So you’re coming to London!
Few cities can rival London’s place in popular culture today. The heart of the United Kingdom, this city has seen the rise and fall of empires, been home to countless of the kings and queens we read about as children, and boasts iconic sites in every corner, from Trafalgar Square to London Bridge to Big Ben to possibly the world’s most famous palace. A city so rich in history, scandal, style and luxury, London is a must-visit for any globetrotter roaming through Europe’s west.
As one of the world’s most visited cities, London is well set up for tourists and, other than cost, shouldn’t pose too many problems for the typical traveller. One thing that does catch people off guard, however, is the size. London is huge! And there’s a lot to see in every corner.
I’ve been to London numerous times and in this guide, I’ll be breaking the city down into manageable bite size pieces, so you’re not too overwhelmed when you finally touch down in the British capital. Where to stay, what to do, where to hang out – it’s all covered. Let’s go.
In This Guide
- Map of London
- Where to Stay in London
- Further Afield
- Getting Around London
- Getting a SIM Card in London
- London Safety
Map of London
This sprawling city of more than 1,500 square miles and nine million residents is multiple cities in one.
In the map above, I’ve outlined what I’d consider the six best areas to stay in London. We’ll break them down below, where I’ll suggest the best places to stay in each area and an idea of what to expect from each.
Where to Stay in London
The West End
If you want to be in the heart of London, then the West End is your spot. Encompassing Covent Garden, Soho, Leicester Square and Oxford Street, it is full of international shopping, tourist hot spots, and some of the city’s best bars and restaurants, all within in easy walking distance.
When you think of the West End, you think of theatre, and this area is home to some of London’s best West End theatres including the Lyceum Theatre, home of The Lion King, the Apollo Theatre, home of Wicked, and the Palace Theatre, which is sure to be showing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for years to come.
For shopping head to Oxford Street, where you will find all the major high street stores. You’ll need to venture down a few side streets for the more interesting boutiques and places to eat. Make sure to pop into London’s famous Selfridges department store, which offers ten acres of non stop shopping. If you happen to be visiting in winter, make sure you go at night to catch the Christmas lights!
For dinner and drinks, head to Covent Garden. Start at the cobbled piazza and 19th century market before moving on to the surrounding streets. You will find boutique shops, affordable but quality restaurants, and great places to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail. Try Barrafina for Spanish tapas where you can watch your food being cooked from your counter stool, or head to Dishoom for excellent Bombay style cuisine. For drinks try Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels for some excellent wine, or Blame Gloria, a former public toilet that now serves fantastic cocktails.
If you are looking for a livelier night scene, then you’ve also go Soho nearby. Cocktail bars, traditional British pubs and pumping nightclubs, it is the heart of London’s nightlife. For you gin fans, head to Soho Residence, which has its own speciality gin parlour. For cocktails and dancing, Club 49 is always a favourite. If you are keen to explore the gay scene, then make your way to G-A-Y, an experience whether you are there to meet people or just enjoy the ambience.
Other things to see in the West End
- See a film in one of London’s famous cinemas around Leicester Square, where all big London premieres take place.
- Live on the edge with a night of gambling at the Hippodrome Casino.
- Pop into the National Gallery to see some of the world’s best-known pieces dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
- Spend an afternoon in the London Transport Museum and learn how the city’s surprisingly good transport system developed.
- Visit the home-cum-museum of the famous architect Sir John Soane.
Stay in the West End if:
- You want to be based in the heart of busy London;
- You are interested in London’s bar and nightclub scene;
- Quality and interesting restaurants are high in your priority list.
Where to Stay in The West End
For the Backpackers – Strand Continental
Stay right in the heart of Theatreland on a budget in this hostel that offers both dorms and privates. It also has an authentic 1940s-style bar and its own Indian restaurant. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Covent Garden Hotel
Stay right in the middle of Covent Garden in stylish rooms with en-suite bathroom, flat-screen YV ad fully stocked mini-bar. Enjoy a glass of wine from their extensive cellar in the hotel’s stylish wood-panelled drawing room before venturing out. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – Claridge’s
If the name sounds familiar, that is because this is one of London’s most prestigious hotels. Each room boasts city views, marbled bathrooms and luxury furnishings. Gym, tea room, reading room, spa, juice bar – the whole shebang. This is the lavish London experience you’ve been looking for. Best rates here.
Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia
Only a short walk from London’s vibrant West End, Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia offer a quieter atmosphere, but with no lack of things to do. At the heart of the district is the famous British Museum, which contains so many treasures that you may need to visit several times, not to worry – entry is free! While you’re there, don’t miss some of the fantastic museums within University College of London including the delightfully kooky Grant Museum of Zoology and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
Walk the surrounding streets to find quiet cafes and bars, and some of the city’s best independent bookshops. Head to Treadwell’s Books or Atlantis Books to discover everything on the occult and paganism, plus regular programmes of interesting events.
From Bloomsbury it is only a short walk to King’s Cross, the huge central London station. From here it is easy to move your self to any place in the city, or further afield, with the excellent transport links.
Other things to see in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia
- Drop into the Wellcome Collection for displays of interesting science and medical collections.
- Grab lunch among the inspiration of the British Library, and check out their latest exhibition.
- In King’s Criss head straight for the Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9 ¾ for exclusive and quirky Potter products.
- Wander into Regent’s Park and soak up the greenery before returning to the city.
Stay in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia if
- You are looking for a quiet haunt within walking distance of the city centre;
- You plan on taking advantage of London’s thriving bookselling industry;
- If the British Museum is first on your list of must see sights.
Where to Stay in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia
For the Backpackers – Generator London
Located just a few metres from the British Museum and within walking distance of Kings Cross transport links, this trendy hostel offers dorms and privates for a budget stay. Free wifi and will equipped common areas give you everything you need. When it comes to value for money, Generator Hostels can’t be beat. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Holiday Inn London Bloomsbury
Bright airy rooms in a convenient location, this hotel offers everything you need from a hotel without the frills, and without the nasty price tag. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – Kimpton Fitzroy
Overlooking the British Museum, delivered inside a lush historic building, this is a delivery of pure modern luxury. All your standard high-end hotel comforts are here – minibar, luxury toiletries, onsite bar and restaurant, gym, wifi. Comes with a price tag, but worth every penny. Best rates here.
Southbank and Bankside
Southbank is the place to stay if you are interested in seeing London’s most famous sites. It is also a great place to stay with kids. Despite being busy, there is just so much to do. Start with the London Eye to get a sky view of the city, and then take this a step further with The Shard.
On the ground you will find some of London’s best sites. If you are interested in history, then Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, where many of the Bard’s plays were performed. It is now a history and education centre as well as a performing arts venue. Nearby you can wander around Tate Modern, another one of London’s many free galleries, which holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to today.
For something to keep the kids happy, head to the London Aquarium for turtles, penguins, jellyfish and sharks in the centre of the city (none of which are now living in the distinctively brown Thames). Follow this up with a trip to the London Dungeon, which is full of shows and rides showing the darker side of London.
You will also find some of London’s most important attractions just on the other side of the river. In South Bank you are just a bridge away from the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abby. In Bankside, you have easy access to the Tower of London.
For food,you can’t miss the world famous Borough Market, which offers both fresh produce, and a great range of street food venders. Try Bao Borough for Taiwanese Bao burgers, Bedales for wine, cold cuts and a great view over the market, and Gelateria 3Bis for some of the best ice-cream in the city. There’s also a range of great restaurants and pubs along the Southbank waterfront. Try Beany Green, which does Aussie brunch in the day time and Aussie wine at night, or Wahaca for fantastic Mexican.
Boats cruising the river offer a relaxing and easy way to hit up the city’s other sites. This includes nearby Greenwich and its many museums, including the Cutty Sark, a former world trading vessel which now serves as a museum ship.
Other things to see in Southbank and Bankside
- Catch a show at the Royal Festival Hall, a concert hall seating almost 3,000, or at the National Theatre, which hosts around 25 new shows each year.
- Head to the Imperial War Museum to understand the complex history of war, and the complex way that the British understand their imperial history.
- Go to The Undercroft, a skateboarding mecca for the last 40 years, and watch the skater boys, young and old, show off their moves.
- Take a look around Southwark Cathedral, believed to be the oldest cathedral in London.
Stay in Southbank and Bankside if
- You want easy access to all of London’s most important sites;
- You have a passion for street food;
- City views and architecture are your thing.
Where to Stay in Southbank and Bankside
For the Backpackers – The Walrus Bar and Hostel
Stylish but basic, this dorm accommodation offers a clean space to lay your head. For entertainment, head to the adjoining bar where you will be able to find fellow travellers looking for fun. Best rates here.
Affordable but luxurious rooms in an excellent location, the draw for many travellers is the hotel’s own Mediterranean restaurant and Circus bar offering wine and nibbles with a view. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – The LaLit London
Just a few minutes walk from Tower Bridge, this five star hotel is one of London’s hidden gems. Boutique luxury with an Indian charm, it’s the kind of place that adds that extra bit of special to your trip. Rarely disappoints. Best rates here.
Kensington and Chelsea
For a peak into the existence of London’s wealthiest, this is the place to lay your head. Made famous by the likes of Made in Chelsea, this area is full of posh restaurants and bars, and also some of London’s finest museums.
Here you’ll find the Victoria and Albert Museum, which shows all kinds of decorative arts from around the world, and hosts a compelling exhibition programme including fashions shows for Kylie, Beyonce, David Bowie and Alexander McQueen. Nearby is the Natural History Museum, an amusement park for children, and the Science Museum. All these museums are free to enter, though be prepared to be hounded for a hefty donation.
To rub shoulders with London’s elite, start with a trip to some of the city’s most exclusive department stores, including Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Just browsing can be an experience, and they are a great place to stop for a place to eat. Of course, there is no shortage of fine dining in the area. Head to Launceston Place, a favourite of the late Princess Diana, for traditional English food. For something more adventurous head to Claude Bosi at Bidendum, a two Michelin star restaurant. Try the dinner tasting menu for a little over £100 per person.
For a night out, start with a premium cocktail at Juju, situated very close to the famous Raffles nightclub, and a great place for pre-drinks. If you’ve done Raffles and are looking for something new, head to Hyde, just across from Kensington Palace, for a few sophisticated cocktails and some classic R&B. If it is a posh Chelsea pub you’re after, try the Hollywood Arms for some minor celebrity spotting.
Other things to see in Kensington and Chelsea
- Check out the Leighton House Museum, which is home to some truly spectacular Middle Eastern and North African art.
- The Design Museum shows the history of some of the world’s most interesting inventions.
- Take a quick look around Olympia London, an impressive exhibition centre more than 100 years old.
- Swing by the Royal Albert Hall, one of the city’s most iconic venues, and catch a show if you can.
Stay in Kensington and Chelsea if
- You are interested in the life of London’s elite;
- High-end shopping is on your to-do list;
- You’re looking to hit some quality museums.
Where to Stay in Kensington and Chelsea
For the Backpackers – Saint James Backpackers
A family-run hostel near Earl’s Court, it offers both dorms and privates in a trendy package with good wifi and friendly communal spaces. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Amsterdam Hotel
Also located near Earl’s Court, this is a solid no-frills hotel for a decent price. Start the day with a good continental breakfast, and get a good night’s sleep in a basic but comfortable room. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – The Berkeley
Located in Knightsbridge and a short walk from the famous Harrods, the Berkeley has been a landmark London hotel for over 100 years. Home to an onsite 2 Michelin star restaurant, rooms with Italian marbled floors and one of the best locations in the city, there is probably no better place to stay than here. Enjoy London like you own it. Best rates here.
If you are looking for a grittier, local London vibe, then consider staying in Camden, a trendy but authentic borough of the city. It is the birthplace of British rock, and it is still at the centre of London’s booming independent music scene.
Pass a day exploring Camden Market, which is full of alternative fashion and music options. Nearby Stables Market is the place to visit for vintage clothing and other items. There are more than one thousand shops, plus lots of cafes and bars for watching the cool North London crowds.
Camden is also famous for its lock, where you can watch the long boats pass by throughout the day. While there, grab an ice-cream at Chin Chin Labs, where they will make “nitro ice-cream” in front of your eyes. You can also jump on a boat yourself and cruise past the local celebrity houses.
Camden is perfect for those scoping out the music scene. Head to some of the most famous venues, such as Koko or the Roundhouse for well-established bands. To discover new talent, you’ll find talented bands playing at the Dublin Castle or the Lock Tavern most days of the week. If jazz is your thing, then head to the Jazz Café, which offers live music every night of the week and has hosted big names such as Bobby Womack and Amy Winehouse.
If you are looking for something a bit more “touristy” or child-friendly, then this is also where you will find London Zoo. One of the world’s oldest zoos, it is home to over 700 different species of animals. Pass the day, or spend the night in the “Lion Lodge”.
Other things to see in Camden Town
- Explore the Jewish Museum to discover the history of British Jews.
- You will find one of Banksy’s most famous artworks here on the banks of the river.
- Head into Primrose Hill for more laid-back bars and restaurants.
- Check out Ambedkar House, the historic residence of the famous Indian architect when he was in London.
Stay in Camden Town if
- You are fascinated by the London music scene;
- You are looking for trendier, grittier London;
- You want the chance to rub shoulders with some of London’s more interesting celebrities, and more hipsterish residents.
Where to Stay in Camden Town
For the Backpackers – Smart Camden Inn Hostel
Part of the Smart Hostel chain, stay just 500 metres from Camden Market in the centre of the pub district. Offering dorm accommodation only, it has no curfew and a 24 hour front desk. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – The Pack and Carriage
This hotel offers comfortable rooms within a friendly atmosphere with bar and shared lounge. It also offers free wifi and family rooms for those travelling with kids. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – Megaro Hotel
Not overly lavish, but the Megaro is still one of the finest hotels in the area. Overlooking San Pancras station, you’ll find all the comforts of a four star hotel here – rainfall showers, inhouse restaurant and bar – in a great location, for a great price. Best rates here.
London’s East End was known as a Victorian slum where Jack the Ripper plied his trade. It’s now a lively area of the city full of young people and lively immigrant communities. Like Camden, it is a great place to stay if you are interested in London life, but it still has its fair share of must-see tourist sites.
At the heart of East London are its many markets. There has been a market on the site of Spitalfields Market for more than 350 years, and it’s still one of the best places in London to discover new talent, whether that be artists or cooks. Brick Lane Market offers a mix of trendy stores and delicious street food. Broadway Market is also worth visiting, with more than 100 shops selling fresh produce, vintage clothes and used books. Also head to Columbia Road Flower Market on a Sunday morning to blow your sense with colours and scents.
The East End also has some of London’s best ethnic restaurants. Start at Berber & Q, a Middle Eastern and North African grill house in Haggerston, or go to the Smoking Goat, which serves dishes inspired by the canteens of Bangkok.
For a bit more breathing space head to Victoria Park, also known as the People’s Park, which is home to many festivals, but is also a great way to get some fresh air in the afternoons. Spitalfields City Farm offers another rural escape in the centre of the city. Visit the animals and grab some fresh produce at the farm shop.
This is where you will find the Museum of London Docklands, which is dedicated to the history of the Thames and its port community, tracing it from Roman times. The Geffrye Museum is also here, tucked inside an eighteenth century almshouse, it recreates typical middle class living from the 1600s to the present, exploring the domestic history of the city. Also, not to be missed is the V&A Museum of Childhood, which will transport you back to your own childhood as you discover the world’s largest collection of toys, games and costumes.
Nights out in the East End are definitely for adults. Shoreditch is one of the most popular nights out in the city. To start, check out Satan’s Whiskers, an understated bar with an over the top cocktail menu that changes daily. When you are ready to increase the intensity, make your way to the Old Blue Last or Cargo. If you are still a big kid on the inside, then head to Ballie Ballerson, an underground club with a giant glowing ball pit.
Other things to see in East End
- Take a ride on the Emirates Air Line, a cable car that passes between Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks. It is a great way to see the city from above.
- Dennis Severs House takes you through the life of an eighteenth century silk weaver’s family life. It feels as though they have literally just left the dining table.
- Walthamstow Wetlands covers more than 200 hectares and mixes interesting wildlife with some old industrial relics.
Stay in East End if
- You love exploring markets;
- International food ticks your boxes;
- You are looking for a memorable night out.
Where to Stay in East End
For the Backpackers – Wombat’s CITY Hostel
Offering dorm accommodation at a good rate, you will also find a relaxing terrace, well stocked bar, 24-hour front desk and free wifi. Best rates here.
For the Budget Traveller – Brick Lane Hotel
Stay just three minutes away from Brick Lane Market in this comfortable but affordable hotel. There is no restaurant or bar onsite, but there is no shortage of great options on your doorstep. Best rates here.
For the Luxurious Types – Leonardo Royal London City
Enjoy the best of the east end in this four-star hotel with its own spa, swimming pool, two onsite restaurants and a snazzy cocktail bar. You don’t even need to venture out if you don’t want to, but when you do, everything will be just a short walk away. Superb choice for a cosy stay. Best rates here.
The United Kingdom is a small island, which means that many of its other interesting sites are within easy distance of London, and the country’s train network means that they are easy to reach. While the list is very long, here are four must see locations you might consider.
One of the few major sites not on the train line, you will probably need to join a tour group or rent a car to get easy access Stonehenge. A full day trip might also include Bath and Windsor Castle on the itinerary. It takes about two and a half hours to get to this iconic and ancient stone circle.
The ancient and famous university is worth visiting as it is like an open-air museum. Established about a thousand years ago, it features architecture from every period in between, expertly preserved. The city maintains many traditions, and you will see students wandering the streets in their college gowns. The city is also home to world class museums including the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first public museum. The city is about an hour away from central London on the train.
Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio
Any Harry Potter fan won’t need much convincing to add the Studio where much of the magic happened to their itinerary. A tour around the studio will tell you everything you need to know about the making of the films. Sit in the Great Hall, walk down Diagon Alley and get lost in the Forbidden Forest. Tickets do need to be bought in advance. In the very outskirts of London, it takes a little over an hour to get there, by car or public transport.
While the UK might not be known for its beaches, Brighton is a beautiful place to visit. Idyllic pebble beaches and streets and streets of trendy cafes, bars and shops. This beach town is no tourist trap, but a trendy local city. A train from central London will cover the 65 miles in about an hour and a half.
Getting Around London
London is one of the most travel friendly cities in the world, though it is not always cheap! When it comes to navigating the city itself, use the London Underground, also known as the Tube. Maps are ubiquitous and pretty easy to read, and it will leave you within easy walking distance of almost anywhere you want to go. You will need to buy an Oyster card to pass into the Underground, and tap on and off buses if you choose to use them, but it is much cheaper than buying multiple day passes.
If you are going further afield, like to the airport, you can get trains to almost anywhere from one of London’s central hub rail stations. Definitely get the train when going to or from the airport. Airport shuttles are rare, taxis are prohibitively expensive, and the train is generally fast and reliable.
If you are travelling around late at night, there are no shortage of taxis on the street – hail a black cab anywhere. You will find London taxi drivers professional, and they know exactly where they are going. It is also a highly regulated service, so while it isn’t cheap, you should be safe.
Getting a SIM Card in London
It is easy to pick up a pre-paid SIM at a pretty good rate. For about £20 you should be able to get 10GB of data, enough to last your trip.
The main mobile providers in the UK are Vodafone, O2, Three (3), EE Mobile and Virgin. They all offer good prepaid rates, coverage throughout the city is good, and you should be up and running in a few minutes with just your passport. They have outlets at all the major airports and train stations, and staff will set you up (no need to figure it out on your own).
If you are travelling with family, it might be worth considering renting a portable WiFi device, so that you can get everyone online with a single account. On a basic deal you can generally connect up to five devices at the time with unlimited internet access.
Safety in London
Despite its large size and international status, London is a pretty safe city. Look out for the usual pickpockets and scammers at the major tourist destinations, violent crimes and even harassment is pretty rare. Traveller’s may be preoccupied with the high terrorist threat level for the UK. While it is a fact of life in the UK, it is well policed for exactly this reason. Bear this in mind as you are poked, prodded and scrutinised at border security.
All of central London is relatively safe, even at night, though use common sense and stick to the main streets and don’t go wandering into deserted parts of the city by yourself. London is a 24-hour city, so there are always people out and about. You should have no problem identifying the well-lit, well-trodden, safer streets for visitors.