Destination Guides: London

Destination Guides: London

To walk the streets of London is to walk through time. One of the oldest cities in Europe, London has a history stretching back 2,000 years to the Roman occupation of Britain. Today, London is the capital of the United Kingdom and the nation’s cultural center.

Londoners affectionately call their city the Smoke or the Big Smoke, nicknames that took hold due to the smog and pea soup fogs of the Victorian Industrial Age. Today, the air is much cleaner, but the nickname persists as a reminder of the past — not unlike the city’s varied historical architecture.

Below you’ll find travel tips for London, including how to get around town, what to see, and how to get British money. Think of this page as a condensed London guidebook: We can’t cover every aspect of London life, but we can give you some basic travel tips you’ll need to know when visiting the Smoke.

How to Get British Money

The currency in the United Kingdom is the British pound, which typically has an exchange rate with US dollars of $1.65 per pound. You can exchange your own nation’s currency for pounds at currency exchange offices in Leicester Square and Buckingham Palace Road — look for signs that say Money Exchange.

You can withdraw cash from ATMs, called cashpoints in Britain, but be aware the exchange rate offered at cashpoints is not as good as those offered by currency exchange offices. Most retailers and restaurants accept international credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard.

London Time Zone

London is on Greenwich Mean Time during the winter months and is seven hours behind New York City. In the summer, London moves to British Summer Time, the UK’s version of Daylight Saving Time.

When to Visit London

England’s climate is relatively mild, with rain common year-round. Summer is the peak season for London tourism and when the city’s parks are at their finest. September to October sees fewer tourists, so attractions are less crowded. However, you should plan for cooler, wetter weather in autumn.

Winter in London sees temperatures that average between 41°F and 48°F, although temperatures can and do drop below freezing. Visiting London in December is amazing if you love Christmas, as the city shines with elaborate lights and holiday markets.

Flying into London

If you’re flying into London, you have two international airports: Heathrow and Gatwick. Both offer easy access to London but have their pros and cons.

Where is Heathrow Airport?

Heathrow Airport (LHR) is the busiest airport in the United Kingdom and is located in the London Borough of Hillingdon, 20 miles west of central London. Heathrow has five terminals and sees over 1293 flights arrive or depart every day. The sheer number of passengers using Heathrow — over 80 million a year — often results in crowding and long lines.

The fastest way to get from Heathrow to London is to the London Underground’s Piccadilly line. This option is best if you travel with only carry-on luggage, as navigating “the Tube'' with larger luggage can be cumbersome, especially as getting to the subway often involves stairs. The Heathrow Express above-ground train is another option, with four trains an hour running nonstop between Heathrow and Piccadilly Station.

Other options to get to London from Heathrow include ride-sharing services like Uber, and the city’s iconic black taxi cabs, which can come with expensive fares. The Hotel Hoppa is a shuttle service transporting passengers between Heathrow and many London hotels.

Where is Gatwick Airport in England?

Gatwick Airport (LBGW) is a two-terminal airport located 29.5 miles south of central London near Crawley, West Sussex. Gatwick offers direct flights to 173 destinations in 56 countries, with an average of 60,000 people using the airport daily. Gatwick is generally less crowded than Heathrow, but busy periods can still lead to long lines.

Like Heathrow, Gatwick offers train service to London. The Gatwick Express runs every 15 minutes between the airport and Victoria Station. Private shuttles and taxis are available for those who don’t want to navigate train stations with luggage.

Things to do in London

1. Visit the Big Four

London abounds in historical sites and architecture, but certain sights stand out from the rest. Most first-time travellers visiting London will want to seeBuckingham Palace, Big Ben,Tower Bridge, andWestminster Abbey. The abbey, the palace, and Big Ben are all within walking distance of St. James Park. You can tour select areas of Buckingham Palace, and the full tour of Westminster Abbey is not to be missed.

Buckingham Palace

2. Explore Free Museums and Art Galleries

London has many world-class museums and art galleries, including the British Museum of Natural History, theTate Modern, and theNational Maritime Museum. If you’re a book lover, take the time to check out theBritish Library as well. Most London museums and galleries are free or ask for donations on your way out, so they’re great for travellers on a budget.

3. Cruise the Thames

See London from a different angle with a 40-minute clipper boat tour past Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and the Houses of Parliament, among other sites.

4. Ride the London Eye

After seeing the city from the river, why not see it from on high? The London Eye, also known as the Millenium Wheel, is a 443-foot cantilevered observation wheel that’s one of the most popular attractions in the city. A ride on the Eye takes about half an hour and is considered a city highlight by many London guidebooks.

The London Eye

5. Have a Pint or Take High Tea

If you're a beer lover, you can’t leave London without having a pint at one of the city’s historic pubs in Notting Hill, Covent Garden, or SoHo (just remember a British pint is four ounces larger than an American pint). If you prefer a nonalcoholic British tradition, take in high tea at the Dorchester or Ritz Hotel.

6. Go Shopping

London is home to Harrods, a seven-floor department store that sees over 300,000 customers a day. If smaller boutique stores are more your speed, spend the day exploring Shoreditch or Camden Market. London is also known for its open-air antique and vintage markets, with the Portobello Market being an excellent example.

7. Explore the Darker Side of London’s History

London, like any city, has some darkness in its past. Perhaps no one exemplifies the underbelly of the Big Smoke like Jack the Ripper, a killer whose true identity remains a mystery. Take a Jack the Ripper walking tour through Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and learn why a Victorian serial killer still chills peoples’ bones to this day.

How to Get Around London

London has an exceptional public transit system, which is great because driving in London would frustrate all but the most seasoned traveller. Public transport includes the Tube, buses, and trams.

The Tube is an easy-to-navigate subway system that will get you almost anywhere in London. We recommend buying an Oyster Card, a refillable smart card you can use on the Tube, the bus system, trams, and Thames Clippers.

London buses, including the iconic double-decker buses, also take Oyster cards and run after the Tube closes at 12.30 am. If you don't have an Oyster card, be aware the buses do not take cash but will accept Travelcards (a paper ticket valid for 24 hours) or contactless payment cards.

London does have a public bike-sharing program called Santander Cycles, which can be fun, but remember that London’s often narrow streets are not particularly bike-friendly. If you’re travelling from a country where traffic drives on the right side of the road, navigating a bicycle in traffic driving on the left can prove stressful!

London’s black taxi cabs and Uber also offer transportation solutions, but be aware both can be expensive. Most travellers will find public transportation more than enough to get around.

Choosing Your London Adventure

It’s impossible to summarize the Big Smoke in even the largest London guidebook. People visiting London should accept they won't see everything in a single trip. That’s not a bad thing, of course — it just gives you an excuse to return to one of the world’s most fascinating cities! Need more inspiration for your next trip? Check out our Travel Spotlights.

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