This article was submitted by Rachel Coyne.
Whether you head to London for the history, the museums or the theater, a trip to London should be on even the most infrequent traveler's to-do list. My friend and I found a week to be a good amount of time to check out many of the typical tourist spots, as well as a few personal interest sites that are off the traditional path.
Before traveling to London for a week, make sure you have a few things taken care of:
- Check the weather forecast and pack (but don't over pack) accordingly. (See London Weather advice.)
- Get a city map that clearly labels the streets and where the tube stations are
- Let your bank and credit card companies know the dates you'll be traveling
- Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes that you've tested enough to make sure they don't give you blisters (I learned this one the hard way)
Day One: Arrive in London
We arrived too early to check into our hotel, but since we were staying near Hyde Park and it was unseasonably warm for early October, it was the perfect opportunity to walk through the beautiful park. The park is huge, so make a plan to check out some of its key spots like Kensington Palace, the Round Pond (where there are geese and swans waiting to be fed), the Italian fountains, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and the Peter Pan statue, commissioned by the author J.M. Barrie.
This is also a good time to take care of things like getting cash from an ATM or exchanging currency, getting an Oyster card for riding the tube (definitely the easiest way to get around the city), and exploring the area that you're staying in.
After having dinner at a restaurant near the hotel, we headed for the Grosvenor Hotel near Victoria station, where we were joining a Jack the Ripper walking tour. The tour took us through the somewhat unappealing East End of London, where our tour guide led us along the path where the victims of Jack the Ripper were found in 1888 and filled us in on the various theories about the still unsolved crimes. The tour also included a night cruise along the River Thames and a bus ride that points out some other slightly macabre sites, such as the hospital where the Elephant Man lived and the plaque where William Wallace (aka Braveheart) was tortured and killed.
Day Two: Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour
For our second day we spent the day riding around the city on one of those double-decker buses for an all day hop-on, hop-off tour. It's a great way to see all the key London sights like Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and the many bridges that cross the River Thames. Be sure to make a note of any stops you'd like to come back and revisit for longer later in the week.
We ended the day with dinner at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, near Trafalgar Square, which features a decorated sitting room inspired by the detective's office as described in the novels and various Sherlock Holmes books. A must-see for any fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Day Three: Road Trip!
While there's no shortage of things to see and do in London, there are some pretty cool spots right outside of London we wanted to check out. So we boarded a bus for a full-day tour out to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath.
On the way to Windsor Castle, we passed by the Ascot racecourse, home to one of the Queen's favorite pastimes. Windsor Castle is an official residence of the Queen, but it was originally built as a fortress to keep invaders out. You can wander through the State Apartments and see various treasures from the Royal Collection. Also on view is Queen Mary's dolls house, a miniature working replica of a portion of the castle.
After about an hour's drive we arrived at Stonehenge, which is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. As we walked the perimeter of the stones, we listened to an audio tour that told us about the various theories about the origins of Stonehenge, from being built by the Druids to being dropped from the sky by the Devil himself.
Our final stop of the day was Bath, where we toured the Roman Baths and the city of Bath itself. After a two-hour drive back to London, we arrived at our hotel late at night and exhausted from a very full day of touring.
- Suggested Reading:
- London Day Trips
Day Four: The Tower of London and Shopping
A morning tour of the Tower of London took a couple of hours and we got to check out where so many important figures were imprisoned and eventually executed. The Crown Jewels are also on display and made for a nice distraction after learning about some of the grislier stories about the Tower. Be sure to join one of the Yeoman Warder-guided tours, which depart every half hour (to call our guide a "character" would be an understatement).
The afternoon was spent shopping in some of the well-known, and admittedly touristy, shopping areas, including Portobello Market, Harrods department store, and Piccadilly Circus. We also checked out a temporary Dr. Who exhibit at Earl's Court, which happened to be in town at the same time we were. Having never seen the show, I was at a bit of a loss, but my friend (a true fan) found it to be "cheesy, but entertaining."
See Days Five and Six on the Next Page...
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Day Five: South Bank
Knowing we would never hear the end of it if we went to London and didn't check out at least one London museum, we headed for the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (admission is free!). The museum is immense and takes a few hours to explore, but is worth it even for the most casual art lover. With artists like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Seurat, Degas and Monet on display, everyone is bound to find something they're interested in.
We then headed for the South Bank for a trip on the London Eye. The trip itself was sort of anticlimactic, as there isn't any audio commentary to accompany it (and you have to share your pod with potentially annoying strangers), but the clear and sunny day lent itself to some fantastic photographs of the city. We then walked along the South Bank Walk, heading towards Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The Walk runs alongside the River Thames and took us past such sights as the London Aquarium, Jubilee Gardens, Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre, Tate Modern, and several bridges, such as the Millennium Footbridge and Waterloo Bridge. There's also an abundance of street vendors, street performers and restaurants along the way to keep you entertained and well fed.
After our walk we toured Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (a replica, since the original was demolished some time ago). There are several displays on hand to entertain any literary geeks, including costumes and special effects used during performances of Shakespeare's time. There is also a guided tour of the theater itself where you can experience what it was like to see one of Shakespeare's plays and be thankful that theaters now offer cushioned seats. We then capped the day off with some actual theater by attending one of the West End musicals.
Day Six: Library, Tea and More Shopping
We started our last full day in London at the British Library, where there is a room full of literary treasures on display (in addition to, well, a lot of books). From behind panes of glass you can view Shakespeare's original folio, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen's writing desk, original music manuscripts from artists like Mozart, Ravel and the Beatles, and original writings from authors Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte and Sylvia Plath. There are also temporary displays in the lobby of the library, where we were able to check out the history of the Old Vic theater.
Finding that we needed to get more shopping done, we made our way to Oxford Street, which is a shopper's paradise and offers everything from high-end shops, exclusively British shops (like Marks & Spencer and Top Shop) and touristy souvenir shops. The end of Oxford Street (or the beginning, depending on where you start) meets up with Hyde Park, which we walked through, heading toward the west end of the park to have afternoon tea at the Orangery in Kensington Palace.
Afternoon tea overlooking the lawns of Kensington Palace was a beautiful and relaxing way to end a very busy week touring London. Nothing can help prepare you for a long flight home quite like a relaxing afternoon in a palace!