So... you're going to London! The home of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Earl Gray tea has a million sights and activities to offer, but there's one catch: you only have 48 hours. How in the world can you possibly see such a sprawling metropolis in such a short amount of time?
While you obviously won't be able to see everything, you'd be surprised at just how much of London you can squeeze into 48 hours. Here's a suggested itinerary for an extended weekend in the capitol of the United Kingdom based on my own visit in February 2014:
Catch a flight from your city to Heathrow or Gatwick airport. If you're coming from the east coast of the United States, look for cheap deals on WOW Air, Norwegian Air, or StudentUniverse.com. Bring just a carry-on sized luggage (saves you time at baggage claim) since this is a quick trip, and make sure to pack your sleep mask to catch as much shut-eye as possible. You don't want to sleep away too much of your precious time in London!
TGT: My flight departed Dulles International Airport at 10:20p and landed at Heathrow around 10a. Although the movie selection was tempting, I slept hard until the flight attendants woke us up for breakfast. Catching an earlier flight out from the U.S. will give you a little more time in London if you can manage it.
You made it! If you're staying in the heart of London (highly recommended if you can afford it), make a beeline for your hotel. Take the Gatwick Express into the city (it drops you off at Victoria Station), or use the Tube if landing in Heathrow. Don't be intimidated by the Tube; it's easy to learn and your best bet for getting around London quickly. Load up an Oyster card with 10£ to start your adventures. At the hotel, take a quick shower or just drop your bag and run - London awaits!
TGT: We stayed at The Club Quarters on Gracechurch Street in the City as my husband was on a business trip. If we had been on our own trip, we probably would have looked for more affordable lodging. Remember that "affordable" is relative as London is expensive. For a short trip, however, location will trump expense; book a hotel as close to the City center as you can afford. I have my eye on St. Joseph Hotel for a return stay, though I cannot recommend it personally. Or if you're looking for some cool hostels, The Guardian has some recommendations.
Take the Tube to Westminster. As you climb the steps up to ground level, look up and take a selfie with Big Ben! For the best views of Parliament, walk across the Westminster Bridge (guarded by the fierce Queen Boudica) and don't forget to take a picture of the London Eye, too. Back across the bridge, skirt around Parliament to see Westminster Abbey, located at the southern end of Parliament Square. Pony up 18£ to go inside for 1-2 hours. It's well-worth the money; some of the notables interred at Westminster include Chaucer, Henry V, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Tennyson, and the church itself is beautiful.
TGT: I actually didn't visit Westminster until Saturday morning so that my husband and I could go together. This itinerary cuts out some of the duplicity of our own trip.
From Westminster, walk northwest through St. James Park towards Buckingham Palace. During the off-season, changing of the guard occurs only every other day at noon. During the ceremony, the square is mobbed with tourists and obtaining a good picture of the palace is difficult. Snap unobstructed photos of the Palace now and return tomorrow for the show if you wish. Walk northeast along the Mall and in less than a mile you'll be engulfed in the chaotic brilliance of Trafalgar Square. A red phone booth is conveniently located nearby for a quintessentially-tourist picture of yourself, and double-decker red buses zoom through the streets regularly. Catch one if you can! Look right then left as you cross the street and go admire the huge lions surrounding Nelson's column. The National Gallery dominates the square. Admission is free, but be forewarned that you'll find it hard to tear yourself away from the original Monets and Rembrandts inside.
British Museum, arguably the best collection of artifacts in the world. Like the National Gallery, there's no charge, and the Museum is huge. Don't expect to see everything in one visit! Check out the Rosetta Stone and other notable artifacts on the first floor gallery then pick one or two galleries to wrap up your afternoon. The British Museum is open until 8:30 on Fridays, so you could grab a light snack from their cafe to maximize your viewing time!
TGT: I chose the British Museum over the National Gallery. No offense, Botticelli, but I was dying for a glimpse of the Sutton Hoo helmet!
Give yourself (and your feet!) a break by taking the Tube from the British Museum out to the Liverpool station in the Bishopsgate ward. Friday nights in this ward are bustling and full of life. Treat yourself to some traditional eats and English ales at The Magpie, located just a five minute walk from the station. After dinner, walk south down Bishopsgate/Gracechurch street to the Thames for some stunning views of the Tower Bridge at night before heading to your hotel for a well-deserved night's sleep.
TGT: We walked all the way up to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge before going to bed. Really beautiful under the lights!
Rise and shine! Start your morning with a hearty English breakfast before heading to the National Gallery (or British Museum, depending on what you saw Friday) and then the Changing of the Guard at 1130a in front of Buckingham Palace. Arrive no later than 11 if you want any chance of seeing the action! or spend the morning at St. Paul's Cathedral in the City ward and then take a river taxi for waterfront views of the City.
TGT: Our Saturday morning was spent touring Westminster Abbey then sprinting over to Buckingham for the changing of the guard. Unless you arrive an hour early, you won't get a spot next to the fence. You can get a pretty good view from the steps of the Victoria Memorial, which is directly in front of the palace.
If you have additional time, skip across the city for iconic sites that won't cost you a dime! Places like Scotland Yard, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, Abbey Road, or Platform 9 3/4 (King's Cross Station). For your final dinner in London, pick a place on Bond Street, Oxford Circle, or Tottenham Court Road. Just like Bishopsgate, you'll find a lively atmosphere. Cap off your night with a nocturnal walk near Parliament before spending your last night dreaming of how you can get yourself back to London in the near future!
TGT: After some bangers and mash with family friends, we strolled up to 27A Wimpole Street, home of Henry Higgins in Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison's classic movie, My Fair Lady, and then walked along Bond Street for a few hours, enjoying the atmosphere..
All good things must come to an end... but you can squeeze one more attraction in before a 5pm flight! Since 1078, the Tower of London has guarded the east side of the City ward and served as a formidable reminder of the ruling class, and no trip to London is complete without a visit. Although originally intended to be a residence for royalty, the Tower of London is better known as being the final prison for traitors and deposed royalty, such as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and the little Princes. Wait for a Beefeater tour of the Tower, both for entertainment and informational value. Keep a special eye out for the ravens of the Tower. Although the presence of ravens are usually a bad omen, according to legend their absence would portend a bad omen for London: if the Tower ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown - and Britain - will fall.
TGT: The Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders, are renown for their humor, but to receive such a prestigious post, they must have served 22 years in the military.
Make your way back to the airport, undoubtedly footsore and tired, but satisfied that you've maximized your time as efficiently as possible in one of the world's leading cities!
Have you been to London?