30+ Local Travel Tips for your First Visit to the UK

Are you travelling to the UK for the first time? These local travel tips will help you know what to expect when you visit England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, alongside the River Thames on a clear day in London, UK.

The United Kingdom (UK) is one of the most popular tourist destinations, welcoming over 31 million international tourists in 2022

There’s something here to suit most people, as long as you’re willing to put up with the rain. You’ll find rich history around every corner, both in museums and on the streets.

The landscape is breathtaking, from the mountains of the Scottish Highlands to the sweeping fields of central England, and you can explore everything from big cities to quaint little country villages.

Not to mention the pubs…

As with all international travel, there are some things worth knowing in advance, and if you’re planning your first visit to the UK, you probably have some questions. 

I’ve spent all but three years of my life in the UK, so here are my local tips for first-time visitors to the UK. I’ll share my recommendations on the best places to visit, clear up your currency questions, share some useful tips for driving in the UK, and help you understand some of our little quirks.

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The Key Takeaways

  • The UK is a fascinating place to explore with masses to see and do at any time of year.
  • Most credit and debit cards are accepted widely, but carry cash for tips.
  • It’s easy to explore the UK by public transport, including the iconic London Underground
  • The UK has a diverse food and drink scene that’s more interesting than you might expect.
  • Like all countries, the UK has some individual quirks, like a love of queuing and a fascination with tea.
A serene river scene on the River Avon in Stratford upon Avon, England, with people enjoying a sunny day in boats and on the riverbanks, with lush green trees and colourful narrowboats moored along the side.

UK Travel Basics

First, here are a few of the most important things to know before travelling to the UK.

When is the best time to visit the UK?

The history and culture of the UK are there all year round, but the best time of year to visit is between April and October.

Don’t get me wrong—the weather won’t be perfect, and you probably won’t manage to escape the rain completely. British weather is notoriously unpredictable, and daytime temperatures in the summer months could range from a scorching 40C to a chilly 16C.

The weather will almost certainly be warmer and drier between April and October. We put our clocks forward at the end of March, so the sun will set later, and you’ll be able to make more of the daylight hours. 

However, if you want to avoid the crowds of the high season (and the school holidays), it’s better to travel in the shoulder season on either side of July and August. 

A sample UK Visa Application form on top of a partially-visible Union Jack flag.

Do you need a visa to visit the UK as a tourist?

Residents of some countries need a visa to visit the UK for tourism purposes. On the other hand, residents of the EU and certain other countries, such as the US, Canada and Australia, simply need to bring their passports. 

A Standard Visitor visa will allow you to spend up to six months in the UK for tourism. 

You can check if you need a UK visa on the UK Government website. It’s best to check the entry requirements before you book your travel, and you can apply for your Standard Visitor visa three months before your planned arrival date.

Always pack a jacket

And I do mean always – we’re pretty much always expecting rain in the UK. How much rain you’ll see depends on when and which parts of the country you visit, but it rained on 171 days in 2023

So there’s a good chance you’ll see some rain when you visit the UK. Even in the summer, the weather can quickly change from sunny to rainy, so it’s worth packing a lightweight rain jacket or even a packaway rain jacket.

A close-up of a black, three-pronged uk electrical plug against a white background.

Remember your plug adapter

If you’re visiting the UK, you’ll need to bring a plug adapter with you. The adapter you packed for most other European countries won’t work over here.

The UK uses a Type G plug, which is also used in Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta, among other places. It has three rectangular pins arranged in a triangle and a 3 amp or 13 amp fuse. If you forget to bring an adapter with you, you can pick one up fairly easily at airports, large train stations and larger supermarkets.

The NHS is amazing

Most British people agree that the National Health Service (NHS) is one of our true national treasures. 

If you’re an EU resident, your EHIC card will cover you for some emergency medical care, so make sure you bring it along with you. Visitors from some other non-EU countries may also be covered for emergency care under a reciprocal health care arrangement, but check before you travel.

In any case, you’ll still need to take out travel insurance as not all treatment will be covered. 

A sign at an airport designating the international arrivals area.

Arriving in the United Kingdom

There are several major airports throughout the United Kingdom, so it’s hard to predict exactly what your arrival will be like. 

However, I’ve flown from several UK airports, and they’ve all had public transportation links to the city centre. If you fly into Heathrow Airport, the Heathrow Express is the easiest way to get to central London and booking online will secure the best deals.

Alternatively, you’ll always find a taxi rank outside Arrivals, but the price can be pretty steep. 

Don’t forget we drive on the left

Even if you’re not planning to hire a car, it’s essential to remember that we drive on the left.

So, you’ll need to check for traffic coming from the right when you’re crossing roads, and starts right at the airport!

British currency, including both banknotes and various denominations of coins, spread out on a surface.

​Dealing with money matters

The currency in the UK is the pound, or pound sterling, which you’ll usually see written as £ in stores, restaurants and so on. One pound is made up of 100 pennies, pence or just p. 

If you’re exploring beyond England, you’ll notice that Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own banknotes with their own designs. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that they aren’t accepted in England—all UK Sterling notes in British pounds are valid in all four countries.

You can check the exchange rate before you travel at XE.com. Depending on how long you’re staying in the UK, you might want to exchange some money at home and bring it with you, or withdraw cash from ATMs (cashpoints) when you get here. 

Some Post Offices offer money exchange services at reasonable rates. Avoid the currency exchange counters in airports or on the street, as they offer terrible deals. 

Young woman wearing casual clothing makes payment for drinks using her phone and a wireless terminal held by the waitress.

Cash or Card?

Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards, along with GooglePay and ApplePay, are widely accepted. American Express isn’t accepted everywhere, so it’s best to have a backup. It’s also a good idea to tell your bank you will be abroad so they don’t suspect credit card fraud and freeze your cards. 

Many businesses now operate on a cashless basis and only take payments by credit and debit cards. Cash isn’t used in the UK as much as before the pandemic, and most of your transactions will be made by card, even in small towns and villages.

Having said that, it’s a good idea to carry a small amount of cash for tipping and so on.

Don’t tip too much

Tipping is a great way to show your appreciation for good service, whether you’re buying a round of drinks, taking a taxi or getting your hair cut. So I wholeheartedly recommend tipping when you visit the UK.

However, although it’s standard practice to tip, the UK doesn’t have the same tipping culture as some other countries. 10% is a good average, but tipping too much can cause embarrassment, so check out our guide to UK tipping etiquette for advice on tipping in various situations. 

A row of three black taxi cabs in London, UK

Getting Around

Once you get here, you can either hire a car or use the UK’s extensive public transportation system. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.

The UK is more than one country

One of the best things about visiting the UK is getting out of London and exploring the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give it its full name.

In a short space of time, you can explore different landscapes, cultures, foods and even languages as you journey around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Our towns and cities are generally compact

Because most of our most visited cities and towns were built in the medieval era, they were originally designed for people to get around on foot or by horse and cart. 

This means the city centres tend to be quite compact, and you’ll often find pedestrianised areas where cars aren’t allowed at all. This mean that major cities like Oxford, Chester or York are perfect for exploring on foot, and you’ll often find quirky little alleyways like the ‘shuts’ in Shrewsbury.

A red brick building with three arched windows. Above the windows, there is a sign displaying the Welsh village name "Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch," which is known for having one of the longest place names in Europe.

Place names can tricky

Place names in the United Kingdom can be tricky to master, so have a shot, and someone will tell you if you’re not quite right.

Apart from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the longest town name in Europe, some of my favourites include Loughborough (Luffbruh), Leominster (Lemster) and Cholmondeley (Chumlee). And let’s not forget Shropshire’s county town, Shrewsbury, which some people still argue should be pronounced Shrosebree (it shouldn’t…).

Of course, we also have some amusing place names, like Crapstone, Wetwang, and Great Snoring. Those are some of the more polite examples!

Traffic on a UK Motorway with vehicles traveling in both directions and road signs indicating exits and directions overhead.

Driving in the UK

The UK is an ideal destination for a road trip because you can explore as much of the country as you wish and travel at your own pace. But driving in the UK is bound to feel different to driving in your home country.

I know from personal experience that driving on the right-hand side feels very odd. I keep grabbing the door handle as if it’s the gear stick!

So here are a few tips to make your first trip go as smoothly as possible:

  • Learn the basic rules of the road before you arrive. You can find details of road signs, speed limits and more in the Highway Code.
  • Remember, we drive on the left in the UK. You need to give way to traffic coming from the left and go round roundabouts in a clockwise direction.
  • Renting an automatic car means no gear to change, which gives you one less thing to worry about.
  • The different layout of controls will take some getting used to. Practise on some quiet roads before you head to the motorway.
  • Older British car parks tend to have spaces that are too small for modern cars. Take your time over parking and look for modern car parks with more generous spaces.
  • Using a GPS with audio instructions is much easier than trying to navigate using a map. You can use Google Maps or book a GPS with your rental car.
  • Driving in a new country is mentally and physically tiring, so take regular breaks. The general suggestion is to stop for 20 minutes every two hours, but you may need more frequent stops.

Give yourself time to adjust and be patient with yourself. Before long, driving in the UK won’t feel so weird!

A winding road meanders through a valley in the Scottish Highlands, UK, with a glimpse of a lake in the distance.

Don’t underestimate the length of road trips

First time visitors to the UK often look at the distance between towns and underestimate both how long the journey will take and how tiring it will be. 

Except for motorways, UK roads often have twists and turns, tight corners and steep hills to contend with, not to mention the roundabouts. 

To give you an example, I live in Newport, a Shropshire town around 19 miles from the centre of Shrewsbury, but the journey usually takes me at least 45 minutes. It can take me up to an hour if there’s heavy traffic in town. 

Take Google’s estimate with a pinch of salt and allow a little more time for your journey, especially for longer distances. Rural roads often have a 60mph speed limit, but many of them are only really suitable for 20, 30 or 40mph, so don’t feel that you need to drive quicker than that.

A red double-decker bus servicing route 27 in London, England, driving down a street lined with shops and trees under a partly cloudy sky.

Travelling by public transport

Of course, you don’t have to drive at all. Most places you want to visit can be reached on public transport, whether by bus, train, underground or tram.

You can generally use contactless payment for most inner-city journeys, and tickets for buses and trains can also be bought online in advance.

If you’re travelling by public transport in London, remember to touch in and out on the yellow pads at the start and end of your journey. If you forget, you’ll be charged the maximum fare and could have to pay a penalty fine of £100. 

You can buy an Oyster card to access public transport in London, which might work out cheaper depending on your bank’s foreign transaction fees. Alternatively, you can use contactless payment through your credit or debit card, GooglePay or ApplePay. 

A red and white London Underground train is stationary at an Tube station platform in London, England.

Using the London Underground

While you’re in London, the Tube (London Underground) makes getting around really easy, but it’s often quicker to walk. I usually prefer to book a hotel in outer London, get the Tube into Central London, and then walk between attractions. You could also book a ticket for the hop-on hop-off buses that tour around the most popular tourist attractions.

Inner London stations generally have barriers you need to tap out of to exit the Tube station. The stations further out often don’t have these barriers, so it’s essential to remember to tap out on the yellow pad before you leave. 

And when you’re getting on and off the train, remember to ‘Mind the Gap!’

A blurred train in motion passes by a platform with the warning "mind the gap" prominently displayed on the ground.

UK train tickets can be expensive

Unfortunately, the UK has some of the highest train prices in Europe, thanks to privatisation of the national rail system in the 1990s. This can make exploring the UK by train pretty pricey, but there are ways around it. 

Booking ahead is the best way to find the best price, and 12 weeks seems to be the sweet spot for ticket prices. Apps like The Trainline will calculate the cheapest tickets for you, which might mean booking two singles instead of a return. Yes, I know it makes no sense…

Alternatively, you could look at coach companies like National Express or Megabus. Although travelling by coach isn’t as quick or comfortable as travelling by train, it’s much cheaper and ideal if you’re exploring the UK on a budget. 

A blue commuter train is stationed at a platform within a large glass-roofed railway station, with the destination sign indicating it is en route to Manchester Oxford Road.

Public toilets can be hard to find

Public loos (toilets) in the UK are not as common as they used to be, but are generally pretty clean. They tend to be found in places like shopping centres, railway stations and petrol stations. Many are free, but you might need a coin to enter some.

If you can’t find a public loo, you can often use the facilities in a tourist attraction, coffee shop, pub or restaurant. It’s polite to make a small purchase while you’re there, and some places only unlock their loo once you’ve done so.

Sunday Lunch at the Kirkstyle Inn, Scotland, featuring a plate of roast beef served with gravy, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, broccoli, and a side of horseradish sauce.

UK Food and Drink

If you love food and drink, there’s plenty to check out in the UK, and it’s not as bad as the jokes make it out to be!

British food is actually pretty good

OK, I’ll admit that post-war British food was pretty bad. We took a while to recover from wartime rationing and economic strife, and spent the next few decades turning out pretty bland, stodgy dishes.

But from the 1990s onwards, UK food really started to take off. Nowadays, the British food scene is really colourful and diverse.

You can still tuck into traditional British classics like a full cooked breakfast, a Sunday roast or good old fish and chips, and each of the four countries has its own traditional dishes to explore. 

There are also Michelin-starred restaurants, cute cafes and great street food vendors to explore, especially in larger towns and cities. 

Spend some time here, and I’m sure you’ll agree that British food has shaken off that ‘bland’ tag!

A cosy traditional sitting area in the Kirkstyle Inn pub in Dunning, Scotland, with red leather armchairs, a stone fireplace, and vintage decorations on the walls.

And British pubs are great

When you visit the United Kingdom, you really have to visit at least one traditional British pub. They serve a wide range of drinks so you don’t have to try the beer, although we’ve moved on from the days of warm, flat brews to excellent IPAs, lagers and other beers, all served at the right temperature!

The great British pub is more than just a place to get a drink. It’s a social hub where people meet up with friends after work, pop in for lunch, or gather to watch the big football match. And when the sun is shining, there’s nothing better than relaxing in a beer garden with a cold drink and some crisps.

You don’t need to wait to be seated; just grab a table and make yourself comfy. Some pubs still offer table service for drinks in these post-pandemic times, but generally, you can head to the bar to order your drinks or pick up food menus. 

A white cup of tea with milk on a saucer, accompanied by shortbread biscuits, with one biscuit broken in half and crumbs scattered on a wooden surface.

Tea really matters, a lot!

I struggle slightly with this section because I have to confess that I hate the taste of tea. Admitting that is probably tantamount to treason in the UK, but I simply prefer coffee!

Most Brits love the stuff and drink an average of three or more cups of tea daily. In fact, one in five Brits manages to drink five to ten cups each day! 

We love to debate the right way to make a cup of tea. Should you brew it in the cup or in a pot, add the milk first or last? But we all agree that making it in the microwave is just plain wrong, no debate needed.

Afternoon tea at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Birmingham, England. A three-tiered serving stand filled with sandwiches and an assortment of desserts, including cakes, scones, and layered cream delicacies.

But tea isn’t just a drink

Just to confuse you a little more, tea is more than just a drink. In some areas of the UK, it’s also another name for your evening meal.

If you get a chance, try and fit in afternoon tea at a cosy tea room, luxury hotel or stately home. A tower of dainty sandwiches, fresh scones and tiny cakes, accompanied by a hot pot of tea or coffee, is a fabulous way to pass an hour or two. 

You might also see a cream tea on the menu, which is usually a scone with jam and cream accompanied by a pot of tea or coffee.

High tea is not the same as afternoon tea, by the way. High tea is a more substantial meal that would be served instead of dinner. It would originally have been eaten at a ‘high’ table, compared to the low tables used to serve afternoon tea to the aristocracy.

The bathroom at the Kirkstyle Inn, Dunning, Scotland. A white pedestal sink is positioned against a white subway tiled wall in a bathroom with blue paint above the tile line and a checkered black and white floor. an ornate gold-framed mirror hangs above the sink, and a small framed picture is reflected in the mirror.

You can drink the tap water

Save your pennies for the pub and bring a reusable water bottle to refill from the tap. UK tap water is perfectly safe and treated to some of the strictest regulations in the world, passing 99.95% of tests. 

In addition to filling up from the tap at your hotel or rented holiday home, you can also find refill points in shopping centres and around larger towns and cities. Many cafes will also refill your water bottle if you buy a drink or food there.

By the way, don’t be surprised to see two taps in the bathroom sink in your hotel room or holiday home. This is a quirk of British plumbing that dates back to when most hot water came from storage tanks in the roof and wasn’t suitable for drinking.

A signpost at Land's End, Cornwall (England) with directional markers indicating distances to New York, Isles of Scilly and John o'Groats, set against a clear blue sky and ocean backdrop.

Things to Do in the UK

I can’t cover all the options in this post, but here are some of the top things to do when you visit the UK. 

Where are the top UK places to visit?

The most unmissable sights for your UK trip depend on whether you prefer bustling cities, seaside towns, country villages or stunning national parks.

Some of the top spots you might like to visit include:

Capital cities: We’ve got four of them – Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London

National parks: There are 15 national parks, including the Peak District, the Lake District, Eryri (Snowdonia), Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.

Seaside resorts: Too many to mention, but Robin Hood’s Bay, Llandudno, Portmeirion and Arbroath are all lovely. If you’re spending a few days in London, head down to the south coast for day trips to Brighton or the White Cliffs of Dover.

Country villages: You’ll be spoiled for choice with spots like Broadway in the Cotswolds, Beddgelert in Eryri, Tarbert in Argyll and Bute and Donaghadee in County Down (high on my personal must-visit list!).

Stately homes and castles: As well as the castles in London, you might like to visit Edinburgh Castle, Caernarvon Castle, Hillsborough Castle, Blenheim Palace or Warwick Castle, to name just a few of the options.

Aerial view from the London Eye of the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, alongside the River Thames in London (UK) with Westminster Bridge and boats visible.

London: the essential sights

London is a fabulous city, incredibly diverse, full of history and well worth a visit. You should allow at least a day or two to see the main sights of London, but it’d be easy to spend a week or even 10 days in the nation’s capital and still not see everything. 

If you’re planning to visit London for the first time, some of the main attractions include:

  • Buckingham Palace
  • Downing Street
  • The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
  • Westminster Abbey
  • Tower Bridge over the River Thames (not London Bridge!)
  • The Tower of London
  • The London Eye
  • St Paul’s Cathedral
  • Trafalgar Square
  • The Victoria and Albert Museum
  • The Natural History Museum
  • Windsor Castle

However, the UK is far more than London, so try to venture further afield and explore the rest of the country, at least for a day or two. 

Visitors enjoying a sunny day on the lawn in front of Warwick Castle in Warwickshire, England, surrounded by towers and fortifications.

Where to soak up the history

You’ll find history around every corner in the United Kingdom, from the house where Shakespeare was born and Charles Darwin’s school, to ancient castles, ruined monasteries and tiny local pubs dating back hundreds of years. 

We’re also pretty good at reusing old buildings in unusual ways, like putting a cocktail bar in a former public loo.

There are plenty of fascinating museums all over the UK. Not just the big, well-known ones in London like the British Museum or the Natural Science Museum, but also small quirky museums like Birmingham Coffin Works museum or the Much Wenlock Museum, which explores the town’s links with the Modern Olympics. 

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham, UK

Free entry at UK museums 

It’s true, you can see works of art and historical exhibitions at world-class museums without paying a penny for entrance. 

Many museums and art galleries in the UK offer free entry, which is a great way to pass the time while you wait for the latest rain shower to stop. 

Some of my favourite free museums and art galleries include the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery. All of these offer free entry to their main collection, but you may have to book in advance, and there may be a separate charge for any temporary exhibits.

However, there’s one small caveat. 

Many museums offer free entry but depend on visitors’ donations to stay open. Many of them now have contactless donation points, so you don’t even need to have cash handy. Your donation makes a big difference. 

The summer months are festival season

We love live music in the UK, and the peak season for festivals runs throughout the summer. Some of the main ones are:

  • Radio 1’s Big Weekend in May
  • Glastonbury in June
  • Download Festival in June
  • Leeds and Reading in August
  • Boardmasters in August

Other smaller festivals to look out for include the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank and the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival in Birmingham, which both take place in July. But basically, whatever kind of music you love, you’ll find a festival somewhere.

However, getting hold of tickets for the most popular events can be a nightmare, so start looking at least nine months in advance.

Colourful umbrellas suspended above a shopping arcade in Camden Town, London, England. They create a vibrant canopy against a partly cloudy sky.

British Quirks

The UK isn’t exactly like the one portrayed in Monty Python or the James Bond films. However, like every country, we have our own quirks, and it helps to know some of them before you arrive.

We really do talk about the weather a lot

It’s a stereotype, but get two Brits together, and the conversation will soon turn to the weather. We talk about it being too hot, too cold, too windy, or too rainy, and we’ve turned talking about the weather into something approaching a national sport. 

So, if you’re ever stuck for something to say to a Brit, a comment on the day’s weather is a fairly safe bet!

We love a queue

Brits queue for everything from the bus to a public loo. We expect people to fall in line (pun intended), and anyone who tries queue jumping can expect to be met with anything from a stern look or a tut to a proper telling-off. 

Get used to hearing “sorry” 

Brits also tend to apologise a lot in everyday life. In fact, we even tend to apologise if someone steps on our toe or spills a drink on our clothes.

Stay here long enough, and you might start saying it just as often!

A variety of fresh vegetables, including asparagus, tomatoes, and peppers, displayed for sale with price tags at a market stall in England.

Measurements can be confusing

Yes, the UK uses the metric system, but not for everything. Road distances and speeds are generally discussed in miles or miles per hour, and we still go to the pub for a pint of beer.

If you go to the supermarket, most foods are labelled in grams and kilograms, but if you visit a market stall, items might be priced in lbs (pounds). And people might talk about their height or weight in terms of either system. 

Confused? So are we…

Accents vary a lot

It makes me smile when people say they love a British accent because UK accents change within just a few miles.

You’d probably expect a Scottish accent to sound different to a Welsh accent. But the ‘English’ accent you’ll hear where I live in Shropshire is completely different to the ‘Brummie’ English accent (Birmingham) 40 miles down the road, and both are different to how they talk in nearby Stoke. 

You can also expect to hear different dialects, such as Black Country, spoken in the area between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, or Scouse when you’re in Liverpool. These dialects can be tricky even for Brits to understand at times, so don’t worry if you don’t catch every word at first.

After reading this post, you should be ready to have a great time exploring the United Kingdom and all it has to offer.

Hopefully, I’ve covered most of your main questions but please let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed!

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