Essential London for First Timers

London is a big city so packed with history and culture that a week in town won’t even make you scratch the surface. We found travel planning challenging, especially picking which one should we prioritize and not. Obviously, the major landmarks are on the list – Big Ben, London Eye, Tower Bridge and Houses of Parliament. I have only been to London twice and while I still don’t find myself an authority to tell you where you should go, I came up with a little guide you might find helpful when building your itinerary. This is especially good for London first timers. Perhaps take one from each category and voila, itinerary (sort of) done!

TIP: Most of the places listed here are included when you get a London Pass!

Palaces

The United Kingdom is home to one of the most successful monarchies in the world. Being the capital, it’s not surprising that London has a couple of royal residences. While the Buckingham Palace where Her Majesty lives is not open for everyone year-round (except from July – October), most of the royal palaces are!

OUR PICKS:

  • Hampton Court – Henry VIII’s Tudor palace lets everyone in to his interesting life as a king. This is my favorite from all the palaces we visited, mainly because of its fabulous gardens. I loved every corner of the palace grounds, especially the chunky yew trees at the Great Fountain Garden. The Tudor palace among its interesting features like the Chocolate Kitchens and wine fountain at the Base Court, brings everyone to the life of Henry VIII and his (famous) marriages. Free entry with London Pass.

London for First Timers - Hampton Court

  • Tower of London – Once a royal residence and a prison, this castle steeped in history is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yeomen Warders wander within its walls – walls surrounding the Crown Jewels and home to ravens and ghosts of noble men who were executed back in the day (including Anne Boleyn). Free entry with London Pass.

London for First Timers - Tower of London

Museums

The fact that most museums in London are free makes them an absolute must-do when in the city. There’s almost a museum for everything in this city – from artifacts to paintings, fan to artillery, horse guards to gardens.

OUR PICKS:

  • Victoria and Albert Museum– Ahh, my favorite museum in London! V&A is the biggest museum of arts and design in the world, so expect a lot of beautiful objects on display! Among my favorites are the Cast Courts, the jewelry section and theatre & performance collections. It has a mean gift shop as well!

London for First Timers - Victoria and Albert Museum-1

  • British Museum – Elgin marbles, anyone? The Rosetta Stone? The British Museum has a rich collection of items from around the world. The most interesting gallery to me is that of the Middle East’s which houses a number of impressive Mesopotamian artifacts, big and small. There’s also a moai statue from Easter Island!

Parks and Gardens

Apart from skyscrapers and age-old buildings, London has abundant open spaces, too. The vast parks and gardens are the lungs of the city, offering everyone a quick respite from the bustling city life. Everyone is invited to jog, walk their dog, go for a picnic or simply stroll and admire the secret pockets.

OUR PICKS:

  • Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park – Located in Kensington and Westminster, these two parks are situated next to each other. Check out The Serpentine/The Long Water, the beautiful Diana, Princess of Wales memorial and the Italian Gardens.

London for First Timers - Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens

  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Although this requires a £14 ticket (when purchased online, £15 onsite, free with London Pass), Kew Gardens is well worth a visit. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and houses variety of flora. See the Palm House, Pagoda and the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

London for First Timers - Kew Gardens

Markets

To better understand the way of life of a city, a visit to the market/s is a must! London has a plethora of markets for everyone. Whether you’re an antique collector, a fashionista or a foodie, there’s one for you! We love every market in London we visited – one could not go wrong which one you pick to check out.

OUR PICKS:

  • Borough Market – It’s a heaven for foodies! Stall upon stall of gourmet ingredients, fresh produce, organic products and awesome cooking.

London for First Timers - Borough Market-1

  • Camden Markets – Camden Town has about 6 markets making it one lively, colorful and quirky shopping community. If you’re keen to see everything, half a day isn’t enough!

London for First Timers - Camden Market

City Views

With lots of iconic buildings/structures, a view of the London skyline is always a lovely visual treat. You can choose between climbing the 311 steps of the Monument, hopping on the London Eye, riding the Emirates Air Line cable car, going to the top of Tower Bridge or paying a hefty amount to get to The Shard.

OUR PICK:

  • Sky Garden – Well, my pockets like the sound of the word F-R-E-E so I booked a visit to Sky Garden in 20 Fernchurch! With a ticket in one hand and an ID (passport, driving license or bank card – I showed my credit card after forgetting my passport in the hotel!) on the other, show up on your schedule and enjoy the mesmerizing 360-view of the city.

London for First Timers - Sky Garden-1

West End Theatre

There’s no other perfect way to cap a long day of exploring than seeing a world-class performance in West End! Take your pick with the number of plays and musicals available. Score cheap theatre tickets (at almost half the price!) in TKTS at Leicester Square!

OUR PICKS:

  • Les Miserables – The longest running musical in West End. I don’t know where in the world you’re from if you haven’t heard of Les Mis! It retains the original revolving stage, so see it while they haven’t change the sets to the new ones.

  • The Phantom of the Opera – The second longest running and my ultimate, super, absolute favorite (lol) musical in the world! The classic love story (kind of) of an opera singer and the phantom (of course) with lots of thrilling and exciting special effects!

The Phantom of the Opera West End-8

Public Transportation

While I agree that exploring by foot is one of the best ways to see the city, I’d say you’re missing a lot if you dare not try London’s extensive public transportation.

  • London Underground – The complex Tube map might be daunting to look at first but you’ll be surprised at how easy your travel will be. Figuring your way to your destination by changing tube lines is a wonderful experience itself.

London for First Timers - London Underground-1

  • Red Double-Decker Bus – The iconic bus is a cheaper alternative to roam around the city. Sitting on the upper deck affords amazing street views!

Churches

The capital is home to many churches with outstanding architectural beauty. Most of these were built in 1700s as a number of churches have been devastated by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

OUR PICKS:

  • St. Paul’s Cathedral – This is one of London’s well-known landmarks. For a time, it was the tallest structure to ever grace the city’s skyline. There is an entrance fee of £16 (when bought online, £18 on site), otherwise attend a service to get in for free.

London for First Timers - St. Paul's Cathedral-1

  • Westminster Abbey – The Gothic cathedral witnessed generations upon generations of royal coronations, weddings and burials. The magnificent interiors are very photogenic but unfortunately, no cameras are allowed inside. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Free entry with London Pass.

London for First Timers - Westminster Abbey-1

London in Film

London is a favorite setting for movies whatever genre may it be. If you’re a cinephilia or a geek/fan of a particular film, it’s a nice experience to be in the place where your favorite scenes where shot.

OUR PICKS:

  • Harry Potter – Who doesn’t know The Boy Who Lived? There are a lot of spots in London where the franchise was filmed – Millennium Bridge, Leadenhall Market, King’s Cross, just to name a few. If you’re a super fan, check out the Warner Bros studio and see the awesome sets!

Harry Potter Studio Tour Warner Bros London-11

  • Notting Hill – “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.” Julia Roberts’ Anna Scott in the movie, Notting Hill, made this line famous. The iconic blue door and the Travel Book Company, the bookshop in Portobello Road (though not a bookshop IRL) still stand in the same spot today!

London for First Timers - Notting Hill-1

Food and Drink

Last and definitely not the least – eat! London is known for its rich dining scene. Aside from British fare, the city has a lot of restaurants and cafes that offer cuisines from around the world. (Also, read up on my fave dining spots here)

OUR PICK:

  • Pubs – Pubs or public houses serve traditional local cuisine such as the infamous fish and chips, pies, bangers and mash and… booze!

 

Whew, that’s quite a long list! This guide doesn’t cover all landmarks in London coz as I’ve said, it’s impossible to see everything in a few days (even in weeks). I hope this somehow helps and eases your travel planning! :)

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