I was lucky enough to live and work in London a few years ago, and I loved the place so much that I’m still a regular visitor to the city for both work and pleasure. Even though I now live back in Scotland, I’m always asked for advice on what to do and where to go when friends and family are visiting London for the first time.
I forget how daunting it can be when you’re a first time visitor in London – everything is different and there are more people living in the UK’s capital city than currently reside in the whole of Scotland. 7 million and rising! And people wonder why the tubes are packed…
Anyway, having been asked the question again, I thought it was easier if I just created a blog post with all my tips and hints for making your first experience of London an enjoyable, hassle-free one. Some of the tips are specific to Scots/Glaswegians landing in London for the first time but there are some general rules that apply to tourists visiting London from anywhere in the world…
1. Choose Your Transport Wisely
This one’s a bit confusing if you are used to one main airport and train station. So you leave from Glasgow Airport or Central Station, but where do you head to?
The train is easy enough as Glasgow trains end up in Euston or King’s Cross station, both in north/central London and much of a muchness. Go for the cheapest service with the least amount of changes and you’re on to a winner, as some Virgin and East Coast services only take 4 hours and 30 minutes.
Don’t even think about the dreaded mega bus – you have seen Trainspotting right?! Having endured this once a few years ago when I missed a flight, I’d say the depiction is pretty accurate. But if you insist… don’t forget the cairds! You might be safer having a pastime that doesn’t involve making eye contact with the general public on this vomit-inducing journey.
Too many airports to choose from is a headache though so think about where you’re travelling to once you get to the airport, as that can be a deciding factor. Along with price of course – Heathrow, served only by BA from Glasgow, is generally more expensive to fly to due to faster links into London from the airport (15 minutes to Paddington on the Heathrow Express).
In order of my personal preference, here’s your airport options:
Easily the best option – you can fly BA and get be in central London 15 minutes after landing on the Heathrow Express to Paddington. Usually worth spending a bit extra for convenience, but especially so if you’re staying in west London. If time’s not an issue you can save some money by travelling on the less expensive Heathrow Connect service, 30 minutes to Paddington.
If you have to go budget airline then Stansted is generally a better experience than the other airports. The Stansted express takes 45 minutes but drops you in Liverpool Street station, east London, ideal for connecting with most of the main underground lines. Another handy tip for anyone staying in north London is that the national express bus will get you to Golder’s Green and Finchley Road in under an hour for around a tenner. Although the bus travels on to Victoria station, I wouldn’t recommend staying on to sit in central London traffic jams.
Not my favourite airport in the world due to the confusing north/south terminal setup but you do sometimes get decent BA flights here. As it’s south of London it does feel like you’re on a longer flight and the Gatwick ‘Express’ (listed as taking 30 minutes into Victoria but I’ve yet to be on a service that’s actually got me there in that time!) is nowhere near as good, fast or reliable as the Heathrow or Stansted options.
Better if you’re staying east but has the added bonus of some BA flights departing and arriving here. A short trip on the DLR will hook you up to the main tube lines so you can continue on your journey to wherever your hotel is. I’ve only ever flown into this airport so not sure what the duty free options are like, but it is a smaller airport (think Prestwick v Glasgow) so you take your chance on this one.
Just avoid. Seriously, you would be as well considering alternative dates if this is your only airport option.
2. Choose Your Hotel Even More Wisely
If you’re setting up base camp in a central London hotel room then you do need to do your research. London hotels are like nowhere else on the planet I’ve decided. Do a quick search and you’ll find reasonably-priced 4 star hotels in Covent Garden that look grand… until you discover they’re 4 star dormitories you’ll be sharing with 12 other people, sleeping in bunk beds and using a shared bathroom. Even Travelodges in this town don’t come in cheap so it’s worth doing the ground work before parting with your pennies.
Besides decent TripAdvisor reviews and comparison site promotions, it’s always key to check the hotel on a map and see how close it actually is to a tube station. You will rely on the tube to get around so if it’s more than a few streets away and you don’t know the area, it’s probably not worth the 10% off promo code you’re about to type in.
As a general rule the areas surrounding Hyde Park are popular with overseas tourists, so make sure your hotel isn’t likely to be overrun with backpackers and school trips. Avoid smaller B&Bs and independent guest houses in this area and stick to larger, established hotel chains for a better night’s sleep.
And unless you’re visiting London for a specific venue/event outside Zone 2 (e.g. Wembley or Wimbledon), it’s best to keep your search to this area for convenience and travel costs when moving around the city.
3. Download a Tube Map
Even a seasoned Londoner will check the tube map if they’re travelling a route they don’t take often, just to make sure they’re taking the quickest route and avoiding any station closures.
The best place to get on is the Transport for London website – I keep one bookmarked for when I visit. It pays off to plan your journey before you get inside the tube station so you avoid clogging up the area in front of the in-station maps (Londoners hate this and will knock you out of the way if you’re obstructing their commute).
4. Buy an Oyster Card
Quite possibly the greatest invention for public transport, the Oyster Card beats Scotfail’s overly-complex and overpriced Zone Card every time. Order a preloaded card in advance of your trip from the Oyster Card website or pay for one when you arrive at most tube stations – either way, it costs £3 to activate and you can top up the balance as and when you need it.
The great news is that in 2015 the capped rate for Zone 1-2 travel is £6.40, so you can travel as many times as you like on the bus, tube or DLR in these zones and never pay more than this fare in one day.
5. Mind The Gap
On the platform, on the escalators and even on the overcrowded things themselves… London tube-hopping is all about paying attention to the gaps.
Tube etiquette is something quite incomparable to how you travel on the good ol’ Glasgow subway, fondly known as the Clockwork Orange (because of its colour, not through any reference to the Stanley Kubrick film… although I’m sure there are times when it’s just as anarchic).
Here’s some hints for travelling on the tube:
Stand To The Right, Walk To The Left
As a rule this is the best way to avoid the wrath of frantic commuters during rush hour. If you’re travelling with a suitcase, bear in mind that most tube stations don’t have the luxury of a lift for passengers so if you do have to haul one up the escalators with you, it needs to go either in front or behind you. Not to the left of you – that’s for walking, remember?
Don’t Make Eye Contact
It’s classed as suspicious behaviour. Smiling is even worse. And if you’re thinking of starting a conversation, be aware that you’re likely to be met with a swift safety barrier, otherwise known as a newspaper, between you and your potential travel buddy.
Snap Up A Seat
Normal manners don’t really apply when it comes to nabbing a seat on a packed tube. In other words, don’t rely on gender, age or imminent childbirth to guarantee yourself a comfy spot when you travel so get in there first of you see one. Very rarely will someone offer you a seat, even if you’re struggling to balance as you stand in the aisle wearing 5 inch heels. More fool you, should’ve worn flats. Yes, there are some rare displays of manners and chivalry at times, which are to be welcomed. But don’t expect it.
Avoid Rush Hour
If you really want to travel with a gap of more than a centimetre between you and your fellow passengers then avoid the hours of 7.30am-9am and 4.30pm-6pm Monday-Friday. It will still be busy outwith these hours but slightly less uncomfortable. If for some reason you do need to travel during rush hour, the central and northern lines are probably the worst so look for an alternative route if nose-to-nose travelling makes you queasy.
6. Leave Your Winter Coat At Home
This one always amazes me, when Londoners complain about the weather. Hello, have you tried walking to work in the west of Scotland when it’s blowing a gale and the rain is lashing you horizontally? No, you haven’t.
Granted, it can be rainy in London so do pack and umbrella, but as for the eskimo-like coat and scarf combo you’ve packed? Not required, even if it’s snowing.
The reason for this is simple – you’ll be spending most of your time travelling about on the tube, which is underground and naturally warmer anyway. Add on top of that the body heat of at least twenty other people in the carriage beside you and you’ll end up overheating, which is never a good look.
Even if you do have to walk anywhere, it is only ever five minutes before you reach the safety of a warm tube station so where’s the need?
7. Speak Slowly
Glaswegians are always accused of talking at a hundred miles an hour anyway but the further south you go, the harder it seems to become for people to understand your accent. Never mind that we’re expected to know what they’re saying at all times (you’ve watched Eastenders right?), you may as well be speaking Martian if you talk at your usual pace.
The first time I visited London I headed for Oxford Street looking for Selfridges. I should’ve got off at Bond Street, but didn’t realise this, so asked a member of staff in Boots how far away the famous department store was. Her response? A screwed up face followed by a very confused ‘Sorry love we don’t sell fridges, you’d need to try John Lewis or some fink’. The conversation went on like this for another few minutes until I wrote it down for her on my receipt and she realised what I was saying! Sometimes you do have to spell things out.
And I’m not just digging at Londoners here. In my experience 9/10 staff working in the service industry in London are not of British descent, which is fine, but they really don’t understand your Glaswegian take on the English language.
If you don’t slow it down, be prepared to deal with blank looks, requests for sentence repeats and the dreaded ‘Could you say that again in English please?’. Not even joking.
8. Take Scottish Bank Notes At Your Own Risk
Yes I know it’s legal tender and believe me I have argued this point many times. To be fair, this one is sometimes not an issue, but if it is then be prepared to get very angry.
As I’ve just said, the majority of service industry staff are not British anyway, so you do have to give them some sort of leeway if they’ve never come across a Scottish note.
But I’ve been told all sorts of nonsense before, including a member of staff in a branch of Savers (national retailer) in Ealing telling me that the bank no longer accepted them! She was very British and very English, so probably no excuse here other than being extremely confused by banks no longer accepting Scottish pound notes rather than not accepting any sort of Scottish notes at all. No point explaining what Sterling is either, this is a lost cause.
9. Take Advantage of Happy Hours
The good old SNP and their increased ‘protecting us from alcohol’ laws have practically wiped out this sort of promotion in Scotland so do make the most of it when you’re in London. A lot of bars in central London, especially in tourist hotspots, do happy hours between 5pm-8pm, so you can get 2 for 1 drinks and the like.
Like most things in London, including taxi fares and rental properties, alcohol does tend to be more expensive no matter where you drink so it pays off to make the most of happy hour.
10. Visit A Market
Yes we’ve got the Barras and that’s a unique experience in itself! But London markets are well worth a visit, no matter what you’re looking for when you go shopping. I’m probably not listing all the markets in the city but these are the ones I’ve visited and would recommend.
My favourite part of London holds the capital’s most visited market. Although some of its charm has been lost in recent years, with an influx of cheap stalls selling mobile phone cases and tourist tat, you can still find some of the more Camdenesque goods here that made the market a destination for alternative shoppers.
The Stables Market still houses some proper vintage stores selling everything from Pucci scarves to vinyl records and even the odd bong or two. It tends to get busier on a Sunday, with Camden Town tube station exit only in the afternoon, so try and pop along on another day if crowds don’t appeal. Situated on Camden Lock, next to a varied collection of bars and shops, it’s ideal for soaking up the edgier side of north London.
The famous row of pastel townhouses featured in Notting Hill really does exist and it’s just as pretty in real life. So movie stars don’t fall in love with bookshop owners every day in these parts, but the area is just as charming nonetheless. Perfect if you love looking at antiques and vintage bags, clothing and jewellery, with the odd cupcake and coffee stop.
Welcome to east London, Victorian style. The large covered market is an eclectic mix of independent fashion, beauty, art and food stalls, with a history that’s hundreds of years old. Open seven days but busiest on a Sunday, there are different markets running depending on which day you visit. Get here via Liverpool Street or Aldgate East tube stations.
Brick Lane Market
Only visit this one if you’re a true retro lover or fashion obsessive. That’s not a dig at this place but if Shoreditch hipsters annoy you then steer well clear at the weekends, when the markets sprawl over the streets here, packed with designer moustached men and budding fashion bloggers on vintage bikes. Lots of arty stuff happens in The Old Truman Brewery but there’s as much junk flying around this place as there is proper unique finds, so make sure you know your bargains from your bric-a-brac.
One for the foodies, this market is bustling with traders selling every food produce you can think of. Situated in Southwark, it’s right next to London Bridge station so easy to find if you’re that way inclined. You might not think market stalls selling food and flowers would be exciting but trust me you’ll easily fritter a few hours away filling your shopping basket with things you’ll never find in your local Tesco superstore.
11. Go on An Open Top Bus Tour
I’ve done this six times, once at night, and it never, ever gets boring. By far the best way to see all of London’s iconic buildings up close, the London bus tours are great value for money as your ticket is hop on/hop off and usually valid for 24/48 hours.
With the exception of Buckingham Palace, where you’d be best to get off the tube at Green Park and walk up to the grounds to wave to The Queen, this is the way to do it. You’ll see the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Marble Arch and the Tower of London with plenty of photo opportunities. Plus it also takes you down to Knightsbridge if you want to visit the iconic department store, Harrods.
12. Shop the Department Stores
Speaking of which… this is the best way to do some serious shopping in London. I’m not talking about going to Debenhams, John Lewis and House of Fraser – we’ve got great branches of these in Glasgow. But the original Selfridges store on Oxford Street is worth a visit for the window displays alone or head down Argyll Street, off Oxford Circus, to see the monochrome magnificence of Liberty. For a truly Ab Fab fashion trip head to Knightsbridge where you could easily spend an entire day getting lost travelling up and down Harrods’ Egyptian escalators or bankrupt yourself in Harvey Nichols.
13. Enjoy A Bit Of Parklife
Not in the Damon Albarn meets Phil Daniels sense, though for any Britpop fan that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. London has a reputation for being a cold, grey city, and sometimes it is, but there’s a surprising amount of greenery in some parts.
I’m a north London girl myself, having been lucky enough to live in St John’s Wood, which is close to two of London’s most famous and beautiful parks, Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. The latter is perfect for enjoying views over the city and sunbathing on a hot day, with the odd celeb spot entirely possible.
Hampstead Heath is a bit further north if you’re only visiting for the weekend and staying more central, but I’d also say this is one of my favourite areas in London too so have to recommend it!
Hyde Park is also fab on a summer’s day with the picturesque Serpentine gallery area probably my favourite place to park and look out onto the swan-filled lake. And Kensington Gardens surrounding Kate and Wills’ home, Kensington Palace, is another quieter part of London, great for an evening walk away from the busier parts of the city.
14. Be a Culture Vulture
Museums aren’t going to take everyone’s fancy however if you do like a bit of art or fashion then take advantage of some of the exhibitions on display around London. The V&A in South Kensington always has some fashion-related display and art lovers will appreciate a trip to the Southbank for the Tate Modern. There are hundreds of museums to choose from and some are free to visit so have a look at what’s on before you arrive.
15. Stay Safe!
I say this as someone who has had their purse stolen twice in Camden and a credit card cloned once in a bar in east London. And yes I’ve heard all the stuff about Glasgow being the most violent city in Europe and tourists being terrified of the place yadda yadda, but London can be a scary place at times for different reasons. Crime is everywhere, from crackheads outside tube stations to pickpockets actively working inside tube stations. A thief loves nothing more than opportunity and a tourist is an opportunity.
– Always keep your bag zipped shut, and hold it in front of you as you’re going up and down escalators in tube stations
– Check for people watching over your shoulder as you enter your pin number at card machines in bars and cash machines on the high street
– If you’re heading out at night after the last tube time, make sure you know your night bus route home
– Taxis are a safe option but never hail a mini cab off the street, always use a registered black Hackney or store a legitimate taxi number in your phone to call and book when required
– There’s safety in numbers so if you do get lost for whatever reason don’t wander off the beaten track, stick to busy areas like Trafalgar Square where it’s busy at any time of day or night and plenty of night buses to get you home safely