Layover in London!
Updated: May 25, 2021
It's London baby!
How do I even start this post?!? London is one of the most exciting, vibrant and interesting cities in the world and when I was going to a conference in Glasgow I simply couldn't pass up an opportunity for a quick stopover. Per many of my trips, I didn't have a lot of time here so here's my quick weekend itinerary for absolute must-sees when in London.
One of the biggest airports in the world (and the one you'll most likely fly into) is Heathrow, a short 35-40 minute drive into London's city center. On this particular trip, I started out in Glasgow, Scotland for a conference and actually flew LAX ---> LHR then transferred to Glasgow. From Scotland I wanted to experience train travel so booked a trip from Glasgow to London and got there in just under 5 hours. Of course flying would have only been only about an hour, but I do enjoy a good train ride. Once you arrive, grab a black cab and get yourself into the city!
I only had a little over 2 days here so I made the best use of my time and saw as many sites as I could. Here's my attempt at documenting London proper, I tried to organize it by area as to make the most out of my time.
Arrive into London city center and check into hotel. I'm usually not too keen on where I stay as long as it's relatively close to the main sites, but on this particular trip I was traveling solo. Because I was traveling solo, I didn't want to spend a lot of time getting to and from my hotel to my destinations, so I decided to spend a bit more and stay in the 'Hyde Park' area which is relatively well priced, close to tube stops as well as many other major sites. Once I checked in, I ventured out into the city! I have to say...one thing that gives me a thrill when traveling in a foreign country is being able to navigate the public transportation system. So I was super excited to get to my first tube stop and purchase my 'oyster card' which you pre-pay with money and use to get around.
Pro tip: Talk to the attendants and get their advice...each stop should have an attendant who can tell you which stop to get off at depending on where you want to go. They can also tell you how much money to add to your oyster card given the amount of time you're there and where you want to go. Other ways of getting around are via the famous 'black cabs' which are driven by extremely knowledgable drivers. Fun Fact: These drivers have to know their city and aren't granted a license unless they can go through a relatively difficult test of their knowledge on the city's layout, knowing by heart where every landmark and street is.
Now that you know how to get around where should you go?
London is generally divided by the river Thames and so many of the top sites are housed on either side of the bank (sometimes referred to as the north and south bank). On my first day I only had an afternoon and evening so I ventured to the south bank to check out these sites, starting from the North Bank at the Millennium Bridge and walking over to the South Bank.
Walk Across the Millennium Bridge: The Millennium Bridge (aka the London Millennium Footbridge) is a pedestrian suspension bridge that links the City of London to Bankside, crossing the river Thames. You may remember that this was the iconic bridge that collapsed at the start of one of the Harry Potter films. Start north of the bridge and walk over, which will take you right to Shakespeare's Globe and the Tate Modern museum!
Visit the Tate Modern: If you're a modern art fan then The Tate Modern is the place for you. Right next to Shakespeare's Globe, it's housed in an original power station that was then converted into a network of four art museums. Truly one of the best collections of contemporary and modern art.
Shakespeare's Globe and Sam Wanamaker's Playhouse: Shakespeare's Globe is a reconstruction of the famous theater and Elizabethan playhouse that was associated with William Shakespeare and where many of his plays were performed. If you're a history or literature buff you simply must take some time to visit this iconic site. There are onsite tours as well, which cost about 8 pounds, given by very knowledgable guides. Make sure to take time to visit the exhibits throughout the playhouse as well as possibly taking in a show at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is onsite and still has performances to this day!
Places to Eat:
High Tea at the Swan, Shakespeare's Globe: When in the U.K., you simply must take the time to experience a high tea. One great place is the Swan, which is directly next to Shakespeare's Globe. It's beautiful inside with views of the river Thames and offers a variety of teas and food. It's also a great place to 'pre-game' before a show at the theater next door.
Borough Market: I absolutely love food halls and open air markets for shopping and putting together a lunch. So another great place to have a meal in this area is Borough Market. Dating back to the 12th century, Borough Market is in Southwark, London and is one of the largest and oldest operating food markets in the country. Peruse the stalls and sample some of the best and freshest food around, while possibly having a bite to eat or making a picnic for yourself.
On day 2 I actually decided to do a guided tour of the city. Alternatively, you could also get a London hop-on hop-off bus pass which stops at the all major sites, is cheaper and gives you more freedom. Some people don't like guided tours and I completely understand why, but again on this particular trip, I was going solo and wanted to reduce having to get myself to so many sites. I booked a tour to make the most out of my time; however, London is a very easy city to get around so don't let that deter you from wandering on your own. This particular tour packed a punch and allowed us to visit almost every major site! Here they are:
St. Pauls Cathedral: St. Paul's Cathedral is a beautiful staple of London. It was designed by the famous architect Christopher Wren and was where Princess Diana walked down the aisle with her famously long train. The inside is absolutely stunning, with mosaics, the famous dome and tombs of famous patrons such as the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson.
Trafalgar Square: Also in the city of Westminster is Trafalgar Square, which is a public square built around the area formerly known as Charing Cross. It was named after the historic Battle of Trafalgar, which was a British naval victory during the Napoleonic Wars with France and Spain in 1805.
Westminster Abbey: Westminster Abbey is a Gothic abbey in the city of Westminster London. It is typically the site for royal coronations (since the coronation of William the Conquerer in 1066), burials and some royal weddings (including William and Kate).
Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard: I'm sure we've all heard of Buckingham Palace right?! It's the London residence and administrative headquarters for the Monarch of the U.K. and is also located in the city of Westminster. Go to the palace and see the famous changing of the guard.
Pro Tip: If you want a good view try to go early as this site is always busy. Alternatively, you can go towards the left side of the palace gates near the statue and see the guards walking in, usually a less busy area.
The Tower of London and Tower Bridge: Also a must for any history buff is the Tower of London. It's an official royal palace and fortress on the North Bank of the River Thames. It's also where several famous persons were executed such as William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Catherine Howard. Take time to walk around, see the somewhat gruesome executioners exhibit, the famous Beefeaters (so called because they were originally paid in beef) and huge ravens that are housed on the property. Finally, marvel at the spectacular crown jewels which are kept within the Tower and day-dream that they were yours haha!!
A Thames River Cruise: What more can I say about this? I'm a water sign so being on or around water makes me happy and what better way to explore a city than with a short river cruise? This one picked us up near the Tower of London and ended at the London Eye!
London Eye and Views of Parliament The London Eye is a massive ferris wheel (aka observation wheel) on the South Bank of the river Thames. It's slowly moving and never stops so the line is pretty quick to get through. I highly recommend this because you'll get the most spectacular views of the city including views of Parliament and Big Ben, which are just across the river! One of the best views at night!
Places to Eat:
Harrods: If you like shopping then Harrods is the place to go! It's one of the most massive and elaborate stores in all the world, located in Knightsbridge, London. Fun Fact: It's actually owned by the state of Qatar and was originally opened by the Al-Fayed family. There are multiple floors of shopping for luxury goods and foods. I have to say the food halls are my favorite. There are rooms upon rooms of ready made foods, sweets, spices and teas. There are also sushi, oyster and caviar/vodka stations where you can order food. Definitely an indulgence worth trying!
On my last day in London, I decided to do all the things I wanted to do but hadn't yet seen. This mainly involved museums, gardens and parks and one last church and high tea. I started on the North Bank at Temple Church and went West.
Temple Church: If you're a fan of the Da Vinci Code then I'm sure you've heard of Temple Church. It was built in 1185 by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters.
The British Museum: I love all things museum, I could wander around and just get lost in the artifacts and general knowledge housed within. I love the British Museum because it has one of the best and largest collections of ancient Egyptian art and work. It's free to get in but a small donation is generally appreciated..
National Portrait Gallery: Going back towards Trafalgar Square, is the National Portrait Gallery in Westminster. It was founded in 1824 and houses over 2,300 paintings and official royal portraits that date back from the mid-13th century to 1900!
James Park then West to Hyde Park: Within London there are four royal parks that form a chain from the entrance to Kensington Palace, through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, via Hyde Park Corner and Green Park past the main entrance to Buckingham Palace. Take a stroll and appreciate the fantastic English Gardens. Also within Hyde park is the famous Peter Pan statue and Princess Diana memorial.
Places to Eat:
High tea in the Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel: This may be a splurge but who could resist another high tea when in the U.K. There are many places to go but the Palm Court within the Ritz Hotel is one of the best. It's fairly upscale and dressing appropriately is required but worth the experience!
Farther afield if you have more time:
Kew Gardens (west of London's city center), truly a magnificent botanical garden.
Harry Potter Warner Brothers tour and Platform 9 3/4 for all the Harry Potter fans out there!
British Library for my fellow bibliophiles.
Sherlock Holmes museum for sleuthing fans.
So there you have it, my list of must-sees for any first time visit in London. Of course you could spend weeks here exploring and seeing other sites, but if you only have a short amount of time this is a good way to pack in as much as you can. Also, if you have even more time and want to plan day-trips outside of London, check out my other post on the subject.
Thanks for reading! As always I'd love to hear more tips and recommendations you have.