If I could sum up in one word how I felt after my trip to London, it would be “cultured.” Better yet, “unexpectedly cultured.” Who would have thought between Paris, London, and Madrid that I’d feel the most cultured in the city that reminded me the most of home? This London Travel Tips blog post will tell you everything that I learned on my first trip to the UK, along with everything I WISH I knew before I went.
Having said that, if I dedicated this blog post to JUST London culture, I would be doing you a disservice. London travel tips also include how to get around, where to stay, and of course, the food/restaurant scene. In this blog post, I’m going to give you advice on how to navigate the city like a pro, share my favorite hotel apps, tell you how to dress (less) like a tourist, and more.
If you want to have the best trip to London but don’t want to spend your time researching and planning, check out my itinerary post: 4 Days in London – The Itinerary
Compared to the rest of Europe, London is so similar to the United States and yet so different. I (perhaps ignorantly) thought I would be stepping into a version of America that simply contained older architecture and better accents. Are you curious? I thought so. Keep scrolling, because I’m spilling the (afternoon) tea on the best London travel tips to know before you go.
Website Disclaimer: I visited London in July 2022. Although everything is accurate as of the publication of this post, it is important to keep in mind that prices, attractions, and other things may change with time.
This blog post is part of a series of 3 destination posts that encompasses my 2022 Eurotrip to Paris, London, and Madrid. I planned all 3 destinations for me and my friend Kelly, who accompanied me on this journey!
London Travel: Getting There, When to Visit, and Getting Around
For the sake of this post being all-inclusive (and not just culture-related), I’m going to start with the basics. The first step in conquering London means knowing how to get there, and also, knowing the best ways to get around.
There are 6 major airports in London:
- Heathrow (the main airport)
- London City
This map gives you an idea of the locations and how far the airports are from the city center. Personally, I would book my flight based off of time and cost, and not worry as much about travel time into the city.
Because there are so many airports, it’s important to remember that you could be flying into London using one airport and out of London using another. For example, Kelly and I landed in Luton when we arrived, but we flew out of Gatwick when we were leaving.
Use Google Flights
- Google Flights is one of my favorite websites to use no matter where I’m flying. You can enter your destination and dates, and it will show you prices across multiple airlines. This allows you to compare flight times and prices in order to find the best flight that works for you.
- Pro Tip: I am a huge fan of Google’s “Anywhere” feature, which has allowed me to find suuuper cheap flights to Europe. I break down how I use this feature in my other blog post, “The Best Google Flights Hack to Find Cheap Flights.”
Download the easyJet app
- When I book flights within Europe, I will often check out the easyJet app in addition to Google Flights. I have flown with them multiple times and have always had a good, safe experience. Europe has a lot of airline companies that are not used in the US, and this is one that I have used and that I trust.
- One downside to using easyJet is they don’t always have flights to certain European cities. I was able to easily book my Paris/London/Madrid flights, but you may not be able to find flights into desinations that are less popular with tourism.
When to Visit
Summer is a great time to visit London, as it is usually not overly hot. You will, of course, have more tourists to contend with, but the weather will be more in your favor. Even still, I was there in July, and I still needed a jacket in the mornings!
One of the downsides about London is it tends to rain a good bit in the offseason. Spring and fall are typically rainy and cooler, but you will have less crowds. I would avoid winter at all costs unless you want exceptionally cheap flights, and you don’t care about the rain and the cold.
Like Paris, we were able to get around London by either walking or taking the “Tube”, aka the metro system.
It is worth mentioning that we had to take the tube more here than we did in Paris due to the proximity of things being further apart. London is a MUCH larger city in terms of area size (it covers 1,572 km2!), and many of the tourist attractions that I mention in my itinerary post weren’t super close together. The takeaway: be prepared to rely more on public transportation.
We also agreed that the tube in London was more confusing than the metro in Paris, which can also be attributed to London’s size. To help you get around, you can download the TfL Go app, which will give you route suggestions, live transportation updates, and more.
The Oyster Card
The Oyster Card is the best way to pay for public transportation in London. You are able to load money onto the card at different locations and use it on the tube, buses, and more. You can purchase an Oyster card online if you wish, but we got ours at the tube station on our first day.
Where to Stay in London
Where I Stayed
Kelly and I stayed at the Great St. Helen Hotel, which is right near a lot of skyscrapers and about a 20 minute walk from Tower Bridge. Location-wise, I loved staying here. There were many coffee shops and pubs nearby, and it was a quick walk to the tube station. It was also the most centrally-located place that I could find that wasn’t terribly overpriced.
My only complaint about this hotel was that our room was verrrry small. Like, had-to-step-over-our-suitcases-just-to-get-to-the-bathroom small. The lady at the front desk mentioned they had bigger rooms, but they were currently booked. I would advise anyone staying here to request one of the larger rooms, especially if you’re staying for 3-4 nights.
Booking Hotels Around London Zones and Landmarks
London is broken down into 9 zones, with Zone 1 being the center of the city (and therefore where a lot of the tourist attractions are). Staying in Zone 1 is therefore ideal, but can get insanely expensive. My advice here would be to book far in advance, and also keep checking back on different hotel apps for flash sales.
- Pro Tip: Another way I go about booking hotels is to get on Google maps and search for hotels near a certain landmark. If you’re curious, I have a post that breaks down exactly how I have used Google maps to save me money when booking hotel rooms!
The City Aesthetic and What to Wear
The City Aesthetic
London as a city is very “NYC-meets-medieval-times.” On one hand, you have the modern, gorgeous skyscrapers, and on the other you have Tower Bridge, House of Parliament, and Westminister Abbey. It is the perfect aesthetic combo of old world meets new. Knights in shining armor become businessmen in tailored suits. It truly is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.
What to Wear in London
One of the things that surprised me most was that the people I saw on the streets of London were 10x more stylish than a lot of the people I saw in Paris. It’s possible I was just in Paris during high tourist season and therefore saw more tourists than locals?
But I digress. I spotted countless women in designer clothes, and the majority of men I saw were in business suits. (This was, of course, more prominent around the “NYC” parts of London as opposed to the “medieval times” parts.)
But still. I did not expect so many people I saw to look like they just walked out of a magazine. Many of my outfits were more on the casual side, so compared to a lot of the locals, I definitely felt underdressed here.
- If I went back and wanted to look less like a tourist, I would opt for a lot of black, a lot of blazers, and a few business casual dresses for a night out.
- London tends to be cold in the mornings and at night, so a nice pair of jeans with a white tee and leather jacket would also be a go-to if you wanted something more casual yet chic.
- For real – bring a jacket. The mornings are cold….and I was there in JULY.
- There was a store called New Look right near our hotel that sold some really cute, inexpensive clothes – I would recommend checking them out!
London Restaurants and The Food Scene
Traditional London Food
Whether or not you will like the food in London really depends on how much you like meat and potatoes. Fish & chips (fried fish with french fries) is another cultural favorite, and having a Sunday roast is a longstanding pub tradition. Some other menu items that I kept seeing pop up were shepherd’s pie (or other kinds of meat-based pies), fish, lamb, and…well…more meat and potatoes.
I touch on this a bit in the next section, but it’s important to know a lot of restaurants do not do table service. You go up to the server and tell them what you want, then you go find a table. Some of the nicer restaurants will wait on you, but knowing that you are essentially in charge of your own dining experience will save you a lot of time and confusion.
- It is customary to tip 10-15% when going out to eat; however, I noticed that a lot of times, it didn’t give you the option to add a tip when paying with a credit card.
- Sometimes a service charge is added by restaurants in lieu of a tip; make sure to check your bill!
London Pub Etiquette – How to Order a Beer
If there was ONE London Travel Tip I would educate somebody on before going, it would be this.
Knowing the proper “pub etiquette” is a rite of passage, and it is MUCH different than in America. There is not a time of day during opening hours that people are not gathered outside of pubs. Pubs are busy. Bartenders are busy (and, well…not always friendly). Therefore, knowing what to expect when you go to a British pub will make your life 10x easier.
Pub Etiquette at a Glance
- Know what it is that you want before you go up and order
- If you are unfamiliar with the beer they have on tap, ask for the kind of beer you know you like. “A pint of your pale ale” became my go-to line.
- The bartenders are usually “all-business.” Avoid making small-talk unless the pub is unusually slow.
- Beer is served in pints and/or half-pints
- In London, table service isn’t really a thing at a lot of pubs or restaurants. If you want to be served, expect to have to go up to the bar and order before you sit down. If there are multiple members of your party, you can have one person go up and order everything at once while everyone else claims a table.
- Nobody sits at the bar (in fact, I don’t think I even saw any bars that had stools!). People order their drinks and then congregate outside or inside at their table.
How I Learned Pub Etiquette (The Hard Way)
In America, it is perfectly acceptable at a lot of places to sit at the bar and have a full-blown conversation with the bartender(s) – assuming they aren’t wildly busy, of course. I am also used to asking about the beers they have on tap, trying a sample or 2, and, at certain places, holding out money when I am ready for another drink.
In London, most of these things are essentially a hard no (especially holding out money).
I did not know any of this when I arrived, and showed up to the pub as my typical bubbly American self. I asked to try samples. I asked if they had any wheat beer (they didn’t). I asked about the IPAs. I asked which beers had the most hops, aka which ones I would hate the least.
They were not impressed with us. It didn’t take Kelly and I long to realize we were CLEARLY doing something wrong, and the only way we learned was by essentially eavesdropping on other pubgoers and listening to how they ordered: “A pint of Guinness.” … “A pint of your pale ale.”
That’s it. No “can I have,” no standing there, pondering the assortment of options; no “can I sample this or that/what do you recommend/what does the beer on the end tap taste like.” I did hear people say thank you after their beer was handed to them, but for the most part, ordering a beer in a pub in London is a very matter-of-fact, no frills, zero-bullshit experience. You know what you want, you go up and ask for it, and you go sit down.
London Culture: One Last Piece of Advice…
It’s a Man’s World
I mentioned earlier how it was common to see people standing outside of the pubs at all hours of the day, and TBH, I expected nothing less. That isn’t what surprised me. What DID throw me for a loop was the fact that almost 90% of them were men. The more I walked around the city, the more men I saw. Every so often, a woman would be standing amongst them, but you never really saw groups of women by themselves.
I don’t know if it was this observation combined with the initial lack of restaurant/pub etiquette knowledge, but something felt…off. Almost like we were doing something culturally offensive but didn’t know what.
It took 2 days of us being in London, but suddenly, it all clicked. The men, the suits, the pubs, the dominance. “It’s a Man’s World” by James Brown starts playing in my head. After doing some research and asking around, I discovered that views about gender inequality were prevalent, with less men recognizing it as a problem.
I’ll admit I struggled writing this section of my blog post for obvious reasons. After much debate, I decided to include it because, as a woman, this is something I would absolutely want to know about before I visited somewhere. It wasn’t that we felt unsafe, but I do think as 2 women by ourselves in the city, we were treated differently. Would our entire experience have been different if we would have had a man with us? I don’t know, but my guess would be yes.
- It’s also important to recognize that not everybody I’ve talked to has had this experience. I have spoken to women who have visited London and did not feel like they were treated differently; others had a similar experience as I did.
Having Said All of That…
…I would still absolutely 100% recommend that you visit London. To experience a European culture that is so similar to us and yet so different is a worthwhile experience in itself. If nothing else, do it for the architecture, the views, and the Harry Potter phenomena. I have ZERO regrets about going to London because it taught me so much, and at the end, it made me a better, more educated traveler.