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Everything you need to know before your first visit to the capital of the UK

Know before you go to... London

Know before you go to... London

Travelling to London and not sure where to start? Planning a trip to London can be daunting, especially if this is your first time in the city. 

I've created this practical guide to help you get the best out of your visit. We'll cover all the basics you should know before setting foot in London so you can hit the ground running the moment you land!

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1. Where in London should I stay?

This is probably the question I get asked the most!

 

There is no “universal” best neighbourhood to stay in London. Each area is incredibly unique and has plenty of things to see and do, whether it's landmarks, food, shopping or nightlife. 

Also, London is a very expensive city and prices for accommodation can vary wildly from one neighbourhood to the next. So it pretty much boils down to what you want to do and the budget you have.

Tip: Stay central! I always recommend you try to stay in zones 1 or 2 and to be walking distance (10min tops!) from a tube/rail station. You might find cheaper options further way, but commuting into the centre will cost you precious money and time you could be spending in everything this city has to offer!

 

Here's a short list of neighbourhoods you might want to consider when booking your hotel or Airbnb.

Best neighbourhood if it’s your first time in London: Covent Garden, Bankside, Soho, Westminster

Best neighbourhoods for walking: Covent Garden, Soho

Best neighbourhoods for nightlife: Shoreditch and Soho

Best neighbourhoods for eating out: Covent Garden, Mayfair, Fitzrovia, Soho, Shoreditch

Best neighbourhoods to visit museums: South Kensington, Bloomsbury

Best neighbourhoods for views of London: Hampstead, Highgate

Best neighbourhoods for living like a localIslington

Best neighbourhoods for families: Bankside, Westminster

Best neighbourhoods for shopping: Soho, Mayfair, Belgravia, Chelsea

Best neighbourhoods for markets: Camden, Brixton, Notting Hill, Southbank

Best neighbourhoods for music venues: Camden, Brixton

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2. What’s the best airport to fly into?

 

Although Heathrow and Gatwick are the best-known London airports, there are four more servicing the capital. City Airport is at the doorstep of London’s financial district and is mostly used for business travel. Most low-cost airlines, however, have hubs at London Luton, London Stansted or London Southend, London’s more ‘regional’ airports.

So which airport should you fly into?

 

I’d say it really depends on how much money you want to spend, where in London you’re going to and how fast you’d like to get there.

 

Heathrow and Gatwick both have fast, frequent connections into the city, but they are also expensive. If say, you’re staying somewhere in north London, you’re much better off coming into Stansted – it takes me an hour door-to-door to my place in Islington. 

 

Here’s a handy summary of the cost and transport times from each airport to Central London.

Heathrow airport

Heathrow Express

Duration: 20 min to Paddington Station

Frequency: Every 15 minutes

Cost: £20

Underground (Picadilly line)

Duration: 50 min to central London 

Frequency: Every 3 minutes

Cost: £5

Gatwick airport

Gatwick Express

Duration: 30 min to Paddington Station

Frequency: Every 15 minutes

Cost: £20

Southern / Thameslink trains

Duration: 50 min to central London 

Frequency: Every X minutes

Cost: £X

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3. Should I exchange pounds before arriving?

The currency in the UK is the pound (£) also known as GBP (Great British Pound).

One pound equals 100 pence, but most people refer to them as “p”, as in “A bottle of water costs 80p.” “Quid” is slang for one pound – 5 quid equals 5 pounds.  

 

I would say this for any country you visit, not just the UK, but do not exchange pounds at the airport. The exchange rate they give you is usually a rip-off and you’re much better off getting cash from a cash machine (ATM). ATMs are available before and after security control at every London airport (check)

 

London is incredibly card-friendly, so you might not even need cash at all (I rarely carry any around with me). Most business also accept contactless bank cards or mobile devices (Apple Pay, Google Pay). However, you might want to check with you bank before you travel to see if they’ll charge you additional fees when you use your credit/debit card abroad or when you withdraw cash from an ATM, and confirm they use the official exchange rate for every transaction.

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4. How do I get around?

 

London is enormous.

 

With 9 million people and 1500 square kms (or 600 sq miles), London is the biggest city in Western Europe. But despite its massive size, London is super easy to get around.

 

Also, if this your first visit and you’re only here for a few days, chances are you’ll be moving mostly around Central London, which is much more manageable (think roughly central Paris or New York). I often walk or cycle from one place to another instead of taking the “tube” and find it takes me no time at all.

4.1 Public transportation

How much does it cost?

Tube and Rail

Tip: Because the city is so spread out, the fastest way to get from one place to another is usually the London Underground (or ‘Tube’) or rail services (London Overground and TFL Rail).

In terms of transport, the city is divided into nine zones (although most of London fits into zones 1 to 6).

 

The cost of a single journey varies depending on the time of the day (there are peak and off-peak fares) and the number of zones you cover. The further you travel, the more expensive your journey will be.

 

If you’re traveling in central London (zones 1-2), a single journey costs between £2.40 and £2.90.

 

However, there is a daily cap or limit for how much you pay in one day across all transport services. For central London the daily cap is £7.20. So, once you’ve taken 3 rides, then the rest of your travel for that day is free!

Buses

I’m a big fan of travelling through London by bus. They’re cheaper and you’ll get plenty of sightseeing opportunities along the way. 

Tip: Riding an iconic red double decker is a typical London experience you should try at least once while you're here!

 

Unlike the Tube’s zone system, a single bus ride is £1.50, no matter how far you go. You can also take multiple buses within one hour at no extra charge and the daily cap is only £4.50. Just make sure you use the same contactless or Oyster card across every journey!

How do I pay?

 

Public transportation in London is cashless. You will need an Oyster card or a contactless bank card or mobile device (Apple Pay, Google Pay). Each person travelling needs one, but children under 11 travel for free when they are with a fare-paying adult. 

 

If you’re visiting from somewhere else in the UK, I would recommend you use your contactless card or device directly.

 

If you’re coming from overseas, you’re better off getting an Oyster card to avoid exchange rate charges or overseas transaction fees every time you use public transportation.

 

You’ll need to pay £5 for an Oyster card and can buy them and top them up at all Tube, London Overground and most TFL Rail stations, at Visitor Centres and at many newsagents in London.

Which type of ticket should I buy?

 

Deciding whether to get an Oyster card or Travel card depends on how long you’re staying in London and how often you’ll be using public transport.

 

Pay-as-you-go

Using your Oyster or contactless card, you only pay for the journeys you make and there’s a daily cap.

 

7 Day Travelcard

If you’re visiting London for a week or longer and make three or more journeys per day every day, then a 7 Day Travelcard is a cheaper option. For central London (zones 1-2), for example, the daily cap is £7.20 x 7 days = £50.4 while the 7 Day Travelcard is £36.10.

 

The TFL website let’s you compare the price of caps and travelcards for your travel. You can also view all the adult fares (Pay-as-you-go caps and travelcard) here.

4.2 London taxis

London’s official taxis, the iconic black cabs, can be hailed on the street or at designated ranks in prominent places, such as train stations. They can also be booked via apps such as Gett or FreeNow.

Even though they are expensive, if you need to go somewhere in London by car, a black cab will be the fastest way to get there, as they have the exclusive right to use the bus lanes.

4.3 Uber or Kapten

Use code NICSKI and get £5 off!

4.4 Bicycles

Once you get the hang of traffic on the left side of the road, riding a bike in London is a super fun way to visit the city.

 

There are several cycle hire schemes. The best known are: Santander Cycles (formerly known as “Boris Bikes”), Mobike Lite, and electric bikes Lime and Jump (which belongs to Uber). To use, just download the app, find a bike and start pedalling!

ABOUT ME

Nicole Skinner | 3 days to visit

Hi, I'm Nicole!

I'm a Costa Rican based in London, who loves to wander and explore the world with my family. On this blog I share my travel experiences and what I hope are the perfect itineraries to help you discover the world with us, 3 days at a time ;)

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