London is a terrific city for all travelers, first timers and oops-my-passport-is-full-ers alike. Fantastic for families, couples, groups, there’s never a lack of things to see, do and experience. Yes, it can be expensive, though prices are relative, and good value can be found in all price ranges, from basic to deluxe. No matter your travel budget, there are infinite tricks and tips for the many ways to enjoy the city without breaking the bank.
Of course, one of the great ways to maximize your trip budget, again at any price level, is to rent a flat or a house in London rather than one or a series of hotel rooms, especially for groups larger than two travelers. Between a stocked kitchen – with options for eating casually at home rather than every meal out or in a prices-padded hotel restaurant – and the ability to avoid VAT and bed taxes and a host of other hotel-related fees, flats and house rentals offer excellent value for budget and luxury travelers alike.
Because the purpose of our company, Elegant Retreats, is to offer the best selection of housing options for visiting groups of all sizes and within a broad range of budgets and accommodation needs, we pre-inspect the properties we offer to clients, and so we travel to London a fair bit. On our trips, we travel to see new properties and inspect those that have been in the catalog for a while to make sure they are still fresh and ensure that we are offering a good value to our clients. Along our various inspection trips, we have picked up some first hand knowledge about how best to enjoy the city that serves as the Gateway to Europe, and often as something of a gateway to International travel for many first time travelers.
A First-Timer’s First Week in London
Day 1: Arrival – City Sightseeing Tour
If you come in on an overnight flight from the states, plan to be a bit of a zombie at this point, and know that everything you see today may be remembered in a lovely dreamy haze. For this reason, we suggest simply heading to your property, dropping your bags, getting briefly acquainted with the joint, and then hopping aboard a city site-seeing tour bus for the rest of the day. No, really.
The site-seeing tour bus, which allows you to hop on and off for either 24 or 48 hours from time of purchase (and sometimes includes a boat-ride admission as well) is the perfect way to get the general (if not a little confusing) lay of the land, and to decide what big attractions you will want to return to in the following days.
It’s great to sit back and not have to think, just take it all in, point your fingers, point your camera, maybe oooh and awww a little at things like the pub that’s been in business for HUNDREDS of years, and the Tower of London where so much of that history you learned in school took place almost a Millenia ago.
Try to time it so that that you can hop off close to quitting time, as close to your house or flat rental as possible (be sure to save your receipt for tomorrow, you’ll be using it again!). Your internal clock will be a mess, but if you are hungry and can stand the sensory input, find a neighborhood pub to have a pint and a bite. Stop in at Marks and Spencer, or Waitrose or Tesco to pick up some sundries on the way home – milk, cookies, breakfast items, tea, etc. If not in the mood for a pub, pick up some food for an easy dinner.
Try to stay up as late as you can stand it, without thinking about what the corresponding time in is back home, or how long you’ve been awake. Just try to go to bed as late or as close to your typical nightly bedtime as possible, and hope you’ll be able to sleep through the night. By morning you’ll be laggy, but probably not fully on home time.
Day 2: Acclimate -
A Week in London with Kids
A Romantic Week in London
Christmas or New Year’s Eve in London
The Culture Vulture in London
Shopper’s Paradise in London
When to Go
London is a year-round destination, and with the exception of Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year period and a smattering of bank holidays, you’ll rarely find things shuttered here.
If you absolutely must go in the summer, try for early June. Don’t bother with August, it’s crowded and weird and full of Europeans from elsewhere who get the entire month off. Prices are through the roof on airfare, etc etc.
If you can, aim for May and September – the weather is mild, the crowds a bit thinner, and the airfare is reasonable-ish (though not as amazing as in the winter and early early spring).
Length of Stay
A week, minimum, we say. It’s not always possible, but it’s ideal to have at least your travel over and travel back days, plus 5 full days to explore and have fun. Since you’ll likely be jet-lagged the first few days, a 10-day stay is even more ideal.
We at Elegant Retreats are big fans of the Eyewitness series Top Ten Guides from DK Publishing for first time visits to any city, state or country. Billing themselves as “Your Guide to the Best of Everything” they are the the short-cut to all the big, interesting, or important attractions in a given place. Slim, colorful, and easily digestible, these books are broken up by categories, so you’ll find sections like “Top 10 Highlights” & “Top 10 Museums” & “Top 10 Royal London” as well as small area maps/guides for getting your bearings, and quick hits of advice on everything from travel safety to notable walks, children’s interests, and recommended cafes. Each item has the bare-bones bit of information you need to know in order to decide if it’s something you want to check out. These guides are fantastic and the only thing you need in your pocket, really – though a smart phone doesn’t hurt either….
It’s hard to pick a bad place to stay in Central London, honestly. If you select something from our catalog, you can be assured that the area is safe, comfortable, active, and if not right in the heart of the action, then a very short walk, tube or bus ride to every possible area of interest in the city.
That being said, first timers in London often enjoy South Kensington (so many museums, so many restaurants, so much to see!) and Knightsbridge (shopping, oh the lovely lovely shopping!). Families seem to gather in Chelsea or the bits of Belgravia around Sloane Square and King’s Road. Planning to see a lot of theater? Mayfair and Covent Garden areas are great, although they can be quite noisy and feel a bit more tenuous in the safety department at night (not unsafe, just… less obviously protected than some other areas).
Pack light. Anything you forget, with the exception of life-saving medications or one-of-a-kind comfort items, can be procured locally if necessary, and most can’t-live-without necessities turn out not to be missed on holiday after all.
Plan to dress in layers, the weather can change quickly. Wear comfortable but not ugly shoes, if possible. Avoid logos. If you plan to go to the theater, no need to break the bank, but do plan to dress on the nicer side of presentable, please.
19 people in a forum discussion about taking and using money abroad will have 23 opinions about the best way to accomplish spending money with regard to safety, security, maximizing exchange rates and avoiding transaction fees. You can read more about this what’s-your-financial-philosophy decision making here.