Getting to Know London for the Very First Time

I have an incredible bias.


It is my favorite city by far, and I have been to a lot of places.

London can be a bit overwhelming the first time, but I’m here to give you some of my experience and knowledge.

My first visit to London was in 1995. I was in college and was studying abroad for the summer session. It was my first time out of the country and I’ve never been that far away from home alone. But man, was I ready for an adventure. I’ll never forget my first time on the Tube, a guy was getting off the crowded train and a woman kind of shoved him so she could get off too, and he punched her in the eye! That was my first real taste of London city life.

You’ve arrived! Now what?

I flew into Heathrow International Airport, and that was one of the few times I did. I quickly learned I prefer Gatwick a great deal more. Heathrow (LHR) is very massive and busy and overwhelming. It’s like New York’s JFK Airport. Busy, busy, busy! Gatwick (LGW) is more like LaGuardia or Newark. It isn’t the prettiest, or the fanciest, or even the closest to Central London, but it is smaller and more manageable.

I took a cab from Heathrow to my flat on Eagle Court in the city’s West End and that cost an arm and leg. Now, I take the Tube from Heathrow or the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station, and then switch to the Tube to my destination.

The Piccadilly Line travels from Heathrow to Central London and costs £5.00… or less if you get an Oyster card. The Oyster is the pass you buy for the buses and trains. You can either buy unlimited rides or dollar amounts if you don’t think you’ll be on public transit much. (In my honest opinion, mass transit is the way to go if you want to see the city.) The train ride is nearly an hour. I don’t mind the ride because I can see the countryside and other zones before heading underground. The hotel where I usually stay is on the Piccadilly Line, so I love not having to change trains with my luggage.

Your other option from Heathrow is the Heathrow Express. It costs £16.50 and takes about 15-20 minutes to get to Paddington Station. (To get the cheaper fare, you have to purchase online) otherwise it can go up almost double.

I don’t think I have ever taken it. One: I prefer Gatwick. Two: Paddington Station is usually out of my way when I stay in Notting Hill. Three: I’m way too cheap!

Heathrow Connect is another express type train from the airport to Paddington. That costs £8.50 each way and takes about 25 minutes.

The National Express bus is £5.50 and takes about an hour to Victoria Coach Station. It’s a lovely ride, but the big downside is traffic. Once I was on the bus and there was an accident on the motorway, so we were stuck for hours while it got cleaned up.

From Gatwick, the best choice is the Gatwick Express. It takes about 30 minutes to Victoria Station and costs £15.95 online. There are deals for buying round trip tickets and if you pay for a first class anytime return ticket for £50 you get into a No.1 Traveller lounge which costs £25 on its own.

Hotel? Motel? Holiday Inn?

There are SO many choices in London. After my study abroad where I had a flat with 6 other housemates, I stayed in a variety of places.

Hostels are cool if you’re young and adventurous. I once stayed at a hostel in a room with 20 smelly Australians. I don’t have anything against Australians, but these guys and gals didn’t bathe the entire time I was there. I kinda get it … the showers cost I think £2 each time, but maybe they could have sprang for it just once and drank a little less beer?

The dorm-style room cost me less than $20 USD for the week. I don’t remember exactly how much, but it was worth putting up with the smell and having to sleep with my valuables (wallet, passport, camera, etc.) tucked under my shirt. I also got the bed by the heater so that was awesome, as it was January.

I don’t remember the name of the hostel, or the service I used to find it, so I am not going to make any recommendations. I will say, be careful with your choices. Don’t pay up front, don’t pay a service to find you a hostel, and make sure you check out the room before you say you will stay. The airports all have booths with people hawking hostels and hotels, just make sure you use your head if you go with one of them.

I think I read once that there are about 1,000 hotels in London. With so many choices, I have never made a reservation. Ever! Unlike the United States, if you show up at a hotel, they will probably give you a room at a greatly discounted rate.

My favorite place is the Notting Hill Hotel, which is typically £55 a night for a single room. I’ve never paid that much.

You can go a lot cheaper though as well. There are a TON of hotels near Edgeware Road and Marble Arch that are convenient to the Tube and the buses. They range from £25 a night and up. Just a word of warning, Edgeware Road is where a lot of prostitutes hang out. Most seem like really nice ladies, just trying to make a living. I’ve chatted with a few on my walks to and from my hotel when business was slow for them, and I’ve never had any issues. But if you’re antsy about that type of behavior, then you may want to stay elsewhere. With that said, once you go past the gauntlet of streetwalkers, there are some really nice hotels and B&Bs along gardens and quiet streets at very reasonable prices. Just walk along the rows of hotels and pop in. If there is a vacancy they will have a sign, and no one ever has a problem showing you the rooms.

You can find a lot of cheap rooms around the Earls Court station, but that neighborhood sets me on edge sometimes. It is very busy and crowded. I lived in New York City for ages and busy streets don’t bother me, but Earls Court makes my nerves bad at night. I like going to clubs and bars late, and would rather not take a taxi so that is an issue for me.

If you want high end, it’s there for you too. Once, I was flush with cash decided to stay at the Dorchester, which was around £300 a night. I didn’t pay that, of course, but you get the idea. Five star hotels are plentiful in the capital city.

One thing you won’t find at the smaller hotels, is an elevator (lift). In London, they build up, not out … so even if the hotel has 5 floors, you’re probably going to have to walk up the steps. That’s what led me to the Notting Hill Hotel. My favorite B & B off Edgeware Road always had a room for me, but I got tired of lugging my heavy, overstuffed suitcases (What?! I’m a woman, of course I overpack!) up three or more flights of stairs. The Notting Hill Hotel has an elevator that usually works.

To and Fro!

You’re in London, you have a place to stay, now you need to get around.

It’s a shame the double decker buses aren’t open anymore, because that was such a great way to see the sights. You don’t know fun and freedom, until you ride on the back of a bus in the middle of traffic, holding on to a skinny pole, then jumping off because something looks interesting. Now, you have to ring the bell and wait for the stop. Zzzz.

The Underground is so extensive. I don’t know which city has the better transit system … New York or London. They are both spectacular. I highly recommend getting an Oyster card. I would get an unlimited ride, so you can travel on all the buses and trains, and all times of day or night. The night buses are fantastic and go everywhere you would probably want to go.

Taxis are great, but charge extra for rush hour, extra for nights, extra for early morning, extra if you chew gum. Okay maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. Anytime people are more likely to need a cab, they are going to cost more.

Oyster cards are plastic cards you tap on the train turnstile or on the bus. The pay as you go fare for Zone 1 is £1.90, £8.00 a day and £27.60 (for Zones 1 and 2) for a week. Check out the map for an explanation of the zones. One thing to be mindful of: the steps! London Tube stations are very deep underground. Hampstead station is more than 190 feet below ground. In case you’re ever tempted to walk up the steps, there are signs to tell you how many there are. I think there are close to 200 at Covent Garden station.


What makes my first visit to London so memorable is that it was my first.

I enjoyed walking around Covent Garden’s Apple Market, looking at the craftsmen, eating a jacket potato (baked potato) in the middle of the square and chasing off the pigeons. I loved exploring Oxford Street and discovering H & M. Before then, I’d never seen so many fabulous clothes for plus sized women. (Sad they don’t do it anymore here in U.S.) Eating chips (French fries) out of paper, soaked in malt vinegar on the corner waiting for the bus after a night of dancing is refreshing. I’ve never eaten so much yummy Indian food in my life, and most of all I discovered Tesco! It’s the best grocery store ever and the low prices on soon to expire foods, kept my student tummy from growling.

I saw Elton John on the street outside Gucci. He was wearing what I can only describe as a “fruit stripe gum” suit, and I was stunned speechless.

London is a very multi-cultural city and there’s so much to see and do.

I hope your first visit can be half as memorable as mine.

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