Last September I was on a ten-hour layover in London en route from Kuala Lumpur to Lisbon. You may ask, why didn’t I choose to stay longer in London at least for two days or so? Well, I do love London and I miss it very much. I haven’t seen many of the sights except for Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London and the London Eye, and I would love to explore more of the city. But I was travelling on a tight budget last year and since a close friend in Lisbon had invited me to visit her, I’d decided that I would travel to Portugal instead. In the meantime, I settled for a layover in London, a couple of hours long enough for me to exit from Heathrow and to make a short trip to the city – just to have a feel of the majestic city again.
While ten hours seem long, the actual number of hours for sightseeing is reduced to, perhaps five hours, after taking into account of travel time from Heathrow to the city and back, check-in and boarding time for the next flight. With that in mind, I chose only one activity in London and that is to visit the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster for a few hours. The Churchill War Rooms are hidden underground where Winston Churchill and his inner circle directed the Second World War from 1938 until 1945 when the war ended. Although this war museum is not on everyone’s number one place to visit in London especially on a short visit, it was indeed for a history buff like me!
Not everyone is as geeky as I to visit a war museum while on a layover 😊 So, I’ve compiled a list for you – places to visit or things to do in London for a couple of hours – based on recommendations by other travel bloggers:
Windsor – Jade & Kev of Two Tall Travellers
Only ten miles from Heathrow, Windsor is the perfect day trip whilst on a long layover! Jump on a bus at the airport that will take you all the way to the town (only £6) and take in what the beautiful town of Windsor has to offer.
If you’re there in the morning, watch the Changing of the Guard at 11am and stroll by the river Thames before lunch. You could also take a peaceful boat trip on the water. Or, take a tour of Windsor Castle – watch out for the Royal Standard flag to tell you if the Queen is home!
Enjoy a fantastic afternoon tea complete with champagne at one of the local cafés, pubs or hotels and wander across the bridge to Eton where you’ll find quirky shops and bookstores to browse. If you have time, you could also keep walking and take a peek at some of the impressive Eton College buildings.
Trafalgar Square – Faye & David of Delve Into Europe
Trafalgar Square is one of the great public spaces of London, and it’s a must-see no matter how long you’re in London. If you’re on a short layover it can be done. You need to catch a Heathrow Express (15 minutes) into Paddington, then get on the Bakerloo line (the brown one on the Tube map) to Charing Cross which is on the edge of Trafalgar Square.
It’s a great place for a taste of iconic London with red buses and black cabs passing by all the time. Nelson’s Column dominates the square, surrounded by the famous four bronze lions. The wide-domed building at the northern end of the square is the National Gallery, one of the finest art museums in the world, and its sister, the National Portrait Gallery is just around the corner on Charing Cross Road. The stunning white church on the corner of the square is St Martin in the Fields, a venue for regular classical music concerts and one of the best cafes in central London, the Café in the Crypt underneath the church.
There’s also the famous view down Whitehall to Big Ben, the world-famous clock tower of the Houses of Parliament – but bear in mind that it’s going to be covered in scaffolding for the next three years while it’s being restored.
Queen’s Walk Along the Thames – Halef of The Round The World Guys
Assuming the weather is nice, walking along the Thames River is something I highly recommend for a layover. One of the most famous trails in London is the Queen’s Walk which starts from Westminster Bridge and ends up at the Millennium footbridge by St. Paul’s Cathedral.
This amazing trail passes many London’s landmarks, including many of its famous bridges like Tower Bridge and London Bridge. You’ll also find many shops, restaurants, bars and cafes along the way. It is a self-guided tour, and the path is very easy to follow. My favorite area is the newly-installed mosaic wall, which highlights London’s rich history through its centuries of existence. It is part of the Millennium bridge installation. The display will remain there until the year 2100 and beyond.
Still not convinced? Go out at night during a full, or nearly full moon. London’s city center is lit up very beautifully. No matter where you look, you’re met with a memorable charm, which makes it easy to fall in love with the city.
Borough Market – Maire of Temples and Treehouses
Borough Market is one of the most delightful food markets in London. It’s in a central location right by London Bridge, so it makes a perfect stop-off on a walk along the south bank of the Thames river.
Borough Market is one of London’s oldest markets, and the food stalls are set in charming clusters under the arches of the railway bridge, next to gorgeous gothic Southwark cathedral. You can get buy delicious food from around the world, incredible cakes and baked treats but also breads, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. One of my favourite Borough Market memories is buying a dozen oysters to share with a friend and eating them in the shade of the cathedral with a splash of lemon juice.
The market is popular with locals and tourists, so it can get crowded but the atmosphere and amazing food is worth the crush! It’s open Monday to Saturday (closed on Sundays except for December!) and tends to be least crowded on weekdays.
Victoria and Albert Museum – Nicole of Travelgal Nicole
The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in Kensington, London is one of my favourite museums in London. Not only is it free but it also holds a lot of beautiful treasure in a beautiful building as well. You could spend hours exploring the exhibits in the V&A with over 2.3 million pieces it is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. If you are short on time, the museum has a map of the twenty treasures which are the highlights from the collections. From Raphael paintings to Middle Eastern carpets that date back to the 1500s, there are some amazing treasures in this museum.
For me, the best part of the museum is the building itself. There is a mosaic in the façade designed by Godfrey Sykes and the ceramic staircase designed by Frank Moody is really beautiful as well.
Soho and Chinatown – Noel of Travel Photo Discovery
Soho and Chinatown are great to visit together since they are practically situated side by side in Central London. You can visit this area anytime of the day, but the liveliest time to visit would be happy hour to evening when the area is full of locals and tourist coming at night to hang out. Full of bars, shops and even some naughty places to check out, this area is where Londoners party and enjoy some of the fun people watching and grabbing cheap Chinese or even Pan-Asian meals you can find anywhere in the city.
Check out my London for free attractions here to see cooler and yes, free places to experience around the city for inspiration on your next visit.
Piccadilly Circus – Clemens of Travellers Archive
Looking for some shopping, some crazy people and lots of blinking lights? Well, then you should definitely spend a couple of minutes of your London layover at Piccadilly Circus. The heart of London resembles New York’s Times Square and is a great place to chill, have a drink or check out the local theatres with all their musicals and shows.
The famous road junction is a public space in London’s West End in the City of Westminster. Built in 1819, it now connects Regent Street with Piccadilly. As it links the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, Haymarket, Coventry Street and Glasshouse Street it is quite obvious where it actually got its name from.
Tip: If you are not in London during the day, Piccadilly Circus with its illuminated advertising hoardings is a great place to simply sit, have a drink and enjoy the busy surrounding.
Walk from Green Park to Buckingham Palace – Fiona of London Unattached
Despite rumours, it doesn’t rain for 70% of the year in London – so if you have a few hours to spend, I’d recommend taking the Piccadilly line from Heathrow to Green Park and walking through one of the City’s prettiest Royal Parks to see the Queen.
The route from Green Park to Buckingham Palace takes you along a tree-lined and car free avenue to reach the Palace, dating from 1703 and home to the Kings and Queens of England since 1837. With time to spare you can walk along the Mall or around the lake of adjoining St James’s Park. Or, just head up Constitution Hill (it’s a slope rather than hill) to find yourself at Hyde Park Corner, where you can join the tube and get back to Heathrow in less than an hour.
The walk itself will take anything from an hour – depending on how long you stop to watch the guards at the Palace but there’s plenty to do along the way, from enjoying tea in St James’s Park café to visiting the Palace State Rooms and Gardens (in July and August only).
Notting Hill – Christine of Christine Abroad
One area that you simply cannot miss while visiting London is Notting Hill. Notting Hill is a charming and unique neighborhood with pastel-colored houses, fun shops and cozy cafes. In this area, you can find everything from Instagrammable places to world-famous events and great restaurants. It’s a place you have to visit when you’re in London.
Notting Hill is located only a twenty-minute subway ride from central London (Oxford Street) and can also be reached by foot in about an hour. Then you can walk through the beautiful Hyde Park which is a beautiful place to see in London as well.
Street Art and Food in Shoreditch – Allison of Eternal Arrival
If you have only a short London layover but you aren’t interested in seeing the traditional tourist spots like Big Ben and the Parliament…why not head east? To East London, of course, where you’ll find the bustling, vibrant neighborhood of Shoreditch.
Start on Brick Lane, the cultural heart of Shoreditch, where you’ll find some of London’s best curry houses next to vintage boutiques, cool cafés, and excellent markets. If you’re lucky and your layover is on a Sunday, you’ll find the weekly street food festival and the popup vintage market will be open. But even on quieter days of the week, you’ll find a lot in Shoreditch. For example, you can visit the street art around Redchurch Street, which is some of the most colorful and high-quality street art you’ll find in all of London.
If street art isn’t your thing, you can bar hop at some of the excellent bars in the neighborhood (I love the bar on the rooftop of Queen of Hoxton) or you can try just about any ethnic food you crave, like delicious Vietnamese food on “Pho Mile” aka Kingsland Road, all in time to get back for your flight!
Camden – Lizzie & Dave of Wanderlust And Life
If you are only in London for a short time, and you are looking for something a little quirky, then head over to Camden. The moment you step out of the tube station, it is almost like you have entered another London so far removed from Palaces, and Royal gardens. Famous for its grungy markets and rock-and-roll feel, Camden is a great place to go to pick up a quirky band t-shirt or some unique jewellery. It’s colourful and alternative and definitely worth a visit. If you walk up the main road towards the markets, you will be met with a mixture of souvenir shops selling fake Ray-Bans, tattoo parlours, and a range of restaurants serving world cuisine.
If you have the time, do pop into the famous World’s End pub. It is located just across from the tube station and is a great place to have a pint and listen to some indie music. It is one of those pubs where everyone is welcome which in essence is the real spirit of Camden anyway.
And an alternative way to spend your time on a layover is to,
Cycle Through the City – Mo and Jo of Best Captured
Public transportation in London, while convenient, comes with its own set of frustrations and if you are on a tight timeline, then the last thing you will want to do is sit in traffic on a double decker bus or miss out as you tunnel beneath the city on the Tube. Thankfully though London is full of Santander Cycles rental stations that for as little as £2 per ride give you both mobility and a true sense for the city around you.
The route options are too numerous to mention. But, there is something for every level of rider from the car-less paths through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park to the dedicated lanes along the River Thames. Our favorite route starts in the shadow of Big Ben and heads past Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and finish at Kensington Palace. If ridden straight through you can complete the trip in 30 minutes but you’re not going to be able to resist stopping to take a few photos along the way which may extend the journey.
Nevertheless, riding a bike through London is a perfect way to enjoy the city in a timely manner. Enjoy!
Whether you like castles, walks in the parks, street art, markets, war museums, city vibes or cycling, London has all kinds of activities for you to enjoy, even on a layover. Just remember to take note of time so that you are able to return to Heathrow on time to catch your next flight!
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