First time London: getting to grips with the Big Smoke

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First time visitors to London come with a host of preconceptions – gentlemen in bowler hats, terrible food, equally terrible weather, lots of history, world-famous buildings. But these clichès are largely unrepresentative of the real experience. You can still find them if you look hard enough. But you can find anything here if you look hard enough because there is an entire world of experiences in one city.

London is not just saturated in multiculturalism, but defined by it: people from 270 different countries speak more than 300 languages. And in this United Nations of a capital it wouldn’t be at all unfeasible, in the space of 24 hours, to eat Ethiopian stew, have a salsa lesson, gaze upon artefacts from Ancient Egypt, slurp down Vietnamese pho, and listen to an oompah band in a Bavarian beer hall.

This isn’t to say London’s identity is entirely made up of globe-spanning components; it still has uniqueness by the bucketload. The buses really are red, the taxis really are black, and that massive clock by the river really is magnificent. The main attractions are world-class, often incomparably so, and absolutely worth visiting, but whether on a first visit or a hundredth there’s always more to discover.

The Houses of Parliament is a popular destination for visitors to London © Mirek Osmera / 500pxLondon has no shortage of must-see sights and the Houses of Parliament are near the top of many visitors’ lists © Mirek Osmera / 500px

Getting there

Most international visitors enter via one of three major airports, which are prefixed with ‘London’ despite being quite a distance from the city. Heathrow is the closest, at 20 miles, while Gatwick and Stansted are 28 and 40 miles away, respectively. Fortunately, all three have express train services to the heart of the city, which are worth paying a bit extra for.

Neighbourhoods & sights

London is often described as an amalgamation of different villages, rather than a single place. Though few of its neighbourhoods are remotely village-like (exceptions include Notting Hill and Richmond), it’s certainly true that different parts have different atmospheres, and it can be useful to segment your sightseeing accordingly. Three main, connected neighbourhoods, the West End, the South Bank and the City, sit either side of the River Thames and are the focus of most visits, especially first time ones, but there are plenty of other areas worth exploring.

Trafalgar Square is one of the main attractions on the West End © Prettyawesome / ShutterstockThe fountains and architecture around Trafalgar Square make it a pretty spot for beginning your city explorations © Prettyawesome / Shutterstock

The West End

The West End is London’s entertainment and cultural hub, with Trafalgar Square the closest thing the city has to a centre. It’s dominated on one side by Nelson’s Column and on the other by the National Gallery (and just behind that, the National Portrait Gallery).

To the east of the square, the Strand meanders towards the City (see below), running parallel to the Thames. To the north are Covent Garden, famous for its street performers, shopping and Royal Opera House, and Leicester Square, Soho and Chinatown, famous for their nightlife and eating options. Here too is the main shopping district, swirling around Oxford, Carnaby, Bond and Regent streets. Nearby is the British Museum – one of the world’s greatest.

West down the Mall is Buckingham Palace. You’re unlikely to see a royal but the Changing of the Guard is fun. Follow Nelson’s gaze south down Whitehall past 10 Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives) to find Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

Tate Modern was once the Bankside Power Station and is located south of the Millennium Bridge © Matt Munro / Lonely PlanetPower station turned modern art gallery, Tate Modern is a hugely popular South Bank attraction © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

The South Bank

Cross the Thames by one of its many bridges and you’ll find yourself on the South Bank, London’s red light area in the medieval period and now home to a host of big-name attractions, all conveniently located along a largely pedestrianised riverfront path. From west to east you have the London Eye, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe and finally, and much needed because by now you’ll be hungry, Borough Market and its tourist-friendly food stalls.

St John's Chapel in the Tower of London dates back to 1080 © Vulture Labs / Getty ImagesSt John’s Chapel in the Tower of London is London’s oldest church © Vulture Labs / Getty Images

The City

The original Roman settlement is now the financial capital of the UK, with a growing forest of skyscrapers competing for skyline domination. At street level though, this is one of London’s most fascinating and historic neighbourhoods. Streets and lanes laid out hundreds of years ago are lined with partially hidden churches built after the 1666 Great Fire, with one religious building ruling them all – St Paul’s Cathedral. Further east is the equally unmissable Tower of London, home to the Crown Jewels, and everybody’s favourite photo-op, Tower Bridge.

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, was commissioned by Charles II in 1675 © mkos83 / Shutterstock Time begins at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, south London’s premier day out © mkos83 / Shutterstock

Go west – and north and east and south

West of the West End a more tranquil and leafy London includes Hyde Park and three of London’s best museums (all free): the Natural History Museum, V&A and Science Museum.

Camden Town is one of the main draws of north London, with its bohemian markets and tantalising street food, though its growing tackiness is getting harder to ignore. Hampstead Heath makes for a nice stroll, and offers one of the best views of the city. Further north, you’ll find the fabulously eerie Highgate Cemetery.

Head east into hipster territory in artsy Shoreditch and Spitalfields. Your coolness factor will double just by being there. East is also where you’ll find Brick Lane, with its eclectic shops and abundance of budget curry houses.

South London expeditions home in on Greenwich, home to the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and Queen’s House – it’s a favourite day out when (if) you run out of things to do in central London.

Poppies recreates a 1950s East End fish and chips shop © Dosfotos Dosfotos / Getty ImagesTraditional British food doesn’t come better than fish and chips © Dosfotos Dosfotos / Getty Images

Eating & drinking

It’s difficult to imagine a type of food not available in London. There’s literally an A-Z of cuisines to be found across the city. The highest concentration of restaurants is in the West End, ranging from cheap Chinese in Soho to gastronomic wonders in Mayfair. The South Bank has plenty of reliable chains and some great gastro-pubs where food is taken as seriously as the drink. The City buzzes during the week but is a food wasteland once the bankers and brokers have headed home for the weekend. Sandwich shops and burger and noodle chains fill in the gaps across the capital and are good for a quick refuelling.

When it comes to national cuisine, there are two dishes first time visitors should try: fish and chips, and curry. An excellent portion of the former can be found at Poppies in Shoreditch, and for the latter head to Brick Lane. Another British classic is the roast dinner, traditionally eaten at Sunday lunchtime and consisting of roast meat, potatoes and vegetables and a Yorkshire pudding (a baked batter dish), all covered in gravy. Any decent pub should offer one, and save space for dessert – sticky toffee pudding is a firm favourite.

Londoners love to drink, and a classic experience for any first timer is a pint in a pub. You won’t have trouble finding one – they’re literally everywhere – but particularly good ones include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (an old Dickens haunt), Ye Olde Mitre and the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market.

When it comes to bars and clubs, central London is best for sheer abundance. Soho is still the undisputed nightlife district, and along with Vauxhall has the best LGBTQ venues.

The vaulted cellars at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese are thought to be remnants of a 13th century monastery © FUTURE LIGHT / Getty ImagesDrink in some history at one of London’s centuries-old pubs © FUTURE LIGHT / Getty Images

Sleeping

Needing to cater to 19 million visitors a year and rising, London has no shortage of accommodation, from budget hostels to luxurious boutique hotels. For your first time, you’ll want to stay somewhere central. A good budget option is the excellently located SoHostel; for something mid-range try the Haymarket in the heart of the West End; and if money is no concern, you might as well head straight for the Ritz.

History and speed combine on the London Tube © Matthew Williams-Ellis / Getty ImagesLet the train take the strain by hopping on the world’s oldest metro system © Matthew Williams-Ellis / Getty Images

Getting around

There are multiple ways for getting around London. Walking is the best way to take in its 2,000 years of history but you can’t visit without using the underground rail network – commonly known as the tube – at least once. The first of its kind in the world when it opened in 1863, it’s the quickest way to get around. Just avoid rush hour (especially 8-9am and 5-6pm). Buses give the feet a break and offer good views but can be slow. Taxis are expensive though they can carry five passengers, so for an iconic experience can be worthwhile. Boat services operate on the Thames throughout central London and down to Greenwich, providing a whole different perspective on the city.

In terms of payment, an Oyster Card is the best option, valid on all forms of transport: buy one as soon as you arrive from any station or pre-order before you set off.

Safety

London is one of the world’s safest and most tolerant cities, though as with any large city, crime isn’t unheard of. Pickpockets operate on the tube and in other busy places, so valuables out of easy reach and within view in pubs and restaurants. Phone snatching happens so be aware when you’re texting or posting a pic. The emergency number is 999 (or 100 for non-emergencies, like reporting a stolen bag).

Etiquette

  • Tipping 10-15% for sit-down meals, sometimes included as Service Charge on the bill – check so you don’t tip twice. No tipping necessary if getting drinks in a pub. Round up to the nearest pound in taxis.
  • Escalators Always stand on the right, walk on the left (someone will ‘helpfully’ remind you if you forget).
  • Queuing As with the rest of the country, queuing is a sacred social custom, so fall in line.
  • Social interaction Don’t start conversations with strangers, especially on public transport – Londoners keep themselves to themselves, though are generally approachable if you need directions somewhere.

Read more about London dos and don’ts.

Warm weather draws large crowds to London parks © Maremagnum / Getty ImagesWhen the sun comes out, so do Londoners to enjoy a picnic in the park © Maremagnum / Getty Images

What to pack

Contrary to what you might have heard, it doesn’t rain all the time in London, or even most of the time. Winters tend to be cool and grey (snow is uncommon), while summers are warm (typically mid 20s Celsius/mid 70s Fahrenheit) and sunny-ish. So layers are the key to a successful London wardrobe. And something waterproof. Because it just might rain.

In terms of going out, this is a casual city, and for most places dress codes don’t apply. Only in very fancy restaurants will men be expected to put on a jacket and sports shoes will be frowned upon. In general, wear whatever makes you feel comfortable.

Anything else?

It’s best to book in advance where possible, to avoid long queues or disappointment. If there’s a particular restaurant you want to eat in, reserve a table – in central London, every night is Saturday night. The same goes for major, paying attractions, like the London Eye, tours of Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London (booking online can also knock a few pounds off the entry price). It’s possible to find last-minute tickets for certain shows, but there’s no guarantee, so buy those in advance, too.

Lastly, be yourself. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak, what colour your skin is, what your sexual orientation is, or what clothes you wear, London will embrace you. Welcome to the world in a city.

Facts & figures

  • 8 million – population
  • 19 million – number of annual visitors
  • 50 AD – year London was founded by the Romans
  • 300+ – languages spoken
  • 270 – London Underground stations (and nationalities)
  • 45 – percentage of Tube network that is actually underground
  • £150 – daily budget, including food and accommodation
  • 4 – World Heritage Sites
  • 1 million – pubs in London. Just kidding. But there are a lot.

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