Tourist with Union Jack umbrella looking at Big Ben across the River Thames
Stuart Bak

Tourist Traps in London to Watch Out for

So you’ve drawn up your bucket list, changed your dollars and cents to pounds and pence, and packed your Union Jack umbrella (for those Insta-perfect selfies, obvs). Now you’re all set for that dream trip to London, a city so steeped in history and so chock-full of world-class attractions that it would take weeks to even scratch the surface. With that in mind, it’s absolutely essential to be aware of the London tourist traps to watch out for, if you want to ensure you get the best from your London break. The good news is that there are literally dozens of ways to enjoy London without being caught out by an overpriced cab, a bad theater district meal, or a two-hour queue to look at… celebrities rendered in wax. Read on for our guide to the London tourist traps to avoid, and what to do instead.

Tourist Traps at Major London Attractions

Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker hat and pipe on top of an old world map

It’s a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself as to why thousands of foreign tourists flock to Madame Tussauds London every year. Here, queues around the block eagerly await a glimpse of British and international icons including Ariana Grande, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, David Attenborough and King Charles himself. I mean sure, if all you really want from your London experience is a selfie next to the waxy rictus grin of a Harry Styles or Leonardo DiCaprio, you’ve come to the right place. But be prepared to wait your turn, and expect to leave feeling somewhat deflated and out-of-pocket. Note that the nearby Sherlock Holmes Museum is equally vapid (and expensive), dedicating several floors to recreating the (fictional) home of the (fictional) detective, with an inevitably pricey souvenir shop to boot.

Actor posing as Jack the Ripper in misty London streets

Indeed, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid anything that's so openly exploitative of London’s rich history or celeb culture. Sensationalist and ghoulish bill posters – think the likes of Jack the Ripper, ghost walking tours, and gruesome reconstructed images of plague, torture or murder victims – should be given a wide berth. We’re looking at you, the London Dungeon, Clink Museum and London Bridge Experience. Sure, some of these can be a fun way to entertain bored kids for a couple of hours, but really they have nothing on the kind of genuinely insightful historical experiences provided by, say, the Museum of London, the Churchill War Rooms, the London Transport Museum, and the painstaking reconstructions of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind galleon ship and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank.

Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace

London tourist traps don’t come much more snare-like than the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. This near-daily display of British pageantry has become somewhat, shall we say, commercialized down the years, meaning vast crowds, cricked necks, and a marching band repertoire that has been expanded to include modern tunes such as the theme from Star Wars and the hits of Abba. Tasteful it ain’t. The far less touristy guard change at Horse Guards Parade on nearby Whitehall provides a suitable alternative. Or forgo the standing around altogether to enjoy that other quintessentially London experience, the traditional afternoon tea, best enjoyed at the swanky hotels on nearby Northumberland Avenue and The Strand.

London Tourist Traps: Dining and Shopping

Signpost in London's West End

Like generations before them, tourists flock to Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue in their droves, lured by the (admittedly rather intoxicating) bright lights of the legendary theater district. Inevitably though, tourist traps abound here. Indeed, if there’s a higher concentration of bad chain restaurants anywhere in London, we’ve yet to discover it. Here, the golden arches are king, and other overpriced and underachieving eateries including TGI Fridays, Frankie and Benny’s and (ugh) the Angus Steakhouse occupy prime locations for snaring hungry tourists. So, sure, take a snap-happy walk through this exciting and colorful neighborhood. But if it’s food you’re after, follow your nose to the authentic treats of Chinatown, or head north across Shaftesbury Avenue to the chi-chi boutique restaurants and indie bars of still-cool Soho.

Leicester Square should perhaps be avoided altogether. Far from being the magical celebrity hangout it purports to be, it is instead a rather disappointing block, crammed with sub-par street performers, pickpockets and pigeons. It’s also where unwitting souls risk being drawn into the seventh circle of hell, aka the M&M's Store: four floors of kiddie heaven and adult purgatory.

The Tudor-style facade of the Liberty department store in central London

Shopping experiences here and on nearby Oxford and Regent Street leave a lot to be desired. Sure, iconic stores like Selfridges and Hamleys are worth a quick look (if you must), but if you’re looking for the quintessential London shopping experience, peel off onto Piccadilly for the centuries-old upmarket emporium that is Fortnum & Mason. Or hit up Liberty, inside a cute Tudor-Revival building on Carnaby Street; both far better options than the tourist mecca that is Harrods in Knightsbridge.

Better still, strike out for the sticks for all your shopping (and foodie) needs. Brick Lane and nearby Spitalfields are a paradise for anyone in the market for retro fashions, vintage vinyl and the best bagels you’ll ever eat. On the other side of town, Portobello Market in Notting Hill is becoming a bit of a tourist trap, but still worth a visit for the pastel-colored eye-candy townhouses and stronghold stalls that continue to hawk charming antique bric-a-brac and local art among a deluge of modern tat – mobile phone accessories, Union Jack-adorned trinkets, and light-up kids’ toys that will have stopped working by the time you’re back on the Tube.

London Tourist Traps: Public Transport

Passengers waiting to board a Tube train in London

And speaking of the Tube… those one-day travelcards that give you unlimited bus and Tube travel within zones 1-3? Great value, to be sure, at around just £10 per day. However, what locals know (but most tourists don’t) is that tapping in and out of buses and stations with a debit or prepaid Oyster card is more canny still, because you’ll only pay for what you use, and you’ll never exceed the capped price of a day travelcard anyway.

Airport cabs may also seem like the most convenient option for out-of-towners bamboozled by the UK capital’s vast size. In fact, traveling into central London via the Gatwick Express and continuing your onward journey from there is both faster and more affordable (depending, of course, on the number of people in your party). Heathrow is even better, with the Heathrow Express and Elizabeth and Piccadilly Tube lines offering cheap and speedy access to the city center.

Colorful canal boats in Little Venice, London

In terms of other transport tourist traps to avoid in London, run a mile from anything that looks, sounds or behaves like a rickshaw. Ubiquitous in the lanes around Soho and the theater district, these are often unsafe and will almost certainly fleece you on even the shortest of rides. Instead, see London from the various boats and cruisers that connect Greenwich to the West End. Or – why not – take to the tranquil canals of Little Venice on a painted barge. Idyllic.

Now you’re tourist-trap savvy, why not up your London game further still by heading over to our guide to staying thrifty in London, and checking out our tips to bagging the best deals on London theater and attraction tickets.

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