Ultimate Checklist of London for First Timers
Visiting a big city is overwhelming enough as it is, especially if it is your first time there. Of course you want to accomplish everything, but a couple of days, a week, even two weeks in some cases, does not seem like enough time to do what your wandering heart desires. If this happens to be your current destination here is a checklist of what you NEED to do when in London Town.
- Visitor Oyster card - Transport for London
Using a Visitor Oyster card in London
Take the Underground
If you somehow manage to get off with not taking the Tube at least a time or two, you are doing it all wrong. Whether it is the vastly underrated Underground performers, the hustle and bustle of making it from the platform onto the train before the doors slam shut, the money it saves (versus a taxi) while exploring the city, or the overwhelming feeling that you need a shower after a long day of Undergrounding it from station to station; the Tube is an experience and I would suggest it to the masses.
Being from a tiny town (we don't even have a public buses) I realize that the prospect can be daunting. A simple Google search can tell you the proper line with your proper stop, and boom. Problem solved. I'm sure you've all figured out that life hack already, though.
I picked up an Oyster Card while I was in London. If you're planning on spending a lot of time traveling on the tube, this is the easiest way to keep up with your money. Instead of trying to keep up with different tickets and when to purchase them and what zones you need to have access to, just have one of these things. You can top up at any cash point that you would normally buy a train/tube ticket from.
If you don't return from London possessing a selfie with Big Ben looming somewhere in the background then why did you even go? 'Scholars' will never cease to take the opportunity to remind you that Big Ben is the bell in the tower, not the tower itself, but that is not the point. The point is that you went to London and you took an iconic picture and it was free, and free is always a good thing.
Take the Jubilee line to St. John's Wood and follow the crowd. This is another one of those iconic (and free) things that you must do. After I returned from London the first time I was asked so many times if I "had done the Beatles thing across the road." I hadn't, so it was a must the second time around. I was alone (and I'm not much for selfies) so I didn't get the iconic zebra crossing picture, but ya know, can't win 'em all.
There is a gift shop, of course, with a ton of The Beatles paraphernalia to splurge on, it is located just down the street from Abbey Road Studios - that place where The Beatles accomplished some of their things! This is one location that a selfie stick would certainly come in handy, if you're not ashamed to have one in tow. Just keep in mind that this is an actual road and just because pedestrians have the right-of-way doesn't necessarily mean they will always get the right-of-way!
While this one isn't free, you can save a bit of money if you buy in advance or even present a valid train ticket at the time of purchase. This one can take up several hours of your day and is a pretty awesome way to help beat that summer heat if necessary. Besides the obvious, the hundreds of wax figures, there is a cinematic portion and even a dungeon/torture chamber aspect. There is a little bit of something for everyone!
My littlest brother told me I was "the bomb" for getting a picture with Morgan Freeman. What he doesn't know won't hurt him, right?
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Technically, this one is a freebie too, if you don't count the public transportation fare or the money you will undoubtedly spend while there. The first time I visited Camden to say I was intimidated would be an understatement. After about 7 the atmosphere does a complete 180; it is the most lively, diverse place I've been to in London. You cannot walk more than a block without seeing some street performer singing, dancing nearly nude, bestowing good karma on passersby while burning incense and writing cryptic, yet encouraging messages on the sidewalk with chalk, or something else. Seriously. Then there is the market, the zoo, all the bars and restaurants, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
See a Show in the West End
This is certainly the most expensive thing on this list, but it is something worth splurging on. When in Rome, right? This is one of those things you get all decked out for, fancy garb, fancy beverages, the works. The nightlife in the West End is electric, Piccadilly Circus has been described as London's Time Square. If it's the classier crowd in London that you crave, this is where you want to head!
I'm a self professed Roald Dahl enthusiast, so I have seen a few of his books brought to life on the stage.
Another one of those free, "since we're here," things. At some point you will probably be at King's Cross for any number of reasons, or you will pass St. Pancras underground station, and this is where you need to get off. Not only is the architecture lovely, renovated in recent years I believe, but it's the "Harry Potter train station"!!!!
Everyone knows of Platform 9 and 3/4 at this point, and now you can pay to wait in line for hours and have your picture taken with a half-in-the-wall trolley! Or you can just stand a distance away and take a picture with the queue and trolley in the background. You can pop in to the Harry Potter gift shop and get yourself some nick-knacky souvenirs to satisfy your wizarding needs.
This one isn't something everyone will be into, clearly, but this is a must for Harry Potter fans abroad.
London Dungeon & London Eye
A lot of the London attractions can be bundled to save you a little money. Both of the previously mentioned attractions are great in their own respects. Technically called the "Coca Cola London Eye," this gives a birds eye view of the heart of London, a unique perspective for sure.
London Dungeon seems to be routinely reviewed as an attraction for the 'younger crowd,' but my 20 year old self thoroughly enjoyed it. The premise of this establishment is to be led through "London's gory past," in chronological order. Starting with Guy Fawkes and his attempt to overthrow parliament then touching on the Black Plague, Jack the Ripper, and many other historical events, this one definitely satisfied the history nerd in me. The actors were interactive and engaging, but it isn't for everyone, according to the reviews.
(See link under Madam Tussaud's for ticket prices and bundling)
This is one of those "been there, done that" things. Expect massive crowds and hoards of tourists flocking from street corner to street corner to get the best view possible, but you are one of those tourists so it's okay! The Changing of the Guards happens daily during the summer, around 11:30am. Ceremoniously, this shows the change in power from the Old Guard to the New Guard, passing off the responsibility to guard Buckingham. To a lot of people this is quintessential London and more or less a bucket list activity, so I would suggest it, even if you only pop in for a few minutes to catch a snippet of the action.
What would you suggest to a first timer to London?