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Things to Do in London: A First Timer’s Guide

Visit Big Ben - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Big Ben! That is the Big Ben, right? It was the first time Jon and I were in London and I was so excited to be in a new place. This was it. We were finally in a new continent, Europe. Welcome to the western world!

It was my first time in London and coming from Asia, I was ecstatic to be in a place where “white people” lived in. Well, not exactly white. It was quite a surprise that London is more diverse than I thought it would be. Maybe I could easily fit in in this city. Well, not really. I still have to work on my fake British accent.

City Sightseeing -Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Having heard so much about London and having seen it many times on TV, it was so strange to finally be there. It was a completely different scene for me. Even in the grey, cold autumn weather, it was something special.

At first sight of the centre of London, I was instantly captivated by its unique charm. The historical buildings from different generations line up one after another. It’s interesting to see how the structures have been maintained to fit the changing times. I was like a kid curious of every side street and ecstatic with the sight of tourist spots I have only seen in photos before.

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Things to Do in London

London has quite an impressive number of tourist attractions but since we were only there for a few days, we knew we had to skip a few and choose the best attractions for our first time in the city. There are free walking tours which can be interesting to do. Another great way to see the city is by renting bicycles. In the end, we opted to navigate our way through London using the ever reliable metro, the “London tube” and of course, a whole lot of walking. Here are some of the things we did during our first trip to London:

See the Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower

The famous clock tower, which has been one of London’s iconic landmarks is commonly referred to as Big Ben. However, the name Big Ben actually refers to the great bell housed in this clock tower and the correct name for the tower situated at the Houses of Parliament is Elizabeth Tower, in honor of Queen Elizabeth. Interesting, isn’t it?

Visit Big Ben - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Gaze at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is one of the more impressive buildings we saw during our walk around the city centre. We didn’t get to have a look inside since it seemed to be closed when we were there but I am more than happy just to see the beautiful exterior of the building. If you have the time, the entrance fee for Westminster Abbey is £18.

Ride the London Eye

London Eye is just across the river from the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We weren’t that keen to get a ride so we skipped it. The standard ticket to this viewing wheel is £18.85.

Visit the Buckingham Palace

The Buckingham Palace, the residence of the queen is the least of my favourite among the famous buildings in London since it just didn’t meet my expectations. I thought it would be grander than it is for a residence to royalty.  The Entrance Fee is £9.75 for a tour of the Buckingham Palace. Also, if your timing is right, you can also witness the changing of the guards.

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Buckingham-Palace - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Walk along Trafalgar Square

Buskers. Apart from the beautiful sculptures that reside in this square. People performing different stunts can be found in this area of London. It’s pretty entertaining.

Visit the Tower of London

During the time when we were in London, we got to see the display of thousands of ceramic poppies. This art dubbed “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” is part of the Tower of London’s memorial for the British fatalities during the First World War. It was really an amazing sight! It was quite unfortunate that we didn’t have time to go inside. The entrance to the Tower of London is £22, which includes access to the Tower and the Crown Jewels display, as well as various exhibitions. Not bad for the price but it can take up most of the day to tour the place.

Tower of London - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

See the Bridges at River Thames: London Bridge and Tower Bridge

Apart from the famous name, the London Bridge is nothing special. However, it’s worth a look considering it’s the oldest among the bridges in that area. The more appealing structure, the Tower Bridge, is situated close to the Tower of London. Its Victorian Gothic design is unique in comparison to other bridges I have seen in Europe. I was really impressed!

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Tower Bridge - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Spend a Few Hours at the London Museums

Entrance to most of the museums in London are free. Yeah, free! It’s really amazing! I hope more countries would do the same for their museums. We went to two museums during our visit to London, the British Museum and Natural History Museum. The British Museum had an admirable collection of artifacts from Greece, Egypt and many other countries. The most notable piece is the Rosetta Stone. The remnants of the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum were certainly worth our visit. The most popular of which is the most complete stegosaurus skeleton! Be prepared to share the museums with a crowd, though.

London Museum - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Stroll around Greenwich  

At the Southern part of London is the World Heritage Site, Greenwich. We spent around half a day to explore the place. We went to the Royal Observatory Greenwich where the world’s Prime Meridian (Longitude 0°) and Greenwich Mean Time are found. We also had a brief look around the Old Royal Naval College, National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House. There is also a recent attraction in Greenwich, UK’s first urban cable car, the Emirates Air Line. We didn’t get the chance to take a ride but it does sound interesting.

Greenwich - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Have a Photo Taken at Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station

Platform 9 ¾! The famous gateway to the Hogwarts Express of Harry Potter is available to the public at the King’s Cross Station. It’s not an actual platform itself, although I heard it was the case in the past. It’s located along with other shops in the passenger waiting area of the station. It’s hard to miss the spot since there will almost always be a queue of Harry Potter fans waiting for their turn to make that jump! There is also a small shop of Harry Potter goods next to the display.

*(Updated, 2016) You can also see the actual Hogwarts Express and relive the Harry Potter movies when you do a Harry Potter Studio Tour at Warner Bros. Studio in London

Harry Potter Express Platform - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Walk along the Regent’s Canal from Camden Market to Little Venice

This is not popular tourist trail but if you have a bit of time, it is a short detour if you are in already in the Camden area. We walked along the Regent’s canal from the famous Camden market towards Little Venice. Along the way we saw some interesting house boats and an occasional water bus service for tourists. Little Venice is not that charming though. The canal route is different from the rest of London but may not be worth going all the way to the end.

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Camden Market - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Little Venice - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Where to Stay in London

Luxury – Milestone Hotel Kensington

Mid-Range – citizenM Tower of London

Boutique – The Levin Hotel

Budget – Flynns Townhouse

Getting Around London

The easiest way to go around London is the London Underground, also called the Tube. It is similar to any other rapid transit system but it’s more expensive compared to others we’ve been to in the region. The minimum fare is around £4 for one trip. They also have the Oyster card, which is similar to Singapore’s EZ Link card that provides discount for every trip. Do note that there is a deposit of £5 for the card. Another option is the red double decker bus. We didn’t get the chance to take any bus rides in London but it seemed a little confusing when we tried to take one. Of course, the cheapest way is to walk. It’s easy to find your way around London’s centre if you have a map on hand. Most tourist attractions are also close to one another so at times it’s better to have a little stroll from one to the next.

Double Decker Bus - - Things to Do in London England - First Timer's Guide

Where to Eat: Food Options

Food can be quite expensive if you eat in restaurants and coffee shops all the time. When we were in London, we saved some money by getting salads and sandwiches from supermarkets. Some fast food prices are not bad but not exactly the healthiest options. We did however try the fish and chips, they were pretty good! Curry is also a big hit in London but since we just came from Nepal, we didn’t really look into getting any Indian food in England.

Do You Need a Visa? UK Visit Visa

Some nationalities like Filipinos, in my case, require a visa for England. A few months before the trip I applied for the UK Visit Visa in Singapore through VFS Global. The Visa application processing took around 15 working days and cost 176 SGD (around £85).

We were able to see a lot of interesting sights in London and it was a great first stop to our backpacking trip around Europe. Don’t let the worries about expenses put you off from travelling to this city because it’s possible to go around cheap if you plan your itinerary properly.

Have you been to London? Do you have anything to add to our list of things to do in London for first-timers? Let us know!

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About the author

Gia Kristel Algie

Currently based in New Zealand, Gia grew up in Manila, lived in Singapore for three years and travelled the world for nearly two years. From watching sunsets to hiking mountains, she loves the outdoors. She enjoys living in big cities but takes pleasure staying in quaint, small towns. An aspiring photographer and budding writer, she is the voice behind Mismatched Passports, a travel blog dedicated to the journey around the world with her husband, Jon.