My London: Tips for a First Time Visitor

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” – Samuel Johnson

London. Love at first sight. My favourite city. My home away from home. When my friends make their first journey across the pond, I often share tips to help them on their way. Hopefully these are helpful to others embarking on a journey to London.

Arriving on a Jet Plane

• Many international flights arrive at either London Heathrow (LHR) or London Gatwick (LGW). London is also home to London City Airport (LCY) which is the closest to Central London and London Stansted (STN) located northeast of London in Essex.

• Mind the Gap. Next to walking, the London Underground – more affectionately known as the Tube – is the best way to travel to, from and around central London. Definitely make sure to check signs around the city that will let you know time between Tube Stations as sometimes it is quicker to walk. Pick up a local Tube map at any Tube Station. I love planning my Tube journey as there are so many options available. While I am not a fan of the subway at home, I love the Tube and aim to hit all lines during my holiday. Investing in an Oyster Card is the most economical option. You can return it at the end of your holiday and get your deposit back. I just keep mine for my next visit and fill it when I arrive with a travel card when I arrive the Heathrow Tube Station before to heading to the city.

• When travelling across the pond, I fly either Air Canada (Terminal 2) or British Airways (Terminal 5) so London Heathrow is always my final destination. I generally take the tube to Central London as it is less expensive than the Heathrow Express which takes you to Paddington Station and you may still need to take the tube or taxi to get to your accommodation. The Heathrow Express is great and quick especially if time is of the essence or you want to enjoy a quick layover in London. But if I have time on your holiday, save money by just taking the tube. The Piccadilly Line trains are used to seeing a lot luggage and there are spots for it. If you fly to Gatwick, there is a train and buses to Victoria Station which is close to Buckingham Palace.

Where to Stay

London is expensive and this is definitely the case with accommodations. I often have pre-purchased hotel rooms via a travel provider, travel agent or with the hotel directly. Staying outside of Central London may save money but it can take longer to get to the city. If you are staying in a smaller hotel, you may be staying in the basement. I did in one hotel which I returned to a second time. Definitely check on this if you are not comfortable below ground.

• If you are travelling alone, do your research to find hotels that do not charge a singles supplement as this can add a lot of money to your hotel bill.

• I have tended to stay in hotels in South Kensington close to Gloucester Road Tube (Circle, District and Piccadilly Lines). My last two visits I moved beyond South Ken by renting a flat a seven minute walk from Oxford Circus as well as staying with family in Kent and commuting to London by train. While I have not used Air BNB myself, I have seen lovely flats on their website so definitely might be worth checking it out.

• My favourite hotel I have stayed in is The Bailey’s Hotel London. I booked it via their website as I was staying nine nights when visiting for my cousin’s wedding. I was lucky to get a room upgrade upon my arrival and enjoyed having room service available from Olives Restaurant especially on cold December evenings. I loved the old charm of The Bailey’s Hotel, the very close proximity to the Gloucester Road Tube Station and the staff were absolutely lovely.

Out and About in London

• As a first time visitor, spend the money on a bus tour. Every few trips I take it again to see how the city has changed since my first trip in 1995 and to capture photographs of the ever evolving city. I have always gone on the Big Bus Tour – you get to see so much of the city and learn too. You can hop on and off too at various tourist attractions. The Bus has three routes – red, green and blue and also includes a cruise along the Thames River. If your travel is during the off season, your ticket may cover two days.

Buckingham Palace – you must go and see the Queen if you go to London. Green Park and Hyde Park which are nearby are also lovely to walk through.

• My fellow Canadians will feel right at home in Trafalgar Square – home to Canada House.

Tower of London is an awesome attraction including the royal jewels. Definitely a great tourist attraction that children and adults alike will love.

St Paul’s Cathedral – you can climb to the top – about 500 steps and you get great views of London on a clear day. My first visit to the Cathedral, I walked the aisle and imagined Princess Diana doing it with the world watching. On one December visit, I was lucky enough to attend a candlelight Christmas Carol service. Incredibly beautiful.

Westminster Abbey is beautiful too. I went before the 2011 Royal Wedding so will likely return on a future visit.

• Many London Museums including the British Museum, Victoria and Albert, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern are free so worth visiting. I absolutely love that they are accessible to everyone and not just those who can afford it.

• Go to the theatre. There are places you can purchase same tickets in the city at great deals. Leicester Square has a half price ticket office. For a bit of history, go to the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre along the Thames River which is also a great to walk along.

• The new Shard – London version of the CN Tower – is close by Borough Market. I went up at sunset and enjoyed awesome views. It is expensive so if you decide to do it make sure it is a clear day. This also applies for a spin on the London Eye which is located close to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

Shopping

• I love to visit the main shopping streets – Oxford Street and Regent Street. Accessible from various Tube Stops: Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Bond Street and Marble Arch.

• Kings Road – close to Sloane Square Tube.

• There is a big mall called the Westfield at Sheppard’s Bush Tube – it is like a big Yorkdale in Toronto. I would personally much rather be on Oxford Street or somewhere else enjoying the sights but it is a way to hit alot of stores all at once.

• Definitely go to Notting Hill. Best to go Saturdays mornings to really experience the buzz. Take the Tube to NottingHill Gate and follow the crowds to Portobello Road.

• Whether you are a shopper or not, definitely go into Selfridges, Liberty, Fortnum and Mason, Harrods and Harvey Nichols to see them. Many have awesome food halls which are really quite amazing especially for any foodie.

• I love John Lewis, Peter Jones at Sloane Square and Marks and Spencer Department Stores as I can find “reasonably” priced clothes.

• There also some lovely independent shops – I often have luck at Wallis and Hobbs.

• Go to Primark on Oxford Street for reasonable finds and a lot of people I know rave about the H and M store near Oxford Circus Tube.

• Visit Covent Garden – they have a market on Sunday’s and there are many restaurants and bars there so you can visit any day of the week. They have little market stalls in the Jubilee Market – just off the Covent Garden Square. There are a few vendors that sell scarfs who I always visit to get a few new ones every visit. Inexpensive presents for you or family and friends. I wear these scarfs for a pop of colour with my otherwise black and navy wardrobe.

Food

Borough Market is foodie paradise.

The Wolseley at Green Park Tube has an amazing breakfast. It is a beautiful European cafe right near the Ritz Hotel. A bit of a splurge but absolutely lovely. One must book a reservation in advance.

• Crave coffee – Starbucks is scattered throughout the city but other chains also exist – AMT Coffee, Costa Coffee and Cafe Nero. Paul’s Patisserie is a lovely little bakery. The Nordic Bakery is a great for Finnish and other Scandinavian and Nordic treats.

• If you like Mexican food, check out Wahaca – my sister in law’s cousin who is from Mexico took me to the Covent Garden location for dinner. A happening little place and pretty reasonably priced too.

• If you find yourself in Orpington, Kent – I love the Indian takeaway from Indigo Restaurant. Love their food especially the chicken korma.

Giraffe World Kitchen is a family friendly restaurant which lots of international flavours.

• If you love steak, check out Flat Iron Steak Company – just off Regent in Soho

Wagamama has lots of Asian noodle and vegetarian dishes.

Pizza Express is a chain restaurant which I have always had an enjoyable pizza over the past two decades.

• I love Fish and Chips so always try to have it somewhere on my travels. These two spots have been recommended to me many times. One visit I hopefully finally get to them – The Golden Hind Restaurant and The Sea Shell Of Lisson Grove.

• There is a yummy little takeaway place called POD Food – healthy breakfasts and lunches.

Marks and Spencers Simply Food and Pret a Manger are great place for inexpensive takeaway and easy lunches. I grab things from here lots when I am in London. I actually love popping into the grocery stores to see what is different and they often will sell reasonable meals to go.

Heddon Street Kitchen is one of Gordon Ramsay’s newest restaurants – just off Regent Street. I haven’t had an entire meal but enjoyed a tomato burrata tart and bubbles on my last visit. Definitely will go back again.

• Jamie Oliver has opened a cooking school – Jamie Oliver Cookery School. I haven’t been yet but definitely plan to check it out on a future visit as I love cooking classes.

• Word of advice – always pay for all meals in cash because you never want to come home to a meal that is maybe worth $20 here and your credit card shows 3X or more the amount in Canadian dollars. Paying in cash is simply less painful. I never ever feel that way if I have gone to a tourist attraction, an experience or bought myself something I loved.

Day Trips

Oxford is lovely. Catch the train from London Paddington. An hour train trip in the lovely English countryside. Last visit I had lovely lunch with a friend at the Cherwell Boathouse. The Oxford University campus is stunning and a must see.

Bath is a beautiful city – a two hour train trip. While I was there twenty years ago, I loved my few days there. A visit to the Roman Baths and the Pump Room for afternoon tea is essential. It is also easy to travel by bus to English Heritage site Stonehenge.

Windsor Castle is a simple trip from Central London and quite impressive. No Royal Wedding invite, no problem. Visitors are welcomed throughout the year.

Food for Thought

• Plan for the weather. Layers are always a good idea as the weather can be mixed throughout the year. I have been in late March and only needed a trench coat but the evenings were just above freezing and if it rains, it could be a bit chilly. While snow in winter isn’t as common as it is in Canada, it can paralyze the city. If you visit during the late autumn to spring, plan for the potential snow and cold temperatures. The cold is a different cold from what I am used to at home. I tend not to visit in the summer as I struggle when places are hot and lacking the extensive air conditioning that I am used to at home. Comfortable shoes are very important as you will likely be walking a lot. A Canada pin might come in handy too.

• If you are bringing your mobile and plan to use it, check your plan so you don’t come home to a shocking phone bill like I have. I am with Rogers which introduced a Roam Like Home for Europe on certain plans. It is super reasonable compared to before – $10/day for a maximum of $100/month. New unlocking options may mean someone can pick up a SIM card across the pond. If you have an on-the-go charger, bring it as it can be hard to find mobile charging stations. The only one I found last visit was in the back of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street.

• You will need a voltage converter for the UK. Buy it here so your mobile or camera charger prongs fit into the converter. You can buy at the airport or a luggage shop. If you are bringing a flat iron and/or hair dryer, the appliance must be dual voltage. My old flat iron wasn’t and as soon as I turned it on, there was a burning smell. Thankfully I only blew a fuse in the hotel. If you don’t have a dual voltage appliance, don’t bother bringing it with you. Save the space. If you decide to invest in one in the future, the GHD flat irons ones at Sephora – are dual voltage. I got a mini dual voltage hairdryer Avanti Mini Folding Travel Hair Dryer, 1600W, Model: AV-TRAV for the time I rented a flat but I can use it at home and abroad by adjusting the voltage button on it.

• A few of my favourite websites to discover what is happening in London include Visit London, Time Out London and Visit Britain.

• One of my favourite things to do is walk as much as possible and photograph the city. Trust me that you won’t be able to do everything you want in just one visit. Two decades later, I still have many things I want to see.

Hope you develop your own London love affair and will want to return again and again.

Till then keep calm and carry on.

Author: FinnSpirit

I am a positive super spirit builder, aunt, foodie, anglophile, philomath, traveller, Rodan + Fields Independent Consultant, lifelong Junior Leaguer and volunteer who is passionate all things beauty, style, design, pink, photography, PFCC, people, careers, community and making a difference.

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