London for beginners – The full guide (Part 1)

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.

Planning 

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.

London travel time
Just to give you an idea of how long it takes to get around the different areas

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!!!

London weather
The upcoming week’s weather in London, you get clouds, showers and everything in between

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.

Getting Around

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

Oyster
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

London Tube
London Underground (Tube) Map

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

 

 

 

London – My epic love story ♥

I know I promised I would post at least once a month but in my defense I am recovering from surgery and the only reason I am out of bed now is to sort of keep my promise, let’s pretend this post is happening in February 🙂 Also, to make it up to you for waiting I am giving you a love story, and who doesn’t appreciate a good love story?!

My love story with London is an epic one; it is not a summer romance like I had with New Zealand or 4 nights of passion like I had with New Orleans, it is an endless love for the ages. A lot of people have that one place in the world that makes them completely happy, the place they would give up other places for if needed, London is mine. If you want to know why just keep reading.

I fell in love with London when I was 12 years old. My parents took me abroad for the first time, a 21 days trip to Scotland, Paris and London for desert and indeed it was the cherry on top of pretty much everything! I kept returning to London time and time again until finally, at the age of 26 when my life felt stuck and unfulfilling I decided to move there. I lived there for 9 years in total (in two batches), and returned permanently to Israel at 2016 because of my lack of European passport and my inability to get a work visa, I know, it sucks!

The first time I moved back to Israel I immediately found a job, got back on track and  dove into a very deep depression, too deep, scary deep. So when I had to move back the second time I did 2 things differently: the first, I didn’t go back to real life right away, I decided to spend a few months at the beach, decide what I want to do etc. The second thing was to go traveling (of course)! I figured I might not get another chance like that , at 36 to go on a few months trip before being a grown up again, so I packed a big backpack and went away for 4 months: New Zealand, Fiji, Australia (east coast) and Hong Kong with 2 weeks in London on the way back to decompress. That was the absolute right thing to do!!! This time when I returned to Israel I was ready to settle down. The move from place to place can give you whiplash sometimes, especially between countries that are drastically different as England and Israel are, if I can give you only one advice it will be to take your time, don’t jump into reality too quickly because it can be a bit harsh. Sort out your heart, because I found that taking the first step means nothing if you are not really prepared for the journey ahead.

I bet you are asking yourselves why I fell so hard for a city that some find too grey (“nice to meet you, my name is Jo and I am a winter person”) or the people in it too cold. Well, I will allow you a glimpse into my heart and tell you.

Natural Beauty – I don’t know about you but I like having random beauty around me, to look up and see stunning architecture, to walk around and see an explosion of spring flowers or autumn leaves, to have parks to stroll in and monuments to encounter every now and then and London has it all. All you have to do is look up, look around you. To be honest, there is nothing better than getting lost in this city and find the less familiar beauty, the things you didn’t know you can discover, the little moments that take your breath away without you being ready and make you fall in love with London all over again.

Dramatic / Romantic Weather – Those grey skies that people complain about are one of the things I like most about London, and if I can’t sell you the grey sky in particular allow me to sell you all shades of sky but white, I’ll explain: as a photographer that believes in #NoFilter and in as little editing as possible I can tell you there is nothing less photogenic than white sky, and while I don’t mind warm weather, completely blue sky with no white, fluffy clouds are also less photogenic. In London you will almost always have either very dramatic grey skies with a million shades and textures or on beautiful warm days you will almost always have the white clouds to add character to your photos, that is on the photography side of things. On the weather side of things even when it is cold it is almost never freezing, the rain is mostly light so you can get away with a hat and when it is sunny and warm (which happens for longer and longer duration in the past few years) people crave it and love it so much that the whole city feels like one big party. Beer gardens and parks fill up in seconds and the vibe is that of complete freedom.

Restaurants – London is full of amazing restaurants that allow for a slightly different eating experience (food is also a part of it but it will have its own section). An afternoon tea on the 42nd floor overlooking the city, a dinner at a magical igloo with a Tower Bridge view, a futuristic bathroom… you can find all those around London if you want an evening that is more than just about the food.

Which brings us to All of The Food – As London is a metropolitan full of people from all over the world you can find in this city every type of food you can possibly imagine. And as I am sure one day London got sick of hearing what crappy food it has and being compared to Paris in that respect (or at least that’s what happened in my head) you can also find AMAZING restaurants ,pastry shops ,chocolate shops and food markets all around town. It doesn’t matter if you like cup cakes, humus or Italian food, if you are a food truck kind of person, only willing to eat in chef restaurants or looking for a fancy afternoon tea experience, London has it all, your every heart’s desires, and the kitchen is always open!

The Music – I love going to live music concerts and there is nothing better than going to a gig in London! EVERYONE has concerts in London, anyone you ever listened to, anyone you ever wanted to see live, anyone that is doing a comeback and anyone that is super hot right now. You can see your favorite artist in a 50,000 seat arena, in a 2,500 people hall, or in a secret pop up concert in a cafe in Camden Town. Prices are super reasonable and for £50 you can sing your heart out with your favorite band from the front row (photos from front row for £50 below). Not all gigs are that cheap but hand on my heart, a concert was never so expensive that I had to think twice if I can afford to go.

The Culture – Whether you love museums, musicals, theater, opera, football or festivals you can find it all here. Most museums offer free entry and those who do have an entry charge take a very small amount that will be used for the conservation of the art you are about to see, and the selection is breathtaking, there really is something for everyone.  In every production you can find cheaper seats, or better, more expensive seats but the experience will always be amazing and will cost you about half the price it costs in New York. You can see some serious names from the cinema doing incredible, time limited productions at the West End from anything between £10-£120. Football games are a bit more expensive but well worth it to go at least once if you are a fan. So whether you are a visitor on holiday or you live in London and looking for a special day/night out there is always something amazing to do and you don’t have to break into your savings to do it.

The Fandom – Like me and many of my friends you can be a comic book nerd, collect Funko Pop figures, be a film buff or count the days until your next convention, in London you can find anything you are a fan of. Collectibles, many incredible conventions, stunning movie premiers and the ability to meet the stars you admire if you want to. All you have to do is a bit of research because things are always happening in London, you just have to figure out when and where.

Street Art – Of course there is the stunning Shoreditch that is packed full of graffiti and street art of every kind but you can also find some stunning creations in Camden, in Soho and everywhere around the city really. Some big names in the street art scene started their way in London and others come from all over the world to leave their mark on its walls so if street art is what you like just take to the streets and it will be waiting there for you to find and enjoy.

And of course there are the insanely beautiful Christmas decorations and markets, the best Pride parade ever, the acceptance of every person, no matter what you like or what you wear, the amazing people who on the one hand don’t shove their nose into your business but on the other hand are the warmest, loveliest, most fun loving people I had the privilege of calling my friends. So much to do, so much to discover, so much to experience and so much to Love!

Me and my London.JPG

Those are some of the reasons why I will always and forever be in love with London and I hope I gave you the desire to taste a bit of what it has to offer. Feel free to message me or comment if you want any more specific recommendations or to follow my blog as I promise you this will not be my last post about my beautiful London.

Go wander, your Traveling Unicorn x