Top 10 first-time London Experiences to not miss
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So you’re traveling to London for the first time! I’m so excited for you. (And also a little jealous!) London is one of the top destinations many people want to visit in Europe for many reasons. It’s easily accessible by several direct flights from the United States and the fact that they speak English makes it more approachable for many. However, due to the sheer size of greater London, it’s not realistic to fit “everything” into one trip no matter how long you’re there! (I always have a never-ending London to-do list!)
London is one of my favorite cities ever so I was totally in my element when I visited for the first time in 2016. I’ve since visited two other times.
Since London is one of my favorite places, here is a detailed listing of first-time experiences you should have in this lovely city. If you’ve never been to London, here’s a great place to start compiling the must-dos for your first trip to this amazing city! Let’s dive in to review the ten best things to see in London and start planning your trip.
1. Visit “Big Ben”
One of the most iconic sites of London (other than maybe the red buses & telephone booths) is Big Ben. No doubt this will be on your London itinerary! This is a must-do in for London first-timers.
Big Ben is actually a nickname for the Elizabeth Tower or the great bell of the striking clock. What many don’t know is the name Big Ben isn’t the actual tower, it’s the bell within the tower that chimes every hour.
Big Ben is located at the corner of the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London. This massive tower clock has been renovated many times, so hopefully there is no scaffolding when you visit! (This isn’t uncommon!)
2. Westminster Abbey
This church is so rich in history it has touched the lives of so many royal and famous people since 960AD. Westminster Abbey is a location where many nationally significant events occur such as coronations and royal weddings. Several English, Scottish and British monarchs are also buried here.
You can visit Westminster Abbey, (a UNESCO heritage site) during your time in London. If you want to learn more about history, a walking tour with a guide is a great way to visit. Explore some tour options listed below!
3. London Parks
London is a city that does parks so well! One of my favorite things to do is get some takeaway food and wine (or beer!) to relax and enjoy in a park. (Marks & Spencer grab and go is my fav!) There are so many different locations of M&S with ready-made sandwiches & salads.
A few of my favorite parks are Hyde Park & Green Park. Hyde Park is one of London’s eight royal Parks. Hyde Park is in close proximity to Buckingham Palace. Strolling from Buckingham Palace to check it out and then spending an afternoon in Hyde Park is great, especially in the spring & fall. Hyde park has an ice skating rink operating in the winter months.
Green Park is right by Buckingham Palace and even has a tube station that you can navigate to be brought right to the corner of the park. Stroll through Green Park on your way to Buckingham Palace then you could make your way to Hyde Park next.
4. Tower of London
The Tower of London is officially Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. It’s a historic castle close to the tower bridge. Highlight of visiting the Tower of London was seeing the Crown Jewels. All of the shinies!
Some consider the Tower of London to be kitschy and touristy and something to skip. Just seeing the crown jewels and hearing more about the history of London was enjoyable in my opinion. Once inside the Tower of London, you can explore several exhibitions, towers, and the Crown Jewels! Views out over the Thames river were amazing as well as the view of the nearby Tower Bridge.
5. Tower Bridge
One of London’s iconic landmarks is Tower Bridge which crosses the Thames River. This bridge was built over 125 years ago. It is a suspension drawbridge that is often confused with the London bridge as it’s more visually appealing.
You can visit the bridge to learn more about its history as well as walk across a glass floor above those crossing the bridge below. There is a pedestrian walkway across the bridge to get really up close. There are several great viewpoints of the bridge such as the Tower of London nearby and the Old Horsely Downs stairs. This stairway is easy to miss as they’re located just east of the south bank of the Thames River.
6. London eye
The London eye is an enclosed observation wheel on the south bank of the Thames river. It offers a stunning viewpoint up above London where you can see Big Ben & Westminster Abbey as well as other iconic London sites.
We chose to ride once during the day and once at night. If I had to choose one, I would say that nighttime was my favorite. Keep in mind, if you do decide to go at night you won’t see landmarks as far away. But, on the other side of the coin they will be lit up.
7. Walk along the Thames River
On the south bank of the Thames, there is a walking route referred to as “The Queens Walk”. This route takes you over Westminster Bridge, along the south bank of the River Thames towards Tate Modern then back over the river on the Millennium footbridge to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Another option for exploring the Thames River is to take a river cruise on the river.
8. Afternoon Tea
If you like tea, you definitely should include an afternoon tea in your London itinerary. Afternoon tea or High Tea (which are two different things) are both special experiences in London.
There are many options for a splurge but you can also have a great experience on a budget. I definitely recommend one that includes a lovely glass of bubbly as well! The most memorable experience was at Kensington Palace pictured below.
9. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is the royal monarch residence in London. You can tour the palace but another popular attraction is watching the changing of the guards. Plan ahead if you want to see the changing of the guard, it becomes pretty crowded. This official ceremony happens on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10:45 AM and lasts about 45 minutes.
Keep in mind, the tours of Buckingham Palace are only available from July to October when the royal family isn’t there. This is a more unique experience in London as you’ll have to plan around the royal family!
10. Day trip from London
There are so many different options for day trips outside of London. With a quick train (or plane) ride you can be in a different country in just a matter of hours.
We took a few different day trips outside of London. One was a day tour that included Stonehenge & the Roman Baths in Bath, England. It was great because we literally got picked up blocks from our hotel and dropped us off in the same location. It was really convenient! You didn’t have the hassle of navigating to Stonehenge which isn’t the easiest site to get to.
However, Windsor Castle is a really quick train ride from anywhere in London. When visiting Windsor & Eton independently you can take your time at Windsor Castle and even visit Windsor & Eton Brewery afterward. Or, you can explore and walk the streets of Windsor & Eton before heading back to London
What is the best time to visit London?
It depends on your weather tolerance and what your plans are in London. London can get quite cold in the winter as well as experience snow. So, if you’re used to warm temperatures, winter wouldn’t be a great time to visit. Personally, I prefer visiting in the spring (between March-May) and Fall (September-November). During these shoulder seasons, crowds aren’t as large and temperatures are still mild.
How long should I spend in London?
Whatever time you have! A week (or more) truly isn’t enough. At least 5 days will do London justice on a first visit. (But a week is even better!) No promises that you won’t want to revisit this amazing city. There is so much to do as well as experience the world-renowned cuisine. It’s hard not to return to London after visiting once.
What is the best airport to fly into?
There are six major airports in the London area. Depending on where you’re staying in London and where you’re coming from will help determine the best airport to fly into. The six airports are London City, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, London Luton, London Stanstead and London Southend. Typically, flying from the USA, the cheaper airports to fly into will be Heathrow (LHR) or Gatwick (LGW).
Is London easy to get around?
So much of London is really walkable. Not only can you easily walk throughout many of the neighborhoods of London, but there also is an extensive network of both underground (tube) and overground trains within the greater London area to get to nearby London cities. Heathrow and Gatwick have express trains from the airport into central London making them a convenient option.
What currency does London use?
London uses the pound. (Not the euro!) You shouldn’t need to exchange any money, however, it’s really easy to take money out should you need some cash at the major bank ATMs throughout London. As long as you have a travel credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees you should be good to go!
What is the best neighborhood to stay in London?
There are so many amazing neighborhoods in London it’s hard to choose! Prioritize staying in a neighborhood that is the closest to all of the attractions you plan on seeing during your first time in London and also close to a tube station! It also depends if you want to be in the hustle and bustle or prefer a more relaxed residential setting. Some great places to base yourself from include: Kensington, Westminster & Chelsea.
Is the “tube” hard to use?
The maps and directions are very straightforward. Every station has a map with directions and stops shown. The biggest thing to be aware of is that you not only find the correct color line you need to be getting on but you go to the correct platform and you’re not accidentally going the wrong way! If you have an iPhone or smart phone, typically you can get transit directions via the map app which is very helpful.
What is an oyster card?
An oyster card is a pay-as-you-go reloadable card for public transportation in London. There are two different types of oyster cards. The blue cards are for residents whereas the more colorful cards are specifically for tourists and non-resident users. I still have my tourist oyster card from 2016 that I ordered prior to visiting.
Do I need an oyster card?
Years ago the answer to this would be yes. However, now the tube uses a tap-to-pay system where you can use apple pay on your phone or smartwatch or even just tap to pay debit or credit card. You can still choose to purchase an oyster card. If you’re a tourist, you’ll want to purchase it in advance and have it mailed in advance of your first time in London. You can actually get a discount on fares by using an oyster card so, it could still be worth it to have one.
Can I go to Paris from London on a day trip?
You could do this. However, you’re going to spend more time in transit between the two if you plan to only visit for a day. A better plan would be to spend 4-5 days in London, take the train to Paris and spend 4-5 days there as well if you have time. You won’t be giving either city the time they deserve but you’ll be afforded enough time to see the highlights to truly appreciate both cities. No promises you won’t be planning a return trip to either London or Paris sooner rather than later though!
Closing: first time London experiences
I can’t promise you won’t want to return to London after visiting for the first time. But, you will have a great time exploring the city and perhaps creating a list of things you want to do on a subsequent visit. I know I always have a running list of things for next time!
Now that you know how many days you want to visit, more details about things to do in London, and the best time to visit what are you waiting for? Let’s get you traveling to London for the first time!