Hello beautiful travelers,
How (and where) have you been? I have been to London (a.k.a home away from home where I lived for 9 years of my adult life) and had an AMAZING holiday. This time I took with me a friend that has never been to the best city in the world and it made me think how confusing London can be, so I decided to finally write a full guide to the London beginner 🙂 This is going to be a 2 part guide (maybe even 3); the fist post will give a general “how to” overview (how to plan your trip for an ultimate London experience, how to get around and my personal do’s and don’ts). The second part will give you a full schedule of a standard beginner’s visit to London and a potential 3rd post might include some fun recommendations but we will cross that London bridge when we get to it.
London is BIG!!! I have seen so many people waste time just traveling around the city, not realizing that within the center alone it can take 45 minutes getting from east to west. Proper planning of your trip can save you a lot of time that you can later fit other activities into. If you plan your trip right, there is a good chance you could take only a couple tube/bus rides during the day and do the rest by foot, seeing so much more of this beautiful city.
Thankfully there is one thing that can make it easier to plan your trip even if you’ve never been to London. Make a list of all the things you know you wish to see and all the places you wish to visit, then type them into google maps and write down which underground station or stations are closest (different stations have different train lines so the more stations the better). After you have a list with all the respective underground stations use a tube map (that you can easily find here) to simply find the location with the same, or close by stations, that way you know these locations are walking distance from each other as there are about 10 minutes walk between close by stations. It saves you loads of time to plan your days with everything in the same area (as much as possible, as there are things that are only open on specific days and they are not always close to each other so if you want to see them all you will need to travel).
Another common habit I noticed was for people to call/post/text from the airport asking how to travel into London… Plan ahead, the airports are far and while there are several very convenient ways to get into the center, if you don’t plan ahead you might end up paying a lot more than necessary. I will help you with that on the Getting Around section that is coming right up.
Before you pack check the weather forecast for your visit! I know it sounds obvious but in London you can have 3 days of light rain, followed by 5 days of sunshine, followed by a storm… The secret to packing for such weather is layers. Pack a couple of whatever you need (sweater, long T-shirt, short T-shirt, tank top etc), check the weather every morning and dress accordingly, remembering that almost nowhere in London has air conditioning so you might get really hot in shops, museums and theaters but freeze as soon as you go outside. Also, don’t trust your eyes, looking out the window and seeing a supposedly sunny day can be very misleading and more often than not means there are no clouds to buffer and it might be even colder than a cloudy day. Seriously, check the weather!!!
When I go to London I know there might be a lot of shopping involved so I pack all I need in my hand luggage, put the full hand luggage in an empty suitcase and that way I have a big, empty suitcase for all my shopping and souvenirs. as I layer up I bring many tank tops and T-shirts and less sweaters so I can fit in quite a lot in a hand luggage. No need for 4 pairs of shoes, 2 comfortable ones are more than enough, you might even get more when in London, so you might as well save that space. Before you pack a ball gown for a night at the theater remember this: London has an average of 1,000,000 tourists a day, they are used to people coming to the theater with jeans and a T-shirt and guess what?! They don’t care! Pack smart and you will have that much more room to buy those awesome new clothes to wear back home.
One last thing about the planning: when I go to London I usually don’t take the standard medication pouch I take to places I don’t know. I pack only meds I take on a regular basis and have a prescription for and maybe add antibiotics for good measure. I also don’t pack a lot of shampoo, conditioner and washing soap, just enough to last me for 1-2 days. There are Boots and Superdrug shops on every corner and they are cheap so I just go into one on my first day and get what I need, and in case I catch a cold I do the same. But that’s just me and this is just a recommendation, feel free to take it or not, whichever suits your traveling vibe.
I recommend you download to your phone the CityMapper app, define London as the city you are visiting (you can edit it later to any city you visit that is on the app). This app is basically a Google Maps, Uber, TFL (Transport for London) and A to Z one stop shop. You put in the search bar where you want to go (whenever you can, use post codes, in London they are actually useful and super accurate) and the app will show you EVERY POSSIBLE WAY to get there: by foot (just tap that option and a walking map will open), by car (the app connects to Uber and gives you an estimated price for the ride), by tube (changes are mentioned, best place to sit for a quick exit, best exit from the station… the lot!), buses and every possible combination between everything I mentioned above. Each track will mention how long it will take, how many changes are on the way and an estimate price.
Uber is also very effective in London (if you don’t use it where you live I recommend downloading the app), there is a great amount of cars around and they are significantly cheaper than black cabs so if it’s the middle of the night, or you have a million shopping bags Uber is a great choice.
First let’s get to our accommodation from the airport! If you land during the day you can travel from Heathrow with the underground, the Piccadilly line (dark blue) will take you right to the center. If you land in any other airport there are buses/trains that go into the center regularly and often, you don’t even have to book a ticket in advance.
If you landed at night or have too much luggage to carry around or you are traveling with kids and want the comfort of a shuttle there are great ones you can find online. For trips directly to and/or from Israel I like to use Nahagos , they are very communicative and super efficient but unfortunately work only with direct flight from and to Israel. From all other countries or a connection flight I found this car service pretty great and relatively cheaper than many other. Of course you can also google and find other services as there are many.
The Underground – Oyster Travel Card
On the first tube station you frequent buy an Oyster. The London travel card will cost you a £5 deposit that you get back in full when you return the card. It will continue being active even without use for 2 years so if you know you will be back in London I would recommend keeping it, I keep mine for years now and it is still as good as new.
If you are staying in London more than 5 days I recommend charging your Oyster with a weekly plan, for 4 days and under I recommend Pay-As-You-Go (you charge your Oyster with an amount of money that you choose and it comes off every time you travel until it reaches a daily maximum and then you can keep traveling but it will not charge you any more money, usually a weekly pass costs the amount of 5 traveling days but gives you 7 full days of travel, however if you are in London for less than 4 days but planned your days correctly you might not use the maximum daily budget and so Pay-As-You-Go will be the more economical choice, see all the daily and weekly fairs here).
You will mostly need only zones 1-2 on your Oyster as those are the central and most touristic areas, and even if you did a weekly plan for zones 1-2 and need to go outside those zones once or twice, you can add some funds via Pay-As-You-Go, gotta love a good mix and match travel card plan.
One last thing about the Oyster, as the weekly travel card is based on date I recommend that if you arrive in the morning start your weekly plan the same day, if you arrive at night however start the weekly travel cars the next day, that way you get 7 full days. The Oyster machine allows all option so just take your time and you will do just fine.
The Underground – Finding Your Way
The locals often call The Underground “Tube”, I am telling you this just in case you ask for direction and someone uses the term, they are one and the same.
I highly recommend picking up a small underground map (they are free and you can find them in every station) just in case you don’t have an internet connection underground.
Inside the entrance of every tube station you will have signs leading you to all the different lines in that station (and as you were smart and planned ahead, you already know which line you need to take :P), go in the direction of the line you need where you will always have 2 platforms, either north and south, or east and west, depending on the line. On the wall on each side there is a sign displaying all the stops the line is going to, the stop you are at will always be at the top and under it all the following stops the train is heading to on that specific side. If you check the sign on one side and can’t find the stop you need, turn around and check the other side and you will find it there (if you need to change lines in the middle of the trip don’t forget to look for the station in which you make the change and NOT your final destination), if you can’t find your stop on the other side either it means you need to take a second look, or that you might have ended up on the wrong platform/line. Looking at the final stop of each train is another good indicator to help you figure out if you are on the right side of the train.
*** Notice that the northern line (black) splits in two, if you want to use it to go to Camden Town (and you really do, trust me on that, Camden is awesome) it is not a problem as both sides arrive in Camden Town, however to get to stops on a specific side you need to pay attention you are on the right side (either Via Bank or Via Charing Cross) because if you are on the wrong side you will need to change a couple of times to get to your stop, all you need is to pay a bit of attention. ***
Getting In Touch
Nowadays people like to stay connected, posting statuses on Facebook, sharing photos on Instagram etc’. While traveling, having the internet at our fingertips makes it easier to get around, navigate, book a cab and make plans with friends. While many people like to book an internet package in their own country, I prefer buying a local sim card as I find they are often cheaper and give you better coverage. In London you can buy them in a vending machine at the airport (6GB by Vodafone for £20 or 12GB for £30) or via every mobile shop on the high street. If you do decide to get a local sim card at the shops I highly recommend going to a mobile company shop (O2, 3, Vodafone etc’) and not shops that combine all the companies together (Carphone Warehouse, Phones4You etc’) as they are usually more expensive.
That is it my traveling friends, you are now ready to explore and discover my favorite city in the whole world. The next post will give you a full trip plan for the London beginner, it will include what I find to be the “must see” and also several things I know people like to see then they visit London for the first time. Feel free to copy it, take ideas from it and of course, ask me anything you wish to know about it 🙂
Go wander, your Traveling Unicorn x
4 thoughts on “London for beginners – The full guide (Part 1)”
All I can say is W O W ! London, as you know, is for me too home away from home but what you wrote here, and the way you did it, is totally eyes lightening ! and though youwrote it for ‘beginners’ I managed to find a few tips for myself as well .. Keep the good work!
Thank you my dear, means a lot coming from you x
I enjoyed reading your excellent guide. Very useful.
So happy to hear it, stay tuned for part 2