London has a laundry list of popular attractions, from Buckingham Palace to Notting Hill, and it’s impossible to see them all in one day. However, the British capital is compact enough to experience several in quick succession if planned out right. Whether you’re interested in history, pop culture or a few pints at the local pub, London welcomes millions of visitors every year, in all seasons. When short on time, it’s best to prioritize your interests and pick a part of the city to explore – although it’s easier to take more in if you take advantage of the Tube and local buses. Wear a pair of comfortable shoes and carry an umbrella, just in case.
Tour Westminster Abbey
London’s most famous church is a good starting point for an itinerary of famous sites. Situated across from Parliament, Westminster Abbey is a World Heritage Site with a storied history (including the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton). Over a million visitors come through the church every year, so it’s recommended to book tickets online in advance. There are also services on Sundays, which religious travelers can attend.
Watch the Changing of the Guard
The guards at Buckingham Palace make a well-orchestrated spectacle of their shift changes, which the public can view most mornings. It’s essential to check the current schedule online before planning (and know which of three viewpoints you prefer). Typically, the guard begins its ceremony at 11 a.m. If you miss it, it’s also possible to spot the red-clad guards inside the gates of Buckingham Palace, where they stand throughout the day.
Explore the Churchill War Rooms
History buffs should descend into the Churchill War Rooms, a museum that showcases the preserved bunkers from World War II that were used by the British government to stage the end of the war. The War Rooms aren’t far from Buckingham Palace and can be seen in less than an hour (if you don’t read some of the more in-depth signs). Reserve a timed ticket in advance online to ensure entry.
Sneak a Peek at 10 Downing Street
The home of the British prime minister isn’t quite as grandiose as the White House, but you can still spot 10 Downing Street through a set of gates as you walk between Parliament Square and Trafalgar Square. Be warned: There is usually at least one protest taking place outside on a given day and it’s best to avoid the area when big marches are planned.
Climb the Trafalgar Square Lions
North of Whitehall, Trafalgar Square is a large public square that commemorates the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The busy area, which is adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery, features some very large lion sculptures at the base of Nelson’s Column. The statues are a favorite for tourists to climb on for a photo. Trafalgar Square often houses special events and protests, and it’s an easy spot to stop for a few photos without wasting too much of your quick trip.
Shop Covent Garden Market
Covent Garden is notoriously one of London’s best shopping areas, featuring both chains and boutique shops. Covent Garden Market, an old food market that’s been transformed into a chic retail and restaurant hub, is a good starting point, which you’ll find a short walk from Trafalgar Square. It’s also a great spot to pick up a few souvenirs or to grab an ice cream.
Read the Rosetta Stone
The British Museum, which offers free entry, has a wealth of historical artifacts on display – including some very impressive mummies. Its most notable piece is the Rosetta Stone, which you’ll find towards the entrance, making it easy to pop in for a quick look if you’re short on time. The museum is open every day of the year, except New Year’s Day and December 24-26.
Down a Pint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Several pubs claim to be the oldest in London, but Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, nestled in an alleyway off Fleet Street, has the best name of them all. The pub dates back to the 17th century and claims Charles Dickens and Mark Twain as past visitors. It’s not the prettiest place to grab a drink, but it’s likely the most memorable. Kids under 16 are allowed in pubs when accompanied by an adult.
Browse Somerset House
Once the site of a Tudor palace, Somerset House, adjacent to Waterloo Bridge, houses rotating exhibitions and, in the winter, an ice skating rink. Spend a few minutes exploring the current offerings, or just pop in for a coffee at Fernandez and Wells, located inside the central courtyard. In the summer, Somerset House puts on concerts and you can score tickets to see artists like The Gossip and Cut Copy perform.
Take in the View at the Tate Modern
Across the river, ascend to the top of the Tate Modern’s new wing to find a 360-degree, outdoor viewing gallery that extends around the entire building. From there you can spot nearly every iconic building in London, including Wembley Stadium far off in the distance. Be sure to visit the museum’s many galleries as well, all of which are free to the public (with the exception of special exhibitions). Harry Potter buffs should grab a photo outside on the Millennium Bridge, which was destroyed by Death Eaters in the film of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
While the actual Globe Theatre burned to the ground while Shakespeare was still alive, Southbank features a replica of the iconic theater. Even if you don’t have time to stay for one of the productions, which feature classic and experimental versions of the playwright’s famed works, the theater offers guided tours throughout the year, which typically last 30-40 minutes.
Ride the London Eye
If your time is limited, the London Eye isn’t necessarily a must-do. But if you plan ahead and score Fast Track timed tickets, it’s possible to avoid wasting part of your day in the line. The London Eye, a massive, slow-moving Ferris wheel with enclosed viewing pods, offers elevated views of the city (which are best seen before it starts getting dark outside). The London Eye is open daily, with rides beginning at 10 a.m. Check the website for closing hours, which can change depending on the day of the week and the season.
Browse the Stalls at Borough Market
Located near London Bridge, Borough Market is a covered outdoor food market that dates back to before America even existed. It’s open every day except Sunday and visitors can discover an endless array of market stalls, with everything from pastries to fresh fish to olive oil. It’s a great stop for lunch, especially when strolling around Southbank, and the market has enough food stands and permanent restaurants to satisfy any craving.
Traverse Tower Bridge
From Borough Market, it’s possible to walk along the Thames until you reach Tower Bridge, one of London’s most photographed sites. Travelers can simply walk across, but for a more memorable experience buy a ticket to enter the bridge and head up into the elevated walkways. It’s open daily (except over Christmas) and tickets can be purchased in advance online, although timed entry is guaranteed during busy periods.
Visit the Crown Jewels
On the other side of Tower Bridge is the Tower of London, a historic castle where the crown jewels are kept. It’s possible to see the Tower of London from the outside, but if you have a spare hour head in to discover the armory, the 23,578 gemstones that make up the crown jewels and exhibitions on imprisonment, torture and royal beasts. It’s an ideal spot for older kids and teens, especially since much of the experience is interactive.
Wander Through Hyde Park
If you’d rather spend your short time in London outside, make your way to Hyde Park Corner, the southeast point of Hyde Park. From there, follow one of the many trails through the green expanse, which is the largest of the Royal Parks. The park is home to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, a boating lake called The Serpentine and the photogenic Italian Gardens, which were a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria. The park has concessions and numerous spots to buy food and drink, and visitors should be prepared to insert a 20 pence coin to access the restrooms.
Visit Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace, the home of Prince William and Kate Middleton, borders Hyde Park. It’s been a royal residence for over 300 years and the birthplace of Queen Victoria, and visitors are invited inside to learn about the palace’s extensive history. The exhibitions change, but the King's State Apartments and the King’s Gallery are always open to tours, as well as the gardens. It’s essential to book tickets in advance, especially when a new exhibition opens.
Stroll Through Notting Hill
From Kensington Palace, it’s a quick walk to Notting Hill, made famous by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Portobello Road is the area’s main thoroughfare, featuring the Portobello Road Market, an extensive market that sells antiques, food and souvenirs every day except Sunday. Movie fans will find a lot to spot in the area, too, including Alice’s Antiques from "Paddington" and the blue door from "Notting Hill" (located at 280 Westbourne Park Road).
Pet Paddington Bear
Paddington Station is a hub of activity in London, with dozens of trains coming in and out of the station every hour. The Heathrow Express, a train that jets travelers to Heathrow Airport in only 15 minutes, is based there, so on your way out of the city stop by the life-sized bronze Paddington Bear statue, which was designed by sculptor Marcus Cornish and unveiled in 2000. Paddington sits under the clock and fans can also shop for themed souvenirs in the official Paddington store.