I’ll be honest, my trip to London was different from how I usually travel. I didn’t have an itinerary built, I didn’t plan every day out prior to getting there. This was partially because there is just SO much to do in London! I just kind of went with the flow in London, I had a list of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to see, of course. But I just began the day with a vague idea of what to do, usually one or two things, and just figured it out from there. While this meant I didn’t get to see anywhere near everything, it also meant I got to relax a little more and wasn’t rushing, which was quite liberating. Plus, I still managed to see and do plenty! Here’s my list of the best things to do in London, along with some things you should do to make your trip a lot smoother.
Buy an Oyster Card
This was the very first thing I did in London, before I was even out of the airport! Well…second, because I had to buy a SIM card since I somehow managed to lock myself out of mine on the flight from Italy (my trip got off to a great start). But I digress! An Oyster Card is an absolute MUST for getting around London. It can be used on all public transport in London: buses, trams, the Tube, the overground, the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), and most National Rail Services. The Oyster Card is effortless, credit is loaded onto it when you buy it and you can easily reload it at any Tube, Overground, or DLR station.
Using an Oyster Card means no scrounging around for coins when getting on public transportation, no searching through receipts and various tickets for your day or week paper pass, just tap the Oyster Card against the yellow card reader as you enter and be on your merry way. Oyster Cards also come with a daily cap, meaning once you spend that amount in a day, you don’t incur any more fees. In addition to this, Oyster Cards are about 50 percent cheaper than day tickets or single tickets.
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- The Oyster Card also gives you discounts at restaurants and attractions throughout London! I had no idea this was the case but I’ll definitely be taking full advantage on my next trip to London! Check out the full list here.
- You can order your Oyster Card in advance and have it shipped to you. While I don’t think this is necessary, it may appeal to some folks!
- Oyster Card isn’t for you? You can use a contactless credit card or even your phone to pay! A couple caveats here are that you have to tap your card or device against the yellow card reader on the way out as well. Additionally, you MUST use the same card or device as when you entered, or it won’t register properly and your fares won’t be capped. Read more details here.
Be Amazed by Westminster Abbey
This church is incredible. Westminster Abbey was just so gorgeous, I could barely believe it. This incredible Gothic church was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 and it’s not hard to see why. Westminster Abbey must be added to your London itinerary, it’s easily one of the best things to do in the city. With sites such as the Royal Tombs, the Coronation Chair, Poet’s Corner, and the beautiful quire and cloisters, it’s definitely worth seeing.
As a literature lover, Poet’s Corner was one of my favorite parts of the Westminster Abbey. Since the 1400s, Poet’s Corner has been a spot for memorials of various poets and writers. This ever expanding area now takes up a little more than just a corner. Poet’s Corner memorializes authors whose works span centuries, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carrol, and so many more. The Abbey is massive, so be prepared to spend some time here. The line to get in moves quickly, and I would definitely recommend the audio guide!
Also, make sure you don’t miss out on the cloisters before leaving!
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- Don’t make fun of me for this one guys…I didn’t know Big Ben was under construction. I know. I’m apparently not as good at planning as I thought I was. So if you’re like me, and somehow didn’t know: Big Ben has been under construction since 2017. The project was initially set to end in 2021, but due to COVID and repairs turning out to be more extensive than initially planned, this may be extended so be sure to check before you travel.
- London is expensive. I knew this beforehand but the Westminster Abbey was my first experience with this. At 22£, it was more expensive than I expected but totally worth every penny. Pay the extra 5£ for the audioguide too!
Gaze at World Famous Paintings at the National Gallery
Following Westminster Abbey, I headed to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. This impressive collection of art includes Rembrandt, Boticelli, Da Vinci, Renoir, and Van Gogh, among so many others. And amazingly, it’s free! Though I recommend the audio guide for 5£, it provided amazing insights into almost every painting in the National Gallery. I also bought a couple things at the gift shop. The gift shop was really impressive! They had an incredible variety of items with artwork on them, ranging from prints and posters, to keychains, magnets, pillows, clothing, and even cross stitch kits.
The National Gallery should definitely make it on your list of things to do in London. It was pretty serene when I went as well. The only spot that was remotely crowded was the Van Gogh section…which, I admit, was what drew me to the Gallery as well. While my husband thinks Van Gogh is supremely overrated. I’ve liked him since I was a kid. Maybe because he was the only artist I knew? But I think it was more out of wonder that he was able to take the pain and tragedy of his life and turn it into something beautiful. Be prepared for loads of other people trying to get photos, but Van Gogh’s paintings are a must see while you’re in London.
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- Just one for the National Gallery: this place is huge! Do not underestimate it. It would probably take an entire day to do the complete audio tour for the gallery. If that’s what you want, by all means! But I’d recommend perusing the entire place, and listening to the audio guide for the paintings that pique your interest or catch your eye.
- Additionally: please don’t just beeline to the most popular paintings in the Gallery, snap a quick photo and then leave. At least try to appreciate the gallery for all it has to offer, and maybe even learn somthing!
Ride the London Eye
My first day in London was relatively short, since I arrived a little late. I began my second day with the London Eye. This is probably one of the most iconic London attractions and provides sweeping views of the River Thames and the city. Your trip on the London Eye takes about 30 minutes total.
Before I went to London, I read blog post after blog post telling me to skip the London Eye, because it was overrated and simply not worth it. And I’m here to tell you…they were right! The view was great for a few minutes, but then you’re just stuck in this slow moving compartment for 30 minutes. Everyone is vying for the best spot to take a picture, plus, if you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll have 6 children running around in there with you.
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- I wish I’d listened to the posts I read telling me the London Eye was overrated. I recommend saving your 30 to 40£ and finding a better view elsewhere in the city. However, if you do still want to add the London Eye to your list of things to do in London, don’t expect to have a compartment to yourself, unless you’re with a large group of people.
Explore Saint Paul's Cathedral
Speaking of better views! Saint Paul’s Cathedral should definitely be on your list of things to do in London, especially if you want a good view of the city. Plus, the cathedral itself is gorgeous as well. Be prepared to spend a good deal of time in Saint Paul’s to get the full experience.
Saint Paul’s can be broken up into roughly three areas: the main floor, the dome, and the tombs. I won’t lie, I made a beeline for the dome. I love a good climb and could not wait to see the view. The ascent to the dome is further broken up into three separate galleries: the Whispering Gallery, the Stone Gallery, and the Golden Gallery. The Whispering Gallery is easily accessible, you only have to climb around 250 wide steps (the gallery itself was closed when I visited, unfortunately). But beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend if you have a fear of heights or confined spaces. The climb all the way to the Golden Gallery is a grueling total of 528 steps, which might not seem like a lot, but trust me when I say you feel every single one of them.
As I said before, the interior of the Saint Paul’s Cathedral is just as stunning. Ensure you explore the rest of the cathedral as well to make the 20 pounds paid for your ticket worth every cent. Save some time to explore the tombs as well, as there are memorials and tombs to several important figures in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. I could probably write an entire blog post just about Saint Paul’s Cathedral, I loved it that much. Instead, I’ll share a few more pictures with you and then move on to the next thing to do in London!
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- The walkway around the dome was SUPER windy! Thankfully I was in London in February so I already had a jacket, but seriously, I thought I was going to get blown away.
- After reading about the whispering gallery, I was kind of disappointed I missed out on it. I wish I had called or checked online for closures so I could have gone at a different time.
- I initially found Saint Paul’s Cathedral when I was looking for Harry Potter related locations in London. The staircase leading to the divination tower was actually filmed at Saint Paul’s! This gorgeous spiral staircase was a must see for me. However, I didn’t know that it’s only accessible via the Triforium Tour, which is an extra 8 pounds and is only available at certain times. I highly recommend you book this tour, as it grants you access to the Geometric Staircase, the library, the Great Model, and even more spectacular views. You can book this tour and read more about it here.
Enjoy a Show on the West End
This absolutely must be on your list of things to do in London. If it seems too pricey for you, just do what I did. I headed over to Leicester Square early in the afternoon to the TKTS ticket booth and bought same day tickets to a show that evening. This meant I was able to get tickets at 50% off! I was slightly worried tickets wouldn’t be available for the show I wanted to see, so I made sure I had a back up in mind. However, I only saw one or two shows that were actually sold out. I snagged same day tickets to Les Miserables at the Sondheim Theater at half the price!
If it’s around lunch or dinner time, I highly recommend you check out The Porcupine. The dining area is upstairs from the bar and is fairly lowkey (until a large and loud group of Italians came in). This was by far my favorite meal in London though!
Following my meal, I returned to my hostel for a break before the show. I was cold and pretty tired. Returning to the West End after dark…it was like a whole other world! It was incredible. I was so excited I could barely contain myself, before I even got to the theater! Finally getting there and seeing the theater was almost surreal for me.
I am a huge fan of Les Miserables. I cry my eyes out every time I watch it. I was prepared for the musical to be different, maybe slightly better, maybe I’d like it less than the movie. But I was blown away. I fell in love with it all over again. I got chills watching it. The cast was absolutely amazing. If you can’t pick a show to see on the West End, I highly recommend Les Miserables. Honestly though, there probably aren’t any bad choices.
NOTE: As of 18 July 2020, theaters on the West End are still closed due to government restrictions regarding COVID-19. Check online for the most updated guidance before adding this to your London itinerary.
Things I Wish I'd Known:
- You can now buy tickets through TKTS online! This would have definitely saved me some time, but honestly I didn’t mind just exploring the city a little more, plus I got a delicious meal out of it.
- I definitely wish I would have explored the West End a little more, it comes to life at night! The night life looked amazing but I was exhausted by the time the show was over!
Explore the City!
Honestly, most of what I did on this trip was just explore. I just sort of wandered around. And it was amazing! However, I really wish I’d wandered with a little more of a purpose. I definitely didn’t see as much as I could have and should have. and when I return, I’ll definitely be taking a tour and using a guide!
There are so many things to see in London, I spent the majority of my weekend just drinking it all in. I wandered and just tried to look at and appreciate everything. From Picadilly Circus, to the Buckingham Palace, to just how picturesque the city is in general, you’ll never run out of things to see.
General Tips to Make the Most of London
- Since there is just so much to see and do in London, I definitely recommend a walking tour, or two. I sincerely wish I would have done this, and will the next time I’m in London. This is probably one of the best things to do to make the absolute most of your time in London. I’m usually deterred from tours because they’re pricey and, well, touristy. However, I happened to find See the Sights Tours on Facebook. They offer FREE walking tours! You just need to make a reservation online in advance. They offer a London Landmarks Tour, an Old City of London Tour, a London Food Tour, and Secrets of London Tour. I personally can’t wait to try out one of their tours the next time I’m in London!
- Check the weather. Please check the weather. And be prepared for worse than you expect. I knew it was supposed to rain in London the weekend I was there. What I didn’t know was that Storm Dennis was battering Kent, meaning my weekend was cold, wet, and very windy.
- If you have the time, take a day trip! There are so many amazing day trips from London: the Cotswolds, Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford…the list goes on! I personally went about an hour outside the city for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, the Harry Potter tour!
I hope this list of things to do in London helps you with planning your next trip! Obviously this is nowhere even remotely close to everything, and I’ll definitely be updating this list when I return to London! What are your favorite things to do in London?
Aw I love London so much!! Great post!! 🙂
Really love the section “things I wish I’d know”. It is very useful! Many times during my travels I have said this sentence! These kind of posts help you a lot! Reading about other people’s experiences helps you to make fewer mistakes. Thanks for sharing!
These are great tips! I definitely agree on getting an Oyster Card. Also, everyone should totally see a show on the West End! We did the same and purchased tickets on the same day 🙂
I absolutely love visiting London and finding fun new things to do each time I’m there! Next time I would love to visit the National Portrait Gallery and see another show 🙂
Awesome recap! Although after spending a weekend in London I felt like I hadn’t seen enough. Definitely worth several more trips – such a fun and diverse city. Great guide!
This is such a well-rounded post on one of the most-visited cities in the world. I’ve never been to London but I’m sure a lot of your tips will come in really handy when I do visit 🙂 I would love to spend a long day at the National Gallery with all those great artists someday post-covid. And I’ll be sure to avoid the London Eye 🙂
I love this post! I lived in London more than 15 years ago. Can’t wait to go back!
Your tips are very useful. I didn’t know about the Oyster card. Before my trip to London, I will definitely go through every single word of this blog post.
Keep up with writing! You are doing a great job!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate the support and encouragement!
Love London! Been there several times and happy to keep going back. I like your introspective look at things you wish you had known. There’s always something to be learned through travel and I feel like each experience makes you a better traveler for next time!
I agree wholeheartedly! The more we travel, the more we learn!
Very insightful! I wouldn’t have thought of a few of these – thanks so much for sharing! I’ll definitely be referring back to plan my London someday trip.
So much great advice about what to do and what you wished you’d known before! Love an honest and helpful guide!
London is such a great city. This post just makes me want to go back!
Great tips – I totally agree about walking tours. There is so much to see in London, that is a fab way to get started. I love just going with the flow and walking along the Thames or through the parks. 🙂
Definitely going to give that a try the next time I’m in London!
Such a great and detailed post. I love how you included things you wish you known. Didn’t realize how much I missed during my visit. Cannot wait to return and explore everything in this guide.
I definitely took it slow on my trip to London and can’t wait to go back and explore more!
London seems like an incredible place! I would love to visit the National Gallery and explore the city’s architecture. Thank you for sharing this great guide.
I’m a big Van Gogh fan as well. I had no idea his sunflower painting was in London! I know he painted a few because I saw one in Amsterdam, too. I also had no clue Big Ben was under construction. I hate going somewhere then being surprised when you can’t enjoy one of the main landmarks, so thanks for the heads up!
Your “Things I Wish I Knew” is amazing idea. I hope more bloggers start doing this! I hope to visit London again in 2021 & I’ll use your buy an Oyster card tip. That looks so practical & I wish I had one last time I was in London. I’ve saved & pinned your blog to use as a guide for my next “across the pond” trip 💗
Thank you! I feel like no matter how well you plan a trip, there’s always things that surprise you and wish you’d known beforehand.
I visited London for the first time last fall and Big Ben was under construction then too and I was so bummed about it lol. Overall, I loved London and definitely hope to go back in the future. 🙂
What a great intro to London’s best things!! Great tips that you included and things you wish you knew before hand! Super helpful for people wanting to visit one of the worlds greatest cities!
Loved your recommendations. I read that you did several audio tours. I am a huge fan of them as well. When I go to London I would love to see the British Museum and take a day trip to Bath. National Gallery looks amazing too!
Definitely planning on hitting more museums the next time I’m in London! I’m also considering a day trip to Bath!
It sounds like you had a great time in London. I will occasionally travel like this, with no plans. I agree with you though. The first thing that I typically do when visiting a new place is to book a walking tour. This will give a bit of history and some ideas of places to go back to see.
Love your post! I feel your pain with Big Ben. It just doesn’t have the same feeling when you can’t really see it… But, it will be good for Ben in the long-term. 😉 Your Oyster Card tips are great! I have been to London multiple times for work, and I am really familiar with using the transit system, BUT I had no clue about all the discounts. What a great tip. I bet a lot of my colleagues in London don’t know this either. Thank you for sharing!
This is a great post! I love how you added Things I Wish I’d Known. Very clever. I haven’t been to London In many years so I am glad to know about the Oyster card. That wasn’t a thing when I was there.
Very helpful tips for planning a weekend in London. I like your addition of “Things I wish I had known” sections. Helps the reader to plan better. 🙂
I cannot begin to tell you how much I love London, but we never seem to get enough time there! Usually it’s a day or so on the way to visit our family in the South of England. Ideally I’d like to take 6 months and explore the city. Maybe one day I can quit my job and do it haha!
Oooh I wish I could do the same!
This is so funny, we went to London at the same time and I too saw Les Mis! I love that you’ve incorporated the “what I wish I knew” bits because I left London feeling the EXACT same way. I’m eager to go back, armed with a bit more research and planning thanks to resources like this blog!
Great post! I lived in London for a year and these were def some of my favorite things to do with people when they came to visit me. Seeing shows in West End is so, so much fun! I loved it!
Aww thanks so much! Great to hear from a local that I did well with this!
Great tip about the Oyster card! Thank you! Also interesting about checking the weather as I assume it will rain so often don’t think to check in beyond that!
Lol I knew it was going to rain and figured that would be fine…didn’t plan for a hurricane in Kent affecting the weather in London so much haha