Day One | What you will see: Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards, Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, sightseeing bus, Tower of London, meal in the West End
If this is your first trip to London then your list of must-see attractions will probably include Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Changing the Guard – that’s what most tourists want to see when they visit London for the first time. Idea #1 is going to squeeze in all of these and lots more.
Start at Trafalgar Square for a look at Nelson’s Column, and then buy a sightseeing bus ticket from the Original Bus Tour shop on the corner of Cockspur Street. Don’t get on the bus just yet, though, because we want to walk to some other attractions first.
Walk down Whitehall and take a photo of the soldiers outside Horse Guards, then walk through the central arch into the parade ground behind. Keep walking through the park until you see Buckingham Palace.
Now… pay attention… because you need to plan this next bit properly if you’re going to get the best out of it. The crowd for Changing the Guard can swell into the thousands and if you don’t arrive early enough then you’ll be lumbered with a lousy spot. Craig has written a review of Changing the Guard which discusses the best arrival times and the best place to stand.
The ceremony will end around 11.30 AM so you might want to get something to eat now, but we recommend holding on for another hour because the bus stop for the Original Bus Tour is just around the corner (in Buckingham Gate, down the lefthand side of the palace). Catch one of their Yellow Route buses and sit on the top deck.
You route will take you past many of London’s best landmarks including Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It will then cross over the river a couple of times for a look at the London Eye and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The route will differ depending on whether it’s Mon-Fri or Sat-Sun, but eventually you’ll cross over Tower Bridge and pull up alongside the Tower of London, which is where you should get off. Read Craig’s review of the Original Bus Tour
If you were lucky with the traffic (unlikely!) then the entire route will have taken around 50 mins, which will give you at least 2½ hours to look around the Tower of London at Traitor’s Gate, the White Tower, Bloody Tower, Tower Green and the Crown Jewels. Read Craig’s review of the Tower of London
After that we recommend catching the tube from Tower Hill to Embankment (10 mins) for an evening meal in the West End. You might like to try a restaurant around Covent Garden, or walking 10 mins towards Leicester Square (that would be our choice).
Day Two | What you will see: St. Paul’s Cathedral, The City, The Shard and a West End musical
You will have seen the outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral yesterday while you were sitting on the sightseeing bus, but let’s go inside today. After you’ve walked around the spectacular interior try and climb up the domes. The first two levels are easy enough, but if you make it all the way up to the Golden Gallery then very well done – that’s the little balcony on the very top of the dome! (allow for 1½-2 hours). Read Craig’s review of St. Paul’s Cathedral
Now walk down Cheapside until you reach the most impressive junction in London. This intersection has three of the City’s finest buildings: the Bank of England, Mansion House and Royal Exchange. You can’t get in the first two without a tour, but you might like to have a quick look inside the Royal Exchange. Read about Craig’s walk around The City
Now walk up Cornhill and turn left into Gracechurch Street. You will see the entrance to Leadenhall Market on the lefthand side. This Victorian market looks like something out of Dickens and you might want to stop for a drink in the pub. Read Craig’s review of Leadenhall Market
Now we’re going to climb to the top of The Shard. This is the highest observation point in London and you can see absolutely everything from up there. Just wait until you see how small St. Paul’s Cathedral looks from up there – and you probably thought it was amazingly tall when you were standing in the Golden Gallery this morning! Read Craig’s review of The Shard
A great way to end your two-day stay in London is with a West End musical. Most of the big theatre shows start at 7 PM or 7.30 PM so you should have plenty of time. Two of the most popular shows with tourists are Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
Day One | What you will see: National Gallery, Horse Guards, Banqueting House, Somerset House, Courtauld Gallery and the British Museum
Idea #1 was all about rushing around town and seeing as many landmarks as possible in two days, whereas this itinerary is a bit more sedate. This 2-day plan will take you around some of the best art galleries and museums, and end with an afternoon of posh shopping at Harrods.
Let’s begin with the best gallery in London: the National Gallery. Make your way to Trafalgar Square and take some photos of Nelson’s Column, and then spend 1½ hours walking around the country’s finest collection of art works. You will see pieces by Vermeer, Cézanne, Monet, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Turner and Van Gogh in here. Read Craig’s review of the National Gallery
Now walk down Whitehall and take some photos of soldiers outside Horse Guards. Directly over the road is Banqueting House. Head in there for a look at the Rubens on the ceiling – one of the most famous works of art in the country (allow for 45 mins). Read Craig’s review of Banqueting House
Walk down Horse Guards Avenue and turn left into the beautiful Whitehall Gardens. Keep going to the end and cross over the road into Victoria Embankment Gardens. When you get to the end of that one keep going and turn left at Waterloo Bridge.
You’ll find our next gallery inside the picturesque courtyard of Somerset House. The Courtauld Gallery is famous for its collection of French Impressionists, and has works by Monet, Manet, Rubens and Van Gogh (allow for 1 hour). Read Craig’s review of Courtauld Gallery
Now catch the No.1 bus from Waterloo Bridge and get off just after Holborn Station. Walk to the British Museum and if we’ve got our timings right then you should still have a couple of hours to look around their collection. Read Craig’s review of the British Museum
Day Two | What you will see: Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Brompton Oratory and shopping at Harrods
Day two begins with another couple of museums in South Kensington. The Natural History Museum is best-known for its dinosaurs, but if you’re an adult then you’ll probably be more interested in its collection of birds and animals. (Try our 2-day itinerary for kids if you have children with you.)
This place is known as the ‘dead zoo’ because it’s full of dead elephants, lions, tigers, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, polar bears, grizzly bears, fish, insects, tropical birds… practically every animal you can think of (allow for 2-3 hours). Read Craig’s review of the Natural History Museum
You’ll find the Victoria & Albert Museum just over the road. This museum of art and design doubles up as a very good art gallery with works by Raphael, JW Turner, Constable and Gainsborough. There is a huge collection of historical fashions inside from 18th-century Royal robes right up to the miniskirts and hippy gear of the 1960s.
The highlight of your visit will be the Cast Room which contains plaster casts of some of the world’s greatest statues like Michelangelo’s David and Trajan’s Column in Rome (allow for 2-3 hours). Read Craig’s review of the V&A Museum
When you leave the museum have a quick peek inside Brompton Oratory next-door (surely one of the most beautiful churches in London) and then walk up Brompton Road until you find Harrods – trust us: you can’t miss it!
This is one of the most luxurious shops in the world and is worth a look inside just to see the decor – check out the food halls, sweet hall and Egyptian escalator. Your friends at home will probably be expecting a nice souvenir after your two-day stay, so most people buy a magazine or something cheap to get hold of one of their much sought-after green carrier bags, and then slip something else inside instead (from Tescos or Sainsburys). Read Craig’s review of Harrods
Day One | What you will see: Piccadilly Circus, Changing the Guard, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards, Downing Street, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey
London is a very expensive city to visit, so the idea behind this two-day itinerary is that we’re going to try and stay for a couple of days without spending any money whatsoever – not even on bus and train fares. Most of these attractions appear on our Top 10 list of things to do for free, and you’ll probably be quite surprised at how much good stuff it includes.
Start at Piccadilly Circus and take a few photos of the neon lights, and then walk down Piccadilly towards the Ritz Hotel. Turn left into Green Park and keep going until you see Buckingham Palace up ahead (20 mins walk from Piccadilly Circus).
We’re here to see the best piece of free entertainment in London – Changing the Guard. Remember to check the dates beforehand because it only operates every day during the summer. During other times of the year it’s usually every other day. And you definitely need to read Craig’s review because it contains some useful information about what time to arrive and the best place to stand.
When the parade ends at around 11.30 AM walk across the length of St. James’s Park, stopping at the central bridge on the lake to take a great photo of the palace. Then walk through Admiralty Arch (allow for 25-30 mins walking time from the palace) and look around Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. Read Craig’s review of Trafalgar Square
Now continue your sightseeing tour down Whitehall (allow for 30-45 mins in total, both for the walking, and for stopping to see the sights). The first sight worth stopping at is Horse Guards which will probably have about a million billion tourists crowding around the soldiers.
Then continue walking down Whitehall until you see the entrance to Downing Street on the right. You can’t get into Downing Street itself, but you can still peer through the gates at the famous front door. Read Craig’s review of Downing Street
Keep going until you reach Parliament Square. if we’ve got our s right then it should be about 2 PM by now so we’re going to head inside the Houses of Parliament to see the MPs in the House of Commons (Mon-Thu only). It’s totally free and you don’t even need a ticket – just march up the visitor’s entrance (opposite the back end of Westminster Abbey) and ask to enter the House of Commons or House of Lords (allow for 30 mins queueing, and 60 mins in the chamber). Read Craig’s House of Commons review
Bear in mind that you definitely need to leave by 3.45 PM at the latest to make sure you’re in time for the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey (Mon-Tue, Thu-Fri only). They don’t charge people to attend their church services so this is a great way of seeing some of the Abbey for free. Read Craig’s review of the Evensong service to see what it’s like inside
Day Two | What you will see: Sky Garden, Roman amphitheatre under the Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall, One New Change, and St. Paul’s Evensong
The Sky Garden is a big white skyscraper in the heart of The City that has a tropical garden on the 35th floor (a bit like the Palm House at Kew), and you can look out across London from 500-feet up in the air. Bear in mind that you need to book a time slot on their website beforehand (you can’t just turn up on the day). Ideally you want to book it for 10 AM and allow yourself about 1 hour inside. Read Craig’s review of the Sky Garden
Now walk up Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards Bank (10 mins walk). When you get there you can enjoy one of the finest sights in London: the Bank of England, Mansion House and Royal Exchange.
Continue up Poultry and turn into King Street towards the medieval-looking Guildhall (10 mins walk). This is where the Lord Mayor of London holds his monthly meetings. The building next-door is the Guildhall Art Gallery.
Head inside the art gallery (it’s all free) and look around the paintings if you want, but what you’ve really come to see is in the basement: the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre (allow for 1-1½ hours). Read Craig’s review of the Guildhall Art Gallery
When you come out walk across the forecourt towards the pepperpot-shaped building and enter the glass door on the left. This is the entrance to the Guildhall. The public are usually allowed to sneak a peak inside the Great Hall for free, but sometimes they have a meeting on and you’ll have to settle for looking at it from outside instead (allow for 30 mins if you get inside). Read Craig’s review of the Guildhall
Find your way back to Poultry and walk to the end of Cheapside. St. Paul’s tube station is at the very end of the road but we want to turn left instead, down New Change, and then look for the opening into the middle of One New Change shopping centre (10-15 mins walk).
You should be able to see a glass elevator inside the heart of it (it’s directly opposite the back end of St. Paul’s). Ride that lift all the way to the roof terrace and step out into the open-air for a fantastic view of the cathedral (allow for 20-30 mins). Read Craig’s review of One New Change
The final attraction is going to be inside St. Paul’s Cathedral itself… but we’re going to have to wait a while if we want to enter it for free. Depending on when you managed to get a time slot at the Sky Garden, you could have another two hours to wait before the Evensong service starts at 5 PM (Mon-Sat). In the meantime you can enter the crypt and have a nose around the shop. You’ll find the entrance to the crypt round the lefthand side of the front steps.
When it reaches 4 PM you should make your way to the front steps again because they’ll start letting everybody in for the Evensong service. Happily they don’t charge people to pray, so you’ll be able to see a sizeable part of the cathedral for free. Read Craig’s review of the Evensong service
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