London Travel Tips – Navigation
Things you Should Know Before Travelling to London
The Best Market is Borough Market
Of course the buildings you will visit are much newer in relative terms. Much like the market in Barcelona, this is a site that you should absolutely visit to sample the local food and satisfy your sweet tooth while you’r near central London.
If you don’t happen to love to eat or aren’t enticed by my words check out this video about London’s Borough Market with more than 1 million views. If this doesn’t get your mouth watering and get you excited for traveling in London I don’t know what will!!
You Don’t have to Pay for (most) Museums
You may travel to London for days or even weeks because of the immense amount of history it holds. In fact it has a lot of historical attractions to offer that don’t cost any money, just some exercise or maneuvering public transportation.
People always wonder prior to visiting London whether or not it is an expensive city and it is, but you can do things that make it more cost effective. What is more cost effective than something free that let’s you experience the culture, or actually a lot of culture.
Many of the museums that you would be most interested in seeing in London are free. This includes visiting the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, National Gallery and the Imperial War Museum.
The history, art and war making of England and London as one of its epicenters has put its fingerprints on nearly every part of the world.
Cars Drive on the Left
The rule we learn as kids in the states is to look left, then right then left one last time, but that doesn’t work in London. In fact, you might get hit by a car and never see it coming.
Instead you have to be aware that traffic will be coming from your right because of traffic driving on the left. Unless you’re renting a car, the change from right to left really isn’t as mind-blowing as you might expect. Choosing a taxi or bus as your transport you might have you momentarily confused because “nobody seems to be driving,” but you will get over it quickly.
In Central London there are actually quite a few one way streets as well so sometimes you forget that you’re driving on the left so to speak. Where the real change comes into play is as a pedestrian.
And on a trip to London you will be a pedestrian quite a bit. Fortunately London city officials understand your confusion, and many crosswalks have an arrow reminding those visiting where traffic is coming from. Just be aware!.
Public Transportation is Great
Just like in New York, the vast majority of Londoners do not drive, because transport in London by car can be very difficult especially because parking is very limited. So, many commuters or tourists seeing attractions opt for the underground which is what London calls its subway.
If you are comfortable with making your way through a subway or train station you won’t have any issues navigating the underground. And, on those rainy days staying below can be very nice!
If you plan to see multiple parts of the city, from both top and bottom the London Pass is a great option because it gives you access to all the public transportation including the cool double decker buses with one ticket. Also know as the Oyster Card, this is your key to easy transport through London.
Because it offers a mobile version you can pay via credit card online and download immediately. Check out the London pass and save some money and headache.
You See More from a Bus than a Tube
Londers see these sites and attractions each day so they aren’t impressed with things like the London eye, the just want to get to and from so they take the tube. As a tourist don’t fall in love with the tube because you are going to get to see a lot of sites than if you opt for a bus or even a taxi.
In fact they have to pass a test of knowledge of the city which might sound simple but it is amazingly in depth. They must study the 320 routes through the city as well as the 25,000 streets. If that wasn’t enough they memorize about 20,000 landmarks and places of interest.
When you ride in a bus you get a great view, but when you ride with a black cab you get a personal tour guide for the price of a cab. This is especially great if you have any kids you are needing to wrangle in but have limited days and don’t want to waste a minute.
The Eye is not Worth It
The London Eye is the iconic ferris wheel on the London skyline sitting on the banks of the River Thames and you will find yourself taking lots of pictures with the eye in the background. The top of the eye does have the highest public viewing point in London according to Wikipedia.
However after multiple trips to London I have yet to go on the wheel, and I don’t personally know anyone that has. For my money ferris wheels in general are kind of overrated but the Coca Cola Eye specifically finds itself on overrated lists of London attactions.
Unless it is absolutely on your bucket list you are probably better off getting your pictures from below and spending your time actually visiting london.
Getting out of London is quite Easy
If you want to escape the beautiful madness of downtown London it’s not too difficult to travel outside. Though London lacks central highways the outlying areas do offer a wide variety of sites to see. There are a variety of tour operators that will take the guess work out of your hands and allow you to see multiple historical sights such as Stonehenge and Windsor Castle in one day.
For the price and lack of headaches I would certainly opt for a luxurious bus ride out of central London than to coordinate something myself. If you are feeling more adventurous there are train and bus combinations that allow you to site see more on your own timeline.
Tipping isn’t Always Required
There are times that tipping makes sense, though tipping in the UK and London specifically are much less common that in the United States. Much like what you’re used to, if you order to take away (to go) tipping isn’t expected. If you are dining in some sort of gratuity for good services is expected.
London travel tips, always include a warning about a service charge, so I will include one also. Some bills will already included a separate service line item. If you don’t have a service charge then 15% is about the high end of expected tipping for very good service.
When it comes to bars, I have learned that almost anywhere you go bartenders appreciate tips. That appreciation can often come into play as faster service at a very busy bar. There is something about the bar business that is kind of universal.
So, the moral of the story is that tipping doesn’t go away during your London trip but it changes and those 20% tips you might leave in the states are almost never warranted during your days in London. So enjoy, and appreciate, but no need to over-tip!
Basic London Travel Tips in 2020
Pack for All Weathers
The Weather in London often doesn’t know what it wants to be, and so a beautiful day might turn to a drizzle that catches you unprepared.
On the other hand you might grab an umbrella to prepare for some rain and find a sunnier day than expected that leaves you with an extra layer that you don’t need. I have typically visited in the Summer when the weather is actually really nice and visiting is even more enjoyable.
What I have found though that a daytime adventure where I don’t need a coat can turn into a night time walk that I really wish I had a light jacket for. If you are going to be spending any sort of time in London pack for multiple seasons in one trip and have clothing flexibility.
You don’t want to have your only jacket be a thick cumbersome thing if the weather is only slightly chilly. Because rain can often be expected you may want to pack or borrow an umbrella or just be prepared to purchase one if the rain last longer than expected.
Get a Visitor Oyster Card & Download the Free Tube Map App
As we talked about earlier the Oyster Card can be your key to access all the pieces of the public transportation system on your trip to London. Assuming you leave the hotel with enough battery charge, your smart phone can be all you need to serve as your pass and to download the tub app. Once you have the tools at your disposal it’s up to you to decide what kind of adventures you will find yourself in.
Avoid Bank Holidays and School Breaks
Some cities go crazy on holidays and some cities just die out. London is a city that dies out and locals can’t wait to avoid downtown or to leave town all together. That might sound amazing to experience such a historic and beautiful city without all the crowds, so you’re saying sign me up! But wait just a second, because Europeans take their holidays seriously. That means that many things including restaurants and places that you might want to go will be closed.
Of course you might get better deals on your hotel rate, but if you don’t get to experience what you went there for the savings is hardly worth it. You might grab your oyster card and head down the London tube (underground) to find it absolutely empty on a holiday.
Literally, if you didn’t know better you might think the zombie apocalypses had just happened, but no it’s just a holiday. However, you can still make a holiday the trip of a lifetime if you do your research before your visit to London to ensure that the attractions you want to see and experience will be available.
Always Stay to the Right on Escalators
Traveling London there seems to be no rhyme or reason regarding where the Brits will walk while going about their daily business. The general practice in other places of walking on the same side as your cars drive is disregarded.
There is no real pedestrian traffic flow, its more like Times Square but in the underground rules and civility do seem to apply. As this entertaining article outlines, the British people have long been limited on their use of specific lands so they seem to want to rebel.
However, when it comes to the escalator they generally follow best practices. Standers who are not in a hurry take up the right side. This allows walkers and climbers that are in a hurry to make their way up the left side.
Check before you Cross the Street
I covered this one earlier, but in today’s world of technology, quick actions and how distracting it can be it’s worth mentioning again. Normally I would have left it as is above, but today I was at the gym and I got out of the shower walking to my locker in the Men’s locker room.
I saw a young lady with her headphones on looking down texting on her phone standing in the Men’s locker room. I said, hey I think you’re in the wrong place and she didn’t hear me. I waited for her to look up and gently pointed to the door as to say you’re in the wrong place.
As you might expect to put your head up and see a strange guy in his towel and realize you are in completely the wrong place, she was mortified, screamed and ran out. I tell you this story because it’s both funny, but is also clarity on how technology can effect us.
So, if you are walking around London with your headset on, texting or looking at GPS you might forget about traffic. Just a final reminder that you need to look for traffic coming from the right first.
Eat a full English Breakfast while Visiting London
An English breakfast might look unusual to you at first, but it really isn’t too much different than an American Breakfast, when you consider the structure of the food. Ok so you start with the eggs, nothing new there. It comes with toast which we are used to. Sausage and/or Bacon and you feel right at home.
You will also get a slice of seasoned/cooked tomato and some grilled mushroom. It may not be what you would have thought to order but it goes nicely.
Where you might be a little thrown off is with the baked beans on your plate next to everything else. Personally I think of baked beans and barbecue, as more of a dinner side but it surprisingly hits the spot. Depending on where you go, you might also find yourself with a black bean pudding.
Book in Advance to Save money and time
This is a general travel tip that applies to literally almost anywhere you want to be, but it is very true in London. This applies especially to the flights. If you are coming from overseas there are limited flights and prices can jump drastically in the span of a few weeks.
If you see a great deal on a flight it is likely that it won’t be there tomorrow, so plan and book in advance. Your hotel savings may not be that great, but the flights can make a huge difference in your overall budget.
If London is only part of your trip I always try to focus on my longest flights to and from London first. Those are your bottlenecks and those good prices will disappear first.
Once you are in London if you plan to go elsewhere either in the UK or in Europe you have more options. At that point you can look at regional airlines that have some great deals if cost is your ultimate concern.
Take Advantage of Free Things Around the City
Again, as mentioned above London offers a variety of cultural opportunities for free to locals and tourists alike. One museum that I would like to one day visit but have not made it to is the Royal Air force Museum. When you click the link and click on pricing and see FREE, FREE, FREE, FREE it makes it even that much more interesting.
My appreciation for the British Royal Air force comes from my love of history and learning about WWII all throughout my life. As a student of history I understand the role that the Britain and London in particular played in holding out, while standing alone facing the might of the Nazi empire.
“Never was so much owed by so many to so few…” were Churchill’s words to the house of Commons referring to the sacrifices of the RAF. History owes a debt of gratitude to those folks and how great would it be to learn a little bit more at no cost.
London’s Parks and Gardens
Perhaps in a throwback to a long off time when the public didn’t have access to much of the open land or “royal forest,” in England ala Robin-hood, London appreciates its parks and green spaces.
Today the Royal Parks welcome the public throughout the city with “…40% of the city being made up of public green space. ” Whether it’s a stroll, sunbathing or even ping pong modern Londoners are taking full advantage of the parks their ancestors were forbidden from. And as you can imagine in a place that gets plenty of rain there is plenty of greenery to appreciate.
Changing of the Guard
Le’ts stay on the FREE train and discuss one of the most iconic things London can give you, the stoic guards at Buckingham Palace and more specifically the changing of the guard.
This is a timeless endeavor that puts on display the “pageantry” the it seems like only the British are capable of. This happens each day at 10:45 am, but you will want to get there much earlier to get a good spot.
According to multiple sites, unlike the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington the changing does not happen in very inclement weather. Should you get the opportunity to see this in person, here is an idea of what you can expect to experience first hand. Enjoy and make sure to get lots of pictures.
Walk or Rent a Bike
London is a commuter city, but do yourself a favor and don’t try and drive around. As mentioned previously regarding London Travel tips, many of the sites you want to see are nearby or have tours specifically set up to get you to and from.
So, instead of paying for parking get your comfortable shoes on and walk or rent a bike to get there quick. Rental bikes are becoming much more common and available in London. The Uber Jump bike is now available in parts of London as well those such as the Santander Cycles.
Best Places to Visit in London
While Borough Market might be the oldest, Camden market fancies itself as “London’s Greatest Market,” just ask it’s website. But joking aside, as a tourist looking for something to remember your visit by you absolutely should be able to find what you’re looking for.
As this video shows you have a variety of food options, street performers and shops offering a little bit of everything. You might go in looking for lunch and come out with a brand new leather jacket, you never know!! Would love to know if you found anything extremely unique during your excursion in Camden Market.
Trafalgar Square is considered to be the center of London. Named for the Battle of Trafalgar which was a sea battle during the Napoleonic Wars in which the British flee defeated a larger French and Spanish fleet.
In the square is a 145 tall monument with a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson the victorious commander in the battle whom died of his wounds. The square today is surrounded by museums, and other cultural facilities.
The Abbey is where the royals since the 11th century have been crowned, but as the London Pass website notes, it is also where Prince William and Kate Middleton were married. So, you can come experience some religious and national history and see where the royals said I do.
The Abbey is also the final resting place for some very famous Brits throughout time, including Charles Dickens.
There was once a church referred to as East-minster, which is why the label West-Minster was necessary. St Paul’s Cathedral the East-minster had to be differentiated from the Abbey to avoid confusion.
For those that might have a longer time frame in London and want to venture past stalwarts like the Tower of London, Greenwich might have some history that suits you. This borough is awash with naval history and sites that can strengthen your knowledge of the rich British naval history. In addition to naval history, there is an observatory, large park and of course a market.
Buckingham Palace is where the royals reside (specifically the Queen) within the heart of London. Similar to the way the White House is the host of many important events and foreign dignitaries so is the palace. Buckingham Palace is also where the changing of the guard we talked about above occurs.
Visitors can tour the palace during the summer while the Queen is away at one of her other estates. As of this writing, the summer 2020 dates have yet to be determined.
Even if you don’t get a chance to tour the property you can still get some amazing photos from the outside of the Palace. Located a short walk from Westminster Abbey you will definitely not miss a view of the palace during your travel in London. If you’re fortunate you may even catch one or more motorcades entering or leaving Buckingham like these folks did.
Believe it or not, Notting Hill isn’t just a romance movie, it is an actual neighborhood in London. Nottinghill is a beautiful neighborhood that people from all over the world come to visit, but it wasn’t always so pristine.
Lime many neighbors in major cities it has gone through several versions before becoming the posh area it is today. Should you decide to wander around, there are a variety of things to do.
In case you haven’t visited enough unique neighborhoods yet Oxford Street is where you will find the large department store shopping. During Christmas they have a pretty large light display, but the rest of the year you will find plenty of brand name shopping so make sure to bring your credit card. Or maybe leaving it at the hotel is the best course of action!
Everyone knows that the British love pubs and in fact so do Americans, Canadians and Australians. If you are ever in a foreign country and you need to find some English speaking people find yourself a British or Irish Pub and you are bound to find plenty! However, since we are in London you will find everyone in or around a pub.
There are some famous pubs which can be fun to check in on social media and grab a pint, but for my money many are very similar.
Don’t expect to order any difficult drinks for beer combinations because they know regular drinks and pints. However, if you want a wide beer variety check out the row of breweries on the River Thames near Southwark. You can make a whole night of checking out different spots. For the historic and traditional pubs check out all around Leicester Square including The French House.
The Houses of Parliament
Although Kings and Queens once wielded immense power, today they are figures heads carrying on the legacy of the nation. The heart of the democracy of the country is Parliament and the Houses of Parliament are where they do their business.
Also, know as the Palace of Westminster the House of Commons and House of Lords are located here similar to the House and Senate in the United States.
Best Neighborhoods in London
Although I fully suggest in the FAQ’s that you stay in Westminster on your first trip, in subsequent trips you may want to venture out. Below are three of the best neighborhoods in London that you can check out in addition to Notting Hill and Camden from above.
Covent Garden is a neighborhood with its own website that helps guide you through shopping, history and events. If museums and antiques are more your speed then South Kensington may be just the place for you. Trip Advisor gives it a 4.5 stars and labels it the #154 out of 2 thousand things to do in London.
Near Covent Garden is Bloomsbury in London’s West End for those wanting to make the most of nearby museums. This is also the home of the Harry Potter publisher according to Wikipedia.
Difference Between London Bridge and Tower Bridge
London is not on the ocean, but is has a lot of water with the River Thames running right through it. In the origins of the city it made defense easier because the water was a large natural barrier. However, in modern times when you may want to travel from one side of the river to the other a bridge is vital.
When you think of the famous bridge in London with the tall castle like towers at either end and the blue steel supports you are picturing Tower Bridge. It is beautiful and when you see it in person it does not disappoint. On your walk to and from Tower Bridge you get some of the best pictures of the London skyline and great views of the Eye.
Across from Tower Bridge near city hall there are a lot of things to do when the weather is good. There are some sort of pop up bars and different performances and events that happen. It’s a great place to stop by if you see people hanging out. After the first vehicle terror attack on tower bridge it was great to see the Londoners out and about showing the world that they were not afraid.
London Bridge has actually been multiple bridges throughout the centuries. The current bridge was opened in 1973 and is much more modern than other bridges connecting London. Interestingly, the bridge that was there before the modern bridge is what many think of as “Old London Bridge” with the round openings underneath to allow water to flow through.
That bridge was actually dismantled, sold and shipped to Lake Havasu Arizona where it was put back together and still stands today. So, assuming you are not a 70’s architecture buff, Tower Bridge is likely the one you are thinking of.
What is the Best Way to See London?
London is a beautiful city to explore by foot as much as possible. Not only can you get a great deal of exercise you can appreciate London the same way that people did hundreds of years ago.
If walking isn’t your cup of tea or you want to be quick because time is limited, then a taxi or the hop on hop off buses are good second options. Although the tube is great for getting from place to place you don’t get to see the rest of the city.
Is London Expensive to Visit?
Yes, London is an expensive city especially if you have designs on moving there. However, there are ways to curb expenses. First is staying somewhere near the sites so that you can walk to most everything you want to see and planning your trip in the off season.
So, when it comes to being able to see London and really enjoy you can do it without destroying your budget so in that way it is not expensive. If you want to splurge this could be one of your most expensive trips, but if you want value you can find it.
How do I budget for a Trip to London?
When it comes to London travel tips keep in mind that London is not a cheap city by any means, but because there are a few factors such as public transportation that help you to understand your expenses and budget accordingly.
Depending on where you’re coming from air travel may be the most expensive part of your trip, but if you are on the lookout for good deals you can save significantly on your flights because there are so many flight into London.
Because London is a major city with expensive real estate your accommodations are either 1st or 2nd in terms of expense. With London being a very commuter friendly city you don’t need to expect to spend much on transportation unless you elect to take taxi’s everywhere. Food cost vary, but if you avoid the most touristy areas when you eat you can really save.
Where Should a First Time Visitor Stay in London?
Westminster Location, location
How can a Tourist Not Stand Out in London?
There are wild foxes running around London and if you react and are amazed when you see one, you are definitely a tourist!! But don’t worry, I was very much a tourist the first time I saw a fox running down the street at night. Living in the desert I am used to see coyotes, but to me a fox is special and I did my best to take a blurry nighttime picture.
If you drink, and especially if you drink beer combinations that we think of as Irish or English like black velvet chances are they have not idea what you’re talking about.
Speaking of having some drinks, when you visit London you will notice two unusual things. On a Friday midday you will see quite a few people in suits at the bar having a drink. I am still not totally sure if most of them were on the clock or if they were done for the day.
The second strange thing you may notice is that at lots of places people drink outside. And I don’t mean on a patio or marked porch I mean on the sidewalk outside of the bar. I can’t find anything on google about why, but I found it very strange. It definitely did not stop me from joining the crowd. (Don’t be the only one standing outside the bar drinking.)