London: 10 Things To Do On Your First Visit

Every time I visit London, I find it more beautiful and interesting. Full of iconic buildings and historic landmarks, there’s a timeless, yet energetic, vibe.

My first trip to London was part of a college program, we spent ~2 weeks exploring the city’s highlights and took a few day trips to Windsor and Hampton Court to experience England’s history firsthand. Since that trip, I’ve enjoyed returning to the city for a few days at a time, always visiting some of my favorite spots and checking a few more things off my never-ending list of things to see and do. In early June, I’m heading back to London for a somewhat spontaneous long weekend and already looking forward to doing some things I haven’t had time for on previous visits (hi, Columbia Road Flower Market).

Like any major city, there’s no shortage of ways to fill your time. If it’s your first time traveling to London and you only have a few days to see what the city has to offer, these are the 10 things I’d recommend allowing time for.

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Tower Bridge and The Tower of London

Tower Bridge, often mistakenly called London Bridge, is one of London’s most iconic landmarks, infamous because of its drawbridge effect. If you want to cross the bridge, climb the glass walkway for a great view of the river below.

Nearby Tower Bridge, the Tower of London is a must-visit on your first trip. Founded in 1066, the castle was used as a prison for many years. Despite the Tower’s grim reputation as a place of torture, it was also a powerful fortress.

Guided tours with the Beefeaters guards happen every hour and give a short history of the Tower’s highlights (tour price is included in your admission). If you visit, don’t miss the Crown Jewels exhibition- they’re stunning. There may be a short wait to see them, but the line moves pretty quickly. Buy your tickets in advance, the Tower often becomes busier as the day goes on.

Pro-tip: Across the river from the Tower of London is Borough Market, a food market with specialities from around the world- it’s always a must-visit when I’m in London. 

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The Shard or London Eye

If you want a good view of the city, I’d recommend reserving tickets in advance for either The Shard or London Eye.

The Shard is hard to miss in London- as the city’s tallest building, it offers panoramic views. You can buy tickets to go to the top, or have a drink at one of the bars and admire the view while sipping a cocktail.

The London Eye, near Big Ben also offers great views of the city.

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Big Ben & Westminster Abbey

Big Ben is located in Westminster. Funnily enough, the clock tower gets its nickname from the bell inside the clock, but its official name is the Elizabeth Tower.

In the same vicinity, Westminster Abbey, where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and where Kate and Will wed, is a stunning cathedral worthy of a visit.

Pro-tip: The London Eye is also nearby, in case you want to visit while you’re in the area.

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The Globe Theatre

Nearby the Tate Modern, which you should definitely check out if you have time, the Globe is a reconstruction of the original theatre Shakespeare built in the 17th century. Touring the theatre is like stepping back in time, and depending on the time of year you visit, you may even be able to buy tickets for a live show.

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Hyde Park & Kensington Palace

Right in the heart of the city, Hyde Park is one of London’s biggest parks. It doesn’t even begin to compare to Central Park in New York City, but it’s beautiful in its own right. In the middle of the park, there’s a pond known as the Serpentine, and you’ll often find people picnic’ing on its banks. If you want to pack a picnic of your own, stop by a grocery store on your way to pick up the essentials- cheese, crackers, grapes, etc.

Kensington Palace, home of Princess Diana and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is located at one end of the park. I’ve never toured the palace, but it’s nice to admire from the outside, along with its gardens. As for touring the palace itself, I’ve heard mixed reviews (e.g., not luxe enough to justify the ticket cost or time).

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Any of London’s Markets

London is known for its amazing markets, make sure you visit at least one of them on your trip. Check each market’s website for opening hours and best times to visit before you go.

  • Portobello Road: Brace yourself for the crowds, this famed market sells everything from fruit to clothing and accessories to household goods
    • The neighborhood Portobello Road is situated in, Notting Hill, is my favorite neighborhood to wander when I’m in London. It’s truly enchanting
  • Columbia Road: Known for its stunning flowers, I haven’t been yet but am planning on checking it out on an upcoming trip to London
  • Borough Market: Excellent food, nearby the Tower Bridge- the perfect place to stop for a quick bite after touring the Tower of London
  • Camden Market: The place to be for clothing, fun accessories and home items

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High Tea

The British are known for afternoon tea, so having tea at a fancy hotel or restaurant can be a good way to indulge on your vacation. Make reservations before you visit to ensure availability, a lot of the popular places book weeks in advance. 

I haven’t been to all of these, but they’re recommended time and time again as places for great afternoon tea: The Sketch, The Corinthia Hotel,  Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson Hotel, Fornum and Mason, The Dorchester, and One Aldwych’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory themed tea.

 

Buckingham Palace & St. James’ Park

Buckingham Palace is the London residence of the Queen, located next to St. James’ Park. If you’re lucky enough to have nice weather, take a stroll through St. James’ Park- there are beautiful views of the London Eye and city throughout.

Depending on the time of year you visit, you may be lucky enough to tour the state rooms at the palace. If tours aren’t available during your visit, I’d still recommend stopping by to admire the palace’s beauty from the outside gates.

Many visitors plan their trips to the palace around the Changing of the Guard, which happens daily. The ceremony is when one regiment takes over from another in their “guarding” duties. Although regarded as a must-see by some people, I wouldn’t go out of my way to ensure I’m there for a ceremony. It’s cool to see if you just so happen to be there, but in my opinion, isn’t worth planning a day around.

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The British Museum or Natural History Museum

Although I’m not a huge museum person, The British Museum never gets old. Stop by on a rainy morning and spend a few hours walking through some of the exhibits in one of the world’s oldest museums. If you’re limited on time, head for the mummies, the Rosetta Stone and the Lindow Man.

Another great museum, the Natural History Museum is full of wonderful natural artifacts housed in a beautiful space.

I’m also a fan of the Tate Modern, nearby the Globe. The permanent modern art collection features Matisse, Rothko, Bacon and Twombly.

Bonus: All of the above museums are free for visitors.

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SoHo & the West End

The Oxford Circus, Regent Street and Picadilly Circus triangle should be on a first time visitor’s list if they enjoy shopping.

Oxford Street is the main high street in London with a slew of high-end and modern shops. Spend an afternoon shopping (or window shopping) and stay for an evening show in the West End. If you live in a city where Broadway shows come on a rotational basis, seeing a play in London can be a lovely experience. On previous visits, I’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and the Lion King.

When we saw the Lion King, we went to TKTS in Leicester Square the day of the show and scored last-minute tickets on the ground level a few rows from the stage for $65 per ticket- such a good deal!

Don’t leave the area before you check out Piccadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square. If you’re seeing a show in the West End or shopping in Soho, it’s a quick stroll to see the bright billboards and neon lights.

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Bonus Item: Eat Fish & Chips!

Saving the best for last! During your trip to London, you have to visit a pub for traditional fish and chips. Trust me on this one- I don’t eat much fried food in the U.S., but well-done fish in the UK is flaky, juicy and not greasy (despite it being fried). 

A lot of pubs serve fish & chips, but only a handful of them have a reputation for serving this quintessentially English dish perfectly, check out:

 

EXTRA KNOW BEFORE YOU GO INFO

  • Identification: Passport 
  • Language: British English 
  • Getting there: London has five major airports: London City, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, London Luton and London Stansted. I’ve only flown in and out of Heathrow, which is easy to get to/from the city on the Tube, but in June I’ll fly out of Gatwick. I’ve heard Gatwick and Luton are easy to get to from city center via scheduled trains
  • Wifi access: Wifi is easy to find in restaurants and cafes. I typically recommend against adding an international plan to your cell phone because data usage quickly adds up and overages are expensive. As long as you plan activities ahead of time and have a general sense of which Tube stops you need, you should be fine to only use wifi as it’s available. If you really need wifi for directions or other activities, I’d recommend renting a TEP wireless device
  • Getting around: Take the Tube. You’ll save a lot of money by taking the Tube, plus it’s clean and efficient. Trust me, black cabs and Ubers may seem convenient but because the exchange rate favors the pound, you’re guaranteed an expensive ride
    • If you have to take Uber, try to use the Uber Pool option for a flat-rate fare
    • Pro-tip: Get an Oyster card and pay even less each time you take the Tube
  • When to visit: I’ve been to London in winter, summer and early fall. High season for tourism is spring-late summer, so although it may be a bit chillier, you’ll likely find better travel deals in the late fall and mid-winter. Thus far, my favorite time to visit has been mid-September- warm, but mild temperatures, blue skies and no rain
  • Currency: The pound. Currently, the exchange rate is set at 1 pound to $1.45 USD
  • Money exchange: Because the pound is a common global currency, most banks (I bank at Chase) will convert for free before you go. I’d recommend taking enough money in pounds to cover small purchases and using a credit card with no international transaction fee to cover larger items, e.g., theatre tickets, metro passes, dinner/drinks, etc.
    • If you do plan on using a credit or debit card while abroad, remember to alert your bank that you’ll be traveling internationally
  • Power adapters: You’ll need an international adapter, this one is similar to the one I have. I also travel with a USB charger so I’m able to charge every device imaginable at the same time
  • Where to stay: I’m partial to Airbnb whenever I travel internationally. When I’m in London, I tend to stay in the Bayswater / Notting Hill area or Shoreditch. I prefer these areas because they’re more residential, nice to wander in the morning and usually have a slew of coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and grocery stores for whatever I need. Airbnb’s guide to London’s neighborhoods is helpful if you’re a newbie and figuring out where to stay
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