The First Timer’s Guide to Exploring London

The First Timer’s Guide to Exploring London

London is huge, fast-paced and packed with things you’ve been told not to miss. It’s a great city, but it can be hard for a first-time visitor to know where to start. There’s a lot to see and do, but it’s not impossible to navigate. Check out this first timer’s guide to exploring London. A must read for newbie and solo travelers!

The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London - navigating a city map

Getting Around

The most convenient and economical way to get around is to take the London Underground. You can purchase single or return paper tickets or a pay-as-you-go Oyster card in advance or at the station.

The best option is to purchase a 1, 2, or 3-Day Travelcard, which allows you unlimited trips within central London. With the Oyster Travelcard you benefit from the unlimited use of the world-famous London Underground, buses, overground trains and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in the center of London.  If your Oyster Card balance is exhausted during your stay in London, you can easily recharge your card for the remaining stay in London at any subway station.
The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London -Underground tube

Where to Stay

There are endless accommodation options in every budget from the very posh, like the Four Seasons Hotel at Park Lane to budget-friendly hostels, like Safestay London Elephant & Castle. Here are a few options in each price range:

Posh ($$$)

Midrange ($$)

Budget ($)

Check out this list of London’s Top 10 Coolest Hostels.

The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London - St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London

Here are my top picks for must-see landmarks and attractions while exploring London:

The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London - Tower Bridge
With my eye on Tower Bridge
  • Palace of Westminster: A neo-Gothic masterpiece and seat of the UK government. Guided tours are available on Saturdays and during the summer.
  • Houses of Parliament: The Houses of Parliament is composed of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which fill the massive Palace of Westminster.
  • Big Ben: This 16-story Gothic clocktower and national symbol is located at the Eastern end of the Houses of Parliament.
The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London -Big Ben
A view of Big Ben
  • Westminster Abbey: This Protestant abbey, which hosts daily services has been graced by many royal weddings and coronations (nearly every English and British coronation since 1066). This medieval church offers a magnificent peek at London’s far-reaching history.
  • Tower Bridge (Free): Along with Parliament and Big Ben, Tower Bridge is London’s next must-see architectural marvel, not to mention the most famous bridge that crosses the Thames. Built a mere 120 years ago, Tower Bridge offers panoramic views from high-level walkways and behind-the-scenes access to original lifting machinery.
  • Tower of London: Soaked in centuries of bloody history around this medieval castle, the Tower of London is home to Crown Jewels and iconic Beefeaters. Pro Tip: Arrive as the doors are unlocked and head straight to the Crown Jewels to avoid the afternoon queues.
  • St Paul’s Cathedral: Besides Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral is arguably the second must-see church in London. Be sure to check out the churchyard and gardens outside the cathedral, with a floor-plan of the original building.
The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London -St Paul's Cathedral
A view of St. Paul Cathedral from Tate Modern
  • London Eye: The London Eye (the giant Ferris wheel found in many London panoramas) located on the River Thames is meant to deliver great views – not a thrilling ride. The wheel circles slowly offering a privileged bird’s-eye view of the city’s landmarks.
  • Tate Modern Museum (Free): Located on the South Bank along the Thames, the Tate Modern is a part of a group of four museums (all named Tate) that house the 70,000 artworks that comprise the national collection of British art.
  • Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens (Free): Once the recreational stomping grounds for King Henry VIII, this long swath of green stretching from Kensington Palace in the west to Oxford Street in the east is now open to the public and a must-visit for first time visitors. A huge green space, it is home to Diana Memorial Fountain, with boating and swimming in the Serpentine lake.
  • Picadilly Circus (Free): The portal to London’s buzzing West End, Piccadilly Circus lives up to its name. Commonly compared to New York’s Time Square, Piccadilly Circus is the meeting place of five busy roads, lined with shops, restaurants, pubs and off-Broadway shows.
  • National Gallery (Free): Sitting in Trafalgar Square, London’s National Gallery features a labyrinth interior so large that it requires a color-coded map to navigate. The museum is home to masterworks that trace the development of Western European painting.
  • Buckingham Palace: The London home of Queen Elizabeth II is open for tours (except the Queen’s quarters of course) in August and September. Visitors can tour the palace’s opulent private and state rooms or catch a bit of sovereign ceremony by watching the Changing of the Guard. The age-old ritual of iconic bearskin-hatted regiments swapping shifts outside Buckingham Palace. Arrive early for a good view.

    The First Timer's Guide to Exploring London - Buckingham Palace
    Exploring the grounds of Buckingham Palace
  • Trafalgar Square (Free): Nelson’s Column rises above this iconic square’s LED-lit fountains, artworks and lion statues.
  • British Museum (Free): This museum is a huge showcase for global antiquities, including Egyptian mummies and ancient Greek sculptures. Free eye-opener tours helpfully allow you to focus on specific parts of the vast collection. Alternatively, take in the highlights by wandering through the Great Court, with its stunning glass-and-steel roof designed by Norman Foster, and don’t leave before you’ve seen the Rosetta Stone, the Mummy of Katebet and the Lewis Chessmen.
  • Portobello Road Market (Free): Locals and tourists alike tend to adore Portobello Road Market, which is located in the posh Notting Hill neighborhood, famous for its bright colored houses.
  • Leicester Square: Leicester Square is a pedestrianized square in the West End of London, England.
  • Shakespeare’s Globe: Oak-and-thatch replica of original Elizabethan theatre, showing Shakespeare plays in the open air.

Exploring London is quite an experience. Be sure to take in the sights and enjoy every moment. Have you been to London before? What were your favorite attractions?

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