This section is dedicated to take away all your "I wish someone had told me that before I went!" experiences. This way, you are better prepared for what to expect, what not to expect and can spend less time settling in, and more time making new friends in your chosen hostel. We share our insider knowledge of tips, tricks and important things to look out for in London. To help you make friends with London before you visit, we've included a few helpful and fun things you should know about the area. Enjoy!
London is the bustling capital of England and the United Kingdom, and offers everything and anything one could ever wish for. It is widespread and divided into numerous suburbs, which are all unique in their own way.
Whether it’s your first time in England or you’ve been to London before, there is always something new to discover. It’s a huge, ever-changing city!
Is London for me? Definitely - London doesn’t discriminate! It happens to be one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Solo travellers, couples, groups, families, backpackers and friends will all find hostels and activities to suit them.
Why should I consider backpacking London? Vibrant cuisine scene, world class museums, street entertainment, theatre, iconic landmarks, fabulous hostels, fantastic nightlife. Is that enough to tempt you?
Backpacking London is entirely possible on a budget. Due to the expanse and endless options of accommodation, budget travellers are in luck. Of course the opposite is true, too. If you fancy splashing out on a poshtel or high-end hostel, it’s all possible.
To help you organise, plan and prepare check out:
- Getting to London
- What to expect of London Hostels
- London suburbs (+ best areas to stay)
- 1-3 Days in London (Itinerary)
- MUST-SEE and MUST-DO in London
- FREE things to do in London
- Top London Festivals & Events
- London Tips + Safety
- Useful Information
Getting to London
London has four major airports that you might be flying into and countless options to get to the city. It is always a good idea to know which suburb you are heading to in order to figure out which bus or train to take to get there.
The 4 main airports are:
1. Heathrow International
2. Airport Gatwick Airport
3. Luton Airport
4. London City Airport
This is assuming you plan to stay in the city. Otherwise, if London is simply a part of your route to other parts of England, Stansted and Southend are options on the outskirts of the city.
The best way to access the city centre is by underground. Get a map of the London tube at the airport and ask for assistance at the counter. It’s most likely that you will need to take a bus or train first, especially if you’re flying into an airport that isn’t central.
If you are staying for a couple of days, there are discounted multi-day tickets for the public transport which are good value.
Top tip: Invest in an Oyster Card to save money and make travel around London easier and faster. This can be used on the bus, tube, London Overground TfL Rail, tram and National Rail Journeys.
What to expect of London Hostels
London hostels are abundant and you can find accommodation in every area of the city. Nice neighborhoods to stay in include Kensington and Paddington, which both offer a wide range of sleeping options.
As with hostels anywhere in the world, there are pros and cons. London hostels of course have both.
Here is an overview of the general pros and cons that hostels in London incorporate. It’s just to give you an idea of what to expect, but shouldn’t become a solid expectation. Each hostel is unique in vibe, design and location. It’s always up to you as a traveller to read reviews, check photos and read the hostel description before booking.
Remember: there are different hostel types. London has hostels specifically for backpackers, party hostels and some ideal for families. This is important to know so that you do not choose the wrong hostel type for you and become disappointed.
Pros of London Hostels
- Super Social: Many (if not most) hostels offer organised activities and hostel events. Or they include free walking tours of the city.
- Free breakfast is a common occurrence
- The price range is excellent, from budget all the way up to luxurious
- Hostels can be found in EVERY suburb of London & greater London
- Many hostels are situated inside historical buildings that represent true quintessential England and character
Cons of London Hostels
- In general, do not expect hostels in London to be spacious; rooms tend to be on the tiny side and it might be difficult to move around without running into something
- Privacy curtains haven’t caught on (yet) in London, though some hostels do offer them
- There are seriously too many choices!
London Suburbs Explained (+ best areas to stay)
Honestly, it does not really make a big difference where your hostel is located since London has a comprehensive public transport system. It is possible to get literally anywhere within a reasonable amount of time.
However, it’s always nice to have an idea about what the major suburbs offer and why you may or may not wish to stay there.
Here is a list of the main suburbs of the city:
1. The West End (Soho, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Mayfair)
2. South Bank (numerous attractions, handy for Gatwick Airport)
3. Kensington (Hyde Park, handy for Heathrow Airport, several big attractions)
4. South Kensington (great for major museums)
5. Camden Town (famous market, live music, street performers)
6. Westminster (Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Downing Street)
7. Shoreditch (Hip, trendy and artistic area + Brick Lane)
8. City of London (Financial district, skyscrapers, Tower of London)
Here’s a map of all the aforementioned suburbs. Now you can visually see each area in relation to the city centre and decide where you’d prefer to stay. You’re welcome.
Note: this is no way near a comprehensive list of all the suburbs in London.
Things to do in London in 1 day & Beyond
For those of you that aren’t sure how to make the most of your short time in London; this section is for you. Here you will find some itineraries for spending 1 to 3 days in The Big Smoke.
As there are so many possibilities of how to spend your time, we’ve collected the absolute must-see and must-do when you don’t have the time or money to spend a significant time in London.
Best places to visit in London in One Day
Ok, so you have 24 hours in London, how do you spend it?
Firstly, we suggest choosing a hostel that is central and close to top attractions. This will save you time getting from A to B. If you’re keen on meeting new people and aren’t keen on self-organising, choose a hostel that offers a free walking tour and other organised events.
Here is a short list of the best things to do in London in 1 day:
- Start the day with an English Breakfast Covent Garden (buy locals foods & souvenirs)
- Join a free walking tour of the city (see, learn, meet people)
- Venture to see Big Ben, London Eye & Buckingham Palace
- Spend a couple of hours in the Natural History Museum
- Experience London Nightlife (join a pub crawl with your hostel)
48 Hours in London Itinerary
With two days, you can relax a little and spread out your energy without burning out.
The same goes as above: stay in a central hostel and spend the first day exploring some of the famous sights. There are many of these, so pick the ones that most stand out for you. If you wish to see London from up high, consider having a go on the London Eye, or enjoy some food in the Sky Garden.
What about on day 2? This day can be used to enjoy fun activities that take up a bit more time.
For example, you could spend the day going between the free museums, make a visit to the zoo or aquarium, or head to Madame Tussauds or the London Dungeons. In the evening, you can grab yourself a discounted theatre ticket and head to the West End.
3 nights in London Itinerary
Spending at least 3 nights and 3 days in London is advised. It gives you a chance to really get an idea of what London offers without the stress of watching the clock.
If you skipped straight to this section, refer to ‘1 day in London’ and 48 hours in London to see some ideas of how to spend your first two days.
What about on day 3? Having an extra day gives you the opportunity to go back to somewhere you went to the past couple of days if the first time wasn’t enough. Another option is to enjoy the many beautiful parks if the weather is good. Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and St. James Park are all lovely - take a picnic!
If you haven’t already, why not wander aimlessly or hop on a tube and see where it takes you. Join a hostel activity, or spend the day coffee shop hopping and feast on traditional British food. Go to a theatre show in the daytime or simply watch live street performers. The choice is yours.
MUST-SEE sights + Things to do in London
Anyone taking the time to London should make time for the most famous and iconic sights. Why? Because it would be rude not to!
More seriously; these iconic or famous sights are popular for a reason. London sights specifically are full of interesting history, unique architecture and make for excellent photos to send home.
Top tip: Purchase The London Pass if you intend on visiting many major attractions in a short period of time. It includes free entry to places like the Shard, London Zoo and Westminster Abbey.
So, during your time in London we recommend enjoying (at least) these 10 must-see sights to visit in London:
1. Big Ben
2. London Eye
3. Buckingham Palace
4. Tower Bridge & Tower of London
5. Parks: Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Kensington Gardens
6. Covent Garden
7. Natural History Museum
8. Trafalgar Square & Leicester Square
9. Borough Market
10. Sky Garden
So now that we’ve covered the top sights to see, let’s cover the top things to do. These things are more interactive and involve more than just taking a photo before walking off.
Again, there are ENDLESS possibilities in this city. This is just to highlight the top activities that travellers love about London.
The top 10 things to do in London are:
1. SEA LIFE London Aquarium
2. London Dungeon
3. Camden Market
4. ZSL London Zoo
5. Wembley Stadium - see a game
6. Madame Tussauds
7. Lyceum Theatre - The Lion King Musical
8. Join a Free Walking Tour
9. King’s Cross Station - home of platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter
10. Cruise/walk along on the River Thames
FREE things to do in London
Are you travelling London on a budget? If the answer is yes, you’ll be very pleased to know that it’s completely possible to explore this capital city without breaking the bank.
That’s because there are so many things to do in London for free.
From wandering on foot, taking yourself on a photography safari and hitting up the museums - it’s easy to get to know London without spending a fortune.
One thing London is famous for is its historic influence. And with this, many of the must-see sights are old buildings, museums and beautiful parks. Many of which are free for the public!
Come one, let’s have a look at just some of the free activities to enjoy.
Disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list and only includes a select few ideas to encourage budget travellers to visit this incredible city.
- Watch the Changing of the Guard (everyday @ Buckingham Palace, 11:30am)
- Enjoy street performers & artists (Covent Garden, along the river)
- Go to Hyde park for swimming, walking, cycling, squirrels
- Free museums: National Gallery, Science Museum, Tate Britain + many more
- Find a red telephone box & capture it
- Explore Camden Town & people watch
- Free food tasting @ Borough Market
- Go for a walk along the Thames after dark
- Join a free city walking tour
- Head to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday morning
Top London Festivals & Events
The capital city of the UK has, as expected, plenty of amazing festivals and events happening throughout the year. If you’re travelling to London during the peak season, it’s likely that you will have a chance to join in something fun and unique.
Some of the most well known festivals and events include:
1. Notting Hill Carnival (August)
2. London Marathon (April)
3. Wimbledon (late June/early July)
4. NYE & New Year’s Day Parade
5. Boat Race on the Thames (April)
6. Chelsea Flower Show (May)
7. Trooping the Colour aka Queen’s Birthday Parade (June)
8. The Proms (August)
9. London Film Festival (August)
10. City of London Festival (June or July)
Even if you’re not interested in attending any of these events or festivals, it’s always a good idea to be aware of when they are taking place. Larger festivals such as Notting Hill completely take over the area, so travel can become difficult without getting caught up in it.
Travel in London Tips (+ Safety)
Here are some fun and helpful tips for travelling London, put forward by locals that have experienced the city firsthand. The more you know!
+ Buy your theatre tickets on the day (for discounts upto 50%)
+ Ask hostel staff for local restaurant/pub recommendations
+ Plan your travel routes before you head off (save time & stress)
+ Avoid West End clubs (over-priced, full of tourists and no locals)
+ Book as many attractions as possible in advance to avoid disappointment
+ Make use of the hop-on hop-off buses and river cruises
+ Use a credit or travel card instead of cash. Carry some cash for tipping and street entertainers.
+ Pack an umbrella. It rains a lot in London
+ Pret gives out free coffee - GO! (not to everyone, but it’s worth a try)
+ Eat like a Brit: English Breakfast, fish ‘n’ chips, tea & cake, bangers and mash
+ Don’t shop on Oxford Street on a Saturday (overcrowded, tube closures)
+ Rent a street bicycle and explore
+ Always stand on the right side of escalators so others can pass on the left
+ Speak to local Londeners; they’re friendly!
+ Use please, thank you and sorry liberally. Brits are very polite so try and blend in.
First and foremost, in an emergency call 999 or 112 - both of these numbers are free to call and connect you with the police, ambulance and fire department.
Make sure you only use registered taxis and minicabs.
Keep all belongings close when you’re out and about anywhere in the city, including on the Underground.
Don’t leave things unattended or have your bag open.
Keep to well-lit roads at night, and stick in a group where possible.
Pickpockets exist in London. Don’t put your phone in your back pocket.
London has a huge drinking culture. Pubs, clubs and nightclubs can get rowdy and aggressive. Avoid late night trains and buses, especially at weekends.
Avoid wearing a football shirt when there is a big match happening - don’t rumble the football hooligans!
It can be scary to arrive in a brand new city and not understand how things work. London can be quite overwhelming when you’re not used to it, so it’s best to be prepared.
Here is a list of the most useful information about London you’re going to need.
Currency: Great British Pound (GBP) - £ - also known locally as ‘quid’ with no plural. E.g. Five quid, twenty quid. One hundred pence makes up one pound.
Best time to visit: As weather is quite unpredictable in England, no matter what time of year you visit you’re never certain to have warm, sunny days. That being said, between March and May (Spring) tend to be mildest months. Summer (June to August) is the peak tourist season. This is a good time to visit because there are plenty of fun things going on, including plenty of street entertainment.
How long to stay: There is no firm answer to this one. Obviously, the longer you stay the more chance you have to explore and see more of London. It also depends on your budget. A visit of 2-3 days is recommended, at least.
Getting around London: Easily the #1 way to explore London is to take the London Underground aka The Tube. This underground system is fast, reliable and extends across the entirety of the city. It’s also a nice idea to walk as much as possible to get your bearings. Travelling on the Tube can be disorienting and so many interesting things are missed. Remember to get hold of an Oyster Card for all public transportation.
Public Holidays: Knowing when the public holidays occur in England is really useful information. These dates may differ each year, but usually occur around the same time. Some things to be aware of when public holidays are taking place:
1. Public transport and attractions in London may be reduced and have limited opening hours.
2. Restaurants, attractions and shops close over Christmas Day and Boxing Day. There is also no public transport on these days.
3. School holidays = a busier London. Check to see if these clash with your travels.
Fun fact: Public holidays are also known as “bank holidays” in the UK.
Major public holidays to be aware of include New Year’s Day, Good Friday (early April), Easter Monday, May/Spring/Summer bank holiday (Friday or Monday), Christmas and Boxing Day.
Tipping: Yes, tipping is a thing in England, though it isn’t as expected or strict as in the USA. In a restaurant, a tip of 10% is expected for table orders. However! There is this thing called a ‘service charge’ which is often included in the order. Check the receipt and do not tip extra if a service charge is present. Tipping is optional, rather than expected. For instance, In a relaxed pub environment, it’s not really necessary.
Toilet charges: Yep, charged toilets are sadly a thing in London, usually costing 20-30 pence. However, there are also plenty of free toilets in the city. All of London’s mainline National Rail stations have free toilet facilities, and you do not need to be travelling anywhere to use them. For those with incontinence issues, there are some great toilet-finding apps including Flush app and Toilet Finder.
London Taxis: Okay, let’s make this less confusing for you. London taxis are also known as a Hackney carriage, cab or black cab. You’re only legally allowed to ‘flag down’ (wave a taxi to stop) a black cab - if the Taxi sign is illuminated yellow, it’s free. They are metered and the starting price is £3. Find our more detailed information and guidelines for London Taxis here.
Terrorism precautions: Terrorism has unfortunately occured in London, and it’s still a sensitive subject. As the official warning is still set at ‘highly likely’, you can expect to have your bags checked at places like museums and mass-gathering areas. Tube stations are also closed when bomb scares are present. Just be aware of this, but don’t worry about it too much.
Written by local enthusiast for London hostelsKelly