Do you have the world's shortest layover in London- but cling to big travel dreams?
Have you ever dreamed of being transported to another country for even just a few hours? How amazing would it be to wake up to breakfast in Paris or close the day with a nightcap in Rio? I love long trips, but there's also an intoxicating allure to the whirlwind visit, getting just a tantalizing taste of what a city has to offer. And lately, I've been thinking about the flavors of London. Specifically an ultra-short London layover.
I have a good friend who we'll refer to as Graeme (because that is in fact his name!) who recently did just that. He had the briefest of layovers in London while on route to another European city. A layover so short that we even pondered if it was worth his time to leave the airport at all! In general, I rarely recommend layovers where you have less than 4 hours of leisure time but such sensible practicalities are lost on a wild soul like Graeme, who was determined to see London for the very first time.
And now Graeme isn't the only traveler I know who's embracing a lickety-split layover in London - my friend Valerie is considering it too! So if Graeme and Val sounds just like you and you have a devil-may-care approach to layovers - or if you simply have extremely limited free time to see the city on a business trip - here's what you can do in London when you have just three hours, plus a few options to extend your day if you have five to six hours.
Classic London in Three Hours. Yes, THREE!
Is it really a good idea to try to see London on a super short layover? Can anyone see London in just three hours? Can you even see anything at all? YES! There are many overrated tourist sights in the world but the classics of London aren't among them. And, happily, they are all within easy walking distance of one another, allowing you to see a lot in a short amount of time. I've never heard of anyone who hasn't been thrilled with their first visit to London, no matter how short the layover is. We can make this work - here's how.
(This itinerary assumes you'll be traveling to and from London Heathrow airport. We're talking 3 or more hours of leisure time, not just 3 hours between flights. You have to take into account your time getting to and from the airport, clearing customs, checking back in, and so on. Before diving into any layover make sure you have your logistical ducks in a row. Research your transportation options, double check your flight times, and come up with a solid plan for your luggage. You can read more about our layover 101 tips here.)
London Layover Stop One: Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard.
Take the subway (the "Tube") from Heathrow airport directly to Green Park station. If you're lucky and the timing works out, you might just be able to see theChanging of the Guard at nearby Buckingham Palace. The music begins at 11:15 and the event itself at 11:30.
If you're going to miss it, take heart. This is still a great place to start a quick London layover tour. You'll get a much better look at the palace when the Changing of the Guard is not taking place. Take some time to look around and take photos of the palace and the surrounding area.
(Got tons of time? Grab a hotel. One of our favourite places to stay is the The Rubens At The Palace, just steps from Buckingham Palace. It is very posh, very English, and the perfect place to splurge on a proper high tea or a full English breakfast. We loved staying here. If your budget is very limited, not all that far away is an "EasyHotel", run by the same folks as the EasyJet discount airlines. We stayed there for four days - and discovered there's a lot of pros and cons beyond just the price.)
Time: 15 minutes without the changing of the guard, 30 minutes for the guard.
London Layover Stop Two: Walk to Big Ben via St James's Park.
From Buckingham Palace, take a leisurely stroll along Birdcage Walk and head towards Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. You'll enjoy St. James's Park on the left and the Flanders War Memorial, Guards' Museum, and Guards' Chapel on your right.
When you arrive at Big Ben, give yourself some time to walk around the area. THIS is why you wanted to take a super short London layover. The views alone are so worth it! This is a great spot to get all your classic London shots - of the clock tower, of the Parliament buildings, of the river, of the red buses. There are also many interesting statues, as well as historical plaques on nearly every building. Welcome to London!
(Got tons of time? The Houses of Parliament Gift Shop, at 12 Bridge St, is the perfect place for souvenirs. History and politics buffs will love their books and unique themed gifts, but you can also pick up classic gifts like teddy bears, pens, English tea, and milk chocolate in the shape of Big Ben. All things considered, the prices are very reasonable).
Time: 15 minutes for the walk, 45 minutes for exploring around Big Ben = 60 minutes total.
London Layover Stop Three: Visit Westminster Abbey (In Under An Hour).
Adjacent to the Parliament buildings is Westminster Abbey, one of the most significant houses of worship in the world and an absolute treasure trove of British history. Every monarch for nearly a millennium has been crowned here. Westminster Abbey serves as the final resting place for many of the most famous names in history, and everyone from Chaucer to General Wolfe is honored here. It's one of my absolute favourite churches in London (you can see the rest of my list here.)
You could easily spend an entire day here but even a short visit to Westminster Abbey will leave you awestruck. Allotting about 45 minutes for the visit, I would personally breakdown my time into the following segments: 15-25 minutes for general looking around and taking in the grandeur of it all, including the Coronation Chair and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 10-15 minutes for the Royal Tombs (especially sister queens Mary I and Elizabeth I.), and 10-15 minutes for the Poets' Corner.
To enjoy your visit even more, pass your time on the plane doing a bit of background reading to gain better understanding of the Abbey's history. And think ahead about the timing of things. As a popular tourist attraction, don't be surprised to see long lines at Westminster Abbey. Depending on the time of day, it might be more advantageous to visit here before Big Ben -the earlier in the day, the better. You can also save time by buying your tickets in advance online, which lets you skip the lines - a key part of making this short London layover work.
(Got lots of time? Visit St. Margaret's Church, right beside Westminster Abbey. It's a beautiful sanctuary and filled with history.)
Time: 45-60 minutes. Give yourself some flexibility for the lines and crowds. Cost: 20 GBP
London Layover Stop Four: Walk to Trafalgar Square via Whitehall and Downing Street.
From Westminster and Big Ben, walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. On your left, you'll see Downing Street (home to the British Prime Minister) and the Household Calvary Museum, as well as the grounds for the Horse Guard Parade and the Changing of the Queen's Life Guard.
In short, the Horse Guard Parade and the Changing of the Queen's Life Guard have all the spectacular pageantry of Buckingham Palace's Changing of the Guard, but with a fraction of the crowds. So take heart if you missed the fanfare at Buckingham Place! You can see this activity weekdays at 11:00, Sundays at 10:00 (learn more here).(A shout out to my battered copy of Lonely Planet London for this smart tip).
(Got lots of time - and politics isn't your thing? Take this alternative route instead. Walk along the River Thames on Victoria Embankment and take a glimpse at the river's traffic and the Whitehall Gardens. Turn left at the Embankment tube station, walk through the station's foyer and out the other side, and take Villiers Street up to Charing Cross Station (peeking into the Victoria Embankment Gardens as you do) and emerge at Trafalgar Square - our next London Layover stop.)
Time 15-30 minutes, depending if you stop for the Changing of the Queen's Life Guard.
London Layover Stop Five: Trafalgar Square.
Finally, enjoy the sights of Trafalgar Square. This is a great place for people watching and is a classic London destination. If your journey through London took the least amount of suggested time, you've been sightseeing for 2 hours 15 minutes. That leaves 45 minutes left to linger and explore Trafalgar Square. Here are some of our favourite things to check out. If you're looking for lunch, you're in the perfect place. Trafalgar Square's Cafe in the Crypt at St. Martin-In-The-Fields church is one of my favourite lunch spots in London - and locals love it too.
If your sightseeing took the largest amount of the suggested time, you're just about out of time! Grab some quick photos and enjoy a final view! Remember to give yourself 5 minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square to catch the direct tube back to Heathrow airport.
If you're lucky enough to have a few extra hours, we've got some great suggestions for you (and one of them, the National Gallery option - stars at Trafalgar Square!)
Layover Options for Five to Six Hours in London.
Give me five spare minutes in London and I can think of a dozen things I'd love to do! If you have a longer layover, here are some options to get to know the city better once you complete our whirlwind three hour tour.
Layover Option One: A tour with London Walks.
I love, love, love London Walks and I have never participated in one of their tours and not enjoyed every minute of it. A literary pub crawl in Bloomsbury, a ghost walk along Thames, secrets of the city - they're all amazing. And they're the perfect activity for those who are short on time.
Standard tours are approximately two hours and there are morning, afternoon, and evening options. London Walks tours start and stop from Tube stations, which is easy and convenient for new travelers. They cost 10 GBP, perhaps the best bang for your buck in the entire city. And best of all is that you truly feel like you are getting to know a real slice of London life. There are walks for every neighbourhood of the city and on every possible theme and interest. (And, if that isn't enticement enough, sometimes their tours are so affordable, they're almost free compared to the regular cost of admission. Seriously - my tour of the Tower of London only cost me an extra $.55 over regular admission cost!) All in all - an excellent use of your extra time if you have a 5-6 hour London layover.
Layover Option Two: The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.
Sitting side by side and overlooking Trafalgar Square, these FREE galleries are two of the most esteemed in the world and they are the perfect way to spend a few spare hours in London (Especially in the rain! Yeah, it rains in London. We keep a micro-sized umbrella with us at all times. The Gallery's free coat room, the clean public washrooms, and the affordable cafe are also great.)
The National Gallery has one of the most impressive art collections in the world and the building itself is a beautiful masterpiece. It can be a lot absorb in just one go and investing a few minutes to decide which wing of the gallery would best suit your interests would be time well spent. Their website is extremely informative and can help you make the most of a short visit. (Still not sure where to start - this is my favourite painting in the entire gallery).
The much smaller National Portrait Gallery can be tackled in a short visit. I'm going to be honest with you - every time I've gone, I've always found it to be a little bit creepy. I've always visited in the early morning and as one of the first people in the building, I found it a bit... unnerving... to be alone in the dark rooms, surrounded with nothing but stern portraits of nobles staring down at me.
But take heart! I let my imagination run wild for the slightest provocation and I'm confident you will LOVE the masterful portraits of every member of the Royal family. Not to be missed are Holbein's paintings of the Tudor dynasty.
Layover Option Three: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.
It's hard to imagine traveling to London and not taking part in a classic British pub experience. I confess that I'm a horrible person when it comes to recommending a good pub in the heart of London. I'm sure that many fall under the category of being a tourist trap but, truth be told, if you're just looking to kill a few hours with local ale and a platter of fish and chips, you're not likely to be disappointed no matter where you go. But if you're up for a quest, the Lamb and Flag near Covent Garden gets consistent high marks for age (1772), pedigree (Charles Dickens was a regular), and charm (it's off a small street).
If the pub scene isn't your thing, this other London classic might be. London is famous for its incredible Indian cuisine. Brick Lane is the most well known destination but that's a bit outside the city center if you're tight on time. This list will help you find some top choices.
If your budget is a concern - and, in London, it is for most folks - you can check out our suggestions for economical eats and other frugal fun in this blog post.
Who Knew A Three House London Layover Could Contain So Much?
When it comes to layovers, London has a lot going for it. There are plentiful transportation networks within the city and to the airports. It's great for walkers and is reasonably easy to navigate. The city is filled with awesome point-of-interest map posts like the one seen here. And there's something to do no matter when or how you visit.
But London does come with some particular challenges as well. It takes at least an hour, sometimes more, to get to the airport. It's main attractions are busy and taking advantage of a quick visit requires some advance planning. And then there's the sheer overwhelming nature of being spoiled for choice. Really, is there any bad thing to do in London?
Treat your lickety-split layover as a first date in what's going to be a life long relationship. I've never known anyone who's been to London who doesn't dream of a repeat visit. A whirlwind visit through the classic sights and a few extra attractions is the perfect introduction to a city you'll be coming back to again and again.
What are the must-do's on your London list? We'd love to hear about your favourites!
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