, in a strange way it reminds me of the US a little bit, maybe just the feel of a big city? I’d also recommend food there, London has some fantastic Indian and Chinese food, best peaking duck I’ve ever had!

  10. I love London. I’ve been a few times now and plan on going back some more. For me, the priciest part is the hotel because there are so many free things to do!

    1. Paula Louise Neale

      I am a Londoner – Stay at a Premier Inn, Holiday Inn or an Ibis hotel – all good, clean and and basic but great great value too :)

  11. No-one will look down on you if you stay in a hostel or b&b; it is the hip thing to do and you’ll feel so smart for the money you’ve saved. For take out shop Marks & Spenser, good ready made salads, etc. Many museums such as the British Museum are free. Kensington has good accommodation options with walks thru Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and to Harrods. Another option is the Premier Inn which shares the old historic London County Hall with a 5-star Marriott on the south bank of the river across from Westminster Abbey. A walk from the hotel takes you to the Tate Modern, the Royal Festival Hall, the new Shakespeare Globe (watch a play and heckle the actors), Blackfriar’s Bridge and the Millenium Footbridge providing a clear view of St. Paul’s. Further on is Borough Market, one of the best outdoor markets offering seasonal foods (check times Bon voyage!

  12. I wish that I had more time to spend at the British Museum when I was there last year, but I was traveling with a group and the guys were all museum’d out by that point.

    London is a place that is on my list of places that I want to go back to by myself, to see all the things that I missed or wanted to spend more time at.

  13. Paula Louise Neale

    I am a Londoner. It should be noted that very few English eat a full English breakfast – ever and if they do it would be one day over a weekend. Cereal or toast is the standard breakfast for most people.

    Also, London is bigger than just the city. The suburbs are really cool too and over here in the south we have Wimbledon and Richmond Park and to the southeast we have the fabulous Greenwichwith has the Cutty Sark and the maritime museum plus the great shops and markets. It has Greenwich Park and ishome to GMT (Greenwich mean time)! So much, so little time!

    1. Thanks Paula. Just wanted to note that I wrote this almost three years ago and am set to visit again in May, so it’s time to try London again! :)

  14. Matt,
    I am so anxious to hear about your last trip to London in May! Any new tips or advice?
    Much thanks!

  15. Just to add – on the Full English Breakfast thing. In the South, we also have chips (aka Fries). And most places will serve ‘all-day breakfasts’. It’s not a breakfast thing, really. It’s a fat American ‘eat as much as you like’ bonanza, but without horrible syrupy shite.

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