Are you planning your first trip to London? This global city is endlessly popular with travelers from all over the world. With its famous landmarks and iconic sights, the number of things to see and do can easily excite and overwhelm first-time visitors.
In this post, you’ll find a cheat sheet compiled over 3 separate visits to London packed with information about how to get to London from the airport, where to stay in London, how to get around once you arrive and, best of all, mapped-out London itinerary planning tips.
Are you ready to make your first trip to London a success? 🙂
What to See and Do on your First Trip to London
Itinerary Planning Idea #1 – History Buffs and Foodies
The Tower of London is where Henry the VIII’s executioner beheaded Anne Boleyn and less famous prisoners were hung. The daily traditions involving the Tower of London have continued for hundreds of years so be sure to take a free tour with one of the Beefeater guides who gladly and comically share their vast Tower knowledge.
Pro Tip: Arrive in the morning when the Tower first opens. It becomes quite crowded later in the day. Use your London Pass to get Fast Track Entry and save £22.50 for admission.
After a morning at the Tower of London, time your escape for lunch at Borough Market. The market lanes are lined with food and grocers selling every imaginable food item. It’s a great place to sample a variety of foods from all types of global cuisines. From famous falafel to perfectly spiced Indian food and huge skillets of paella, you’ll be thankful to visit with an empty stomach on your first trip to London and every time you return! Restaurants and cafes fill the upstairs level and the surrounding streets making this Southwark neighborhood a foodie’s delight.
Itinerary Planning Idea #2 – Royalty and High Tea
Take the Tube to the Westminster Station in the morning to capture your own iconic photos of Big Ben.
Continue on to the nearby Westminster Abbey, which opens to visitors Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Admire the architecture and the Abbey’s gorgeous choir room. Westminster is also the final resting place of numerous kings, queens, and dignitaries. You can see the monuments in their honor, as well as learn about their place in history.
Afterward, make your way to Buckingham Palace where the Changing of the Guards happens. The ceremony is all pomp and fanfare. The Queen’s Guard outside the castle has been on watch for hours and the new guard comes to take over in grand style! A marching brigade of guards along with a mounted cavalry and a marching band head up The Mall and through the palace gates.
You’ll have to choose the location you want because it’s typically too crowded to move from place to place. To get a spot along the fence at Buckingham Palace, be prepared to arrive up to an hour early and wait.
Pro Tip: Check the Changing of the Guards schedule before you go to make sure the ceremony is planned for the day you intend to visit.
When the ceremony is finished, keep those royal juices flowing for a stroll around Hyde Park. It’s one of the largest parks in London, as well as one of the Royal Parks. Enjoy its monuments, bridges, fountains, gardens, and lake.
Pro Tip: For a deeper look at Royal Life, their parks, and palaces, take a Context Travel tour with a local expert.
Finish up with afternoon tea at the classic Dorchester Hotel. No doubt, it’s a luxurious splurge, but after having experienced life as a royal, it’s the perfect way to properly finish the experience. From finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, sweets, and of course, tea, you’ll have had a quintessential London outing.
Pro Tip: If you want to take a ride on the London Eye, it can be included with the stops you make in and around Big Ben.
Traveling to London Soon?
Itinerary Planning Idea #3 – Architecture, Theatre, and Art
Start off at St. Paul’s Cathedral to admire this Anglican Church’s architecture. You can explore the crypt or head in the opposite direction and climb the dome’s 528 steps for spectacular panoramic London views.
Take your time crossing the Millenium Bridge on your way to the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This is a great spot to watch boat traffic along the River Thames.
The Tate Modern just underwent an expansion and has a vast permanent collection of modern art by the likes of Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock, as well temporary exhibitions. There are free guided tours every day and beautiful views looking back on St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The nearby Globe Theatre is a replica of Shakespeare’s original which burned in a fire many years ago after the thatched roof was ignited during a production of Henry VIII. For your first trip to London, you’ll want to use your London Pass to tour the theater during the day and hear about its historic past. The Globe also has evening performances during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. The ambiance of the open-air theater makes for a fantastic night out!
Pro Tip: Check tour times for both the Tate Modern and the Globe to plan out your visits accordingly. Globe show tickets sell out so purchase them in advance, especially if you want to see a specific play.
Itinerary Planning Idea #4 – Artifacts, Landmarks, and Shopping
No trip to London is complete without a stop at the British Museum. The art and artifacts on display are open free to the public beginning at 10:00 a.m. each day. Highlights include the Rosetta Stone, sculptures from the Parthenon, and a vast Egyptian collection including mummies.
Tickets can also be bought online or at the museum for special exhibitions. (If you’re visiting before the end of November 2016, I highly recommend paying to see the Sunken Cities Exhibition.)
After the museum, spend the afternoon strolling through Covent Garden or head over to Soho and Oxford Street for a shopper’s paradise. You’re sure to find anything you’d want to buy from the numerous chain stores, boutiques, and markets.
Pro Tip: There are many classic London pubs in these neighborhoods. If you haven’t had a plate of fish and chips yet, now’s the time.
Make your way to Leicester Square and the heart of London’s Theatre district. It’s super touristy in here, but fun to explore the streets and passageways. If you plan to see a musical or a play later (and you certainly should!), get your discounted tickets at the TKTS booth right in the square.
Finish your walk at Trafalgar Square. This iconic London crossroads has monuments, historic buildings, museums, and street performers. It’s an absolute beehive of activity and perfect for taking more classic London photos.
With any luck, you’ll have time to check out the National Gallery right in Trafalgar Square which houses famous paintings by the likes of Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Best of all, it’s free to visit.
Depending on the number of days you have in London or how much sightseeing you want to do, choose the activities that are right for you and don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path. London is a great city to explore.
Out-of-Town Must-Sees on your First Trip to London
Trains run from London to both Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace. They each are worthy of their own half day visit. The exquisite state rooms at Windsor Castle are open to the public when the Queen is not in residence. St. George’s Chapel, within the grounds of Windsor Castle, is the final resting spot of Henry VIII and several other Kings and Queens.
Hampton Court Palace is full of Tudor history, as it was a regular stop for Henry the VIII and his royal court. The palace creates a historical experience by revealing the inner workings of how the palace operated in its heyday. Look out for the King himself, as visitors can watch the King interact with Anne Boleyn or flirt with his soon-to-be next wife, Jane Seymour. Leave some time for the palace’s gardens and maze.
Pro Tip: Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace are both included with the London Pass. Get Fast Track Entry at Hampton Court!
Arrival into London
The Heathrow Express is a quick and efficient way to get into the city from Heathrow Airport. The train leaves every 15 minutes and arrives in just about the same time to Paddington Station.
Gatwick Airport also has an express train which arrives into Victoria Station. Trains run every 15 minutes and take a half hour to reach London.
Both express trains offer considerable discounts for booking online and ahead of time. Until the end of 2016, Mastercard is offering a 12% discount on Heathrow Express tickets. You can save more by booking well in advance of your trip, but any discount helps if you’ve missed the window for advance tickets.
Heathrow Express travelers can also earn British Airways or Iberia Avios when purchasing tickets. For a limited time this fall (Sept. 1-Oct. 31st), you can double your Avios earnings from 10 to 20 earned per 1£ spent. You must book online to earn Avios.
Both airports also have commuter trains, buses, and taxis to get you into London. Except for the taxis, these options are less expensive than the express trains but do take more time. You can check prices and schedules for Heathrow Connect trains or Southern Railways from Gatwick to compare.
From Paddington and Victoria, you’ll have access to the London Tube with lines spreading across the city, as well as a taxi queue at ground level. Most taxis take credit cards but be aware of the occasional cash-only sign in a taxi’s window.
Pro Tip: Splurge on an express train, if you can, for a quick and easy trip. Then, use the Tube from Paddington or Victoria to get to your hotel in order to avoid London traffic and an expensive taxi ride.
How to get around London
London’s Tube is reliable and easy to navigate. The announcements are clear and visitors will find they can access pretty much everywhere they’re likely to visit. Taxis are expensive and London traffic is heavy. It’s best to go underground to save time, money, and patience. Visitors staying for a few days should get an Oyster Card for easy use and refills in the Tube. Your Oyster Card is good for your first trip to London and every return trip thereafter! If it makes sense for your time in London, add an Oyster Card to your London Pass purchase to bundle the savings.
London is also pedestrian-friendly, especially along the Thames. The riverwalk is a clear path connected with several bridges to help you cross to the other side.
Where to Stay in London
London’s neighborhoods and districts each have their own unique charm and flavor. The most important thing when choosing a London hotel or Airbnb is to stay somewhere with convenient access to the Tube.
If you have hotel points to use, check Hotel Hustle for loyalty program hotels in London, how many points you’ll need per night, and their availability.
I’ve had excellent points and paid stays at the following London hotels.
The Sumner Hotel – A quaint, mid-priced townhouse hotel near Marble Arch and Hyde Park with comfortable rooms and a super attentive staff.
Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel – The hotel is located near Covent Garden, the West End’s Theatre district, pubs, and my favorite Indian restaurant, Dishoom. Rooms are a classic modern boutique style for which Radisson Blu hotels are known.
The May Fair Hotel – An upscale hotel in the quieter Mayfair neighborhood. The Green Park Tube station is steps away and Buckingham Palace a short walk.
Holiday Inn Express London-Southwark – Just a 10-minute walk to Borough Market or the Globe Theatre, with a Tube station nearby.
London Food Experiences
In addition to spending time at Borough Market with an empty stomach, here are a few quintessential food experiences not to be missed on a London visit.
- Afternoon tea and scones with clotted cream and jam
- Fish & Chips
- Indian Food- Dishoom is my favorite Indian Restaurant in London!
- British Pies- Visit the Pieminster at Gabriel’s Wharf.
So, have you traveled to London? What have I missed? What tip do you recommend for a first trip to London?
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