London is undoubtedly one of the top urban destinations in the world, with the 9-million-strong metropolis offering countless things to see, do, buy, eat and drink. The city’s size and abundance of opportunities can work against it, however, and first-time visitors can easily feel overwhelmed and confused. But don’t worry if you haven’t been to London before – our guide to London for first-timers is here with the down-low on all the unmissable highlights. Welcome to LDN!
Guide to a weekend in London for first-timers
In this guide
- Start the day with a fry-up
- See the sights
- Visit a museum
- Treat yourself to afternoon tea
- Go for a walk in the park
- Take in the view from above
- Have a proper pint at a proper pub
- Do a spot of shopping
- Enjoy authentic British cuisine
- Catch a show
- Party the night away
Start the day with a fry-up
British breakfast favourites
A destination for classic British cuisine and art, Dean Street Townhouse showcases an impressive collection with works by acclaimed artists such as Peter Blake and Tracey Emin. National breakfast favourites such as kippers, bacon sandwiches and, of course, the Full English are all available on the menu. You can also go for lighter choices, for example boiled eggs and toast soldiers.
Hyped breakfast eatery
These snug North London spots are a very popular breakfast choice, with the huge buzz and limited seating meaning you might have to queue. Your wait will be rewarded with flavourful British and Mediterranean-inspired breakfast dishes, accompanied by fresh smoothies or hot drinks. In addition to the classic fry-up, you'll find plenty of egg-based dishes, pancakes and more on the menu.
If you’re a late riser or have awkward travel plans, Polo Bar will ensure you don’t miss the most important meal of the day, regardless of the actual time. This cheery 24-hour café serves a varied menu of simple, freshly prepared food. All the staples are present and accounted for, from Eggs Benedict to the Full English and American-style pancakes. You can order alcoholic drinks 24 hours a day as well.
See the sights
The most famous palace in the world
A must-see landmark in London, Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of the British monarch and was built in the 1700s. For the classic experience, gaze upon the building from the outside and wait for the famous changing of the guard. During the summer months, you can venture into the palace itself, visit the lavish State Rooms and learn more about past, present and future of the royal family.
Historic riverside castle
Walk the grounds, moat and ramparts of this awe-inspiring fortress by the Thames to learn about its history, which goes back more than 1,000 years and is often bathed in blood. The Tower of London was the key to controlling the country for many centuries and there are intriguing exhibits from throughout its past. You can see everything from historic clothes and everyday objects to weapons and more, with the undisputed highlight being the Crown Jewels.
The seat of UK government
The Palace of Westminster is home to the UK’s parliament and the famed Big Ben tower, providing an iconic backdrop for many a postcard or photo. You can discover the rich history of this immediately recognisable landmark with a guided tour of the landmark, or even attend a committee session or parliament debate and bear witness to politicians shaping everyday life in the UK.
Immediately recognisable cathedral
Dominating London’s skyline with its characteristic dome, one of the largest ones on the planet, the majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous sights in the capital. The regular daily services are open to the public, or you can visit it for sightseeing. Important national figures such as Admiral Nelson are buried in the crypts at this Grade I listed landmark, and you can climb the dome for splendid views of the city.
The main square
One of London’s best-known sights, Trafalgar Square is regularly used for all sorts of celebrations, demonstrations and other mass gatherings. It features a central column honouring Admiral Nelson’s triumph over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar, an elaborate fountain and other sculptures, including a plinth for changing contemporary art installations.
Imposing bridge across the Thames
You can view the landmark Tower Bridge across the Thames from afar, or delve deeper with a visit inside the attraction itself. Guided and self-guided tours of the bridge are both available, allowing you to explore the engine rooms, walkways and towers at your own pace. Those brave enough can even venture onto the glass walkway between the two towers for spectacular views of the river.
Visit a museum
The story of mankind
Spanning the whole of human history, the British Museum was the first national museum on the planet to open its doors to the broader public. Its permanent collection of about eight million artefacts from all over the world is one of the largest ones anywhere, with highlights including the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian mummies. Entry is free.
The story of the planet
A must-visit for anyone who comes to London, the Natural History Museum stuns from the moment you enter. The vast central hall is dominated by Hope, the giant skeleton of a blue whale that hangs from the ceiling. The many halls of this grand building, itself a London landmark, feature extraordinary displays of extinct species, dinosaur fossils, a moon rock and more natural wonders.
Art and design through the ages
When it comes to arts, design and performance, you can’t beat the Victoria & Albert Museum. With over 2.7 million works spanning five millennia, it’s the largest such establishment in the world. Highlights include Tippoo's Tiger, the Mazarin Chest and Auguste Rodin's Cybele, but there are paintings, ceramics, fashion items, contemporary designs and much more. The gift shop is worth checking out as well.
Treat yourself to afternoon tea
Award-winning afternoon tea
Popular with tea enthusiasts, The Goring Hotel has won awards for its afternoon tea service. The seasonally changing menus highlight the freshest fruit available, carefully sourced from local producers, and there’s a gluten-free option available as well. You can enjoy the exclusive tea blends and homemade snacks and jams in the beautiful Veranda space.
World-famous afternoon tea
Afternoon tea in the Thames Foyer at the Savoy Hotel is served in a sophisticated glass-domed venue. Seated in the space dedicated to afternoon tea, you can enjoy lovely views of the Thames while nibbling on sandwiches, scones and pastries. The changing afternoon tea menu always includes more than 30 types of tea, but you can also make the experience more indulgent by adding a glass of champagne.
For a classic English afternoon tea, head to The Lounge at Royal Horseguards Hotel. In the regal setting, you can enjoy a refined afternoon tea with traditional sandwiches and sweet treats. The house tea blend is designed specifically to complement the food, and the proximity to the famed Trafalgar Square rounds of the Britishness of the experience.
Go for a walk in the park
Broad swath of greenery in Central London
The world-famous Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are part of the Royal Parks chain that connects Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace. You can stroll around the wide green spaces, enjoy the nice weather, go boating or take a look at sights such as the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the original Speakers’ Corner. The parks also often host huge concerts, the annual Winter Wonderland festive fair and other massive events.
Wild parkland across 800 acres
An integral part of life in the capital, the wild woodlands and meadows of Hampstead Heath offer all the usual park activities, from strolling, jogging and cycling to swimming in the Ponds. You can also climb Parliament Hill for a panoramic view of the London skyline, or visit the attractions scattered around this vast green area, such as Kenwood manor house or the Hill Garden Pergola – a popular spot for a bit of photography.
Historic 19th century cemeteries
Unlike the usually quite lively public parks, the Magnificent Seven cemeteries are suited to a more sombre, reflective stroll among the elaborate monuments. The Victorian garden-style cemeteries ring London, with their landscaped settings often doubling as nature reserves. Many of them are the final resting places of notable people, with Highgate Cemetery being the most famous of the seven thanks to the graves of Karl Marx, Douglas Adams and George Michael, among others.
Take in the view from above
Top of the city
The UK’s tallest building, The Shard, juts 310 metres high into the sky above London. In addition to a hotel, restaurants, bars and offices, the immediately recognisable glass skyscraper also encompasses the tallest viewing gallery in the capital. Perched on the 72nd floor, you can enjoy 360-degree views of the city and up to 40 miles away, though the immediate surrounding area might be the most fascinating, as it includes many other famous landmarks.
Round and round you go
More than just a peaceful way to view London’s main sights, the London Eye draws millions of visitors each year, many content to just pose for a picture in front of the iconic observation wheel. Others take advantage of the clear pods to go for a leisurely turn around the wheel, lasting for around half an hour. There are also special experiences and add-ons, like private pods or champagne, that you can book.
Glide above the Thames
Now a popular sightseeing attraction, the London Cable Car was originally designed to facilitate access to the 2012 Olympics. The gondola takes from the Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula or vice versa, and you can take in the stunning panoramic as you travel 90 metres high above the river. During the evening, the ride even slows down so you can take in more of the sights.
Have a proper pint at a proper pub
Among the most beautiful pubs in the country
The picture-perfect Churchill Arms in Kensington is considered to be one of the prettiest pubs in England, with both its façade and interior covered in vibrant flowers and greenery. During the festive season, when it’s decked out in garlands, the display easily rivals the best of London’s Christmas decorations. The pub can get pretty busy, but rewards patient patrons with spicy Thai noodles, a wide range of Fuller's beers and a plethora of Winston Churchill memorabilia.
The Harp is located in Covent Garden and is such a textbook example of what a pub is that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a tourist trap. Providing relief from the area’s busy crowds to locals and tourists alike, the award-winning ale house spans two floors and is suffused in traditional charm and heaps of character. You can choose from a selection of classic cask ales and rotating guest brews on tap, or from the pub’s pride and joy – a selection of ciders and perries from all over the country.
Conveniently located riverside pub
Behind its bright red doors and windows, the Anchor hides a surprisingly extensive, maze-like warren of rooms, passages and staircases, giving you a feel for a proper Shakespearean drinking den – in fact, the Bard himself is said to have been a regular of one of the pub’s previous incarnations. The location is great for first-time visitors to the city as well, offering not just views of the Thames, but also easy access to sights such as Borough Market and the famed Globe theatre.
Do a spot of shopping
Iconic department store
One of several globally famous department stores in the city, Harrods is a legendary destination for high-end shopping. The vast and ornate store stocks a wide range of products, from fashion and jewellery to technology, homeware and even art. You can also recharge at the various on-site eateries and restaurants, stock your cupboard with upmarket products in the luxury food hall, or take advantage of the beauty treatments and other available services.
The world's largest antiques market
Nestled among the rainbow-coloured houses of Notting Hill for more than 150 years, Portobello Road Market is renowned for its first-rate antiques and excellent selection of other items. Visitors from around the world come to browse the stalls, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, when the market stretches for over a mile. The constantly changing roster of traders ensures there are always new treasures to be found, from carefully restored antiques, and bric-a-brac to ancient collectibles.
Beautiful London bookshop
If you’ve run out of travel reading, the flagship branch of the Daunt Books chain is a good choice for loading up on all sorts of fiction and non-fiction books. You might even find ideas for your next destination here, as the store’s former specialisation in travel literature is reflected in the titles being organised by country instead of genre. It’s worth paying the shop a visit even if you aren’t looking to buy, as its Edwardian interiors, long oak balconies, skylight and stained-glass window make it one of the city’s prettiest bookstores.
Enjoy authentic British cuisine
Rich in history and flavour
One of the best chefs in the world, Heston Blumenthal dives deep into the roots of British cuisine at his two Michelin-starred establishment in Knightsbridge. Basing the menu around recipes from historical British cookbooks dating back as far as the 13th century, Blumenthal applies his trademark experimentalism and creativity to dishes such as sweetbreads and smoked eel from the 14th century, or an 18th century smoked confit chicken.
Contemporary British dining
Boasting a great view over Borough Market, the Roast restaurant serves contemporary British fare throughout the day, from breakfast through afternoon tea to dinner. The dishes are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, sourced from British producers, and you can choose a two- or three-course set menu. À la carte options such as roast rump of spring lamb or slow-braised short rib are available as well, and you can complement your meal with English sparkling wines.
Fish 'n' chips are a must
What’s a trip to London without a visit to a proper chippy? The Golden Fryer is as old-school as it gets, having been opened in Holborn back in 1968 and retaining its retro vibe – and decor – to this day. The menu at this award-winning diner features all the classics such as scampi and fish cakes, with the timeless choice of course being the battered cod with chips, tartare sauce and mushy peas.
The gastropub experience
The Drapers Arms is a well-known establishment in Islington that provides a more upmarket setting than the usual local boozer, with high ceilings, neutral tones, chandeliers and checkerboard floors. The food menu takes a similar approach, offering meticulously prepared mains such as trout in mussel broth, crusted lamb loin chop and aged sirloin. Fans of wine will enjoy the gastropub's curated list of regional wines.
Catch a show
The Bard's home court
Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of the historic Globe Theatre, where the most famous playwright in history plied his trade. As synonymous with British theatre as William Shakespeare himself, the Globe puts on performances regularly, including plays for kids. Shakespeare’s works are well-represented, of course.
Record-holding West End production
London’s West End is one of the world’s most famous theatre quarters and you can catch a variety of plays, musicals and other production there on any given day. It doesn’t get more West End than Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre. The landmark Edwardian theatre has featured the murder mystery continuously since 1974, setting a world record in the process.
Party the night away
One of London's flagship nightclubs
The Ministry of Sound is an iconic nightclub even by global standards, with its logo emblazoned in the minds of partygoers all over the world. It boasts four rooms, with The Box designed specifically for exceptional sound quality and usually hosting the biggest dance music DJs on the planet. The mainstream-friendly lineups appeal to a broad audience, while the club’s smaller rooms help nurture up-and-coming talent.
Partying by the canal in Camden
Lockside Camden offers fabulous views of the canal and Camden Market from its terrace, along with food and drinks throughout the day. At night, it turns into a lively party venue with a dance floor that goes late, fun events such as karaoke and drag bingo, and group packages available as well. The drinks include botanical classic cocktails and spritzes and a large selection of gins.
London's oldest alternative venues, Electrowerkz in Islington hosts the famed Slimelight goth parties, as well as all sorts of club and live music nights. The genres are as varied as the crowds here, as you can expect everything from grimy hip hop to brutal death metal, LGBT+ parties to sober get-togethers without alcohol.