It’s tough to not arrive in London with high expectations. The city is everywhere, from literature dating back centuries to the latest film, TV, and theatre productions. Sure, not everyone’s been on a London vacation, but just about everyone has an image of “London” in mind when they do arrive. Of course, as one of the world’s great cities, and the cultural epicentre of the Anglophone world (sorry, New York!), the city is as ready to surprise as it is to fulfill those lofty expectations.
London is one of those cities that almost demands you allow “days at leisure” in your itinerary to explore on your own. But if you are stuck for how to fill in those days, here are four top-notch days exploring London at its finest. Pick one or two that interest you the most, or put them together for an ideal introduction to England’s greatest city.
The Best of the West(minster)
Arrive at Westminster Abbey for 9:30am to beat the crowds, and follow the included audioguide tour. Pay your respects to the veritable who’s who of British royalty buried here, alongside Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and many others. When you’re done, head to the nearby Churchill War Rooms for fascinating accounts of London life during WW2.
After a late lunch, get a close look at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge – all London vacation landmarks. Then, wander back up Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square, perhaps swinging by 10 Downing Street for a photo of the most famous door in British politics. For art buffs, the National Gallery will easily take up the rest of the afternoon. Otherwise, this is a superb part of London in which to simply lose yourself.
Stop by TKTS in Leicester Square for last minute theatre tickets if you haven’t already booked a West End show. Then choose from Soho’s countless pre-theatre menus and enjoy some world class theatre on the cheap. Or if you’d prefer, pull up for a pint at one of Soho’s friendly pubs.
Old London Town, New London Ambition
Prepare for some gruesome (though family-friendly) history at the Tower of London! Arrive early for the Ceremony of the Keys, then explore to your heart’s content. Snap some photos of the Tower Bridge, then wander through the city of London to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. There’s no lift, so climbing to the galleries of its magnificent dome for sweeping London views will serve as your workout for the day! Linger in the crypt when you’re done for a particularly atmospheric lunch, or find a table at one of the abundant choices outside.
Just north of Saint Paul’s, the Museum of London will intrigue history buffs, while arty types will want to make a beeline across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. If you prefer your art to be the performing kind, you’re right next door to Shakespeare’s Globe, where you can take a tour, or catch a performance for as little as 5 GBP (for a standing “Yard” ticket). Pick whichever of these interest/s you most. Just don’t feel compelled to rush.
The South Bank of the Thames has been revitalized with restaurants and bars in recent years, so if you aren’t seeing a show at the Globe or the nearby National Theatre, simply wander until a spot takes your fancy.
Queens and Curios of Kensington
Continuing on your London vacation, take a morning stroll around St James’ Park. Just don’t be late for your appointment with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace. You’ll want to be there at least 15-30 minutes early for the Changing the Guard ceremony at 11am. Note that with the exception of summer, the guard ceremony does not take place on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Check the website if you’re not sure. From late July to September, the palace opens its doors to the public for tours while the royals are away.
Go on to Kensington for lunch before diving into its museums. Feast your eyes on decorative art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explore the natural world at the Museum of Natural History (recommended if you’ve got little ones along), or let your imagination go wild at the Science Museum. All offer free entry, so see as much or as little as you like before roaming Hyde Park, perhaps paying your respects to Princess Diana at her memorial fountain, or snapping some photos of Kensington Palace.
After a full day of London refinement, return to Soho, or shake things up with a trip to Camden for a taste of London’s live music and alternative culture.
Blooms in Bloomsbury, Greenery in Greenwich
The seemingly endless British Museum will easily swallow up your morning, leaving you feeling culturally enriched on your London vacation, with no regrets. After your fill of history and artefacts, follow your nose to one of the superb lunch options near Covent Garden, the famous former flower market that’s become one of London’s most beloved spots for locals and tourists alike.
In the afternoon, wander down to Embankment Pier, then rest your feet on the hour’s ferry ride to Greenwich, passing under the Tower Bridge, and enjoying views from the Thames. Stop in at the HMS Cutty Sark if you’re nautically minded, then wander Greenwich Market in search of a cheeky local souvenir. Spend the afternoon wallowing on the Green, or pop into the Royal Observatory for a photo astride the Prime Meridian line if you feel so inclined.
In the evening, head to Whitechapel for delicious, cheap East London eats. Then either explore the area’s lively, unpretentious nightlife, or spook yourself on a ghost or Jack the Ripper tour.