Even though I was born and raised in London, I’ve been caught out without a brolly (umbrella) in the rain countless times. I’ve felt the scorn of others when not noticing there’s a queue, and I’ve made the costly error of driving into the city. But as a local, I’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to; I hope my experience and top tips help inspire a smooth and memorable trip to the UK capital.
1. Skip the car
London’s roads are small, its traffic is chaotic, and there’s hardly anywhere to park. Plus, you’ll be charged for driving your car in to the center of London – the congestion charge is £15 a day, while the separate ULEZ charge starts from £12.50 and only certain energy efficient or electric cars are exempt. The best way to get around is on public transport. Use the Tube, hop on a bus, or rent a Santander bike if in the center of the city; cycle maps, highlighting designated paths for bikes, can be downloaded online.a
2. Know your Tube etiquette
One easy way to annoy commuters is to not follow these very easy rules when traveling around on London’s Underground. Get your ticket, debit or credit card ready before you reach the ticket barriers so you don’t create a queue. Stand on the right when using escalators so passengers wanting to walk can pass. Let passengers off the train first (stand to either the right or left of the doors) before you board, and offer your seat to someone who may need it more, such as a pregnant person, an elderly person, someone who is disabled and so on.
3. Bring layers (and a raincoat)
London’s weather is changeable – temperatures have been known to rise and fall by 20°C in a matter of days. Showers can happen any time of year so pack a brolly (umbrella) or raincoat in your day bag and wear layers that you can easily take off. In summer, always carry a bottle of water on the Tube (the deep tunnels were built before air-conditioning). And while the climate may be mercurial, don’t let bad weather put you off going about your day – simply switch to more indoor-based activities, as there are hundreds of them to choose from.
4. Opt for comfort over fashion when it comes to shoes
Most people cover a lot of ground when exploring London, plus different terrains: grass in the many green spaces, long Tube escalators, slippery pavements and even cobblestones. Museums require leg work, as do bridges, boats and parks. Heels are pretty pointless in London, unless you are getting a door-to-door cab to a venue.
5. Make reservations for top restaurants
While there are plenty of terrific places to eat that welcome walk-ins (although be prepared to queue for the best joints), many of the best restaurants are booked up weeks in advance, especially new ones or those run by celebrity chefs. More restaurants have adopted booking policies and deposits since the pandemic, so if you’re looking for a unique dining experience, book ahead.
6. Do as the Londoners do and go to a supper club
Embed yourself in London life with a dinner party with locals; a supper club is a superb way to try home-cooked local food from London’s diverse community. These are locally run endeavors, taking place in people’s homes or taking over whole restaurants – try The Bridge Club serving British eats made with French cooking techniques in South London or Indian street food with Chaiiwala in East London, run out of local chef Dhruv Mittal’s flat.
7. Know how to order at a pub
There are unspoken rules when visiting a pub. One person – not a whole group – should go to the bar. Stand anywhere and wait your turn. If someone was waiting before you, it’s polite to signal for the bar staff to serve them first if they come over to you. When you go back to your table with the drinks, you just bought a ‘round.’ Now everyone at the table owes you a drink throughout the evening, each person has a turn at buying a round. Last orders are when the bell rings, and from this moment you have 20 minutes to finish your drink.
8. Go to a football game
Football rivalries run high in the city, with 17 football clubs, including seven Premier League teams and four Women’s Super League Teams. Giant temples to the Beautiful Game sit around London and are great places to feel the collective energy of the city, as locals congregate come rain or shine to watch their heroes on the field. You’ll need to book tickets far in advance for Premier League Games, but women’s and lower league men’s games are easier to come by – and arguably far more fun to watch. Visit local team websites to book.
9. Be polite and embrace the art of queueing
Londoners (and British people alike) are big on manners, and not having any will get you into trouble. Say please and thank you, and apologize if you bump into someone. Don’t stare at people on the Tube, and hold the door open for people behind you when you walk through. Let people pass, and be sure to help people in need (people with buggies at the top of stairs, older people crossing the road etc). If there is a queue to the attraction you want to visit or a stall you want to buy from, join it – you’ll soon get into a confrontation if you skip the line.
10. Make a plan, but don’t go overboard
London is massive, so getting from one side to the other takes a couple of hours in a car (and that’s if there is zero traffic). Riding the Tube is quicker, but journey times can still be long if attractions are on either side of the city. Minimize travel times by exploring by region – do a day in Central London, another day in North London and so on. Plan on spending at least a few hours in the big museums and galleries, as there is so much to see. Take many breaks, grab lunch at a cafe or pub and pause to take in the views. It’s easy to get carried away with the energetic pace of London, but sights are more enjoyable if you adopt a more leisurely approach.
11. Don’t leave your stuff lying around
Don’t leave your bags unattended at public venues like stations, buses, theaters or museums, as this is likely to cause alarm and your bag may be removed – or stolen. Only take around with you what you are able to carry for several hours. Luggage storage is generally rare in London, but hotels will likely store bags once you check out. Avoid carrying mobile phones in back pockets or where they can be easily swiped.