After a few trips, it’s pretty easy to get the hang of London life. But if it’s your first time in the Big Smoke then there are definitely some handy things to know ahead of your arrival. Looking for some tips and recommendations before coming to London? From how to use the tubes, tipping culture, eating out on a budget and tricks that will make your visit cheaper, check out our pointers for backpackers visiting the British capital...
Avoid the Tourist Traps
London is full of tourist traps and they’re pretty easy to spot (which means they’re also easy to avoid). The tourist traps are expensive and most Londoners wouldn’t be caught dead in them. So, how do you know if somewhere is a tourist trap? The best thing to do is get the restaurant/cafe up on Trip Advisor to see its ratings and reviews. A tourist trap can be anything from a restaurant that has flashing signs, is somewhere near a main/sight attraction rammed with tourists, offers an overpriced menu or if it says ‘world famous’ anywhere in the branding. Try and also avoid the tacky gift and souvenir shops too - you could buy something much more special in a London market or antique shop.
Some London attractions may not be worth your time - if you have to queue for longer than 30 mins, then yes, you’re probably waiting in line to see something pretty overrated and highly touristy. Examples include Madame Tussauds, M&M World, the London Eye or Abbey Road.
Stand on the right of escalators
A common rule on London’s escalators is to stand on the right. This allows for the people who are in a rush to walk up the escalators on the left hand side. If you don’t follow this general unspoken rule, you’ll probably get tapped on the shoulder by an agitated commuter telling you to move to the other side. Escalators can be found in most big tube stations and shopping centres around London.
Use contactless and Apple pay
London is a modern city with fantastic advancements in technology which makes travelling so much easier. Gone are the days of having to buy paper tickets - you can do everything on your SmartPhone or with a tap of your credit/debit card. From tapping in and out of tube stations, buying things in shops and paying for bus tickets, you can purchase almost everything via Contactless or Apple pay. Most black cabs should also have a contactless card machine, but we recommend carrying some cash just incase.
Download the Tube Map App/CityMapper
CityMapper will make your life so much easier in London when getting from place to place. If you’ve never used London tubes before, then the Tube Map App will really help. It shows all of the stations on every line so that you can plan your journey properly (knowing exactly which tubes to take).
Walk where you can
While London may seem huge, you can probably walk to more places than you think. Before you hop onto another crowded tube, double check that you can’t walk somewhere first to save time. Did you know that Leicester Square and Covent Garden stations on the Piccadilly Line are only 260 metres apart (20 seconds journey time) yet it’s still one of the busiest journeys in the whole of London. It’s only a 5 minute walk, so we recommend saving your money and getting a few steps in instead. You can also walk amongst the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St James’ Park and Buckingham Palace.
Find an affordable central location to base yourself
Try and find accommodation in the heart of London so you never have too far to travel when you’re sightseeing. There are some fantastic hostels in London that are affordable and centrally located. St Christopher’s Inns hostel in London Bridge is award-winning accommodation offering capsule beds, a party bar and an epic location on the doorstep of some of London’s greatest restaurants, bars and sights (such as The Shard, Borough Market, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge). There’s also a central St Christopher’s hostel in Liverpool Street which is just a short walk away from gritty Shoreditch, Spitalfields Market, The Gherkin and some of the city’s swankiest rooftop bars. A bed in either of these hostels will only set you back from £12 - £21.
Use the Santander bikes
Cycling around London is awesome - you can explore the Royal parks on two wheels, cycle through pretty areas such as Kensington and Chelsea and get around different neighbourhoods much faster than you would by foot or tube. You will see Santander bike docking stations all around London which you can rent out for as little as £2 for 24 hours. All you have to do is return the bike to any docking stations around the city once you’re done. Get the Santander Cycle App to see your nearest docking stations on an interactive map.
If you’re not a confident cyclist, we would recommend avoiding cycling on busy main roads in the centre of the city. It’s very busy and can be dangerous if you’re not used to cycling in busy conditions.
Make the most of the free attractions
Being backpackers on a budget, you’ll be happy to know that London doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think. Some of the best sights and attractions in the city are actually free entry including our favourite museums: The British Museum, The Tate, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. You can also get sky high panoramic views from one of London’s coolest rooftop bars, The Sky Garden, free of charge - you just need to book your slot online. Then there’s London’s street art, the Changing of the Guard ceremony and the city’s best food markets, all which can be enjoyed for free.
You can see some of the most iconic sights in the city for free such as the London Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. All of these sites are free (and magnificent) to look at. However you will have to pay entry fees to go inside.
Explore the royal sights
People visit England from far and wide to learn more about the fascinating British monarchy. London is full of royal sights, castles and palaces just waiting to be explored. If you consider yourself a fan of the Queen and want to walk the same path as the British royals (past and present) then London is the right place for you. From the magnificent Crown Jewels housed in the Tower of London, the majestic State Rooms of Buckingham Palace to the birthplace of King Henry VIII in Greenwich, here are the What to do in and around London if You're Royal Family Obsessed .
Eat the local food
There’s some simple yet unbeatable about British food that locals never get tired of. When you’re in London, you need to try some comforting British staples like a proper pie n’ mash, crispy fish n’ chips, a glorious sunday roast, sticky toffee pudding, bangers and mash, eton mess, afternoon tea and shepherd's pie. You’ll be pleased to know that these British dishes won’t break the bank either. You can find most of these traditional dishes in British pubs and restaurants - one of the most unique (and a particular favourite of ours) has to be Maggie Jones in Kensington where you can indulge in a classic bread and butter pudding in a rustic, barn-like atmosphere. Read our guide on Where to Try the Best British Food in London .
There’s a relaxed tipping culture
You don’t need to worry too much about tipping in London - it’s not like the States where you’re meant to tip anyone and everyone. In most restaurants and bars, service charge will be included in the bill so you it’s all sorted for you. When it’s not, then it’s completely up to you whether you tip or not (depending on how satisfied you are with the service). The polite amount to tip is 12%.
Book train fares as early as you can
Train prices in England are notorious for being ridiculously expensive but you can avoid sky high train fares by booking way in advance. If you fancy a day trip to Bicester Village, Windsor Castle, Bath or a chocolate-box village on the outskirts of London, then use the Trainline website/app for the lowest prices possible. If you wait until the last moment to book, you’re probably going to end up paying more than you hoped for.
Get cheaper theatre tickets for London’s West End
The West End is one of the most incredible things London has to offer. The talent that takes to the different theatre stages will put a smile on your face. There’s something very special and elegant about sitting in a traditional theatre in the middle of Covent Garden watching something magical. However, getting tickets to a theatre show in the West End can be very expensive which is why you should look out for last minute deals online. Booking shows on weekdays is also considerably cheaper than on weekends.
Explore some of the more up-and-coming neighbourhoods
Don’t make the mistake of staying central - there’s so much more of the city to see, especially if you want to see the real London. Hang out where the young locals hang, eat what they like to eat and get an authentic experience of the city, very unique to what you’ll find in the busy centre and West End. Escape the crowds and head to some of the up-and-coming neighbourhoods that surround central London like Brixton, Hackney, Clapham, Shoreditch, Greenwich, Wandsworth and Fulham. These are the parts where real regeneration has taken place, transforming the areas to become hipster, quirky, cool and modern (mainly because of all the young Londoners and expats have moved there). Some of London’s best restaurants can be found in Shoreditch, and the coolest bars can be experienced in Clapham or Fulham. Greenwich is a peaceful retreat from the busy city and Brixton and Hackney are real local hangouts for young working professionals. Once you’ve been to these neighbourhoods, you’ll think London is so much cooler than you did before.
Let people off the tube before you get on
Another unspoken rule in London is to let people off the tube before you get on. If you don’t, you’ll probably get some weird looks and experience some annoyed faces. It’s just common courtesy in London to let people off first. In fact, it’s really grating to a Londoner when someone barges on the tube carriage to get a seat before letting anyone else off.
Be wary of pickpockets in busy areas
As they say in any big city, don’t carry any prized possessions or expensive personal belongings around London, particularly in areas where pickpocketing in common. Be overly cautious in busy places like Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Westminster and in any tube stations. Make sure you bag is always zipped and don’t leave your phones or wallets in a back pocket.