London, Europe´s most cosmopolitan city, is full of surprises and experiences. Its history, culture and traditions come alive on the iconic buildings, sites, parks, museums and its people. The Londoners are the best representatives of what London is about: a mixed of cultures, combining their origin traditions with the most modern habits and trends. London is an explosion of art in all senses, gastronomy from everywhere in the world, great scientific revolutions, financial entities and British humour. If what you are looking for is a peaceful, relaxing weekend, do not come to London. However, if what you want is a weekend getaway of non-stop experiences, good vibrations and charge your energy,motivation and imagination levels, then you are coming to the right place! Ready for your first visit to London?!
Thursday (or Day 1):
Getting to the hotel is the first experience in London as airports are not very close to the city, except for Heathrow Airport, and there are different transportation means. I will dedicate a post to “getting to London” from Luton, Stansted, Gatwick, The City and Heathrow airports. Depending on how late you get to your hotel, you can already start enjoying London with some dinner, a beer pint at a pub or a walk around.
Friday (or Day 2):
Today is a day for walking, so wear comfortable shoes! You get to see London by foot, not by tube! Bus routes are also an exceptional way to see London but that later when you get tired.
Start early in the morning to fit all the activities. You will have time to sleep next weekend when you are back home! Most hotels offer both continental and English breakfasts. If this isn’t the case, don’t worry. London is not short of small coffee shops or patisseries, offering delicious muffins, pies or cookies to accompany your tea or coffee to eat in or grab and go.
9am, a decent time to start the day at Buckingham Palace to see where the Queen of England lives (you might see the change of guard, although it is nothing exciting). Walk around the St. James´Gardens on your way to Westminster Abbey. Assess the length of the queue and decide whether to go inside or not. I find it very pretty but I would not do an-hour-queue. If you decide to go inside, allow around 30-60 minutes. Continue walking towards Parliament and The Big Ben. Again, the same as Westminster Abbey, assess whether you want to queue to go inside the Parliament or not. If I had to choose one, I would visit the Abbey.
Cross the Westminster Bridge and head to the London Eye (if it is a clear day, then the view is worth it. If not, don’t bother. Again, if the queue is too long, I do not recommend it, maybe for a second visit in London). By now is probably lunch time, assess how hungry you are, maybe you want to grab a typical London hotdog or snack for your walk along the Thames or eat lunch before continue your walk. If this the case, there are a few restaurants near the Royal Festival Hall (between the Golden Jubilee bridge and the Waterloo bridge). There I recommend Ping Pong for trendy oriental bites or Wagamama for Japanese hot food. The restaurant Giraffe offers more Occidental-like food, if you prefer. If you are not very hungry, you will have the opportunity to eat something fresh (but without sitting down) at Borough´s food market, further down the walk.
After lunch, continue your walk along the Thames towards Tower Bridge where you will find the famous Bridge and Tower. Along the way, you will pass the OXO tower, Blackfriars bridge, the art museum Tate Modern (I recommend to visit it at night as it closes late on Friday and Saturday 10pm, allowing time for other sites closing earlier), the Millennium Bridge (cross this one when you visit the Tate Modern at night), Shakespeare´s Globe Theatre, Southwark bridge and London Bridge. Once at London Bridge, you have the option to visit London´s freshest food market, where you can even grab a nice bite if you wish. It is at the entrance of this market where the house door of Bridget Jones was filmed. Then continue walking towards Tower Bridge to cross to the northern side of the river. If by now you are tired of walking, you can take a bus to Tower Bridge either side north bank or south bank, or take the tube to Tower Hill (Northern line to Monument and then change to Circle or District line to Tower Hill).
How are your feet so far? By now, you are probably tired, so a dose of London sightseeing by bus is a good option. Jump onto bus no.15 towards Trafalgar Square, passing through London´s financial heart, the City, and St. Paul´s Cathedral. If you wish to go inside, get off here, but only if its earlier than 4pm, which is the last entry for sightseeing. Otherwise, continue ahead towards the West End, passing through the Courts of Justice. Your next stop is the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
The National Gallery is one of the best art museums in the world. Even if you are not interested in art, a quick visit is a must. It closes at 9pm on Friday and I would recommend 1-1.5h hours to get an overview of the impressionism and a few Renaissance masterpieces (check out the museum website for further information, they advice on which paintings to see according to the time available). Of course that the more time the better. Assess your time once at Trafalgar Square: do you have enough time before closing time? Then go to the St. Martin´s in the Fields crypt café for a tea and an apple pie (or any pie of your taste). Not many people are aware of this lovely place. It is just opposite the National Gallery. For the music lovers, there are many concerts in this church and tickets are sold in the crypt.
From the museum, head to Chinatown to check out the Chinese supermarkets and little shops. Go up St. Martins Pl and into Leicester Square, with its famous Odeon Cinema. This is the cinema theatre where the film premiers are shown and the celebrities walk down the red carpet with press and fans gathered around. I have been caught in the middle of the crowd unwillingly more than once. Continue your walk to Gerrard St, the main street of Chinatown. at the very beginning, there is a little sweet shop selling Chinese bread and sweets. I recommend going inside and buying some, they are all so yummy! Towards the end of Gerrard St. there is a supermarket selling fresh, packaged foods and Chinese kitchen utensils. I really like this market, very authentic.If you fancy eating Chinese food, there are many options along this street, most of them offering the same menu. I recommend eating at Hong Kong(HK) Dinner at Wardour St (noodles here are delicious) or at Golden Dragon on the main street.
Did you manage to get a concert ticket for St. Martin´s in the Fields? Yes? Nice! Lucky you! If not, do not worry. London offers loads of nightlife options. If you are up for a low profile drink and experience the Soho night ambience, then walk along Wardour St towards Soho. Soho comprises several streets very near each other with plenty of cocktail bars and lounges, restaurants, a few traditional pubs, sex shops, coffee shops… walk along these streets (Wardour St., Dean St, Frith St, Greek St and their perpendicular streets from Shaftesbury Avenue to Oxford St) to see where you like it best. Do not think they are kidding or treating you as a tourist when they charge you a small entry fee to go inside. The earlier you go, the cheaper the entrance. The lounges are small, so they get filled up quickly, seeing queues and bouncers being a bit strict with dress code. In general, weekend nightlife in the London´s West End is fancy, with stylist people and bouncers usually rejecting people wearing snickers and sometimes jeans. It really depends where you go. Dancing night clubs are more exclusive and to go in, you definitely need to dress up, be on a guest list and sometimes even have a membership in the club or be the guest of one of the members.
Saturday (or Day 3):
Start Saturday at 10 am with a visit to The Natural History Museum in South Kensington. It is a very big museum, you could spend the entire day lost inside and still think there isn’t enough time to see everything. I recommend the Darwin centre; going up the main staircase in the Central Hall to see the Giant Sequoia and the mineral collection; the ecology section is very interesting and interactive; for the dinosaurs lovers, there is a part dedicated to them. Allow around 2 hours in this museum (this is to have a general idea only).
Next stop is Harrods, the famous luxury shopping mall. It is only 20-minute walk away from the museum along Cromwell Gardens and Brompton Road. However you might want to save your feet for later and take a bus (14, 74, 414). Check out the windows displays (especially during Christmas Season), the Food Hall and browse around other floors. Depending on your shopping budget, your visit to Harrods can be fairly quick or very lengthy. I would allow around half an hour to check it out.
If you want to do some shopping on the famous Oxford Street take the tube from Knightsbridge to Bond Street (the Piccadilly line to Green Park Station and then the Jubilee Line). You can also take bus no.10 that takes you through Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch and goes all along Oxford Street. Once in Bond Street, my suggestion is to eat lunch at SOFRA, a Turkish restaurant at Christopher´s Place. You get energy and rest your feet before an intense shopping session along Oxford Street . Walk towards Oxford Circus where you will find the flagship store of TOPSHOP (UK´s largest shop) and the junction with Regent´s St. You can walk down Regent´s St, passing along the famous toy store Hamley´s, to Piccadilly Circus. On your walk along Regents Street, you can go into Carnaby Street. Recommended buildings to check out for the architecture and windows displays: Selfridges and Liberty. Just a quick note: Selfridges is great for cosmetics and luxury women`s handbags and fashion. If your budget isn’t this large, then don’t bother going in, take more time at looking at older wooden Liberty. If you want to know more about London`s shopping, check my upcoming post on “Shop like a Londoner”.
Once at Piccadilly Circus, everything will look familiar as you have probably seen this scene on many postcards, traveling guides and in movies. Apart from the big flashing billboard and the fountain, there is nothing more to Piccadilly Circus. From there you could go check out Fortnum & Mason, an exclusive department store where it is said the Queen shops (I have never seen here there myself), located steps away on 181 Piccadilly. Typical souvenirs from there are the splendid teas in pretty boxes, the tea biscuits, chocolates and delicious jams. If you are a book lover like me, please go inside the large Waterstones on Piccadilly (2 or 3 buildings away from Fortnum & Mason). You will experience what London bookstores are like, a place to get your book, sit down on the comfortable couches and read it calmly to see if you like it enough to buy it. There is a coffee shop inside with magazines and newspapers.
If by now you are hungry, then head to Covent Garden to experience the street shows (mimics, singing, violin concerts in the Piazza etc) and have delicious dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant, Masala Zone. Here you can have delicious Thalis (a combination of different dishes served on a steel platter), which I highly recommend. However, if indian food is not your cup of tea, there is a great steak house around the corner, called Sophie´s, or the great hamburgers at Byron Proper Hamburger.
An alternative to this, it is to pay a short visit to the Tate Modern Gallery (it closes at 10pm), cross the Millennium Bridge by foot until reaching St. Paul´s Cathedral. Despite being dark at night, the bridge is fully bright with its lights (the colors change along the year). If you stand at the beginning of the bridge on the centre, you will have the impression the bridge leads to directly into the door of St. Paul´s Cathedral. It is a nice optical perception, great for photographs! At St. Paul´s Cathedral, you can take bus no. 15 again and get off at Somerset House or the next stop on Strand (right after passing by the entrance to Waterloo Bridge) to go eat at one of those restaurants mentioned in Covent Garden. An alternative to this is to experience a bit of London`s nightlife at the rooftop of Madison London, where you can eat, drink and dance accompanied of spectacular views of St Paul`s Catherdral and the river side.
A third option is to attend one of the many musicals or pieces of theatre offered in the West End. Covent Garden and Strand lay at the heart of the Theatre District. I recommend you buying the tickets in advance, either online prior to coming to London or the first day of arrival to guarantee a good price and a seat! (remember there are many tourists visiting London every weekend so tickets get sold out easily). If you are lucky to have tickets for one of the shows, then you will probably not be able to do the Modern Tate museum option but a nice dinner will fit into your schedule either before or after the show´s starting time. There are many pre-theater meal menu options around the Theatre District.
Sunday (or Day 4):
The last day of your visit is not only for suitcase packing but for some other exciting “musts” for first visit to London: the British Museum and Camdem Town street market, finishing the tour at lunch time for you to have enough time to get your bags ready and head to the airport.
Check out at the hotel in the morning and leave your bags at the concierge (unless you can do late check-out). Be at the British Museum at 10 am sharp when the doors open and barely anyone is there (it gets crowded very fast). This museum is very big and as I mentioned for the Natural History Museum, one could spend the entire day there. Plan to be there around two hours. Pick your favorite part of history to explore but there are four “musts” one should see:
- The spacious, natural light-luminous, domed-ceiling Great Court with the round reading room (ground floor)
- The Rosetta Stone (ground floor, Ancient Egypt section) and the Statue of Ramesses II.
- The Assyrian Gates and sculptures (ground floor, Middle East section)
- The Parthenon (ground floor, Ancient Greek and Rome section)
And we jump from the ancient art and history to the trendy street art and buzzy Camdem Town market. (bus no. 168 from Russell Square or no. 29 from Tottenham Court Road). It is a big difference but this is exactly London: an eclectic metropolis. Get off at Camden Town Tube Station and start walking along Camdem High St. The market comprises street stalls selling from second-hand vintage items to trendy trainers at better prices than in the West End shops; from vinyl records to latest smartphones and their accessories; from lousy t-shirts and London souvenirs to sophisticated jewelry and bags. It is really one market of a kind. The variety of street food is enormous: Oriental, Asian, Mexican, French sweet and salty crepes, English-like baked potatoes with filling, Cuban…the choices are endless. Most food stalls do not offer seating, but there are a few common areas with wooden benches and tables.
Depending on your flight schedule, you might have to return to the hotel to start your journey back home. However, if you still have a few hours left, here are some suggestions: try a complete Sunday Roast at a pub if you haven’t eaten at the street market; a stroll along the houses and parks around the Courts of Justice; the Science Museum; a walk around Primrose Hill Park (it has a nice view of London from the very top of the park) and surroundings with many restaurants, coffee shops and bars; a walk around the Japanese Garden at Regent´s Park; or visit any of the places mentioned above to which you did not manage to go earlier.
There are many other nice neighborhoods to see, other nightlife to experience and many other museums and places to visit. However, you need plenty of time for that. I have tried to give you a realistic sightseeing itinerary for around 60 hour-weekend that allows you to see as much as possible of the touristic points but yet with some local tips.
Traveling around London can be expensive. Consider buying an Oyster Card. A maximum of £8.50 will be charged per day regardless of the journeys made. If, however, few journeys not exceeding that amount are made, only the equivalent amount will be charged. Bear in mind, you will be traveling mostly in zone 1 if your hotel is located within zone 1 (£1.40 for bus journeys and £2.10-2.80 for tube journey).
I lived in London long enough to give you many other tips and ideas on shopping, gastronomy, entertainment and culture. So if you need advice, drop me a line! I am very happy to help! 🙂
Useful Addresses:Restaurants mentioned: SOFRA – 1 St. Christophers Place. Closest Tube Station: Bond Street MASALA ZONE – 48 Floral St. Closest Tube Station: Covent Garden SOPHIES STEAK HOUSE – 29-31 Wellington St,The Opera Quarter. Closest Tube Station: Covent Garden PING PONG – Festival Terrace Southbank Centre. Belvedere Road. Closest Tube Station: Waterloo WAGAMAMA – Riverside Level at Royal Festival Hall. Closest Tube Station: Waterloo BOROUGH MARKET – 8 Southwark St Closest Tube Station: London Bridge MADISON LONDON – RoofTop Terrace, 1 New Change, St. Pauls Museums mentioned: NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM – Cromwell Rd. Closest Tube Station: South Kensington Opening Times: Daily, 10am — 5:50pm Free Entry NATIONAL GALLERY – Trafalgar Square. Closest Tube Station: Charing Cross Opening Times: Daily, 10am — 6pm except for Friday, 10am — 9pm Free Entry except for special exhibitions BRITISH MUSEUM – Great Russell St. Closest Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, Holborn. Opening times: Daily, 10am — 5.30pm except for Friday, 10 am-8.30pm Free Entry TATE MODERN – Bankside. Closest Tube Station: St. Pauls, Blackfriars. Opening times: Daily, 10am — 6pm except for Friday and Saturday 10am – 10pm Free entry except for special exhibitions. Shopping Stores mentioned: HARRODS – 87-135 Brompton Rd. Closest Tube Station: Knightsbridge. SELFRIDGES – 400 Oxford St. Closest Tube Station: Bond Street. LIBERTY – Regent St.Closest Tube Station: Oxford Circus. HAMLEYS – 188-196 Regent St. Closest Tube Station: Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus. TOPSHOP LONDON – 36-38 Great Castle St. Oxford Circus. WATERSTONES – 203-206 Piccadilly. FORTNUM & MASON – 181 Piccadilly.