London is the ideal place to experience your first solo travel adventure.
Why? Because it’s exciting, there’s always something going on, they speak English, public transportation is easy to navigate, with lots of other tourists around and London is a relatively safe city.
London is such a huge city to explore and experience. Because there is so much to do, it’s really important to define your passion/purpose for traveling to London and then you can focus on those sights/events/things to do, to ensure that you have a fantastic travel experience. This is a city that has something for everyone…history, museums, memorials, art galleries, architecture, all things royalty, roses, pubs, markets, vintage, street art and so much more.
Define why you are going to London
How can you begin to choose what to see and do? For me it’s all about contemplating the reason to go to London in the first place.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start planning:
- How do you want to feel once you return home? Rested? Energized? Inspired?
- What type of traveller are you? Explorer? Observer? Learner?
- What is on your bucket list and why?
- What are you interested in? History? Culture? Food? Flowers? Photography?
My Travel Purpose/Passion
I’ve been to London a few times now but I had an extended stay for 9 weeks in 2016. My purpose for going to London was to become a photographer. I had never planned to travel to London for 9 weeks but life threw me some curveballs so I turned to photography. I always knew that I was good with composition but I wasn’t sure about the rest. I hired David Montgomery, Master Photographer to teach me everything he could during our weekly coaching sessions. I was motivated and every day, I was on the streets exploring the sights, seeing things I had heard about or seen in a movie, and watched the light in order to capture a photo for my London travel story.
What is your travel purpose/passion for being in London? There’s no right or wrong answer but it needs to be your answer so at the end of the trip you have created, experienced and fulfilled a dream. Some ideas may include developing photography skills, going to as many London theatre shows as possible, following in the footsteps of the English history, architecture, movie locations, classic neighbourhoods, shopping, war memorials, going to the countless museums or just relaxing, the list is really endless.
Maybe the purpose is to experience solo travel for the very first time in a relatively easy environment.
Where to start?
Planning is the beginning of any travel. You have already determined the reason for your trip and now depending on the purpose, you can start making some choices.
When and how long?
Which season? London is busy all year-around but possibly less busy from October to May. Check your weather APP for general weather information. I was in London from mid-January until mid-March and by the beginning of March the number of tourists increased noticeably.
Spring will bring the blossoms, flowers and cool maybe rainy weather.
Summer brings the crowds, line-ups at popular sights and potentially hot weather.
Fall has the leaves changing colours and cooler weather.
Winter will likely have rain or snow and cold weather.
Once you have chosen the season, you can proceed with choosing your dates and determine how long you will be staying in London.
Note: The UK’s currency is the pound sterling (£ / GBP)
In London, I wanted to be within walking distance of the main Westminster area of London and with easy access to the underground and buses. I stayed at an Airbnb in Vauxhall/Lambeth just on the other side of the Thames from the Parliament. It was about a 15-20 minute walk over the bridge to Big Ben.
I like budget accommodation because it’s interesting. I’m a fan of Airbnb and have used Airbnb in many places now. I choose less expensive, good reviews, location with a focus on safety and so far so good. As a solo traveller, it’s nice to come back and have a conversation with someone who lives in the area.
My favourite Europe guidebooks are by Rick Steves’. I would review his London guidebook for the best areas to stay in and then take a look at his suggested accommodation. He has built excellent relationships with the owners of these places so they will always take good care of their guests. I may contact one or two of his recommendations and at the same time do some researching on Airbnb.
Be sure that your accommodation has air-conditioning, you never know when a heat wave may come along and that AC becomes a necessity.
Check out the direct website for the hotel/motel/hostel as there may be a discount or free breakfast if you book directly rather than booking through a 3rd party accommodation website like expedia.com or booking.com
Transportation for any vacation includes how to get to/from the airport to your accommodation and then transportation to get from your place to the sights that you want to see. The options include Taxi’s, Uber, bus, trains, the underground and walking.
To / From Airport Travel:
If you are traveling light and can manage your luggage the best option is taking Heathrow Express from Heathrow to Paddington Station takes 15 minutes or from Gatwick, the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station takes 30 minutes. Both options are faster and cheaper than taking a Taxi/Uber.
Travel within London on the underground, buses and/or walking is easily managed with using an Oyster Card and a Transportation APP.
Download the free Citymapper APP for use in London (it is available for 39 cities around the world). This APP gives you options and directions for using public transit for all over the Greater London Area and it’s very accurate with the route and schedules.
Buy an Oyster Card.
It is a pay as you go public transit card. Buy an Oyster card and put money on it and it’s ready for use. There are certain rules on how to use the card for different types of transportation, as follows:
- Underground – touch your card flat on the yellow card reader as you enter a station and as you leave the station in order to mark the beginning and end of your journey.
- Bus and Tram – touch your card flat on the yellow card reader as you enter a station but NOT as you leave (penalty fare will apply if you touch on the way out).
- River Bus (Thames Clipper) – touch on yellow card reader when asked by staff member and touch out at the end of your journey.
A Day in London
Start your first day checking out the icons of London. Wherever you are staying, catch a bus or the tube and head to Westminster Station. Coming out of the station, you will be greeted with a view of Big Ben, the Parliament buildings, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge, the Thames, the London Eye, Whitehall and many war memorials. This is a prime people watching area and so much fun to explore.
Travel Tip: Choose two or three key sights that you must see during your visit and give yourself lots of free time to take advantage of opportunities as they happen. And opportunities always happen.
Another Travel tip: Plan ahead for visits to popular sights. Buy your tickets online from home and often you will be at the front of the line as soon as you arrive.
London’s don’t miss sights
Do you have a weekend, a week, two weeks or more? The amount of time you have will determine how much you can fit into your vacation. I highly recommend that you choose 2 or 3 highlights that you can’t miss and let the rest happen when you are in London. I experienced a lot during my stay in London and yet, I didn’t see or do everything.
- Start out with the icons of London. Explore Westminster Bridge and go from there to Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (under renovations), Parliament buildings, London Eye, Southbank, Tower Bridge, lots of other bridges, Tower of London, St. Paul’s, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery and Buckingham Palace.
If you want to enjoy the daily (mostly) spectacle of the changing of the guards outside Buckingham Palace, the official changing of the guard starts at 11am but there are troop movements occurring prior to 11 am at the Horse Guards, St. James Palace and Wellington Barracks. You can get some nice photos at the Horse Guards, I love horses so I enjoyed seeing this part and another time I listened to the regimental band play some beautiful music at Wellington Barracks.
Outside of the palace, I would recommend that you plan to move around rather than stay in one spot. Plan to cross over to the Victoria Monument just before 11am and you’ll have a really good view of the guards.
Travel tip: Check for dates and times online to ensure that there is a changing of the guard on the day you want to go. I check www.changing_guard.com this website will also give info on the guard and band regiments on duty along with a map of the pre-ceremony locations.
- Current info for activities in London. Check out the website for Time Out London Time Out – Things to See/Do Here you will find a huge amount of current information for things to see and do including special events, concerts, gallery shows, theatre, markets etc.
- Free things to do in London. Check out this great list at 101 Free Things to Do Remember that most museums and galleries are free, including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery and the Tate Modern and there are many other smaller venues too.
- Join a London MeetUp group. Set up your location as London and you can see what’s available and you will meet lots of new people and enjoy a variety of activities.
Favourite MeetUp groups in London.
I belonged to these three groups along with a couple more photography groups. I had a great time, met a lot of people, everyone was very welcoming and the meeting locations were always accessible by bus or metro. You can also check out the activities that meetup groups are doing and do them on your own. This is how I found out about scavenger hunting along the Thames at low tide for old pottery pieces and other interesting finds. Here are some recommended groups:
- Exploring neighbourhoods and markets was one of my favourite pastimes during my time in London. There was always so much going on from people watching, eating great food, discovering the creativity of street art, reminiscing over antiques and so much more. It was impossible to be bored.
Favourite neighbourhoods included Central London (Westminster), West London (Nottinghill), Shoreditch, East London, Little Venice and the South Bank.
Favourite markets included Portobello Road Market, Brick Lane, Borough Market, and Columbia Road Flower Market. Check the days and hours of operations for all markets because they are not open 24/7.
- Enjoy a morning or afternoon at the park. London has done a fantastic job of having and maintaining greenspace for everyone’s enjoyment.
Nora’s favourite parks included the parks nearest to Buckingham Palace, St. James and Green Park and then Regent’s Park and Kew Gardens.
- Take a ride on the iconic red double decker buses to be a part of a true London experience. One of my favourite things to do is to catch a bus, with a bit of luck I’ll get the front seat on the 2nd floor. The bus can be going anywhere because there is so much to see. I love being up just a bit higher because my photos have a different vantage point. The bus may take a bit longer than the underground but there is so much to see above the ground.
Travel tip: This is one of my favourite tips. London Transport still operates the Heritage Routemaster bus on route 15, from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London. The vintage buses run every 25 min from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm but not all buses on this route are vintage. Regular transit fees apply and also note that the ride is a little bumpy.
Things I didn’t see or do but will be on my list next time:
- Victoria & Albert Museum
- Attend Evening Song at St. Paul’s Cathedral
- See the crown jewels at the Tower of London
- Go on the London Eye
- Enjoy spring or summer in London when there are leaves on the trees and flowers blooming
- Imperial War Museum
- Take a Harry Potter walking tour
- Enjoy the view at Sky Garden
There are so many activities to experience in London and I always know that I will never be able to see or experience everything that London has to offer. Limit the number of sights that you must see on any given trip or day.
You need to have the mindset that you can always come back if you’ve missed something that you really want to see.
London in a nutshell
- Decide on your purpose for traveling to London and keep your activities in line with this purpose
- Have fun and limit the number of sights that you must see on your trip, you can always come back, if you’ve missed something that you really want to see
- Choose accommodation within your price range and with a central location
- Download the Citymapper APP and get familiar with its use before you arrive in London
- Use public transportation, it’s a lot cheaper and fun to ride the buses and underground
- Breathe, relax, enjoy and take time to see and experience the magic of travel