While London is a huge city whose sheer number of sites and activities require multiple visits, you can get a lot of the major sightseeing done in a short time if you plan accordingly. In 2012, my family and I took advantage of a cheap round trip flight deal to London Gatwick Airport, so we flew there for six full days before returning home to Canada on the seventh day. If you’re the type of person who wants to see as many things as you can in the shortest time possible, and don’t mind a “go go go!” schedule, then follow this itinerary that I created for my family’s trip.
Disclaimer: There are many beautiful and amazing places to see all throughout the UK; as such, this post concentrates primarily on London and the immediate surrounding area, as well as on the major tourist sites rather than little gems – I was only there for 6 days, and do not claim to be an expert on all things London-related!
First things first – before you attempt to do any of this, there is one important thing you should buy in advance. It’s the London Pass – not only does it cover your entrance fee to over 60 attractions, but you can also include a London Travel Card which covers all public transportation costs in Zones 1-6 (which covers everything on the pass). In some cases, it also limits your waiting time for entry into some attractions, as well as offers discounts to various shops and restaurants. It may sound like a hefty investment at first, at 166 British pounds for a 6 day adult pass with travel, but with my itinerary, my pass more than paid for itself with all the attractions I visited, as well as the public transportation I used over that time. (This company isn’t paying me to promote this pass or anything, so I can honestly say it was well worth it!)
Day 1: Royal and Political Fanfare
Begin your day by heading to Buckingham Palace, a fitting introduction to the palaces that pay monument to the ever-present British Monarchy. You can only go inside the palace between end of July to end of August, and then again in September. I was not in London at a time that Buckingham Palace was open, so I cannot speak to going inside or how long a visit would take; the State Rooms are not an attraction on the London Pass so you would have to pay extra, and of course budget time accordingly.
If you can’t go inside to see the palace, every morning at 11 AM is the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a half-hour long procession in which the previous shift of guards changes over to a new one. To get a somewhat decent spot, you should plan to be there between 10 and 10:30AM. It’s a neat, highly ceremonious procession to watch, but certainly not a must-see; it’s just fun to witness some of the royal fanfare that happens on a regular basis in London. Important to note – you are not going to see the Queen, so don’t loiter around Buckingham Palace in hopes of catching a glimpse of the royal family.
After the changing of the guard, grab lunch in the Westminster area. This is an area of particular historic importance, being the site of parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey (included on the London Pass). You can go inside Westminster Abbey; give yourself a good hour or two to really get to know the abbey and see the tombs of those in the Poets’ Corner, including William Shakespeare, John Keats and Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as those of royal figures such as Queen Elizabeth I. The Abbey Grounds make for good exploration as well, being the site of many a famous royal wedding.
Following Westminster Abbey, explore the parliament area along the Thames River and look up at Big Ben, the famous clocktower. When I went, public access to Parliament was closed due to the Queen visiting (much to my dad’s distress), so I can’t speak much to going inside Parliament.
Conclude your day with dinner and a ride on the London Eye just before the sun starts to set; note that you will have to pay admission to go on the London Eye, but the views of the city, especially on a clear day, are worth it.
Day 2: Hampton Court Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral
Today, wake up early to visit one of the most captivating castles in the London area – Hampton Court Palace (included on the London Pass). Take the tube to London Waterloo, and then a 45 minute-long train to Hampton Court, which is in Surrey. It’s just a short walk from the train station to the palace, with a lovely stroll across a bridge going over the Thames. If you’re a fan of Tudor history, you’ll enjoy the live actors playing the roles of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More, and the various performances and skits which occur throughout the day (the daily schedule will be provided upon your arrival). Highlights of the palace include the enormous Tudor kitchen, built to feed the entire court, and the Hampton Court Gardens, which span 60 acres and contain one of the most famous mazes in the world as well as the Great Vine. Give yourself at least 4 hours to explore the whole palace, and also grab a bite at the restaurant on site.
When you’ve finished at Hampton Court, take the train back into London. At Waterloo station, take a bus (4 or 172 at time of article) to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a great attraction to end the day. Note that the cathedral closes at 4:30PM and you need at least 1-1.5 hours to really explore, so if you spent more time at Hampton Court you may not make it to St. Paul’s in time. The Baroque-style cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren following the Great Fire of London in the late 17th century and, much like Westminster Abbey, has housed many important weddings and funerals.
Highlights include the crypt beneath the cathedral, as well as climbing up to the interior of its famous dome to what’s called the “Whispering Gallery” – a whisper on one side of the dome can be heard from 100 feet away. If you climb another 271 steps you reach the Golden Gallery and will be able to see beautiful panoramic views of London, but again, make sure you arrive early enough as entrance to the Golden Gallery closes around 4:00PM. The grounds around the church make for good photo opportunities, so make sure you walk around the entire church to see Wren’s biggest masterpiece.
Since you’re in the Old City area of London, have dinner at the pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, which serves typical English fare like fish and chips, rarebit, yorkshire pudding, and roast beef. It’s by no means the most amazing food in all of London, but the pub was built shortly after the Great Fire in 1666, and there has been a pub at that location since 1538. It’s most well-known for its famous literary guests who dined and drank there, including Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Tennyson, and most notably, Charles Dickens, who is said to have based some his famous characters off its gloomy, dimly lit charm.
Day 3: Art and History and Shopping, Oh My!
Take a morning to explore the Hyde Park/Kensington neighbourhoods. Depending on your interests, you can visit the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art and Design (free admission) or visit the Churchill War Rooms (included on London Pass) as part of the Imperial War Museums of England. If the weather is nice, stroll through the famous Hyde Park. Have lunch in the nearby Knightsbridge area (within walking distance or a short bus ride), and maybe take part in some of the famous shopping that the neighbourhood has to offer, like a visit to Harrod’s or Sloan Street for a taste of luxury, or Harvey Nichols for a chic and cheaper alternative.
Time permitting, you could also tack on the British Museum to this day as it is free; however, you would have to carefully select the exhibits you want to see rather than freely browsing the museum, as it is enormous and could take up an entire day. The museum is open til 5:30PM on every day except for Fridays, when it is open late (8:30PM). If you’re short on time, be sure to check out the Rosetta Stone, as well as the modern interior architecture of the building.