You’re planning your first trip to London, and your excitement is off the charts. Writer Samuel Johnson said in the 1700s, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” And many of the stellar attractions of London today weren’t even around back then. Layers of history live in London, and they are just waiting for you to discover them. Whatever your interests are, you will find fascinating ways to spend your time in London.
With all London has to offer, planning your visit may seem overwhelming. London is hectic and sprawling. Reading up on a few basics about this iconic city will help you navigate more easily and enjoy it to the fullest. Knowing what to expect before you go will help ensure a fabulous trip!
Here you’ll find a few practical tips, some information on top sights in London, and a bit of background and history to help you plan.
1. There Are Several Ways To Get From Heathrow Airport To London
If you are flying into London from the United States, you will likely land at Heathrow Airport. So, the first thing to figure out is how to cover the 15 miles from the airport to the city. Options include taking the Underground, hiring a taxi at the airport, booking a private car before you arrive, and hopping on the Heathrow Express. This last choice is great unless you’re traveling with heavy luggage.
Arriving with my carry-on bags, I found it super easy to catch the Heathrow Express. It runs every 15 minutes and arrives at Paddington Station in 15 minutes. From this central station, you can catch an Underground to your lodging. On my last trip, this involved just one leg on the Sloane Square line. I saved money by not taking a taxi, and I saved time by going express rather than taking an Underground line with many stops along the way.
Check out which option is best for you so you don’t have to stand in a bustling airport trying to decide how to get into the city to begin your adventures.
2. The Oyster Card Is Your Friend
The Oyster Card is your key to the efficient London transportation system. Available at any Underground station, the Oyster Card is a smart card that allows you to prepay for public transportation. Buy a visitor card for a nominal fee, and then load it up with pounds.
The card is good not only for the Underground but also for those quaint red double-decker buses, some riverboats, and most National Rail services.
You can top off your card. And if you are leaving London and have money left on the card, you get a refund. That takes the worry out of figuring out how much to load to your card.
I remember trying to figure out zones and cost per trip before I went to London. You don’t need to ponder those things. It’s simple to use the Oyster Card — just tap and go.
Pro Tip: You can purchase an Oyster Card online and have it mailed to you before you leave home. My advice is to wait to purchase it until you arrive. I’ve had to cancel trips to London due to health issues and world events. While you can apply for a refund, I think it’s better to land in London and then buy the card.
3. You’ll Want To Download The Live Tube Map App
Get the TfL Go app before you go to London. You can play with it, putting in various possible routes. It will help you plan out your days by showing you how to get from point A to point B and how long it may take. And, of course, this app will be helpful when you are out and about in London.
4. There Are Plenty Of Free Museums
Now for the fun part — what to do in London! One incredible aspect of London is its access to free world-class museums. London offers 16 museums free of charge to visitors. You can put away your wallet and enjoy whatever kinds of displays most interest you. Top picks for museums are the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The British Library (my favorite), and the Imperial War Museum. You can see how easy it would be to fill your time in London with fascinating sights!
The largest museum — and the one to take in if your time in the city is limited — is the British Museum.
5. You’ll Have To Pick And Choose What You Want To See At The Famed British Museum
The British Museum is similar to the Louvre in Paris in that its vast holdings would take weeks to see. Before you go, know which parts of the museum you want to fit into your day.
More than 50 galleries allow you to walk through two million years of history. Look online before your visit to narrow down your choices. Note current and changing exhibitions. Then peruse the map of the galleries and make a list of your priorities. Are Egyptian mummies calling to you? Is European art from the 1800s a must? I found the gallery of clocks and watches so intriguing. And you will likely want to include gazing at the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Pro Tip: Plan to spend a morning here and then eat lunch in the pleasant museum café.
6. You’ll Want To Spend At Least 3 Hours At The Tower Of London
To experience the heart of this city, head to the Tower of London. First built as a castle in 1078, the complex was expanded over the years to include a palace, a fortress, a lovely chapel, and an infamous prison. This is where Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn lost her head. And the Crown Jewels of the monarchy reside here.
Leave enough time to tour the castle, with its extensive display of armor. Line up to see the Crown Jewels. And take a tour led by one of the Beefeaters, the legendary guards of the Tower. They will regale you with funny and horrifying stories.
Pro Tip: Arrive shortly before opening time. Buy your ticket and walk past all the intriguing buildings to the entrance to the Crown Jewels. A long line forms here, and you can be at the front that way. A moving walkway keeps things from bunching up, but you could still find a long wait later in the day. For more information, see this piece.
7. There Are Two Ways To Experience A Breathtaking View Of London
There are two excellent ways to marvel at London from high in the sky. One is to go for a drink atop The Shard, and the other is to ride the London Eye. Here’s a brief look at these options to help you decide whether you want to experience one or both.
London’s highest view is from The Shard. Get a timed ticket and ride the elevator up to floor 68, 69, or 72. The glassed-in bar offers 360-degree views. On a clear day, you can see places 25 miles away. Once you are up in The Shard, you can stay for as long as you’d like.
Note that a weather guarantee is offered. If that well-known London fog rolls in and obscures the view, you can come back another time.
The London Eye bills itself as the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel. It’s much like a Ferris wheel, but the capsules are enclosed in glass and move slowly in a circle. The spacious capsules hold several people and allow viewing from all angles. You can sit on the benches in the middle, but you will likely want to stand at the glass and move around the capsule to take in all directions of the city.
Though there are different rates for different days and times, riding the London Eye can be pricey. I’ve splurged and found that it’s well worth the cost.
Pro Tip: Time your ride for sunset if possible. The changing light patterns on the river and the iconic London sights twinkling at dusk are truly breathtaking.
8. Many Fabulous Day Trips Are Available
If your schedule allows, plan at least one day trip from London. Here are three of my favorites.
Hampton Court Palace
This is the palace where royalty lived for centuries. Hampton Court Palace lets you glimpse what life was like for the servants as well as for the kings. Hear about the momentous happenings when King Henry VIII lived here.
Oxford is a short train or bus ride from central London. This beautiful city of spires is home to the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Tour the school and you will find buildings in every style of English architecture, covering several hundred years. Plus, the pubs here are an experience in themselves.
Bletchley Park, a half-hour train ride from London, was the top-secret spy center of the World War II Allied Codebreakers. Learn about the German Enigma machine and how those at Bletchley cracked its complicated code.
9. Look Carefully Before You Cross The Street
Last, here’s a safety tip. If you come from the U.S. or another country where people drive on the right, take care when crossing the street in London. Remember to look the opposite way you’re used to looking for oncoming traffic. Many busy crossing points are painted with Look Right or Look Left to remind people.
Pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way in London. Even at zebra crossings — like the one on Abbey Road made famous by the Beatles — traffic may not stop for you. So, use caution whenever crossing the street.
London is a city with inexhaustible treasures. If royalty fascinates you, attend the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. If you love theater, take in a world-class show in the West End. If you love to shop, make Harrods a priority. And if you’re a foodie, you will want to eat at the Borough Market. Remember to keep in mind a few basics about London, and you are sure to enjoy a memorable time in this vibrant city.