I recently travelled to London for an event and had three days to explore the city. While three days is barely enough time to scratch the surface, I managed to cram quite a few London icons into that time.
Here’s my recommendations on what to see in London if you’re short on time.
The cheapest way to see London is to sign up for a free walking tour. Tours last 2.5-3 hours on average and take you through the city of Westminster. It was a fantastic way to learn about the history of the area and see some of the most famous sights in London. The tour ended at a pub just in time for a late lunch and a pint.
While the tour is free, the guides are paid only through tips, so you feel that the tour was valuable then be sure to tip your guide. My guide (Andy) was informative and hilarious. Three hours of his time was definitely worth at least the £10 that I gave him.
All the sights seen on the walking tour will be noted below with ‘FWT’ in the title.
Trafalgar Square (FWT)
Trafalgar Square is one of the most recognised places in London thanks to its iconic fountains and plethora of statues. I was so caught up in hearing about the history that I thought there was only one fountain. It wasn’t until I went back through my photos that I saw the second. So here’s a tip – be sure to look for both fountains!
The National Gallery is located at Trafalgar Square. Home to incredible artwork from the 13th century and beyond, it’s easy to spend hours just walking though the many galleries and seeing art from incredible painters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.Even if you’re not the biggest art fan I would still recommend a walk through the gallery. It’s free to enter although the Gallery does ask visitors for a £5 donation when leaving.
The Athenaeum (FWT)
The free walking tour takes people past the Athenaeum – London’s oldest Gentlemen’s club, located on the corner of Pall Mall and Waterloo Pl (yes, it’s like being in a game of Monopoly). Near the Athenaeum are the Guards Crimean War Memorial (including a statue of Florence Nightingale), and the Duke of York statue (creator of that great song ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’).
St James’s Palace (FWT)
St James’s Palace may not look like much, but it is home to the Royal Court. Built by King Henry VIII, it’s been in use for the last 500+ years. King Henry VIII was of course famous for the beheading of his wives (great guy), and my tour guide told us a great little poem to remember what happened to his wives:
“divorced; beheaded; died; divorced; beheaded; survived.”
If you’re lucky you may be able to catch the changing of the guard.
Buckingham Palace (FWT)
No trip to London is complete without a visit to Buckingham Palace. If the Union Jack flag is flying then the Queen is not currently in residence at the palace. When the Queen is in residence it’s the Royal Standard flag that will be flying atop the palace.
I overheard one person exclaiming their disappointment that the guards were so far away because the movies showed them as being outside the gates. I can only hope that they don’t believe everything they see in movies.
Victoria Memorial (FWT)
The Victoria Memorial stands in front of Buckingham Palace. A tribute to Queen Victoria, it was created in the early 1900s and is now surrounded by a roundabout. I’m sure she would be proud to know that cars are circling her every single day and not paying any attention to the statue.
Horse Guards Parade (FWT)
I missed the changing of the guard at the Horse Guards Parade, but from what I’ve heard it’s something to try and watch. Located next to Number 10 Downing St (home of the Prime Minister), it was the temporary home of the beach volleyball tournaments during the London Olympic Games in 2012.
Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) (FWT)
If you don’t want to get told off by a cranky Londoner, then don’t refer to the Elizabeth Tower as ‘Big Ben’. Despite what everyone says, Big Ben is the nickname for the largest bell that sits inside the belltower. The bells chime every half-hour so there’s a good chance you’ll be standing nearby in time to hear them. They sound like any other bell tower, so once you’ve heard it once you can leave knowing that you’re not missing much.
Palace of Westminster (FWT)
Next to Elizabeth Tower is the Palace of Westminster. The name is a bit misleading as it’s not actually a palace, but the meeting point for the House of Commons and House of Lords (the two houses of British Parliament).
There’s a bit of a story regarding the Palace of Westminster that was shared by our guide. On 5 November 1605, a man by the name of Guy Fawkes was arrested whilst guarding explosives that were placed in an attempt to blow up the Palace and kill the King. The plan was foiled and people lit bonfires to celebrate. The day then became a day of English state commemoration. So remember, remember, the fifth of November.
Westminster Abbey (FWT)
Being from Australia, it’s hard to imagine seeing a building that’s over 1,000 years old, so I was in awe of Westminster Abbey. The architecture is incredible and the detail has been well preserved. It’s the place where William and Kate got married and the world stared in awe at Pippa’s ass dress.
On a walk through London’s Southbank district, I came across Shakespeare’s Globe. The building is a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre which was demolished in the 1600s. Be sure to a visit to the exhibitions inside the Globe and learn about Shakespeare’s life and work.
Harry Potter fans will recognise the Millennium Bridge as the one that was destroyed by Dementors in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Luckily the bridge was rebuilt after the Dementor attack and is a modern twist on an old city.
Not to be confused with London Bridge (that’s falling down), Tower Bridge is the fancy one that splits in the middle making it possible for boats to pass through. The foot paths are often crowded with tourists taking obligatory selfies on the bridge, but don’t let that deter you from walking across and marveling at the architecture.
Tower of London
Anne Boleyn was just one of the many people held and beheaded at the Tower during its 1000-year history. Located on the northern end of Tower Bridge, it’s easy to get to if wandering around the town. I didn’t get a chance to head inside the Tower of London as I arrived too late, but it’s on my list of things to see when I return.
King’s Cross Station
This is another spot for Harry Potter fans. Head to the shop at Platform 9 ¾ located in the arrivals hall.
If you’re lucky you’ll get to catch a train near platforms 4 and 5 which is where the iconic platform was filmed.
Also known as ‘shopper’s heaven’, Oxford St is the epitome of hectic. You’ll have to push past the hordes of people who are desperate to get their shopping fix in on one of London’s busiest streets.
Natural History Museum
Get organised and clear your schedule for at least three hours before heading to the Natural History Museum. If you want to learn about the earth, dinosaurs, animals and evolution then look no further. There’s so much to see and discover that time can escape you so go early. Be sure to watch your footing as stepping on a small child is heavily discouraged.
Kensington Palace is the official London residence of Prince William and Kate, and Prince Harry (amongst others). The public can visit some parts of the Palace (for a fee) but thanks to three school excursions I decided against going inside when I visited. A statue of Queen Victoria sits at the gate at the Eastern entrance to the Palace.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are separated by a road that runs through the middle of the parks. There’s plenty of birds to see, as well as cheeky squirrels that are always in search of food.
Give yourself a few hours to meander around the park and see some of the statues that are scattered around, including the Peter Pan statue.
Green Park / St James’s Park (FWT)
Green Park sits to the North of Buckingham Palace, and St James’s Park to the East. If you want to get some exercise in and run around then head to Green Park. If you’re just interested in seeing seagulls and ducks, then head to St James’s Park instead.
Wellington Arch and Australian War Memorial
The corner of Green Park is home to numerous memorials, statues and archways. I only photographed two, but there’s plenty more to see.
Harrods is an iconic department store that is incredibly easy to get lost in. After allowing myself to get distracted by the jewellery, I tried desperately to search for a café to have scones with jam and cream. Eventually I was pointed to one of their 28 restaurants, but quickly gave up on my idea when I saw the price of scones with jam and cream (£15) so I tried to find my way back through the maze to the exit.
Warner Bros Tour – The Making of Harry Potter
Harry Potter fans – look no further than the Warner Bros Tour! This is the place to go if you want to embrace your inner Harry Potter nerd and learn about the making of the movies.
There’s plenty of costumes, props and sets to see. Step into Dumbledore’s office and see the pensive up close before heading to the Gryffindor Common Room.
You can walk through part of Number 4, Privet Drive before standing outside the Potter’s house in Godric’s Hollow.
If you plan on getting the train there be sure to leave two hours early as the trains can take up to an hour to get there from London.
Homeslice Pizza Fitzrovia
Do you like pizza? Do yourself a favour and head to Homeslice Pizza. They make 20” pizzas. Do I really need to say more?
When I return…
When I return to London I have been told to visit the following places: Churchill War Rooms, London Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, British Museum, Science Museum, and lastly – do a walking tour of old London town.
General London tips
- Get an Oyster card. The Oyster card is a card used for London transport. Whether you’re travelling by bus or train, the Oyster card will cut prices by up to 50%. They’re £5 each and you can get your money back if you return the card before leaving London.
- When travelling on the underground train (the tube), be sure to Google your journey beforehand and take note of the train line that you need to take. Some stations don’t have adequate information available on trains and rail lines so it’s easy to get confused and lost. I made sure to always know exactly what train line I was taking and the direction of travel so I could easily find my train.
- Be prepared to walk! I found London to be similar to NYC in that it’s easy to get around on foot. Walking is a great way to see the sights and discover hidden gems along the way. Just make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes on as it’s easy to get caught up in wandering and before you know it you’ve been walking for several hours.
- Shop around for food. London is an expensive city, but there are a number of cheap places to get food if you’d rather spend your money elsewhere. There are chain cafe’s such as Eat, Pret A Manger and Caffe Nero that are located on most streets. Eat was my favourite place to have a healthy and cheap lunch. If you’re on the move then head to Tesco Express and grab some lunch to go.