London is one of the most famous cities and the capital of one of the most powerful English-speaking countries in the world. Hundreds of movies have been made about it or set in it, and thousand more books. And it’s one of the most sought-after destinations in Europe, drawing millions of travelers year round.
Still, there will be things about the city and its culture that might come unexpected, especially to first-time American visitors. Little things like having to use separate faucets for hot and cold water, as well as bigger ones, may come as a surprise to some people and possibly make them vulnerable to a few faux pas. While no amount of research and reading is better than immersion, a bit of knowledge can help you not look too much like a tourist and stick out like a sore thumb.
Take Public Transport with Confidence
It’s usually easy to tell the tourists from the locals at a station. Tourists usually look quite hesitant, unsure of where to go and what to do next. The locals, on the other hand, walk with confidence and with purpose.
While mastering the city’s public transport system in a few days is impossible, familiarizing yourself with its basics can only take a day or two. Read up on how the intricate network of buses, trains, and river buses in the city works. Learn how to use (and top up) an Oyster card. And know that every train and underground station has easy-to-spot signs for practically everything, including exits (“Way Out”), connecting lines and stops.
Allowing yourself to learn the basics and also using public transport every chance you get will help you gain the confidence you need to navigate those train and underground stations like a pro. If all else fails, you can always (discreetly) use the Google Maps app to help you fake your way through. And do manage the volume of your voice and avoid eye contact, especially aboard trains.
Visit and Shop at the Markets
Markets are an integral part of the local London life, and not just on the weekends. There are over 20 markets in Greater London and they sell everything from dry goods such as clothes, bric-a-brac and antique pieces to freshly prepared food to meats, poultry and cheeses. Some markets are even dedicated to selling plants and flowers.
If you want to rub shoulders with the city’s locals, markets are the place to do just that. Grab a couple of shopping bags and some cash—some stalls accept all major credit cards, but most are cash only—and visit some of the city’s best. Borough Market, famous for its meat and cheese stalls and baked goods; Brick Lane, a flea market that offers terrific street food; Portobello Road Market; Camden Lock Market; and the colorful Columbia Road Flower Market are some of the local favorites.
Dress Fashionably But Sensibly
Londoners may be some of the most fashionable people, but they are practical dressers too. They have to be—weather can be unpredictable and getting around in the city entails a decent amount of walking. It’s not unusual, therefore, to see women in chic, office outfits walking around in tennis shoes, sneakers or sensible flats during the day. Skip that pair of really high heels you’ve been thinking about wearing, unless you plan on going out and need to dress up, and opt instead for a pair of very comfortable shoes, the type that stay comfortable even after you’ve been walking for hours.
Be prepared for chilly temperatures even in the summer months. During this season, London does get its share of sunshine and warm weather, but a sunny day can easily turn gray and rainy without notice. Locals know this, and therefore always have a light sweater handy or wear layers in the summertime.
Learn and Practice Pub Etiquette
A typical pub newbie would not know basic pub etiquette and therefore might blunder about during their first pub experience. An English pub works a tad different from your typical bar in the U.S., so remember these simple tips before walking into your first bar.
• Grab a table first before ordering food. Most places won’t let you order until you’ve secured a table where they can bring your food to you.
• Don’t wait for a server to come up to you and take your order. Some places do have servers going around to see if patrons need anything else—another round of beer, perhaps. Generally, however, pub goers simply walk over to the bar and order there.
• Don’t hog the bar. Walk away once you’ve paid and received your drinks; others are waiting behind you to put their order in.
• Don’t expect to stay at a pub through 2 or 3 a.m. In the UK, most pubs traditionally close at around 11, and most people come around as early as 6 p.m. If you are looking to party until the early morning hours in London, do what the locals do: have a few rounds at a pub and then transfer to a club later. There are a few pubs in the city that stay open later, but they’re generally in the touristy areas and overpopulated.
Sign Your Credit or Debit Card in the Back
This may sound like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how much servers and retail shop assistants complain (albeit, politely—it’s England, after all) that Americans do not sign the back of their cards. It is, after all, a policy to compare the signature on the back of your card to that on the receipt after you’ve signed it before they let you walk away with your newly purchased goods. Clerks can usually tell that you’re a tourist if the back of your card is unsigned.
However, if signing the back of your credit or debit card is a security issue for you, simply carry around with you a valid ID that has your signature on it. This way, when you’re making a purchase, you can simply present that ID along with your card for validation.
Article by Michelle Rae Uy for TravelPulse. Reprinted with permission.
All photos ©Michelle Rae Uy