The first time I set foot on foreign soil was when I landed in London. I spent a school vacation week there when I was sixteen, exploring the city partially as a tourist and partially as a theater student. Along with other members of my high school’s theatrical society we toured Shakespeare’s Globe Theater by day and went to shows in the West End by night. I delighted in everything that was strange and new; the cars whizzed by from the opposite direction, and ketchup and fries morphed into chips and tomato sauce. London walked the fine line between different and familiar, and for me it was enshrouded in a kind of magic that kept it on a pedestal for years.
Writer Samuel Johnson famously commented, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” He’s right; for us, London combines many of the activities and experience we love to incorporate into our trips. Although we rarely prioritize a visit to a city we have previously explored (because of our limited paid time off we tend to favor visiting new places during most vacations), we have made London our destination three times. Twice we have ended longer trips to Europe with a few days in London, and when traveling to Cape Town we deliberately chose a flight with a 13-hour layover at Heathrow—just enough time to spend a day in the city.
In a city that boasts so much to see, do, and eat, we find that every return we make to London connects us to new discoveries while reminding us of our favorite spots. While our list is by no means all-inclusive, we’re excited to share 25 of our favorite things to do in London, as well as some of our personal tips, with you!
Things to Do in London: Places to See
London is a huge, sprawling city that is loaded with things to see and do. Whether it’s your first time in the city or you are looking for a few classic items to add to your itinerary, here are a few of our favorite spots to see in London.
► Big BenIn a city full of iconic spots and famous buildings, Big Ben is as symbolic as London landmarks come. The clock, known simply as the Clock Tower until 2012 when it was renamed Elizabeth Tower for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, was completed in 1859 and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Palace of Westminster for more than 130 years. Although the nickname Big Ben often represents the clock and the clock tower, Big Ben is actually the nickname for the largest of the clock’s five bells. The current Big Ben bell is actually the second version; the first Big Ben cracked during testing because it was struck with a hammer that was too heavy. The current Big Ben also has a crack; the same hammer damaged it shortly after installation, and instead of recasting or repairing the bell it was simply turned and a lighter hammer was brought in to strike it.
Although Big Ben is a major tourist attraction, visitors to London through 2021 should be prepared to see it covered in scaffolding. A large-scale renovation project currently hides much of the clock tower’s grandeur, and it is exceptionally difficult to access Elizabeth Tower and currently impossible to get a clear photo. Still, a beautiful spot to admire Big Ben is directly across the River Thames, where the tower is illuminated at night. Walk by for an up-close view during the day and see if you notice that the clock tower leans forward just a bit; while it isn’t quite comparable to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Big Ben is slowly tilting away from the Palace of Westminster. Fortunately, experts believe it will be close to 10,000 years before the tilting becomes a serious problem, leaving you with plenty of time to make your trip to London to see it!
► Westminster AbbeySome of London’s most extraordinary moments have taken place at Westminster Abbey. For more than 1,000 years, the building has hosted some of the United Kingdom’s most famous weddings and funerals, and within its walls every British monarch (save two) have been crowned during their coronation ceremony. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip were married there, as were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Princess Diana was memorialized there. For many visitors, especially if you have never been to London before, it is an incredible place to connect to the city’s history.
You can spend hours exploring Westminster Abbey and not see everything. The Coronation Chair is one of the most historic pieces of furniture in the world, and at more than 700 years old it is still used for its original purpose when a new monarch is crowned. The Royal Tombs are the final resting place for more than two dozen monarchs, including King Edward the Confessor and Henry III. For me, no visit to Westminster Abbey is complete without a visit to Poets’ Corner, so named in honor of the famous writers buried in Westminster Abbey’s South Transept. Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Tennyson are just a few of the famous literary giants buried there, although dozens of others including the Brontë sisters, William Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde are also remembers through plaques and monuments. Save plenty of time to make the most of your visit!
► British MuseumOne of the most incredible collections of international art and artifacts is right in London, and you can explore it all for free! The British Museum focuses on the history of humans, and the story of our species is told through more than eight million works that document our achievements from the earliest recorded days. A walk through the museum will take you past dozens of works you recognize, such as the Rosetta Stone and drawings by greats like Rembrandt and Degas, as well as thousands of contributions that deepen your appreciation for what our ancestors achieved.
You can travel the world during a single day at the British Museum. Ancient Egyptian mummies and statues are prominently displayed, and it’s easier to admire them in detail and at a closer proximity than we saw during our visit to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Although we loved watching the sun as it set behind the moai on Easter Island, it’s easier to see one of the giant carved heads in London than it is to fly to their remote birthplace. Because the museum is free it draws huge crowds, especially on cold or dreary London days, so prepare for lots of company as you peruse the collections. The British Museum is well worth a visit, though; your visit will educate you while it inspires you to plan your next vacation!
► London EyeWhile many major cities around the world feature Ferris wheels as tourist attractions, the London Eye is one worth experiencing. In addition to being among the tallest observation wheels in the world, it is also the most popular paid tourist attraction in London. Guests are treated to some incredible panoramic views of the city during a single, 30-minute rotation in a large, glass capsule that holds just 32 people.
If you want to include the London Eye in your itinerary, we highly recommend booking your tickets in advance. Lines can be exceptionally long, and during popular times of the year the attraction may sell out. Treat yourself to an upgraded experience by purchasing a Fast Track admission that confirms your boarding time and allows you to skip the line with priority boarding. We picked the Champagne Experience during our visit; in addition to priority boarding, we sipped a glass of bubbly during our revolution. You can’t go wrong with a daytime or nighttime visit, but we timed our trip with sunset and enjoyed watching the sky change colors as our capsule inched upward.
► Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Beautiful Buckingham Palace is where the United Kingdom’s monarch resides, and several times each week it comes to life with a well-choreographed changing of the guard ceremony. Serving as the formal transition between the Old Guard—on-duty soldiers—and the New Guard—the soldiers replacing the Old Guard, the ceremony takes a festive tone as the military band performs a medley of time-honored songs and current hits.Changing the Guard lasts for approximately 45 minutes, and its popularity with visitors to London means you will need to plan in advance to get a great spot to watch the ceremony. The most popular spot is directly in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace, and some people arrive hours before the ceremony begins to secure the best position. Plan to arrive as early as possible if that is your goal and take water and a snack with you. Remember leaving your post for any reason, including to buy a drink or use a restroom, will likely mean surrendering your spot. We also like the view from the nearby Victoria Monument, which is elevated and allows visitors to see the procession from just above the crowd. If you don’t want to watch the full procession or get stuck in the crowds as the event concludes, stand along the Mall in St. James Park; the New Guard will march by on their way to relieve the Old Guard.
► Hyde Park
Of all the parks in all of the world I have explored to date, Hyde Park is my favorite. It is the largest of London’s royal gardens and a terrific choice for a restorative walk away from the noise and crowds you’ll encounter throughout the city. Enter through Hyde Park Gate or beneath the Wellington Arch as you make your way into the park, which spans 350 acres. Serpentine Lake is Hyde Park’s defining water feature, and when the weather is warm it is common to see people swimming (you can, too, for a small fee!). Close to The Serpentine is the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which is a lovely public tribute to the Princess of Wales’ memory and legacy.
Hyde Park hosts a number of concerts and performances each year, but it is most famous for its Speakers’ Corner. Speakers’ Corner serves as a space to encourage discussion, debate, and free speech, and because the corner is out in the open any member of the public can take the floor when they pass through Hyde Park. Plenty of famous people have done exactly that; Winston Churchill, Karl Marx, and George Orwell are just a few of the people whose voices are part of Speakers’ Corner’s history. While it is common to walk by and hear someone speak, you may find yourself called to share your thoughts on a topic as well. During my first trip to London I (quietly) spoke about the value of arts education and left feeling proud to leave a tiny part of myself at Speakers’ Corner. If you choose to share a prepared (or unprepared!) speech, remember hecklers are often within earshot, and no matter how you feel about what you hear all speech is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Even if Speakers’ Corner is quiet, it is a great spot to visit at Hyde Park and a wonderful London tradition.
► Trafalgar SquareFeel like you are in the middle of the action with a visit to Trafalgar Square, one of the busiest and most impressive London locations you can visit. From museums to statues and from restaurants to shopping, it wouldn’t be hard to dedicate a lot of time to exploring Trafalgar Square. You won’t be able to miss Nelson’s Column, which honors Admiral Horatio Nelson’s successful campaign to defeat Napoleon during the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson lost his life during the battle, and the column that stands in his honor stretches 170 feet into the air and reminds visitors and locals of his legacy. Several museums, including the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, house artwork connected to the United Kingdom’s long history.
Trafalgar Square’s Admiralty Arch is positioned at the beginning of the Mall, which stretches to Buckingham Palace and is used for royal processions including the Changing of Guard. Admiralty Arch is a beautiful spot to photograph, as is the view from the southern point of Trafalgar Square that looks toward Big Ben and Parliament Square.
We also love that the USA is represented in Trafalgar Square. A statue of President George Washington (very similar in stature to one in the Virginia State House in Richmond) is a surprising addition to the landscape, and it was given as a gift to the United Kingdom by our home state of Virginia. A popular anecdote says Washington declared he would never set foot on British soil again, so US soil was placed underneath the statue to ensure his feet never came in contact with the UK’s land. We don’t know if there is truth behind that story, but it is always fun to find a piece of home while visiting a foreign city!
► Tower of LondonThe Tower of London has a colorful history that makes it a popular tourist attraction, especially for first-time visitors. Commissioned by William I the Conqueror after his coronation in 1066, the Tower was devised as a fortification for the city. It served as both a defensive station and a royal residence for centuries, but in the Middle Ages it became a prison that housed some notable names. Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Gray were executed there, and Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I were held as prisoners. The Crown Jewels are one of the Tower’s most famous attractions, and while there’s a great chance you will be able to see them during your visit you might find yourself looking at an “In Use” sign instead. The Queen still wears the Crown Jewels for certain ceremonies, which means she may need them during your trip to the Tower of London!
Prepare to spend a few hours at the Tower of London, which should afford you enough time to explore the grounds and main attractions. A highlight of any visit is taking a Yeoman Warder tour; led by members of the Royal Bodyguard, Yeoman Warders offer terrific tours and are knowledgeable about the Tower of London and its history.
► Tower BridgeCross the River Thames via the Tower Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges in London. Flanked by two 200-foot-tall towers, the bridge spans 800 feet and can be crossed by car or on foot. Walking across the bridge is the best way to experience it; in addition to stopping for photos or to admire the city around you, it’s worthwhile to pause and appreciate the bridge’s construction. As a working suspension bridge, bridge traffic is occasionally halted so Tower Bridge can open and taller ships can pass through.
If you want a more in-depth look at Tower Bridge, a unique exhibit provides great information about building and renovating the bridge. Perhaps just as exciting is the exhibit’s glass floor, where visitors can look down at the vehicles traveling directly below them.
Another important note: Tower Bridge is not the same as London Bridge! London Bridge, located just past Tower Bridge, is physically less impressive but boasts a much longer history. The earliest version of London Bridge was likely built around 50 AD.
► St. Paul’s CathedralStanding on the highest point in London, St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most noteworthy parts of the London cityscape. The church stands on the spot once occupied by its predecessor, known as Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666. St. Paul’s Cathedral is part of the Church of England, and today it remains both a popular attraction and an active church open to worshippers.
If you plan to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, visitors are welcome after paying an admission fee. If you plan to worship, there is no charge for your visit. If you are looking for Instagram-worthy photos, walk past the church and follow the road to the Millennium Bridge. From the bridge you will be treated to an incredible look at the cathedral’s dome. The interior is worth a visit; look for the gorgeous south choir organ and the impressive high altar, both of which are incredible architectural features.
► Cleopatra’s Needle
If you find yourself walking along the Victoria Embankment by the River Thames, you may be surprised to find a tall Egyptian obelisk along the water’s edge. Known as Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk is indeed from Egypt! Three similar obelisks were taken from Egypt and relocated to London, Paris, and New York City. The obelisk now located in London came from Heliopolis, which is close to present-day Cairo. Despite the nickname, none of the relocated obelisks have any connection to Cleopatra; in fact, they are all considerably older than Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s Needle makes for a unique and interesting photo opportunity, and knowing that it comes directly from Egypt lends richness to its position.
► Embassy of the Republic of TexasIf you are up to speed on your United States history, you know that Texas has been a state since 1845. Still, a plaque on the side of the building just off a busy London street provides an unexpected US history lesson that we were excited to encounter far from home.
Prior to becoming a state, Texas was an independent country. Sam Houston, their president, established two embassies in Europe: one in Paris and one in London. Although London remained supportive of Texas as a sovereign country, when Texas accepted statehood, they closed the embassy. Today, all that remains of an interesting chapter in USA history is the plaque that reminds passerby of the delegation that once occupied a portion of the building. While there is little more to do than take a picture and reflect on how history has something to teach us around every corner, if you are visiting from the USA—and especially if you have ties to Texas—the Texas Embassy plaque is worth a detour!
► Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
When William Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the original Globe Theatre, audiences gathered in a three-tiered open-air theater to let comedy and tragedy whisk them away from their lives for a few hours. While the original theater was demolished, today a reconstructed version lets visitors imagine what the theater experience might have been like in the early 17th century.
Visiting the Globe Theatre is a great way to learn about the history and role of the performing arts in London. Whether you are a fan of Shakespeare or haven’t thought of him since high school English class, tours are informative and fun and connect to visitors regardless of their knowledge of (or even enjoyment of) Shakespeare’s works. Tours are offered on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the year, and if you visit to London is during the performance season it is possible to purchase tickets and enjoy a show.
► London TheatreFor centuries, theatre has been an enormous part of London’s West End. My first trip to London was centered around my drama education, and most nights found me wide-eyed in a dark theater as an array of talented performers brought new worlds to life before me. Today, visitors have a choice of numerous types of shows, with everything from musicals to dramas presented during the year. We picked a Friday night performance of The Book of Mormon for our theatre fix, and it was among the most incredible stage productions either of us have ever seen.
The same could be said for just about every show that might catch your eye. If you are considering incorporating a night at the theater into your London itinerary, it’s a good idea to book your tickets in advance. We were able to select exactly the seats we wanted based on the view we hoped to have of the stage, which certainly enhanced our experience. If you are flexible, hoping to save money, or undecided about what show you want to see, last-minute tickets can be available for some performances. Also, some good news for visitors: London’s theatre dress code is considerably more relaxed than it once was, and we were appropriately attired in jeans and sweaters. The vast majority of patrons, including locals, wore outfits similar to those we selected. Some people arrived in suits and evening gowns, so you won’t be out of place if you want to dress up for the experience.
► Leadenhall MarketOne of the oldest markets in London is also one of the most picturesque. Leadenhall Market opened in the 14th century, and today it remains a great place to shop or grab a pint with friends. True to its roots, Leadenhall Market is a great place to buy fresh food like vegetables, meat, or cheese.
While you might not be shopping for groceries, you’ll need to do nothing more than look up to know why Leadenhall Market should be on your London itinerary. The ornate ceiling practically sparkles with vibrant hues of green, crimson, and gold. Join the crowds enjoying a beverage at one of the restaurants and admire the view. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you have one more reason to make the trip to Leadenhall Market: it was featured in the first movie as the location for the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley.
► David Bowie Memorial
David Bowie grew up in London’s Brixton neighborhood, and an Australian artist honored him with a colorful tribute to his musical contributions. Based on his Ziggy Stardust persona as seen on his Aladdin Sane album cover, the mural is painted on the side of a building directly across the street from the Brixton Underground station. Bowie fans may find the mural to be a can’t-miss destination as we did; after all, during our trip to Auckland we made it our mission to seek out a similar mural titled Piggy Stardust, which swapped Bowie’s likeness for a cheerful guinea pig. Our visit happened to be less than a week before the anniversary of Bowie’s death, and in addition to plenty of people stopping for a photo several dropped off small gifts in honor of his memory.
► Benedict Arnold HouseWhen you think of USA patriots, Benedict Arnold’s name will not come to mind; after all, his name is synonymous with treason in the United States. During the Revolutionary War, Arnold rose through the ranks to ultimately command the Continental Army at West Point. Unbeknownst to General George Washington—the very man who would become the USA’s first president—Arnold intended to surrender to the British and defect, but his plans were discovered before he could do real damage to the Colonies’ efforts. He fled from North America and established a residence in London, where he lived until his death in 1801. Today, his former home is marked by a plaque that declares him to be, “Major General Benedict Arnold, American Patriot.” The plaque was funded by one of Arnold’s ancestors who did some research on the family and came to the conclusion the general acted on pure intentions; according to his descendent, Benedict Arnold was simply doing what he believed to be in the USA’s best interest. Whether you believe the USA was right to declare its independence or believe Arnold was right to defect, the plaque provides a bit of comic relief during a walk through London!
Things to Do in London: Places to Eat and Drink
In a city as large and full of attractions as London, you will have no trouble finding terrific meals and fun pubs. We find new favorites every time we visit, but we also have a few we are sure to include whenever we spend time in London.
► Brigit’s Bakery Afternoon Tea Bus Tour
Afternoon tea is a London classic, and while it’s worthwhile to seek out a traditional experience you might also love a different type of tea adventure. B Bakery combines afternoon tea with a double decker bus tour of the city to create a two-hour drive that shows off some of London’s best highlights. We boarded a custom double decker bus outfitted with tables and cupholders and enjoyed driving through London as we listened to fun facts about the spots we saw out the window.We upgraded our experience so we could sit at one of two tables at the front of the second story of the bus, which afforded us some of the best views we could get. The food was delicious; curried chicken salad and tea sandwiches were on offer as were several tasty pastries and cakes. A tea menu offers a nice selection (and refills are included!); we also enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine with our dessert. The Afternoon Tea Bus Tour is a great way to combine a few London staples into a single experience, making it a lot of fun if you are short on time or looking for a different way to enjoy the city.
More Information: London.B-Bakery.com
► The Salisbury
When our flight lands in London, we typically have a singular focus: find a proper pint and a filling plate of British pub fare. When Adam and I visited London for the first time together we discovered The Salisbury; since the building dates back well over a century, we were certainly not the first people to discover it, but we have gladly made it among our first stops on every subsequent trip! We always place an order for bangers and mash and fish and chips, classic British comfort food that is perfect for refueling after a long flight. Washed down with a couple of pints of Tribute Ale, it’s the perfect way to welcome yourself to London. The Salisbury’s welcoming atmosphere usually attracts a big crowd, but the wait for a table is rarely long.
More Information: GreeneKing-pubs.co.uk
► Gordon’s Wine BarLondon is most commonly associated with beer, but it’s not hard to find a great glass of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar. The bar is believed to be the oldest wine bar in London, and a walk below street level will quickly lead you to see that you have entered a historic space. Gordon’s feels like a traditional wine cave; with low ceilings and candles that barely light the dark corners, we felt like we stepped back into a previous century. Our visit was during a particularly busy evening, so we ordered a few glasses of wine and some snacks to enjoy outside at tables positioned under heat lamps. The wine list was long and varied, allowing us to try a few wines we had never enjoyed before, and we practically inhaled Scotch eggs and a cheese plate that paired perfectly with our wine. We seek out a great glass of wine on most of the trips we take, and wine lovers will have no trouble doing the same at Gordon’s Wine Bar.
More Information: GordonsWineBar.com
► Ozone Coffee Roasters
In our sleepy morning haze, the sight of the word coffee and a white arrow pointing to a door were all we needed to know we arrived at Ozone Coffee Roasters. Ozone is a New Zealand-based coffee roaster (a wonderful discovery after drinking cup after cup of spectacular coffee during our trip to Auckland!), and we enjoyed every bite of the breakfast we ordered. Although the classic eggs, bacon, and toast Adam ordered were delicious, the star of the show were the chili-fermented mushrooms on sourdough that were spicy, flavorful, and filling.
Of course, the real reason we were there was for coffee, and the syphon coffee Adam selected was some of the best we have had on the planet. Syphon coffee is served as if part of a science experiment; coffee grounds are added to the top chamber of a vessel, and water is heated in its lower chamber. As the water boils, the water vapor rises upward toward the coffee grounds. When the syphon is removed from its heat source the water, which has brewed into coffee, sinks back into the lower chamber and is ready to be served. Many coffee lovers believe syphon coffee is the best way to enjoy your daily cup because the flavor isn’t impacted by subjecting the grounds directly to boiling water, and after trying syphon coffee at Ozone we have to agree! We enjoyed it as much as the famous geisha coffee we sampled during our trip to Panama City. Ozone Coffee Roasters serve incredibly high-quality coffee, and it’s a much tastier (and more local) alternative to some of the more commonly found coffee shops in London.
More Information: OzoneCoffee.co.uk
► The Mayflower PubI grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and my history teachers often regaled us with stories about the Pilgrims who set out for the new world aboard the Mayflower and eventually washed up along the shores of Plymouth in 1620. The Mayflower is said to have set sail from the location where the pub is located in Rotherhinthe, and when it returned to London it was decommissioned and left to rot in the same location. Today the Mayflower is the oldest pub on the River Thames.
In addition to the lore that comes with its history, the Mayflower is known as a place that serves great food and cold pints for a fair price. The pub was busy during our visit, and we felt fortunate to find a tiny table in the dark front room to enjoy a round of local beer by candlelight under the dark wooden beams. If you can prove you are a descendant of the Pilgrims who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower, the pub maintains a ‘Descendants Book’ that you can review and sign should you be lucky enough to be part of that history and legacy.
More Information: MayflowerPub.co.uk
► Beefeater Distillery
Although wine and beer often factor into our travel, we love to try spirits that are representative of the places we visit. We enjoyed sipping bourbon in Kentucky, Jameson whiskey in Ireland, and vodka in Poland, so taking a tour of the Beefeater gin distillery in London was an important part of our London experience! Beefeater offers a really well-constructed tour that combines a self-guided look at the history of gin in London as well as a guided tour of the distillery itself. Gin is one of Adam’s spirits of choice when he has a cocktail, and he especially loved learning about how Beefeater selects the ingredients that give their gin its characteristic flavor. The tour itself was outstanding, and the chance to relax for a while with a cold gin and tonic (included with your admission fee!) is a great way to enjoy one of London’s best-known products.
If you are interested in learning more about the Beefeater distillery tour, read about an extended look at the tour below!
Our Post: Beefeater Distillery Tour: Celebrating Gin in London
► Ye Old Cheshire Cheese
During our most recent trip to London, multiple friends recommended we add Ye Old Cheshire Cheese to our itinerary. Considering one of the recommendations came from Janice and Gary, the London-based duo that create the excellent Our World for You blog, we stopped in for a late lunch and immediately discovered why it is so well-regarded. The pub’s colorful history dates back centuries to 1555, although the original structure did not survive the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt soon after it was destroyed. Ye Old Cheshire Cheese has some strong literary ties as writers including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were regular patrons. Dickens and Agatha Christie included the pub in some of their manuscripts. Adding to its lore, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese lists each of the monarchs who have reigned since it first opened outside its entrance—a staggering list that adds another layer to its history.
There is no doubt Ye Old Cheshire Cheese has a terrific history in London, but the food alone is worth a visit. We ordered a round of pub classics (fish and chips and bangers and mash, our London favorites!) and found both dishes to be perfectly prepared. We ordered at the bar, where the bartender also recommended a few pints to try. It’s a great place for a meal and to experience a classic London pub.
More Information: TripAdvisor.com
A Map of Things to Do in London
If you are thinking of visiting some of the places we love to see and do in London during your trip, this map shows where each spot is located. We hope it helps you to visualize how you can make the most of your time in London!
Things to Do in London: Day Trips
A trip to the United Kingdom will often take you to London, but there are many places just beyond the city that are worth exploring. If you are looking for a day trip or two, here are a few of our favorites.
Canterbury, just about an hour southeast of London by train from St. Pancras, is an outstanding place to take a day trip. Famous for the magnificent Canterbury Cathedral, walking tours of the city are a great way to learn about its history and relevance. It’s also a great place for fans of a good ghost story; the Cathedral is where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1070, and it features prominently in Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales. St. Augustine’s Abbey is also worth a visit, as are the Westgate Gardens and Towers.
► StonehengeJust two hours southwest of London by car, Stonehenge is an outstanding day trip for history lovers. With a history that dates back more than 4,500 years, Stonehenge is one of the oldest monuments in England and is among the most recognizable landmarks in the world. Stonehenge is a prehistoric site characterized by two stone formations—an inner horseshoe-shaped arrangement surrounded by an outer circle—and while its purpose isn’t completely understood, the site is known as an expansive burial ground. It was likely used as a solar calendar that may have marked seasonal changes. It has also inspired similar structures around the world, including Washington’s Maryhill Stonehenge Memorial that serves as a full-scale replica.
Visiting Stonehenge is a great way to immerse yourself in Neolithic history and see some of England’s beautiful countryside in a single day. Tours run frequently from London, and if you are interested in self-driving the trip is not challenging (although traffic can add time to your schedule!). Many tour operators will include other points of interest, such as Windsor Castle or Bath, which can add some real value and perspective to your London day trip.
Take a trip through time to Shakespearean England with a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford is the birthplace of Shakespeare and home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and fans of the Bard won’t want to miss a chance to explore the town. In addition to watching a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, walking through the town will connect you to the cottage where Shakespeare was born, his gravesite, and plenty of shopping and dining. Stratford is just two hours by train from London, which makes it an easy day trip from the city.
Where to Stay in London
London is full of hotel options, and of the accommodations we have booked over the years our favorite is the Park City Grand Plaza Kensington Hotel. Located in trendy Kensington, just a five-minute walk from either Earl’s Court (on the Piccadilly and District lines) or Gloucester Road (on the Piccadilly, District, and Circle lines), the hotel is absolutely beautiful with incredibly quiet, comfortable rooms. Our room was spacious by European standards, and between the comfortable bed and the large bathroom with luxurious finishes we had a lovely retreat to rest each night so we could feel refreshed for another full day exploring London! The staff went out of their way to ensure we had everything we needed, and surprising touches like offering us a complimentary cell phone to avoid using our data plans made us feel like valued guests. As an added bonus, the hotel is on the same Underground line as London Heathrow, which means it is very easy to use inexpensive public transportation to travel into the city—and you won’t need to navigate between stations with heavy luggage after a red-eye flight!
More Information: Booking.com/hotel/gb/ParkCityKensington
We found the Park City Grand Plaza Kensington Hotel on Booking.com, which has become our go-to website for finding great hotel deals. Take a look at the hotels available during your trip to London—you might also find a great deal!
London Travel Tips
As you plan your London vacation, here are a few additional tips to help you make the most of your visit!
► Take the TubeThe London Underground, famous for its cheery reminder to “mind the gap,” is almost universally the best way to traverse the city. Traffic is often a nightmare, and while it might seem like a good idea to hail a black taxi to get to your destination you may save both time and money taking the Tube. Familiarize yourself with the various lines and their destinations, noting where you will need to change lines if necessary. We found that our Google Maps app was a great way to obtain detailed, customized trip-planning advice, although several available apps can help you plan the optimal route.
More Information: tfl.gov.uk/maps/track/tube
► Buy an Oyster Card
We purchased Oyster cards upon arrival at London Heathrow, which are used to pay for rides within the London Underground as well as buses. Oyster cards entitle you to a discounted fare and are ultimately cheaper than paper tickets, and best of all there is a daily cap associated with them. That means you can use London public transportation for free after you reach the daily maximum, which is an incredible value if you plan on full days of exploring!
More Information: tfl.gov.uk/oyster-card
► Prepare for Weather ChangesLondon is famous for unpredictable weather, so consider wearing layers and taking an umbrella each time you leave the hotel. A single day can shift between cool and drizzly to warm and sunny several times, and it’s a good idea to take precautions so the weather doesn’t impact how you enjoy your day! Adam and I once spent close to an hour beneath the eaves of the Parliament Building waiting for a rain storm to pass—don’t let that happen to you!
► Consider Walking
We love the Tube, but consult a map before departing for your destination to see if walking might be even more efficient. London is a picturesque place, and many Tube stations are quite close to one another. In some cases, you’ll need to change lines and may discover it is quicker to walk than it is to ride on the train.
Even if the train may be quicker, if you have the energy and the weather is nice you’ll see some amazing architecture and experience the city’s personality if you can stay above ground.
Since the first hours I spent there as a high school student, London has been part of the foundation upon which I have explored the world. The city’s history, culinary scene, and sightseeing rank it among the most memorable places I have been, and the people I have met there are some of the kindest I have encountered. There’s a reason London is consistently one of the planet’s most visited destinations, and if your travel plans will take you to or through London you will love the chance to discover the city for yourself. If you experience London like us, you’ll be tired when your vacation is over, but there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself agreeing with Samuel Johnson as your plane lifts off the runway:
“…There is in London all that life can afford.”
Looking for more fun cities to visit around the world? Here are a few more posts for inspiration!