London is one of the world’s top tourist destinations – but it’s still possible to find untouristy, quirky things to do, and get away from the busloads all gawping at the same thing.
Below is an intro to London, but if you already know all the basics, check out our suggestions for alternative entertainment (theatre, music and cinema); for shopping; for sightseeing, for eating and drinking; and activities – sporty and otherwise.
This page covers the basics:
- London is good for… yep, top things to do around London
- Orientation – postcodes, zones and the basic layout
- Transport – quick overview. Our detailed guide to London transport will give you much more – including a bunch of unusual transport options that you mightn’t have considered.
- Where to stay – quick tips on planning accommodation. Our detailed guide to zone 2 areas will be useful if you’re staying outside the centre.
London is good for…
- Sightseeing. Transport is a bit expensive – but most of the museums and galleries are free. You can see many world famous sights and great architecture, just by walking or from a public bus.
- Theatre and music. Beyond the world renowned West End theatres, there’s a massive fringe theatre scene, and excellent comedy. And if you don’t speak enough English to enjoy that, the London music scene is as vibrant as ever, from cutting edge to jazz to classical, from intimate gigs to giant concerts.
- Food and drink – while British cuisine is not much admired, London is a great place to explore global cuisines. Indian food is particularly worth trying – as a former colony, it’s everywhere here. But pretty much any country you can think of has its restaurants here, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, with options for every price range.
- Shopping – Even if you’re not into fashion, visitors from most of the wealthy world will find clothes shopping reasonably cheap here. Regular sales on world famous brands, from Gucci to Nike, keep prices low on the high streets, or try the dedicated factory outlets for the best discounts. Outdoor markets are great for atmosphere and random quirky gifts.
- Pubs. The British love a pint, and the pub is a central social institution. While the rest of the world rarely shares British enthusiasm for room temperature beer, pubs are still a great place for people watching – and yes, you can get more “normal” drinks; craft beer is popular. Gin has also been particularly popular in recent years, with craft distilleries abounding
- Activities. Many of the biggest sports in the world (yes, and cricket) were born in the UK, and London is home to some of the main centres: Wembley for football, Wimbledon for tennis, Twickenham for rugby (and Lords for cricket). Or if you prefer doing to watching, you can use most of the Olympic facilities for cycling, swimming or running in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – or even paddle the white water Olympic course in Lee Valley.
London is about 10 million people, mostly squeezed into an oval shape (the M25 motorway) about 40×30 miles / 50×40 km.
London’s ‘centre’ is traditionally defined as Charing Cross station. Hotels around Soho and Covent Garden – roughly the half kilometer north and north-east of this – would be reckoned as dead centre. But ‘zone 1’ of London is actually about 6×4 miles / 10x6km – which covers a lot of ground. Think carefully when choosing your hotel location, and see our section below re ‘where to stay‘ for more details.
Outside zone 1, the zones run in concentric circles up to zone 6 which is the furthest out. The vast majority of tourist attractions are in zone 1, a few are in zone 2, and various others are dotted around.
Postcodes can give you a rough idea of where something is – the first letter gives you the compass direction from Charing Cross: N, NW, SW, SE, W, WC, E and EC (North, South, East and West as you’d expect; with ‘west central’ and ‘east central’ reflecting the most central zones). The number that comes after sometimes indicates if they’re close by (eg – E1,2 and 3 are all close) but it’s unreliable – eg, N2 is a long way from N1. But at least you can tell that if you’re staying in NW and visiting SE, you’ll have a bit of a journey.
Public transport is excellent, and driving is painful (really slow, congestion charge of £12ish if you’re driving in the centre, and parking’s impossible). So use public transport. TfL – Transport for London – runs most transport options.
- The Tube (aka the underground, metro, subway) is usually the best option, covering most of London with trains every few minutes. £5.10 gives a day of zone 1 and 2. There are also trains, an overground and DLR light railway.
- Buses are slow (about 5mph / 7kph), but cheaper and cover other areas
- There are also boats, trams and even a cable car
See the article on transport and unusual options for far more detail on getting around in style.
Where to stay
Wondering what area to stay in London? A few things to bear in mind:
- The sights are spread out. You’ll probably need to save your feet and use the tube a few times. So you could stay in the West End and aim to walk to all the attractions, especially if you’re just doing a weekend – but you might as well save money and stay a short tube ride from the centre for a longer trip.
- If you don’t have any single location that you know you want to focus on – use “Trafalgar Square” as the centrepoint of London to see how far out your hotel suggestions are. Check how long it takes by tube rather than just road distance – a shorter distance might take longer to travel!
- If you really want to stay in zone 1 – note that it’s a good 1-2 hours walk to cross zone 1, eg from Paddington or the Natural History Museum in the west, across to Tower Bridge in the east (5 miles, 7km). The West End (Covent Garden, Soho, Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Mayfair) is the best area to focus on as it has most of the attractions – if you stay further east or west, you’ll probably still have an hour’s walk to do to get central, while still paying West End prices.
- Try staying in zone 2 instead – it probably won’t hit your travel time too much, and should have cheaper options (though you don’t get really cheap until you’re a long way outside London). See this article for a quick rundown of zone 2 tube stop areas to help you narrow down your choice.