Welcome to The Big Smoke! Jolly Ol’ Londontown! If you only have two days in London, you can still see a surprisingly large amount of it.
I’ve found that people are of two minds about London: you either absolutely love it, or could care less about it. I personally love it! Honestly, I’d move there if it wasn’t so far away from friends and family.
The history, the mishmash of old and new, the quiet British formality, the meat pies…it’s my kind of jam. (And speaking of jam, put some on a scone with clotted cream. It’s delicious.)
More than anything though, my favorite thing about London is that I can walk down the same streets as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, the Beatles, and the whole cast of Love Actually.
If you can spend more than a couple of days, by all means do so. But if you only have two days in London, lace up your waterproof shoes! We have about 2,000 years’ worth of city to cover.
If you’re coming from out of the country, chances are you’ll be flying into Heathrow or Gatwick Airport, and it’s easy enough to take a train from either into central London.
- From Heathrow: Take the Piccadilly Line (dark blue line) on the London Underground (aka the Tube)
- From Gatwick: Take the Gatwick Express or Southern Rail to Victoria Station
You can also take the traditional black cabs, but they’ll be more expensive!
This two-day London itinerary is mostly walking-based, as I believe using your feet is the best way to explore. You’ll be crossing a lot of bridges, as London has fun things on both sides of the River Thames.
However, depending on where you decide to stay, you’ll probably want to take the Tube at some point. If you’re taking the Tube, you can either tap in with your debit/credit card or buy an Oyster Card, which you can refill as needed (similar to a NY’s Metrocard or Boston’s Charlie Card). Oyster Cards can be purchased from the airport, train station, or Tube station. (Plus they can be used on those famous double-decker busses as well!)
Etiquette Tip: The London Underground has some long escalators. If you’re going to stand while you ride, always keep to the side so others can pass you.
Note: Tube ride prices are based on “zones” and peak/off-peak hours. Everything on this itinerary is located within Zone 1, but Heathrow Airport is in Zone 6.
Where to Stay
I’m a big fan of Airbnb, and there are plenty of options in London! You’ll want to stay pretty centrally located so you can make the most of your time, so check bookings in these neighborhoods:
- Covent Garden: the location of West End theaters, good eats, and shopping
- Soho: just west of Covent Garden, lively with coffee shops and pubs
- Kensington: a more residential area, and oh so “posh”
Before You Get Started
I’m not normally a huge fan of tour busses, but when I joined my parents on their first trip to London, we had time to kill before we could check in to our Airbnb. Not wanting to waste that time, we hopped on one of the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tours (with our luggage and all), and it was actually a great way to see the city and plan where we wanted to go next!
Right-o, off we pop!
Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park
Begin your two days in London with a walk through Kensington Gardens into Hyde Park. Grab a coffee from the nearest Caffe Nero, or from The Italian Gardens Cafe located north of the gardens, and stroll with it through the beautiful green space.
Look for the Peter Pan Statue and watch the swans swim in the Serpentine.
Cut through Green Park and over to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. If the Royal Standard (not the Union Jack) is flying above Buckingham Palace, that means the Queen is at home!
The famous Changing of the Guard occurs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays (daily in June and July) around 10:45 am. Be sure to check the schedule ahead of time. If you miss it though, don’t worry, you can catch the Punishment Parade…more on that later.
St. James Park
From there, walk down the Birdcage Walk, along the southern part of St. James Park to Westminster Abbey.
In addition to being a still-operating church, the magnificent Westminster Abbey has hosted the royal coronation since 1066 and is the final resting place of many notable folks, such as Sir Isacc Newton, George Frederic Handel, Laurence Olivier, and of course, Queen Elizabeth I.
Tour the abbey at your own pace with a multimedia device, or download an abbreviated version of a self-led tour onto your phone.
Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings
Head north out of Westminster Abbey and walk toward the water, admiring the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, which holds Big Ben. (Elizabeth Tower is currently getting a facelift.)
(Fun Fact: Big Ben is actually the name of the striking clock’s bell, not the tower itself!)
Also, check out the statue of Boadicea and Her Daughters. (If you haven’t heard of Boadicea she was a bad@** Celtic queen who rebelled against the Romans.)
Cross the Westminster Bridge and turn north toward the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel that’s hard to miss. Also known as the Millenium Wheel, as it opened to the public in 2000, the London Eye has pods that hold 25 people each.
Note: if you have more than two days in London, take a ride on the London Eye, especially if it’s a nice day. But otherwise, this itinerary provides other fun bird’s eye views!
Lunch in Southbank
Walk along the Queen’s Walk and grab lunch in the neighborhood of Southbank. Cheap eats include chains like Pret a Manger and Pizza Express or eat on the river at The BBQ Club.
Once you’re refueled, walk back across the river via the Waterloo Bridge. (And try not to get ABBA stuck in your head…even though the song has nothing to do with the bridge…just me? Cool, cool, cool.)
After you’ve crossed the bridge, turn back south along the river and walk along the Embankment. Keep an eye out for Cleopatra’s Needle, one-half of a pair of re-erected ancient Egyptian obelisks. (Fun Fact: The other piece is in New York City!)
Head west until you hit Trafalgar Square, the well-known square with Nelson’s Column in the middle, flanked by great stone lions.
(Trafalgar Square is also a great place to pick up a Hop-On Hop-Off bus if you’d like.)
The National Gallery
If you’re an art fan, step into the National Gallery, found at the back of Trafalgar Square. (Even if you’re not an art fan, it’s free to visit, so why not?) You can find works by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Claude Monet.
If you missed the morning’s Changing of the Guard, you can watch the Four O’Clock Parade, which is when the royal horse guards dismount and return the horses to the stables for the night.
From Trafalgar Square, walk south on Whitehall until you reach the Horse Guards Parade.
(Fun Fact: It’s also called the Punishment Parade because in 1894 Queen Victoria found the entire guard drinking and gambling while on duty, and from then on they had to be inspected every day at 4 pm.)
Head back north until you reach Piccadilly Circus, the London equivalent to NYC’s Times Square. It’s not an actual circus, but there are bright lights and lots of colorful characters!
Dinner in Covent Garden
Even if you don’t have tickets to an evening performance, you can have dinner in Covent Garden, where there are lots of restaurant options.
Don’t know what you’re in the mood for? Try the food court at Seven Dials Market. Or hit up a traditional pub, like The Dog and the Duck or The Lamb & Flag.
If you’re staying in this area, you can swing by your lodging and change for a night out!
West End Show
Did you know that many of the longest-running Broadway shows actually originated in London? (Looking at you, Andrew Lloyd Webber.)
Going to the theatre is just one of those things to do in London that you must do. Maybe it’s something in the water, but British actors are just brilliant.
You could see a classic musical like Phantom of the Opera or something new like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (highly recommend, it’s a lot of fun).
Now that you’ve seen the west side of the city, it’s time to spend the second of your two days in London on the east side!
Carbo-load at Flock with either an English breakfast or good ol’ American pancakes. You’re going to need lots of energy for more walking today!
Tower of London
Call me macabre, but I find the Tower of London fascinating. Not only was it a prison, but also a palace and a zoo. Join one of the tours given by the famous Yeoman Warders (aka Beefeaters), drool over the Crown Jewels, and see where Anne Boleyn met her demise.
(Fun Fact: The only person to escape the Tower during Henry VIII’s reign was a woman, by the name of Alice Tankerville.)
Also, say hi to the famous tower ravens. Superstition says that if the ravens are ever lost or fly away, then the Crown and Britain will fall. Therefore, they are taken care of by the Ravenmaster…(Yep, that’s a real job title.)
Try to get to the Tower of London as early in the morning as possible because you’ve got a lot to see during your two days in London!
You’ll be able to see Tower Bridge from the Tower of London, but for a closer look, walk toward the water when you get out of the Tower.
Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic pieces of London architecture. With red double-decker busses passing on top and boats passing below, it’s a London landmark.
Still a working drawbridge, Tower Bridge was built in the Victorian era but was designed in a Gothic style.
St. Dunstan in the East
Walk west along the water to reach this hauntingly beautiful garden. After being bombed in WWII, the remaining structure of a church was eventually turned into a public green space. Visiting St. Dunstan in the East is one of my absolute favorite things to do in London (and it’s free to visit)!
Even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, you can appreciate the beauty of Leadenhall Market. (Leadenhall was used as part of Diagon Alley in The Sorcerer’s Stone. )
Standing at the center of where Roman London once was, Leadenhall is one of the oldest markets in London. The ornate, covered ceilings were originally designed during the Victorian era.
The marketplace and pubs are bustling during the weekdays, but pretty quiet during the weekend, which makes for fun photos!
Treat yourself to a small plate and/or drink at the Sky Pod Bar at the Sky Garden, the highest garden in London.
The Sky Garden is open to the public and offers a live, indoor, rooftop garden, multiple restaurants, and sweeping views of the city. If you’re willing to brave the wind, step out onto the balcony for views of the river and the Shard building.
(Note: If visiting during COVID-19 times, book your free admission ticket online, in advance.)
Monument to The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London occurred in 1666. It started in a bakery, lasted four days, and destroyed thousands of homes.
If you don’t mind putting in a little effort (and some possible dizziness) for a different perspective of the city, climb the 311 steps of the giant column that was built near where the fire began. Enjoy panoramic views as you catch your breath!
From The Monument, walk across London Bridge, which is not as pretty as Tower Bridge, but you can sing “London Bridge is falling down” (and this time the song is actually about the bridge).
Just west after crossing the bridge, head into Borough Market, another Victorian-era covered marketplace. Borough Market is known for its produce, meats, cheese, and bread. Everything there smells so good! (Keep an eye out for free samples!)
Keep wandering west and you might stumble across a plaque on the site of the original Globe Theatre on Park Street. (Sadly, it was destroyed by fire in 1613. So they built another one, which was then demolished. But third time’s a charm, eh?)
Keep walking toward the river and you’ll find the current day Shakespeare’s Globe, which is a reconstruction that was built in 1997. You can take a guided tour (about an hour-long) or just admire it from the riverwalk.
(Or, if you’re like me, you can come back for an evening performance. Seeing a show at the Globe is one of my favorite things to do in London, as it really makes you feel like you’re going back in time. The shows are performed in the open air, so dress warmly!)
Cross back across the river via Millenium Bridge, but beware of Death Eaters (…and if you don’t get that reference, cue up the fifth Harry Potter movie).
St. Paul’s Cathedral
With its domed ceiling, St. Paul’s Cathedral is hard to miss.
If you’re running short on time, it’s ok to just appreciate this giant cathedral from the outside. You can sit on the steps and live your Mary Poppins dreams by singing “Feed the Birds”. (Again, just me?) However, if you have time, you can actually climb up to the roof of St. Paul’s!
Behind St. Paul’s also check out the Temple Bar, what used to be the official gateway into London (and on which heads of traitors used to be put on spikes…yikes.)
For another fun view of St. Paul’s visit the Roof Terrace at One New Change. The rooftop of this shopping mall is free to access!
For the musical theater fans, head west out of St. Paul’s on Ludgate Hill until you find Fleet Street (home of the demon barber, Sweeney Todd).
Grab a pint from one of the local bars, like The Crown and Sugarloaf or Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (with names like that how could you not). Also, grab a sweet or savory pie from Epic Pies (it’s not actually on Fleet Street, so you should be safe).
Depending on where you’re staying, take a Thames Clipper back west along the river. You can use your Oyster Card or purchase a paper ticket at the pier. Check the ferry schedule here.
You’ll probably only be going a few stops, from Blackfriars Pier to Embankment or Westminster, but it’s a lovely way to see the city.
If you have more time in London, here are some other fun things to do and see:
- The Tate Modern: Even if you’re not into modern art, visiting the Tate is worth it for the top of the Blavatnik Building, another free viewing terrace.
- The National Theatre: As I said, if you’re in London, you simply must see some theater. Catch a classic or modern play at The National.
- Afternoon Tea: A trip to England wouldn’t be complete without a fancy afternoon tea. For a classic experience, try Afternoon Tea at the Corinthia, or for a more unique experience, try Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea.
- The British Museum: Explore thousands of years of human history with artifacts from around the world (some of which have been reclaimed by their home countries).
I really hope you enjoy The Old Smoke, and that this two-day London itinerary helps in your planning!
Pip, pip cheerio!
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