There’s always the risk that visiting a capital city for the first time can be soured by learning mistakes the hard way, from the quirks of local culture to little-known money-saving life hacks.
London – the third largest city in Europe – is extremely likely to catch out newcomers, so we’ve picked out five vital nuggets of information to properly prepare you for your first taste of the English capital.
You don’t have to spend money to have a good time
London may be expensive but there are plenty of attractions that won’t cost you a penny.
Some of London’s best galleries and museums are free to enter. There’s the Tate Modern – one of the largest contemporary and modern art museums in the world – which is a 0.4 mile walk from Southwark Tube Station. Also, Tate Britain (0.4 mile walk from Pimlico), the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and British Museum, which has some eight million works, making it the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection.
London has some great outdoor spaces you can enjoy absolutely gratis like the street theatre of Covent Garden, as well as the 350-acre Hyde Park – a stone’s throw away from the Grand Royale London hotel.
The famous Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is another cost-free spectacle that’s unlike anything you’ll ever see. Weather permitting, the 45-minute ceremony takes place at 11.30am every day between April and July, then alternate days for the rest of the year. Dating back to 1660, it’s considered the ultimate display of British pomp and pageantry and well worth checking out if you can.
There are various ways to get around London but the Underground is by far the most efficient. With 11 lines serving 270 stations across more than 250 miles (400km) of track, the Tube – as it is also known – is used by 1.34 billion passengers every year.
However, there are many unwritten rules any Tube user should be aware of, and arguably the most important is stand on the right on escalators. Failing to abide by this fairly simple rule will result in either getting barged out of the way or a snooty order to ‘shift it’, or both.
The majority of Tube passengers commute on the network every day and know exactly what they’re doing, so travelling long distances during rush hours isn’t advised as a general rule. Between 7.30-9.30am and 5.00-7.00pm, the Tube is crammed with commuters while the roads are congested more than usual so taxis and buses aren’t much better. London is best enjoyed at your own pace so take it easy and soak it all in.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the Oyster Card either. These contactless travel smartcards, pre-loaded with credit, are more than 50 per cent cheaper than one-day paper travelcards or single tickets. There’s more to the Visitor Oyster Card than just getting about too, with cardholders able to take advantage of food, drink and other discounts and special offers.
Most manned ticket offices at Underground stations have either closed or could well close in the near future, so it’s advisable to pre-order your Oyster Card ahead of your visit.
Don’t spread yourself too thin
London is massive and everything takes longer than expected. While two landmarks may look a short stroll away from each other on a map, in reality, they can be an energy-draining, time-consuming trek.
It may sound obvious but don’t fall into the trap of trying to cram too many attractions into a short space of time.
Even if you do manage to hotfoot it to all of them, it could be a self-defeating exercise because you’re less likely to properly enjoy them. This is especially true at the British Museum, which really deserves the best part of a day to fully appreciate everything on offer.
Get a discount
Attractions such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and London Bridge demand an entry fee but you can avoiding paying top whack by investing in a London Pass, which will get you into more than 60 attractions for free. If you know you’re not going to fit in everything you want in a single day, it’s worth considering a two, three, or even six-day pass.
If you’re keen to take in a West End show during your London visit, your Visitor Oyster Card entitles you to two-for-one theatre tickets for certain shows, as well as up to a quarter off entry fee at selected museums.
Get out of London
Sure, central London is littered with amazing attractions and grand landmarks but just a short train ride away lie some deeply historic cities that cast a very different light on life in Britain.
Just 50 minutes north is Cambridge, where you’ll be able go punting down the River Cam or visit King’s College Chapel and the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Canterbury awaits just 90 minutes away where actors bring the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer to life during a guided tour. There’s also its famous cathedral, beautiful Westgate Gardens and quaint Chilham Village.