London Travel Guide for First Time Visitors
London Travel Guide for First Time Visitors
London Travel Guide for First Time Visitors
London is an amazing city, but if you are visiting for the first time, where do you even start? How do you get around the city? What things shouldn't you miss? Our London travel guide is here to give you a bite-size view of how it all works.
1. Where should I stay in London?
London is such a big metropolis that terms like "central London" and "near attractions" are actually quite ambiguous. Several areas of the city are part of central London and the most popular attractions are scattered across a few areas, so staying near them or in central London could quite literally mean anywhere in the inner metropolitan area.
The good news is that transport links are great, Underground trains are incredibly frequent and even though areas like Hammersmith and Canary Wharf might look far on the map, they are actually only around 15-30mins from Westminster and Big Ben on the train. Transport for London also offers daily and weekly travelcards that allow you to travel everywhere on the Underground and buses for a set fee.
So while staying in popular areas is always a safe bet, veering off the beaten track can not only uncover a whole new area of the city you might not otherwise have explored, but it can also cost you less, as less touristy areas are more affordable and are only a hop away on the Tube. When booking with Central London Apartments, feel free to give us a call and ask our reservation advisors about the areas in the city. Our experts are always happy to share their local knowledge and they might even be able to save you some money!
Here are some ideas of distance as a rough guide, please bear in mind these are average times and do not include rush hour.
Where you can travel to in 10 - 15 minutes
Camden Town Tube Station (Zone 2) to Oxford Circus Tube Station (Zone 1)
Earl's Court Tube Station (Zone 2) to Westminster Tube Station (Zone 1)
North Greenwich Tube Station (Zone 3) to Westminster Tube Station (Zone 1)
Where you can travel to in 15- 30 minutes
Earl's Court Tube Station (Zone 1/2) to Oxford Circus Tube Station (Zone 1)
Hammersmith Tube Station (Zone 2) to Westminster Tube Station (Zone 1)
Canary Wharf Tube Station (Zone 2) to Knightsbridge Tube Station (Zone 1)
Different areas of London have their own identity and feel. For a quick guide to the city's areas, visit our Choose by Area page here.
And if you don't fancy getting on the Underground, or the Tube as we affectionately call it, you can always use the boats, the overground or the buses and sightsee as you go! See our alternative ways to get around London for more information.
2. What is the best time of the year to visit London?
All year around. It really depends on what you want to see or do.
In spring (March to May), the city not only gets a fresh green backdrop, as trees and shrubs come out of hibernation, but it is also painted in the bright colours of spring's fresh blossoms. The gardens and parks explode with colour. Days get warmer and longer as we get closer to summer, but the nights are cold.
During the summer (June to August), rooftop bars, alfresco dining, open air film screenings, theatre performances and street festivals take over the city. Days and nights can be very warm and at the height of summer, the sun doesn't set until past 9pm.
During autumn (September to November), London turns golden as the leaves change from green to yellow and red. The city's parks become another spectacle of colour, this time in hues of orange, yellow, brown and red. We also celebrate Bonfire Night and Lord Mayor's Day with big firework displays. Days are warm earlier in the season but progressively get cooler and shorter as we approach winter.
And in winter (December to February) the Christmas markets come to town, streets are beautifully decorated with seasonal lights and restaurants (we always love Bella Cosa's winter menu) change their menus in favour of comforting treats. Days become very short in the peak of winter when the sun sets as early as 4pm. Days and night can be very cold, with January and February being the coldest months of the year.
3. What clothes should I take to London?
It depends on what time of the year you visit.
During winter, wrap up warm. Gloves, scarves and an umbrella are a must if you plan to sightsee or walk a lot, especially during January and February.
During spring and autumn, layers are best, so you can stay comfortable as the weather shifts. Have at least one warm jacket, as nights can still be cold.
And during summer, wear light clothes, but always have a cardigan at hand, just in case the night gets a little too cool or the breeze picks up after a warm day.
Always bring one nice outfit in case you decide to go somewhere special or go out partying, as quite a few nightclubs and bars in London have a smart dress code policy.
The UK is a set of islands with sea waters on all sides, which makes our weather particularly unpredictable and means we can at times catch quite a cold breeze. As a rule of thumb, we always carry an umbrella, just in case the weather shifts. But during the summer, carry a bottle of water, as it can get pretty hot in the capital.
3. How do I get from the airport to London?
There are five major airports around London, but only London City Airport is actually inside Greater London metropolitan area. Heathrow is inside London's M25 Orbital (this is a circular motorway that surrounds London and some towns just outside the city) and Gatwick, Luton and Stansted are all outside of the city, but still easily accessible.
While taxis and Ubers are available and are still the only door-to-door service, the most cost-effective way to come into the city from the airports is by public transport. Not only because it's cheaper, but it does tend to be faster, as the traffic in London tends to be busy around the clock.
From London City Airport, the easiest way is to catch the DLR overground train, get off at Canning Town Station then catch the Jubilee Line on the Underground to central London. From there you can go anywhere in the city. The journey from the airport to Westminster Station will normally take around 30 minutes. This airport is very handy if you decide to stay in Greenwich, Canary Wharf or Stratford, as these areas of the city sit in between the airport and central London, so you will literally ride passed some of them on your way in.
From Heathrow Airport, in Terminals 2-3 you can catch the Heathrow Express which will take you straight to Paddington Station in around 20 mins. Alternatively, you can take the Piccadilly Line in the Underground from Terminals 1-2-3 and go straight to Green Park in 50 minutes. From both Paddington and Green Park you can go anywhere in London. Taking the Tube is more cost-effective, but it takes longer.
From Gatwick Airport, you can either take the Gatwick Express or the regular train straight to Victoria Station in around 35 mins. From Victoria, you can take the Tube to anywhere in London.
From Luton Airport, you can catch the National Express bus from the airport to Victoria Station, which will take around 1 hour and 30 minutes.
From Stansted Airport, you can take the Greater Anglia Train to Tottenham Hale Station and from there take the Underground's Victoria Line to Victoria Station. This trip should take around 1 hour and 10 minutes. Alternatively, you could take the National Express bus directly to Victoria Station and get there in around 2 hours.
To note: On average, according to this tip calculator, you should aim to leave taxi drivers a tip which rounds up the fare.
3. How does the London Underground work?
London benefits from an impressive network of underground and overground train lines as well as buses. But it would be a sin to visit the capital and not ride its iconic London Underground, or as the locals call it, the Tube.
London Underground lines are colour coded, there are maps everywhere and the Tube tunnels are very well signposted. There are also staff members on hand to help if you get stuck, so don't be afraid to give it a go or ask a member of staff for assistance. And if you get on the wrong train, get off at the next station, go back one station and start again. No problem.
Think of the Tube map like a water ripple on a lake. Zone 1 is the centre where the stone would fall and form the first ripple. This is the area we call central London, as you will see, it's fairly big! The other zones work outwards from 1 to 9.
Most things you will want to see as a tourist will be in Zones 1 to 3. When buying your travelcard, what zones you will travel to and from will determine the price of your ticket, so be sure to have a look on which Tube stations you will be using. We highly recommend you buy a day travelcard, use your contactless bank card or have an Oyster card so you can hop on and off the Tube as many times as you want within the same day.
If you need more assistance, there are many phone apps that help you get around London and provide not only the routes but also guidance via your GPS location even alerting you when you need to come off the bus! You will need wifi signal for these, though, so check with your phone provider that you can have internet access and won't incur any charges for using the apps.
Using travelcards, contactless bank cards and Oyster cards in the Tube
Using any of the forms listed above is more cost-effective than buying individual tickets for every journey you make using London's public transport system. They can be used in any transport showing the Transport for London sign and give you discounts on the ones that don't. For instance, you would have discounts for taking a ride in one of the Thames Clippers boats. There are pros and cons to every payment method, so choose the one that is more convenient to you.
TRAVELCARDS are the traditional way to pay for your train, bus and Tube fares. They come in the form of a paper ticket you put through the machines. You have to keep it with you for its duration and use it every time you come in and out of a station. A day travelcard covering Zones 1-4 will cost £12.30.
Pros: children aged 10 to 16 pay a child rate for their ticket and no registration is required. Travelcards also provide a little momentum of the Tube as they are printed with the date you bought your ticket.
Cons: this is the most expensive payment method out of the three suggested, its maximum duration is a day and if you lose your ticket, you will have to buy another one for the full price.
If you have a CONTACTLESS BANK CARD, you can use it to pay for your fares by simply touching the contactless yellow disc at the ticket barrier. Make sure you use the same card for all your journeys and the system will automatically recognise it and cap your spend to a set amount based on the zones in which you travel, regardless of how many trips you make. The cap for pay as you go contactless Zones 1-3 is £7.70 a day and Zones 1-4 £9.50 a day. If you are visiting for a week, they will also cap your weekly expenditure.
Pros: no registration required, more cost-effective than Travelcards and as cost-effective as Oyster cards.
Cons: every person must have their own card in order to use this system, so older children will still need a ticket if they don't have their own bank card. If you are an international visitor, check that your bank won't charge you for every transaction, otherwise it stops being cost-effective. Make sure to only touch one card at a time on the machine or another card could be charged.
OYSTER CARDS are Transport for London's contactless pre-paid option. You can purchase a visitors card in advance or a regular card once you arrive in London.
To purchase a visitor's card you must register online and receive it by post prior to arriving in the city. Cards cost £3 per card plus top up amount and postage. The £3 fee is non-refundable even if you return your card at the end of your trip. More information about Visitor Oyster cards here.
If you don't have enough time to order a Visitor Oyster, you can buy a regular Oyster in London's Tube and train stations as well as ticket machines and online. You will have to register for an online account and pay a £5 deposit for the card itself, which will be refunded if you return the card at the end of your visit. With your online account, you can also check where you have been and how much it cost you. More information about Oyster cards here.
Pros: more cost-effective than travelcards; children between 10 and 16 would be charged children rates on Visitor Oysters; it would keep your international card from being charged for many transactions and if you lose it or have any money left on it at the end fo your trip, you can request a refund.
Cons: registration required, £3 fee for every Visitor Oyster applicable, £5 refundable deposit payable per regular Oyster card.
PLEASE NOTE: Children under 11 travel for free on most services. More information here.
Travel Tips for the London Underground
Navigating the London Tube is a hopping game - find stations where different lines meet and hop from one line to another until you get to your destination. There are maps inside every tube carriage that tell you what stations are coming up and what lines they connect to, so if you are on the Jubilee Line, which is grey, and you need to go to Victoria, which is on the pale blue line, you need to find a station that connects to the pale blue line along the way. Sometimes you might need to hop in between more than two or three lines, but that is all part of the fun.
To avoid getting lost while walking in between platforms, take note of what direction you will be travelling - north, south, east or west - as the platforms are signposted by direction - northbound, southbound, etc... Knowing what direction you will be travelling means you won't be standing in the tunnels reading the list of stations, but will be able to identify very quickly which platform you need to head to.
With over four million people travelling on the Tube every day, station flow needs to run smoothly. So the speed here is fast and efficient, especially at rush hour. It's ok if you don't know your way or are a little confused, just make sure that as you stop to read the signs or ask for information you move away from high traffic areas like the centre of the corridors or the exits and entrances to the escalators. This will prevent people from bumping into you and will keep rushing locals happy.
The same apply to escalators and ticket barriers. If you are not rushing, stand on the right on the escalators. If you are rushing, walk up them on the left. Always have your ticket or card ready before swiping through the barrier. You don't want hundreds of people piling up behind you at the ticket barrier while you try to find your ticket inside your handbag.
For more tips on London public transport etiquette click here.
Once you are here, we can give you further advice and ideas of things to do in the capital. Just have a quick look at the other articles on our blog!
Welcome to London! We can't wait for you to see our beautiful city.