London is vast. It is overwhelming. The city has so much going on that I don’t think it would be possible to see everything or explore fully in a month, let alone a week or less, as is the normal vacation. Heck, in my most recent two week trip to the British capital, I feel like I saw only a small percentage of the things that interested me – and there are a ton of those. Did you know London has more museums than any city in the world? (Second is Mexico City, which may surprise people who haven’t been to that incredible place.)
This guide is going to attempt to give you the tools you need to plan a trip to London, but keep in mind that it is based on my experiences, which are far from complete. London is a place I will see as often as I can, soaking in the culture of this vibrant metropolis.
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Kensington Gardens with the palace behind
London has several airports, two of which serve American destinations, and those will be the focus. Gatwick is the smaller of the two, located south of the city, and is possible to fly into from the east coast of the US. The Gatwick Express will take you from there to London’s Victoria Station.
For most Americans, you’ll fly into London’s Heathrow Airport, a monstrous expanse west of the city. It is huge and crowded, with few redeeming features other than being on the London Underground system. While there is a Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, instead take the Piccadilly Line into the city and go that way. (Once the Elizabeth Line opens that will also connect Heathrow to London.) Just purchase an Oyster Card at one of the automated kiosks (more on those below), add some money, and tap in/out.
London’s public transportation system is among the best in the world. It will get you from anywhere to anywhere. However, London is so large that those trips can still take a while.
For the most part, you’ll get around London via the Underground, also called the Tube. There are eleven lines cris-crossing the city, and most stations serve multiple lines. Trains run most of the day (buses are 24 hours), and often, with prices being based on zones. Most of the places you’ll go – except Heathrow – are within zones one and two.
With your Oyster Card, you’ll have easy access to the Underground and pretty much all local transit in London. It costs you £5 to purchase (though you’ll get that back when you turn it in at the same machines in Heathrow on your way out, along with any money left on it) and you can add money from your credit card. Then when you enter or exit a Tube station (or bus or other rail service like the DLR or Overground) you’ll tap it on the reader. It will automatically deduct from the card the fare used based on the zones, and peak/off-peak rates. Stations will also have a digital board with what trains are coming and in how long.
The trains are fairly clean, with well posted signs of the route map, and announcements that can largely be heard over people. Londoners are also pretty nice if you ask them for help with directions. A few of the routes have odd forks – and the District Line is just crazy – but for the most part the system makes some sense and is easily learnable within a few days of use.
Buses are also pretty great in London. Stops, like Underground stations, will have signs for upcoming buses. You’ll tap your Oyster Card at the reader when you get on the bus, and it’s a flat rate regardless of how far you go. The best part of the buses is that they are mostly the iconic red double-decker ones. The view from the top makes for a worthwhile trip!
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square
Where to Stay
Hotels in London are expensive. Even Airbnbs are expensive. That said, at least there are a TON of options for pretty much all budgets. All that truly matters is to stay in a safe neighborhood and as close to an Underground station, preferably one with multiple lines to give you more options of places to get without a train change. Don’t worry about being walking distance from the sights, as the city is so spread out that no matter what, some places will be a ways off.
How do you tell if a neighborhood is safe? I tend to look for what is around. If a Ritz Carlton or similar ultra high end hotel is close by, its a good neighborhood. A lot of high end shops and restaurants clustered together helps to find such places as well. Or check a service like TripAdvisor and ask locals! On this past trip I stayed just off the Westbourne Park station, just north of Kensington, and it was a decent, if not spectacular, area. I wouldn’t recommend the specific Airbnb though, sadly.
What to Do
There is so much. It would be impossible to plan a trip to see all the sights, or even to see all the sights you really want to see. The best bet is to rank the top things you really care about, and make sure to do those. If you get to see some other awesome things along the way, so much the better. Here are my few “absolute shouldn’t miss” things.
First and foremost, the British Museum, one of the best collections of antiquities in the world, if not the absolute top. This is the home of the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, and other priceless and well known artifacts. You could easily spend a full day or three, but make sure to at least allot a long half day.
London’s history is astounding, and nowhere shows off that history than the Tower of London. And yes, it’s worth seeing the Crown Jewels. Again, give yourself most of a day, especially since you’ll want to walk across the nearby Tower Bridge as part of the adventure.
The iconic Tower Bridge
Take at least one day trip out of London. My two easy recommendations: Stonehenge and Salisbury (which will make for a LONG day but a worthy one) or Cambridge, probably my current favorite city in England.
Beyond those basics, there are more museums than you can count, tons of beautiful green spaces – the parks and museums are among London’s best free activities – the Greenwich Observatory, Westminster Abbey, the British Library (check out the treasures room), cute neighborhoods and markets, and so much more! The hardest part of planning is narrowing down the list.
Take a day trip to see Stonehenge!
What to Eat
English food is not known for being the best, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some gems. Fish and chips is the go-to, but if you – like me – find the fish soggy and underwhelming, order sausage and chips; most places will offer it. An English breakfast is made up of eggs, sausage, thick cut bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, and baked beans, and is worth trying at least once. (Black pudding is a wonderful substance if you can get over what it actually is.) For dessert, try sticky toffee pudding, more a cake than an American-style pudding, and lovely!
Mid-morning through early afternoon is meant for tea. Afternoon tea can be very expensive, but most cafes will offer a cream tea: tea, scone, clotted cream, and jam. £7 is about the most you’ll pay, and it is simply delightful! In my most recent two weeks in London, I had cream tea at least four times.
Finally, London is home to a huge Indian population, and they have brought their best food with them. My favorite: Dishoom in Shoreditch. Get there early because it gets packed!
Cream tea is the best!!
Other Useful Information
A note on weather. It can change drastically in a moment. Just carry an umbrella.
London is incredibly diverse. You’ll hear more languages here than maybe anywhere. Consider how amazing it is and just allow the foreign sounds to waft around you.
As with driving, walking here is also on the other side of the sidewalk. And before crossing the street, look both ways a couple of times since cars do come from the opposite direction we are used to.
Brexit. It infects everything, full of uncertainty and animosity. Nobody knows what will end up happening, but everyone is on edge. Be courteous and respectful; people will discuss it but most will have strong opinions.
Finally, football (what we call soccer) is life here. Take some time to learn, and maybe even find a team to cheer on at a pub. As for me, I’m officially a Norwich fan now!
The British Museum is a must-see!
London is truly one of the world’s great cities, full of culture, charm, and an overwhelming number of things to do and see. It makes for one of the easiest overseas trips for Americans, both because you can fly there from most major cities and also because English is spoken in all its glorious accents there. For those looking for a good intro to Europe, or just a wonderful escape, London should be at the top of your list! I hope this guide has helped you to get a feel for how to plan your London getaway.
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