What You Need to Know About Visiting London

by Karen LeBlanc

What I Wish I Knew About London Before Traveling:

Random Facts and Useful Travel Tips I Learned about London

Karen LeBlanc aka The Design Tourist in London

Traveling teaches me a lot about myself— the things that pique my curiosity and stir my soul and the way I handle discomfort. For many of us, being out of our comfort zone reveals much about our true selves. I get anxious and agitated with crowds and long lines, (I need to work on patience) but I power through it all to experience the history, architecture and culturally significant attractions of a destination.  I can handle the trade-off but traveling can be exhausting when you do the typical tourist/guidebook attractions on the must-see list of every other traveler.

The London Eye is a popular attraction so expect long lines to take a ride for a birdseye view of the London skyline.

I recently returned from a five-day trip to London to show my teenage children the major sights as part of their on-going “Grand Tour” before they are off to college. We visited all the major attractions to check off our own must-see list. Along the way, I learned a few things that I wish I’d known prior to planning and traveling. So, I’ll share with you my list of random insights to help you make the most of your London trip. 

On my visit to Stonehenge, there was a torrential downpour and my shoes were soaked. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a pair of flip flops or extra tennis shoes in my travel backpack so I spent the entire rest of the day in soggy shoes. What a rookie mistake! Always pack a spare pair of shoes when traveling.

Bring two pairs of comfortable shoes because it rains a lot in London and definitely pack a rain jacket. It’s inevitable that one pair of shoes will get wet. You will step in a puddle or get caught in a sudden downpour and return to your hotel with sloshing shoes that require a full day to air out even as you try to blow them dry with your in-room hairdryer. 

Download the London Tube Map app, it’s like google maps for the underground transportation system. It maps out your route from point A to point B step by step. One thing I learned the hard way: When taking the tube, oftentimes the line name flashing on the train/subway car is listed as one of the route stops instead of the line’s actual name. Be mindful of the line’s entire route so you can identify the proper train/subway to take.  For example, I took the District Line to Whitechapel but the train was labeled Tower Hill, one of the District Line’s stops. 

You will be paying with the British Pound, not Euros, thanks to Brexit. 

Oftentimes, I found Uber cheaper than a taxi ride around London. 

Splurge for a centrally located hotel because the transportation costs to get you to the main attractions from far reaches of the city where accommodations may be cheaper isn’t worth it. In the end, the amount you spend on tube rides, taxis and uber rides will eat up any cost savings on your not-centrally located hotel.

On Sundays, eat dinner early. The kitchens at most restaurants close early so finding a place for a late-night dinner can be challenging. My advice is to dine before 9 pm. 

Flat white coffee in London

When ordering coffee, the London version of a flat white tends to be much stronger than the American version of the cappuccino. That is fine by me because I love drinking rocket fuel strength coffee but the flate white didn’t go over well with my latte-drinking family members who prefer a softer, milky taste.

Many fast-casual restaurants can be a confusing hybrid of hospitality where a hostess seats you but then you are required to get up and go to the register to order. A waitress then delivers your meal to the table. We made the mistake of being seated and waiting for 45 minutes for a waitress to come take our order, much to our frustration. 

In Bath, I suggest skipping the Roman Baths tour, it’s overcrowded and underwhelming. Instead spend time shopping, dining and roam the quaint town of Bath appreciating its architecture and character.

Skip the guided day tours on buses that take you outside the city for excursions to Bath, Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. You waste a lot of time in transport and have very little time to explore each destination and are herded around like cattle.

At Windsor Castle, expect long lines to get in. Once inside the gates, the crowds thin out so you can have an enjoyable self-guided tour of the property.

I found traveling in such a large group to be limiting. I prefer the freedom of touring on my own time. Take the train to these destinations to explore on your own timeline, plus these bus tours are crazy expensive. 

The National Gallery, © National Gallery, London

Take advantage of London’s free attractions: Since 2001, the government has granted free entry to England’s national museums, which means many of Britain’s best museums such as the National History Museum, the National Gallery, and The Victoria and Albert Museum cost nothing to visit. 

The Shard, one of London’s iconic buildings, juts into the skyline like a jagged piece of glass.

Take a walking tour of London’s financial district, the downtown area populated with architectural wonders, huge skyscrapers that are works of art easily admired from the ground below. 

Twisting high above Floral Street in Covent Garden, the Bridge of Aspiration provides the dancers of the Royal Ballet School with a direct link to the Grade I listed Royal Opera House

There are guided architectural tours for a fee if you are serious about learning the backstory of each building.

Expect long lines at Buckingham Palace and plan to be there for an entire day if you intend to visit.

Most of London’s major attractions take most of the day to tour by the time you purchase tickets, stand in entrance lines and more lines to walk through.

The Tower of London is one of the city’s top attractions and very crowded. Expect to spend more than half a day touring the attraction and long lines to get in.

My advice— prioritize what you want to see. Each day pick one major attraction to tour and select a second activity or venue to visit should you end up with extra time before the 5 pm and 6 pm closing hours at most museums and attractions. 

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