5 Days in London: A Pick and Choose Itinerary
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Samuel Johnson
Buckingham Palace. The Tower of London. The Tube. London Bridge. West End. Westminster Abbey. Hyde Park. Big Ben. The London Eye.
With a city as big and diverse as London, the more time, the better. To experience all the British capital has to offer, aim for a visit of at least five days.
To help you plan the perfect trip to London, I’ve put together a pick-and-choose guide to the city. Part one splits your options into nine categories, and part two outlines those categories in a five-day breakdown so that you can create your own bespoke travel itinerary.
Let’s get started.
Choose 3 or 4
The Tower of London — On the banks of the River Thames sits the landmark that has seen nearly 1,000 years of history: the Tower of London. This fortress complex has been a prison, a palace, a Royal Mint, an armory, and a menagerie, and today it’s the most popular tourist attraction in the city.
Westminster Abbey — This Gothic abbey near the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben is the place where the kings and queens of England have been crowned and married for centuries. A guided tour of this ornate church feels like a lesson in who’s who of British History.
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament — The iconic symbol of London has been ticking away for over 150 years. Attached to Big Ben are the Houses of Parliament, a Perpendicular Gothic Revivalist building where England’s brightest politicians debate and attend hearings. It’s possible to see Big Ben by simply walking around the Westminster neighborhood, but to see the inside, you’ll need to book a tour.
Tower Bridge — Though London Bridge may have its own nursery rhyme, Tower Bridge is the one most people actually associate with the capital. This bascule suspension bridge crossing the River Thames has been in use for over 125 years, and visitors can easily scale its high-level walkway and admire the traffic, city, and river below.
St. Paul’s Cathedral — Though this English Baroque church is no longer the tallest structure in the world, it can still be seen from the other side of London A visit inside St. Paul’s reveals an interior comprised of a stunning dome, a nave, gold embellishments, and soaring archways.
Warner Brothers “Harry Potter” Studio Tour — For any fan of the J.K. Rowling series, a trip to the studio in Leavesden where the movies were filmed is a no-brainer. Two sound stages have been turned into an all-encompassing, museum-like experience, taking visitors through the making of the films with sets, behind-the-scenes info, and plenty of magic.
The British Museum — This massive building in Bloomsbury houses a collection of art and artifacts from around the world. The British Museum is beloved by history buffs, architecture enthusiasts, and museum-lovers alike. So don’t miss out on seeing the Rosetta Stone on the ground level!
The Natural History Museum — You don’t have to be interested in natural history to add this to your list. The architecture alone is enough to warrant a visit to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The recent addition of a massive blue whale skeleton to replace the dinosaur in the Atrium means that even past visitors have a new reason to check out the space.
The Victoria and Albert Museum — Right across the street from the Natural History Museum, the V&A (as it’s known) is home to over 4.5 million objects and features beautiful rooms and architecture throughout the building.
The National Gallery — This beautiful building in the middle of Trafalgar Square houses over 2,300 paintings on its variously colored walls. Among the most-visited art museums in the world, the National Gallery is a haven for art and history buffs, as well as anyone looking for a break indoors.
Tate Modern — If modern art’s more your thing, head to the Tate Modern. With both permanent and rotating exhibits, plus events and an experimental section, a visit to this art museum in Southwark is always interesting!
Choose 2 to 3
Camden Town — If you’re looking for a massive marketplace, winding canals, quaint side streets, and a Royal Park, head to Camden. This area evokes a “Mary Poppins” atmosphere and is a fun and modern place to just hang out.
Notting Hill — Home to Portobello Road Market and the annual Notting Hill Carnival, this trendy and colorful neighborhood is characterized by its Victorian townhouses and picture-perfect streets.
Marylebone — Located in the heart of London, Marylebone is a quaint neighborhood full of boutique stores and picturesque facades. Bibliophiles will want to add this to their list for a stop inside Daunt Books, one of the most stunning bookstore experiences in the city.
South Bank — Across the River Thames lies South Bank, a historic, waterside neighborhood featuring the Thames Walk, City Hall, Borough Market, the London Eye, and a handful of arts and entertainment centers. On a nice, breezy afternoon, boats chug up and down the river, and there’s nowhere better to be.
Hoxton & Shoreditch — Many a London neighborhood could be described as hip, but these eclectic districts are full of vibrant street art, funky eateries, markets with as much vintage clothing and records as you could ever want, and iconic nightclubs.
Kensington and Chelsea — These neighboring areas of London are often referred to as one and are lovely for an afternoon of exploration. The streets are lined with classic Victorian buildings, there are plenty of boutique shops and cafés scattered about, and three of London’s museums are situated on the district’s Exhibition Road. If elegance is your style, head to Kensington and Chelsea.
Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus — Though slightly more touristy than other neighborhoods around London, this central area is perfect for street photography. There are plenty of storefronts, pubs, theaters, and cozy nooks to get lost in. In fact, it’s hard to go wrong in this part of town.
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Borough Market — For a bite to eat at any time of day, head to Borough Market in London’s South Bank. The stalls at this market offer individual ingredients as well as entire meals — everything from loose-leaf tea to artisan cheeses, fish and chips, and to-go boxes of steaming rice and chicken. Need I say more?
Portobello Road Market — Perhaps London’s most famous market, this is a must for anyone visiting on a Saturday. In addition to its wide selection of antiques and vintage treasures, the market that runs along colorful Portobello Road also has a wide selection of newer items, food, clothing, and much, much more.
Columbia Road Flower Market — Those in London on a Sunday should pay a visit to the Columbia Road Flower Market in East London. Once a week, the street comes alive with vibrant blooms, picturesque storefronts, and the calls of cheerful vendors.
Camden Lock Market — It may have had small beginnings (with only 16 stalls in the 1970s), but today, Camden Lock is one of the most well-known markets in the world. WIth over 1,000 options for shopping, eating, drinking, and general perusing, as well as the ability to stop by every day of the year except Christmas, Camden Lock is a go-to destination for just about anyone.
Brick Lane Market — Another weekend staple is Brick Lane Market, an eclectic mess of stalls spread out along Brick Lane and Cheshire Street. Here, you’ll find vendors offering everything from antiques, vintage clothing, and old records to international cuisine and handcrafted goods. All in all, it’s the perfect way to spend a relaxing Sunday.
SEE A SHOW
Choose 1 or 2
In London, theatre is almost as iconic as, well, afternoon tea. The West End always features a lineup of shows so extensive there’s bound to be something to please even the most curmudgeonly theatergoer. First things first — decide whether you’d prefer to see a play or a musical.
If you choose to go with a classic, try the longest-running show in the world: Agatha Christie’s ”the Mousetrap.” With red herrings and mystery only Christie can provide, this show has been performed nonstop since it opened in 1952 — and for good reason. After a twist ending, the members of the cast personally ask the audience members not to reveal the secret after they leave the theater.
For another long-running classic, head to the Fortune Theater and try not to scream during “the Woman in Black.” Though you might have already seen the 2012 movie of the same name starring Daniel Radcliffe, it’s worth seeing the stage play. The thrilling theatrics have even more of an effect than those in the film, and what’s all the more impressive about the play is that only two actors perform the entire thing. You just have to see it for yourself.
Or, if you’re lucky, snag tickets to see "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," the magical West End darling that hasn’t yet opened on Broadway.
When it comes to musicals, it’s hard to go wrong in London. From beloved shows like "Les Miserables," "the Phantom of the Opera," and "the Lion King,” to new classics like "Wicked," "Dreamgirls," "the Book of Mormon," and "Hamilton," the song-filled performances of the West End really run the gamut. On the other hand, you could try one of the shows that hasn’t made the jump across the Atlantic yet — the theatre schedule is always changing, so be sure to check online for the most up-to-date offerings.
SCALE THE SKIES
The London Eye — This giant ferris wheel on the bank of the River Thames might look daunting, but don’t fret — it moves so slowly you’ll hardly notice when you’ve made the full rotation. Offering 360-degree views of the London skyline, the London Eye is a perfect choice for those looking to roll into the best views of Big Ben.
The View from the Shard — If height is important to you, head straight to the Shard, London’s tallest building. The tourist attraction inside is called “The View from the Shard,” which offers views over London from multiple indoor and partially outdoor viewing levels.
Sky Garden — An alternative to the Shard, Sky Garden sits atop London’s Walkie Talkie skyscraper (nicknamed because of it’s odd shape). The green space features multiple levels, indoor and outdoor viewing platforms, and several bars and restaurants. Best of all: tickets are free, though you do have to book them in advance.
HIT THE TOWN
Cahoots — If, like many locals and travelers, you’re obsessed with the Tube, this secret Carnaby spot should top your list. The Underground-themed bar boasts a cocktail list that could fill a newspaper, waiters who speak in 40s slang, and swing music that blasts every night of the week. Check their calendar and make a reservation if you plan to visit Cahoots on a weekend.
The Alchemist — For a night of fun (and tasty) cocktails, find a spot at the bar or reserve a table at the Alchemist. At this London locale, the bartenders are genuine masters of potions and dark arts. Each drink on the magical menu is a work of mixology theatre. Some bubble, some catch fire, and others even change color. Anyone up for some Polyjuice Potion?
Flight Club — A popular bar pastime has been reinvented at this Shoreditch and Bloomsbury social club. Head downstairs to Flight Club’s gorgeous, carousel-themed bar, where you can book time at one of their 21st-century dart boards and indulge in alcoholic slushies and flatbread pizza.
Bounce! — If ping-pong’s more your speed, head to Bounce! This ping-pong social club in Farringdon is the largest in Europe. There, you can sip fine cocktails and eat delicious pizza while you enjoy a match (or two) with friends.
Draughts — For a more relaxed night out, grab a table at London’s first board game café. The shelves at Draughts are stacked with over 900 different games, but you can peruse the collection online to make sure they have your favorite before you get there. What’s more, there’s no time limit. So start your game of Monopoly, Risk, Life, or Settlers of Catan, and while away the hours.
Secret Bars — Those who’ve ever dreamt of whispering a secret code and being ushered into a bar via secret passageway are in luck. London is chock-full of speakeasies. From the eclectic Doctor Kluger’s to the 1920s Chicago-themed Barts and the mysterious Evans & Peel Detective Agency, this city has plenty of secret spots to hang your hat while sipping on a tasty cocktail.
Clarendon Cocktail Cellar — This spot might be hidden in London’s Pimlico neighborhood, but it’s worth seeking out. Each of their cocktails is based on a famous film, so order a “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Slumdog Millionaire” and kick back while looking at the rotating artworks on the walls.
Scoff & Banter — For a lovely afternoon tea experience, head to one of Scoff & Banter’s locations around the city. Their adorable polka-dotted tea sets may just make up your mind for you.
Cellarium Café — Those visiting Westminster Abbey may want to stop by the adjoining Cellarium Café afterward for afternoon tea. The quaint café even features outdoor seating during warmer months of the year.
Fortnum & Mason — If you’d like your tea with a bit of high-end shopping, choose Fortnum & Mason. Afternoon tea has been a tradition here for centuries, and the experience at the Jubilee Tea Room is one for the books!
Choose up to 2
The British Library — With several cafés, both permanent and temporary exhibits, plenty of seating, and a massive book collection in the center of the building, the British Library is a calming haven in the midst of chaos. Not to mention, the building itself is gorgeous.
Hyde Park — This massive park in the center of the city is a favorite for Londoners and visitors alike. Hyde Park features a huge lake, a café, plenty of statues, and acres of green space for outdoor activities. It’s the ideal spot for a leisurely stroll!
Churchill War Rooms — History buffs will go crazy over the Churchill War Rooms, a branch of the Imperial War Museum that details information about the WWII British command center and the life of one of London’s most famous leaders.
London Transport Museum — Tube-lovers will want to zoom right over to this quirky museum in Covent Garden. The exhibits detail the history of London’s transportation systems, and include everything from double-decker buses to the city’s beloved Underground.
God’s Own Junkyard — Neon junkies, unite! Curated by a third-generation neon artisan, God’s Own Junkyard is a bright gallery in Walthamstow that features a maze of incredible neon signs. Shine on!
Kew Gardens — This incredible botanical garden in southwest London features one of the largest collections of plant species in the world. Head to Kew Gardens and get creative by photographing or sketching the area’s colorful blooms.
ArcelorMittal Orbit — Featuring one of the best views of the London skyline, this interesting structure acts as a piece of public art and a recreation center. Visitors can climb to its top, rappel down its side, or slide to the ground for a fun experience straight from the city’s Olympic past.
Using your choices from part one, drag and drop your activities into this day-by-day breakdown to create your custom London itinerary.
Explore a neighborhood
Visit a Main Attraction
Hit the Town
Visit a Main Attraction
Tour a Museum
Hit the Town
Experience one of the Markets
Tour a Museum
Your choice of either an Alternative or a Main Attraction
See a Show
Explore a neighborhood
Your choice of either an Alternative or Museum
Have Afternoon Tea
Scale the Skies
Experience one of the Markets
Explore a neighborhood
Visit a Main Attraction
Hit the Town
When possible, try to group your choices by location. For example, if you want to explore the Covent Garden area, consider doing that before you see a show on the West End. Or if you want to visit the Natural History Museum, combine that with a walk through Hyde Park.
Also note that a visit to the Warner Brothers “Harry Potter” Studios will take most of the day — it takes 1.5 to two hours just to get to Leavesden, and the tour is quite extensive.
If you chose anything that is dependent on a certain day of the week, you’ll need to adjust the itinerary accordingly. Thankfully, this breakdown is easily customizable to accommodate changes.