One of the reasons London keeps people coming back is the unmatched variety of its many boroughs and neighbourhoods. Each one brings a unique take on life in the big city, from quaint village feels and winding narrow cobbled streets to full on skyscrapers, ornate buildings and iconic parks.
Each time you visit, you tend to fall in love with one, or discover another, and it’s this never ending game of “which is the best” that’s too addictive and impossible to resist. Whichever you choose on this trip, chances are that there’s a friendly pub nearby, and hopefully a dash of sunshine. Contrary to popular believe, the sun does shine here, sometimes.
There’s so much to see and do in London, that unlike some cities, 48 hours only barely scratches the surface. But sometimes that’s all you’ve got, and if it is, it’s even more important to plan ahead so you make the most of your limited micro trip, or extended stopover style time. Since every second counts, we’ve designed this London guide to help make the most of every moment, seeing all the best and nothing less. It’s got everything you need for a first time London trip, but also recommendations that will satisfy even the most discerning 100th time visitor too.
If you’re landing at Heathrow, you’ve got a variety of options, each of which have plusses and minuses albeit, all good choices though. We’ll break them down by category to figure out what’s best for you…
The Fastest: Heathrow Express is the fastest, and depending where you’re going, also one of the most convenient options, taking you directly to Paddington station in about 15 minutes. From there you can hop on the tube to get to wherever you’re heading. A one way standard ticket is £22 off peak and £25 peak, or £37 for a return – however the further in advance you buy it, the cheaper it will be. If you know when you’ll be coming, buying tickets 7, 14, or 21 days in advance can bring prices to £5.50 one way.
The Cheapest: The tube is so easy, and if you’re staying in west or central London, it’s really pretty fast too. Tube stations are accessible from each terminal, so simply buy an Oyster card, top one up, or grab a one way ticket (they take card or cash) and hop on the Piccadilly line. To west London, figure around 30-40 minutes, and central not much more. This will run £6 per person.
The Uber Way: Uber works in London and is a decent option from the airport, particularly if you’re not staying somewhere central, or if you’re in a group of 2 or 3 people. Expect £50-£70 for a ride into town, so this is hard to justify unless you’re splitting it, considering how refined Heathrow Express is and how efficient the Tube is.
The Most Amusing Way: You can also get a ride on a motorbike, even if you have hand luggage, which is regarded as the most fun way to get between the airport and London. It’s been going on for years and was co-started by Virgin.
If you’re landing at Gatwick, the Gatwick Express takes you to London Victoria, and will cost £17.80 for an anytime single, or £33.70 for a return. Booking online in advance will also bring discounts, or if you’re a last minute kind of person you can use your Oyster card or contactless payment when you get there too.
If you’re not such a light traveler and the thought of grinding on a train and tube with multiple cases seems like a nightmare, then Uber is also available. The prices will vary depending on time of day and where you’re headed, but if there are a few of you traveling, it may work out to be not such a bad deal.
Getting Around London: The Tube
London is a big city not just in international stature, but also in actual geography. It’s so much larger than… Manhattan, and as much as we love to walk and cover as much ground as possible, in 48 hours you’ll be able to see a lot more by using the tube.
Before you say “ugh, mass transit”, the tube is quick, it’s convenient and it’s shockingly clean. It can get you to anywhere you need to go, with trains roughly every 2-3 minutes. If possible, try and avoid rush hour times, for your own sake, and if you can’t be sure stand to the right on any escalators, or be prepared to get tossed to the side, and tutted.
For anyone thinking it looks way too complicated, download the London Tube app and it will help you understand which line/direction and how many stops or changes you’ll need to get you from A to B. The tube allows one tap contactless card payment, if you’ve got a contactless card, and if you don’t, you can buy an Oyster Card and top-up.
Where To Stay In London
Read up on the best neighbourhoods later in this article to make your mind up officially, but if you’re looking for great accommodations, you’ve got more options than you can count. On the high end: The Rosewood, Haymarket, The Churchill, The Goring and The Langham are all amazing choices. On the upper middle tier: Renaissance St Pancras, Andaz Liverpool St, Corinthia and Great Northern are also superb. For cheaper, but still cheerful accommodations, there’s lots of excellent serviced apartments and Airbnb’s, and the Hoxton, Radisson Blu and the Marylebone are all excellent.
You’ve probably crossed a time zone, or 10, and you may be suffering from a bit of jet lag. So did you actually think we’d give you all this info without essential places to find legit coffee, first? London is on the up when it comes to house roasted, fresh coffee at the highest level, so try any of these spots for a good kick start to your day, or just an afternoon pick me up.
London coffee recommendations: Kaffeine, Over Under, The Attendant, The Coffee Jar, Bloomsbury Coffee House, The Borough Barista, The Little One and Ozone Coffee Roasters. In general, if you like a good cup just stay away from the chains like Cafe Nero, Costa, etc unless it’s an emergency.
Ticking Off The Big “First Time” Sights, Quickly
If it’s your first time in London, you’ll no doubt have on your list of things to see: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, The London Eye, galleries, museums, parks and probably so much more. And you may have to come to terms with the fact that it may not be possible to cover everything. Plan what matters most to you and in how much depth you wish to see things.
Most of these can be done quickly from the outside, and yeah – they’re all worth seeing, at least once.
The good news is that many of these sights sit along the river Thames, so to get a pretty look and some good snaps, taking a river cruise can be a fun way to tick off many attractions, especially if it’s not raining. You can get a 24 hour river cruise pass allowing you to hop on and off at certain points. And aside from galleries, most of these attractions won’t take much time, so chin up!
If you’re not wearing comfy shoes, you only have yourself to blame. London is best by foot and by Tube, and you just won’t be able to maximize your time if you prioritize fashion over function. It’s not uncommon to cover 5 miles in a great day of taking in the city, so think about that and plan.
The London Pass can be a worthwhile purchase if you plan on entering a lot of first time tourism style attractions. To know if it makes sense for you, add up the entrance fees of all the things you want to see, and then compare to the cost of the London pass. If your time is limited and your happy to see the main things from the outside, during a nice walk, then this may not be best suited for you.
If you have no interest in visiting the art galleries, then skip this section now. If you do, then you’re in massive luck, because London is full of incredible galleries, most of which are free to get into, unlike some other cities. Do note: some special exhibitions may have a fee. If you want the best and nothing but the best…
Check out: Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, Serpentine Gallery, The Saatchi Gallery, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, The Wallace Collection, Dulwich Picture Gallery, The British Museum, and The Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace are extraordinary. If you miss any, there’s always time on your next visit..
Zone 1 London Neighbourhoods To Scope Out
For some people sightseeing may just be a short stop on your agenda, but exploring different neighbourhoods and getting a feel for the city is always an excellent way to spend some time. Zone 1 is the most central, and therefore can become very busy, especially on weekends and afternoons, but that doesn’t mean there’s not lots you should see.
Enjoy pretty canal views and dancing fountains at Granary Square. Sip Champagne at Europe’s longest Champagne Bar in St. Pancras Station. Spend your hard earned money shopping at Coal Drops Yard. And if you’re a Harry Potter fan you can even visit Platform 9 3/4.
Those busy places we were talking about, this is one. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. With pretty side streets, more shopping, plenty of restaurants, it is also home to the Royal Opera House and the main theatre district if you feel like catching a show.
Street art, boutique shops, weekend markets, bars, clubs and general entertainment. This buzzing neighbourhood may not be for everyone, but if you feel happy surrounded by hip, trendy, creative types and like a good cocktail and chic restaurant it’s definitely worth exploring.
The pretty pastel coloured houses line the streets of this lovely, picturesque part of town. The famed Portobello Road Market on weekends definitely attracts the crowds, but it’s fun for a little wander and zig zagging through side streets can lead to some gems.
Regent’s Park, Hyde Park, St. James’s Park
For, you guessed it, some beautiful parks. Perfect places to go for a morning run, if that’s your kind of thing. You’ll find gardens, walking paths and pedalos to hire during the warmer months. St James’s Park offers lovely views of Buckingham Palace, if you’ve not ticked it off your list yet. The Kensington Palace Gardens are also a personal fave.
Let’s be honest, London has everything from high end to low end, expensive to inexpensive, cuisines from anywhere you can think of and everything in between. So, choosing where to eat for your limited days in town can definitely be a challenge. With that said, London does Indian food at an extremely high level, and it’s sacrilege to leave without enjoying some. Here are a few sure thing options to get you started
Bernardi’s (great rustic Italian), Chakra (authentic Indian), Darjeeling Express (inventive Indian), Patara (posh Thai food), Farmacy (amazing vegan), Farang (incredible Thai), The Quince Tree Cafe (low key lunch), Dishoom (buzzy Indian), Scarlett Green (Aussie-world fusion), Elystan Street (Michelin food without attitude) and if you want something quick, Selfridges Foodhall is always fun.
There’s also some great Michelin starred restaurants that won’t totally break the bank both in the city, and outside as well.
If you like finger sandwiches, delicate cakes and pastries, bottomless tea, scones and possibly some champagne too, then you’re in the right place. Afternoon tea is a fun and filling way to spend a couple of hours, it’s quintessentially British, and if you want to give your feet a rest and toast the trip, booking is probably wise.
You’re probably already planning your next trip to London by now, and rightly so. As there’s so much to cover in Zone 1, it’s easy to forget that there’s still so much more. But, if you happen to have some time left then there’s plenty to see and do away from the central area, and you’ll get more of a feel of how locals live. Plus, it’s usually just an easy hop on the tube.
Discover the beauty of Hampstead and wander on the Heath. Visit historic Greenwich and enjoy the pretty views. Richmond and Kew are lovely and you can add in the Botanical Gardens whilst you’re there. Take a tranquil canal walk from Little Venice. Or maybe you’d like to take a look at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, where there’s also a huge shopping centre if you’re struggling on a rainy day.
So, if you’ve somehow made it to the end of this article, you’ll be thinking how the hell am I meant to fit even half of this in? Well, you’re not, unless you’re Superman. But, everyone has different ideas and tastes, so pick what sounds best to you and use Google maps to help put together a plan. And then start thinking about when you’ll be able to return for round two.