Things to Know Before Traveling to London for the First Time

London, one of the most vibrant cities in the world, can seem a bit confusing for first-time visitors. This Buzzle article is an attempt to help all those who are planning to visit the English capital for the first time.
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Use public transport in London
"Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
― Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. Vol 3
One of the most expensive and most visited cities in the world, London, the capital of England and the United Kingdom, is an extremely pleasant place to visit. Out-and-out cosmopolitan in nature, London is home to a huge diversity of ethnic groups with more than 300 different languages spoken in the city, apart from English―UK's national tongue. Owing to this diversity, and the warm and cordial nature of Londoners, the city always seems to welcome her guests with open arms, and has something or the other in store for every kind of visitor.

From the most iconic architectural landmarks to the most innovative art and culture scene, from the most awe-inspiring landscapes to a plethora of culinary traditions, and from the traditional and sophisticated British etiquette to a vibrant nightlife, London has it all! However, the most enchanting aspect about the city that spreads out in concentric circles is that it seems to encompass two completely different worlds in itself. While Central London is home to some of the most iconic and busiest sites in the city, neighborhoods like Hampstead Heath and Greenwich Park offer more quieter retreats. With such a unique mix of diverse elements, London is truly enchanting.

London

If you are about to visit London for the first time, be rest assured that the city will keep you entertained with all its might. There are only a few essential things, which you will need to know before setting foot in the English capital.

London is expensive.
This is surely an obvious one, and is applicable to the entire United Kingdom, let alone London. The prices may have seemed appropriate if you had been in the US, but then, you have to remind yourself that this is the UK, and you have to pay in pounds, which is approximately 1.5 times the US dollar. This means that everything from buying a pint of beer to booking a hotel room is going to be pricier than the US.

Don't stay in Central London if you are on a budget.
Central London is the most expensive quarter of the city, with some of the country's priciest properties located there. It is an excellent idea to stay in Central London if budget is not a constraint; however, if you are traveling on a budget, it is certainly not a place for you. Instead, opt to stay in one of the suburbs of London, from where you can easily commute for a day-trip to Central London.

There are plenty of fairly cheap accommodation options.
Hotels in London are on the expensive side; however, there are numerous other budget hotels and hostels in the city and its suburbs, and moreover, guest houses and B&Bs are also popular amongst tourists. These might not be very cheap by American standards, but nothing in London is that way, after all!

Public transport is the cheapest way to commute.
London has one of the world's best public transport network, and it is not only cheap (in comparison to private taxis and the like), but also an easy and safe way to commute. London's buses and the Underground rail system or Tube have comprehensive networks and can take you almost anywhere. It is needless to say that they are a little crowded at peak hours, but you can definitely save a substantial amount of money.

If you need to hire a cab, go only for the black ones.
As mentioned above, private cabs in London are very expensive, and opt for them only if absolutely necessary. Black taxis are the only legal taxis in England, and are recognized by the government, and so, are authorized to carry passengers. You might also encounter the so-called "gypsy cabs", which are not black; these are illegal and often unsafe. So, if you have to hire a taxi, it is a good idea to book one beforehand, and/or hire only the black ones.

Cruising on rivers and waterways is a great experience.
The mighty river Thames that flows through Central London, provides an excellent backdrop to some of the most popular tourist attractions of the city, including the Houses and Parliament and Big Ben. And for those wanting to escape the city's heavy traffic, it provides several cruising tours, wherein people can not only enjoy the views, but also enjoy music, dancing, and fine-dining. Do not forget to explore London's two canals viz., Little Venice and Regent's Canal.

Always carry an umbrella.
London's weather is pretty unpredictable, and it keeps on receiving sporadic showers every now and then. So, it is advisable to carry an umbrella with you at all times. If not an umbrella, carry a light raincoat in your backpack. Nevertheless, it needs to be noted that London never has an extreme climate, and you can still carry on with your plans even if it rains.

Do not rush your way through the city.
London is huge, and there is as much to see in its neighborhoods as in Central London. If you want to explore the city properly and make the most of your stay there, it is vital that you devote appropriate time to each and every attraction. For instance, if you are planning to visit the British Museum, you will need at least an entire day to complete its tour. Moreover, plan a limited itinerary for each day, instead of just ticking off locations on your list and rushing your way through the city. For instance, the London Eye, London Aquarium, London Dungeon, St Paul's Cathedral, and Madame Tussauds can be done in one day, and so on.

Certain "Hyped" attractions can be avoided.
It all depends on what time of the year you are visiting the city, but there are certain attractions in London, which can be conveniently dropped from your sightseeing list. Generally, sites like Madame Tussauds and London Aquarium have very long lines for tickets, and it is needless to say that the tickets are also costly. If you are on a budget and/or want to avoid large ticketing lines, consider going to other free attractions like the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Gallery.

Get the London Pass.
One of the most popular ways to save money while touring London is to buy the London Pass. It gives you free entry to over 60 major attractions in London, an informative guidebook, and several discounts and offers at various shops and restaurants throughout the city. Plus, you can also buy the Travelcard at a discounted rate, and get unlimited access to all public transport in London until the completion of validity. The London Pass may seem expensive at face value; however, if you are sure to make optimum use of it, it's a great money-saving deal.

There's plenty of stuff for nature lovers.
As busy and crowded as London is, it is never too difficult to find beautiful green spaces in the city. In fact, the city features eight Royal Parks, a group of beautiful gardens and recreation areas, originally owned by the British monarchy. These awe-inspiring seats of Mother Nature offer not only enchanting and peaceful surroundings, but also a lot of activities and leisure facilities. Apart from these, there are also numerous parks and green spaces in London's suburbs.

The shopping scene is tempting, but don't shop till you drop.
One of the premiere shopping destinations in Europe, London is a shopaholic's dreamland. From the most renowned flagship stores to busy street markets, London's shopping scene is simply enticing. And as if that was not enough, the city also features Europe's largest urban shopping center, the Westfield Stratford City, which houses as many as 250 shops and 70 dining places. As tempting as it might seem, always remember to watch your wallet while shopping. While it is a good idea to buy souvenirs and some branded stuff, keep in mind that thoughtless shopping in London can destroy your budget.

London features the best theater scene in the world.
If you return from London without attending at least one of its numerous theater shows, know that you have missed out on one of the most important aspects of the city's culture. London has the most vibrant theater scene in the world, and the city keeps attracting the best acting talent from across the globe. It is worth making a point to see at least one of the musicals or classic plays, or completely new works making their West End debuts; the tickets may be expensive, but try not to miss out on this one.

The Brits are very serious about their etiquette.
It is a world renowned fact that the British are extremely serious about their etiquette. Asking somebody for a favor and not thanking him/her instantly is considered impolite in Britain, and so, do not forget to say a quick and a polite "thank you" to literally everyone you may interact with, right from bus conductors to taxi drivers to porters to shopkeepers, and so on. Similarly, do not hesitate to say "sorry" if you think you have offended someone. Moreover, stand to the right of the escalator, walk on the left side of it. Also, do not jump the line at public places―patience is highly valued in Britain, and if you show signs of impatience, you may invite some really serious trouble.

Do not ignore the safety aspect.
London may seem to be an absolutely perfect place to be on the planet; however, like most other big cities, it turns out to be quite unsafe at times. The city and its suburbs comprise several shady alleys and quarters, which should not be visited alone and/or at night, unless you know the area. Furthermore, do not keep your belongings unattended at public places, and mind your valuables from pickpockets. Most importantly, return to your hotel well in time (especially if you are alone), and do not hitchhike.

You thought you were well-acquainted with their language? Think again.
We all know that the British accent is different from the American, but so is their vocabulary. Several British words may confuse you at the first instance, for example, a Brit will refer to an apartment as a flat, to bucks as quid, and to French fries as chips. But ask them politely if you don't understand what they are saying, and they will be more than happy to explain.

Eat, eat, and eat some more.
While London is home to some of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, the city's tastiest and best value food can be found in the street stalls. Fine dining options in London should always to considered, but it is worth noting that street food in London is equally delicious and also safe and hygienic. So, treat your taste buds with some of the most sumptuous flavors from across the world while in London.

It is safe to drink tap water.
Yes. London is one of the few cities in the world where you can drink tap water without any worries. More often than not, most tourists are reluctant to drink tap water, and prefer to purchase bottled water. However, packaged water can be very expensive, and is not very different from tap water, taste-wise and hygienically. Moreover, at most public places and attractions, tap water is free.

Other Points to Consider

Know the weather.
Though the fun in London does not depend on its weather, it is good to know the best time to visit the city.

Summer (June to August) is the busiest tourist season, which means that the city is heavily crowded, and accommodations are more expensive.

However, even spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are great times to visit, and because these are off-seasons, the city is much less crowded, and hotels slash their prices. Moreover, if you belong to the creed of sightseers, you can have all the attractions largely to yourself during this time.

Winter (December to February) in London (and in England) is freezing cold, dark, and wet. It keeps showering on and off, but during winter it is really chilly outdoors, and so, not many people opt to travel during this time. So, if you are a budget traveler and ready for the English winter, this is just the perfect time for you to visit.

Is a visa required?
If you are a citizen of the US, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, or Australia, you will be granted a 'leave to enter' the UK at the point of your arrival. This will entitle you to stay in the United Kingdom for a period of six months, with a condition that you cannot work without a work permit.

If you are a citizen of the EU, you will not need a visa to enter the UK, and you will also be eligible to stay and work freely in the country for as long as you may want to.

For all the other nationals, a valid visa is required to enter the UK, which can be procured from the British embassy in their country. UK visa regulations are often subject to change, so keep checking either with a local British embassy or visit the UK Border Agency's website.

London is a city of countless possibilities, and you will soon realize that a single visit is never enough. In fact, no matter how many times you visit London, it will always feel like a new place; every time it will offer you something different, such that you will find it absolutely impossible to decode the place, and you will want to return for more.
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Published: January 21, 2014
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