“The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.” ~ Oscar Wilde.
Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to avoid looking like a tourist on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.
Bursting with helpful tips and tricks, I’ve asked locals from particular cities around the world to share their insider knowledge on the best ways travellers can become “invisible” when visiting their city and enjoy it like a local. If you’re ready to challenge travel stereotypes, overcome language barriers and embrace what I like to call invisible tourism, you’ve come to the right place!
|This local’s guide to London was written by Chelsea from The Portable Wife. The best way to see London is by being an invisible tourist, so I’m very excited to share her 10 interesting tips for how to best blend in with Londoners.
If you’re travelling to London for the first time, these tips from an American’s perspective will help you have a more enjoyable experience and know what to expect before you go. Read on for more!
A Local’s Guide to London for First Time Visitors
Here’s how to experience London like a local
When you think of London, what comes to mind? The ornate towers of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey? Guards clad in red uniforms patrolling the front of Buckingham Palace? Double-decker buses and black cabs whisking passengers away to afternoon tea or a West End show?
As an expat living in London, I’ve seen and done all of the above. I spent my first six months in the city playing tourist, and had a great time. But there’s so much more to The Big Smoke than royal palaces and expensive Michelin-starred meals.
London is a city of contrasts. It’s old and modern, cosmopolitan and grungy, all intertwined to make it a must-see place for any traveller. To help you make the most of your visit to this extraordinary destination, I’ve compiled a brief local’s guide to London. These tips will allow you to blend in and get a taste of local life in London, from ordering properly at a pub to exploring beautiful, off-the-beaten-path neighbourhoods:
Replace “excuse me” with “sorry”
First, a quick vocabulary lesson. In England, you will hear the word “sorry” at least 10 times a day. When you bump into someone, need to get someone’s attention, or generally feel awkward about anything, you say “sorry”. In London, you’ll mainly hear this uttered on crowded tube cars, train platforms, shopping areas, and other busy spots.
Americans (like myself) used to saying “excuse me” should swap out that phrase for “sorry”, or risk coming off as rude.
Take in the best views of London for free
When friends and family ask me for London sightseeing tips, I always suggest a good panoramic view of the city. Most people know about the London Eye, the top of the Shard, and St. Paul’s Cathedral dome, but you’ll pay a hefty price tag for those attractions.
Instead, save yourself some money and check out one of these free views over London:
- Sky Garden: Located on the 35th floor of the iconic Walkie Talkie building, the Sky Garden offers stunning views over London in a lush and modern setting. Tickets are free, but advanced booking is required for the viewing area. If you’re looking to spend a little more money, you can make a reservation for dinner or drinks at one of the Sky Garden’s bars and restaurants.
- Tate Modern: In addition to its amazing collection of modern art, the Tate Modern museum boasts a 10th floor viewing platform. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge, and the Shard are all visible from this south-central location. Both the museum and platform are free to the public.
- Parliament Hill: No local’s guide to London would be complete without mentioning Parliament Hill. Situated in the gorgeous green space of Hampstead Heath, this elevated spot provides amazing panoramic views of the London skyline. On a clear day, visitors can see the London Eye, the Shard, and the Gherkin, among other iconic buildings.
Explore London’s charming villages
Many tourists think Notting Hill is the prettiest neighbourhood in London, but it’s not the only charming borough. Hampstead and Dulwich are both picturesque residential areas with their own photogenic pubs and brightly coloured doors.
If you love shaded parks, cozy restaurants, and quality shopping, take the Northern tube line to Hampstead. You can roam the 300+ hectacres of forest and walking paths in Hampstead Heath, enjoy a traditional English meal at The Wells tavern, and round out the visit with a few High street purchases.
If English cottages, rose bushes, and independent shops are more your speed, hop on the Southern rail to North Dulwich station. From there, it’s only a five minute walk to the centre of Dulwich Village, where you’ll find plenty of hidden gems. My favourites include the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Romeo Jones cafe.
Make museums a priority, not a rainy day back-up plan
London is a notoriously expensive place to live and work, but the amazing free museums help make up for it. South Kensington is home to three: the Science Museum; the Natural History Museum; and the Victoria & Albert Museum. All three are great for adults and kids alike.
History buffs, culture lovers, and curious minds will love the the British Museum, where you could easily spend an entire day exploring the gorgeous exhibition rooms organised by continent.
Art enthusiasts can find works by Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh at the the National Gallery, or marvel at the British masterpieces at the Tate Britain.
Book lovers should not miss the British Library. It’s the world’s largest, and the Treasures room houses a Gutenberg Bible, an original Shakespeare folio, and diary excerpts from Jane Austen and other famous authors.
Visit one of London’s famous markets for amazing food & unique gifts
Whether you like vintage clothes, street food, or handmade crafts, London has a market that’s sure to please. Unlike some cities whose markets are mainly for tourists, you’ll find plenty of London locals doing their grocery shopping or wardrobe updating at these places. Pro tip: always check the opening hours online, as they vary by season!
- Borough Market: A heaven for foodies, this partially-covered shopping area has everything from paella to foraged mushrooms to artisanal olive oil.
- Portobello Road Market: Vendors at the famous Notting Hill market specialise in antiques, along with handcrafted goods and vintage clothing.
- Camden Market: The record stores, quirky clothing shops, and coffee stalls of Camden Market attract the young, hip, and musically inclined.
- Spitalfields Market: Shoppers looking for unique, posh finds like leather bowties and bespoke jewellery should visit this enclosed East London market.
Avoid the tube at rush hour, especially the Northern line
Despite the complaints you’ll hear from Londoners, the Underground (a.k.a. “the tube”) is usually a very efficient way to get across the city. However, from the hours of 7-9am and 4-6:30pm, most tube lines are insanely packed with commuters trying to get to and from work. The Northern line is especially crowded, as it carries workers between the city centre and the populous north and south London residential neighbourhoods.
Riding the tube during rush hour is an unpleasant experience, especially if you’re new to the city or to public transit in general. Expect there to be standing room only, with bodies packed tightly against one another.
TIP: And don’t even think about bringing a suitcase on board at these times.
If you do find yourself on a packed tube car, be prepared to step out of the way or even off the train to allow people to exit. Pregnant women, the elderly, and disabled persons have access to priority seats near the doors. So if you fall into one of these categories, don’t be afraid to ask someone to move if they don’t offer up their seat. Most Londoners will get up if they see someone in need. However, tourists don’t always realise this is proper etiquette despite the seats being labeled.
Rely on your feet for transportation whenever possible
Even outside of rush hour, public transit isn’t always the most efficient way to get from one place to another. I’ve watched tourists turn what should have been a 10 minute walk to Harrods into a 15-20 journey between two tube stations. Buses and cars are also routinely held up by road closures and construction delays.
Unless the weather is bad or you have limited mobility, I recommend using your own feet to travel to any destination within a 20 minutes’ walk.
TIP: Something I rarely see addressed in other locals guides to London is how far the tube platforms are from the entrances. Depending on where you enter the Underground, it could take you 5-7 minutes of walking before you’re at the right platform! South Kensington and Bank stations in particular have long corridors and multiple levels between the turnstiles and trains.
When dining at a pub, always go to the bar first
If you want everyone to know you’re a tourist, walk into a pub and immediately sit down at a table. Depending on the place, you could end up sitting there forever, wondering why no one is coming to take your order.
Unless there is a host stand or a person near the door that acknowledges your presence, you can assume the pub doesn’t do full table service. It’s more common to have partial table service, where you order drinks at the bar, take them to your desired table, and wait for a server to come by for your food order.
TIP: A good hint on where to order is the menu location. If they are in a stack at the bar, you probably need to order food and drinks with the bartender. If menus are on the table, it’s usually a sign that servers will come around for food orders.
Also, for an authentic pub experience, avoid places right next to tourist attractions and major roads. Look for pubs in back alleys and residential areas to eat and drink alongside Londoners rather than tourists.
Enjoy afternoon tea outside of the city centre
During my second week of living in London, I had high tea in Fortnum and Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. I was so excited to have an authentic, elegant afternoon tea experience that I even put on makeup and wore a nice dress.
Once I was seated at my table, I looked around at the other guests and immediately felt out of place. Although some people dressed for the occasion, many were wearing faded t-shirts and ripped jeans. Loud conversations and upset toddlers made the room really noisy. The food itself was great, but at £60 per person, the atmosphere made it not worth the cost.
There are dozens of places in central London for afternoon tea, but most of them will be pricey and touristy. Instead, opt for a tea experience slightly outside of the city centre.
TIP: Four days a week, the Orangery at the Greenwich Fan Museum hosts a lovely afternoon tea. And at only £14.00 (including the mandatory museum admission), you can’t beat the price!
If you’re out with a friend or partner in Notting Hill or Battersea, Biscuiteers afternoon tea for two is a great option. Though it’s £30.00 per person, the amount of sweet treats and charming decor justify the cost. You can even pick up some beautifully decorated biscuits (cookies for my American friends) to bring home as souvenirs.
Eat at an Indian restaurant
Indian food is everywhere in London. Britain’s unofficial national dish is chicken tikka masala, which is an Indian-inspired curry dish made with tomato and cream. If you fly to London on British Airways, you’ll probably be offered chicken korma or tikka masala as an in-flight meal.
Takeaway Indian food is one of my favourite cheap eats in London, though there are plenty of high-end restaurants like Chakra or Cinnamon Club for those looking to splurge.
I hope my local’s guide to London helps you feel comfortable navigating everything the city has to offer. Enjoy the famous sights, but make time for the hidden gems. I promise you won’t regret it. Cheers!
|For more advice about living in London, head to Chelsea’s lovely blog, The Portable Wife or follow her adventures on Instagram and Facebook!
Now you’ve read this local’s guide to London, are you ready to be invisible?
Now you’ve discovered the best secrets for how to act like a local in London, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not compare hotel prices here? If you’d like some more ideas, here’s all my articles on the United Kingdom to get you started.
Do you have any extra tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed this instalment of my Be Invisible series! If you found this helpful, please share it or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram for more!
Until next time,
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