London is a perfect destination for architecture and history enthusiasts and an excellent place for foodies and outdoor lovers. With hundreds of historical sites, world-class museums and galleries, beautiful parks, mouthwatering cuisine and fantastic shopping, it’s a city that can quickly become overwhelming. But don’t worry, if you’re planning to explore London for the first time, you can use this post as your planning guide.
I can easily say that London is one of my fave cities. I’ve read so much about it in books that when I finally got to London for the first time, it felt very familiar. For me, it felt like home before I even got there. Having been back several times, I still find new things to explore. I decided to put this London for first-timers guide to help others discover this great city and make it easier to explore. Enjoy!
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Explore London travel planner
When planning your trip to London, keep in mind that it’s a big city and one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Try to avoid going during public holidays and school breaks if you want to avoid larger crowds and higher prices. Set realistic expectations, as you won’t be able to see everything on your first trip to London, especially in a couple of days. You’ll want to enjoy your trip and savour the experience.
What to pack for your trip to London
When planning your first trip to London, consider the time of the year and what you’ll do there. You’ll want to ensure you’re comfortable and leave enough space in your luggage for any souvenirs you might want to bring back home. Here are some essentials you shouldn’t forget to pack:
- Comfortable walking shoes: London is a great city to explore on foot, so pack comfortable shoes you can wear for hours.
- An umbrella or raincoat: Although I’ve had many sunny trips to London, it is known for wet weather, so pack something to keep you dry in a sudden downpour. Waterproof clothes and shoes are great options.
- Layers: Even during the summer, London can have chilly evenings, so you might want to pack layers you can easily add or remove depending on the temperature.
- A power adapter: The UK uses Type G plugs, which are different from other countries, so pack a power adapter for your electronics.
- Money: Make sure to carry some cash you can grab from an ATM or change before you come. While most places in London accept cards or contactless payments, having some cash on you is always useful.
- SIM card: Avoid expensive roaming charges by getting a local sim card or a pocket Wi-Fi.
How to get around London
Like many larger cities, London has an excellent transportation infrastructure, which makes it easy and convenient to get around. You can get an Oyster card, a pay-as-you-go smart card that you can use on buses, trams, the subway (Tube) and other transportation services. You can get one once you get to London, or order one before your trip and have it delivered. I got an Oyster card on my first trip, but since you can use your credit card to pay for your fare, I opted to use that once my card ran out of money.
Pro travel tip: In London, cars drive on the right, so make sure you look right before you cross the street.
One of the best and fastest ways to get the lay of the land is to do one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tours and learn more about the places on the route. It’s a great way to see the major points and decide which spots you want to go back to explore. This option is also a great alternative to public transit, especially if you get a multiple-day pass, and often combines a river cruise as part of the package.
For a fully immersive experience, take at least one ride in the famous London cab. They are a lot more spacious than the standard cabs I’ve ever been in. Don’t expect the driver to come out and open the door or help you with your luggage. We had to drag our suitcases inside the cab and hang on to them as there was no trunk. I’d recommend giving it a go without luggage.
Pro travel tip: Plan your route ahead of time. The London metro system is huge, and sometimes it takes a while to change trains, especially during the morning or afternoon rush. Book your hotel in advance!
Top 10 places to visit in London as a first timer
Between the historical landmarks, renowned museums and iconic sights, there are many great things to see and do in London. You definitely won’t run out of things to explore. If anything, you’ll likely already be planning your return, and I don’t blame you. When visiting London for the first time, I recommend adding these attractions to your itinerary to get a taste of what this incredible city offers.
1. The British Museum
The world-renowned British Museum houses a vast collection of artifacts from around the world. This is a must-visit for history buffs and anyone interested in ancient civilizations. It’s free to enter, but donations are appreciated.
2. The Tower of London and Tower Bridge
The Tower of London is a historic fortress housing the Crown Jewels and has played a significant role in England’s history. The Tower Bridge by the Tower is a stunning example of Victorian architecture and offers excellent photo opportunities. Both are a must-visit for history and architecture enthusiasts.
3. The London Eye
The London Eye is one of London’s most popular attractions, offering stunning views of the city from a 135-meter-high observation wheel. This is a great way to see the city’s iconic landmarks and get a bird’s-eye view of the city.
4. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the Queen/King of England and is an excellent example of British architectural and design style. You’ll likely recognize the gates from seeing the palace on TV.
5. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Houses of Parliament are home to the British government. You can take a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament for a fascinating insight into British politics. Big Ben, the iconic clock tower, is located on the same site and is another must-visit landmark.
6. Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is a beautiful Gothic church where many royal ceremonies and events take place. It’s known for its elaborate stone carvings, stained glass windows, and the famous Poet’s Corner, where many famous writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, are buried. You can take a guided tour or attend a church service.
7. St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most recognizable landmarks, with its iconic dome and stunning interior. You can explore the cathedral and climb to the top of the dome for panoramic views of the city.
8. Tate Modern
Tate Modern is a contemporary art museum and one of the most visited museums in the world. It contains a vast collection of modern and contemporary art pieces. It is located in a converted power station, creating a unique architectural experience.
9. The National Gallery
The National Gallery houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Western European paintings. You’ll find works by famous artists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Botticelli, among many others.
10. The Shard
The Shard is London’s tallest building and offers amazing views of the city from its observation deck. It’s a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts and if you’re into stunning panoramic views.
Practical tips for what to see in London
If you have a limited time to explore London, you don’t want to waste time getting from place to place and standing in line to buy tickets. The good news is that because it’s such a popular tourist destination, London offers many options for visitors that save you time and money and make it easy to see as much as possible. Who doesn’t love that?
With the London Pass, you can access over 80 top sights and attractions in London, including the Tower of London, The Views from The Shard, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can combine it with an Oyster card, and the pass comes with a guidebook. It’s a pretty good deal, especially if you stay in London for a few days. There are different credit package options, ranging from one to 10 days. You can redeem the credits at any of the locations included in the package till you run out of credits.
While the London Pass offers skip-the-line admission to many popular attractions, it doesn’t always cover them all. Also, you might want to simply visit a few of the attractions without buying the pass. That’s totally doable, but I would suggest getting skip-the-line tickets, as some lineups can be lengthy. You don’t want to waste your time in line when you can explore London instead.
Book in advance
If you already know when you’re going to London, book your hotel and attractions ahead of time. This is especially important if you plan on attending any sporting events, concerts or the theatre, as tickets might be sold out by the time you arrive. Booking earlier can also mean better deals and less stress trying to score tickets before you have to leave.
How to explore London for free
While London is not a cheap city to visit, there are definitely many great things you can enjoy for free.
Free London museums
One of the things I love about London is that many of its amazing museums offer free admission. You can explore the world-renowned British Museum, Victoria and Albert (V&A) and the Natural History Museum, as well as many others, without having to break the bank. Museums are also great for when the weather turns inclement and you need somewhere to wait it out.
Explore London parks
No trip to London can be completed without a visit to at least one of the many great parks and gardens scattered throughout the city. Channel your inner Bridgerton fan girl by taking a boat ride on the Serpentine Lake at Hyde Park, enjoy the views of London’s skyline at Greenwich Park or stroll through Kensington Gardens, where you can find many attractions, including Kensington Palace.
Explore London Markets
Another thing I love about London is the abundance of markets filled with everything from a wide range of food options, vintage clothing and antiques to flowers, hand-made jewellery and everything in between. Visit Camden Market, Borough Market, London Covent Garden or Portobello Road for a place to grab a bite or simply stroll around and check out the vendors. Here is a helpful guide to London’s best markets to check out.
Visit London department stores
Head over to London’s biggest department stores for a bit of fun and history. The iconic Selfridges and Harrods offer multiple floors of designer clothes, shoes and accessories, as well as pretty impressive food courts where you can wander around and explore. Both places are worth visiting even if you’re not into shopping, and if you are, even more of a reason to stop by.
Pro tip: If you want to treat yourself, visit Selfridges’ rooftop bar for spectacular views and fine dining.
What to eat in London
London has a diverse and exciting food scene, where you can indulge in traditional British dishes like fish and chips, pie and mash, or a full English breakfast. The city also offers a range of international cuisines, lots of vegan options and some of the best brunch places I’ve ever been to. Don’t forget to try a pint of local ale or cider at a traditional pub and try the afternoon tea, which is an experience in itself.
Pro travel tip: You don’t have to tip in restaurants, as many already include a service fee in your bill.
Whenever I get to visit London, I love simply wandering around without much of a plan. London is especially lovely in the spring when the wisteria is blooming, and there are flowers everywhere. I also love to explore London architecture as it reminds me of a different time, and it’s the reason I love going back.
London is a great destination for city adventures, and it has so much to offer every kind of visitor. It’s a big and busy place, filled with history, art and culture that goes back centuries. Walk in the footsteps of Shakespeare, King Henry VIII or Queen Victoria all in one place and enjoy the modern offerings that blend so well with the history. London is calling your name, so why not answer it? You’re gonna love it.
Explore London FAQ
Planning your next trip? Check out the resources I use and start planning your perfect getaway today!
- Flights: Find the best flight deals on Kiwi.com (my new go-to for flights)
- Book your accommodations: Find the best prices on hotels with Booking.com
- What to do: Find the perfect tour with Viator
- Need a car? Book your ride with Rentalcars.com
Check out my travel resource guide for more resources to help you plan your trip.