London travel guide and things to do: 20 thing that will surprise first-time visitors

One of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet can still hold a few surprises for first timers.

The food's great

Well, OK, not all the food's great, and much of it is on the mediocre to terrible trajectory. But there's probably nowhere else on earth where you can eat such a variety of good food. London's melting pot tendencies bring in people – and cuisines – from all over the world, meaning you can go from Filipino or Sudanese one night to Jamaican or Sri Lankan the next.

The museums are free

London, UK - May 20 2018: The British Museum is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture and is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. British Museum exterior, London

The big one: The British Museum. Photo: iStock

London has a reputation as an expensive city, but so many of its top tourist attractions are free to enter. The British Museum is the big one, but the free museum entry policy stretches to several that are world class, including the V&A, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Tate Modern and National Gallery.

There's little laurel-resting

Some of the big hitters could just get away with letting visitors traipse through, looking at the collection. But surprising levels of effort go in. The British Museum, for example, has free niche-focused tours, while the Tower of London has wire-frame sculptures in the courtyards and a series of micro-exhibitions on unexpected topics such as the animals once kept in the Tower.

It's disjointed

London is a somewhat incoherent hodgepodge of 32 boroughs, plus the city of London, all of which have different local authorities. This can lead to street signs looking different one block to the next, and strongly different personalities from area to area. This is a good thing, however – hipster Hackney, leafy Richmond-upon-Thames and posh Kensington and Chelsea give agreeably different experiences.

It is pretty low rise

London has some striking tall buildings, notably newcomers the Shard and the Gherkin plus old-timer St Paul's Cathedral. But on the whole, this is not a city built upwards. Don't expect the claustrophobic intensity of New York or skyscraper-scape of Hong Kong.

The Queen lives there

FILE - In this file photo dated Wednesday, June 24, 2015, tourists view the front facade of Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. London police say an intruder tried to climb a security fence at Buckingham Palace, Tuesday Aug. 9, 2016, but did not gain access to the landmark building and the incident is not terrorism related. Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the intruder, but the royal family was not there at the time. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, FILE)

Photo: AP

Want to have a snoop around Buckingham Palace? Well, you'll have to do so when the Queen's hanging out at her other properties. That's generally mid-July to the end of September, but snooping tourists aren't allowed in for the rest of the year. Being able to visit at all is a relatively new thing.

Advertisement

It takes about an hour

It is somehow an eternal truth that no matter how far away two points of interest are, or how close they are, it will take roughly an hour to get between them. Once you factor in walking to the tube station, waiting for the train, getting the train and walking from the tube station, it's about an hour. Your hotel to Buckingham Palace? About an hour. Just accept it.

Sometimes bus is best

Occasionally, the tube lines don't work out the way you want them to. But instead of going to the faff of changing lines multiple times, it's worth checking whether there's a bus going your way – often there's one that'll drop you right outside the door. The journey planner at tfl.gov.uk is your friend.

The pub lives on

The Great British Pub is something usually associated with the countryside, but even in the most touristy areas of London, there are good, old-fashioned boozers that have resisted the tide of hipster bars to sell warm pints amid décor that hasn't changed in decades. Some have bowed to serving craft beer and food, but the likes of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street are still delightfully commonplace.

It's walkable

OK, so you're going to need public transport at some point, but much of London is eminently walkable and best explored on two feet. This, plus the sheer amount of history and quirky oddities, makes it one of the best places on earth for walking tours. London Walks runs an incredible array of themed walks, with topics such as Shakespeare and Dickens, Harry Potter and Jack the Ripper. See walks.com

The theatres are uncomfortable

London's Theatreland stretches well beyond the West End musicals it's famous for. Every night (except Sundays when most productions close down), there are scores of productions – some camp, some serious, some funny – to choose from. But while the theatres may be dolled up, they're not defined for comfort. Expect cramped seats that'd make even the nastiest budget airline blush.

There are two Abbey Roads

Thousands of fans gather to walk across the Abbey Road zebra crossing, on the 50th anniversary of British pop musicians The Beatles doing it for the cover of their album 'Abbey Road' in St Johns Wood in London, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. They aimed to cross 50 years to the minute since the 'Fab Four' were photographed for the album.(Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

Thousands of fans gathered to walk across the Abbey Road zebra crossing on August 8, 2019, on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles doing it for the cover of their album Abbey Road. Photo: AP

Tourists wanting to recreate the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road album are one of the most perplexing phenomena in London, as well as being the bane of local motorists. Entertainingly, though, there's more than one Abbey Road. You'll be wanting the one in NW8, near the St John's Wood tube station.

Sunday hotels are bargains

The lack of Sunday shows and business travellers means that hotel rates can plummet on Sunday nights. Searching for rooms in October, the Novotel London Tower Bridge had rooms for £135 on the Sunday night. On the following Monday night, the rate shot up to £250.

It's best by boat

The River Thames is hardly Sydney Harbour, but many of London's top sights line up along its curves. The London Eye, Palace of Westminster, Battersea Power Station and Tower of London are among them, and several cruise lines operate. But the London Clipper ferry services, operating six routes between 22 piers along the river, are the cheap way of doing it. See thamesclippers.com

It's safe

Despite extremely dubious far-right propaganda gaining remarkable traction overseas, there aren't any genuine no-go areas in London. By international standards, it's a remarkably safe city and while there is some crime, visitors generally don't have to take any precautions they wouldn't take in a big Australian city.

Oxford Street is hell

Pedestrians pass a Marks and Spencer Group Plc (M&S) store on Oxford Street in central London, U.K., on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Marks & Spencer is poised to drop out of the U.K.’s benchmark equity index for the first time when changes are formally announced later on Wednesday. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Oxford Street is now mostly chain stores. Photo: Bloomberg

Oxford Street might be London's best-known shopping street, but it really lacks personality and is usually far too crowded. While the department stores are worth a look, most are repeated all over the country, and everything else is chain stores. Camden, Portobello Road, Carnaby Street and the Kings Road have much more interesting options.

There's life beyond Zone 1

Sure, most of London's big attractions are within Zone 1 of the tube map, but many aren't – and are worth heading further afield for. These include the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Henry VIII's home at Hampton Court Palace, plus the sporting museums at the Twickenham rugby stadium and Wimbledon tennis club.

Greenwich is great

If picking one off-centre area to hang out in for the day, make it Greenwich, which is packed with interesting oddities. Budding seafarers will love the National Maritime Museum while posh-building lovers can wander around the Old Royal Naval College or the magnificently Palladian Queen's House. Best of all is the Royal Observatory, where you can stand straddling the eastern and western hemispheres across the Greenwich meridian.

You don't need Oyster cards

Passengers pass an advert for the night tube on a platform at Oxford Circus underground (tube) station, in London, Wednesday August 17, 2016. The London underground launches a 'Night Tube' service for the London mass transport system on Friday August 19. (Dominic Lipinski / PA via AP)

You no longer need an Oyster card to ride the tube. Photo: AP

The Oyster card was a great innovation at the time – a tap-in, tap-out system for accessing public transport that did away with the need to buy individual tickets and passes. You can still buy them, but the system's even smoother now – you can tap in and tap out with your credit or debit card instead.

The airports don't link

London's airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted and Luton – are a long way from each other, and act as if the others don't exist. Transport connections between them are abysmal, too, despite several airlines flying from more than one. Check connections very carefully to ensure you don't need an expensive nightmare dash across the city.

See also: The 10 London highlights most visitors miss

See also: The best things to do in London: Expert expat tips

Comments