Your First Time In: London
Though Sweeney Todd (played by the perfectly lovely but non-British Johnny Depp) may have menacingly uttered nothing but contempt when he sang, “Yes, there’s no place like London”, this LOTE* can confirm that London, located in the United Kingdom, is the place to be. *Definition: a LOTE is a person who consistently lives on the edge, much to the disdain and concern of her friends and family. All fellow travellers who wish to suck the marrow out of life (Dead Poet’s Society) will hereby be my fellow LOTEs.
London at a glanceLondon is the city that never sleeps (Ed Sheeran, +). It captivates the senses with its effervescent busyness; its iconic landmarks represent its return to being the truly global capital of the world. It is exciting, it is loud, and it is packed to the brim with things to do, places to go, and people to see (including, my personal favourite, the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace with their enormous patience and funny hats). I have lived, loved, and lost in this beautiful city. Get comfortable with a cup of English Breakfast tea, grab a Digestive, and prepare for the lowdown on the virgin traveller’s first time in London (only minimal protection and common sense required).
Getting to LondonUntil the day that we can apparate around the world (once we receive our official letter to Hogwarts), flying by plane (not broomstick) is the best way to get to London. Six airports service the city, namely:
- London Heathrow Airport (LHR)
- London Gatwick Airport (LGW)
- London Stansted Airport (STN)
- London City Airport (LCY)
- London Luton Airport (LTN)
- London Southend Airport (SEN)
London HeathrowIf you are coming to London from Australia for the first time, I hope you survived the 24-hour flight; my condolences if you wander off the plane in London bleary eyed at five in the morning. (If you are like me, however, you will be terribly excited by the fact that you are in London, and will possibly be blasting One Direction’s version of One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks) through your headphones.) Once you’ve made it past border security, there are a couple of options to get into the city:
- Heathrow Express
- London Underground
London Luton, London Gatwick, and London StanstedIf you are flying into these airports, a great way to get into central London is by booking either a National Express coach or an easyBus. Book in advance to get the cheapest rate possible, and try and get to the front of the line for your pick of the most comfortable looking seats for the journey. Find more on booking here and here.
What to do in LondonI hear you – you’ve unpacked, you’re “buzzin’” (as the dapper young English crowd are known to say) and you want to put down your cold tea and dive headfirst into the city. Where do you start? Here’s where it gets tricky. Like any city, if you really want to get to know it well, you need to wine and dine it, take it to the movies, and listen to its deepest thoughts, desires, hopes, and dreams. If you are after a, uh, fling, then you can hit the main tourist attractions and be more than satisfied. This guide is Sarah’s Virgin Manual for London, with my top ten recommended attractions for the first-timer.
1) Big Ben and the Houses of ParliamentNothing says you’re in the heart of London more than hearing the gonging of the famous clock striking on the hour at Westminster. There are plenty of vantage points to get that first all-important selfie with Benny, and you can also book a tour to take a look inside UK Parliament. From here, you can walk over Westminster Bridge to take a ride on the London Eye, or continue on to 10 Downing Street to give David Cameron a little wave. Getting there: closest tube station is Westminster (Circle, District and Jubilee lines). Nearby:
- Westminster Abbey
- Palace of Westminster
- The London Eye
2) Buckingham Palace and St James’s ParkIn 2012, the Queen artfully leaped from a helicopter with 007 without revealing her royal underwear to the world, landing like the badass monarch she is at the London Olympics. It goes without saying that no visit to London is complete without attempting to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace. Steeped in history, it has served as the official residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1837. If you can, catch the changing of the Guard, which usually takes place daily at 11:30am from April until the end of July. If you are walking from 10 Downing Street to get to Buckingham Palace, take a lovely stroll through St James’s Park, where, in the spring and summer, the tulip display is simply enchanting. Getting there: closest tube stations are Green Park (Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines) and St James’s Park (Circle and District lines). Nearby:
- Hyde Park
- Westminster Cathedral
- The National Gallery
3) Hyde Park and The Regent’s ParkHyde Park is a beautiful park in central London. Kensington Palace is situated at one end of the park, and there is homage paid to Diana, Princess of Wales, at the Memorial Fountain located within the park. Whether you rent a cycle or take a stroll, Hyde Park is a great place to get some peace and quiet and unwind in the city. The Regent’s Park is also highly recommended; it is in close proximity to London Zoo, Primrose Hill (apparently Harry Styles once lived there), and my personal favourite, the Sherlock Holmes museum. You can catch a play in the Open Air Theatre or admire the swans as you walk along the river. Getting there: closest tube stations to Hyde Park are Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly line), and Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate (both on the Central line). Closest tube stations to Regent’s Park are Regent’s Park (Bakerloo line), Baker Street (Bakerloo, Circle, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, and Metropolitan lines) and Great Portland Street (Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines). Nearby Hyde Park:
- Royal Albert Hall
- Science Museum
- Natural History Museum
- Notting Hill
- Madame Tussaud’s
- London Zoo
- Camden Town
- The Sherlock Holmes Museum
4) Oxford Street and the shopping districtsThe ultimate shopping destination, no trip to London is complete without visiting Oxford Street. From Selfridges to Zara, The Disney Store to Topshop, there are plenty of ways to spend your Great British pounds in style. If you’re not shopped out afterwards, head over to the world-famous Harrods department store and enjoy a high tea. Tip: head back to Oxford Street at night; the city twinkles and the city comes alive. Getting there: closest tube stations on Oxford Street are Oxford Circus (Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines), Bond Street (Central and Jubilee lines) and Marble Arch (Central line). Nearby:
- Hyde Park
5) Camden Town MarketsHere’s something that will sell you Camden Town markets, courtesy of my lovely mum: “You don’t even have to buy anything at that place. There’s so much character!” If you’ve tired of seeing lovely buildings and historical sites, dive into the quirky cocktail of colour and sound at Camden Town markets. The birthplace of Amy Winehouse, the markets are the go to place for glow in the dark t-shirts, collars for your pet, antique furniture, and delicious food from across the globe. My personal favourite is the chocolate-coated banana; it’s a naughty way to enjoy your favourite fruit. Tip: keep your eye out for the Cyberdog store: flanked by two giant cyborgs at the entrance, you’ll find the latest rave fashions and uh, naughty toys. Getting there: closest tube stations are Camden Town (Northern line), Mornington Crescent (Northern line) and Camden Road (Overground line). Nearby:
- Regent’s Park
- Primrose Hill
- London Zoo
6) Tower BridgeTower Bridge is that bridge that everyone makes the mistake of singing, “London Bridge is falling down” on. The problem is, it isn’t actually the same bridge. Tower Bridge’s history includes having One Direction’s video clip, Midnight Memories, filmed on it. It was also the iconic symbol that held the Olympic rings during the 2012 London Olympics. The view from the top is spectacular, and it is quite cheap to take a tour of the inner workings of this suspension bridge, which is really rather fascinating! Tip: take a stroll along the Thames and you will also encounter the Tower of London, as well as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (put your walking shoes on for this one). Getting there: closest tube stations are London Bridge (Jubilee and Northern lines) and Tower Hill (Circle and District lines). Want more? Find it here.
7) Trafalgar SquareIf you’re tired, and need a break from the bustling city, don’t expect to get one in Trafalgar Square, home to the National Gallery of London. The cultural history of London is contrasted with the contemporary artwork gifted on the Fourth Plinth; they’ve recently replaced the giant blue cock (present when I visited) with Gift Horse, a sculpture by artist Hans Haacke. Tip: the National Portrait Gallery is around the corner, and often escapes the attention of tourists who flock to the National Gallery. Getting there: closest tube station is Charing Cross (Bakerloo and Northern lines). Nearby:
- Covent Garden
- Leicester Square
- Rainforest Café
8) Leicester SquareIf you want to catch a musical or play, eat M&Ms to your heart’s content, or check out the latest movie, Leicester Square is for you. I highly recommend M&M World for some photo opportunities with “The Beatles”, and one with the Queen’s “guards”. Tip: with the London Pass (a tourist pass that gives you discounted travel and entry to attractions), you can save 15% at M&M World. My recommendation is to avoid the Pass altogether, and instead buy your M&Ms at Poundland. Getting there: closest tube stations are Leicester Square (Northern and Piccadilly lines) and Piccadilly Circus (Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines). Nearby:
- Trafalgar Square
- Covent Garden
9) Notting Hill and Portobello RoadYou may have dreamed about visiting Notting Hill since Hugh Grant passionately kissed Julia Roberts in the film of the same name. The district deserves a visit; the pastel coloured buildings lining the streets intersperse between the dreary brick exteriors, making a lovely afternoon walk beneath wizened trees. Make sure to visit Portobello Road, where the markets offer plenty of opportunities to pick up unique collectables and great food (the Nutella crepes are foodgasmic). Getting there: closest tube stations are Notting Hill Gate (Central, Circle and District lines) (for Notting Hill), and Ladbroke Grove (Hammersmith & City and Circle lines) (for Portobello Road). Nearby
- Holland Park
- Westfield London (at Shepherd’s Bush)
10) Science Museum and Natural History MuseumRounding off the list, the ultimate visit to London is never complete without experiencing the wonder of modern science and coming face-to-face with ancient dinosaurs at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum. You can easily spend a day in each, so put that time aside to get your education fix. Getting there: closest tube stations are South Kensington (Circle, District and Piccadilly lines) and Gloucester Road (Circle, District and Piccadilly lines). Nearby:
- Royal Albert Hall
- Victoria and Albert Museum
Sarah’s Virgin Tips for a Great First Time
- If the weather is good, get outside! You can’t count on the UK to keep the sun shining for long. Keep the indoor activities such as the museums for those rainy days.
- Once you leave London, you can hand in your Oyster card and get it refunded to the value of £10, if you need the extra cash. Otherwise, keep it for your next visit.
- When travelling on the tube during rush hour, the best place to be is in the aisles. Stand with your legs nice and wide and hold into a pole, keeping it at arm’s length. You’ll keep your personal space and be a much happier tourist. Pro tip: avoid standing in front of the doors at all costs.
- For accommodation, it is definitely worth taking a look at Airbnb and Hotels.com. The former gives you the “living at home while away” feeling, and Hotels.com gives you one free night for every ten nights you book, perfect if you are on a long European trip.