Visiting London: Where to stay, what to pack, experiences to book

Banu Ibrahim, CNN Underscored
Updated Mon October 8, 2018

Every year, more than 19 million tourists travel from around the world to spend their vacations in London, visiting historic landmarks like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, sipping afternoon tea and feasting on English delicacies, immersing themselves in London's eclectic and bustling art scene, or having a simple picnic in one of the city's 3,000 parks (yes, you read that right).

By sheer numbers alone, we wouldn't be surprised if you yourself are planning a trip to Old Blighty.

If it's your first time traveling to London, it might be hard to figure out exactly what to do, where to stay, and what to pack to make the most of your time abroad. That's where this handy cheat sheet comes in. As a former resident of the city, as well as a seasoned London traveler, I've come up with a few suggestions on the top sights to see (plus the excursions to book), the gear and gadgets you'll want to tote with you, and some places to stay to help you make the most of your experience.

When to book flights

According to an Expedia study, the best time frame to book flights is at least 21 days before your trip. This, according to the company, is when you can cash in on the best discounts -- as much as 30% off trips within Europe specifically. Other pretty cool nuggets of information from that study: The best day to book is on Sunday, and booking things like your flight and car rentals or hotels together can yield the best savings.

Where to stay

Once you've got your flights nailed down, finding a place to stay is next on the checklist.

If you're the kind of traveler who loves the convenience of a hotel, but finds yourself drawn to vacation rental sites that offer more of a full living space, then Residence Inn Kensington and London Bridge locations should be on your radar.

There's a reason these properties in particular stand out to us. For starters, in every suite there is a fully functioning kitchen, complete with a whole slew of tools and appliances you'd want for meal prep (think pots and pans, coffee makers, teakettles, dishwasher and knife sets). There's a separate living area in every suite to make it feel more like living out of an apartment. Some other perks that make the hotels stand out among the rest include access to free washers and dryers, a full gym, a special mapped run from Under Armour Connected Fitness that will give you jogging routes near landmarks (so you can sightsee while clocking in those steps), and a free grocery delivery service — you simply leave your grocery list in your room, and the staff will stock up your kitchen with your food, without any additional charges. It doesn't hurt that you're a stone's throw away from many major London landmarks (Borough Market and Tower of London for the London Bridge location and Kensington Palace and the Natural History Museum for the Kensington location).

Both locations offer the same perks you'd expect of a hotel stay, including daily housekeeping, free breakfast, free Wi-Fi and the chance to rack up Marriott Rewards points during your stay. It truly is the best of both worlds.

Don't worry though if you're more of a traditionalists when it comes to hotel stays; there's plenty out there too that fit the bill. For those seeking top luxury accommodations across the city, LTI, a global members-only travel ratings organization recently rounded up eight exceptional stays which you can scope out here. For everyone else, Expedia has this handy map that outlines the top hotels based on your chosen area of the city. These range from big name hotels such as Marriott to budget boutique, quirky stays like citizenM. Some of the best locations to book your stay include the aforementioned Kensington and London Bridge, as well as Soho, Covent Garden, Shoreditch and Holborn. These areas are close to a number of tourists attractions that are probably on your itinerary, as well as being central to some of the best shopping streets, bars and restaurants the city has to offer.

What to pack

Many budget airlines, like WOW Air and Norwegian, have direct flights from the US to London at an affordable cost. The main downside is that checking a bag might not be a possibility. For those looking to fly carry-on only, you'll need to be strategic about what's worth packing.

In terms of luggage options, we prefer hardside spinners that are easy to steer around airports, sidewalks and beyond, but are also lightweight enough to hold all our essentials without going over the weight limit. EBags has a few of these options, but we're particularly big fans of the Fortis Hardside Spinner carry-on ($179.99; ebags.com) which has a near perfect rating on the site. This lightweight carry-on has a sturdy polycarbonate shell that's scratch-, abrasion-, and water-resistant. Its four spinner wheels can move 360 degrees for easy maneuverability, and it meets TSA size requirements for carry-on luggage. But the real highlight is its light, space-saving design, which allows you to pack everything you'd need on a trip. Pro tip: If you want to be 100% positive your luggage will be good to fly with you, you can always check its total weight using a handy portable scale like this device.

When it comes to clothing, the name of the game is to pack layers. Lightweight raincoats (because you never know when you'll be caught in a drizzle), cozy zip-ups, and clothing you'll feel comfortable wearing during long days of exploration should be on your packing list. To give you a sample of what I reach for first, check out the photo below.

1. Patagonia Torrentshell Packable Rain Jacket ($129; nordstrom.com); 2. Cole Haan Back Bow Packable Hooded Raincoat ($129.90; nordstrom.com); 3. Original Penguin Lambswool V-Neck Sweater ($44.92; amazon.com); 4. AE Plush Waffle Henley ($34.95; ae.com); 5. AE Ne(x)t Level Skinny Jean ($37.46; ae.com); 6. Everlane High-Rise Skinny Jean ($68; everlane.com).

But we can't stress enough -- bring comfortable shoes. You'll be walking a lot on your trip, as London is a fairly spread-out city. Plus, there are plenty of parks to be walked, museums to be explored and waterfront strolls to be had. The last thing you'll want is blisters or aching feet.

We recently stumbled upon Brooks Running's new Levitate 2 running shoes (starting at $150; brooksrunning.com). The shoes are made with energized cushioning that, according to the company, returns the energy you displace on it. Simply put, it will help give you that spring in your step while also delivering extreme comfort. After a few weeks of breaking these shoes in during more high impact activity, I can tell you this is one of the comfiest and most pain-free shoes I've ever broken in. And if they can withstand intense exercise routines, they'll be able to keep up as you're walking around the city. Plus, they come in a variety of cool colors.

In terms of gadgets to bring, portable chargers, powerful adapters and iPhone camera lens attachments top our list. For those packing light, toting around a professional-grade camera isn't feasible. The simple solution is to invest in smartphone camera lens attachments ($25.98; amazon.com) that will give you similar depth effects to shooting with a wide-angle lens, but without the bulky size. And if your smartphone will be your primary camera for the trip, a portable charger ($31.99; amazon.com) will help ensure that you never miss a Kodak moment, no matter how many hours you've been without a power outlet.

Once you're back at your hotel and ready to juice up your tablet, smartphone or laptop the old-fashioned way, a powerful adapter with multiple charging ports can get the job done. The LOOP World Adapter Plug ($16.95; amazon.com), for instance, features two USB outlets so you can charge your cell phone or tablet, and an additional AC socket can recharge your laptop or camera.

Experiences to book

Plenty of experiences you'll want to add to your itinerary are completely free, The British Museum, Tate Modern and Hyde Park among them. If you're looking for a more traditional sightseeing experience led by a local expert, you'll want to book in advance for those. We're fans of the Private Custom Tour (starting at $65.40; viator.com) that allows you to pick and choose exactly what sights you want to see. The private tour comes with either a full- or half-day itinerary. You simply let your guide know what you want to do with your day, and he or she will plan out the logistics for you. Whether you want a focus on food or are trying to museum hop for the whole day, you can create a custom itinerary that suits. Plus, your guide will give you all the historical background and insider tips along the way.

If you have a few days to spare and feel like getting outside the city, there's plenty to be seen in Bath, Stonehenge, Cambridge and Oxford, all of which are simple day trips to do while you're already in London.

Another awesome way to sightsee is by taking in a panoramic view of the city from above. Probably the most famous way to do this is by going to the London Eye. This family-friendly experience allows you to board a glass capsule that towers over the city of London. From the top, you'll see Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and more. It is important to note that lines for this attraction are fairly long. To avoid the long wait times, grab a Skip-The-Line Ticket ($43.29; viator.com) which give you access to the Fast Track line.

Personally, I prefer the experience at the Shard. Thanks to its towering size and floor-to-ceiling windows, you'll be able to get a 360-degree view of the city. There, you can take in the sights over afternoon tea ($49.96; viator.com) or with a glass of bubbly for two ($33.29; viator.com).

And hey, if you're feeling really adventurous, you can always see the London skyline by helicopter.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.