It’s impossible to cover off everything on offer in the Big Smoke in 24 hours, but you can definitely give it a good go with our guide.
London is consistently ranked as one of the most popular cities in the world to visit, and for good reason. From Buckingham Palace to Big Ben, the Tower of London to Trafalgar Square, the capital of the United Kingdom is brimming with iconic landmarks, buzzing with an electric atmosphere, is home to a huge amount of world-class cultural institutions, not to mention it’s a foodie’s heaven, and a quirky and cosmopolitan city where there’s always something going on.
There are five major airports that service London, making it very easy to travel to: Heathrow, Gatwick, London Stansted, London Luton, and London City. So once you’ve arrived and dropped off your bags, here’s a guide to what to do with 24 hours in the Big Smoke.
8.30am Brekkie in Granary Square
The Kings Cross area of London has undergone some serious redevelopment over the past few years. What was an underused industrial wasteland with a train station is now a place of urban regeneration, a popular area for dining and drinking, shopping and living, not to mention host to many great events. Start off the morning on the right foot with a delicious breakfast in Granary Square. Caravan, our favourite brekkie spot in the warehouse-style Granary Building, is not only a top choice for its food and caffeine, but nab an alfresco seat (even in winter!) and you can watch the more than 1,000 choreographed fountains dance in this canalside heart of Kings Cross. Once you’re finished, wander over to the western concourse of Kings Cross station and look up – the diagrid roof is not to be missed. And if you’re a Harry Potter fan, start your journey to Hogwarts from platform 9¾.
10am Admire the architecture of central London
From King’s Cross St Pancras Underground Station, jump on the Piccadilly Line five stops to Piccadilly Circus Underground Station. Taking the Tube is a must-do experience in London; the London Underground is a historic institution – it opened in 1863, making it the world’s oldest underground railway network. Today it has 11 lines covering 402 kilometres and 270 stations. From there, walk down Haymarket to Trafalgar Square and admire Nelson’s Column and the famous Fourth Plinth, where you’ll see commissions by contemporary artists. You’ll feel a buzz in the air here – Trafalgar Square is popular with street performers and events (plus, every Christmas it’s home to the biggest Christmas tree in London, an annual gift from the city of Oslo). Then head down Pall Mall and wander at the grand architecture of a street that is home to many of London’s finest private members’ clubs, including the Royal Automobile Club and the Oxford and Cambridge Club. If that gets you in the mood for the finer things in life, head a few streets parallel to Piccadilly, home to Grade II listed buildings, upmarket stores such as Fortnum & Mason and elegant hotels such as The Ritz.
Each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (weather and major events-permitting), soldiers on active duty from the Foot Guards perform the ceremonious Changing the Guard outside Buckingham Palace
11am See the Changing the Guard
From Picadilly, walk through Green Park, one of the Royal Parks of London, to Buckingham Palace. Needing little introduction, Buckingham Palace has served as the official London residence of the UK’s sovereigns since 1837. But did you know that the Palace has 775 rooms, or that if the Royal Standard is flying then The Queen is in residence, whereas the Union Flag flying above the Palace (or other Royal residences) means Her Majesty is not at home? But even if Her Maj isn’t around, you can still witness some traditional British pageantry with the Changing the Guard. Each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (weather and major events-permitting), soldiers on active duty from the Foot Guards perform the ceremonious Changing the Guard outside Buckingham Palace, when the New Guard takes over from the Old Guard. Check times and dates on the Household Division website to ensure you don’t miss out on seeing the famous bearskin hats and red tunics of the guard.
12pm Feel the buzz of Westminster
Once you’ve had your fill of ceremony, head towards the nearby Palace of Westminster, more commonly referred to as the Houses of Parliament. The seat of the UK government is a beautiful, gothic masterpiece, a UNESCO World-Heritage site, and one of the most photographed buildings in the world. It’s possible to do guided tours, or you can also go to the public galleries and watch a debate in action, although be prepared to queue. The building is also home to the famous Clock Tower (Big Ben is actually the nickname of the bell inside the tower, which weighs an incredible 13 tons (13,760 kg)). Elizabeth Tower, as the site was renamed in June 2012 in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, stands at over 96 metres tall, with 334 steps up to the belfry. Unfortunately visitors will have to wait until 2021 to hear Big Ben’s famous chimes again, as the tower undergoes important restoration work. While you’re in the area though, pop in to Westminster Abbey, a 700-year-old building which has been the place of many important state events, including every Coronation since 1066 and multiple royal weddings.
1.30pm Take a leisurely lunch along the South Bank
Walk over Westminster Bridge to the South Bank, a dynamic and popular riverside area of London nestled along the banks of the River Thames (there are incredible views of the Houses of Parliament from here). Home to great cultural institutions such as the Southbank Centre, the BFI Southbank (British Film Institute), and the National Theatre, as well as London icons such as the Coca-Cola London Eye, and loads of restaurants, bars and historic pubs, this is a great place for a lunch pit-stop (and cheeky afternoon drink). Rest your feet and enjoy the view along the tree-lined riverside walkway. You’ll likely get to enjoy some street performances while you’re there.
Coca-Cola London Eye is an iconic sight along London’s Southbank
3pm Discover hidden gems of South London
There are more than 30 bridges spanning the River Thames, and you’ll see some of the most famous as you carry on your riverside walk towards the London Bridge and Southwark areas. Westminster Bridge, Hungerford Bridge, Golden Jubilee Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge, London Bridge, Tower Bridge… some of the city’s most famous are right here, as well as some wonderful hidden gems. Pass by the world-famous Tate Modern, a much-celebrated modern art gallery; watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe, a wonderful reconstruction of the 1599 open-air playhouse where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed; visit the Golden Hinde, a full-scale reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s world-famous sailing galleon; pop into Southwark Cathedral, the oldest gothic church in London; and end your riverside walk at Borough Market, London’s oldest market. Open Monday to Saturday, the market provides a wonderful glimpse into the London market scene, with speciality stallholders, fresh produce and artisan traders, all selling their wares in this pocket of South London. We bet you won’t be able to resist the dense chocolate brownies on offer from the Artisan Foods stall.
5pm Explore the East
If your feet are feeling a bit weary from all the exploration, jump on a bus from London Bridge and head straight for the heart of the uber trendy, super cool East London (say it like a Londoner: Landan). Plus, a ride on an iconic red double-decker bus is a great way to do a bit of sightseeing – some of the buses have fantastic routes traversing across the whole of London. The 149, 35, 48 and 47 buses all head up towards Liverpool Street Station from here, a perfect stop for some final market stall exploration at OId Spitalfields Market. There has been a market on the site for more than 350 years, plus this is one of the finest surviving Victorian Market Halls in London. Home to small producers and local artisans, this is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs and presents.
7pm Fill your boots with dinner in Shoreditch
Gone are the days when London rattled at the bottom of the foodie scene list; the Big Smoke has gone Big Guns with it’s top-notch restaurants and innovative bars, and there’s no city in the world better than London to experience the prohibition-esque and secret world of cocktails. So while you’re in the East End, end your day with a cocktail and some delicious food. Stumble into the speakeasy-style cocktail bar Callooh Callay and sip on some delicious inventions from their award-winning menu. Follow that with dinner at Smokestak to try the melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket from cult London street food chef, David Carter – you’ll never look at brisket in the same way again.
Phew! That’s a pretty full 24 hours in London, so you’d be forgiven for wanting to hit the sack after you’ve filled your boots. If you’re still raring for more, head to Soho or Leicester Square for some central London evening fun where bars and music are aplenty. Our friends over at Upgraded Points have also got some great tips on what to do in London on their blog.
Like our 24 Hours In… series and want to read more? Check out our 24 Hours In… LA, Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin and Brisbane. And don’t forget to pre-book your airport transfer so you can get straight to exploring rather than waiting in a taxi queue.