If you’re headed to Europe, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll find yourself in the exciting city of London—England’s capital.
Heathrow, London’s main airport, is an international flight hub. Tickets to Heathrow are typically the cheapest in the area—hence why you’ll probably end up there. No worries though, Heathrow is pretty easy to navigate and connections to the city are seamless.
Speaking of connecting to the city, when you first land you’ll want to head to the underground railway station (connected to the airport) and buy yourself an Oyster Card. This card will be your ticket to the city’s public transportation systems. Simply purchase a card for 5 pounds and fill it up with as much money as you see fit—the machines give you suggestions based on the length of your stay. I’d start with at least 20 pounds.
You have a few different options to get to your accommodation: train, bus, or taxi. I think the train is the most authentic and exciting way to travel the city, so I 100% suggest this route! Uber is also very active in London.
The Underground (or tube) is London’s system of underground trains and it seriously goes everywhere. It might feel overwhelming at first, but once you figure out which part of the city you’re located in and learn your one or two main lines (routes) you’ll be good to go! And when all else fails, Google maps has a “transit” option that will direct you to the proper lines.
Now let’s get exploring!
London Day 1:
- Piccadilly Circus
- Trafalgar Square
- National Portrait Gallery
- Buckingham Palace
- Endless walking
Our adventure started at All Bar One with avocado toast and a vanilla latte—10/10 suggest. Once we were sufficiently re-energized, we headed to Piccadilly Circus to explore and take in London’s most exciting and touristy area. Piccadilly is basically London’s Times Square. Pro tip: Don’t eat or drink in this area—prices are ridiculous.
Right down the road is Trafalgar Square, a big open area with giant lion statues and street artists. It’s impossible to miss, but if you somehow do, just look for the lions.
Trafalgar is the perfect place to take a seat and think to yourself, “Wow, I’m really in London.” It’s also got some pretty awesome photo opportunities, including sitting up by the lions. When you’re done snapping pics, get back up and waltz around the square.
Street artists, like painters and singers, line up on the sidewalks and entertain people as they walk by—they also ask for money, so be prepared. There are some incredible artists here, especially the ones who create masterpieces out of chalk or entire pictures out of stacked coins. Take a few minutes and appreciate the talent, it’s worth it.
(Please remember, you don’t owe anyone money, but it is possible to say no and still be kind.)
Around the corner from Trafalgar is the National Portrait Gallery. This free art museum is packed full of history and new-found art alike. It’s a nice mix of art appreciation and the reminder that you slept through most of 10thgrade history class. I could’ve stayed here all afternoon, but after two hours I was ravenous, so we headed back through the Square in search of food.
I’ll be completely transparent, I’m not sure where the heck we ate but if I had to take an educated guess, we got gelato and called it good.
After presumed gelato, we headed in the direction of what we hoped turned out to be somewhere interesting. Luckily for us we ended up on the front steps of Buckingham Palace. The palace is exactly what you’d expect: large, imposing, and glittering with gold. The number of tourists climbing on top of each other in attempts to snag the best photo was comical and made me question what life in the palace is like if people are constantly treating your home like a tourist attraction.
The rest of the evening was spent walking endlessly through neighborhood after neighborhood and popping into stores, staring in awe at the various monuments we found, and complaining about sore feet.
As a night cap we grabbed dinner at Nando’s—a popular restaurant chain in the UK. This turned out to be a mistake. I do not suggest following in our footsteps. Sorry Nando’s lovers, I’ll stick with Chik Fil A.
London Day 2:
- Tower of London
- Tower Bridge
- London Eye, Big Ben, and Westminster
Day 2 in London started with a bang and ended up being my favorite day of all. Hopping on the train we headed to the Tower of London. I had no idea what to expect upon arrival, but since I’m a museum-loving nerd I had high hopes.
The Tower of London is old—really old. Kings and Queens lived in it, prisoners were held in it, and heads were chopped off on its lawn. Oh, and they had numerous exotic pets including a polar bear which they tied to a rope so it could “fish in the river.”
The guided tour is 100% worth it. You learn an exceptional amount of British history and are certain to gain a few good laughs along the way. This is also where you see the famous crown jewels and are reminded that the royal family is #extra.
Pro tip: While at the Tower of London you’re granted one of the best views of Tower Bridge, so get your pics in.
A few hours of castle exploring later, and you’ll be ready to head to Tower Bridge, which just so happens to be close by. I suggest crossing the bridge by foot and making one too many “London Bridge is falling down” jokes. Though it’s technically not the bridge referenced in the song.
You can apparently go inside the bridge—which we did not—but would probably be cool.
Instead, we waltzed to the neighborhood directly on the opposite side and cozied up in a pub. This is where we 1) had our first drink of the trip 2) met a group of Americans studying abroad from Chicago and told them to stay in school as long as possible and 3) became bffs with a bartender named Bailey and told him way too much about our lives.
We probably outstayed our welcome, but in all fairness, it was pelting rain outside and we had forgotten our jackets or an umbrella.
Once the rain stopped and the sun had gone down, we moseyed on over to the Westminster neighborhood. Westminster is a gorgeous area, housing parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey. I’ve heard it’s also where big important people live.
Sad news for Big Ben lovers headed to London soon—Benny Boy is temporarily out of business and getting a refurb.
Seeing the London Eye at night is pretty cool, though we didn’t ride it (trust me, not worth the cash). Parliament and Westminster Abbey are also incredible to see all lit up. A major Brexit decision had been made hours before, so we found ourselves surrounded by protesters and news crews both fighting for attention and looking equally ridiculous. In an effort to match the ridiculousness of the situation, we walked through the background of as many interviews as we could faking an English accent.
Realizing the police presence was growing and the protesters were beginning to chant even louder, we decided it was a good time to head home and grab dinner.
Let me give you a London insider tip: Download the Wetherspoon app. It’s an app that allows you to order food and pay for your meal at all of the Wetherspoon restaurant locations, which are everywhere. I promise if you find yourself in London you will also find yourself face to face with a Wetherspoon and glad you downloaded the app.
London Day 3:
- Westminster Abbey
- Freddy Mercury’s House
- Abbey Road
Once again, the guided tour is 100% worth the money. You’re allowed entry into areas that you’d otherwise be left blind to. Our tour guide did a superb job and answered my endless spew of questions like, “If Queen Mary of Scots was Elizabeth’s sister, why did her brother kill her and why are they buried together?” (Thanks for nothing 10thgrade history!)
After our tour I went home and watched documentaries on Queen Mary of Scots—that tells you how intriguing the day was. Also, please pay the 5 extra pounds to explore the new museum on the top floor. There you’ll find the most spectacular portrait of the current queen, extremely old statues and artifacts, and more dead people.
Sara, my travel buddy, is obsessed with Queen—can you blame her? They’re the bomb. Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, actually lived in London. So, after our Westminster Abbey tour we headed out in search of his home. Which we found quite easily.
However, his lifetime friend and once girlfriend still lives in the residence and isn’t exactly fond of tourists—so aside from the garage and a bladed fence, there’s not much to see. Still worth it though if you’re a Queen lover.
Not far from Mercury’s (about a 15-minute train ride) is the famed Abbey Road. You know the one the Beatle’s are majestically crossing on the cover of their album? Turns out you too can cross it! Though snapping a picture like theirs is all but impossible because the road is actually highly trafficked by cars, please be careful!
This affluent neighborhood is also home to some other famous people and boasts incredible houses that are fun to look at and dream of one day living in. Spend a few minutes walking around—you’ll be glad you did.
London Day 4:
- Shoreditch and Brick Lane
- British Museum
- Steak & Co.
Day 4 was quite lowkey for us because we were preparing to head to our next country. We started with a nice stroll through Shoreditch neighborhood, an artsy area packed with vintage boutiques and laden with graffitied walls.
Bailey (the aforementioned bartender), suggested we walk down Brick Lane and check out some of the street art. He was right—there’s definitely a lot of it. If you’re looking for a way to spend a relaxed couple of hours, Brick Lane is the place to do it. Pop into some stores, try some organic chocolate (it’s everywhere), and ask yourself how someone can spray paint better than you can draw with pencil.
There was one place we’d been wanting to see but hadn’t made time for: the British Museum. Little did I know this museum would take an entire month to truly absorb. We only had a couple of hours, so I sped through a bit faster than I’d have liked. I suggest dedicating a large chunk of time to taking in all this museum has to offer.
Here you can find: Cleopatra’s mummy, the Rosetta Stone, and more information on every single corner of the world than you could possibly imagine.
PS: IT’S FREE.
To end our London adventure, we grabbed dinner at Steak & Co. I ordered the filet, steamed veggies, and an Oreo milkshake to top it off. They bring your steak out on a hot stone, half-cooked, and let you cook it the rest of the way. It’s pretty neat if you’ve never been.
Closing Remarks and Lessons
- Buy an Oyster Card. And once you do, make sure to always scan on and off of trains or else you’ll be charged exorbitant fees.
- Best neighborhoods to stay in London: Covent Gardens (close to Trafalgar, lots of shops & food, loud, young), Shepherds Bush (slower, close to transit, less expensive), Kensington (nice, clean, close to everything you’ll want to do), Soho, Camden Town, or Leicester Square.
- Go to the bathroom before leaving the house—finding free clean public restrooms is next to impossible.
- Say “YES!” to adventure and just go explore! London is massive and the best part is simply wandering around the city getting lost.
- In most restaurants the tip is included in the bill—double check so you don’t double tip.
- Pack hand sanitizer. Maybe I’m being a germaphobe, but after a few trips on the train you’ll be glad you listened.
- Bin = trash can
London is lovely, and if you’re lucky enough to walk its vibrantly lit streets at night and soak up its historic character and charisma during the day, you’ll understand why I say that.
Happy London-ing! Still have questions? Drop them below!