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 around the world. 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, there are also four indigenous Celtic languages spoken (Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish). Not only that but there are also over 50 regional accents and dialects spoken throughout the UK from Dorset in the South to Scouse in the North.
There is a perception that British people often speak about the weather, which is true; however, the climate in the UK is not as bad as people often believe. The climate is very different 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 going down 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, not only that but it usually gets dark at around 9 pm. The UK school summer holidays run from late July until early September, so 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 immigrants from around the world, when you visit, you notice the influence immigrants have had 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, which also means that you can find nearly all cuisines, exotic foods and items throughout the UK.
Some interesting facts you may not know: -
- Getting around the UK is easy, the UK has an extensive transport infrastructure, whether it is the 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 (which is also an inexpensive option), London Victoria is home to the coach hub in London
- Very few toll roads – the UK generally does not have many toll roads, meaning that when you drive in the UK, you do not have to carry a lot of loose change. If you drive within specific areas of Central London (known as the congestion charge zone) Monday to Friday between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm you will have 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 fee as part of their overall rate
- England and Wales use the same notes and coins; however, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man use their own version. It is still British Pounds (GBP) or at least on parity (rate of 1 for 1), however, if you visit Scotland and go back to England with Scottish notes, you may need to go into a high street bank to get them changed (some shops may accept them; however some may refuse – as they are not classified as legal tender)
- England is now actually connected to mainland Europe. 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, 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 35 minutes
- People are often surprised by the number of things to do that are free. Many museums and galleries have free admission (yes for both UK citizens and international visitors); however, you may be required to pay for specific exhibitions. The majority of parks and gardens (which are vast across London) are free to enter (except Kew Gardens). 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 across the UK; the M25 is one of the busiest as it is an orbital motorway which encircles the entire Greater London county
When you ask people what they know about the United Kingdom, often much of what they describe relates to London, from Buckingham Palace to Big Ben, London is undoubtedly not only the largest and most famous city in the UK but also the one most visited. In 2018, London received over 19.8 million international visitors, which ranked it 3rd in the most visited cities in the world. It is easy to see why as London is a large city packed full of history, well-known attractions and things to do.
People often do not realise that London is also both 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 you will find London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Shard, Hays Gallery and the Tower of London. The majority of the well-known landmarks are actually within the Borough of Westminster, and they include 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 easy and the cost for transport depends on the zone in which you are travelling to and from.
Most visitors will stay in hotels within the borough of Westminster, with the average cost per night per room being 150 British pounds. Though there are plenty of hotels in central London you can find good quality cheaper alternatives: -
- Around Major stations (Victoria, Paddington, Kings Cross) you will find many bed and breakfast and coach house hotel establishments, often offering private bathrooms and amenities. The cost can be a lot lower than the 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 temporary accommodation available on apps such as Airbnb where you can save a lot of money for the accommodation throughout your stay. 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
- 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, and you will generally find the area pretty quiet. It may seem quiet, but getting around from the City is easy, and you will also be close to many well-known attractions
You might be concerned around staying in many of the boroughs; however, with a little research, you will realise there is nothing to be worried about. Like any major city, you should always be careful, carry only what you need and at night ensure you stay in well-lit and populated areas if you use search engines and use the borough’s name you will be able to establish where the accommodation is located and whether it is in a nice area that is easily accessible.
London has a vast and varied transport infrastructure and getting around is easy. The overground trains cover all areas and regions of London; however, the London Underground typically expands out to the outer boroughs within the North, West and East of London; however, there are a limited number of underground stations within the South of London.
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 London (the Oyster card is not accepted or does work outside of London) and you will be able to obtain one from many newsagent shops found around London (https://tfl.gov.uk/maps/oyster-ticket-stops). You will be required to purchase one Oyster card per person, and each card requires you to pay a £5 deposit. You will be able to top up your card at the newsagent or via ticket machines found in most stations, and you will be able to use it on London trains, buses, the DLR and on 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 both short and long stay parking, and all are connected to the London transport infrastructure. Three of the airports have express services running fast trains from London to the airport, the Heathrow Express, runs from London Paddington to Heathrow in around 20 minutes and trains run every 15 minutes. Gatwick Express runs every 20 minutes and departs from London Victoria to Gatwick Airport, which takes approximately 30 minutes. The Stanstead Express runs every 15 minutes from London Liverpool Street to 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 followed by a 10-minute shuttle bus transfer and London City (from Bank Station (London) or Stratford International) which runs every 8 to 15 minutes and takes just over 20 minutes.
London has a lot to offer, and the majority of the attractions are well known, however, let’s look at some attractions that are a little off the beaten track.
- 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, but Greenwich park is beautiful with a planetarium and the old naval school with its impressive infrastructure. You will also find a historic market that is open seven days a week and even an old tea clipper ship which is known as the Cutty Sark in which visitors can jump on board 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 a number of theme parks with rollercoasters and animal-themed resorts. Thorpe Park Resort with 30 thrill rides, family attractions and unique events (https://www.thorpepark.com/) 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 sea life centre with over 1000 animals. Chessington can be reached by car, by coach or by public transport. Trains frequently run from London Waterloo to Chessington South Station, which is located in zone 6 (Oyster cards can be used). Both Thorpe Park and Chessington offer accommodation, so a visit to London could easily include a theme park
- The City of London – often overlooked by many visitors; however, the Museum of London (which offers free admittance) is a great day out, if you enjoy walking, if you walk the surrounding area you will quickly realise the history of London through the many plaques and information guides found around the area
- Blue Plaques – London places blue plaques 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 worthwhile purchasing an annual National Trust (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/london) or 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.
There are many famous shopping streets in Central London, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Carnaby Street, to name a few, however, if you are looking for a bargain and to capitalise on the weaker British pound, you can go to one of the many shopping centres around London
- Bluewater Shopping Centre (https://bluewater.co.uk/) - Opens from 10 am to 9 pm Monday to Saturdays. Bluewater is a vast shopping centre and 5th largest in the UK. Located in Stone, Kent which is 17.8 miles of 28.6 KM from London city centre, Bluewater has parking for over 13,000, 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 40minutes to 1 hour) and costs range from £10 to £20 for return tickets – 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, and with 280 stores, 70 restaurants, 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, the cost of the ticket will depend on the time of day you travel
- Outlet Centres – there are several outlet centres near to and around London. Braintree Village 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. Bicester Outlet Village (https://www.thebicestervillageshoppingcollection.com/en/home/) 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. With 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 shopping express service, which will collect you from several Central London locations and will 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
It is undeniable that London is a major attraction in which millions of people visit each year; however, the UK has a lot more to offer than just London. If you are planning a city getaway, why not extend your trip by a few days and venture out of London to discover the rest of the British Isles. Whether it is the magic of Stonehenge, visiting the 900+ stately homes and historical sites within the National Trust and English Heritage or visiting one of the fifteen national parks, the UK has something on offer for everyone.
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 or 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, by plane takes a little over an hour with multiple airlines flying daily between London and Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a unique city, with its many dark stone buildings, medieval old town and the castle looming over the city. In August each year, Edinburgh becomes home to the Fringe comedy festival, and for animal lovers, it is hard not to be moved by the story of Greyfriars bobby’s devotion to his owner.
Belfast is 470 miles or 756 kilometres northwest of London, across the Irish sea and is the capital of Northern Ireland. There are a number of options in travelling to Belfast; the quickest is by plane, which takes on average one 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 in which the famous Titanic was built and launched from, the impressive castle and City hall or visit St George's indoor market. For those wanting to see natural beauty, just 60 miles from the city centre, is the Giant's causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site.
So, 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 doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank.