Located in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a population of approximately 67.5m, which live in an area of 242.4 thousand square kilometres or 93.6 thousand square miles, ranking it 78th out of 194 countries by size globally. Britain or the UK (as it is often abbreviated) is made up of four constituent nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with capital cities London (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), Cardiff (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland). Visitors to the UK are often surprised to learn that English is the primary language; however, four indigenous Celtic languages are also spoken (Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish) across the isles. In addition, there are over 50 regional accents and dialects spoken throughout the UK, from Dorset in parts of the South to Scouse in parts of the North.
There is a perception that British people often speak about the weather, which is accurate; however, the climate in the UK is not as bad as people often believe. The climate will vary depending on how far north or south you go. Winter months (December to February) are the coldest, with temperatures dropping close to 0 Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit and the sun setting as early as 4 pm. Summer (June to August) and early Autumn (September and October) are the best months to visit as temperatures are typically warmer, with temperatures ranging from 15 to 22 Celsius or 59 to 71.6 Fahrenheit. In the summer months, there is more sunlight, as it usually gets dark at around 9 pm. The UK school summer holidays run from late July until early September. If you visit during those months, expect everything to be a lot busier.
Most visitors to the UK already have a preconceived notion or an old stereotype of what it will be like or how the people will be like and are often surprised when they arrive. Firstly, most of the UK is diverse, with cultures settling from across the old British empire to immigrant settlers worldwide calling London home. Visitors will notice immigrants’ influence on the UK. From Indian dishes explicitly tailored for the UK market (Chicken Tikka Masala) to communities occupying areas or sections of the UK, diversity is everywhere. All of this means that you can find nearly all cuisines, exotic foods and items throughout the UK.
- Getting around the UK is easy – the UK has an extensive transport infrastructure. The many buses that serve the towns, cities and villages or the extensive rail network getting around can be very cost-effective. Often flying within the UK can be the quickest and cheapest mode, with low-cost airlines (such as Ryanair and EasyJet) flying all over the UK. You can also travel by coach (an inexpensive option), with the largest coach hub being found in the city’s centre next to London Victoria station
- Very few toll roads – the UK generally does not have many toll roads, meaning that you do not have to carry a lot of loose change when you drive in the UK. If you drive within specific areas of Central London (known as the congestion charge zone), you will be subject to a daily charge. The zone operates from Monday to Friday between 7 am and 6 pm, and you will be required to pay a congestion fee of £11.50 per day. Black cabs and buses are exempt from paying the charge; however, private hire services may charge the cost as part of their overall rate
- England and Wales use the same notes and coins; however, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man have their own versions. It is still British Pounds (GBP) or at least on parity (rate of 1 for 1). Should you visit Scotland or the other surrounding territories and go back to England with their notes. You will likely need to exchange them in an English high street bank. Some English shops may accept the currency; however, many will probably refuse – as they are not classified as legal tender in England
- England is now actually connected to mainland Europe by a tunnel – in 1994, the Channel Tunnel was officially opened, which runs 75-115 meters or 250-380 feet below the English Channel and connects Folkestone, Kent, to Calais in Northern France. There are two services available: Eurostar (https://www.eurostar.com/uk-en) which is a passenger service that runs from London (St Pancras), Ashford (Kent) or Ebbsfleet (Kent) and goes to Paris (France), Lille (France), Brussels (Belgium), Amsterdam (Netherlands) or Disneyland Paris. The second service is Eurotunnel, also known as Le Shuttle (https://www.eurotunnel.com/uk/) which is a vehicle transport service (Cars, Coaches etc.), which frequently runs throughout the day and departs from Folkestone (Kent) to Calais (France) in approximately 35 minutes
- People are often surprised by the number of free things to do in the UK. Many museums and galleries have free admission, yes free, for both UK citizens and international visitors. If you visit any galleries or museums, you will likely be required to pay for any special exhibitions (which are optional). Most parks and gardens, which are vast and can be found across London, are free to enter, except Kew Gardens, which boasts many attractions and is a great day out. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Bank of England Museum and the Parliament Buildings in Belfast all offer free admittance
- There are a lot of motorways (highways) across the UK; the M25 is one of the busiest as it is an orbital motorway that encircles the entire Greater London county
People often do not realise that London is a city and a county. Greater London, which is the name for the county, is made up of 31 boroughs and the City of London. The City of London is the name for the financial district area of London, which is also home to London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Shard, Hays Gallery and the Tower of London. The majority of the well-known landmarks are located within the Borough of Westminster, including Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the Mall. The boroughs are all well connected, with over 673 / 52-night buses (https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/buses/), 369 London train stations (https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/), 270 tube stations (https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/tube/) and 45 Docklands Light Railway Stations (https://tfl.gov.uk/dlr/route/dlr/), getting around is simple. The typical cost of a journey will depend on the zone you are travelling from and to and the time of day.
Where to stay
- Around Major stations (Victoria, Paddington, Kings Cross), you will find many bed and breakfast and coach house hotel establishments. Many of these are affordable and often offer private bathrooms and various amenities. The cost can be a lot lower than the daily average, and you can look to pay anything from £50-100 per room per night
- Staying in any of the boroughs – you could look for bed and breakfast establishments or private accommodation available on apps such as Airbnb. The savings can be more significant when planning an extended stay within the city. If you look to stay in any of the boroughs, it is crucial to establish the zone (if within London) or how you will travel around. If you are travelling from, say, zone 6 to zone 1, a single journey (off-peak) can cost £3 per person using an oyster card
- The city of London – if you are planning a city break over the weekend, one option is to stay in the City of London. The city is the financial district, and over the weekend, many hotels offer competitive deals. The area is generally quiet at weekends, and there is a lot of history and sites to see right on your doorstep. Getting around from the city is easy, and you will also be close to many well-known attractions
You might be concerned about staying in the outer boroughs; however, you will soon realise that most are safe, and each will offer a unique insight into London life. Take some time to look into the areas, and with a small amount of research, you will quickly get a flavour for the various boroughs. Like any major city, you should always be careful. It helps if you only carry what you need and at night ensure you stay in well-lit and populated areas. Use popular search engines to search the borough’s name or street address. Using street maps, you will be able to establish where the accommodation is located and whether it is easily accessible.
A cost-efficient and easy way to get around London is to obtain an Oyster card. You will likely be able to purchase the Oyster card in advance from within your home country (https://tfl.gov.uk/fares/how-to-pay-and-where-to-buy-tickets-and-oyster/buying-tickets-and-oyster/buying-tickets-from-abroad#on-this-page-0); however, once you arrive in the UK, you will only be able to buy the Oyster card once you have arrived in Greater London (the Oyster card is not accepted or does work outside of London). It is easy to obtain a card, and you will be able to purchase one from the many newsagent shops found across London (https://tfl.gov.uk/maps/oyster-ticket-stops). You will be required to buy one Oyster card per person, and each card requires a minimum £5 deposit. You will be able to top up your card at the newsagent or via ticket machines found in most stations. Finally, you will be able to use the Oyster card on London trains, buses, the DLR, and the London Underground.
London is surrounded by five international airports, London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Stanstead, London Luton and London City. The largest and one with the most frequent flights is London Heathrow with five terminals followed by London Gatwick with two terminals. All of the airports have short and long stay parking, and all are connected to the London transport infrastructure. Three airports have express services running fast trains from London to the airports. The Heathrow Express runs from London Paddington to London Heathrow in around 20 minutes, and trains run every 15 minutes. The Gatwick Express runs every 20 minutes and departs from London Victoria to London Gatwick Airport, and the journey takes approximately 30 minutes. The Stanstead Express runs every 15 minutes from London Liverpool Street to London Stanstead and takes about 47 minutes. You can travel to all of the other airports by main train lines such as London Luton, from London Blackfriars or London St Pancras International, which runs every 15 minutes and takes approximately 40 minutes. London Luton also requires you to take a 10-minute shuttle bus transfer from the main train station to the terminal. London City Airport can be reached from Bank Station (London) or Stratford International) which runs every 8 to 15 minutes and takes approximately 20 minutes.
What to do
- Greenwich – 20 minutes from the City centre, you will find Greenwich, known for being the home of the prime meridian line, where east meets west. Greenwich Park is beautiful with a planetarium and the old naval school with impressive and iconic infrastructure. You will also find a historic market which is open seven days a week and even an old tea clipper ship, known as the Cutty Sark. Visitors can jump on board the iconic ship and walk around this piece of history. You can get to Greenwich via overland train or the Docklands Light Railway; however, you can also take a scenic boat tour from London Embankment to Greenwich
- Theme Parks – many visitors to London do not realise close to London are many theme parks with rollercoasters and animal-themed resorts. The first is Thorpe Park. The park and resort have 30 thrill rides, family attractions and unique events (https://www.thorpepark.com/), and you can get to Thorpe Park by Car, by Bus or by Train. Trains leave from London Waterloo to Staines Railway Station, and the duration is between 30 to 50 minutes. The next theme park is Chessington World of Adventures (https://www.chessington.com/), which boasts 40 rides and attractions, a zoo and a sea life centre with over 1,000 animals. Chessington can be reached by car, by coach or by public transport. Trains frequently run from London Waterloo to Chessington South Station, located in zone 6 (Oyster cards can be used). Both Thorpe Park and Chessington offer accommodation options, so a visit to London could easily include a visit to a theme park
- The City of London – many visitors to the city often overlook this important borough. To start, the city of London is home to the Museum of London (which offers free admittance) and is a great day out for all the family. If you enjoy walking, a stroll around the city, you will quickly realise the history of the area through the many plaques and information notices scatted around the streets and parks
- Blue Plaques – blue plaques are often placed on properties where well-known individuals once lived, there are approximately 900 plaques in London (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/), and it can be a fun day out visiting the homes of famous people from British and World history
- Historic Sites – if you love history and visiting stately homes, there are hundreds of historic sites, stately homes and places of interest close to London. It could be cost-effective to purchase an annual National Trust (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/london) or an English Heritage membership (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/). By obtaining a yearly membership or visitor pass, you will make significant savings after your second or third visit to these historic sites. Memberships range from anything from £10 up to £100 per person
- Bluewater Shopping Centre (https://bluewater.co.uk/) – Opens from 10 am to 9 pm Monday to Saturday. Bluewater is a vast shopping centre and the 5th largest in the UK. Located in Stone, Kent, 17.8 miles of 28.6 KM from London city centre, Bluewater has parking for over 13,000 cares, 330 stores (including many designer brands), 40 cafés and restaurants, and a cinema. Getting to Bluewater is easy, you can travel from London Victoria, London Charing Cross, London St Pancras International or London Blackfriars to Greenhithe for Bluewater and it takes anything from 40 minutes to 1 hour) and costs range from £10 to £20 for return tickets – as the price will depend on the time of day you travel
- Westfield Stratford City (https://uk.westfield.com/london) Opens from 10 am to 10 pm Monday to Saturdays and 12 pm to 6 pm on Sundays. Westfield is the 4th largest shopping centre in the UK, located in London’s Stratford. This retail centre is easy to get to, with 280 stores, 70 restaurants, a 24-hour Casino, Premier Inn Hotel and Cinema, you will find everything you need. Westfield is within London, and you can visit by train from London Liverpool Street to Stratford, by London Underground (Central Line, Jubilee Line) or by the Docklands Light Railway. It takes 5 minutes to 15 minutes from Central London, and costs range from £6 to £15 for return tickets, depending on the time of day you travel
- Outlet Centres – there are several outlet centres near to and around London. Braintree Village (https://braintree-village.com/ is located in Essex and has over 75 stores showcasing some of the most desirable fashion and lifestyle brands, offering savings of up to 60% off all year round. You can travel to Braintree by car or by train. Trains frequently run from London Liverpool Street Station to Braintree, it takes approximately 1 hour and costs an average £20 return. Close to Oxford is the Bicester Outlet Village (https://www.thebicestervillageshoppingcollection.com/en/home/). The village is home to more than 160 boutiques of leading brands, each offering savings of up to 60% on the recommended retail price all year round. The village houses many chic restaurants, creative pop-ups and art exhibitions – plus a range of VIP services for an effortless shopping experience. You can get to Bicester by car or by booking the express shopping service, which will collect you from several Central London locations. The service will then take you directly to the village, which takes approximately 1 hour. Tickets can be purchased online, and the costs range from £20-£30 per person
Just 174 miles or 280 kilometres west of London is Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Getting to Cardiff from London is easy. You can travel by train (London Paddington to Cardiff Central) in around 2 hours, by coach (https://www.nationalexpress.com/en/destinations/cardiff/london-to-cardiff) or by car in about 3 hours. Whether you want to visit one of the many castles around Cardiff, the museums or stroll through Bute Park, Cardiff is a beautiful and quite often overlooked city. In more recent times, many of the Doctor Who episodes were filmed in and around Cardiff, so fans flock to take in the beautiful scenery Cardiff has to offer.
Edinburgh is 393 miles or 632 kilometres north of London and is the capital of Scotland. Getting from London is easy. You can travel by train (London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverly) in just over four and a half hours, or by plane, which will take a little over an hour. Multiple airlines fly daily between London and Edinburgh, so getting there by plane is easy. Edinburgh is a unique city, with its many dark stone buildings, medieval old town and the castle looming over the city. Each year, Edinburgh also becomes home to the Fringe comedy festival in August. For animal lovers, a visit to the grave of Greyfriars bobby’s owner can be moving, discovering the story of devotion
Belfast is 470 miles or 756 kilometres northwest of London, across the Irish sea and is the capital of Northern Ireland. There are many options for travelling to Belfast; the quickest is by plane, which takes an hour and 15 minutes or by ferry from Liverpool (taking a train from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street). Belfast is steeped in history, especially maritime history. Visit the site where the famous Titanic was built and launched from, the impressive castle and City hall or visit St George’s indoor market. The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO world heritage site for those wanting to see natural beauty, just 60 miles from the city centre.
If you are planning a trip to the United Kingdom, take your time to explore more about London and what the rest of the United Kingdom has to offer. You will be guaranteed to have a memorable experience, and visiting the UK does not necessarily have to break the bank.
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