London's must-see attractions are fun whether you're a first timer or a pro.
It has such vibrant culture, and the excellent public transportation makes it one of the easiest cities to have a 24-48 hour layover and see a LOT of things.
I'll show you 30 of the best places to see and eat during your short stay and let you fall in love with this beautiful city.
Getting to London
No matter which airport you land at, the best way to get into the city is usually by train. All of them are very comfy, fast, reasonably priced and have free wifi and luggage storage on board.
Heathrow: Heathrow Express to London Paddington in 15 minutes (additional 6 minutes from Terminal 5) - £25 one-way or £50 round trip - leaves roughly every 15 minutes between 5am-11:30pm (*please check the seasonal timetable for changes)
Gatwick: Gatwick Express to London Victoria Station in 42 minutes - £17.80 each way if you buy online (£19.90 at the ticket booth), leaves roughly every 15 minutes (30 minutes on Sundays) between 4:30am-11pm (*please check the seasonal timetable for changes)
Luton: This airport doesn't have its own train but you can use Thameslink, which is part
of the British Railway System. The advantage of that is having an option to choose different destinations within London. Thameslink to Paddington/St Pancras/Victoria (to name a few popular stations) in 1 hour 15 minutes - £19.70 one-way/ £33.80 for round trip - leaves roughly every 10 minutes between 7am-8pm (*please check the seasonal timetable for changes)
Getting around in London
I highly recommend that you get an Oyster card even if you're in London for only a day. Get it at the first station in the city you arrive to (not at the airport). There is a £5 deposit which you will get back at the end of your trip. There is a daily price cap of £8.20 on it, so make sure to load the card initially with the amount depending on how many days you're staying. If you would pay per trip without an Oyster card, it starts at £4.90/single journey ticket. With Oyster card, it's £2.90 per single journey, so for the daily cap if you take 3 trips a day, it's already worth it. It is good for the Tube (underground system), bus, tram, etc.
Note: make sure to drop off the card at the end of your trip to get back your deposit and any remaining amount on it (otherwise you have to mail it back from home, which might be much more of a pain). Also make sure to do this at the last station you are at, as some airports don't have refund machines.
Okay, now that we made it to the city and able to get around with public transportation, let's start exploring (and eating of course! ;) Let me start with my must have food options for quick layovers.
Basic British meal: Great British Fish & Chips - right next to London Eye and London Dungeon. They have a basic fried food menu, nothing fancy but the staff is great and all dressed up and play their parts and the food is delish. Do yourself a favor and get the fish and chips, it's around £15 and doesn't get more British than that.
For dessert, find the street food place selling of Japanese Taiyaki as you walk towards Westminster Bridge from Great British Fish & Chips.
Higher end option for breakfast/lunch/dinner, tea time or cocktails: Sketch
(MUST go! I recommend going in the evening for a cocktail if you're on the budget, or doing the whole 'afternoon tea' thing if you can afford a bit more. They have different themed rooms for every taste. I'll put my favorites below.
I recommend making a reservation (except for The Glade). Their website is so fancy and complicated, it's annoying AF if you ask me, but that should not stop you, just need to get through the reservation once. ;)
Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner: The Parlour - vintage floral neon interior - £10-15 appetizer, £15-25 main dish, £5 sides, £5 dessert. Good food, nice design but honestly I'd much rather have either of the two experiences below.
Afternoon Tea: The Gallery - cute pink velvet chairs and booths - £45 per person for a preset menu of tea, finger sandwiches, scones and pastries. Get your pinkies ready for some serious raising and talking like in Downton Abbey because you'll feel like a lady!
Drinks: The Glade - rain forest theme - £15-20 cocktails, £7 beers, £10-20 wines. You WILL be mesmerized in this room, nothing like having a cocktail in the jungle.
Eggloos: I left the best for last! No matter which time of the day you go and which room you go to, you will have the opportunity to use the Eggloos. I am obsessed with the Eggloos, so apologies in advance for my rave ;) As the name suggests, it is not a place where you can eat or drink, it is where you go ehm, powder your nose ;) It's not super obvious where to find it but hey, that's what I'm here for. Go to The Galley and you will see a hidden door in the far right corner. When you get through that door, you'll see a UFO shaped bar with no ceiling and two stairs on each side. Just go up the stairs and you'll be in bathroom heaven. You're welcome. (For disclaimer, I'm pretty sure I spent more time by the Eggloos than drinking my cocktail downstairs.)
Ok, moving onto a plan to actually see something in London, not just eat your way through it.
Things to do - DAY 1
London Eye: £27 online (£30 at ticket office). I'd highly recommend that you get the London Eye and Thames Cruise combo. It's one of my favorite things. The London Eye is about a 30-minute rotation and the cruise is 40 minutes. Combo price is £33 online (£36 at ticket office), so it's really just a bit more and the sightseeing cruise really worth it. Sunsets are really special, and you can even get tickets for different times of the day if you don't mind coming back twice.
You can easily walk to Leicester Square from London Eye and see a few more iconic places on your way. It's about a mile walk. You'll start by crossing Westminster Bridge and get a good look of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Parliament. Keep going and on your left you'll see a guarded gate, that's going to be 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister's residence and the HQ of the British Government). As soon as you hit Trafalgar Square (you'll recognize by the big obelisk and the pigeons and the National Gallery in the background), take a right turn and go straight until you hit the Leicester Square Tube Station. That's where you take a left and the square is in the next block.
Note: if you're an esotery fan, you gotta check out Watkins Books (which will be on your way). It's London's oldest bookshop specializing in esotericism, mysticism, occultism, spirituality, etc. I could spend way too much time in there..
Leicester Square: it's the main theater district of London, commonly referred to as 'Theaterland'. Pedestrian-only zone. If you want to check out Happy Potter and the Cursed Child play, this is where you do it :) * Or if you just want to go to the multi level M&M's World store and stock up on candy and just sit down at a bench to people watch and rest your legs (my fave thing!) go for it! By the way, when you see movies premiering in London and all the celebs and red carpet, well that's usually at Leicester Square too.
Note: if you're into plays, another one I can recommend is Wicked. That theater is right next to Victoria Station, so easily reachable with any public transportation.
*Check out TKTS booth for half-priced tickets, or every Friday they give away 40 killer seats for only £40 on TodayTix. Reminder though that Harry Potter is two parts and each is 2.5hrs long. So if you are on a short layover, this might not be worth it for you.
Covent Garden: another half-a-mile-ish walk away you'll find the beautiful Covent Garden. No, it's not a garden ;) It's a popular district of London with cute farmers market, restaurants, entertainment and shopping.
On the south side of Covent Garden there is an Irish pub (The Porterhouse) that's a must if you're A) a WRDSMTH fun, or B) you like beer. Street art is such a delible art form, you never know how long a piece will stay up before they clean it. That's why I always check the phone booth in front of Urban Outfitters at Covent Garden for some traces of WRDSMTH, maaaaaybe we get lucky and catch some 'wrds' on it but the only spot I know for sure to find his work is at The Porterhouse. WRDSMTH on the patio, beer, lager, all the good stuff inside. This is London's biggest pub with 12 levels inside but it shouldn't intimidate you. It can be as big or as intimate as you want it to be.
Things to do - DAY 2
Millennium Bridge: I like to go there for sunrise to get some good pictures and avoid the crowds. Grab a coffee at a Starbucks or Pret-A-Manger (plenty around and the only coffee shops open this early) and admire the golden hour at River Thames. There are benches in front of Shakespeare's Globe, which is right next to Millennium Bridge on the south bank. During your walk don't forget to notice St Paul's Cathedral on the north end of the bridge and Tate Modern on the south end.
Abbey Road: while it's still early enough, going to the famous Abbey Road pedestrian crossing from the Beatles album cover is a good idea. You'll have much better chances of taking uninterrupted photos.
If you follow my plan, then you will have a few hours to kill before moving on to the Buckingham Palace, so let's grab breakfast. I'll give you two of my favorite options:
1) The Shard: The Shard is the glass skyscraper everyone knows about, but I bet not everyone knows that it has some great restaurants with killer views. Breakfast is sooo good there! It might not be at Tiffany's but the views are much better, I promise ;) The Aqua Shard is located on the 31st level, you can get a breakfast sampler for £29 or choose a la carte. It's fine dining, so don't forget the appropriate dress code (no shorts or flip flops).
2) Peggy Porschen Cakes: if you're feeling lady-like, craving sweets or just want picture in front of the iconic bakery, you have to visit Peggy Porschen. It's next to Victoria Station, close to Buckingham Palace. The cupcakes, macaroons, cakes, etc are all ahhmazing but they have regular lunch options too.
Buckingham Palace: the changing of the guard is at 11am sharp and last for 45 minutes. It's interesting to see it at least once. Arrive early if you want to get a good spot.
Tower of London: I know it seems like you're going back and forth in London this day but with the Tube it's really not that bad and well this is just how it's convenient timing wise. Anyways. I have to admit I've been to London more times than I can count but haven't taken the tour at the Tower of London until recently. Now I highly recommend everyone to see. It's not really budget friendly but not much you can do. £24.70 if you buy online (if you buy there they charge a few pounds of 'donation' which you can't exclude.
You don't HAVE TO take the tour, you can just wonder around on your own but if your schedule allows, I'd stay with the tour for at least bit. The guides are funny and informative. I was in a time crunch so after a while I had to run and check out the crown jewels on my own but it was easy to find. I'm sure I missed a couple of interesting facts they shared on the tour though.
If you're visiting the Tower of London, you cannot miss the Tower Bridge which is right next door. You know, it's the bridge on all the London postcards that lifts for vessels couple of times day. You can check it out for free if you just go and walk on the bridge, but if you have some more time you can take a tour and go upstairs. There is a glass floor walkway and you can see the engine rooms - it costs £9.80.
Let me give you some more fun options to choose from if you end up having spare time or want to switch with another place on the list (photos right above, just swipe to see everything I'm mentioning):
-If you're a Harry Potter fan and weren't able to see the play, go to Kings Cross Station and check out the 9 3/4 Platform. You can take pictures and there's a cute souvenir store. If you go about an hour before closing, the lines are likely shorter, maybe about 30-mins wait. Otherwise not worth waiting in line for hours during the day.
-Shopping... hello!! Harrods is always a good idea for shopping (or if you're like me, window-shopping), if you go after dark, the lights are so pretty. If you make it during daylight, you can also walk across the street to see Hyde Park or about a mile west to see Royal Albert Hall.
-Notting Hill: cute pastel colored suburban area, one of London's most iconic neighborhoods. Try Lancester Rd and Chalcot Sq for best photo ops.
-British Museum: just like the Harry Potter play, I wouldn't suggest going to the British Museum if you're in a time crunch because it will take half a day at least to see everything. However, if you have a couple of days, it is absolutely worth it. The British Museum is free and the collection is massive.
I know it might seem like a lot but I was able to comfortably follow this itinerary when I landed in London early afternoon and left the next day early evening. I even had a photo shoot and plans with some friends from London I haven't seen in ages.