Tips on a short visit to London

Today an American friend asked me for suggestions on what to do in England with 2 or 3 spare days on the end of a business trip. She has never been to the UK before. I have been meaning to get this blog reactivated for a while, so this gives me a good opportunity to do that! She will be in Cambridge for the work week, so will get to see a good amount there.

My primary advice is to visit London, which might seem to some like an unoriginal choice, but there are so many world renowned things to see that I think you have to start there if you’ve never visited before. So this post will focus on some tips on doing a short visit to London, especially for overseas visitors passing through, but hopefully it may have things of interest to anyone! I’ll do a follow up post on other options outside London.

Take a bus tour

Many of my London friends laugh at me for this, but my top recommendation for a first time visitor (or indeed anyone who hasn’t done this before) is to take one of the open topped double decker bus tours first to get oriented. It may be “touristy”, but you get to see an amazing amount of stuff in a couple of hours. I have done this a number of times with various visitors and everyone has really enjoyed it. You are rather at the mercy of London’s weather though – if it’s raining then you may want to postpone this, if there’s any prospect of the weather improving.

Tourists on a bus!
Tourists on a bus!

There are multiple companies that do this, including The Original Tour and Big Bus Tours. They are both pretty similar. You get a ticket that is good for 24 hours, and they both have two or three routes that generally take 2-3 hours to complete if you don’t get off. They have frequent stops and you can get off and on as often as you like. Also they both include a river cruise ticket, which is worth using if you have time. Depending on your schedule and other plans, you could stay on for the whole loop in one go, then visit places afterwards, or alternatively hop and and off wherever you wish.

Where to get off

Of course there are many, many great things to see in London. This is not based on a rigorous survey, but these are a few of my top recommendations.

Westminster Abbey is amazing, and my top choice. It’s also right next to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, so you get two (or three) for one stop! The architecture and history are amazing. Many kings and queens are buried there, as well as a diverse range of notable people including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Laurence Olivier, Handel, Lord Kelvin, Dr Livingstone, Rudyard Kipling, and many more. I find it fascinating to wander round there. I just found out that they now have fast track entry if you buy a ticket online ahead of time, so that is worth doing. Before or after, walk across the River Thames on Westminster Bridge for great views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The London Eye is nearby and offers great views. It’s worth doing, but you will probably have a fair wait there, and I wouldn’t necessarily put it on my list for a short visit. I personally would rate the river cruises that come combined with the bus tours as a more interesting experience, and you can also get on (or off) those at Westminster Bridge, and take them along to the Tower of London.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

The British Museum is one of the best of many incredible museums and galleries in London, and definitely worth a visit. Other options depending on your preference and location include the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern (housed in a disused Power Station by the River Thames) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). On our last trip, we were going to go to the Natural History Museum but there was a huge line so we went to the V&A which is next door, and loved it – I had never been there before.

A personal favorite of mine is the British Library – they have a relatively small and manageable “Treasures of the British Library” collection that is free and open seven days a week. I have visited it several times and always find it amazing. Just a small sample of items you can see there include Gutenberg’s Bible of 1455, Beowulf – the unique manuscript in Old English, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Shakespeare’s First Folio, Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s hand and original hand written lyrics from the Beatles. It is right next door to St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, so easy to visit if you are heading north from London on the train (to Cambridge, for example!).

Covent Garden is another fun place to visit – the main square there is packed with lots of restaurants, bars and interesting shops, and also has lots of street entertainers, especially in the summer. It’s home to the Royal Opera House, and a cool Apple Store (I know, I know, you don’t go to London for the Apple Store, but if you’re in Covent Garden it’s worth a quick look – you can get free WiFi there if nothing else!).

Getting around

You definitely DO NOT want a car in London. If you have a tour bus ticket, that can get you to most places. Other than that, the best way to get around is on the Underground (also known as the Tube), which is well signed and pretty easy to navigate. If you will be there for two or three days, it is worth buying (or borrowing) an Oyster Card. Actually I just found out you can buy a special Visitor Oyster Card and have it delivered in advance, which is worth considering if you are organized enough! This is especially true if you are arriving at Heathrow Airport and want to take the tube from there, as you need to buy an Oyster Card from the ticket office rather than the machines, and there is always a huge line there. Once you have a card you can top it up and re-use it, so keep it for future visits if you can. Talking of traveling from Heathrow, there are two main options, the tube or the Heathrow Express. The Heathrow Express goes to Paddington and is somewhat faster but a lot more expensive – at the time of writing this, £21.50 versus £4 on the tube if you have an Oyster Card, or £6 if you don’t. If you are going to somewhere on the Piccadilly Line, which goes right across London, then I definitely recommend taking the tube, rather than taking the Heathrow Express and changing – it’s much simpler and cheaper, and won’t take much longer. I normally take the tube to King’s Cross St Pancras if I am heading on to Cambridge or Leicester, two of my regular destinations. Central London is fairly compact, and walking is often an option too, which means you get to see more. And taxis are also not too expensive and a reasonable option within the center (but don’t take them to or from the airports, they are a long way out).

Where to stay

London hotels are expensive, but I have had good luck using discount sites like Hotwire, or more recently Hotel Tonight (I use their iPhone app). I have been very impressed with Hotel Tonight – as the name suggests, they are focused on booking a hotel at short notice, and they have great deals. On our last visit we spent two nights at the lovely Hotel Xenia for only $133 per night including all taxes and fees – and we found the same room on booking.com (at the same time) for $400 a night! We booked this the day before we were staying in London. You need a little nerve to wait and book a day ahead, but there are so many hotels in London that it’s a particularly low risk there. I am definitely likely to use Hotel Tonight for future stays there, unless I have a particular need to be in a really specific spot. If you want to splurge then the St Pancras Renaissance hotel is incredibly cool, but also very expensive. I have stayed there a couple of times on business trips, and charged half to expenses (which was comparable to other business hotels I would have typically stayed at) and paid half myself.

The living room at St Pancras Clock Tower
The living room at St Pancras Clock Tower

One other amazing place that we have stayed at is the St Pancras Clock Tower which you can book on airbnb. You will need to book a long way ahead, but it’s a unique place to stay for a special occasion, and not overly expensive by London standards – half the price of staying in the St Pancras Renaissance, and much more exclusive! I have stayed there multiple times, and held the London stop of my 50th birthday party there! See our pictures here. The owner Peter is a wonderful host.

Where to eat

Obviously there are a massive number of places to eat in London, but I just wanted to mention a couple that I’ve particularly enjoyed. A place we’ve been to multiple times is the Gilbert Scott Bar which is in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and right by the station. It has a really cool atmosphere, excellent food and interesting cocktails – I highly recommend it. If you walk between the lobby of the hotel and the bar you will walk past the grand staircase, which is worth checking out.

Gilbert Scott Bar
Gilbert Scott Bar

Indian food is always a good bet in London, and the UK in general, and that is something that you should try if you’re visiting, from the US especially. On our last trip we stumbled on a place called the Bombay Brasserie, which was a very formal and upmarket Indian restaurant, quite unlike the typical British Indian restaurant which is much more inexpensive and informal. If you haven’t tried a more typical place I’d probably suggest you do that first, but if you fancy something different, and more expensive and formal, the Bombay Brasserie is well worth a visit.

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