I’ll never forget the first time I arrived in London. Putting in a full day’s work and flying later that evening left me arriving in London with no sleep in over 24 hours. Yet adrenaline pushed away the tiredness in my body as soon as I left the airport. Riding in the taxi to my hotel, I remember darting my head back and forth, right to left. Over and over I glanced, trying to not miss anything and taking everything in. I remember looking behind me through the cab window and seeing THREE double decker busses in the three lanes behind the taxi. I remember the lights from the storefronts and how each building had its own amazingly unique architecture. I felt pure excitement that I was somewhere completely different. It was the moment I fell in love with international travel.
That moment was eight years ago, and I’ve had the privilege of going back to London several more times since then. Each of these times I have had approximately forty-eight hours or two days to explore the city. Based on these past trips, I have put together a high level view of what main places to hit and what to miss if you have a weekend to see London.
Tower Bridge is one of London’s “newer” landmarks. Built over 120 years ago, it is a great tribute to the engineers who created it in an attempt to allow ships to pass through and to help lessen road traffic. Today it is one of the most famous structures in the world! The blue colors make it quite unique. This is one of my favorite landmarks in London and one I found myself going back to time and time again.
You can choose to visit Tower Bridge from outside only, or you can head up into the bridge itself to the high-level walkways. Here you’ll have an aerial view of the city, although picture taking is tricky, as the glass is thick and view partially obstructed by the bridge.
You will also watch a video about the construction of the bridge before heading down into the Engine Room to discover the steam engines that once powered the bridge. I’d allow an hour and half to two hours if you plan on going inside for the bridge tour and about thirty to forty-five minutes if you plan to see it from the outside.
I greatly enjoyed my tour of Tower Bridge, but if you are limited on time I would suggest just seeing it from the outside. My personal suggestion would be to take lots of pictures – both far away and close up and to take time to walk across the bridge! It is truly spectacular from all angles. While at Tower Bridge, take a short walk to St. Katharine Dock (behind the Tower Hotel) where you’ll find a very neat atmosphere of boats, shops, and dining!
If you are going to take the time to tour one building, Westminster Abbey is the building I’d recommend! This famous church is over 1,000 years old and has been home to many coronations of English and British monarchs, as well as many royal weddings. I am not normally a huge history or architectural fan, yet I was mesmerized by each and every room of this church. Ornate and moving are two words I’d use to describe the Abbey.
Even before I entered the church I was moved. I was fortunate enough to visit around the time of Remembrance Day (November 11th) when England reflects back on the end of World War 1 and honors those who gave their lives and fought in the war. Each cross has a red poppy, the symbol used for Remembrance Day. Red poppies are used as the symbol, as it was said that these were the first flowers to grow at the graves of the fallen soldiers. I was given a paper poppy pin by a friend while in England and wore this on my coat during my stay here.
I only have pictures from the outside of Westminster Abbey (no photography is allowed inside), so you’ll just have to trust me. I visited Westminster alone and so I picked up an audio guide. This is a must!! It allows you to go at your own pace (vs. taking a tour) and is very helpful in guiding you through the building and pointing out interesting things you might otherwise miss. I learned so much from this audio guide. I especially enjoyed visiting the Poet’s Corner where so many of my favorite British authors were honored including Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Don’t forget to check out the gardens at the end. It is recommended to allow an hour to tour Westminster Abbey; but I would suggest at least two, otherwise you’ll be quite rushed.
Big Ben/House of Parliament
This landmark is a quick stop (nothing to tour) and another one of my personal favorites. The closer you get, the more you realize how intricate the architecture on the clock is. Be sure when you visit to also walk across nearby Westminster Bridge. It will be crowded but is a must do. I enjoyed seeing Big Ben both during the day and at night and recommend seeing it at both times if you can!
If you are wanting to get some great views or photography shots of the city from up high, I recommend going up in the London Eye, London’s famous Ferris wheel. You’ll walk into a giant capsule, and it goes so slow you barely know it is moving. Make sure you move right to the glass when you get into the capsule though to get a great viewing spot, as the window spots fill up quickly. Even though it was raining when I went up, I had a great time and got some very special, memorable pictures. Unlike Big Ben and Tower Bridge, I liked looking outside from the inside more than I did seeing it from the outside.
If you are at all a shopping fan, you’ve no doubt heard about Harrods, the famous shopping store with seven floors and more than a million square feet of retail potential. Just reading that should get you excited. I will warn you – Harrods is always packed! Of all the places I’ve gone in London, it was the busiest. I did enjoy walking around and seeing everything they had to offer; but I definitely wouldn’t put it on your must go list if you only have a day or two. If you still want a souvenir from Harrods, I’ll let you in on a secret. They have a very nice store in the Heathrow Airport, so you can still get something from Harrods and avoid the crowd. It doesn’t have the feel of the ginormous, classy store but does give you a taste with a lot less hassle.
Tower of London
Within walking distance of Tower Bridge is the Tower of London.
This historic castle is home to the famous Crown Jewels! Along with the collection of jewels, jewelry and all things gold (there is the biggest gold punch bowl you have ever seen in this exhibit), you will also see rooms and rooms of armor, watch towers, moats, rooms with examples of how people lived during that time period, dungeons, and more.
The Royal Menagerie exhibit was also unique to see; this is where they kept all the wild animals that were sent from other countries as presents many years ago. Tower of London is a neat place to visit but know that it will take at least three hours. I was there for several hours and still didn’t see all of it. My advice would be to hit it if you have a strong interest in history (or in seeing the famous Crown Jewels) and to miss it if you don’t. Or if you don’t mind paying the admission fee, you could always go in with the intention of just spending an hour or so and seeing only the main highlights.
I’d definitely visit Buckingham Palace. You only need a half hour or so to see it from the outside and explore the nearby small garden area of Buckingham Palace Gardens. Speaking of gardens, for sure visit at least one of London’s most famous gardens. They are only a short walk from Buckingham Palace.
Kensington Gardens is the biggest garden, though I would consider it more of a park than a garden. Although neat to walk through, it is more crowded and more open with few flowers or wildlife.
My favorite of the three by far is St. James Park. St. James Park offers a wide variety of beautiful garden areas, flowers, birds and the feel of a botanical garden. Look how many types of birds can be found just here in this city park. With its penguin like colors, this bird really stood out.
If not for the distant view of the London Eye, you will forget you’re in a major city.
I loved seeing this cottage in the park. It was called Duck Island Cottage and was home (yes, someone lived here in the park!) to the bird keeper of the park.
Keep an eye out for the huge pelicans (guaranteed to big the biggest bird you spot on your London adventure) and the local vendors set up throughout the park. They offer soft serve ice cream cones, the perfect complement to your walk through St. James Park.
Hopefully this gives you a taste and feel of what you’ll experience when you visit and offers advice on how to best manage your two-day trip to London!
Paths Less Traveled Ranking: 4 footprints
Paths Less Traveled Ranking Explanation: London is a crowded city, especially during summer months. But it is a lively city I’d highly recommend visiting, despite the crowds. You’ll still be able to find lots of tucked away places to explore during the day, such as hole in the wall pubs with delicious fish and chips.
*In each of my articles I will provide a Paths Less Traveled Ranking. This ranking system is from 1 footprint to 5 footprints with 1 footprint being very remote and off the beaten path and 5 footprints being very populated.