ULTIMATE LONDON TRAVEL GUIDE
London and I go way back. Back to 2011 that is. When my big sister and I decided to pack up our lives into our spick and span new backpacks and jump on a long ass flight to Heathrow, oblivious to the insane experience we were about to embark on and the love for travel it would bring. Besides moving to the Gold Coast in Australia two years earlier, this was my first trip overseas and for god knows what reason moving to the complete opposite side of the world was how this was going to go down.
I lived in the city for two years to begin with, came back home to New Zealand, then after a few years trying to settle in to home life I felt a little lost and like I was missing a part of me back in London, so went back to travel London for another year and a bit. I’ve now been back on home soil for 12 months.
London is the most vibrant of cities. It’s bustling. It’s edgy and inclusive. It’s bursting at the seams with history, grand architecture, quaint streets and iconic landmarks. It’s somewhere that is charming in so many ways and will suck you in, roll you around a little, and spit you back out, captivating you like no other. I may be a wee bit biased because I feel like its my second home, but when anyone asks what my favourite city in the world is, my answer is always London. A place that will forever hold a little piece of my heart.
I can only speak for myself but London was freaking spot on matching up with the picture I’d wrangled up in my brain, which if you’re a traveller you’ll know that doesn’t always happen. I’ll always vividly remember flying over the city and experiencing London for the first time. Big ol’ Ben was spotted, the striking London Eye, a birds eye view of the muted coloured cityscape and rows on rows of identical terraced houses, smack bang in front of my eyes.
It was in the midst of winter so I was rugged up to the nines when I first popped my head out from the tube onto Oxford Circus. I literally felt like I’d stepped foot onto a classic English movie set or a whirlwind board of Monopoly. Immersed in a concrete jungle amongst extravagant historic buildings, overwhelmed by big red buses filled to the brim zooming on by, black taxis fiercely tooting their horns, the sound of blaring sirens from near and afar, millions of Londoners in black coats rushing past, bold red telephone boxes and flashing lights adding a touch of colour and magic to the scene. So many new smells, accents, and different people from all walks of life. It was a far fetch from the chill streets of New Zealand, but I knew I had fallen in love immediately.
Along with a shit load of other Kiwis, a few of my friends are soon heading to the buzzing hub of London- whether to live, just for a quick trip, or as a starting point for their Europe adventures. I’ve been asked a few times for advice on what to see and do, so I thought I might as well bundle it all up together into this Ultimate London Travel Guide. I know travelling to a big city can be intimidating at times, and I feel like I have a pretty good idea on what London has to offer, so I hope this London Travel Guide helps someone.
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London uses the British Pound- GBP. As I write this the conversion rate is 1 NZD = 0.52GBP, so you get just over half of what you put in. London is known as one of the most expensive cities in the world so things aren’t cheap. However I personally didn’t find a huge difference going from New Zealand to London, besides the ridiculous price of rent! For comparison the average price for a pint of beer is 4 GBP vs 8NZD- I can go into more depth on prices and moving/living in London in a later post if anyone is interested.
As a New Zealander you can enter the UK as a tourist, without a visa for up to 6 months. If you’re to live there like I did, you can apply for a two year Working Holiday Visa. If you’re lucky you also have the option of a five year Ancestry Visa (if one or more of your grandparents was born in the UK) or, if you’re super de duper lucky you’ll have a UK passport to travel London!
Weather in London can be pretty unpredictable, the city is not exactly known for having the best weather- all four seasons can show it’s face in one day! Winter (December- March) can get chilly, have the odd dumping of snow, be dark super early, and can get gloomy if you don’t get in the spirit. Don’t let the sometimes dull weather ruin your trip though, it’s definitely not all bad! I personally LOVE London in winter. The city comes to life, especially at Christmas time with all the twinkling lights, extravagant decorations and the famous ‘Winter Wonderland’ festival. That or snuggling up getting cosy on the couch with a hot cuppa watching Mary Poppins. Cliche as hell, I know, but I did actually do that multiple times! Haha. Absolute magic. Summer (June- September) is pleasant and gets relatively warm, averaging 18c-low 20s. Think lounging around the park or roof top bar with a cider and some nibbles. English people sure know how to do a good picnic! Obviously it all depends what time of the year you go, but I’d recommend getting into the habit of always carrying around an umbrella and sunnies with you, you just never know what the weather could hold.
You’ll do a crap tonne of walking. Around the city, up and down stairs, along the underground to the tube. In my opinion this is the top way to see the sights of London, but at one point or another you’ll have a guts full of walking, so luckily the public transport in London is amazing too. The main modes of London travel being the underground tube and the big red buses, both easy to use and to wrap your head around. Get yourself an ‘Oyster’ card, which is an electronic smart card loaded with money- don’t fall into the trap of paying for each journey individually as the extra price will soon add up! You can get weekly cards as well if you’re only there for a short time, or alternatively monthly deals if you’re living there and use public transport regularly. You can use these on buses and all types of train- tubes, overground trains and DLR. Buy and top up your card from any station, or at an Oyster ticket shop around the city.
The tube works in zones, so depending which zones you travel London through will determine how much you’ll pay. For example- I lived in zone 2 and if I travelled right into the core of the city in zone 1, it would cost me £2.40 one way off peak, or £2.90 on peak times. The further out of the city, the higher the zone number- if that makes sense. A daily cap is placed on the card so once you reach the limit you won’t have to pay anymore that day and can travel around as much as you like. Buses are convenient and cheap. A single fare costs £1.50 and if you travel somewhere else within the hour of first boarding, it’s free! All modes of transport run regularly and 7 days a week. Not long before I left they introduced night tubes on some lines, handy for those boozy nights out if you ask me!
London gets my tick of approval for being safe for the solo traveller, and is a very inclusive city! I barely thought twice about being in the city by myself at night. Of course like any major city you still need to be aware of your surroundings and use your common sense. My blog post ‘Travelling solo for the first time? My TIPS for SOLO TRAVEL newbies’ will come in handy if you’re after some extra tips on feeling safe!
HANDY APPS AND WEBSITES
CITYMAPPER. Download the app ‘CityMapper,’ for your London travel experience. Lots of cities have them so make sure you download the London version. It’ll save your life on working out how to get from A to B on the tubes and buses. It let’s you know the best form of transport to use, how much it’ll cost and how long the journey will take.
TUBE MAP. I’d highly recommend downloading a London travel tube map app- try ‘Tube Map- London Underground.’ Alternatively have a screenshot of the map stored to your phone incase you don’t have access to WIFI.
UBER. If you don’t already have the Uber app, download that too! Uber is much cheaper to travel London than in black cabs.
HOSTEL WORLD. Sorts through the highly rated and cheapest backpackers for your time in London.
SKYSCANNER. Scans through all the airlines for the best and most suitable flights to London, and from London into Europe.
TFL OYSTER APP. To keep track of how much money you have left on your London travel ‘Oyster’ card.
TODAY TIX. Jump on here for cheap, last minute tickets to theatre shows.
KIWIS IN LONDON. More so for those moving to London, but a bloody good Facebook page overflowing with info on being a kiwi, in London. Obviously.
RANDOM PRACTICAL ADVICE
A whole bunch of facts I wish I knew before beginning my London travel adventure, to prevent feeling like a dweeb.
Stand on the right, walk on the left. Don’t even attempt to change this trend.
Touch your Oyster card on the gates as you enter and exit the tube. Only when you enter on buses. Always.
Tube doors open automatically, train doors do not– press the god damn button.
Cockfosters is a real tube stop name. Hilarious, I know.
Tube stops are ridiculously close, despite how wide spread the city is. Don’t even bother catching the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square.
40 minutes is the average time to get anywhere in the city.
There are ‘local’ supermarkets and normal supermarkets– locals are more expensive.
An ‘off licence’ or ‘offy,’ is what us Kiwi’s call dairys.
Don’t walk up or down the stairs on a bus while it’s going. You will face plant.
Street signs are on the sides of the buildings. Gets me every damn time.
You have to pay for public toilets. Have coins handy.
There’s such thing as £3 lunch meal deals at the supermarkets. Bargain!
Know the difference between pants and trousers. That or turn bright red.
Avoid travelling in peak hour if you can help it. Unless you want to be squished like a sardine.
Stay, do, eat and drink
Now to get to the exciting stuff on this London Travel Guide! There’s a trillion and one things to see and do, so I’ve chosen what I personally think is the best of the bunch. There is almost no excuse to be bored in London, there’s always new things going on whether it’s a quirky pop up, hidden gig, or park to be discovered. You’re bound to have a blast finding something you’ll enjoy!
I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge on this as I lived in London. But I did stay at the ST CHRISTOPHER’S BACKPACKERS twice whilst trying to find a flat to live in, and highly recommend! They have eight throughout London and a few others scattered around Europe which I’ve also been to. Always a hoot! As mentioned earlier check out Hostel World to find the best deals. Area wise, as long as you aren’t miles and miles from the hub of the city then you should be sweet! SOHO, COVENT GARDEN, NOTTING HILL, SHOREDITCH, PUTNEY, CAMDEN, FULHAM, CLAPHAM, SHEPHERD’S BUSH, HAMMERSMITH, and EARL’S COURT are some solid areas that come to mind!
WHERE TO WANDER? Landmarks, Streets and Museums
Sightsee to your hearts content at the main famous landmarks and iconic attractions, all of which are totally worth the visit! Have a cuppa with the Queen and watch the changing of the guards at BUCKINGHAM PALACE, ride the LONDON EYE (funnily enough I never actually went up there, I was far too lazy to wait in the lines), wander WESTMINSTER ABBEY, the TOWER OF LONDON, TRAFALGAR SQUARE, ST PAULS CATHEDRAL, and TOWER BRIDGE (which isn’t actually falling down.) BIG BEN is one of my absolute favourite landmarks I’ve ever seen, there’s something so magical about it and I get all giddy every time! These are all super easy to find so I won’t harp on about them too much.
COVENT GARDEN is on the top of my London travel list for my favourite places to wander!
For me it oozes British charm and has the perfect mixture of market stalls, designer and boutique shops, food joints spilling out onto the piazza, phenomenal street performers, and lots of cool pubs! Chill out on the balcony at ‘Punch and Judy’ for the afternoon, overlooking the kooky street acts. With a pint in hand and a classic English feed to devour, you’ll be in for a real treat!
Roam the streets of THE STRAND, lively PICCADILLY CIRCUS and the entertainment heart of LEICESTER SQUARE. Indulge in the sweet, sweet smell of chocolate escaping from the doors of the world’s largest candy store- MnM World, and bring out your inner child at LEGO World. Must stops in my books!
The narrow winding streets of eclectic SOHO are jam packed with glowing neon lights, kinky sex shops, gay bars, and quirky retro stores! In amongst the wonderful madness you’ll find a wee alleyway which leads to the courtyard of NEAL’S YARD. A chill little area where vivid colourful buildings and zesty health cafe’s await you!
If you don’t have time to go to the real life Venice in Italy, head to LITTLE VENICE right here in London. Tucked away in the Paddington area, you’ll escape from the hustle and bustle of the city centre and be delighted with the calm canals and tranquil tree lined streets. Hop aboard one of the enchanting boats, pubs, or floating cafes.
A stroll along SOUTHBANK is stunning, especially at night with all the twinkling lights! Walk along the RIVER THAMES and hop back and forth over the many bridges for sweeping views of the city. You’ll catch a glimpse of some of London’s most striking landmarks and architecture, come across amazing art, Shakespeare’s Globe, and gourmet food for Africa.
SHOREDITCH is a vibe! Definitely for the young and hip, exploding with ‘instagram worthy’ brunch spots, fancy coffee shops, markets upon markets (keep reading for more info on these) and sick graffiti art at every turn. An ideal spot to come to brighten up your day!
If you’re a history nerd at heart and museums are your thang, then the NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, DESIGN MUSEUM and SCIENCE MUSEUM are my faves!
Quirky Camden is the mother of all the markets in the land. It’s lively, alternative and clustered with funky shoe shops, weird and wonderful clothing, dingy souvenirs, and almost every home made knick knack under the sun. Holy heck, make sure you visit on an empty stomach as their street food selection is to.die.for. If I had to recommend one, only one market to visit and add to your London travel list, then this gem up north would hands down be it. AND it’s open every day! Make sure you’ve got at least a few hours up your sleeve to explore.
On the east end is another bad boy well worth the visit. Wander the diverse, world famous graffiti filled streets and soak up the atmosphere. If you’re lucky you’ll spot an artist at work. These markets are at it’s peak on a Sunday! Brick-a-brack galore, wacky musicians rocking out, the aroma of international street food over flowing onto the street, and possibly the best vintage clothing markets you’ll ever come across.
Not far from Bricklane is the finer market of Spitalfields. A wee bit fancier market made up of antiques, local goods and high quality cuisine- all housed in a stunning Victorian Hall where markets have been held for over 350 years! Open every day of the week.
COLUMBIA ROAD FLOWER MARKET
Add a pop of colour to your day at this delightful floral paradise! Situated on the cutest cobbled street in the east. Think bright blooming flowers, exotic greenery, delicious delis, antique dealers and all your garden needs. On every Sunday come rain, wind or snow!
In the posh village of Notting Hill is another banger. This one is best on a Saturday, but take note it can get hella busy! It’s the world’s largest and most famous antique market, overlooked by rows and rows of rainbow coloured houses. You’ll find everything from handmade bits and bobs, vintage collectables, trinkets and second hand furniture. What market is complete without some mouth watering street food and fresh produce for when you’re feeling peckish! Stop by and take a snap at the famous blue door if you’re a ‘Notting Hill’ fan.
It’d be rude not to visit this iconic and bustling food market set in the south east. An absolute heaven for the die hard foodie, renowned for it’s delicious food and drink. Be prepared for weird and wonderful smells and spices, tempting sweet treats and pastries, big as cheese wheels, organic fruit and vege, old school stalls and delicacies from all over the world! Open Monday through Saturday.
Further afield in the south east is a charming market set on a World Heritage site- a breath of fresh air! Expect tasty food stalls and local creatives selling their creations. Open 7 days.
Chow down on some delicious and ethnic food at this small but delightful foodie haven. Situated in the south east, it’s the perfect place to come to stuff your face and drown your sorrows on the weekend!
Whatever your cup of tea, you’ll find it at one of these markets.
London is home to some of the best and most entertaining theatre shows in the world, and a trip to London wouldn’t be complete with out seeing at least one show on the glamorous WEST END. I know people either love or hate them, but I absolutely lose my shit over a good musical- something so magical and mesmerizing!
If you have your eye on a show in particular, you may have to book in advance so I’d advise checking this out before your trip so you aren’t left disappointed! Don’t forget to download the ‘TodayTix’ app I mentioned earlier for cheaper tickets, OR you can line up the day of the show at one of the wee stalls you’ll see scattered around in Leicester Square. Nab yourself a bargain.
If you want to venture from the craziness of the West End, find the golden ticket and head to the cool, calm and collected MENIER CHOCOLATE FACTORY– highly recommend. An intimate theatre, charming bar and restaurant all wrapped into one inspiring, oh so magical experience. Treat yourself!
London is a shopping lover’s paradise! Count up your pennies and head to-
UK’s most famous and busiest shopping street! Even if you don’t want to spend any money, the whole atmosphere of the street and the window shopping is worth the visit- despite the pushing and shoving of the millions of people that stroll up and down there on the daily! The land of window shopping, from quirky boutiques, cheap souvenirs, every day stores, and luxury high street brands. I guarantee you’ll find any and everything you’re after on this street.
Just around the corner from Oxford Circus is the charismatic street of Carnaby, once a stomping ground for all the cool kids and rock and rollers in the 60’s. Dazzling with lights, the odd pop up and independent shops you can’t find anywhere else. This little find is right up my alley!
Get on down to eclectic Soho. As I mentioned earlier Soho is the king of alternative fashion, vintage, and retro finds!
You’re probably familiar with Westfield, a worldwide shopping centre. There’s one in Shepherd’s Bush in the west, and one in Stratford in the east. A good place to escape the rain and shop for everything under one roof.
PARKS AND VIEWS
You don’t have to fork out a fortune sippin’ on ridiculously priced fancy cocktails up a skyscraper, just to get a stunning birds eye view over the city (although if that’s your thing, go for it!) You can alternatively gawk over the cityscape from one of these lookouts, for free!
Bloody great spot to soak in the captivating panoramic views over the city and River Thames, from the observation deck of the Walkie-Talkie building in the city. It has the highest public garden in the UK, and it’s free- snag a ticket by booking a time slot online at skygarden.london. A good alternative from the steep prices at the Shard.
Wander the cute village before hitting the hill and unwinding with some clear blue skies over the cityscape, from on top of grassy Primrose in the north west. Arm yourself with some picnic goodies from Camden markets nearby and make a day of it!
ROYAL OBSERVATORY GREENWICH PARK
In a world of it’s own, stroll to the top of lush Greenwich Park in the south east and enjoy the view overlooking the historic architecture of the National Maritime Museum, and of course the skyscrapers of London in the distance.
ONE NEW CHANGE
Smack bang next to St Pauls, head up to the public roof terrace of the shopping centre and watch the dreamy hues of the sun going down over the city. An outdoor cinema pops up now and then so you may be in for a real treat if you time it right!
London is riddled with so many more parks which make for a great escape from the urban jungle. Check out the green paradise of Hyde Park, Richmond Park (Fentooooon!), Green Park, St James, Hampstead Heath, and Brockwell Park- just to name a few of my favourite! They all boast some great people watching and views to see the world go by as you travel London.
EAT AND DRINK
A girls gotta eat. And indulge in an alcoholic beverage or two from time to time. There are literally an insane amount of top rated and super hyped restaurants and bars to add to your London travel list. However, I’m more of a bar or pub goer than a clubber and I never splashed out too much on restaurants. These cheap but delish personal favourites of mine were more up my alley!
You can’t go wrong with the heavenly flavour and fragrance of some fresh and affordable Vietnamese food. This was hands down my top spot to eat in London and there’s a few of the chain around the city to dine in. Don’t go past their phojito cocktail, fresh rice paper rolls, bun salad bowls and pho soup delicacies. My mouth is watering even just writing this!
Right, Vietnamese is my favourite cuisine in the world so I just had to mention Pho Mile in Shoreditch too. Take your pick of the bunch of the array of aromatic food joints down the strip. Bun Bun Bun is a goodie!
Keeping in the theme of asian, mosey on down to China Town near Leicester Square. Streets lined with red paper lanterns and oriental sights! Feast over a smorgasbord at one of the many authentic restaurants.
JAPANESE FOOD HALL
You thought I’d finished? We may as well call this an asian food guide as I just had to mention the Japanese Food Hall, located in a hidden basement near Leicester Square. All the Japanese groceries and ready to devour meals of your dreams. You’ll want one of everything.
Okay I hear ya- back to basics. Any Kiwi who’s been to London will have a story to tell you from their time at the spoons. A chain of pubs all around the joint where you can grab some cheap but tasty classic English grub, and a cheeky point or six. Mate, you can’t go wrong!
Tucked away in the east suburb of Shoreditch is Box Park. A permanent pop up street food mall housed in funky shipping containers. A lively atmosphere to sink a few craft beers with your besties!
BRICKLANE CURRY HOUSES
Craving a curry? Have a hoot and a roar at one of the fifty odd curry houses along Brick Lane. Have a yarn with the staff at each door to barter for some crazy low prices, and take your pick!
ROOF TOP BARS
There’s tonnes of roof top bars all over the city! Frank’s Cafe in Peckham is complete with a lick of barbie pink paint on the staircase as you enter, and wicked views over the city. I promise you a lively crowd and trendy vibes!
One hell of a hang out spot in the heart of Brixton. An array of street food stalls set under neon lights. Cool and casual!
Fancy a bite to eat and free flowing unlimited booze all in one? A trip to London town wouldn’t quite be complete without a messy bottomless brunch, you’re riddled with choice! The Alice in Wonerland-esque Daisy Green near Oxford Street, and retro Coin Laundry near Exmouth Market are just two I’ve tried and recommend!
If you’re just in need of quick bite to eat while working up an appetite roaming the streets of London- Pret A Manger is a great chain of cafes for a good ol’ salad or sandwich, and Wasabi for a lineup of sushi.
Let me know if you travel London and explore any of these spots. I’m already jealous!
Thanks for reading,
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