First-time visitors to London come with many prejudices: gentlemen with bowler hats, terrible food, equally terrible weather, a lot of history, world-famous buildings.
But these stereotypes are largely unrepresentative of the real London experience. You can still find them if you search hard enough, but you can find anything in London if you search hard enough, as there is a whole world of experiences in one city.
London is not just saturated with multiculturalism, it is defined by it. People from 270 different countries speak more than 300 languages. In this capital of the United Nations, it would not be inconceivable to eat Ethiopian stew within 24 hours, have a salsa lesson, marvel at artifacts from ancient Egypt, sip Vietnamese pho and listen to an oompah band in a Bavarian beer hall.
This is not to say that London’s identity is made up entirely of global components; it still has uniqueness from the bucket load. The buses are really red, the taxis are really black and this huge clock on the river is really great. The main attractions are world class, often incomparable and absolutely worth seeing. Whether on your first or 100th visit, there is always more to discover in London.
There are six airports serving London, but some are only served by low-cost airlines © Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images
How do I get to London
Most international visitors come to London by air, although train travel is becoming increasingly popular as the carbon impact of air travel is better understood. Long distance buses are an inexpensive way to get to the capital. Eurostar operates between London and Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Most long haul flights land at Heathrow. Flights from Europe and the Middle East also land at Gatwick and Stansted. Luton and London Southend only serve budget airlines. All airports are connected to central London by train, but only London City Airport and Heathrow are on the London Underground network.
The fountains and architecture around Trafalgar Square make it a lovely place to explore London © Prettyawesome / Shutterstock
The best neighborhoods in London
London is often described as an amalgamation of different villages rather than a single place. While only a few of its neighborhoods away are village-like, except perhaps Notting Hill and Richmond, it is certainly true that different parts have different atmospheres and it can be useful to segment your sights accordingly. Three interconnected main districts – the West End, the South Bank, and the City of London – lie on either side of the Thames and are the focus of most visits, especially for first-time travelers, but there are plenty of other areas worth exploring to become.
Traditional British food is no better than fish and chips © Dosfotos Dosfotos / Getty Images
Where to eat in London
It’s hard to imagine a meal that doesn’t exist in London. There is literally an AZ of kitchens across the city. The highest concentration of restaurants is in the West End, from cheap Chinese in Soho to gastronomic wonders in Mayfair. South Bank has many reliable chains and some great gastropubs where food is taken as seriously as drink. The city is buzzing during the week but is a ghost town when the bankers and brokers have gone home for the weekend. Sandwich shops and burger and noodle chains fill the gaps across the capital and invite you to refuel quickly.
When it comes to national cuisine, visitors should try two dishes for the first time: fish and chips and curry. There are excellent portions of both in East London: Poppie’s in Spitalfields serves excellent fish and chips, and for a heaping helping of curry, head to Brick Lane. Another British classic is the roast dinner, which is traditionally eaten on Sunday lunchtime and consists of roasts, potatoes, vegetables and a Yorkshire pudding (a baked pastry cup), all covered with sauce. Every decent pub in town should have one.
Soak up history in one of London’s centuries-old pubs © FUTURE LIGHT / Getty Images
Where to drink in London
Londoners love to drink and a classic experience for any first-time visitor 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 hangout), Ye Olde Miter, and the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market. When it comes to bars and clubs, the West End and East London are best for their abundance. Soho is still the undisputed nightlife district and, along with Vauxhall, has the best LGBTQI + locations.
With nearly 20 million visitors a year, London offers plenty of accommodation options © Chrispictures / Shutterstock
Where to stay in London
With 19 million visitors annually, London has no shortage of accommodation, from cheap hostels to luxury boutique hotels. For the first time you want to stay in a central location. A good budget option is the superbly located SoHostel. For something mid-range, try the Haymarket in the heart of the West End. If money is not an issue, you can go straight to the Ritz.
The best way to get around London is by tube, the oldest underground system in the world © Matthew Williams-Ellis / Getty Images
Getting around London
London has many modes of transport to get around the city. Hiking is the best way to explore 2000 years of history, but you can’t visit without the London Underground, commonly known as the Tube. The metro was the first of its kind in the world when it opened in 1863. It’s the fastest way to get around London. Buses give your feet a break and offer good views, but can be slow. Taxis are expensive unless you’re sharing a fare with a group. Boat services run across the Thames across central London and down to Greenwich, offering a very different perspective of the city.
London is generally safe, but like any big city, it pays to take a few precautions © Alexander Spatari / Getty Images
Is London Safe to Visit?
London is one of the safest and most tolerant cities in the world, although, as in any big city, crime is not uncommon. Pickpockets operate on the subway and other busy locations, so keep valuables in pubs, bars and restaurants within sight and out of reach. It happens that the phone is stolen. So be careful when texting or posting a picture on the street. The emergency number is 999 (or 100 for non-emergencies, such as reporting a stolen bag).
Etiquette in London
- Tilt A service fee is often included in the bill for meals in seated restaurants. If not, add 10 to 15%. Tips are not required for drinks in a pub. In taxis, round up to the nearest pound.
- Escalators Always stand on the right and walk on the left (a Londoner will “helpfully” remind you if you forget).
- Queuing As in the rest of the country, queuing is a sacred social custom so stand in line.
- Social interaction Do not start conversations with strangers, especially not on public transport. Londoners keep to themselves but are generally approachable if you need directions anywhere.
When the sun comes out, Londoners also have a picnic in the park © Maremagnum / Getty Images
What to pack for a trip to London
Contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t rain all of the time, or even most of the time, in London. Winters are usually cool and gray (snow is rare) while summers are warm and sunny with temperatures averaging 22 ° C. Shifts are key to a successful London wardrobe. And something waterproof. Because it could just rain.
When it comes to going out, London is a casual city and most places have no dress code. Only in very fancy restaurants are men expected to wear a jacket, and sports shoes are frowned upon. In general, wear whatever is comfortable for you.
It is best to book in advance if possible to avoid long lines or disappointment. If you want to eat in a specific restaurant, reserve a table – every night in central London is Saturday night. The same goes for large, paid attractions, including the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, and the Tower of London. Booking online can often cut the price of admission by a few pounds. It is possible to find last minute tickets for certain theater performances, but there is no guarantee, so be sure to purchase them in advance through a reputable service like TKTS or the TodayTix app.
This article was originally published in April 2018.