Ah! “Jolly Old London!” One of the largest cities in the world, and certainly one of the best known through books, music, and pop culture. In a place this large there really is something for everyone. For your first time visiting London there are some “must-dos” to check off because you know that everyone is going to ask you about them when you get home.
First and foremost: Ride the tube.* London is very spread out and cabs are really expensive. If you’ve never used a subway before, the tube is a good starting point because it’s clean and trains are plentiful. You will have to buy an oyster card and make sure it’s always got money on it. Download a large photo of the tube map and save it to your smartphone for easy reference (instead of carrying a crumpled map in your coat pocket).
London Sights to See
You must get a photo of the Houses of Parliament, or more specifically the famous clock tower known as “Big Ben.” While you’re there, you can (and should) visit Westminster Abbey* (the audio guide is very thorough and informative) and then hop on a Thames river boat* to be ferried down to the Tower of London. Nope, not the Tower Bridge (pictured below), although you will get some great photo opportunities of that from the boat, but the historical castle (armory, mint, prison, now museum) that dates back to the 1000s!
For your dose of royalty (admit it, you’re into it), visit Buckingham Palace.* It was even more beautiful from the outside than I thought it would be. I did not wait around for the changing of the guard, but if that’s something that you’ve always wanted to see, check the website so you know what time you need to be there.
I am totally ashamed that during my first (and only) visit, I did not go to the British Museum*. We only had thismuch time in London and it did get cut from the list (we were already planning on going to the Louvre in Paris). The British Museum is one of the world’s best, filled with items from every corner of the globe and from every era (a handy byproduct of colonization).
Neighborhoods and Food
If you’ve followed this itinerary in order (which you shouldn’t, it’s pretty front-loaded), you have probably been surrounded by tourists for your whole trip. Break out of that shell now and explore SoHo.* Sure, tourists go there (I went and I’m telling you to), but locals do hang out there. It’s one of the coolest parts of town and most of the “must visit” restaurants are in this neighborhood. Last summer Doug and I waited in
line queue for 45 minutes to try BAO and it was worth it.
Speaking of food, make sure that at least once during your stay, you have a full English breakfast.* If you’ve never had a roasted tomato and baked beans at breakfast, you are about to find out what it’s like. We had a more-than-satisfactory one at Oz Cafe, but ask your airbnb host or hotel’s front desk to recommend a good one close to you.
Make sure to carve out a half-day to indulge your niche interests* (music, literature, sports, shopping, etc). Checking off the laundry list of “must-see” things can get cumbersome (yes, I say this even as I write such a list). Personalize your trip with something important to you and it will make your experience feel less generic. Check out my post on that to get your wheels turning.
Lastly, make sure to appreciate some fine art at the National Gallery, V&A or the Tate Modern. You can see if they have free days or free afternoons and try to go during that time. The free hours are either crowded with other penny-pinchers or shortened, so if you want to make sure you see everything, probably better to buy admission. Appreciate a different kind of fine art, the theatre, by seeing a West End show. These can get expensive (the West End and Broadway are neck-and-neck for best English stage productions) so do your research ahead of time and build the tickets into your budget (buying them early) if it’s a priority for you.
The London Eye (unless it’s a particularly gorgeous day and you have money to burn) You can see it from your boat tour but it’s really costly to go up in it.
You know, London is a stinkin’ expensive city and every tour or museum is going to run you £10–£20 (or more). Give this list a once-over and then choose what you’re really interested in, and then pay to dive in deeper. I marked things above with an asterisk (*) that I really, really recommend you do. For other stuff, make sure to get a great look at the outside and look up what you missed on the internet later that night.
View more in my “First Time Visiting” series: Guanajuato, Mexico City, Paris, San Diego
Anything I missed? Leave a note in the comments for others planning upcoming trips!