How to spend one day sightseeing in London, England
One day itinerary for London’s major landmarks
London is a huge, diverse, vibrant, glorious city with so much to do it can be hard to get your priorities in order. Most first time visitors to London are overwhelmed with the choice and daunted by the size of the city (and its infamous tube transport system). Having lived in London for two years, I’ve created a streamlined one day guide to packing all of London’s major tourist sites into just one day.
1. Hyde Park
Your day starts at Marble Arch at continues through Hyde Park hitting all the best sights. Make your way across the park to Kensington Palace before doubling back across the Serpentine, past the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and down to Hyde Park Corner, directly below where you entered the park.
2. Buckingham Palace
From Hyde Park Corner you can cross right under the marvelous Wellington Arch into Green Park and onto Buckingham Palace. Aim to be here for 10am and the changing of the guard, and try to get a spot on the wall of the Victoria Memorial for the best view. Once the action is over it will be much easier to get up closer to the gates for your pictures. When you’ve exhausted all hopes of actually laying eyes on a member of royalty, put the Palace and Memorial directly at your back to head out through St James’s Park.
3. Downing Street & Westminster Abbey
If you follow any path right to the end of the park you should be able to find Downing Street and walk right on down past number 10. Also nearby is the entrance to Churchill’s War Rooms, one of my favourite paid attractions in London if you are interested and have the time to spare. If this is up your ally, definitely book tickets online in advance and time your walk to your entry window. Walking parallel to the river in the direction of Big Ben, you’ll be faced with the beautiful Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament.
4. Big Ben
At the moment, Big Ben is shuttered up for renovations, so doesn’t make for the best sightseeing, but hopefully soon he will be restored to his glory days.In the meantime it’s still one of those things you’ve got to see and as its on our route, you can’t miss it.
5. London Eye
With Big Ben to your right, Westminster Bridge should be straight ahead. Before you cross, take a moment to get your shot of the London Eye from this side of the river – once you cross it will be too big to get in frame. Once safely across the bridge, take a left and pick up the pace to dodge past the queues at the more gaudy tourist attractions like Shrek’s Adventure and London Aquarium. You can go on the London Eye if it takes your fancy, but honestly I don’t think it’s worth the money and I am yet to hear a raving review, so I’ve managed to avoid it to date. If it’s views of London you’re after, read on to find out how to get some of the best for free (well, almost).
Continue your stroll along the riverbank and you’ll end up in Southbank, home to Royal Festival Hall, London’s Imax and the Southbank Centre. Check in advance to see if any events here are of interest so you can time your visit. The street vendors, restaurants and bars along Southbank may tempt you, but if you can hold your hunger for just a few more minutes you are in for a real culinary treat. Continue your walk out of Southbank along the river, past the famous Shakespeare’s Globe theatre until you hit Anchor Pub, then turn right towards Borough Market.
7. Borough Market
Hidden away under the train line, these markets are arguably London’s best. With a mix of traditional fare, fresh produce and artisan food vendors, the markets are a great opportunity to sample some British favourites. If market stalls aren’t really your thing, there are also some great restaurants surrounding the market, like Padella pasta or El Pastor mexican.
8. The Shard
By now you probably will have noticed the major feature of London’s city skyline – The Shard is an 87-floor building with a paid viewing platform for tourists. That is not where we’re going though. On floor 31 is Aqua Shard, a lovely bar where you can pop up for free and grab a drink at the bar. The views are amazing, the service is fantastic and the vibe is a little bit fancy, so the perfect place to indulge yourself on vacation or show off to your visitors if you’re playing tour guide. Prices are a bit steep so I’d recommend staying just for one or two drinks, or sharing a bottle, before moving on.
9. Tower Bridge & Tower of London
Now it’s time to head back across the river, and it’s nice to do so over London’s most iconic bridge, the Tower Bridge, toward the Tower of London. Also on my list of best paid attractions in London, to do the Tower justice requires a day in itself, so a great option if you have a full weekend or a few days in the city. If not, you can walk a circle around the Tower and look in on its moats before ending up near the ferry terminal.
10. River Thames
Having walked quite a large length of the riverbank, now it’s time to change your perspective and get on the water! It’s up to you to choose the best ferry to take you up to Embankment and depends on your budget, whether you’d like a guide and how quickly you want to get there. Even on a grey day it’s quite lovely to cruise under London’s bridges and it’s the fastest and most pleasant way to get back to our next stop.
11. West End
If you depart the ferry at Embankment you’re perfectly positioned to stroll on up to Charring Cross, and from there you are within reach of most of London’s West End theatres. Dinner and a show is so London it has to be done, and you can secure tickets to most theatres in advance. If you do leave it to the last minute though don’t fret, most theatres sell returned tickets on the door so it’s always worth a shot if you aren’t prepared.
From here you can take your pick of restaurants for a hearty dinner before a show. Some of my personal favourites are Gordon’s Wine Bar in Charring Cross if you’re just in for some cheese and wine, or in Soho Tonkotsu for ramen, Koya for japanese or Kricket for indian. I have two favourite sites I use to book theatre tickets; TodayTix and SeatReview. The latter is great to cross check seats before you book tickets so you can find the best value seat – oftentimes there isn’t a lot of difference between pricing bands on some seats, and SeatReview shows images and ratings on most seats in most theatres.
Do it your way
This is a real whistle-stop tour of London and a jam packed day full of the must-see sites. You can tailor this to suit your own tastes, and from personal experience I can guarantee you can squeeze in a few extra pub stops along the way!
If you have the time to spread these sights out over a longer period of time, you certainly could – or you could use your extra time to do even more: see a 25m blue whale skeleton at the Natural History Museum, experience the underground bunkers of Churchill’s War Rooms, take a tour with the beefeaters who to this day reside at the Tower of London or view some modern art at the Tate Modern.
If walking is not your style, or if you’re taking family on a sightseeing tour, I’d highly recommend booking the open top hop on hop off bus with Big Bus Tours London. I did this with my boyfriend’s grandmother and her friend when they were in London and it was actually great fun, covering all the main sights listed above plus more, with commentary via headphones so you can listen and learn or just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Whether you’re in town for one day, one weekend, a week or several years London will not disappoint and your to-do list will never run dry.