With its maze of crisscrossing streets, swarming crowds and traffic-clogged squares, England’s cosmopolitan capital can be a bit overwhelming to the first-time visitor. Once you’ve plowed through the guidebook and organized your itinerary, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your first visit to the big smoke.
1) Take to the streets
The biggest mistake most first time visitors make is taking the tube everywhere. The vast majority of central London sights are easily walkable and taking to the streets on foot saves both time and money. A Thames River tour takes in London Bridge, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye, with Southbank, the Tate Modern museum and Covent Garden right nearby. Or start on Oxford Street where you can easily stroll to Leicester Square, Covent Garden or Piccadilly Circus. A good map or A-Z and some good walking shoes are a must, but there’s no better way to soak up the lively atmosphere of modern London.
2) Prepare for all seasons
England is famous for many things and, sadly, the ever-changeable weather is one of them. Rainy days are part of the package in London and the sudden showers can catch many out-of-towners by surprise. Rather than letting the weather dictate your schedule, plan ahead and dress for all seasons – wear lots of layers, with a lightweight anorak that can be easily peeled off when the sun comes back out and slip an umbrella in your bag in case of a downpour, even if it looks to be a fine day.
3) Don’t take yourself too seriously
British humor is something of an acquired taste, but learn a few rules and you’ll soon be laughing along with the locals. Dry quips and sarcastic remarks may seem rude at times, but it’s rarely meant to offend, so try to see the funny side and don’t let jokey comments get to you. The best way to win over a Brit? Poke fun at yourself and show them you’ve got a thick skin – they’ll soon be inviting you down the pub for a pint.
4) There’s more to London than the sights
Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Big Ben and St Paul’s Cathedral are all sure to feature on your must-see list, but there’s plenty more things to see and do in London than just ticking off the major sights. Make sure you spend at least a few hours doing something that’s not in the guidebook. Check out a local band, spend a Sunday afternoon picnicking in the park, visit one of the city’s many temporary art exhibitions or explore one of the neighborhoods outside of central London. Or just head down to the pub for a pint or two with the locals.
5) Master ‘British English’
There’s nothing Londoner’s enjoy more than pointing out all the ‘inaccuracies’ of American English so unless you’re looking to get some quizzical looks, start memorizing a few basics. The ‘sidewalk’ is the ‘pavement’; the ‘trunk’ of a car is the ‘boot’; ‘pants’ are ‘trousers’ (and ‘pants’ are underwear); ‘fries’ are ‘chips’; and the ‘restroom’ is simply a ‘toilet’! Don’t get too carried away picking up the local lingo though – cockney rhyming slang is a London quirk best left to the locals.