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Are you planning your first trip to London?
This global city is endlessly popular with travelers from all over the world. With its famous landmarks and iconic sights, the number of things to see and do in London can easily excite and overwhelm first-time visitors.
In this post, you’ll find a cheat sheet compiled over 3 separate visits to London packed with information about how to get to London from the airport, where to stay in London, how to get around once you arrive, and best of all, mapped-out London itinerary planning tips.
Are you ready to make your first trip to London a success?
What to See and Do on your First Trip to London
This guide is set up in different sections to help you plan a trip to London. The first parts help you get ideas about how to plan your days in London with landmarks, attractions, museums, markets, and activities in a logistically sensible way.
You want to maximize your time in London without backtracking or zigzagging around the city. These ideas can also help you piece together a complete day because not all of them require a full day.
You also note that I’ve included the Tube stops for individual attractions. This is to help you in case you visit these places outside of the order I’ve suggested in the Google maps for each itinerary idea.
After these itinerary ideas for planning your trip to London, you’ll find tips and helpful information so you can navigate the city confidently.
Are you ready to plan your trip to London?
London Itinerary Planning Idea #1 – History Buffs and Foodies
Tower of London – Tower Hill Tube Stop – Circle and District Lines
The Tower of London is an absolute must with its thick, ominous walls, dark past, resident black ravens, and informative Beefeaters. The Tower and the nearby Tower Bridge sit stalwartly as a link to the past when Kings and Queens sent prisoners to “think” about their choices and to wait for the inevitable… execution.
The Tower of London was the inhospitable home to infamous gangsters, spies, Dukes, Bishops, Princes, and even Queens!
Undoubtedly the most famous Queen of them all was the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. The Tower of London is where Henry the VIII’s executioner beheaded her on charges of adultery and conspiracy, however, Henry actually blamed her for not producing a male heir.
Today, visiting the Tower of London is like stepping back in time. The daily traditions involving this historic castle have continued for hundreds of years. The resident Beefeaters live at the Tower of London and maintain the rituals and routines of the past. But they also offer free tours (once inside) and comically share their vast Tower of London knowledge.
These tours begin every 30 minutes starting at 10:00 a.m. and finishing with the last tour at 2:30 p.m.
Pro Tip: Arrive in the morning when the Tower first opens. It becomes quite crowded later in the day. Use your London Pass to get Fast Track Entry and bundled savings when compared to buying attraction tickets individually.
Borough Market – London Bridge Tube Stop – Northern and Jubilee Lines
After a morning at the Tower of London, time your escape for lunch at Borough Market. It’ll be easiest to walk from the Tower of London. If you choose to walk across Tower Bridge instead of London Bridge as shown on the map above, add about 10 minutes of walking time.
You can also cross the River Thames with a river bus using your Tube Oyster Card (more on these below) from Tower Pier to London Bridge City Pier.
Once at Borough Market, the market lanes are lined with food and grocers selling every imaginable food item. It’s a great place to sample a variety of foods from all types of global cuisines.
From famous falafel to perfectly spiced Indian food, huge skillets of paella, and savoury British pies from Pieminster, you’ll be thankful to visit with an empty stomach on your first trip to London and every time you return like I do!
Restaurants and cafes fill the upstairs level and the surrounding streets (in case you’d prefer to sit rather than sample and roam) making this Southwark neighborhood a foodie’s delight.
ProTip: From Borough Market, you’re just a 5-minute walk to The Shard, London’s tallest glass skyscraper to see the highest views over the city.
If you have it, you can use your London Pass for access. Be sure to follow the pass instructions to pre-reserve a time.
London Itinerary Planning Idea #2 – Royalty and High Tea
Westminster Abbey – Westminster Tube Stop – Jubilee Line
Coming out of Westminster Station, you’ll immediately be in the shadow of Big Ben and London’s iconic Parliament Building. You can walk back onto the bridge if you’d like to capture fuller photos of these London landmarks.
Continue on to Westminster Abbey, just a couple of minutes walking from Big Ben. Westminster Abbey is open to visitors Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m until 3:30 p.m. The Abbey is closed on Sundays so keep this in mind when planning your London trip.
Use your London Pass to gain access to Westminster. Once inside, admire the architecture and the Abbey’s gorgeous choir room. Westminster is also the final resting place of numerous kings, queens, and dignitaries. You can see the monuments in their honor, as well as learn about their place in history.
If you’re a fan of the Royals, you’ll be visiting the spot where Kate and William were married.
Pro Tip: If you want to take a ride on the London Eye, it can be included with the stops you make in and around Big Ben because it’s just a short walk over the bridge you see in the photo below. Avoid the lines by choosing the fast-track ticket option.
It’s also quite popular to depart from the Westminster Pier for a cruise along the River Thames to take in the sights of London from the water.
Buckingham Palace-Green Park Tube Stop-Jubilee, Victoria, & Piccadilly Lines
Next, make your way to Buckingham Palace where the Changing of the Guards happens.
The ceremony is all pomp and fanfare. The Queen’s Guard outside the castle has been on watch for hours and the new guard comes to take over in grand style! A marching brigade of guards along with a mounted cavalry and a marching band head up The Mall and through the palace gates.
This ceremony draws a crowd so it’s best to arrive ahead of time so that you can get yourself in a position to see the fanfare. I’ve watched from both the gates of Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Monument directly opposite the palace gates.
You’ll have to choose the location you want because it’s typically too crowded to move from place to place. To get a spot along the fence at Buckingham Palace, be prepared to arrive up to an hour early and wait.
If this is the case, you also may need to reverse the order and visit Westminster Abbey first.
Pro Tip: Check the Changing of the Guard schedule before you go to make sure the ceremony is planned for the day you intend to visit. It only happens when the Queen is in residence at Buckingham Palace.
Hyde Park – Hyde Park Corner Tube Stop – Piccadilly Line
When the ceremony is finished, keep those royal juices flowing for a stroll around Hyde Park. It’s one of the largest parks in London, as well as one of the Royal Parks. Enjoy its monuments, bridges, fountains, gardens, and lake.
Finish up with a classic afternoon tea experience at The Dorchester Hotel.
No doubt, it’s a luxurious splurge, but after having experienced life as a royal, it’s the perfect way to properly finish the experience. From finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, sweets, and of course, tea, you’ll have had a quintessential London outing.
London Itinerary Planning Idea #3 – Architecture, Theatre, & Art
St. Paul’s Cathedral – St. Paul’s Tube Stop – Central Line
Start off at St. Paul’s Cathedral to admire this Anglican Church’s architecture. You can explore the crypt or head in the opposite direction and climb the dome’s 528 steps for spectacular panoramic London views.
If you have it, entry is included with your London Pass.
Take your time crossing the pedestrian-only Millenium Bridge on your way to the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This is a great spot to watch boat traffic along the River Thames.
Tate Modern & The Globe Theatre-Blackfriars Tube Stop-Circle & District Lines
These 2 London attractions are just next to one another.
The Tate Modern has a vast permanent collection of modern art by the likes of Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock, as well temporary exhibitions. There are beautiful views looking back on St. Paul’s Cathedral and the River Thames, as well.
It’s free to enter the museum, however, you need to reserve a timed-entry ticket.
The nearby Globe Theatre is a replica of Shakespeare’s original which burned in a fire many years ago after the thatched roof was ignited during a production of Henry VIII.
For your first trip to London, you’ll want to use your London Pass to tour the theater during the day and hear about its historic past. The Globe also has evening performances during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. The ambiance of the open-air theater makes for a fantastic night out!
Pro Tip: Check times to coordinate visits to both the Tate Modern and The Globe in a way that lets you see one after the other. The Globe performance tickets sell out so purchase them in advance, especially if you want to see a specific play on a specific date.
London Itinerary Planning Idea #4 – Artifacts, Landmarks, and Shopping
The British Museum – Tottenham Court Tube Stop – Central & Northern Lines
No trip to London is complete without a stop at The British Museum. The art and artifacts on display are open free to the public beginning at 10:00 a.m. each day. Highlights include the Rosetta Stone, sculptures from the Parthenon, and a vast Egyptian collection including mummies.
It’s worth checking for any special, limited-time exhibits during your stay. If there’s one you’d like to see, it’s worth buying tickets online or at the museum when you first arrive.
After the museum, spend the afternoon strolling through Covent Garden or head over to Soho and Oxford Street for a shopper’s paradise. Covent Garden is in London’s West End, home to theaters, restaurants, and shops. You’re sure to find anything you’d want to buy from the numerous chain stores, boutiques, and markets.
Pro Tip: There are many classic London pubs in these neighborhoods. If you haven’t had a plate of fish and chips yet, now’s the time. You can also join a historical pub walking tour to visit some of London’s most iconic pubs.
Leicester Square – Leicester Square Tube Stop – Piccadilly & Northern Lines
Make your way to Leicester Square and the heart of London’s Theatre District. It’s super touristy here, but fun to explore the streets and passageways. If you plan to see a musical or a play later (and you certainly should!), get your discounted tickets at the TKTS booth right in the square for performances that day or night.
There’s crossover between shows in London and New York’s Broadway district. Sometimes, you can even catch a performance in London before it heads to New York City.
Trafalgar Square – Charing Cross Tube Stop – Bakerloo & Northern Lines
Finish your walk at Trafalgar Square. This iconic London crossroads has monuments, historic buildings, museums, and street performers. It’s an absolute beehive of activity and perfect for taking more classic London photos complete with red double-decker buses passing by on the streets in and around the square.
With any luck, you’ll have time to check out the National Gallery right in Trafalgar Square which houses famous paintings by the likes of Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Best of all, it’s free to visit, and you can use your London Pass Hop On Hop Off double-decker bus ticket to reposition yourself closer to your hotel when you’re done.
London Itinerary Planning Idea #5 – Harry Potter Fans
Harry Potter Studio Tour Meeting Point – Victoria Station – Circle, District & Victoria Lines
Are you traveling with a wannabe wizard dying for a Hogwart’s adventure?
Plan a visit to the Harry Potter and Warner Brothers Studio. Buses leave from Central London and travel to the magical sets of the famed movie and book series. The closest tube stop to the meeting point is Victoria Station. From there, it’s just a few minutes on foot.
You’ll have 4 hours to see places like the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s Office, Diagon Alley, and more! Plus, get to see some of the most famous props and the costumes worn by Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
If you’ve wanted to visit Platform 9 ¾, ride the Hogwarts Express, and attempt to ride a broomstick, then you definitely don’t want to miss escaping the world of Muggles for just a bit on your visit to London!
ProTip: If you wanted to sprinkle some Harry Potter into your London trip but didn’t want to commit a full day to the experience, this Harry Potter Guided Walking Tour is a popular alternative.
Out-of-Town Must-Sees on your First Trip to London
From London, many parts of Britain and the U.K. are easily reachable by train. This makes it possible to visit a couple of popular sites with even just a half day’s worth of time.
The exquisite staterooms at Windsor Castle are open to the public when the Queen is not in residence. These rooms are some of the most spectacular castle rooms you’ll see anywhere in the world.
St. George’s Chapel, within the grounds of Windsor Castle, is the final resting spot of Henry VIII and several other Kings and Queens. It’s also where Meghan and Harry were married.
Hampton Court Palace is full of Tudor history, as it was a regular stop for Henry VIII and his royal court. The palace creates a historical experience by revealing the inner workings of how the palace operated in its heyday. It’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting and well-preserved looks at Tudor history, as well as what life was like during this period.
Look out for King Henry VIII himself, as visitors can watch the King interact with Anne Boleyn or flirt with his soon-to-be next wife, Jane Seymour. Leave some time for the palace’s gardens and maze.
Pro Tip: Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace are both included with the London Pass. Get Fast Track Entry at Hampton Court to maximize your time and avoid any entry line.
If you have extra days in your itinerary, consider a London day trip to:
- Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath
- The Cotswolds
- Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) & the Filming Locations
You can also choose to extend your trip to the U.K. by renting a car and driving into the English countryside. I’ve done this to spend time exploring Stratford-Upon-Avon, the Cotswolds villages, and Warwick Castle.
It’s a perfect way to add on to an England itinerary and explore more of what the country had to offer beyond London.
Best Area to Stay in London
Where to stay in London is one of the most frequently asked questions for anyone planning a trip. It’s understandable. You want to be somewhere conveniently located, safe, and within your travel budget.
London’s neighborhoods and districts each have their own unique charm and flavor. And while some might say you should absolutely stay in the heart of the most touristy areas of the city, I think the most important thing when choosing where to stay in London is to stay somewhere with convenient access to the Tube.
You shouldn’t be hesitant to book a hotel that’s a few Tube stops away from popular attractions. You can truly get nearly anywhere in London very quickly by using the underground train system.
Below, I’ve shared several hotels where I’ve stayed. They’re all in different budget categories and neighborhoods, yet all of them had convenient Tube access.
I’ve had excellent hotel points and paid stays at the following London hotels.
The Sumner Hotel – A quaint, mid-priced townhouse hotel near Marble Arch and Hyde Park with comfortable rooms and a super attentive staff.
Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel – The hotel is located near Covent Garden, the West End’s Theatre district, pubs, and my favorite Indian restaurant, Dishoom. Rooms are a classic modern boutique style for which Radisson Blu hotels are known.
The May Fair Hotel – An upscale hotel in the quieter Mayfair neighborhood. The Green Park Tube station is steps away and Buckingham Palace a short walk.
Holiday Inn Express London-Southwark – Just a 10-minute walk to Borough Market or the Globe Theatre, with a Tube station nearby.
You can also check current prices in London for the time you’re planning to travel to compare different hotels, neighborhoods, and prices.
How Many Days to Spend in London
As with most places, you can spend an extended period of time and still not see and do everything a fantastic city like London has to offer.
If it’s your first time in London, you likely will focus on the most popular attractions and experiences that interest you. For this, you’ll need 3-4 days to explore and make use of the London itinerary ideas in this guide.
With 4 days in London, you can also use a day to visit a popular sight just outside of London or even get off the beaten path.
London is a great city to explore. It’s also the perfect jumping-off point for future trips to Europe. It’s not complicated to add a couple of days in London as a stopover before continuing on to another destination in Europe.
Arrival into London
The Heathrow Express is a quick and efficient way to get into the city from Heathrow Airport. The train leaves every 15 minutes and arrives in just about the same time to Paddington Station.
You can book your tickets online or using the Heathrow Express App. Not only will this save you any hassle at the airport, but you’ll also save money. Heathrow Express prices are lower the further you book in advance.
Gatwick Airport also has an express train which arrives at Victoria Station. Trains run every 15 minutes and take a half-hour to reach London.
Similarly, the express train from Gatwick offers considerable discounts for booking online and ahead of time.
ProTip: The Gatwick express train service has been temporarily suspended. Southern train services are still running. These trains are local and take longer to reach London, but in about an hour you can be at London’s Paddington Station from Gatwick.
Both airports also have commuter trains, buses, and taxis to get you into London. Except for the taxis, these options are less expensive than the express trains mentioned above but do take more time.
From Paddington and Victoria, you’ll have access to the London Tube with lines spreading across the city, as well as a taxi queue at ground level. Most taxis take credit cards but be aware of the occasional cash-only sign in a taxi’s window.
Pro Tip: My recommendation is to splurge on an express train, if you can, for a quick and easy trip. Then, use the Tube from Paddington or Victoria to get to your hotel in order to avoid London traffic and an incredibly expensive taxi ride.
If you’d prefer to arrange transportation and/or avoid taking the trains, consider booking a car with Welcome Pickups to transfer to the city. Although I’ve only used the trains to get from Heathrow to London, I’ve used Welcome Pickups in several other European cities and always had a great experience.
This will be a much more affordable option compared to a London taxi. The price will be a flat rate, as opposed to paying based on the taxi’s metered fare which can get quite high with even the smallest amount of traffic
How to get around London
London is very pedestrian-friendly and you’re bound to do a good amount of walking during your London trip. Remember, cars are on the opposite side of the road compared to the U.S, so you need LOOK RIGHT when crossing the road.
Along the Thames, the riverwalk is a clear path connected with several bridges to help you cross to the other side as frequently as you need.
In addition, London’s Tube (subway) is reliable, easy to navigate, and stretches across the city. The announcements are clear and the lines are identified with colors and names, like Central, District, and Piccadilly.
As with getting to London from the airport, taxis are expensive in London and get even pricier when traffic is heavy. It’s best to go underground to save time, money, and patience.
Visitors staying for a few days can get an Oyster Card for easy use and refills in the Tube. Your Oyster Card is good for your first trip to London and every return trip thereafter!
If it makes sense for your time in London, add an Oyster Card to your London Pass purchase to bundle the savings.
You can also use a contactless credit card to pay to enter the Tube, as well as a mobile device like a smartphone with Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay. Just be sure your using a card with no foreign transaction fees.
A few things to keep in mind when paying to access the Tube.
- Use the same card or device when you touch in and out at the yellow card readers. The London Tube caps how much you’ll pay. So, you can ride as much as you want in a day or a week and you’ll never pay more than the capped price.
- If you don’t use the same card or device, the Tube card readers won’t be able to accurately cap the amount you pay.
- If you’re using a device like a smartphone, be sure you have enough battery power. You need to touch in and out of the Tube. You also need to use your phone all day otherwise the system can’t cap the amount you pay.
- You can pay for another person if you are traveling together. (They will need to touch out of the Tube and can’t do it without your card or device.) You’ll need to pay for yourself with a separate card or device.
London Tips for Your First Trip
As you plan things to do in London and where to stay in London, also take into consideration the tips below. They’ve come from 3 separate trips to London and a lot of travel experience overall.
The best time to visit London is during spring and fall.
Visiting London in the shoulder season months, January-April and September-November, are the perfect combination of moderate to cool temperatures and fewer visitors.
Summer can be very busy, making the next London travel tip even that much more important.
Book as many things as possible in advance.
Not only will things like the London Pass or advance fast-track tickets help you save time and money, but it’ll eliminate indecisiveness about what to do while you’re in London and who to trust when you eventually buy the tickets, tours, and passes you want.
Use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
London isn’t a budget destination. The last thing you want to add to the currency exchange are fees from your credit card once you get your bill back home.
Credit cards are widely accepted throughout London and also remove the necessity to convert and carry large amounts of dollars to British pounds.
Wear comfortable walking shoes.
I know this seems obvious but it truly can’t be understated. As someone who lives in New York City, I can always recognize a visitor who’s regretting his/her shoe choice.
These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I wear them walking around New York City and they’re a staple I pack for nearly every trip I take. You can walk miles without any irritation or blisters.
Check for service charges.
Tipping isn’t obligatory in London. In fact, service charges are often added to bills at restaurants and pubs. That being said, if you’re happy with your service, you always leave a small amount as a gesture of appreciation.
Pack the right electrical converters.
Most commonly, you’ll need a Type G converter to plug into the outlets throughout the U.K. I’ve encountered one place where this wasn’t the case. So, it’s smart to also have a universal adapter with USB ports, too.
First Trip to London – Bottom Line
You have chosen a fantastic city to visit, full of important landmarks, historic sights, good food, and fun experiences. With some advance planning, you’ll arrive in London prepared with your itinerary and know-how to navigate the city confirdently for an unforgettable trip.
So, what questions do you have about your first trip to London or about planning a London itinerary?
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