I’ve lived in London now for nearly 10 months, wowsers. I’ve had several visitors rely on me for London ideas so I’ve refined my suggestions to a point I’m finally comfortable sharing. These recommendations are meant for first time London visitors who want to see highlights and squeeze in as much as possible during a short timeline. I’ve also included some helpful resources from travelers much more experienced than me at the end of this post so you can customize your trip to your heart’s delight. Let’s plan a fab trip to London for you, shall we?
Day 1: The Basics
Morning: Get your walking shoes on and pack a snack, you’re about to explore London’s most iconic sights with a little walking tour. Starting at Westminster tube stop you can walk to Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square.
Lunch: Borough Market is London’s oldest covered market and has produce vendors and food stalls galore. You can walk here from Westminster by following the Thames River path towards Tower Bridge or take the tube to London Bridge station. Insider tip: the market is more lively later in the week (Thursday-Saturday) but open everyday besides Sunday.
Afternoon: From Borough Market walk along Thames River path back towards Westminster. At Millennium Bridge cross over to St Paul’s Cathedral and climb the steps to the lookout for eagle eye views of London. Walk back across Millennium Bridge and you’ll arrive at the Tate Modern. Entry is free.
Break time: All this walking and sightseeing makes a gal hungry. Grab a coffee or cocktail at the Tate Modern’s third floor espresso bar which offers sky high views of London.
Dinner: Albion Cafe is just a few steps from the Tate Modern and offers a quintessential British menu using local ingredients. You can also grab a meal at the Founders Arms, a popular pub nestled up to the river in front of the Tate Modern.
Late night stroll: Walk back along the Thames River pathway towards the London Eye. The nighttime views of London will captivate you during the half hour spin around the wheel.
Day 2: Lessons in history
Morning: Back to where you started yesterday, arrive again at the Westminster tube station and walk a few blocks to the Churchill War Rooms. This was the command center and bunker of Winston Churchill and his staff during WWII. Alternate option: you could also schedule the Parliament tour today if you didn’t get to it yesterday, it’s just next door.
Lunch: Somerset House is another London landmark you can’t miss with several cafes and restaurants inside. It’s a 20 minute walk from the War Rooms but it’s en route to your afternoon destination.
Afternoon: You can’t visit London without touring the Tower of London. How else will you see those stunning Crown Jewels and entertaining “Beefeaters”? Guided Tours by Yeoman Warders are included in the price of your ticket. You’ll spend one to three hours here depending on how interesting you find it. Personally, I was fascinated.
Dinner: Cross the Tower Bridge and walk a few blocks to the Dean Swift Beer House. It’s a relaxed atmosphere offering up good eats with a wide range of craft beers on tap. Win-win.
Late night extra credit: After dinner and a few pints you could return to the Tower of London if you’ve arranged in advance to attend the historical Ceremony of the Keys. Getting on the list is harder than getting into a popular club in Soho. It requires a written request via snail mail months in advance. However, they’re now accepting online requests for 2015. Technology!
Day 3 – Get cultured
All day: Museums are free and plentiful in London, so even if you don’t consider yourself a museum-goer, keep an open mind and try out a few. Here’s some options beyond the Tate Modern:
- British Museum – see the Rosetta Stone and some of the greatest Egyptian artifacts in one place.
- National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery – Located side by side in Trafalgar Square they’re worth a peek. Earlier this year I saw two of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings here up close and personal.
- Natural History Museum – Dinosaurs and other cool nature stuff.
- Science Museum – I haven’t been to this one yet but I’ve heard rave reviews from coworkers with kids.
- Victoria & Albert – Marketed as the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I drank the Kool-Aid after seeing an exhibition on pearls here.
- Museum of London – Everything you ever wanted to know about the history of London.
- More options outlined in this list by VisitLondon.com here.
Disclaimer: if you’re like me you have a quota to how many hours you can handle per day in a museum. If that sounds familiar, go see the Natural History Museum and the V&A (short for the Victoria & Albert Museum) because they’re located next door to each other. Navigate to the South Kensington tube station for this plan.
Cocktail time: Since you’ve saved money by taking advantage of free museums AND learned something today, treat yourself to a craft cocktail at the Shard’s 31st floor bar, Aqua Shard. Take the tube to London Bridge station and walk to the Shard from there. You can’t miss London’s tallest glass building. Oh, and no sneakers allowed inside, so pack a pair of cute flats or dress shoes if you’re coming straight from a museum.
Day 4 – Shop ’til you drop, then drink tea
Morning: Get yourself to Covent Garden or Leicester Square tube stations and you’ll find yourself immersed in shops and cafes. Covent Garden (not really a garden) is a covered market surrounded by narrow alleyways and streets full of shops. One of my favorites is Stanfords, a traveler’s oasis packed to the gills with maps and travel guides for every destination imaginable.
Afternoon: Time for the shopping big leagues. From Covent Garden take the tube to Oxford Street or Bond Street stations. You’ll want to stop in at Selfridges, Liberty, Fortnum & Mason, House of Fraser, and Top Shop. And of course shopping in London wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Harrods, until recently the world’s largest department store. It’s a bit further from Oxford, but accessible from Knightsbridge tube station.
Dinner: Depending where you end your day you’ll have no shortage of restaurant options. If your last stop is Harrods, you can find dining options in South Kensington or Sloan Square areas. If your last stop is Oxford Street, you’ll be closest to dining options in Soho.
Post dinner: Snag tickets to a musical in the West End. I’ve seen and would recommend Once, Book of Mormon, The Commitments, Jersey Boys, The Bodyguard, and heard rave reviews about Matilda, Wicked, and Les Miserables. Check the dates of your visit to see what’s on.
Day 5: Meander a market and hob nob with royalty
Morning: Head over to the famous Notting Hill neighborhood (Notting Hill Gate tube station) and walk along Portobello Road Market, an antiques market with lots of good souvenir options, jewelry, and coffee shops scattered throughout.
Afternoon: Buckingham Palace is just one aspect of the royal scene in London. From Notting Hill you’re a hop, skip, and a jump away from Kensington Palace, home to Will, Kate, and baby George. Part of the palace is open for tourists. It’s also next door to Hyde Park, so don’t miss this escape from the city, within the city. Rent bikes or just wander through it by foot.
Snack break: Indulge yourself in afternoon tea once more at the The Orangery in Kensington Gardens.
Dinner: After seeing the home of the Duke of Cambridge (AKA Prince William), go dine at the pub named in his honor. The Duke of Cambridge is my favorite pub in all of London. It has organic, farm-to-table food and really brings out the hippy in me with its relaxed setting and friendly service. Arrive here by taking the tube to Angel station and then walking a few short blocks.
Post dinner wind down: Angel is one of my favorite neighborhoods in London. Stroll along Upper Street to seek out a cocktail and dessert, or wander along the canals. It will make you want to stay in London another week!
Know Before You Go:
- Oyster card – This is your ticket to public transportation in London. You can buy a week-long pass or top up and pay as you go. Pick one up at any tube station and it works on trains, buses, and tubes.
- Of course public transportation isn’t for everyone. If you’re rich you can navigate London by cabs. I also recommend Uber which works well in London and is less expensive than cabbing it. Download the app on your phone.
- Another option for transportation is a Hop-on-hop-off bus or public bus #11 which will both take you to all the major tourist attractions if you’re not sure where to start.
- Citymapper has been my go-to for navigation from day one in this town. Download the app on your phone as an alternative to Google Maps.
- Cell phone – wifi is available at most hotels and tourist locations these days, but if you prefer to have a functional cell phone 100% of the time you can purchase a SIM card from a UK provider like O2, EE, or Virgin and use easily with any unlocked phone. Otherwise, contact your cell phone provider at home and have them turn on international coverage temporarily.
- Accommodations – Check out AirBnB for unique London lodging options. Expedia and Booking.com also have plenty of options.
- Money – London’s currency is the British Pound (GBP) which currently is not favorable for American travelers. However, you’re on vacation so you don’t care. Live it up and take money out from ATMs with your debit card. Notify your credit card company before traveling to London so you don’t have any problems using it here.
These folks are the real experts and I rely on them constantly for travel advice.
- Rick Steve’s London travel guide
- TripAdvisor things to do in London
- Lonely Planet Destination London
- VisitLondon.com official tourist site.
- TimeOut London’s handy site
Cheerio! I truly hope you enjoy a brilliant stay in London and come to love it as much as I do. Please leave your comments and questions below, or suggestions for any must-see activities I’ve left off the list. There’s so many options you’re sure to have a great trip whatever you do.
P.S. Download a print version of this post here for easy packing.