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London travel guide

Have a smashing time along the River Thames.

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Big Ben and Westminster at sunrise

London is a sprawling city of historical monuments, monarchical artifacts and green spaces, coupled with a cosmopolitan culture that draws locals and visitors alike. Always plenty to do year-round, London’s landscape is dotted with must-see icons: Big Ben, the London Eye, the Shard and Tower Bridge.


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Tips for first-time visitors to London

1. Use extra caution when crossing the street

People drive on the left side of the road in England, so don’t forget to check for traffic coming from the opposite direction from what you’re used to. Some crosswalks are labeled “look left” or “look right” to remind pedestrians which way traffic is coming from. But to play it safe, check both ways before stepping into the street.

2. Get acquainted with military time

As in most European countries, the 24-hour clock — or military time — is used for public transportation. So if you buy a 9:00 train ticket, you’ll be leaving in the morning. But English people tend to speak using a 12-hour clock, like in the US. So you might hear someone say they’re seeing a 7:30 show, meaning in the evening, rather than saying 1930.

3. Stay to the right on escalators

Follow this unspoken yet strictly followed rule: Stay to the right on the escalator if you’re standing still so others can walk past you on the left.

4. Wait for everyone to get off the train before stepping on.

It’s common courtesy to wait for everyone to get off of the train before boarding. And if you see an elderly person, pregnant woman or someone else who looks like they could use a seat more than you do, it’s polite to offer them yours.

5. Have your Oyster card ready

Like New Yorkers, Londoners like to keep things moving. Have your Oyster card ready before hopping on the bus or other mode of transport so you don’t hold up the line.

6. Know when to tip and when to skip

Tip your restaurant server 10% to 15% of the bill, but check to make sure a service charge wasn’t already added to your total — no need to tip twice! It’s also common to tip your taxi driver and tour guide 10% to 15%, while a smaller tip is sufficient for hotel staff.

On the other hand, bartenders don’t expect tips. If you had exceptional service and want to leave a tip, make it small and say something along the lines of, “Add one for yourself.”

7. Bring an umbrella

Known for its drizzly days, London can have unpredictable weather. There’s no guarantee it won’t rain, even in the summer. So have an umbrella handy just in case.

That said, London receives an average yearly rainfall of 23 inches. Compare that to New York City’s 50 inches of rain per year or Seattle’s 38 inches, and London doesn’t seem so wet after all.

Bottom line

As one of the world’s most visited cities, London has so much to offer: history, architecture, famous landmarks and royal sightings. Plan your trip of a lifetime to this chic and culturally rich city — even if you’re traveling on a budget.

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Money

What is the national currency?

The official currency of the UK is the pound sterling — or simply, the “pound.” You’ll see pound abbreviated as GBP when checking exchange rates, and the £ symbol is used like the $ is used for US dollars. Each pound is equal to 100 pence, and one pence is commonly referred to as a penny, just like in the US.

Banknotes — or paper money — are printed in £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100 denominations. £1 banknotes haven’t been printed since 1984. Instead, £1 and £2 coins are widely circulated.

Should I exchange money before traveling?

Have a small amount of pounds on hand before you leave, but it’s not generally recommended to travel with huge sums of cash. Carry only a small amount of US currency — to buy a cup of coffee or snack at the airport — and a small amount of pounds to get by when you land until you find an ATM.

Before your trip, you can get foreign currency from your local bank or credit union, usually for a small fee. But these institutions usually have some of the best exchange rates. You can also use online currency converters and have your pounds sent in the mail, but we recommend comparing exchange rates with your local bank to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Once you get to London, the easiest and cheapest way to get cash is to use an ATM. If your US bank doesn’t have any locations in London, check its ATM fee policy. Some financial institutions offer ATM fee reimbursements. If yours doesn’t, take larger amounts of cash out each time to minimize your charges.

Are ATMs common?

Yes. ATMs are readily available throughout London, with many worldwide chains like Citibank and HSBC offering fee-free withdrawals.

Are credit cards widely accepted?

Yes. Most London establishments accept credit and debit cards, especially Visa and Mastercard. While more international businesses now also accept American Express, play it safe and have another option on hand just in case.

Don’t forget to contact your bank or credit card company before you leave to let them know you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, your account could get locked and funds frozen.

What should I know about using cash?

You shouldn’t need a large amount of cash while in London. But tipping taxi drivers, hotel cleaning staff and restaurant servers is customary, so you’ll want to have some cash. While larger vendors at Borough Market might accept credit cards, bring cash if you plan to shop.

London’s bus system is entirely cashless, so you’ll need an Oyster card, Travel card or contactless card to ride.

Travel money guide: UK

Travel

What’s the national airline?

British Airways is the national airline and second largest in the UK. Its main hub is London’s Heathrow Airport, which is easily accessible from the city center. Express trains leave Paddington station for Heathrow every 15 minutes, and the trip takes approximately 15 minutes.

You can also get to Heathrow terminals by taking the tube. From King’s Cross, Heathrow Airport is around a 50-minute tube ride.

Want a less crowded option? The closest airport to the city is London City Airport (LCY). Arrivals and departures tend to be quicker and easier at this smaller hub. You can easily reach this airport from London by the tube, DLR, taxi or bus.

Is public transportation available?

Yes! London’s extensive public transportation system is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get around. For the biggest savings and most convenience, get a visitor Oyster card to ride the bus, tube, tram, DLR, cable car and trains.

Read our guide to getting around London for more details about public transportation.

Do I need a visa?

No. US citizens do not need a visa to stay in UK for tourist purposes or business purposes less than six months. But you will need a valid US passport.

Health and safety

Is London safe?

Yes, London is relatively safe. As you would when traveling to any city, be aware of your surroundings and keep track of your personal belongings when out and about.

Is the water safe to drink?

Yes! In fact, British tap water continually ranks as some of the cleanest water in the world, thanks to its state-of-the-art filtration systems and testing protocol.

Are there any health concerns?

As of June 2019, there is an outbreak of measles in England, the CDC reports. US travelers are advised to have a current measles vaccine when traveling abroad.

Do I need any vaccinations?

While there are no specific vaccination requirements needed to enter the UK, the CDC recommends that you are up-to-date on routine vaccinations before traveling overseas. Talk to your doctor about other vaccinations that might be recommended for you, depending on what you’ll be doing in London and how long you’ll be staying.

Hepatitis A and B vaccines may be recommended for some travelers. The rabies vaccine is recommended if you plan to work or come in contact with animals especially bats — during your stay.

Top spots for travel

Where are the hot spots for couples?

Enjoy these romantic spots with your sweetie in London:

  • Ride the London Eye, Europe’s largest observation wheel, at night.
  • Sit at a waterside café in Little Venice.
  • Catch mesmerizing views of Big Ben.
  • Go horseback riding through Hyde Park.
  • Enjoy a river cruise on the Thames.

Which places are family-friendly?

Partake in fun for the whole family at these popular destinations:

  • Harry Potter and Warner Bros. Studio tours
  • KidZania London
  • The London Eye
  • Madame Tussauds
  • The British Museum

Where’s the best nightlife?

Soho and Camden Town are best-known for vibrant nightlife in the city. Check out the West End if a night filled with theater and fine dining is your cup of tea.

Where are the best parks?

There’s no shortage of green space in London, with many popular must-see parks:

  • Kensington Gardens
  • Greenwich Park
  • Hyde Park
  • St. James’s Park
  • The Royal Parks

Where should I stay?

It depends on what you plan to do and how much you’re looking to spend. History buffs might enjoy staying in Westminster in close proximity to well-known landmarks. Families with kids might prefer a stay in Kensington, away from the hustle and bustle of Central London.

For more information and specific hotel suggestions, read our guide on where to stay in London.

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