5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to London

I yearned for a quick vacation in the summer of 2016, so travelling to London was a spur of the moment decision. I swiftly booked a ticket, secured an Airbnb apartment, and next thing I knew, I was taking pictures next to Big Ben!

It didn’t quite hit me until I was actually in London that I had no idea what to do there. Obviously I had heard of a few things here and there, so I had some expectations, but it was my first time travelling by myself. So, here are some tips that I believe are necessary to know before you head across the pond:

The Oyster Card is the major key

London is known for its extensive public transportation system and after visiting I now understand why: 1.34 billion people depend on this service each year. So what do you need to take advantage of the tube? An Oyster card. As a commuter, the oyster card will practically be your second bank card during your stay.

Purchasing a tourist Oyster card was something I knew I needed before travelling, however I did not think it would be that difficult to get one once I arrived. Well, I was quite wrong…

I spent a good hour walking around central London trying to find a convenience store that sold this piece of plastic! Turns out the reason why it’s so difficult to buy is because every Londoner purchases theirs online, so there is no reason to sell them at the tube station. In order to save yourself the hassle, try this instead:

1) Order it right to your doorstep before you travel, which is perfect but just note that the delivery time is about 3 weeks.

2) Purchase the card once you land at either Gatwick or Heathrow airport, which can be convenient, but it’s better to just order online.

3) If you manage to find one of the new Oyster machines in underground stations, you can buy the card directly from the machine! But just buy it before you arrive to avoid searching around, because not all stations are equipped with the new machines yet.

4) If all else fails… Uber Everywhere!

Follow the Tube Etiquette

Similar to any other city with an underground service, tube etiquette is really important. One thing I didn’t know is that the tube carriages are very compact. During peak times, there is just enough space for your body and a small bag. Here are a few unwritten rules that I noticed:

1) Always know how much you have on your Oyster card before getting in front of the turnstile entrance. And have your Oyster card in your hand – ready to tap in – way in advance. Why? Because the line behind you is long with a handful of Londoners anxiously trying to get to work or home – and you don’t want to be that person that is holding them up.

2) Never stand on the left while on an escalator underground. The right side is designated for just that, so you will stop the flow of people walking down the escalators.

3) Don’t stare at people underground. Or just randomly strike conversations with people unless they look inviting. It’s generally seen as quite creepy. Londoners aren’t really known for being the friendliest of people, so the tube is not the place to test that out.

Be prepared to have your budget spent on food

Coming from a diverse city like Toronto, I’m used to eating food that reflects the different cultures of the community. I knew that London would be no different, but one thing I didn’t expect is to spend the majority of my budget on food. Don’t worry though, it’s totally worth it! Part of travelling is getting to know the good spots to eat. During my adventurous walks in London, I came across a few awesome places:

My tasty breakfast at Shoreditch Grind!

Shoreditch Grind for Breakfast: If you want to have a fulfilling breakfast, check out this cafe. I was lucky that this was the closest breakfast spot to my apartment! They had a really tasty fruit porridge and a delicious mochaccino, not to mention an energetic soundtrack of 90s Hip Hop. Overall, the positive vibe plus the great location of quirky Shoreditch made it perfect for people watching.

My Old Dutch for an afternoon snack: So I am in love with crepes and will practically find a crepe eatery in any city I visit. This spot was recommended by a local friend and it was worth it. You can choose between sweet or savoury and the crepes are huge, so share with a friend you can both save ££.

Busaba Eathai for dinner: This beautiful Thai-themed restaurant has great service, great food and an awesome dinner deal – I got a small plate for around £12.95 which was pretty filling.

Pedestrian signals aren’t always followed

One of the many pleasures of travelling solo is people watching, and there were all sorts of activities happening around me. But one thing that particularly stood out was that most Londoners often crossed the street whenever they chose to.

Obviously for a solo traveller, you are always alert to any potential danger so imagine my confusion when I found myself stuck in between cars and double decker buses, anxiously trying to get to the other side of the street where my friend – a local – smiled happily.

Needless to say this probably happened at least 3 or 4 times during my visit!

There is adventure outside of London

London obviously has tons to offer, but travellers often neglect visiting other beautiful places in the UK. Since travelling to Paris was a little out of my league this time around, I decided to take a 24-hour road trip to some unique spots.

If you have the space in your itinerary, try to visit the White Cliffs in Dover. A small coastal town on the South East of the UK, this was my favourite part of my road trip. Standing on the edge of the cliff is the actual definition of #views and the breathtaking experience definitely makes the White Cliffs worth the visit.

On the way back to London (or on the way to the cliffs – your decision), take a stop at Leeds Castle. It’s located nowhere near Leeds, but the castle stands on a hill with a beautiful view of a garden and a manmade lake. The history of the castle will spark the interest of any history fanatic, or those who need great Instagram photos.

Did you know that Cardiff is only 4 hours away from London? So if going south east isn’t enough, go west and take a quick trip to Wales. Then you can go back home and gloat that you managed to see two countries on your trip. It’s a win-win situation.

Overall, London was a great solo trip for me! Even though the weather was gloomy, the city has easy accessibility, great food and friendly people – just not on the tube. In a few days I felt that I was practically a local. I will definitely visit the city again, but next time I will have to stay longer.

Have you been to London before? What do you wish you knew before you arrived?


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Born and raised in Nairobi, Samantha often travelled as a child and hasn’t stopped since. Since then, she moved to South Africa to study and finally to Toronto – where she now calls home. She’s still continuing to earn her passport stamps, so keep up with her adventures on Instagram.


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