My husband and I are visiting London for the first time (late July) and only have 36 hours to explore, and not sure how to best utilize our time. We're landing around 11 am at Heathrow on Sunday and have another flight at 2pm Tuesday. We're staying in Earl's Court and are mainly interested in historical and traditional London. We're definitely going to see Buckingham Palace, The Palace of Westminster, Tower Bridge, and Borough Market... what else should we see? Thanks!
If you're interested in history, touring the Tower of London is a must, and it's (obviously) very close to Tower Bridge. Expect to spend at least a couple hours there, though - there's plenty to see. For a great traditional pub that's not too touristy with some fun history, Ye Olde Mitre is fantastic.
Trafalgar Square is just down a road from Big Ben (Big Ben is visible from Trafalgar), so that could probably be a must-see for someone new :) Since time is short, if you can get up to the British Library for their Treasure Room, that would be a great use of time, a zillion treasures all in one room :) It's next to King's Cross and St Pancras (gorgeous hotel building).
Westminster Abbey's a stone's throw from the Parliament building/Palace of Westminster, nearly next door, and I went there for a service (Sept 11th tenth anniversary service, I'm a NYer), that was the right way for me to see it, easy to get a seat next to that unknown soldier plaque that's so famous, and free. To get a big tour of all the buried famous people, that costs money and can be really crowded.
Will your timing allow you to see inside of Buckingham Palace? That would change how much you can do (good tour, I'd recommend it if you can go, but it's only during July / August I think). The Queen's Gallery was artsy, but I doubt I'd really ever want to do it again. Not that big, timed entrances, not worth the brain cells to me. :) Gift shop was better. Trafalgar Square has the free National Gallery right there if you need some artsy time, easier.
Usually I reccommend people use the bus system, but with 2 of you traveling together, and time SO valuable without having any experience there, you'd probably be much better off taking black cabs for much of it. I lived and worked over there at the Girl Scout world center with my grown daughter, and had ridden the buses a lot, but trying to get to Buckingham Palace became very difficult (back in 2011), looked ok on paper but it went to some whole other area to stop the bus, so I called a taxi to save us.
I know Rick Steves loves to say blanket statements like how taxi drivers in London never rip you off and they're so great, honestly, I've not experienced that. Repeatedly I've had to watch out for details with them trying to pull fast ones. One did not have a "cash only" sign, but after we arrived from a LONG journey, a driver kept asking me for cash instead of my credit card. I finally said no the 4th time, and said if he needs to increase the fare to cover the card's fees, I'd negotiate, but without a "cash only" sign, he had no business asking me for that without telling me FIRST.
They can BS just like the other taxi drivers everywhere else :)
With over a thousand years of history there in London, you'll just need to get very specific about what your highest priorities are. Since you're looking at going to the big sights in a short amount of time, that London Pass and their hop on hop off bus tours would probably be perfect for you. I've heard that the boat tours are also narrated so you'd learn about all the historical buildings along the river. :) That could be fun too. Always make time to find a bench to watch the lights come up all over the city, and smooch your husband! That's on the top of the list, too. Staying longer is always the 1st preference, but you'll get to see your top sights with good planning. Be SURE that certain sights are open on Sundays before you plan to go, MANY things are closed on Sundays there.
The London Pass and the Hop Off and On Bus tour is not perfect for them.
It’s a bit unclear...Ella when are you going? Next week? Next Month?
Sunday day of arrival. Where are you staying? Asking because can better group your sites together which will save you time.
Share a little bit more information and it will be easier to help you with an intinerary that can be done comfortably in 36 hours.
Thanks so much Sarah! Ye Olde Mitre does sound fantastic.
Alison - Thank you so much for all these great suggestions! I actually confused the dates... we're arriving Sunday and leaving Tuesday, so no risk on places being closed :)
Hi Claudia - We're visiting July 22-24, and we'll be staying in Earl's Court. Thanks so much!
I was in London for business around this time last year, and had about 6 hours one day and 5 hours another day to do some sightseeing. I'd never been to London before, but have been to Europe many times, and know that I prefer to see a new place by walking as much as possible. To that end, I arrived at Heathrow around 7 am, took the express train to Paddington, then the tube to my hotel (near Liverpool St. Station). I went to the Tower of London (spent maybe two hours there), walked across Tower Bridge, got lunch at a pub near Borough Market. Had to work for a few hours, then I caught the Evensong mass at St. Paul's (I'm not religious, but it was beautiful). Then I worked the rest of the night.
The next morning, though tempted to sleep in, I got myself out of bed early and walked from my hotel down along the Thames to the Churchill War Rooms museum. That would be my highest recommendation, if you love history, it was just fantastic. It's right near Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square. After the museum, I walked to all of these places, but being short on time, did not enter any of the buildings. Had lunch at a pub near Trafalgar Square, and then I had to work the rest of my time in London.
You have the benefit of having a bit more time than I did, but you essentially have one afternoon, one full day, and you can probably do one thing on your last morning. It's all a matter of personal preference - there is so much to do in London and I can't wait to go back with my family - but I loved the Churchill War Rooms and the Tower of London was a must for me too. As was just walking as much as I could.
If you like Indian food, check out Dishoom - they have a few spots in the city, it isn't too expensive, and the food is awesome.
Here are my suggestions and groupings.
Sunday arrival. Be prepared for large crowds wherever you are going. Get your Oyster cards. Once unburdened with luggage hop on the Tube to Westminster. https://tfl.gov.uk/
It’s the District line from Earls Court Station to Westminster Station. A 6 stop 11 minute ride.
Mind the Gap and exit Westminster. You’ll be at Parliament Square. Photo ops for Parliament, Elizabeth’s Tower ( in scaffolding) , Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge and the Thames.
If you wish to see the interior of Parliament you will need to research if there are tickets available for your dates. I wouldn’t hold my breath given it’s the height of tourist season but definitely try.
As it’s Sunday the very same advice for Westminster Abbey. Personally I’d wait till Monday but still try to reserve early morning first through the door tickets.
From Parliament Square walk up Birdcage Walk through St James Park to Buckingham Palace.
After seeing the Palace walk back down the Mall towards the Horse Guards. From there up to Trafalgar Square.
As it will be late afternoon by this time
( maybe early evening ) I suggest a food respite. Punjab in Covent Garden is good. Restaurant is purple, you can’t miss it. Ate there last November and was extremely pleased with the food and the service. Covent Garden will be insanely crowded on a Sunday in July.
Please note this first day/night is to allow a General I’m in London feeling thus I’ve not suggested actually going into places. However, seize the moment if queques aren’t long.
If not too tired it is lovely to Walk along the Thames Path as darkness falls and London lights up for the night.
On Monday you should start the day first in line to see the Tower of London. Again try to get tickets in advance. After the Tower take snaps of Tower Bridge then walk up to the glass covered Leadenhall Market and from there I suggest either walking or taking the bus to Spitafields Market for lunch then a short walk to Dennis Seavers house museum. Again dbl check if open on Monday. Seaver’s house is fascinating.
From there I’d visit Brick Lane, lots of eye candy. That evening I would try to enjoy evensong at St Paul’s and if not St Paul’s try St Brides church.
Tuesday be first in line with reserved tickets for the Churchill War Rooms and if those tickets aren’t available I suggest you go to the Imperial
War Museum instead or the Sir John C Ritblat Gallery at the British Library ( aka the Treasure Room). Dbl check on opening times for both.
Unlike LA (I live there as well) public transportation in London is excellent. The tube in particular. Get the free pocket sized tube map at any of the stations usually available by the manned ticket windows. Invaluable.
Have fun. Too bad you can’t stay longer but in 36 hours you’ll get a taste of what a great city London is.
If you're not into museums(British Museum and Vatican Museums are my favorites from 11 trips to Europe), I think Westminster Abbey and Tower of London are top 2 must sees. If you have time, Museum of London near St. Paul's is good. If you go to the War Rooms(near Westiminster Abbey), be sure to get advance tickets to avoid the line.
I'd suggest looking at London Walks. www.walks.com They've got plenty of different themed walks, they're only ten pounds and you just show up, no need to book in advance. There's a few Westminster walks that basically cover the entire area around the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.
I know opinions are split over Hop on Hop Off bus tours, I think they're awful, especially in London traffic. You'll spend more time looking at bank buildings stuck in traffic than at actual interesting sights.
Have to just second Steve's rec for Dishoom. The best brunch I've had in ages. Truly wonderful place with a lot of atmosphere and absolutely amazing modern Bombay cafe style food.
On your arrival day, you'll probably be fighting jet lag, so try to do outdoor, active things....a quiet museum or dark cathedral is likely to push you towards sleep ;-)
Realistically, you may not reach your Earl's Court hotel from the airport until 2 pm or so. And on Tuesday, you'll need to be leave for the airport in late morning. In short, you've got time for perhaps one major sight on mid-Sunday afternoon (after which most will be closed) and 2-3 on Monday. I'd put these on my short list: Tower of London (plan 2-3 hours), Westminster Abbey (or St. Paul's Cathedral). Borough Market is a nice short visit--and a place to grab a bite to eat--but not worth a huge detour. As others have said, you're unlikely to get into Parliament. Tower Bridge you can see while at the Tower of London--it's probably not worth a tour/visit. (One thought is to take a river cruise from Westminster down river to Tower Bridge/Tower of London).
A museum? The Tate Modern is really impressive--even if modern art isn't your first love. The building is so interesting, and the (free) views from the top of the building are great. It's near to the Globe Theatre, if you wish, and also you can walk across the Millennium Bridge and up to St. Paul's Cathedral. My favorite small museum is the Courtauld Gallery. It is small enough to see in 90 minutes and has some of the most wonderful artwork.
Hope this is helpful to you
IF you want to see the inside of Buckingham Palace, your timing will allow you to visit the State Rooms which are only open for a short time each year. This year it's July 21-Sept 30. You'd need to book ahead and in general the tickets are for a specific time and have an audio guide that takes you thru the open rooms.
(The exception is purchasing a Day's Out ticket to cover the Palace, the Queens Gallery and the Royal Mews (stables) where you have a reserved time for the Gallery but are free to visit the Palace and Mews any time during the day. However, this takes most of a day and likely would not be how you'd want to spend your one full day in London!).
If you decided on a visit to Buckingham Palace, I'd think you'd have to work that in on Monday as well, so you'll have to decide your priorities. I love the Tower of London but some people aren't as interested in it as I am! If you decided to do Buckingham Palace, I'd do it and Westminster Abbey and perhaps the Churchill War Rooms which are all in the same vicinity. All 3 are paid entry and well worthwhile if they are where your interests lie.
I also agree that you're not going to get much if anything in on your departure day. If you are flying to another European destination you'd need to be there 2 hours ahead, if it's international (back home?) then 3 hours plus of course the time it will take to get to the airport.
Ella, do not bother with the London Pass. Someone else had mentioned it, but it is expensive, and you don't need it.
Most museums in London are free. Three of the best:
The Victoria and Albert (V&A)
The British Museum
The Museum of London
You will have plenty to do even if you only visit these 3 museums.
Claudia and Pam both had great suggestions.
Also Sarah, Steve and Cala have great ideas. Good advice from all of them mentioned above.
Dale mentioned one of my favorites...London Walks. Great idea.
The Hop On and Off Bus tour I don't recommend. You have enough time to go into some of the interesting sights, not just get a "drive by" look at them.
Westminster Abbey and Tower of London: For either of these two places, try to be there when they open. The crowds will roll in about two hours after they open. I think Claudia already mentioned this.
You will probably buy an Oyster card when you arrive. These can be purchased from many centers that look like ATM's, inside the tube station entrances. You can also buy them at Heathrow airport. You can also buy them at grocery stores and small markets (7-11 type stores) in London.
From the Tower of London first thing one morning, when you are finished, you could do Claudia's walking tour.
Then walk down to the river to Tower pier, catch the Thames Clipper boat. Swipe your Oyster card as payment to get on. Take the Clipper to Westminster Pier, swipe your Oyster card as you get off. You will then be right below Westminster Bridge, Parliament and Big Ben, and a block from Westminster Abbey and Churchill War Rooms.
If you do Claudia's walking tour after the visit to Tower of London, you could return to the bus stop just north of Tower of London. Catch the Number 15 bus; it will take you to St. Paul's Cathedral for Evensong. Tap your Oyster card when you get on the Number 15 bus, do not tap when you get off. The Number 15 travels onward to Trafalgar Square after that in case you're interested in seeing that.
The National Gallery is the museum to the north of Trafalgar Square. The church you will see off to the right of that is St. Martin-In-The-Fields. They have a good lunchroom in the crypt, called Cafe In The Crypt. Great place for sandwiches, salads, and quiche at lunch time.
Behind the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, with all the portraits of famous Brits, such as Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I.
Both museums are free.
If you go to St. Paul's Cathedral, across the street from it is the London Visitors Center or Tourist Information Center. They have free maps, free brochures for historic sights. You can buy tickets there for some attractions. Oyster cards are for sale there. They will give you advice or directions. This is the only authorized Visitors Center I know of in London; any other will be a company just trying to sell you their product.
Thank you SO much everyone! So many options and great tips! We wish we had a few more days in London, but we can always visit again :)
My husband and I are also going to London in early August for 48 hours with our boys 16 & 13. This post helped. Thanks!