How to Visit Iconic London in One Day

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Overview

London, the capital city of England and the United Kingdom, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world for good reason. Famous historical sites interspersed with modern skyscrapers, Royal traditions surrounded by British charm, and elegant green areas hidden amongst vibrant neighbourhoods means there are no shortage of things to do in London for a day. London is a melting pot of everything you could want in a city, and we’ll show you the best of it with our one day London itinerary.

When

London is a beautiful city no matter what time of year you visit. The summers are not too hot, the winters are not too cold. But the rain is inevitable, so it’s best to embrace it, and don’t leave your hotel without an umbrella. 

As a green city, London’s many parks spend the spring and summer months in full bloom with seas of colourful flowers and plants. Summer is also one of the only chances you might get to see inside Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s official London residence. However, summer is the busiest time in London, especially mid-July to early September, which is when the school holidays are in the UK. 

To avoid the crowds, you might want to look at late March to April or mid-September through to November. It might be cooler, but to have more of the city to yourself and better deals on flights and hotels, so it’s perhaps worth it. 

December is a magical time to visit London with many Christmas celebrations, dazzling festive lights and decorations adorning the major streets, outdoor skating rinks and plenty of shopping from busy high street stores to local Christmas markets. Much like summer, December in London can be busy and result in higher prices.

Are you traveling to the United Kingdom for the first time? 

Get the low-down on visiting the UK, with tips about packing, travel, money, staying safe and lots of great city itineraries for your trip.

Travel

London has three airports; Heathrow , Gatwick and Stanstead. All have great international and European routes and access into the city, but Gatwick is probably the best option if your destination is London itself.

You have several options to get into London city center from the airport;

  • Transfer – the quickest and most convenient option, you can book in advance with Intui Travel.
  • Taxi – grab a cab, a metered taxi ride into London will cost around £60 during the day time and will take around an hour, depending on traffic.
  • Bus – easyBus will take you from Gatwick to Waterloo, Victoria, or Earl’s Court. Tickets bought online cost from £4 one way and the journey takes around an hour.
  • Train – the Gatwick Express departs every 15 minutes, you’ll be in Victoria train station in half an hour. A one way ticket cost £17.80.

in this post

One day itinerary London
1 day in London
London in a day tour

Stay

If you want to be right in the middle of buzzing London, stay at The Trafalgar St James Hotel. This recently re-opened hotel is tucked into the south west corner of Trafalgar Square itself, giving unrivalled, on the doorstep access to the beating heart of the city.  With friendly staff, luxe bedrooms and a to die-for roof terrace bar, where you can get up close and personal with Lord Nelson atop his column, this is a fantastic spot to lay your head after seeing the best of London in a day.
Alternatively, head for lively and eclectic Covent Garden and the perfectly located Henrietta Hotel on Henrietta Street, just behind the main piazza. Designed in an eclectic retro style, this intimate hotel offers quirky corners, informal service and a very, very good breakfast, making it an ideal hotel for a night and a day in London.
Being a notoriously expensive city, you can always push the boat right out and spend a devilishly luxurious night at The Savoy Hotel in central London on The Strand. You might want to save up to plan a stay here, but the glitz and glamour of Britain’s first luxury hotel is a dream stay come true. Even if you don’t stay here, you can treat yourself to a traditional afternoon tea in the equally impressive glass domed foyer.

See & Do

The great thing about London is that a lot of the major sights you’ll want to see if you’re on a flying visit are located a short distance from each other. Even the outlying activities and attractions are easily reached once you get the hang of the London Underground public transport system.

Morning

London Museums

To try and beat the crowds, and sometimes long lines in busy seasons, start your day at one of the city’s museums. The Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are both great options, and are conveniently situated next to each other on Cromwell Road at the South Kensington Tube station. 

The Natural History museum, with its endless rooms of animals, plants and dinosaurs, will keep kids both young and old occupied for hours, and is a favourite London place to visit for families. The Victoria and Albert Museum next door focuses on the history of art and designs, whilst bringing it to life for the visitor. It’s a bit less stodgy than the British Museum in Bloomsbury, which has over eight million artefacts and could take you weeks to get around!

The Natural History Museum London main hall bathed in sunlight, one of the best things to do in London for the day
The main hall of the Natural History Museum | Photo by Claudio Testa for Unsplash

St Paul's Cathedral

There has been a place of worship where St Paul’s Cathedral stands on Ludgate Hill for over 1400 years. This whole area of London is steeped in rich history, from Roman remains and medieval buildings to the the Great Fire of London in 1666, which devastated much of the area, including the ‘old’ St Paul’s Cathedral.

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710, this glorious cathedral is famous for its’ dome, at 111m high it is one of the highest in the world. St Pauls has been a feature on the London skyline, surrounded by the smaller spires of Wren’s city churches, for over 300 years.

Highlights of a visit to St Pauls include the Crypt, where you’ll find the tombs of Sir Christoper Wren himself, as well as those of Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, and the Whispering Gallery, which clings to the base of the dome structure and provides fantastic views both above and below. A visit to St Pauls really is one of the unmissable things to do in London in one day.

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It’s probably too far to walk the four miles to St Paul’s Cathedral, from South Kensington, so hop on the tube. Take the District and Circle line (the green and yellow one) to Cannon Street station, from there it’s a four minute walk to St Pauls.

St Pauls Cathedral London late afternoon from the Millennium Bridge on a day out in London
The view of St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge | Photo by Jonathan Chng for Unsplah

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

In the afternoon walk off your lunch with a stroll from Borough Market along Bankside, next to the Thames. Wander past cute local streets and shops while being serenaded by exceptional street musicians, until you arrive at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where there will no doubt be a “poet for hire” outside to write you a sonnet for a fee.

Although not the original theatre, which burned down centuries earlier, this one stands close to the original site and is an almost identical replica right down to the thatched roof. The circular shape helps achieve the best possible sound quality for the performances, there are cheap standing tickets and only certain seats (the more expensive ones) are covered in case it rains. And it’s London, so it very well might. Otherwise the theatre is open to the elements, but well worth a tour, or if you have time and the performances line up, catch a matinee.

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If you have the energy, why not come back and catch a midnight matinee? Starting at 11.59pm, as the city is going to sleep (as much as it ever does), you’ll enjoy an atmospheric performance, with the added drama of watching the play under the stars.

South Bank & Houses of Parliament

With historical buildings at every turn, gorgeous views of this iconic city, and a less frantic feel than being in the centre of London, you’re guaranteed to love the walk from Shakespeare’s Globe, all the way along Bankside and the South Bank. You’ll pass the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye and the elegant steel pedestrian Golden Jubilee Bridges on the way, as well as a colourful and eclectic collection of market vendors, food trucks and street performers.

As you reach Westminster Bridge you’ll get an impressive view of the Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, and Big Ben, which just gets more amazing the closer you are, walking across the bridge. The British government buildings are anything but stuffy and boring. Consider spending longer here and plan a tour of the buildings. 

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For those looking to save their legs, walk across the much closer Blackfriars Bridge to Blackfriars station instead and take the London Underground to the Westminster stop.

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster London lit up in the early evening, viewed from the South Bank
Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament | Photo by Miroslav Osmera for Getty Images

Buckingham Palace

Explore the area around Parliament Square Garden to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, before take a right into Parliament Street for a quick view of Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives. 

Parliament Street becomes Whitehall at this point, and if you continue along, you’ll see mounted soldiers of one of the Household Cavalry regiments guarding the entrance to Horse Guards Parade. Unless there is an event on, their role is purely ceremonial and you can pass through, whilst admiring their very shiny boots, to the parade ground itself. You’ll notice an ivy clad building on the corner of the parade square, this is the Admiralty Citadel, which is opposite the War Rooms (part of the Imperial War Museums) from where Churchill planned his World War Two victory.

From here, head right through St James’s Park to The Mall. Stroll down this famous London street towards Buckingham Palace, known affectionately by Brits as ‘Buck House’, residence of the Queen and her family.

The Palace, if you’re not at a time of year to be able to explore inside, is still one of the top attractions in London. It’s easy to see why, with its regal status and the ever-present hope that the Queen might be waving back from one of the windows. She probably won’t be, but fans of The Crown can pretend.

What to do in London in a Day? Watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Waiting for The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace | Photo by Dario Riccardo for Getty Images
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To see the Queens Guard close-up, heading back towards the Admiralty Arch from Buckingham Palace, take a left after the Africa Statue before taking a right into Cleveland Row. Here you’ll find the ‘back door’ to Clarence House and St James’s Palace, which is guarded by a soldier in full ceremonial gear, including a bearskin.  Have a photo taken, but don’t try and engage – you’ll just get silence!

The West End

From Buckingham Palace you can walk back along The Mall until you reach Trafalgar Square. This famous large square is home to Nelson’s Column and the four enormous Landseer Lion statues, and the gateway to London’s West End theatre district. It’s also home to The National Gallery and adjacent National Portrait Gallery, which houses probably the most well-known painting of Queen Elizabeth I, by an unknown artist.

Before you leave the square, make sure to admire the architectural gem, St Martin-in-the-Fields church. From here, you can loop up to to the ever-busy Piccadilly Circus, before meandering on to Leicester Square and Chinatown, then heading into the delightful tangle of lanes between Charring Cross and lively Covent Garden. Lined with bookshops, independent traders, cool cafes and traditional pubs, these alleys are a lively place in the late afternoon.

Busy Covent Garden with people sitting at tables under the glass roof
Covent Garden | Photo by David Sury for Unsplash

Evening

After a filling dinner at a traditional British pub the best way to top off any night in London is a trip to the theatre. The West End is littered with theatres big and small, showing everything from world-wide hits like Phantom of the Opera and Lion King, to independent plays featuring a celebrity actor or two if you’re lucky. 

Take the opportunity to get a little dressed up and soak in the majestic splendour of an old West End theatre. If your show finishes early enough, enjoy a night cap in a cool and quirky Soho bar before going back to your hotel.

Eat

Borough Market

This mid-19th century market standing under the south end of London Bridge is about at traditionally English as you can get and is the perfect place to find a variety of food for lunch. On a nice day, grabbing some locally made food here then wandering over to Bankside, just a couple minutes away, to sit on the wall and eat your lunch with a fabulous view of the city, is one of the best things to do when in London. One side of Borough Market is mostly produce, fresh meats and locally crafted deli items that you can take home. The other side has stalls stocked with crafts, baked goods, delectable sweets and hot food where you can sample many different cuisines.

The Old Bank of England

A proper British pub, the Old Bank of England serves traditional English pub food such as fish & chips and steak pie, alongside more modern, but equally delicious dishes. The food is excellent, but the setting is even more so. The pub is within the building that was the law courts branch of the Bank of England up until the 1970s, it makes the ideal setting for a hearty meal and cold pint of beer when you’re visiting London.

One day in London where to Eat? The Old Bank of England pub
The Old Bank of England pub | Photo by The Old Bank of England

Top Five London Tips

  1. Get an Oyster Card. The Tube is expensive, but it will save you time (and feet). Getting a reloadable Oyster travel card gives you single fares for about half the price of paying cash, so even being in London for one day means you will save on getting around.
  2. Skip the London Pass, buying the pass will actually cost you more than if you follow our itinerary, where many of the suggested attractions are free, thus giving you a relatively cheap day in London.
  3. If you want to time your visit with the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, you might need to switch your morning and afternoon activities as it happens daily around 11am (10am on Sundays). But whatever time you go you’ll see the guards on duty outside the palace.
  4. Plan indoor activities and be prepared to flip your itinerary depending on the weather. London can be rainy, but having a museum, exhibition or other indoor activity as a backup plan is a great idea.
  5. Head to one of the ticket booths around Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square for cheap ‘day of show’ tickets. The best way to see a West End show for less, if you’re not fussy what you see.

Do you have just a little longer to spend in London?

If you have just another half or one day in London, add these things to do in London and day trips to your London itinerary;

  • Tower of London – this almost 1000 year old castle in central London has a long, if not rather gory, history. Two of Henry VIII’s wives were imprisoned here before they were beheaded. Today you can see the Beefeaters and ravens that guard the Tower, learn of the torture devices used on prisoners and see the priceless crown jewels up close. You’ll also have great views of the famous Tower Bridge from here.
  • If you love castles and the British history they represent, then take a day trip to some of the famous castles near London, like Windsor Castle or Warwick Castle.
  • Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – like all your wonderful wizarding wishes come true, a one day trip from London to the Warner Bros. Studio is a treat for any Harry Potter fan. Visit the sets, geek out over the costumes and give your life savings to the epic gift shops.
  • Stonehenge – the ancient stone circle is even more incredible in real life than it is in any pictures you’ve seen. London to Stonehenge is a surprisingly short 88 miles from the city, and a half day or 1 day trip from London is easily booked so you can experience the mysterious historical site up close and personal.

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