Our "big city-short stay" itinerary series continues with another romantic European destination that is on the must-visit list of most travelers. London is a gigantic bustling hub of activity and while it is now mostly known for being a business destination for every inspiring investment banker in Europe, a large part of the city still retains its historic old time charm.
Because of London's sheer size, it is important to know how to allocate your time if you are here on a short visit (you can also pace yourself and complete this itinerary in more than 3 days if you so desire). We will guide you through a couple of scenic walks, give you tips on the happening places to pop into and provide you with some good advice on food choices given that the one thing most tourists complain about in London is food. Yes, English cuisine is not known to be refined and there is plenty of bland fish & chip joints around, but there are also amazing places that we will point you to that will make you become one of the few London visitors who actually enjoyed the food scene.
Ok, I know this is a big promise, but you will be all set with your 3-day London trip after reading this post. And with that, let's set sails (or airplane wings in this case)!
Arrival in London
Since we are dream-traveling from the U.S., you arrived to London in the morning.
Traveler's Tip: there is a long line at passport controls in Heathrow these days (at least 1 hour), so make sure to equip yourself with patience and pay a visit to the bathroom before you get on that line.
London's Heathrow airport is well-connected to all parts of the city by trains. Follow the signs to Heathrow Express / Underground as you exit the baggage claim.
Take the Heathrow Express if you are staying in northern London between Regent's and Hyde park: it will get you to Paddington Station in 15 minutes. If you are staying in Westminster or anywhere on the South Bank, and are not riding the train during rush hour, we suggest you take the regular subway (known in London, as the "underground" or the "tube"). It will take you about an hour, but these are direct trains to the center of the city where you can easily exit via escalators with your luggage and the train ticket price won't break your bank like a cab idling in traffic would.
Heathrow Express tickets can be purchased online in advance or at the station. Underground is a little trickier - you need to purchase what's known as an Oyster Card, a convenient payment method for all London public transportation that gives you discounted fare vs purchasing separate tickets each time you ride the tube. At the ticket machine, buy an oyster card for each individual (you can't share one) and "top it up" with £10-15: you will be using the underground a lot since London is such a big city. A blank oyster card costs £5, which is refundable after you turn your card back to the ticket booth operator at the end of your trip.
Once you found your hotel and checked in (if you arrived before check-in and your room is not ready yet, you can always leave your luggage with the bell boy so that you don't have to lug it around with you), you are ready to start your London adventure.
Traveler's Tip: if you want to make your London visit even more romantic, grab one of our compact Starter or Essential romance decor boxes and stash them in your suitcase. While your honey takes a shower, order a bottle of champagne from room service and transform your hotel room into a perfect romantic oasis in minutes.
Day 1 - Southbank Walk (2 - 3 hours)
Traveler's Tip: You may do this walk in reverse if you want to end up by the London Eye around sundown for best romantic views. To do it in reverse, take the tube to London Bridge Station, which will drop you off right by the Shard and Tower Bridge.
Your walk starts on the south side of the Westminster Bridge. Closest tube stop is Westminster. Once you are outside, ogle the Big Ben and cross the bridge to be on the same side of the Thames as the giant London Eye ferris wheel.
Start by taking in the iconic view of the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament across the Thames from a small park on the south side of the river (make a right and walk down the stairs after you cross the bridge).
Then walk along the pedestrian underpath path towards the famous London Eye. For this attraction, there is usually a long line to get on. Obviously, you need decent weather to see anything so pick a good day to do it. Even if buying tickets online, you have to pick those up inside the ticket office across from the London Eye so might as well buy them there. We suggest to pay extra for Fast Track to save 45 minutes to an hour of standing on the line.
Traveler's Tip: for a romantic experience, private champagne ride is the way to go: you will avoid being stuffed into the pod with dozens of others and will be able to enjoy the views in relative privacy with a glass of bubbly. A perfect kick off to your romantic trip!
After the London Eye, keep walking along the South Bank. This riverside walk will take you along a busy pedestrian promenade from which you can enjoy beautiful views of London's skyline across the river. As soon as you pass the Blackfriars Bridge, you will find yourself in one of the oldest parts of London. Pop into Founder's Arms, a nice river-side eatery with outdoor seating if you are in the mood for a pint of beer and need a pit stop (don't eat here as we will be approaching some noteworthy food options in a few).
On your right is the gigantic Tate Museum of Modern Art. Since we are on a tight schedule, we are skipping a visit. As you keep walking, you will approach the famous Shakespeare's Globe Theater. The precise location of the original structure built in 1599 and burnt to the ground in 1613 remained unknown until a small part of the foundations was discovered in 1989 beneath a parking garage. The reconstructed theater opened in 1997 and is located approximately 750 feet from the site of the original theater. The venue operates as a theater with daily productions of Shakespeare's famous works running twice a day (2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) If you are interested in attending a play, buy tickets in advance or go for the £5 Yard Standing tickets if you want to spontaneously pop in even for a bit to get a feel of what a theater experience felt like back in Shakespeare's days.
As you continue the walk, check out the beautiful Anchor Pub, a rumored hangout spot of Shakespeare and his theater buddies.
Now the street gets narrower and you enter the medieval part of the walk. Cobblestone Clink Street leads you through an old Clink Prison site and towards the Golden Hinde, an English galleon best known for her circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580, captained by Sir Francis Drake.
Your next stop is Borough Market, a food market that envelopes the Southwark Cathedral and provides a plethora of great street food experiences. Pop into any stall and taste the world or find Padella, a fresh pasta joint that will blow your mind. Jump in the fast-moving line, order a drink while you wait, and get ready to do pasta properly.
Pass the busy London Bridge and walk towards Thames' South Bank again. There you will rejoin the pedestrian path that will continue to take you along the water. Admire the beautiful Hay's Galleria on your right: originally a warehouse and the associated Hay's Wharf for the port of London, it was redeveloped in the 1980s and now houses restaurants, shops, office space and apartments.
Once you find yourself in the open space again, you have the London sightseeing trifecta: the Shard skyscraper is on your right, the Tower Bridge is straight ahead and the medieval castle / prison, Tower of London, is across the water, sitting awkwardly among modern buildings. Relax on one of the benches and take in the views. This stretch is also the most picturesque setting for your Tower Bridge shots.
Traveler's Tip: if you skipped the London Eye, you may want to go up to the top of The Shard to experience bird-eye views of London. Another London champagne experience is available here with a glass of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut included in the price of your admission ticket.
I am sure you are tired by now and ready to head back to the hotel. Another busy day awaits tomorrow!
Day 2 - Westminster
You are starting in the same spot as yesterday, in Westminster by the mighty Big Ben, which is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock atop of the tower in front of you. Unfortunately, the bells of Big Ben are to be silent until restoration work is completed in the 2020s. When they are not, they can be heard miles away.
Adjacent to Big Ben are the famous Houses of Parliament, formerly known as the Palace of Westminster. The first royal palace was built on this site in the 11th century and it was the primary residence of the Kings of England until fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of the English Parliament, which has been meeting here since the 13th century.
You can visit the Parliament but since we are on a tight schedule, we are going to move on to Westminster Abbey. Across the street from the Houses of Parliament, this iconic church has been THE place for all the royal events. From weddings and coronations to funerals, Westminster Abbey is where it all happens. It opens at 9:30 a.m. daily and you can quickly walk through this beautiful ancient church (be forewarned, the admission price is quite steep at £20/person).
If you are a history buff, visit the Churchill War Rooms next to Big Ben (open daily 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.) The famous Cabinet War Rooms, a historic underground complex that housed a British government command center throughout WWII, is where Churchill worked to defeat the Nazi Germany.
Traveler's Tip: if you want to experience the Change of Guard ceremony by Buckingham Palace that takes place daily around 11 a.m., you should start your day there. In our opinion, the Change of Guard is a severely over-rated sight since in order to see anything without being a mile away, you need to get there by 9 a.m. If you decide to do it, the best viewing spot for the ceremony is on the steps of the Victoria Monument right in front of Buckingham Palace.
Once you are done with Westminster Abbey, take a leisurely walk to Buckingham Palace through St. James Park. A wonderful and quaint oasis of nature, this park is filled with flora and fauna that you rarely find in a big city.
Once you reach the home of the Queen, you can figure out whether she is home or not: if the Royal Standard flag is flown, the sovereign is present. But if the Union Jack flag flies above the Palace, it signals that the Queen is not in residence. You can visit the Palace during summer, but make sure to secure your tickets way in advance.
After admiring the beautiful Victoria Monument across from Buckingham Palace, it's time to move on. Walk through Green Park towards Piccadilly. Are you feeling hungry? If you are, there is a very nice seafood restaurant called FishWorks hidden on a small street that connects Piccadilly and Regent Street (7-9 Swallow Street). Fresh fish cooked to your liking and every type of oyster possible is this eatery's specialty and during lunch hour it gets crowded with hungry local working folk.
Traveler's Tip: if you are a seafood lover, London is a great destination. The waters around the big isle are perfect for growing amazing oysters. Any oyster bar typically has a selection of Irish, French and English oysters that will blow your mind.
Your walk continues towards London's answer to NYC's Times Square - the Piccadilly Circus. And a circus it sure is! A soup of people and traffic, there is nothing relaxing about this square so once you spot the famous Eros statue in the middle, it's time to move on to London's Soho district. Comparable to NYC's East Village in ambiance, Soho is one of the oldest neighborhoods in London. Artists and performers used to flock here for cheap rents in small walk-ups back in the day. The cheap rents and artists are now gone but streets full of character, as well as many sex shops and sex workers, remain.
Navigate to Carnaby Street, a famous pedestrian shopping street always decorated in festive street lights. Most shopping opportunities here are chains so definitely skippable. Adjacent to Carnaby, is King’s Street, where you can spot a gigantic typical English Tudor-style building. Loop around to Regent’s street – Hamley’s toy store is right there if you need some cute British souvenirs for children (or yourself - that giant Paddington bear is calling your name!) Walk down Regent’s Street towards Piccadilly again. This is London's Fifth Avenue and the main shopping district (as a reminder, European brands such as Zara and Mango are significantly cheaper here than they are in the U.S.)
Cross over the Piccadilly Circus Square again and walk towards Leicester Square - there is a TKTS booth there that sells discounted theater tickets for the upcoming shows. See if you can catch a nice last minute play at a steep discount. The classic Mouse Trap is a really cool "very London" play and has a tickets available most of the time.
Just steps away from Leicester Square is London's full block of Chinatown. Ornate Chinatown Gates mark the entrance at the intersection of Lisle and Wardour Streets.
While the area is small, there are plenty of authentic Peking duck eateries and bubble tea shops. Our favorite Chinatown delicacy is Bubblewrap Waffle. The picture perfect waffles are not only an Instagram sensation but also a tasty sweet treat.
Next, walk over to Covent Garden, one of London's oldest marketplaces. By 1654 a small open-air fruit-and-vegetable market had developed on this spot. Gradually, both the market and the surrounding area fell into disrepute, and by the 18th century it had become a well-known red-light district (hence the cheap rents for artists in the adjacent Soho). An Act of Parliament was drawn up to control the area and a neo-classical building was erected in 1830 to cover and help organize the market. The market grew and further buildings were added but by the end of the 1960s traffic congestion was causing problems so in 1974 the market had to be relocated. The central building re-opened as a shopping center in 1980 and is now a tourist location containing cafes, pubs, small shops, and a craft market called the Apple Market, along with another market held in the Jubilee Hall. Covent Garden is famous for its street performers, as well as legions of pickpockets targeting gawking tourists, so be careful with your wallets.
Steps away from Covent Garden, is the cutest hidden Harry Potterish little courtyard called Neil's Yard. Snap a great photo for your London album in one of the most photographed spots in the entire city, then grab a coffee and people watch.
Afternoon Tea to the English is what Sunday brunch is to New Yorkers - a slow-moving meal accompanied by boozy cocktails. Afternoon tea was introduced by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o'clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o'clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. Considering afternoon tea's royal origin, it is usually a classy affair and a lot of establishments from restaurants to hotels to grocery and department stores offer the Afternoon Tea experiences.
If you want to participate in England's favorite meal time, here is a list of our 4 top afternoon tea spots in the Piccadilly area (make sure to secure reservations if you plan on going, these gems get booked up weeks in advance):
- Restaurant at the Ham Yard Hotel;
- The Balcon at Sofitel London St. James Hotel;
- Oscar Wilde Lounge at Café Royal Hotel - an added bonus to this truly luxurious experience is the beauty of the magnificent room where Oscar Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas;
- Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason.
For a romantic dinner in the area, we highly recommend Clos Maggiore. A French-Italian fusion restaurant boasts great cuisine and an amazingly romantic setting. Reservations are highly recommended.
Other tried and trusted dinner options include: Randall & Aubin (seafood and cocktails in the heart of Soho under a disco ball), and Pierre Victorie on Dean Street if you are in the mood for a good French meal.
Your second busy day in London is over. If you are not tired yet, head to the top of Trafalgar St. James hotel for a nice drink with a view over bustling Trafalgar Square. We are going to end our third day here so don't worry if you skip the drinks and head home for a well-deserved night of restful sleep. Alternatively, you can continue your walk from Trafalgar Square towards the Big Ben via Whitehall Street. There are way too many government buildings in here including the famous 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence.
Day 3 - Tower of London & City Walk
You are starting your last day in London on the north bank of the Thames. Take the tube to Tower Hill and walk over to one of the most recognizable bridges in the world, Tower Bridge. Admire its ornate architectural details and splendid views onto both banks of the Thames as you walk across the bridge.
Did you notice the color of the Thames River? The reddish brown water makes the river look like it is a toxic polluted wasteland. Indeed, the Thames used to be horribly polluted, especially in mid-Victorian times, when waste was just dumped straight in. The (yes, really) of 1858 was probably the worst time, and led to the creation of London’s sewerage system. And even 50 years ago, the oxygen levels were so low the Thames was declared biologically dead. But since then, there has been a remarkable turnaround. Most of this has been due to legislation: a whole bunch of laws were passed to stop agriculture dumping their waste in the river, alongside as a set of projects along the river to create habitats for wildlife. Today, the Thames contains 125 species of fish, and more than 400 species of invertebrates. It supports seals, dolphins, porpoises and otters. Salmon are migrating up it to breed. Even sea horses have been found in the estuary, an animal well known as being sensitive to pollution. Despite such good news, we do however hope that none of the fish we eat when we visit London come from the Thames.
Trek back to where you started your day to see the Tower of London (open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily). The tall White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 and was a resented symbol of oppression inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952 and many a prisoner perished among its walls throughout the centuries. The line to enter moves very fast, however you will have to wait a bit if you want to see the highlight of the everyone's visit, the Crown Jewels - 140 royal ceremonial objects, which include the regalia worn by British kings and queens at their coronations.
After exiting the Tower of London, walk to the Great Fire Monument via the north bank's pedestrian path. A Doric column marks the exact place where the Great Fire of London started on September 2, 1666. The fire raged for 4 days and gutted the medieval City of London, consuming 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It threatened but did not reach the aristocratic district of Westminster and most of the suburban slums.
If you are feeling hungry, we recommend a popular eatery in the area by the name of Duck & Waffle. Tucked in on a high floor of a skyscraper, the restaurant boasts magnificent panoramic views of London (prices are quite magnificent too and not in a good way, but if you skipped the London Eye and the Shard, this is another chance to experience a birds-eye view of the City).
There is also another viewing terrace around here, the Sky Garden. Admission is free but you have to book your visiting date way in advance as it is a very popular sight with frequent overcrowding issues.
Walk west along Cannon Street to continue the sightseeing: you will be passing the enormous and beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral. The seat of the Bishop of London, this is the largest Anglican Church in the world. The cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire and it took 32 years to get it rebuilt to its former glory. You can go inside and climb its dome for amazing views, but beware of the steep stairs (admission fee applies; open 9:30 a.m to 4:15 p.m.).
As you continue down Cannot Street, it becomes Fleet Street. At No.17 you will see one of the few surviving buildings in the Great Fire of London - Prince Henry’s Room. Next on your right are the beautiful Royal Courts of Justice buildings. And on your left is the Twining Tea original store that opened 300+ years ago: a perfect place to stock up on authentic English tea for souvenirs.
Further down, Fleet Street turns into the Strand. On your left is the campus of King’s College, one of the most renowned educational establishments in England. The Strand is full of overpriced hotels and restaurants and we do not recommend any activities besides window-shopping around here.
Turn right on Duncannon Street towards Trafalgar Square. At the top of the square is the National Portrait Gallery, London's famous museum. Entrance is free so you can pop in and out and check out its most famous works (daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.; open late until 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays). Here are the top 5 paintings we recommend you see if you decide to stop by:
1. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (1434) - this painting is probably one of the most misunderstood in the history of art. It was always thought that the portrait depicted an unhappy wedding between an older groom and a pregnant bride. But this work is actually a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife and was not intended as a record of their wedding. His wife is not pregnant, but is holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion.
2. Whistlejacket by George Stubbs (1762) - a large canvas lacks any other content except some discreet shadows around the life size horse, and Stubbs has paid precise attention to the details of the horse's appearance. The painting has been described as "a paradigm of the flawless beauty of an Arabian thoroughbred."
3. The Toilet of Venus by Diego Velázquez (1647-1651) - the only surviving example of a female nude by Velázquez. The subject was rare in Spain because it met with the disapproval of the Church.
4. Bathers by Paul Cézanne (1894-1905) - Cézanne painted bathers from the 1870s onwards, including numerous compositions of male and female bathers, singly or in groups.
5. Samson and Delilah by Peter Rubens (1609-1610) - Samson, the Jewish hero, fell in love with Delilah. She was bribed by the Philistines, and discovered that his strength came from his hair which had never been cut. While he is asleep they cut his hair and Samson was drained of his strength which allowed the Philistines to capture him.
And with that, your long weekend in London has come to an end. If you have more time, here are some other sights you can visit at your leisure:
Charming Portobello Market in Notting Hill stretches for miles along the Portobello Road and Saturday is its main day where all the cool sellers are out – antiques, hand-made goods, art and other awesome stuff is all over the place. Take the tube to Ladbroke Grove and walk down Portobello Road – don’t forget to stop by the book shop where the main character in the movie Notting Hill worked. It is at 13-15 Blenheim Crescent just off of Portobello Road on your way down. Exit through the Notting Hill Gate and find the famous photogenic Churchill Arms pub.
Stop by Harrods for some awesome window-shopping experience in a store that’s famous for its ability to sell you literally anything (rumor has it you can buy a giraffe in there).
Peggy Porschen Cakes at 116 Ebury Street in Belgravia is a sweet treat and a beautiful photo-op in the area.
Take the tube to Camden Town and find the Camden Lock, an ancient device that had given way to get through London canals. Walk along the canal and then find Horse Tunnel Market, a hippie market set in the ancient horse stables. After wandering through the market and finding Camden's most famous resident's statue (we mean Amy Winehouse), prepare for an amazing lunch in the street food court KERB Camden Market. People grab food from stalls and eat it by the canal watching old boats go by.
And one last thing, when leaving London, make sure your carry-on does not contain ANY liquids. England's version of the TSA is very strict. If you have make-up or perfume, use clear plastic bags to push those items through the X-ray machine. If you forget something in your carry-on and it gets routed for hand-screening, you will only be allowed to keep 3 items that were not properly placed in clear bags, which for many ladies may result in a loss of the majority of their make-up and toiletries to the strict security agents.
I hope you enjoy your London adventure. Cheerio, mates!