Travellers are well aware that Heathrow in London, England is often the hub through which you connect to the rest of the world. Often the stopover is several hours, or a day. If you have a few hours to kill, here is my recommendation on how to spend the day in London … enjoy your next Stopover!
London is a walking city
You can and will have to walk any and everywhere, but it can take a toll on your feet. Bring really, really, really comfortable shoes. Bring an umbrella or a raincoat, or be prepared to be damp, London is famous for fairly constant rain.
Drop your stuff at the airport short term storage, Heathrow charges by the individual bag, so cram one into another, or find a garbage bag and stuff in two or more backpacks. Voila! one bag.
There are many tourist maps that you can find at info booths, in the tube stations (subway), at almost any attraction, etc. Grab one, they are often helpful. Even better, download the tube map on your iPhone now. You may not find wifi to do it after you arrive. The freebies will not be as good as the London Mini-map that you can often find in a coin-operated vending machine in a tube station for a couple of pounds.
Get an all day tube pass that includes the zones that you want to see the sites of, that will probably roughly include everything within the Hammersmith and City and the District lines of the tube. If you look on a tube map, those two lines form a rough circle around the most popular tourist destinations.
Things are expensive there, most prices will look like a price you would pay in Canada, but because it is one pound instead of one dollar, depending on the exchange rate it can cost you a lot more. If the cost of an item looks like a Canadian price, then it probably is a fair price for England.
After paying for short-term luggage storage, the Tube and meals, the following suggestions are for the most part free.
Itinerary for a perfect day in London
Head to Piccadilly Circus, have a look around at the sights.
If you want to go to a play or a musical in the evening either download the TKTS app, or be at the lone building at the south center of Leicester Square (pronounced Lester) for 11 am. There you can buy ½ price tickets to many of the evening shows from TKTS (formerly The ½ price ticket booth). do not be fooled by the many, many other places selling half-price tickets they commonly inflate the price to make it look like a discount. There will be a line-up, so getting there a little early would not hurt.
From Leicester Square, you can walk a couple minutes south stopping in at the National Portrait Gallery as well as the National Gallery a few steps beyond that. Both include originals of many famous works of art. In the National Gallery you can see original Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, Gauguin’s, etc. It is worth a visit.
The National Gallery fronts onto Trafalgar Square (of Mary Poppins fame), there you will find thousands of pigeons, hundreds of people feeding them, and interesting statuary. Also the square is ringed with embassies, including the Canadian.
If you continue walking south on Whitehall street for another couple minutes, you will come to the Admiralty Arch, which leads directly down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. From the arch it may take 15-30 minutes to walk to the palace. There is not really a closer tube station to the palace.
If, instead of walking through Admiralty Arch you continue down Whitehall, you will soon arrive at the Horse Guards. If you are there at the right time, you may see them marching about. A little further down Whitehall takes you to 10 Downing Street (The British PM’s house).
If you walk through the Horse Guards Arch you enter St. James Park this is a pleasant walk through the park to get to Buckingham.
Say Hello to the Queen
Once you have finished gawking at Buckingham, which is fairly unimpressive, unless you can convince the guards in to let you have tea with HRH, you can head over to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To get there either walk about 5-10 minutes south to Victoria station, hop on the tube (Circle or District line) and ride to Westminster station. Or you can simply walk east 15-30 minutes up Birdcage Walk (on the south side of St. James Park) back to Whitehall and then south on Whitehall about a block.
You have to pay to tour Westminster, unless you arrive at some service time. If you want to step inside during a service, pop around the side entrance, let the guard know you are there for the service and they will let you through. There are often choral groups inside and you can also see the headstones of the many famous people who are buried there (ie. Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton), it is a beautiful building. You can also walk into the Houses of Parliament, to view the House of Lords as well as the House of Commons if they are in session (this is a great idea if it is raining and you want to dry out for a while. Take note of the massive entrance hall as you enter into the Houses of Parliament, it is built without a single nail. Ask the guards there for more history, they are often happy to oblige and let you know who was killed there (hint – lots of people). Big Ben is actually the bell of the very large clock outside the Houses of Parliament. The Thames river is also immediately east of the Houses of Parliament.
At some point grab lunch, I do not have good suggestions about places to eat, but there are thousands of places all around (try to avoid anything that says “special prices” or “where Londoners eat” in places such as Leicester Square for lunch, they cater to tourists and are usually awful.
Choose your own adventure
There are many other things to do/see from this point. But it is best to get on the tube to get around. Some suggestions.
The Big Ferris wheel across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament is called the London Eye. This slow-moving ride is a nice way to see the city and it takes about ½ hour to complete. The Tate Modern Museum is also nearby at this point, use the funky Millennium Bridge
If you go to the Tower Hill station you can get out and see both the Tower of London as well as the London Tower Bridge (and no, it is not falling down). It is best to go in the early evening as this is when they are all lit up with their lights.
If you want to do some upscale shopping, get off anywhere on Oxford street (Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus or Bond Street stations)
There are also other market areas to shop in. Camden Lock (Camden Town station) for antiques and crafts. Petticoat Lane (Aldgate East station), Sundays for all kinds of stuff.
If it is raining you may want to visit the British Museum (about a 10 minute walk from Tottenham Court Road station). They have free days, and often the last hour of the day is also free.
St. Pauls Cathedral is also a beautiful church (St. Pauls station)
For a rest, hop on a double-decker bus (the regular public transport with the closed top is included with your tube pass not the open top-type with a tour guide) , get to the top and ride around for a while as a self-guided tour. Do not worry too much about getting lost, if you are not sure where you are, get into a tube station and it is pretty easy to find your way back to where you want to go.
For the evening I would suggest you go to a show, (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The King and I, Cats, Oliver, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Mousetrap all play somewhere in the theatre district). Almost all the seats are good as the theatres are fairly small. Before or after the show, you can wander a little through Soho, the theatre district. This can be a little seedy, but there are great places to grab a bite.
Those are many suggestions, and I know there are many other places I have not yet gone myself. If the above itinerary is not too appealing, look on a tourist map and explore
Have fun. Tag me in your pictures!