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Whatever your budget, see the best of London with these essential tips.
London is definitely one of the top cities in the world to visit, and there is no shortage of things to do. So how do you make the best of your time in this very special, and very busy city and without spending more money than you have to? Here are just a few of my London sightseeing tips!
1. Avoid the Bus Tours – Go on a Walking Tour Instead
Bus tours are great in some cities, but they don’t really lend themselves well to London unfortunately. The main reason for this is narrow roads and a lack of bus lanes – meaning you often end up spending around £30 to sit in traffic.
If you really do fancy seeing things from bus though, simply jump on the route number 15, which takes you through some of the major London sights. You won’t have any commentary, of course – but it will also only cost you £1.50!
A lot of the best things to see in London are only accessible by foot, anyway – for example, the bus tours can’t take you to Buckingham Palace.
There are a number of “free” walking tours that you can do in London – I personally recommend Sandemans, who operate in a number of cities across Europe. Free walking tours are free to join, with the tour guides working on a tips-only basis – so you pay the guide what you want at the end, based on both the quality of the tour as well as your own budget.
If you were thinking of doing one of the famous Jack the Ripper walking tours, I would again recommend going with Sandemans. The Grim Reaper tour is one of their paid walking tours (as opposed to being free/tips-based) – but rather than just covering the Ripper content, it also covers other aspects of London’s dark history, including executions and the plague.
For something different, Women of London offer walking tours of London from the perspective of female figures and women’s history. Highly recommended!
2. Book the London’s Most Popular Attractions
Book the most popular London tourist attractions in advance so that you don’t miss out. Not only will it save you from the disappointment that things don’t sell out, but you can also save time by not waiting in those queues! The bonus of booking in advance is that it can save you money as a lot of companies give discounts.
I have a whole post dedicated on what to book in advance when visiting London but here are my highlights to get you started:
- Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter sells out really fast. If this is something that you want to do make sure you book this as soon as you know you’re travelling here. You can also do a Harry Potter London walking tour or see the filming locations in Oxford.
- Buckingham Palace – Changing of the Guard, State Rooms, The Queens Gallery and Royal Mews
- Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London sells out about 9 months in advance
- Shard Viewing Platform – mainly to save money on the tickets. Alternatively, skip this and go to the Oblix bar on the 32nd floor. Enjoy a drink for the same price of the viewing platform.
- Special events or exhibitions such as the Christmas lights at Kew Gardens.
- For most of the main attractions like London Eye, Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral it’s pretty easy to get tickets but booking in advance can get you cheaper tickets. Alternatively, use my tip in point 3!
3. Take Advantage of the Days Out Guide 2for1 Offers
I don’t see enough people recommending the Days Out Guide 2for1 vouchers. Essentially a host of London attractions will give discounts if you have a rail ticket. During the summer there are fewer offers but it’s great the rest of the year.
To be able to use the deal you need to book the vouchers online or visit a rail station for the voucher (it needs to be a physical copy) and have a National Rail ticket for each person.
Perfect for people that are travelling in pairs, family of four or in even numbers!
4. Decide Whether You Should Get A London Pass
If you’re not worried about the cost, the benefit of hopping in and out of places as you please is a nice treat to your trip!
Some other benefits include:
- They cover an impressive 60+ attractions including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and London Bridge Experience.
- For some attractions this also gives the ability to skip lines which is great when you have a limited time or get tired feet!
- Tours like the Thames Clipper and Hop on and Off buses are included.
5. Confirm Open Times Before Visiting Attractions
Opening times will change depending on the season so it’s crucial that you check before you make your way there. As a general rule during the winter you will have fewer hours to visit and during the summer they will have longer opening hours.
6. Get Off The Beaten Park To Experience London Like A Local
London is so much more than its famous landmarks and you can have an incredible time experiencing London like a local. For a bit more adventure consider some of these non touristy things to do in London and get a real sense of the city outside the tourist areas.
Some of my favourites include:
- Search for Street Art in Shoreditch or Penge East
- Visit one of the alternative street markets – Whitecross Market, Leather Lane Market or Maltby Street Market
- Explore Pop Brixton, Market Row and Brixton Village
- Enjoy a Traditional Sunday Roast at a Local Pub – The Compton Arms, The Black Dog Beer House or The Brown Dog
- Vietnamese Food On The “Pho Mile”
7. Be Warned There Will Be Scaffolding
Whatever major city you visit there is going to be at least a few attractions covered in scaffolding!
You’ve seen social media posts showcasing all the iconic attractions and you are hoping to get the perfect shot. Next thing you look up and disappointed that Big Ben is covered in scaffolding.
Don’t always believe what you see portrayed in social media. But, hey! That’s why you have me guiding you around London like a pro!
Psstt… Big Ben won’t be in action until at least 2021!
8. Get The Best Spot To See Changing The Guard – And Then Head To The Park
The Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace is one of the most popular things to do in London – usually attracting thousands of people, regardless of the time of year.
With such big crowds, it’s difficult to actually see anything, unless you get to the palace a couple of hours before the ceremony – and you’re then likely to get crushed against the high fence by the crowds that will gather behind you. Not a pleasant experience, not worth it – not something I’d recommend at all.
However, most visitors are seemingly unaware that the ceremony both starts and finishes somewhere else. You can catch one of the bands in the courtyard of St James’ Palace on Marlborough Road at 10.30am. Aside from a few tour groups, there are usually not many people there. You’ll see the guard inspection, and then the band usually place one song before marching off to Buckingham Palace – you can march along with them! Even seeing the guards just from the roadside is a much better experience than at the palace gates. You’ll be much closer to them, and get much better photos than anyone up the front – importantly, you will actually see something.
If you want to experience Changing the Guard with a professional and knowledgeable guide, Fun London Tours run a Changing the Guard walking tour that will take you to all of the best spots as the guards move around, as well as explaining everything you could possibly want to know about both the guards and the ceremony.
Do note that the Changing the Guard schedule frequently changes, so you’ll want to check what days the ceremony is happening during your visit. Alternatively, the household cavalry do change every day – head to Horse Guards Parade for 11am Monday to Saturday, or 10am Sundays.
After Changing the Guard, head for a stroll through the park. Green Park, St James’ Park, and London’s famous Hyde Park are all nearby. I’d personally recommend St James’ Park, due to its gardens and abundance of wildlife. You can grab something to eat or drink from the park cafe or one of several kiosks – if the weather is nice, you might fancy a picnic. St James’ Cafe is also licensed – it’s nice to prop yourself up on one of their beanbags with a cold beer on a hot summer’s day.
9. Late Night At The Museum
London has some of the best museums in the world – and most of them are free. The main issue you’re going to have is deciding which ones to visit, especially if you’re only here for a short visit!
If you only have time for one, I’d recommend the British Museum. It is the oldest public museum, having opened its doors in 1753, and a lot of people argue it is at least the second best (if not the best) museum in the world. Highlights include the famous Rosetta Stone from Egypt, as well as the Parthenon Marbles from Greece.
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is home to one of the largest collections of European paintings in the world. You can see some of the most famous artworks by the likes of Da Vinci, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, and others.
If you head to South Kensington, you’ll find three museums conveniently right next to each other: the Victoria & Albert Museum, Science Museum, and Natural History Museum.
For London-specific history, the Museum of London is a must-do – and for something unique, head to the Bank of England Museum, where you’ll have the opportunity to hold a real gold bar!
London’s museums are all open 7 days a week – avoid weekends if possible, when they are particularly crowded. Most of the museums also have one night of the week where they are open late – the British Museum is open until 8.30pm on Fridays, and the National Gallery until 9pm.
10. Get A Great View Of The City
The London Eye is consistently ranked one of the most overrated attractions in the world, and it’s a lot of money to spend for a similar view that you can get elsewhere for free.
There’s no shortage of excellent alternatives, but the Sky Garden at the top of the City of London’s “walkie talkie” skyscraper is definitely the best free view of London that you can get. However, you do need to book a ticket in advance, and the sooner the better, as its popularity means it is often booked out quickly. Unless you follow tip 11!
Alternatively head for a drink at the bar “Aqua” in the Shard – drinks are not cheap, but it’s still cheaper than buying a ticket for “The View” sightseeing platform only a few floors higher.
For a view of the city from a distance, walk up Primrose Hill, or Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. These are both lovely places to visit in any case.
11. Instead of Booking the Sky Gardens Do This!
Everyone thinks that you need to book the Sky Garden but you can actually visit between 7am and 10am and after 6pm without a ticket. All you need to say is you’re going for breakfast or the cocktail hour.
It’s one of my key secrets for London and I even have a whole YouTube video about visiting the Sky Garden without a booking.
12. Enjoy A Pint In London’s Oldest Pub
There are a lot of pubs in London that claim a lot of things, and in fairness the city has no shortage of excellent ancient pubs so you can’t really go wrong. However, do avoid “The Anchor” in Southwark, which is a notorious tourist trap.
“Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” on Fleet Street is technically London’s “oldest pub” – not due to its founding date, but because it is in the oldest building. The current building dates from 1667, when it was rebuilt following the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The good news for vegans is that “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” is a Samuel Smith’s pub – an English brewery that carries the Vegan Society logo. Almost all of their beers are vegan.
Also vegan nowadays of course, is Guinness – after a pint at “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese”, head across the road to “The Tipperary”… the oldest Irish pub outside of Ireland.
Another old pub worth a visit is the “George Inn” on Borough High Street. It is the only surviving galleried coaching house in London, and was a favourite haunt of Charles Dickens.
The traditional ales in England are cask ales (also known as real ales). These are the beers that are on the old-style handles or pumps that you’ll see at the bar. They contain no preservatives and no gas – so are a living, breathing drink. As the flavour changes the longer the beer has been “tapped”, you can always ask for a small taster of these, for free. Be warned that cask ales are usually not suitable for vegans – however do check the label on the handle, as increasingly I am finding some that are labelled vegan.
The Public House (“pub”) has been the centre of British life for centuries. Even if you’re not a beer drinker, no visit to London is complete without visiting one. If you don’t like beer, just stick to London’s other traditional tipple… gin!
Interested in learning more about English pubs and beers? Why not take a historical pub walking tour in London. You will stop by 4 pubs, have a few pints and learn all about the history of these alehouses.
13. Cheap Theatre Tickets
The West End show is one of the most popular things to do in London, for locals and visitors alike. You can get heavily discounted last minute theatre tickets from a number of outlets – but I recommend heading to “TKTS” in Leicester Square – who are licensed and work with the theatres directly. They can even show you seating plans.
If you’re not fussy about what you see (everything is good), then you’ll have a much better chance of getting the best deal.
Bear in mind that the tickets are cheap because these are seats that the theatre has been unable to sell – so avoid trying to get cheap tickets at weekends… it’s unlikely that there will be any, as everything sells out. You’ll have better luck on quieter nights earlier in the week.
Groundling tickets are available for Shakespeare’s famous Globe theatre for only £5. Be warned: these are standing tickets, so you’ll be on your feet for several hours! These are still considered the best “seats” in the house – the seated galleries were designed primarily for people who came to the theatre to be seen, rather than watch the performance.
If a play at the Globe is sold out, it’s worth arriving an hour before the performance and joining the “Returns” queue. Every time I’ve done so, I’ve been able to get a groundling ticket (the more expensive seated tickets are harder to come by).
The Globe itself only has performances during the summer months, however in the colder and wetter months, the adjoining Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stages plays. It’s a traditional candlelit theatre, the only one of its kind in London – so a special experience in itself.
14. Typically English Afternoon Tea and Bangin’ British Curry
A proper English afternoon tea is another experience that most people want to have when visiting London. Tea can range from £15 per person in a more informal setting, soaring to over £100 in some of the clubs and posh hotels such as The Ritz and Savoy. Wherever you’re having tea, most places will cater for your dietary requirements. Note that usually tea is for a minimum of two people – and hotels and other places usually require you to pre-book.
Cafe Forty One is an entirely vegan establishment at La Suite West Hotel in Bayswater. Their afternoon tea is incredible – featuring savouries such as mini bagels with a smoked carrot “lox”, and sweets including scones and vegan clotted cream. I don’t recommend having lunch beforehand – it’s a lot of food! There is also an entirely vegan patisserie within the hotel.
Contrary to popular belief, Britain’s national dish is not fish and chips – it’s chicken tikka masala, and Britons eat more curry than any other type of dish. You won’t find tikka masala in India – as the dish was invented in Glasgow.
Vegan restaurant SpiceBox in Walthamstow does a delicious tikka masala – in addition to various other curries, starters, rice and vegan naan.
15. Experience Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey
In general I don’t recommend spending your money on the big attractions – though the Tower of London is worth every penny. Book online for cheaper tickets, and visit in the morning when it’s usually quieter. Head to the Crown Jewels first (the only part of the Tower that tends to get queues once inside), and then join a walking tour with the Yeoman Warders, which is included in your admission.
Aside from that, the London Pass is a waste of money… you’re better sticking to the free museums.
It’s arguably worthwhile paying to visit Westminster Abbey (for the tombs) and St Paul’s Cathedral (for the view), but you can also enter both of these buildings for free by attending Choral Evensong. The service is sung by a choir, so it’s almost like attending a concert – and all are welcome. Services last between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
16. Spend A Day In Greenwich
If you want to get a sense of real old London, there is no better place to do so than Greenwich. It’s a remarkable place with so much history, and surprisingly, a lot less touristy than central London.
You can use your Oyster card on one of the Thames Clipper ferries (do be aware that the ferries are not included in the day cap) – not only is it the fastest way to get there, you’ll also get to see some of London’s most iconic sights from the river.
In Greenwich, the majority of buildings are free admission, including the National Maritime Museum. At the Old Naval College, you’ll find the Painted Hall – a must see. Also worth checking out Queen’s House, and walking up the big hill at the top of Greenwich Park for great views of the City of London.
Greenwich is where time began (hence Greenwich Mean Time), so there is a possibility to stand on the Meridian Line – with one foot in the East, and one in the West. You’ll see people standing on the line behind the fence of the Royal Observatory – which is nice to visit, but if you don’t want to buy a ticket, you can still stand on the line for free… simply follow the fence, and you’ll see a gate where the property of the observatory ends. Go through the gate, and you’ll see the line continues! So you can stand on it there.
For a true Cockney lunch, head to one of the oldest pie and mash shops in London. Goddards opened in 1890 and is still run by the same family. “The Banks” is their soya mince pie, and not only the pie, but also their mash, gravy, and liquor (a parsley sauce alternative to gravy, much more authentically London) – is all suitable for vegans! It’s one of the cheapest hot lunches you’ll have, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
For dessert, head to Greenwich Market, where you’ll find no shortage of options including a vegan patisserie and vegan fudge at the Fudge Patch.
17. Check For Planned Engineering Works And Driver Strikes
The railway in the UK surprisingly has a lot of planned engineering works and occasionally drivers strike. The planned engineering works annoyingly happen on the weekend or during holiday seasons like Christmas.
Double check before you plan to travel! You will generally get a rail replacement bus or some sort of alternative method to get around if this is planned.
If there is an incident on the railway then apps like Transport for London (TFL) or National Rail will tell you the impact, delays and other information you need to know.
When an incident hits as Brits we like to complain. The normal excuses why there are delays is that it’s autumn and the leaves fall on the tracks, it’s too hot for the tracks or a snowflake falls.
P.s. did you also know that you can get compensated if there are delays. It’s called delay repay and both TFL / National Rail offer this. There are terms and conditions that apply.
18. Look Closely At Google Maps Before You Choose Your Accommodation
There is nothing worse than finding awesome cheap accommodation and it ends up being too far out or the travel costs start to rack up. Before deciding on your accommodation check Google maps where it is. Is it close to transport links, how far are the London attractions near your accommodation, restaurants, food shops and so on.
There are plenty of great places to stay in London for walking like South Kensington, Marylebone, Covent Garden, Soho & Leicester Square, Shoreditch and Brick Lane, King’s Cross and Euston, Bermondsey and London Bridge and South Bank and Waterloo.
19. Check Whether You Need to Tip or Not
Restaurants and bars can include service charges on the end of the bill. If you see an additional 12.5% at the end of the bill this service (i.e tip) is included. You should also see this stated on the menu as well so you have the heads up. Unsure whether it’s included just ask your waiter how it works.
If the tip is discretionary a safe bet is to leave between 10% and 15% as a tip.
20. For London’s Popular Restaurants and Bars, Make Your Reservations Weeks In Advance
Popular bars and restaurants will be booked out weeks to months in advance. Double check the places you want to visit so you get a seat! This is especially important if you are travelling in a big group as it’s a lot harder to get a table.
However if you have more casual vibes there are lots of great places that you can visit that don’t require a booking.
21. Check The Distance Between Places Before Catching The Tube
Sometimes taking the tube feels like the best option, it’s not always a great choice. Some places can take you forever to get to by tube and it can be way faster to walk the distance.
For example, Covent Garden to Leicester Square is a quick 4 minute walk. Whereas the tube will take you way longer and cost you money!
Double check on Citymapper or Google Maps before travelling.
22. The Bus Gives Better Views
Sitting on top of the double deckers bus in the front row gives some of the best views. You can even save money by not catching a hop on and hop off bus and using these routes instead!
Bus Route 11
Starting off in Fulham Broadway to Liverpool Street will take you by King’s Road in Chelsea, Belgravia, then you start going by all the famous sights like Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Bus Route 24
The route starts off in Pimlico and goes to Hampstead Heath which goes from Pimlico to Hampstead Heath. Like route 11 you will pass by Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Downing Street and Trafalgar Square.
Bus Route 453
Doesn’t start off in the best of places in London Deptford Bridge so I suggest catching it from Marylebone stations and hoping once you’ve seen the sights on your list. The bus passes by Westminster, Whitehall, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Regent Park.
23. Comfy Shoes Are Essential
Whenever I have friends visiting me in London I can easily do 20,000 steps in a day so it totally calls for comfy shoes. I always end up wearing my favourite trainers and if you are worried whether you will get into restaurants with casual shoes, most will! Unless you end up on the higher end then you will be fine!
24. Don’t Overcram Your Days In London
We are all guilty with wanting to cram everything into our trip. I know I’ve done this on many trips before and then alway end up dropping things off my list to enjoy my time more.
Put 2 to 3 things on your list and then some nice to have just in case you have a bit more time. Plus give you time to get lost down some of the pretty London streets or enjoy another holiday drink.
25. Cheap Train Tickets Starting Selling 12 Weeks in Advance
There are several train ticket options available but the most affordable is advance followed by off peak. Advance trains tickets generally mean you are locked into a time which is better for long distance trains. These are available 12 weeks before the date you plan on travelling. Off peak is outside the peak hours i.e. morning and afternoon rush hours.
Anyone selling you tickets earlier than 12 weeks will be any time tickets and you will be paying an arm and a leg for these. It seems like a great idea to book early but this tip will save you a lot of money!
27. Get An Oyster Card And Get Around Central London
Get an Oyster card as soon as you arrive in London – it’s by far the cheapest way to get around, and an essential if you’ll be using public transport. Single journeys are significantly cheaper with Oyster, and the card is also capped at a maximum daily spend.
You’ll pay a £5 deposit for the card, which is refundable (along with any remaining balance) if you hand it back at the end of your trip. I’d start off with topping up £20 initially.
Alternatively, if you have a contactless credit or debit card, this works in the same way as Oyster – same fare, and same daily cap.
Rather than using Google Maps in London, download the free CityMapper app. The app will bring up various transport options, as well as any closures or disruptions, and will advise the journey time as well as cost for each option. Some stations in London are closer to each other than they look – so the app is helpful in helping you determine if it’s worthwhile changing lines on the “tube” (London Underground), or just walking from another station.
The buses are cheaper than the tube, and although they’re often slower, you’ll see a lot more from the upper deck of an iconic red London Routemaster. Each bus ride costs only £1.50 on your Oyster card, regardless of how far you’re travelling – and if you need to change to another bus within an hour of boarding the first one, you won’t be charged for the second journey (still be sure to “tap in” upon boarding though). Be aware that London buses cannot accept cash – so the only way to ride is with your Oyster card, travelcard, or contactless credit or debit card.
Also take a look at the walking option on CityMapper – you might find it’s just as easy to walk to your destination, and again, you’ll see more. CityMapper has built-in maps and walking directions, so you won’t need to exit out of the app to use Google Maps or similar.
So those were my top tips for visiting London – as a general rule, plan and book things in advance (except for the theatre!), stick to the free museums over the expensive attractions, and see more by covering as much of the city as you can on foot.
Live like a local: get an Oyster card, drink in old pubs, and have a curry! It’s impossible to run out of things to do in London, so I hope that these tips act as a foundation for helping you decide how to get the most out of this amazing city. I hope you have an incredible time here!