Hopefully you all have had a chance to read my previous post regarding my top five planning tips for your first visit to London. If not, no worries, as you can catch up by clicking here. My aim with this post is to help you plan your time in London efficiently by prioritizing your to-do list, and offering a few helpful time-saving tips with the hope you’ll feel less overwhelmed during your first stay in this magnificent city.
Now, before I get to the fun stuff, I think it’s important to address an unfortunate reality you’ll be confronted with eventually, so let’s go ahead and rip that band-aid off now: You’re not going to see everything you desire during your first trip to London, so don’t bother running yourself ragged trying.
I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. I’ve vacationed in London four times now, and I’ve only scratched the surface of this city and all it has to offer to its guests. I always cope with this reality, which applies to pretty much every city I’ve visited, by promising myself that I’ll return again someday. Even if this is ultimately wishful thinking in many cases, it gives me something to look forward to after the vacation has come to an end.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on the positive. Firstly, YOU’RE GOING TO LONDON!! And secondly, I’m here to help you maximize whatever time you do have in this awe inspiring city!
Before I fire off my top ten must-see attractions, I want to point out that I absolutely LOVE really, really old stuff. So while my top ten is going to be focused on historical attractions, that doesn’t mean your entire stay will be if you follow my suggestions. These are just the top ten attractions that will require some level of planning, so the remainder of your time each day can be filled with more whimsical activities of your choosing, such as snapping a ridiculously cliche, but totally necessary photo at the famous Abbey Road crosswalk, or taking stroll through the Portobello Road Market.
Now on to business…
London’s Top Ten Attractions
Below are my top ten picks. This list can be completed in four full days if you really plan your time wisely. Of course, I recommend staying longer, but you can definitely get a fairly good taste of the city in four days. Again, you can always plan to return someday to dive into some deeper exploring.
Every fan of the ShowTime series The Tudors, or the movie The Other Boleyn Girl featuring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson absolutely must visit The Tower of London, as this is the site where, among many notable historic events, Queen Anne Boleyn was tried, beheaded, and laid to rest. If you’re not a fan of either, you will still thoroughly enjoy a tour of this iconic and history-rich landmark. The oldest structure, the White Tower, was built in the 1000s by order of William the Conqueror. Over the years, The Tower of London has served as a Royal Palace, The Treasury, The Royal Mint, a Prison, and home of the Crown Jewels, which can still be seen here at present day. I recommend starting your London visit with this tour, as it’s a great way to overcome jet lag since you can pop in and out of the various buildings and catch some fresh air. Additionally, there are free tours that meet near the entrance gate every 30 minutes. You absolutely do not want to miss these informative, yet positively jovial tours, which are guided by the Yeoman Warders who have earned their coveted positions at the Tower of London through exemplary military service. Fun fact: they all reside within The Tower with their families.
There are some interesting documentaries out there in cyber-space about the Tower’s history, and I highly recommend doing a little homework by watching at least one ahead of your visit. This way, you’ll get the most out of your time there. I’ve linked a few short, and worthwhile documentaries here, here, and here. Even if you’re not visiting London anytime soon, you should definitely check them out if you’re a history buff.
The Tower of London’s operating hours are:
March through October
Tuesday-Saturday: 9:00am-5:30pm (last admission at 5:00pm)
Sunday-Monday: 10.00am-5:30pm (last admission at 5:00pm)
November through February
Tuesday-Saturday: 9:00am-4:30pm (last admission at 4:00pm)
Sunday-Monday: 10.00am-4:30pm (last admission at 4:00pm)
Adult (16+ years old): £21.50
Child (5-15 years old): £9.70
Individual tickets can be purchased on-site at one of several cashiers adjacent to the tower, or you can save approximately 3£ buy purchasing them online in advance here.
The Low-Down on the London Pass
Admission to this site is included with the London Pass, but before purchasing one of these passes on a whim, be sure to do the math and compare what’s included with what’s on your itinerary to see if it will actually save you any money. Details of the London Pass can be found here. Note that it may be somewhat difficult to see enough attractions within the duration of the pass activation period (1, 2, 3, 6, or 10 days) to make it worth while, so plan ahead and pay close attention to hours of operation to verify feasibility.
Nowadays, the Westminster Abbey might be more famous among pop culture as the site of the much anticipated Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. No offense to their Royal Highnesses, but the Royal Wedding was actually pretty insignificant when considering the vast history of this gothic structure. There has been a church at this site dating back to the 1000s, according to historical records. Construction of the current structure, which is massive and breathtaking, began in the 1200s under the orders of King Henry III. Prepare to be completely overwhelmed upon entering Westminster Abbey, as you won’t believe the clutter of deceased monarchs, royals, aristocrats, and religious figures who were laid to rest inside its stone walls. Other notable eternal residents include Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin. Additionally, every British and English coronation has taken place on this site since the late 1000s. You can view the rickety wooden coronation chair toward the end of your tour, which dates from the 1200s.
I’ve toured Westminster Abbey four times now, and the best method of attack for me has been the following three pronged approach.
First, I recommend touring the Tower of London prior to Westminster Abbey, as there are usually historical references made to the Abbey during the tour of the Tower. So if you’ve already toured the Abbey and didn’t know to look for whatever was referenced, you’ll be kind of disappointed. Whereas, if you know what to look for in the Abbey because you heard about a few significant points of interest while at the Tower, you can make an effort to see them, if you’re so inclined. Make sense?
Second, definitely take advantage of the audio tour, which is included in the admission price (be thankful for these freebies, they’re few and far between in pricey London!). The audio tour is pretty thorough and allows you to experience the church at your own pace. Expect to lose sight of your travel companion(s) during this tour, as you’ll primarily be wandering around gawking every which way, completely enthralled with what you’re seeing and hearing in the audio guide. Fret not, it’s easy enough to meet up at the last point of interest where you’ll turn in your audio guide.
Third, this is where I recommend breaking out your travel guide to go back and check out anything you may have read about that the audio guide didn’t cover. Additionally, there is much more to see if you exit the main church and head to the cloisters where the resident monks would meditate way back in the day. Make sure to stop in the Chapter House, Pyx Chamber, and the Abbey Museum. And lastly, visit the serene gardens (if they’re open) to rest your feet, take a deep breath, and reflect on the sheer surrealness of all you’ve just seen.
For a preview of the abbey, check out this short documentary.
Monday – Saturday: 9:30am to 3:30pm, except Wednesday when it’s open late until 6:00pm
Sunday: Open for services only
*Note: From September to May, Saturday hours are from 9:30am to 1:30pm
*Last entrance one hour prior to closing
Online – £20 (Purchase Tickets Here)
At the door – £22
6 – 16 years – £9
0 – 5 years – Free
2 adults and 1 child – £40
2 adults and 2 children – £45
(Admission includes a free audio-guide for each person)
**Admission included with the London Pass
***Bathroom Note: Make sure you’ve emptied your bladder prior to entering the abbey, as facilities are not very ubiquitous in these old churches and you’ll likely end up miserably holding it until the end of the tour, since the restrooms are quite inconvenient to get to.
The British Museum is home to the Rosetta Stone. Need I say more?? Probably not, but there is so much more to say about this spectacular museum and its expertly curated collections.
As you’ve probably already concluded, London can be a bit on the pricey side, so let me go ahead and give you the good news that admission to the museum is free. Thank goodness for small miracles, right? Voluntary donations upon entering are appreciated, but you will not be pressured in any way to do so.
Once inside, you’ll be able to travel back in time to the inner walls of the great pyramids of Ancient Egypt through their vast collection of mummies (some are even unwrapped=\), sarcophagi, and thousands of other Egyptian antiquities from life along the Nile. Or you can head over to Ancient Greece and view the breathtaking collection of marble sculptures that were once adorning the Parthenon in Athens. All of this is amazing, but it truly barely scratches the surface of what you’ll find inside the museum. So take your time here, and don’t arrive too close to closing time (I’d allow at least two hours). You won’t see everything, as there is just sooooo much, but bring along a travel guide, or check out the museum’s map to be sure to don’t miss the main attractions, as well as anything of particular interest to you.
Daily from 10:00am to 5:30pm, except Fridays when it’s open late until 8:30pm
Voluntary Donation Only
Saint Paul’s Cathedral was completed in the late 17th century under the direction of its famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren. It’s truly a magnificent work of art with a great deal of historical significance. While the cathedral’s interior is the main attraction, a visit here is not complete without a climb up to the famous dome that has hovered proudly over London for hundreds of years. Protecting this dome was so symbolic during World Wars I and II, locals volunteered to form the “Saint Paul’s Watch,” who held the life-threatening responsibility of putting out fires from air raids and kicking live ordinance off of the cathedral (Read more about the Saint Paul’s Watch here). So make sure you’re ready for some cardio, and that your camera has plenty of battery power left, as this will be one of the best photo opportunities of your entire stay in London.
Unfortunately admission is not free, but the good news is they do offer free guided tours, which are both informative and entertaining. Tours are held Monday through Saturday at 10:45, 11:15, 1:30, and 2:00, and are approximately an hour and a half long. I recommend catching the last guided tour at 2:00pm (just make sure you arrive ahead of time), then you’ll be one of the last groups allowed up to the dome (last entry is at 4:15), so it will be a bit less crowded. If you’re visiting Tuesday through Saturday, once you descend from the dome, stick around for 5:00pm evensong. You won’t regret it….the vocals are truly angelic!
Monday – Saturday: 8:30am to 4:00pm (last admission at 4:00pm)
Sunday: Open for worship only
Save £2 by purchasing in advance here at their website.
*Admission included with the London Pass
For those World War II history buffs, Winston Churchill’s War Rooms are an absolute must-see. Here you will have an opportunity to tour the underground bunker where Churchill and his closest advisors devised British wartime strategy. Located just around the corner from Westminster Abbey, if your schedule permits, consider stopping here following your tour of the Abbey.
A personal highlight for me is the expansive wall map where key intelligence and troop locations were documented, as well as the creative doodles of Churchill’s military officials who were charged with updating the map in real time. I also enjoyed their feature of many of the brave and influential women who played critical roles in Churchill’s staff, the British Military, and the wartime effort. My favorite highlight, however, is the expertly curated museum documenting Churchill’s entire life in great detail. The museum includes charming letters between Churchill and his wife, where he often made endearing reference to their pets.
£17.25 for adults, which includes a worthwhile audio tour.
Daily from 9:30am to 7:00pm
£8.60 Children (ages 5 and under are free)
**Admission included with the London Pass
The good news is, entrance to the National Gallery is free, though they certainly appreciate small voluntary donations. The even better news is, the collection of paintings here is among the best in the entire world. A few of the more notable artists featured here are van Gogh, da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Monet, but those who have done their art history homework will appreciate being up close and personal with scores of brilliant masterpieces by other highly talented, but slightly lesser known artists.
The museum is conveniently located in Trafalgar Square and open from 10am to 6pm daily, and on Friday it stays open until 9pm, which is a great way to squeeze this into your itinerary if you’re short on time throughout the day. There are free guided hour-long tours offered at 11:30am and 2:30pm daily, and on Fridays at 7:00pm. The museum also has audio guides available for purchase for £4.00. During our visit we opted for the free guided tour, then followed the gallery map to view additional pieces that were of interest to us, but I’ve also read very positive reviews of their audio guides.
Daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm, except Friday when it’s open late until 9:00pm
Voluntary Donation Only
The Victoria and Albert Museum aka The V&A can satisfy just about any history junkie with its vastly eclectic contents, which span thousands of years. Located in South Kensington, a visit to the V&A allows for a bit of time away from the hustle and bustle of other popular attractions in the city’s center. This museum is as enormous as it is beautiful, and complete with a pretty decent cafe. Entry is free, but again, small donations are much appreciated. They offer free guided tours that depart every half-hour from 10:30 to 3:30, though you’ll likely want to stick around after this one hour overview to do some additional exploring. If you and your travel companion(s) don’t have working cell phones, be sure to establish a meeting spot in case one of you wander off (it happens;)).
A few of my personal favorite highlights at the V&A are the Raphael Cartoons, The Great Bed of Ware, the Rodin Collection, and The Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection. I would allow at least two hours here.
Daily: 10:00am – 5:45pm, except Friday when it’s open late until 10:00pm
Voluntary Donation Only
If you’re able to find the time to squeeze this in your itinerary, I feel like everyone should see this spectacle at least once in their lifetime. And it’s free! So grab your breakfast to go at one of the many conveniently located Pret A Mangers, then find a spot to post up among the crowd and be ready to witness a tradition that has been carried out since the late 1600s. There are many phases to the changing of the guard, and the schedule differs depending on the day and time of year, so do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure you’re where you need to be at the right time, and on the correct day. There are many helpful tourist sites that post the schedule, but here is one I found through a quick google search that’s pretty straightforward.
Kensington Palace has been home to many British royals and monarchs since it was first established as a royal residence way back in the late 1600s. Currently, Kensington Palace’s residents include Prince William and Kate Middleton, their two adorable royal offspring, and their uncle, Prince Harry. This is also the childhood home of William and Harry, and where Princess Diana resided until her untimely death. Since a major upgrade that was completed in 2012, the state rooms have been open to the public and house a delightful display of palace life, royal mementos, and high-tech interactive exhibits. Women will especially enjoy the fashion exhibit (definitely my favorite part), which showcases a sampling of elaborate designs worn by the most iconic royal ladies. I’ve visited Kensington Palace before and after the unveiling of the upgrades in 2012, and they have significantly improved the experience making it well worth a visit.
Depending on how your feet are feeling and how much pub food you’ve eaten, a pleasant day might include beginning with the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, then taking a 45 minute stroll to Kensington Palace through Hyde Park and taking advantage of the beautiful scenery. Following Kensington Palace, you might zip over to the V&A museum, which is a 27 minute walk away. If you’re tired and/or short on time, this is a good opportunity to take advantage of the wonderful public transportation system. I typically don’t recommend this much walking, but the green space between these three sites is so scenic and an attraction in its own right.
Monday through Sunday from 10:00am to 6:00pm (last entry at 5:00pm)
Free entry for children 15 years and under
*Admission included with the London Pass
When it comes to libraries, few, if any, are cooler than the British Library. And while this attraction is last on my list, it certainly does not mean it’s the least fascinating of the lot. The British Library itself, as in the building, is a modern, state of the art facility; however, like any good book, it’s what’s inside that allows you to transcend to another time and place.
The library is free to visit, as it is a very busy, functioning public library. Once inside, you’ll immediately notice an enormous collection of books stacked from floor to ceiling encased behind glass, which the library was essentially built around. This impressive, six story tall collection was King James III’s personal library. The British Library is the second largest library in the world, so once you’ve gotten your bearings, make your way to the relatively small exhibition room called the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This unassuming little room is where most of the magic awaits. Here you’ll find one of four surviving exemplifications of the 1215 Magna Carta, several notable manuscripts, to include: Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground (AKA: Alice in Wonderland), Beowulf, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You’ll also come across Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Captain Cook’s Journal, a Beatles exhibit displaying John Lennon’s song-writing process, and a Gutenberg Bible from 1455. There is too much more to mention, so just do yourself a favor and take about an hour out of your day to get lost in written treasures spanning thousands of years. It’ll be an hour well spent, I promise!
Time Tip: If visiting Tuesday through Thursday, save this visit for the end of the day to take advantage of their relatively late closing time.
Tuesday – Thursday 9:30am to 8:00pm
Monday and Friday 9:30am to 6:00pm
Saturday 9:30am to 5:00pm
Sunday 11:00am to 5:00pm
Free to enter the library and Ritblat Gallery
Worthwhile guided tours can be booked in advance here.
. . . . .
After a busy day of sightseeing, one of the best ways to unwind is to find a cozy pub and grab yourself a pint. I don’t have any particular pub recommendations, as with so much other scheduling, I think it’s best to leave this decision up your gut…literally. Just pop in anywhere that looks interesting, check out the food menu, and see what’s on tap. If you’re digging the offerings and the vibe, stay. If not, there are plenty more places to check out just around the corner. I think this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: it’s wise to stay out of the big touristy squares when looking for seated meal options, which goes for pretty much every other popular city as well.
Oh, and of course you absolutely cannot visit London without dining at one of the many wonderful restaurants serving authentic, mouth watering Indian cuisine. Ask your AirBnb host, or a local Londoner for a good recommendation in your area. TripAdvisor can also be extremely helpful, but I caution against getting in the habit of constantly consulting TripAdvisor for everything, as before long those TripAdvisor reviews rule your vacation and squash the sort of spontaneity that often leads to your most memorable experiences. I mean, it is possible to have a 5 star memory of an establishment that’s only rated 3.5 stars.
One of the more surprising things you’ll notice about London upon your first visit is the lack of non-clubby nightlife. Most pubs close by 11pm, which can be very disappointing if you’re not prepared for the relatively early “last call.” There are plenty of clubs that are open till the wee hours, but I can’t comment too much on the London clubbing vibe, as those days are long gone for me. If you’re looking for a more relaxed late-night watering hole, ask around and you’ll likely be directed someplace you never would have found on your own in a million years. Usually these end up being the best places to kick back.
I’ve never felt unsafe while out late in London, but of course, be wise while you’re wandering about, or hanging at the bars and clubs. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and avoid being alone, if possible.
If you’re looking for something specific to do in the evenings, I do have two recommendations.
My first recommendation is for those not easily offended — it’s a comedy club. We somewhat randomly visited The Comedy Store during our most recent trip to London, as we were traveling with a couple of our friends, and during our perpetual search for something to do past 11pm we came across their website while we were out to dinner. We had just arrived that morning from Charleston, so we were all trying to push through that initial jet lag phase. Thankfully, laughing our butts off at some especially raunchy British humor for a few hours, with cocktails in hand, certainly did the trick. You can purchase tickets ahead of time here.
My second recommendation is sort of a no-brainer, and that’s to catch a show in one of London’s West End theaters, or shall I say “theatre.” You can check out the show schedules and venues here. Purchasing tickets in advance is usually wise, but if you’re unsure of your schedule, you can purchase tickets at the theatre box offices, just as you would at a movie theater in the states. Too easy!
I hope you’ll find this guide to be helpful and that you truly enjoy your first London experience! If you have any questions about this list, or why I’ve left certain attractions off, please feel free to ask=) Or if you need assistance planning your itinerary, I’m more than happy to help. Just leave your questions in the comments!
Safe travels everyone!