Samuel Johnson said it best, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” The nearly 9 million strong metropolis in England is home to every bit of culture you could imagine that makes North American cities look young. No matter if you are a history buff and can’t wait to check out Roman-built walls from around the late 2nd century or want to walk the same streets punk rock rose to fame, the city will never let you down.
So as you jet across the pond for some tea and scones, check out this handy guide of everything you need to know to get you on your way.
Top 3 Districts
The streets come alive in Camden. No shortage of live music in this boho neighborhood– after all Amy Winehouse called this area home. The Roundhouse, Electric Ballroom, and Dingwalls are a few popular spots to catch bands playing. Quirky shops and pop art covers every corner. Head down towards the canal for Camden Lock where you can grab a bite to eat at the market stands while watching people row past.
2. Notting Hill
Thanks to Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant the London neighborhood has become the place of dreamy romance. The candy-coloured buildings and cherry blossoms (if you are there in the spring) bring people far and wide aiming to get the perfect Instagram shot. Wander down Portobello Road and browse the cute shops. While it is known for antique hunting, a large variety of shops have popped up to suit every taste. “Paddington” fans will also recognize the area their favorite marmalade-covered bear explores.
Make sure to stop in a local cafe and people watch. Bonus: almost every cafe has catered to the Instagram crowd including gold-topped lattes and picture-perfect sweets.
Soho is your one-stop-shop for all the best west end productions (think New York City’s Broadway). If plays and musicals aren’t your thing there is no shortage of shopping, nightlife, and musical venues like the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.
Soho is also counted as the center of the LGBTQ+ scene.
Top 3 Attractions
- Buckingham Palace
It wouldn’t be a trip to London without a visit to see the Queen. Even though Queen Elizabeth has moved out of the palace to Windsor Castle a short drive from London, the impressive piece of history still should be on every itinerary. Dressed in their red tunics and bearskins, the foot guards are notorious with the London scene. The Changing of the Guard mostly takes place at 11 a.m. but check their website to confirm dates and times as it can change seasonally. If you luck out, the band will be playing a song to commemorate a birthday or big event like when they performed Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” on the day of her funeral.
2. British Museum
Fun fact: museums in London are free. Yep, all that history and your fingertips, and you don’t have to pay a dime (or pound in this case). The British Museum can keep you busy for hours and is perfect for a rainy day. From the in-house collections from places like China to Egypt or the visiting exhibits– there will always be something new to see.
3. London Eye
Typically on the top of everyone’s list when heading to London is the London Eye. The world’s tallest observation wheel gives a 360-degree view of the city. The 30-minute ride allows visitors a chance to see the entire city from a bird’s eye view.
Top 3 Restaurants
Price Range: Varies
Not so much a restaurant but a destination. Around the south side of Waterloo Bridge are a collection of bars and restaurants with pop-ups in the summer months. The local crowd gathers here for an after-work drink while taking in the views of the River Thames.
2. The Mayfair Chippy
Price Range: $$
It would be impossible to go to England without having fish & chips at least once but this cute little spot puts a grown-up spin on the classic dish. Right off the popular Oxford Street, the cute cafe feels and cocktail list adds to the many reasons it is award-winning. They also have gluten-free options.
Price Range $$$
London’s hottest spot to be seen serves sushi and Latin American-inspired food in a lush rainforest setting. The celeb hotspot has been visited by the likes of Lady Gaga, Nick Jonas, and Priyanka Chopra. Reservations are required and don’t forget to dress up a bit. The smart casual dress code does not allow for sportwear, beachwear, shorts, and caps. Children are also not allowed after 7 p.m.
Best Way To Get Around
Don’t even think of renting a car in London. Even if you are planning a trip outside the city, the train system is well thought out and it will save you from attempting to find parking and adjusting to driving on the opposite side of the street.
All the airports have designated trains running from the terminal to the city with the Heathrow Express getting you to Paddington Station in 15 minutes. If you are flying into Gatwick, the Gatwick Express runs every 15 minutes and only takes 30 minutes to Victoria Station.
Once in the city, the tube gets you anywhere you want to go. Those with lots of luggage might not want to worry about navigating the busy tube while pulling a suitcase so an Uber or a black cab is easy enough to grab. Not to mention the black cab is all part of the quintessential London experience.
The Oyster Card is by far the cheapest way to get around London and can be used on the tube, buses, and more. With a credit cap, once you reach a daily limit, the rest of the day is free. A visitor card can be purchased ahead of time and it comes with discounts on the Emirates Air Line Cable car and on the Thames Clipper riverboat.
Best Time Of Year To Visit & Weather
There is nothing better than spring in London. The cherry blossoms and magnolia trees are blooming, the temperatures sit around 60°F (16 °C). Just warm enough that you can sit in the park and have a picnic (Fortum & Mason has pre-packed food and drink hampers that are the perfect fit).
Another perk of the spring is the Chelsea Flower Show, typically in May. The city gets in the sports with doorways filled with flowers and over-the-top displays.
London is known for its rain so even booking a summer vacation can result in grey days. On the other hand, summer days can be a mixed bag. Typically they come in around 74°F (23°C) but in recent years the city has experienced heatwaves which make sightseeing and standing in lines less fun.
If the winter is when London is calling you, make sure a waterproof jacket and umbrella are in your bag. Sitting around 48°F (9°C), being damp from the rain and the wind can get down to your bones. A bonus, however, it is an extra excuse to swing by a pub to warm up next to a fire with a pint.
English is the official language of England but the city is full of vibrant communities and immigrants having over 250 languages spoken in London. It makes it the most linguistically diverse city in the world.
Currency & Tipping Customs
Tipping in London is expected at most establishments. Cabs and restaurants both expect a 10 to 15 percent tip on your final bill. The exception to this is some restaurants have a “service charge” on the bill, generally around 12.5 percent. This “service charge” is the same as a tip so no need to add an extra one on top of that.
Bars and pubs don’t expect a tip but a tip jar might be placed on the counter. If a customer has great service, they also sometimes tip or as a way to stand out when things get busy.
London uses the pound sterling. Some travelers mistakenly think they can use euros but that is a no-go in most shops. There is no shortage of currency exchange locations or banks to help you out if you haven’t switched over your money before you go.
Emergency Info & Local Pharmacies
Police, fire, and ambulance can be contacted by calling 112 or 999. Non-urgent crimes can be reported to the police by calling 101.
If you are in need of a quick trip to the drug store, Boots and NVS are on nearly every street and match up to what pharmacies in North America stock. Most pharmacies sell LFT (antigen) tests for COVID-19.
Happy trip planning!