If you visit London once and don’t almost die crossing the street, then let me ask: did you really visit London?
These are the mega-philosophical questions I ask when I find myself in England’s infectious capital, alongside “how many cups of tea is too many”, “why can’t I stop making accidental eye contact on the Tube”, and “where was Harry Potter filmed…?“
You see, London is a funny place. On one hand, it’s totally optimized for tourism, has cool attractions by the bucket load and is an absolute traveller’s dream.
On the other, it’s a vacation disaster waiting to happen. I say this because London, while one of the most lovable cities in the world, is laden with traps that could easily trump any first time visitor – cars on the opposite side of the road for instance, or words pronounced nothing like they’re spelled.
After visiting the city over 6 times in the past few years, I’ve learned a thing or two about what NOT to do in London, and so, in an attempt to convert all my embarrassing stories into actual useful information, today’s post will be all about common London travel mistakes.
In this post, you’ll find THE classic 1st timer mistakes to avoid when you visit London. It’s a long list, but I promise it’ll make your London travel experience 100% smoother. Here we gooo…
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1. Looking the wrong way when crossing the street
So back to the whole getting run over thing: the first time I visited London, I almost died about five times.
Brits drive on the left, which sounds quirky and innocent enough until you realize it turns every street crossing into an auto-fuelled death trap.
This has become such a problem that most crosswalks in touristy areas literally have “LOOK LEFT” and “LOOK RIGHT” painted on the pavement in aggressive white block letters.
Seeing as how survival is pretty critical to your enjoyment of beautiful London town, I highly recommend you look both ways before crossing the street, especially the correct way (as dictated by the block letters).
Essentially what I’m saying is: please for the love of Cumberbatch, don’t get run over.
2. Riding the Tube like a newb
One of the most traditional and sacred art forms in London is navigating the city’s underground train system, AKA riding the Tube. I’ll admit, this was one of the most stressful parts of visiting London for the first time because it’s horrifically hectic, there’s a million lines and it seems like literally everyone else knows what they’re doing.
So, to save you from distress when riding London’s beloved Tube, here are a few easy rules to keep in mind…
Get an Oyster Card (or use your Contactless payments): I’m not even sure if buying single tickets are a thing anymore because it’s so rare. The public transport in London relies on a tap in/out system that automatically charges you, and using an Oyster Card or your contactless card will help you score the lowest rate possible (and takes the guess work out of what tickets to buy). Using your contactless card is the most convenient, but depending on where you’re from you might incur expensive foreign transaction fees. Most visitors will instead buy an Oyster card (a refillable card that you can buy with a refundable £5 deposit). These are available at all stations, but you can also buy one in advance online here.
Keep your card, tickets or railpasses handy: Basically, to gain access to underground trains, you need to tap in, but to leave the station, you need to tap out. Most Londoners have nailed this process, which means if you need to stop and block traffic in order to rummage through your bag for your card, you will be pissing a lot of people off. *sips tea angrily*
Don’t stand on the left side of the elevator: That side is for impatient and fit people who enjoy treating escalators like stairs. Don’t you dare block that path by standing there or putting luggage there, otherwise you will face the ultimate wrath of British people: silent rage, accompanied by a subtle tut.
Avoid rush hour at all costs. Just don’t do it. It’s horrible. There’s nothing worse than baking in a sea of hot humans (temperature, not looks) during the busiest time of day, looking everywhere to avoid awkward eye contact. I would never ride the Tube by choice between 7:30-9am and 5-7pm.
3. Pronouncing English words totally wrong
Let me tell you, British English is a trap.
They lure you in with the charming accent and cute little phrases, then promptly throw you under (double decker) buses with words that are said completely not how they’re spelled.
It’s like one day they decided it’d be funny to watch tourists fail, and just arbitrarily conjured up random non-phonetic pronunciations. And yes, while in the grand scheme of London mistakes, this one is pretty low key, with the sole consequence being embarrassment and shame, I figured it was better to warn you so you can be aware & careful before asking a stranger for directions.
So when you need to get to Leicester Square looking for THAT filming spot from Harry Potter, know that you’re looking for “LEST-ER Square” and not “Lay-chest-er” or “Lei-sess-ter” Square.
Also know that “Greenwich” is pronounced less like the Wicked Witch of the West (“green witch”) and more like a malady experienced by senior aged women (“gran itch”).
… You’ve been warned.
4. Thinking cash is all you need
This one is weird… and unexpected, but there are now some places in London that are “card only”. Like, enough places for me to add this mistake to the list. SO, know that you should probably bring some cards with you in addition to cash when you visit London.
Especially at markets , there are some places that have decided to join the whole cashless revolution, so make sure you also have a credit/debit card or Apple Pay in addition to the bills in yo’ pocket.
5. Not knowing the lingo
So, as I said earlier, British English is…….. different.
And if you’re from outside of England like me, sometimes it may feel like you’re speaking an entirely different language.
To ensure your visit to London is smooth and stress-free, I recommend you brush up a little on classic, frequently used terms.
For instance, (this is currency, but still): remember we are dealing with pounds here instead of dollars, and pence instead of cents. Alternatively you might hear the word “quid” in place of pounds, (5 quid means 5 pounds) or sometimes when they’re feeling especially cute, they might even say 5 squids. This is not a joke. I can’t believe I had to explain that.
When asking for the washroom, if you feel silly saying “loo” (it honestly doesn’t sound cute without a British accent), the word toilet is much more common. “Excuse me, which way is the toilet?”
In England, you’re looking for the lift and not the elevator. You also put your trash in the bin and not the garbage can. If you see a line-up, that’s called a queue here, and don’t you DARE jump any queues. Queuing is basically England’s national sport (next to avoiding eye contact on the Tube).
Lastly, when at a bar, you can order by the pint or a “half” (half pint). Some places do “a third” as well.
BONUS: This happens way more outside of London, but you might notice some people will use “You alright?” as a greeting, like how we use “hey, how are you?” So, if random people like shop clerks are asking you if you’re alright, they’re just saying hi, they’re not probing into the deepest depths of your mental state.
6. Overloading your itinerary
Okay, next up: when you visit London, one thing you need to constantly keep in mind is that London is absolutely massive, so a) don’t expect to cover everything in a single trip and b) make sure you plan your day and its stops wisely.
There’s a common London joke that I have found to be eerily truthful: no matter where you go in the city, everything in London is 40 minutes away from the other. You do not realize the accuracy of this statement until you actually get to the city. It’s scary.
Anyways, the point is: London is big, the neighbourhoods are far apart, and you can expect to spend 40min in transit going to any given place. In short, you can’t to cover everything in one go. Attempting to do so will really ruin your trip!
So, before you leave, take a look at your itinerary and make sure you’re not cramming it with activities that are all over the map. Make sure you organize your day in a way that makes geographical sense, and of course leave some breathing room so you’re not stressed the entire time.
7. Assuming everything will be smooth
London’s public transport is one of the most iconic things about the city. I mean, does it really get more “London” than red double decker buses and stuffy rides on the Tube?
It’s therefore kind of hilarious how often things go terribly wrong with London’s transport system.
Straight up, I’ve never NOT encountered some kind of transport trouble in London. There’s always something.
There was that time my airport train was inexplicably cancelled because of “fire”… or the incessant works on random underground lines that always somehow clash with my own personal commute.
So, understanding that the London underground is a maze of transfers, escalators, mysterious odours and locals who are sick of your confused BS, expect that something will go wrong, allocate extra time for your commute, and be familiar with your plan Bs.
8. Doing too many paid London attractions
London is a city that’s crawling with cool attractions… famous ones to boot (including the amaaazing Warner Bros Studio Tour, which is where they filmed Harry Potter).
Anyways, given how many amazing attractions you can find in London, your first instinct might be to do them all. LONDON EYE. BUCKINGHAM PALACE. TOWER OF LONDON. MADAME TUSSAUDS. *foams at the mouth*
Okay, I get that you want to see it all, do it all, gram it all… but attractions add up. London is not a cheap city to visit as it is, and doing paid attraction after attraction is one of the surest and quickest ways to burn through your budget in a hot minute. Plus you’ll be spending most of your day braving horrific line-ups.
But here’s the good news: London has tons of free attractions you can take advantage of. Click here for a full list.
I highly recommend you cap your paid attractions to only a few that you really, really want to do, then devote the rest of your time to these amazing free attractions, and to eating more delicious food with that money you’ve saved 😉
9. Being too reliant on Google Maps in London
As a forever-lost human potato, I (more often than not) rely on the great Google Map deities to safely get me from Point A to Point B.
I would not advise this in London.
Instead, you should make sure you have the CityMapper app downloaded to your phone.
CityMapper is a free app beloved by locals that is more up-to-date on delays, closures, route possibilities and more, making it a far superior option to Google Maps. They even have a calorie counter for the walking option. If that’s not wild, I don’t know what is. This is one of my favourite apps for European travel, so be sure to check it out!
10. Forgetting that there’s no phone service on the Tube
I don’t know about you, but my phone is my BFF when I’m on public transit. Luckily, the two cities I’ve lived in (Munich and Vancouver) both have pretty excellent phone service even underground.
… The same cannot be said for London.
There’s zero service on underground trains in London so make sure you A) have offline maps downloaded or something so that you can reroute if things go wrong and B) bring something to entertain yourself on the train… after all, everything in London is 40 minutes away, remember?
Seriously though, bring a book or something. Otherwise, you’re doomed to awkward scrolling on your phone pretending like you have service when everyone else knows you’re as dead on the inside as they are.
11. Ignoring all the signs in London
I know this long list of mistakes is scary, but let me continue with a mildly re-assuring statement: London is 100% optimized for tourism. Like, their national animal might as well be a confused North American waddling into the wrong side of the road.
SO, know this: if you keep your eyes open, there are signs literally everywhere that will guide you to here you need to go, especially if your destination is a touristy place like an attraction or museum.
That said, most first time visitors blindly miss these signs. Don’t make that mistake! Keep an eye out for signs that lead to main attractions and hotspots. If you’re confused or lost, look for some kind of sign, or worst comes to worst, just ask someone. Sure, your question might seem silly to a local, but if they’ve been living in London for a while, odds are good that they’ve heard a dumber question before.
12. Relying on the underground too much
Okay I know I said that London is huge, and it may be tempting to ride the Tube everywhere to save your poor legs from disintegrating…
But if you’re constantly chugging along on the underground and not taking the time to absorb your surroundings, then you’re missing out severely on one the most beautiful things to do in London: meander and dreamily stare at everything like you’re the protagonist in some coming of age film.
So here’s my suggestion: walk as much as you possibly can within neighbourhoods and then take the Tube to cover huge distances.
13. Eating only in restaurants
London is one of the best foodie cities in the world.
There’s thousands of options from every cuisine imaginable, but as a visitor, if you’re dining exclusively in restaurants, you’re missing out on one of my favourite London experiences: food markets! Or markets in generally really, because there’s always food stalls. Yay.
Please I beg you, at least once during your trip, get a meal from a food market. Not only will it be much, MUCH cheaper than dining in a restaurant, it’s also just an exciting experience you need to try. Borough Market is a foodie favourite, but of course these days it’s very touristy. Other markets I love for food are Greenwich Market, Brick Lane Market, nearby Old Spitalfields Market and I’ve heard great things about Maltby St Market too.
14. Eating only fish and chips
I get it: I, too, get that feverish, compulsive need to “eat THE thing at THE place” – gelato in Italy for instance (never a mistake) or the classic: fish and chips in London.
BUT I mean… while the country’s most “famous” foods are greasily delicious, the London food scene has far more to offer than English classics like fish & chips, fry-ups, steak pies and other amazing artery-clogging delights.
In my opinion, one of the best things about London is the truly terrifying abundance of international food options, enough to paralyze any indecisive foodie. This is why I highly recommend you diversify your meals in London, maybe visit some food markets and enjoy this amazing access you have to a global flavour palette! Sticking to the stereotypical foods means you’re missing out big time on some of London’s best foods.
15. Sticking only to “Central London”
I really enjoyed London on my first visit, when I flounced from sight to sight, doing all the touristy musts that had topped my bucket list for so long.
It wasn’t until subsequent visits though that I really “FELL” for London.
While clamouring at the gates of Buckingham Palace (like a peasant) is fun, and scoring selfies by iconic sights like Tower Bridge is great, London’s diverse neighbourhoods are where I think the city really shines…
Best of all, there’s a little something different for everyone. I mean, between the colourful charm of Notting Hill (which is glorious in May by the way), the hipster vibes at Shoreditch, the insanely posh Chelsea/South Kensington, there’s SO much to see and explore outside of the very city center, so make sure to carve out some time for that as well.
Here’s my tip: do all the touristy musts, but then pick one additional neighbourhood to explore independently. I promise you it’s the best!
16. Waiting in Line for Attractions When You Don’t Have To
Spontaneity is great, but when you’re a first time visitor to London, you will be joined by thousands (dare I say… millions?!) who are looking to check the same things off their bucket list. This means long lines, for pretty much everything.
The worst thing you can do in London though is waste all your eatin’ and explorin’ time rotting in a line-up (I mean queue). So, here are some tips:
If you know what attractions you want to see, book in advance online and get a skip the line ticket. These are usually not that much more expensive, and given that time is money, they’re more than worth it. Browse the best deals on advance tickets for London’s top attractions here.
Time the biggest attractions strategically. If you can’t book in advance, definitely avoid going to big attractions in the middle of the day. Early morning or even better, just before closing time is often way less busy.
17. Missing London’s amazing (free) viewpoints
Going back to the point about London being horrifically expensive, one of the main mistakes I’ve noticed with first time visitors to London is that they miss out on all the FREE viewpoints you can get in the city, opting instead for touristy paid views like the London Eye or the Shard.
Save your money. Here are a few of my favourite free viewpoints in London:
Tate Modern – the views over the Thames from the viewing level terrace are too good to pass up. Plus the museum itself is free and awesome too.
Sky Garden – free, but you need to book in advance and the tickets go QUICKLY. Usually tickets are released every Monday up to a week in advance. Click here to book.
Primrose Hill – a farther away view of the skyline in a very pretty park/colourful neighbourhood.
18. Treating London like your playground
Okay, so this final mistake is more of a respect thing than anything else, but it’s important. Remember that London is far more than just a check off your bucket list: literally millions of people live here and call it home.
SO remember to use your common sense and never do anything you wouldn’t want someone else to do in your own home… Don’t go trespassing onto private property just to get a fake candid in front of a colourful wall, don’t be loud and disruptive if you’re wandering around a cute residential neighbourhood, etc. etc.
Planning to visit London?
Whew! I hope you enjoyed this post full of London travel mistakes. Be sure to save this post for later and feel free to ask away if you have any more questions!