There are so many things to do in London, England.
So what should you do when you only have one day to spare? It’s a big city with lots of amazing sights to see. The good news is that if you don’t dawdle, you can pack in many of them in fewer than 12 hours. Follow this comprehensive plan, and you won’t miss out on anything.
Staying at a central hotel is key to seeing as much of London as possible in just one day. I stayed at a cozy and quirky boutique hotel in the heart of Soho. The upscale Hazlitt’s Hotel is in an ideal location if you’re planning to walk to London’s main attractions. The staff is exceptional, and the beds are some of the comfiest I’ve ever slept in. And did I mention my room had a claw-foot tub? It was pure bliss.
There’s not much to do in London before 10 a.m., so sleep in a little and then make your way to the Covent Garden district for a traditional English breakfast. If you choose to stay at Hazlitt’s or another nearby hotel, after about 10 to 15 minutes of walking, you’ll be in the very heart of the Covent Garden district. London is such a great walking city that it’s worth every step.
There are loads of shops along the way, and it’s fun to do some window—or actual—shopping en route. You’ll pass everything from trendy clothing stores like my personal favorite Anthropologie and future queen Kate Middleton’s former employer Jigsaw to quirky, upscale jewelry shops like Les Nereides. So good…and don’t even get me started on the number of cafes and bistros you’ll see. If you’re not too hangry, hang tight and wait until you get to Covent Garden Market before chowing down.
You’ll find plenty of casual restaurants offering affordable prices—by London standards—at Covent Garden Market. I chose to dine downstairs at The Crusting Pipe, where I got poached eggs and toast for just £6. That might sound like a lot, but it’s a steal of a deal considering the prime location. If you sit outside, you’ll likely be treated to live entertainment by one of the many talented street performers that are known to busk in the area. And if the mercury is low, they’ll even leave a blanket on your chair to help keep you cozy.
After breakfast, spend a bit of time strolling through the streets and stopping in at some of the market shops. Offerings range from handicrafts kiosks to gourmet tea boutiques (many of which have affordable afternoon teas). It’s a real eclectic mix where you just might find a one-of-a-kind keepsake. My Pomeranian is the proud owner of a handmade Union Jack coat, for instance. But I digress…there are still so many things to do in London. The hands on Big Ben will be roundabout noon by now, and you’ve got a ways to walk before you’ll get to see them.
Once you’ve had a good look around Covent Garden, make your way toward Henrietta Street and walk for half a block, until you reach Southampton Street. Take a right on Southampton and walk another block or so, until you hit Strand. From here, just keep on walking, and eventually you’ll reach Trafalgar Square, where you’ll find the National Gallery. Admission is free, so pop in and take a look around. The gallery even offers suggestions about must-see sites for people who are short on time, which you definitely are if you plan to see the best of London in one day.
When you’re done taking a quick look around the gallery, toss a few pennies in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and walk straight across the street to the traffic circle on Strand. Take a quick picture with Charles Statue at the roundabout, and then curve right toward Whitehall. After just a few minutes, you’ll be yourself snapping selfies with the poker faced guards at the Horse Guards Parade. The entire journey from Covent Garden to this point shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes of total walking time if you don’t stop anywhere along the way.
From here, it’s smooth sailing to some of the most popular sites in London. If you’re facing the Horse Guards, turn left and start walking along Whitehall, which will eventually become Parliament Street. Soon, you’ll be ticking off the boxes on your to do list like mad. Up first, 10 Downing where the prime minister resides. Across the street-ish, you’ll see Big Ben and the parliament buildings, and up the road is Westminster Abbey…they’re all along this route. Take your time, and breathe it all in.
Pro tip: You’ll know you’re heading in the right direction if you see lots of red, double-decker, tourist buses as you walk. Let the buses be your guide.
Over the next hour or two, simply drink in your surroundings. Take pictures, walk around the Abbey, and soak it all up like the sponge that you are. Want an authentic souvenir? Check out the House of Parliament Shop on the corner of Great George Street and Parliament Square. Then, hone in on the London Eye and start walking in that direction. Crossover the Thames River via Westminster Bridge, and walk along the water until you reach the famed Ferris wheel that offers an unparalleled view of the city. Afraid of heights? Me, too. The only thing I’m more afraid of than heights is wasting money, so I bought a skip the line pass in advance and forced myself to take the plunge.
Pro Tip: Depending on the season, the line to get on the London Eye can be prohibitively long if you’re on a tight schedule. Pre-purchasing a skip the line pass is a must to ensure you get right on the ride.
From here, a fun idea is to visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. And it’s easy to get to from the London Eye—no map required. All you need to do is walk along the banks of the Thames until you come to a rustic, round building. According to Google maps, it should only take about 30 minutes, but I wandered in and out of shops along the way so it took an hour or two.
Pro Tip: By now your stomach may be starting to grumble. When it comes to seeing all you can in one day, eating on the go is a necessity. Grab a bite to eat from someplace on the street, something like a pastry or a burger that you can eat while you walk.
It was about 2:30 p.m. when I arrived at the Globe, and the next guided tour was starting in a half hour. This gave me just enough time to check out about half of the exhibits in the museum portion of the theater before joining the rest of the group. The tour takes only a half hour, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some of the actors rehearsing. When I was there, the girl next to me swore up and down that one of the actors was from “Game of Thrones” was onstage, but I’m not convinced.
At £16, the price of admission to the theater ain’t cheap, but for a Shakespeare buff like me, it’s well worth every penny, and it’s a unique experience. The globe provides unparalleled insight into what life was like in Elizabethan times. After the tour, you may need another half hour or so to check out the rest of the exhibits. Then, be sure to check out the shop, which is filled with an abundance of merchandise featuring some of the most famous quotes from Shakespeare’s infamous plays. You may even choose to dine at one of the cafes or bars located on the theater premises.
You’ll already have put in a packed day at this point, but it’s not quite over yet. When you leave the theater, walk out the doors and over Millennium Bridge toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is where members Lady Diana and Prince Charles go married. I took a minute to pretend I was a princess and walked right down the center aisle. Located at the highest point in the city, St. Paul’s is the home of the Anglican church in London and is a sight to behold with its enormous domed roof and other adornments. Stay for a service if you don’t have any other plans for the evening. If not, spend 15 or 20 minutes taking a look around and then start of in search of your next attraction, which will likely be dinner.
By now, it will be about 6 p.m., and you’re bound to be hankering for something savory. Just about a block up the street from the cathedral on Ludgate Hill is a little bistro called Joe’s Kitchen. Casual, trendy, and affordable, Joe’s was the perfect place to kickback and enjoy some fish and chips. The generous portions came at an affordable price and truly hit the spot. And the service was fast and friendly, which suited my needs perfectly.
Once your appetite is sated, it’s decision time. How will you spend the rest of your night? I chose to make my way back to Soho to take in a Broadway-style production. If you’ve got the time and your feet aren’t too tired from your earlier adventures, it’s only about a half hour walk along Strand to Leicester Square. Here, you find half-price ticket booths just like the ones in Times Square, New York. If you’re lucky, you might be able to snag yourself a deal at one of the hottest tickets. I happened to get a seat at the very final showing of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at a fraction of the regular rate. I also happened across the adorable Primrose Bakery along the way, where I grabbed a delicious cupcake to snack on after the show.
Other options for the evening include heading back toward Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and catching a performance there. Or you may choose to simply take a stroll along Oxford Street to do a little shopping at the plethora of trendy boutiques and chain stores that line either side of this long and bustling street. Before you know it, the moon will be casting its cool glow over you, and your jam-packed day in London will be over.
I know, I know…what about Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London? You only have one day, so something’s gotta give, right? That said, if this is your first time in London, you’ll definitely want to take in these awesome sites. However, if you’ve been to London plenty of times, this offers you a fun alternative to get a little bit off the beaten path while still taking in some of the attractions that never get boring no matter how many times you see them.
I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging, so I’ve also included a few other options for your day in London. As an alternative, you could always skip the morning at Covent Garden to take in the palace instead. Then, substitute the afternoon visit to Shakespeare’s Globe with a trek to the tower. Both are completely viable—and doable—alternatives. I love a good, long walk in a new city, but keep in mind you may need to hop onto the London Underground or hail an infamous black taxi to make it the extra miles in just one day.
The walk from Soho to Buckingham Palace takes a little over a half hour. Try to time your visit with the changing of the guard for a bit of extra fun, and be sure to check out the palace shop. You can even take a tour of the interior or enjoy afternoon tea if you’ve decided to hit the palace later in the day. When you’re ready to continue with the rest of the tour, simply walk straight down the main road leading from the palace, called The Mall, and it will take you all the way to Trafalgar Square in just under half an hour. From here, you know what to do!
If you are dying to see the crown jewels, you’ll definitely want to skip Shakespeare’s Globe and head straight for the Tower of London. If you’re walking from the London Eye, you can still walk along the Thames past the Globe, but you’ll want to cross back to the other side at some point. I recommend the Millennium Bridge so you can still stop at St. Paul’s Cathedral en route. It’ll take you just under an hour to make the journey if you don’t stop anywhere along the way. If you’re super short on time and only have a few hours to spend or simply aren’t up for quite such a long walk, consider taking a hop on hop off tour instead.
Have I missed anything? Drop me a comment, and let me know. I would love to know what attractions you’d visit if you only had one day in London.