How to spend your first 24 hours in London (iStock)
Article Words : Clare Wilson | 18 December

First 24 hours: London, Great Britain

Is London calling? If you’re spending a few days in the diverse, buzzing European centre, Clare Wilson points you around England’s capital: a city of dreams, if very little sleep…

Where? South England
Why? Bask in the post-Olympic glow of one of the planet’s most historic cities
When? April-May or Sept-Oct: pleasant temperatures minus big crowds

Before you arrive

London’s appeal is as enduring, diverse and fascinating as the people who live here; whatever you’re into, chances are you’ll find it somewhere in the city. Before visiting, read or watch your favourite classics; figures from film, TV and literature litter London while the music scene over the last 60 years is little short of legendary – listen to The Clash, The Kinks or The Rolling Stones to get into the mood. For something more contemporary, try Blur, Dizzee Rascal or Amy Winehouse.

Approaching Heathrow from the east you get amazing views along the Thames. You’ll be asked to fill in a landing card before arriving if you’re a non-UK/EEA/Switzerland citizen.

At the airport

Heathrow (LHR) is the UK’s biggest and busiest airport, 15 miles west of central London. Gatwick (LGW) is the city’s other major international airport. It’s south of the city, and the majority of connecting services will take you into Victoria Station (others airports include Stansted, Luton, Southend or London City Airport). The queues through passport control can be long in both airports. If you’re driving into London you will have to pay the congestion charge if you’re heading into some parts of the city. You can pay in advance or on the day of travel, check www.tfl.gov.uk for details.

Getting into town

From Heathrow: The Heathrow Express trains run to Paddington every 15 mins between 05:07-23:42, journey time around 15 minutes from Terminals 1 and 3. Standard single fares cost £18, standard return tickets costs £32. Slightly slower and slightly cheaper is the Heathrow Connect service stopping at stations to Paddington; journey time is around 25 mins. Buy tickets from the machines at the station, online in advance or onboard the train. Alternatively, the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground costs approximately £5 with an Oyster card; journey time is around an hour. Taxis are available from each terminal but will set you back anything from £40-£70+ for the hour long drive.

From Gatwick: The Gatwick Express connects to Victoria Station every 15 mins, taking about half an hour. Singles from £19, return fares from £33 – buy online in advance for the best prices. Other trains are available into Victoria, London Bridge and St. Pancras. Journey times and prices depend on whether you’re travelling in peak commuting hours.

The cheapest way into the city is via the easyBus, operated by budget airline easyJet. Buses run 24hrs a day, departing every 15 minutes at peak times from both North and South terminals. Prices from £2 and you don’t have to be an easyJet passenger.

National Express coaches will also get you into Victoria bus station.

Other ways to arrive

Trains arrive into London St Pancras International from destinations in mainland Europe – the journey takes approx 1hr 55mins from Brussels and 2hrs 15mins from Paris.

Insider tip

Hop-on-hop-off tourist buses are a rip off – get London buses instead. Two handy routes for sightseeing are the #4 and #88.

London orientation

Our quickfire way of getting to grips with the sprawling, dazzling metropolis

First day’s tour

Start with a walk along the South Bank of the Thames. It’s a 4km stroll between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge, but you can tackle shorter sections or spin it into a whole day outing. At the Westminster Bridge end you’ll get great views over the river to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; Tower Bridge is a landmark in its own right, and in between there’s Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern, and numerous cafes and restaurants.

Over on the north bank you’ll be able to spot the Tower of London and St Paul’s  Cathedral. At the eastern end of the route, it’s worth deviating further south to Borough Market (open for lunch Mon-Wed, all day Thu-Sat) to sample some of London’s tastiest gourmet produce.

If your feet get tired, boats sail regularly up this stretch of river offering you the choice between various sightseeing cruises, or hopping on a commuter vessel with locals. Transport For London has details of routes and prices. Head into Soho in for dinner and a show; pick up last minute tickets from the TKTS booth on the south side of Leicester Square before 7pm. Many Soho  restaurants offer pre- and post-theatre menus.

First night’s sleep

Top end: The 4-star deluxe St Ermin’s Hotel (2 Caxton Street, London, SW1H 0QW; +44 (0) 20 7222 7888) in the heart of Westminster is full of historic grandeur, is strolling distance from the city’s iconic sights, and has three hives of honeybees on one of the terraces. Ensuite doubles from £229 per room.

Mid range: Marble Arch Inn (49-50 Upper Berkeley Street, London, W1H 5QR; +44 (0) 20 7723 7888) is a recently refurbished, clean and comfy 2-star hotel/B&B housed in an historic Georgian terraced street. The best bit? It’s three minutes walk from Oxford Street. Doubles from £39 (with shower); singles and ensuite family rooms for up to six are available.

Budget: Safestay hostel (144-152 Walworth Road, Elephant & Castle, London SE17 1JL; +44 (0)20 7703 8000) is stylish, budget friendly and handy for attractions south of the river. There’s a great heated and illuminated garden for you to relax in at the back. Dorm beds from £18, private rooms available from £58 per room.

Stay or go?

There’s enough in London to keep you occupied for a lifetime, albeit in small doses. You should be able to cover most major sights and get a feel for the city in about a week. But London is an intense place, so even if you are concentrating on the capital, think about getting away for a day for a change of pace.

Brighton, an hour away on the south coast by train from London Victoria, is good for a day trip. Get a breath of sea-air, explore the winding alleys of the North Lanes, and marvel at the decadence of the Royal Pavillion. Otherwise, head upstream along the Thames to Windsor. Take a look inside the royal palace of Windsor Castle, stroll along the Long Walk, come say hello at the Wanderlust office (bring cake), grab lunch at our favourite  pub the Two Brewers then visit the nearby ancient birthplace of democracy (and JFK’s memorial) at Runnymeade.

Essential info

Population: 8.1 million
Languages: English
Timezone: GMT (British Summer Time GMT+1 from Mar-Oct)
International dialling code: +44
Visas: You won’t need a visa if you hold a passport issued by the UK, any other EU country or Switzerland. Certain nationalities require Visas, everyone else – including British overseas citizens – gets an Entry certificate. If you’re unsure, consult www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk. Visitors can usually stay up to six months.
Currency: Pounds Sterling (GBP £)
Highest viewpoint: The view from The Shard has 360° views of the capital from a lofty 244m, almost twice as high as anywhere else in London.
Health issues: Nothing special.
Recommended guidebook: Clare’s Go! Girl Guides: London ($9.99, gogirlguides.com/store)
Web resources: www.visitlondon.com is the official tourist board site; www.timeout.com/london is good for listings.
iPhone app: London Underground – a free app with live service information
Climate: London’s weather is mild if unpredictable. Average temperature ranges between 2-6°C in winter, 18-23°C in summer. In spring and autumn you’ll likely need an umbrella and sunglasses. Overall rainfall is highest Nov and Aug, lowest Mar-Apr.

Best bargains

It’s worth investing in a visitor’s Oyster card to get around on buses and the Tube, fares are cheaper and you just swipe in and out of barriers.