London Do’s And Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Londoner Knows
Every city has its unique codes, its rhythms, its social compacts—and that’s certainly true of London, whose nearly 9 million inhabitants have developed a shared system to navigate those densely packed streets. There is order—queues really are a big deal here, and let’s just say you need to figure out your escalator etiquette, stat—but London has always been a city that’s rewarded those willing to venture around unexpected corners. Follow these local cues to inhabit the city like a Londoner. (And be sure to bring your sense of adventure along for the ride.)
Do bring an umbrella with you
Yes, it rains here. Sometimes.
Despite the stereotypes, London isn’t as rainy as most visitors assume—New York actually gets more inches of precipitation per year—but given its oceanic climate (and those unpredictable Atlantic fronts), it’s still wise to leave home prepared for a sudden spot of rain or dash of mizzle. Do as Londoners do, and tuck a travel-sized umbrella into your bag so you’re ready whatever the weather brings. And if the forecast really is looking dire, it can be worth investing in some good Wellies (rain boots, for our across-the-pond friends).
Don't stand on the left
Unless you enjoy being aggressively tutted at.
In public spaces, Londoners tend to keep to themselves, and are unlikely to engage with—or accost—strangers. But that rule flies out the window as soon as some poor, benighted soul decides to stand on the left of the escalator in any given Tube and train station. This may be London’s most sacrosanct code: the right is reserved for standing, and the left is the express lane for time-pressed commuters looking to power-stair-climb as quickly as physics allow. Get in their way and risk unholy wrath.
Do order rounds at the pub
And step away from the Venmo request.
Going to the pub isn’t just a frequent pastime for Londoners, it’s an after-work ritual, a bonding exercise for coworkers and friends, how most socializing happens. That means it’s also dictated by its own system of rules and etiquette. The most important one being that if you’re out with a group of Brits, expect to order drinks for the table in rounds, rather than going up to order your own at the bar each time. Mostly, that means someone else is paying for your drink—and that you definitely shouldn’t skip out right before it’s your turn.
Related article: Pubs With History: London's Most Unusual Drinking Dens
Don't cut the queue
Brits have an infamous predilection for queueing, and whether you’re lining up outside the hottest new restaurant in Soho or Shoreditch—or just waiting to board a bus, buy your groceries, or purchase train tickets—it is polite, nay, imperative to patiently wait your turn: Londoners do not abide a queue-jumper. This applies to pubs, too, even if there isn’t a strict line of people extending from the bar. Instead, keep tabs on who’s come before you, and don’t try to order before they’ve had their go.
Do explore the great outdoors
There are plenty of parks to visit in this vast city.
Sure, London is an exceptionally busy and crowded megalopolis—but the city is also one of the greenest in the world for its size, and was even named the first-ever National Park City in 2019. In between pounding the pavement and craning your neck up at those skyscrapers, it’s worth unwinding in London’s array of tranquil green spaces. From Kew Gardens to the eight Royal Parks, including highlights such as Richmond Park, Hyde Park, and Regent’s Park; from Hampstead Heath to Epping Forest; from Holland Park to Victoria Park, make like a Londoner and relax in the great outdoors.
Don't forget your walking shoes
Because Londoners love to get around on foot.
Speaking of pounding the pavement: despite its size, London is an exceptionally pedestrian-friendly city (especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the combination of lockdown quiet and sustainability initiatives saw more streets turn car-free than ever before). Exploring on foot is often the best way to get a sense of the city’s different neighborhoods as they blend into one another, to people-watch, and to admire all those layers of accumulated history. Skip the heels, in other words, and bring walking shoes that are up to the task.
Do put on summer clothes at the first sign of sun
Just prepare to see plenty of pasty extremities.
In London, the sun coming out for a sustained period of time is nothing short of a special occasion—and the city’s residents know just how to celebrate. Namely, by stripping down to their shorts, sandals, T-shirts, and other (often unseasonable) outfits before decamping straight to the pub garden. Never mind that it often gets freezing as soon as evening descends, because nothing quite beats the joy of bare legs and arms after weeks spent bundled up.
Don't fall asleep on the night bus
Unless you *want* to get off at the last stop.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, London is the city that prefers to get a full night’s rest, thank you very much. Much as London is a cosmopolitan place, it can also be amusingly old-fashioned about bedtime: restaurants tend to stop serving food at 10pm, pubs and bars can close as early as 11pm, and while recent efforts towards making the Night Tube a thing are sort of working, public transit options are definitely less robust in the wee hours.
However, while it’s something of a rite of passage for Londoners—perhaps after one too many pints—to fall asleep on the night bus (the main nocturnal mode of transport), if you think you’re at risk of that, save time and order a taxi instead.
Do venture beyond zone one
There’s a whole other world out there.
London is organized as a series of concentric circles, and zone one—which covers much of Central London—is where many of the city’s most famous landmarks are found. But venturing farther afield means discovering neighborhoods frequented by locals and blissfully calm parks; verdant walking trails and worthy cultural attractions; cozy restaurants and quaint shopping streets.
Don't assume English food is bad
It’s not all jellied eels and stewed meats.
Sure, it’s tempting to make jokes about terrible English food, but you should know that those jokes are about 30 years out of date. London’s dynamic restaurant and bar scenes have earned numerous Michelin stars and World’s Best nods, while its eclectic and international offerings are testament to its diversity. And, yes, traditional English food is worth discovering too, particularly at storied restaurants including St. John, Rochelle Canteen, the Marksman, and Lyle’s.
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