London Travel Guide for First-Time Visitors
London is one of the most visited cities in the world. I am no expert since I’m not a local, but I have been twice and shown around by my lovely friend who IS a local! I include all the must-see spots for first-time visitors to London, along with some other places that are a bit less touristy.
Whether you’re visiting London in summer or winter, you can still do everything on this list. I’ve been during both seasons with summer temps reaching over 100ºF and the winter temps dropping below freezing mid-day. Just make sure you dress for the weather and always wear layers.
The restaurants listed in this guide are all vegetarian-friendly with many having vegan options. I know it can be hard to find places that have vegetarian options when traveling, but you don’t have to stress about that in London. Most places have options for all dietary restrictions, but I use the app Happy Cow to find places! This is not an ad and I’m not any sort of affiliate, it’s just a really great app that has been helpful for finding vegan/vegetarian food while traveling.
Things to do and see:
London has artwork from some of the greatest artists in history from John Singer Sargent to Vincent Van Gogh. Tate Britain and the National Gallery are my two favorites because of their extensive collections. They’re both completely free, too! The National Portrait Gallery is right next door to the National Gallery and is worth a trip in – also free.
For fans of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be thrilled to know there is of course a Sherlock Holmes Museum in London. I did not go in because this is not a free museum and I haven’t watched more than a few episodes of the show or read the books. The gift shop is free to enter though and it has some Sherlock trinkets you won’t want to miss. I even bought a wax seal with a “K” on it for myself!
• Covent Garden
A lovely little area for shopping and hanging out is Covent Garden. The cute shops you see with the flowers framing the doorway and pink store fronts is in this area. They have upscale shops like Penhaligons (classy cologne and perfume shop), a tea shop with tons of samples, and other high-end shops for those who like a bit of luxury. Covent Garden is a buzzing, good-vibes area that is perfect to stop and relax for a bit after a long day of sight-seeing.
• Notting Hill
If you’re looking for good Instagram spots, Notting Hill is the neighborhood to visit. With rows of colorful houses, it doesn’t get cuter than this. The neighborhood also has coffee shops and other trendy spots to grab a bite. Or just walk around and take in the eye candy!
• Primrose Hill
This spot is the ultimate park with sprawling green hills dotted with picnicking people and dogs. There are sweeping views of the city and Primrose Hill has an all-around happy, relaxed atmosphere. Highly recommend bringing your lunch here and having a little picnic.
• Battersea Park
The perfect park with ponds, grassy areas to sit, and shady paths to stroll through. I really loved this calm, but huge park. Battersea Park is a great place to get away from the bustling city life and be around nature.
• Platform 9 3/4
Harry Potter fans – this is a major tourist trap, but it was fun to see in person. If you want an actual picture with Platform 9 3/4, there’s a long line (it was an hour long when I went in June) and it costs money. You don’t need to take a picture with it though and I just snapped a picture from the outside of the ropes between people taking their photos.
• Westminster Abbey
Onto the landmarks you cannot miss – starting with Westminster Abbey. This grand church is a must-see because of the incredible Gothic architecture.
• Big Ben
The famous clock tower in London was under construction when I went in January 2019, but I’m sure they’ll have it finished in time for the summer rush of tourists. You don’t need to actually go to it to see it because it towers over Westminster. You can easily see it on your way to Westminster Abbey.
• London Eye
Another landmark that can be enjoyed from a distance is the London Eye. I am not the biggest fan of ferris wheels so I did not ride this, but it is beautiful to look at from far away and snap some photos.
• Buckingham Palace
Crowds gather here to watch the changing of the guard, but it’s cool to see any time. I never watched the changing of the guard, but the walk through the gardens to Buckingham Palace is beautiful because of the neatly manicured, colorful flowers.
• St. Paul’s Cathedral
If you love architecture, add this massive cathedral to your list. The day I went was freezing, windy, and pretty miserable, but it was still worth seeing!
• Tower Bridge
We were lucky enough to stay at a friend’s apartment that had views of Tower Bridge. We also walked across it quite a few times to go to St. Katharine Docks and the tube line on the other side. It is a gorgeous bridge and looks pretty magical at sunset.
• Telephone boxes
You CAN’T go to London without taking the obligatory telephone box photo! I saw dozens walking through London, but still got excited and pointed them out to my boyfriend every time. There is just something so neat about seeing such an iconic thing sitting there on the street.
Places to eat:
The best Indian food I have had was at Dishoom. There was a line out the door and we still waited – worth it. We were even served lemonade in line since it was a hot summer day. Check their website for more information about reservations/waits – they have some policies around reservations that are good to know ahead of time. They have a few locations around London.
• Draughts – Hackney
My friend booked Draughts – Hackney for us and our boyfriends for drinks, dinner, and games. Reserve a table ahead of time and make sure you tell them you want to play games! They have shelves and shelves of board games you can play while you wait for your food, drink your drinks, and for hours after you finish eating. It was a fun, unique dinner place and they even had a vegetarian halloumi (cheese) burger with a charcoal bun that was extremely tasty. They have another location in Waterloo, too.
• by Chloe
I haven’t dined in at by Chloe, but instead my sweet friend ordered it to be delivered to her house so it arrived at the same time I did after my flight. It’s all vegan – such a relief as a vegetarian to be able to order anything off the entire menu, know I can eat it all, AND that it will be good. They have 2 locations in London with 2 more coming soon.
The coolest loo in London is inside this restaurant/bar/tea spot, Sketch. It can be difficult to get in some rooms without reservations made far in advance. We got lucky because we were friends with one of the managers who got us in for some delicious, fancy drinks in the Glade. There are 5 different rooms all with their own themes – one is a bar with the eggloos and another is a 2 Michelin star restaurant! Probably not the best spot if you’re on a tight budget, but it is worth it if you’re able to get a reservation.
• Emilia’s Pasta
Our first dinner in London on the most recent trip was Emilia’s Pasta at St. Katharine’s Docks on the water. It is a teeny tiny restaurant with authentic, rich Italian dishes and mouth-watering pasta. Make sure to make a reservation here because it is so small, it seems to fill up quickly.
• St. Katharine Docks Cafe
Just a few doors down from Emilia’s Pasta is another trendy spot that we stopped for brunch, St. Katharine Docks Cafe. The interior is well decorated, food was delicious (very Californian), and it’s also right on the water! The chai latte here was full of flavor and they had non-dairy milk options which is always a plus for me.
• Barley Mow
After a trip to Tate Britain and Westminster Abbey, Barley Mow was a nice little pub to stop for lunch. I had vegan fish and chips with was tofu wrapped in seaweed (for that fish flavor) and then deep fried like usual – I was shocked at how good it was.
The fast food of London. Although it didn’t quite compare to the really trashy (in the best way) American fast food, Nando’s was still pretty good! They also have a large menu with vegetarian options like a Portobello burger.
• Sushi Samba
London has some great sushi spots, but I’ve only been to one and that’s Sushi Samba. This is an upscale restaurant with a dress code – we saw people turned away for wearing jerseys. It is on the 38th and 39th floors and of course has 360º panoramic views of the city. Book ahead of time because this is a popular place! It is fancy as I mentioned, so dress well! There are vegan and gluten-conscious menus, too! The sushi rolls are pretty standard sushi prices, but large dishes and steaks especially (one is even £1000!) are a bit pricey.
How to get around:
From the airport to your hotel/airbnb/etc:
When you arrive at the airport, you’ll follow signs for the Underground/trains and can buy a one-way ticket to the stop closest to where you’re staying.
The absolute best way to get around is the Underground (the tube). It’s incredible fast and once you get used to it you’ll feel like a local.
If you want to take in the sights, the buses are a great way to get around – although slower than the tube. The buses are reliable and you can choose “bus” as an option on your navigation app and it will tell you which stop, bus, and exit you need.
Once you get to the station, buy an Oyster Card from a kiosk and load it up! This will save you time and money because Oyster cards have a maximum daily charge, so once you hit that limit, you won’t be charged for any other trains/buses that day. It can be used for multiple forms of public transport in London. View their website for more information.
London does have Uber, but it is not necessary because their public transportation is so great. It is useful for getting from the tube to your destination if it’s raining/snowing or you’re worried about your safety while walking – or just don’t feel like walking.