“When a man is tired of London,” Samuel Johnson famously said in 1777, “he is tired of life.” More than two centuries later, his point stands: the city is exciting, iconic and innovative. The English capital has always been a drawcard for Australians, intrigued by its history, enamoured of its glamour and comforted by its many, many pubs. There has been human habitation on the site of London since before Roman times, when it was known as Londinium and its core, the City of London, still sits within its medieval borders. The ancient city is also a modern capital, a global leader in arts, finance and media and the world’s most visited city. It’s familiar to Australians – who doesn’t know Big Ben, the Tower of London, and those red double-decker buses? – but we’ve compiled a list of things you should know before you go.
Qantas flies to London Heathrow with a stopover from the east coast, with a flight time around 24 hours, or direct from Perth on the Dreamliner, a journey that takes approximately 17 hours.
Australian passport holders generally don’t require a visa for tourist visits to the UK for periods of less than six months, however, it’s at the discretion of the customs officer. It’s wise to have a return ticket booked before arrival and ensure your passport is valid for at least three months after your return date.
Flying in to Heathrow International Airport
Heathrow is the third-busiest airport in the world. At the time of writing, Smart Traveller recommends allowing extra time for extended security screenings and luggage checks when you’re flying into and out of Heathrow.
Located 32 kilometres west of central London, Heathrow can be reached by the Overground Heathrow Express train or the Piccadilly Tube line. The most efficient way to travel between central London and Heathrow is the Heathrow Express train, which runs every 15 minutes between 5:10am and 11:25pm and costs from £22. The trip takes between 15 and 21 minutes. Click here for tickets.
The airport has three London Underground Stations, one for Terminals 2 and 3 and one each at Terminal 4 and Terminal 5. A single adult fare into London costs £6. The trip takes 45 to 65 minutes. Click here for the full timetable.
- The legal drinking age is 18
- The emergency phone number is 999
The language barrier
There is none, but brush up on your Cockney rhyming slang to really impress the locals – you’ll have a right bubble bath.
There aren’t any specific vaccinations for the UK but make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Visit Travel Doctor for more information.
- London black cabs are famous; you should take a ride with one of the remarkable human GPS drivers, but remember: black cabs can be expensive. They’re metred but there are extra charges if you take one from Heathrow or book ahead.
- If you want a cheaper ride, try a ridesharing app like Uber or note down the number of your local minicab service. Click here to find your nearest licensed minicab company and book. Minicabs must be pre-ordered and they’re not metred so ask how much the fare will be on the phone when you make a booking.
- The London Underground is extensive and easy to use once you get the hang of all those coloured lines on the map. Try to avoid travelling on the Tube (especially with your luggage) during rush hour – it will be squashy and your fellow commuters will not be best pleased.
- You will need an Oyster card to ride the Tube and London buses – buy yours at Tube stations for a £5 fee that you can have refunded when you leave. Alternatively, order a Visitor Oyster card to be sent to your home address before your trip – it’s capped so you can travel as much as you like in a single day and never be charged more than £6.50.
- Australians do not need an international drivers license to take to the roads in the UK.
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- At the time of writing the Australian dollar is buying £0.55 – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
- Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in London. Your Australian bank and English ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
- Westpac and Barclays Bank have an alliance that means Westpac customers can use Barclays Bank ATMs with only a three per cent foreign transaction fee.
- Visa and Mastercard are accepted everywhere; you will be charged a conversion fee for every exchange.
- It’s customary to leave a tip in restaurants for great service – between 10 and 15 per cent is standard. Check the bill to ensure a service charge hasn’t already been applied – some restaurants will add gratuity to your bill, especially if you’re dining with a large group. Small tips for hotel porters and cleaning staff are welcomed. In black cabs and minicabs, passengers generally round up to the nearest pound, but if your driver has helped you with luggage you may wish to tip a little extra.
- Always stand on the right on escalators to allow others to pass you by on the left on Underground escalators.
London isn’t as cold and miserable as ex-pats would have you believe – snow is rare and the temperature hardly gets below 0° Celsius in winter. The main problem with London in the colder months is the limited amount of daylight – only about eight hours.
When to go
The best time to go is undoubtedly summer – the sun shines (sometimes) and doesn’t set until after 9pm and the parks are in full bloom. Spring and autumn can also be great times to visit – being out of peak season means that accommodation and attractions can be cheaper, the weather is generally between 11° and 15° Celsius and the daylight hours are longer.
Anything goes in London town – just take a look at London street-style blogs. The weather can be unpredictable though and yes, it probably will rain, so be prepared for all possibilities. Pack sunglasses and hats for summer, but also an umbrella or poncho and some sturdy, waterproof shoes.
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Tap water in London is safe to drink.
Just like in the days of Oliver Twist, pickpockets and bag-snatchers still exist. Take normal precautions in touristy areas and crowded Tube carriages.
Australia and England have a reciprocal agreement which means Australians are entitled to receive necessary treatment under the NHS. Australians aren’t required to enrol in the NHS but inform your doctor that you want to be treated as a NHS patient – you’ll need to show your Australian Medicare card. You will be covered for: medical treatment by a NHS GP; medical care in a public ward of a NHS hospital; ambulance; and subsidised prescription medicine. Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to England still take out travel insurance for overseas medical costs not covered by the NHS, including evacuation.
Where to stay
There are plenty of fantastic places to stay in London. It’s a big city, so there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything you want to without resorting to public transport or cabs, but if you base yourself somewhere close to the attractions you’re most interested in you will be more opportunity to walk.
- The West End takes in shopping along Oxford, Regent and Bond streets, the entertainment district around Leicester Square and Covent Garden and the city centre area within the City of Westminster.
- Live your Monopoly-board dreams in the stately surrounds of St James and Mayfair.
- Pretty Bloomsbury is close to the British Museum and bookstores.
- South Bank stretches between Westminster and London Bridges along the south side of the Thames. It’s close to the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square.
- Paddington and Marylebone are close to Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and Little Venice.
- Bayswater and Notting Hill are quieter and great for antique shopping and wandering.
- To the south of London is Brixton, rapidly gentrifying but full of interesting food and experiences.
- To the northwest, offbeat Camden Town has vintage shopping and a party atmosphere.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important, or buy a local prepaid SIM card. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
England has the same electricity frequency and voltage as Australia so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. You will need a power adapter because the sockets and plugs are different to Australia’s.
Wifi is readily available in many London in cafes, fast food outlets and some public transport. There are also plenty of free public hotspots.
Handy apps and websites
Australian High Commission (embassy) in the UK for emergencies.
The Visit London app is free and has great information on the best things to do and places to eat, as well as maps.
The Heathrow Airport Guide provides flight and airport information.
Transport for London has information on the Underground, buses, black cabs and minicabs.
XE for currency conversion.
Heathrow Express for the train timetable from the airport.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.
Flush Toilet Finder for public toilet locations and reviews.
What to read and watch before you go
If you don’t have young children in your life, you might think that 2014’s Paddington isn’t for you. But this movie, drawn from Michael Bond’s books about the little bear from “Darkest Peru” seeking a new home in London, is a funny, life-affirming joy at any age. Ben Whishaw (James Bond’s Q) perfectly voices the title character, ably supported by British favourites including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters (who battle Nicole Kidman as the villianous Millicent). The production design and music are topnotch.
◖ Luther: Idris Elba inhabits the title role of a renegade police detective with such intensity that you can forget to breathe as you watch him. In this limited- episode TV series, which began in 2010, DCI John Luther’s London is gritty and dark but always compelling.
Zadie Smith’s bestselling novel, White Teeth, (2000) would have been impressive from a late- career writer; as a debut, it announced the arrival of a rare talent. Smith aims to capture every facet of life in the British capital through the interwoven stories of two immigrant families – one from Jamaica, the other from Bangladesh – moving deftly from pointed social observation and human drama to comic set pieces.
◖ Everyone Brave is Forgiven (2016): Vivid, extraordinarily moving and sometimes shocking in its depiction of war’s cost, Chris Cleave’s novel follows its three central characters through the Blitz and beyond.
◖ The Secret History of the Blitz (2015): Historian Joshua Levine reveals the complicated mix of hedonism, lawlessness, stoicism and resilience that characterised World War II London.
Covering 2000 years of history, Peter Ackroyd’s highly acclaimed book London: The Biography is an 848-page thumper. But rather than turn it into a single epic audiobook, publisher Random House has divided it into five themed, user-friendly audiobooks running three hours each, with actor and writer Simon Callow providing the narration. Choose from Foundations, Street Life and the People, Trade and Enterprise, Fire and Pestilence or Districts and Suburbs.
◖ Shut Up (2015): Grime music is the British take on hip-hop that began in the city’s tower blocks and became a sensation. Stormzy is one of its biggest stars and this infectious (and explicit) freestyle rap, viewable on his official YouTube channel, propelled him to stardom.
◖ Semper Femina: If grime is too hectic for you, calm your ears with Laura Marling’s hypnotic, erudite, folk-inflected sixth album, from 2017.
This piece was originally published in February 2018 and has been updated.