last summer, en route to south africa from dallas, i stopped in london for a 12 hour layover. twelve hours! i had never been to london before, so i was thrilled to speed into the city and look around for a few hours. should you ever find yourself in the same situation, i’ve created a guide to the perfect speed-tour of london (the map below may only show up on non-mobile devices. if that’s the case, click here).
first tip: be rested from your flight over from the states. pack some ear plugs, tylenol pm, an eye mask, and an aspirin (no blood clots for you!) to make sure you are well-rested and ready to explore once you touch down in the UK. i flew into heathrow airport, which has a place, excess baggage company, to drop off bags for a fee. (pre-reserved storage plans are coming soon, which could save you time and money). from heathrow, take the piccadilly line on the underground to hammersmith; exit the train, walk across the platform, and board the district line to westminster. the trip into the city can take 45 minutes to an hour. if you are willing to spend about $50 per person each way, you can take the heathrow express to paddington station, but you will then need to also take a cab once at paddington station. i prefer the longer route in, and then the quicker route back. second tip: mind the gap is for real. there is a huge gap between the metro and the platform – be careful!
once at westminster, ascend the stairs from the metro, and hark! the first stop on our speed-tour of london: big ben. it is quite large and stately – very impressive after the ride in from the bland airport. snap some photos and then walk east across the westminster bridge over the river thames (stop 2!) for a view of the london eye. check out the people, snap a selfie, and head back towards big ben on the west side of the river for stop number three: houses of parliament.
ok, so this is kind of cheating because big ben is one of the three towers of the houses of parliament, but work with me here. you will also need to take a deep breath at this point because you are in the midst of tourist mania. school tours, asian tours, and a sea of selfie sticks will surround you as you try to catch a glimpse of the impressive buildings. walk in front of the houses of parliament on margaret street, then head west on sanctuary street to check out westminster abbey (stop 4!), where will and kate exchanged their vows (i know you watched it). there are a lot of tourist kiosks here, so buy yourself a couple of postcards; they’ll come in handy in a bit.
if you’re like me, you’re starving at this point, so to the pub we go! walk north on parliament street, stopping briefly at the barricades on downing street to try to catch a glimpse of the prime minister (i had grand visions of hugh grant waving from the door of 10 downing street in “love, actually,” but alas i just saw a lot of police officers). one block north, on horseguards avenue, i watched a horseguard (exactly as it sounds) change shifts…i am sure there was more to it, but i was pretty sleepy and completely overwhelmed by the british accents around me, so we moved on.
this is where things get a little tricky, so look alive here. you’re going to pass a busy intersection (london cabbies! big red buses!) and then duck right behind an impressive building (no idea what it is!) to find yourself at the harp pub on chandos place. this place is extremely legit, so if you get lost, you must ask directions to get there (or check out the map here to put yourself back on track). you may be the only tourist here (which is not the case at all pubs). locals crowd around the bar and small tables. order yourself a sausage sandwich, smother it with hp sauce, and enjoy an ale. delightful.
once you’ve satisfied yourself on english fare, head north from chandos to new row street, boasting the most delightful row of shoppes (see what i did there?) and restaurants and coffee houses you ever did see. pop into new row coffee and order yourself a flat white. take some time to write a postcard or two and enjoy the people watching out front.
after your nice drink, head west to piccadilly circus, which appears to be the times square of london and only received one word in my travel diary: “disaster.” i’m sure it has many wonderful qualities, but i missed them on that day. there is a cheesy store dedicated to british wares; do not make the same mistake as i did and go inside. avoid at all costs.
from piccadilly, head south (yes, you’re backtracking a bit; it’s worth it) to the mall. this street, which is closed to traffic on sundays and is bordered by st. james’s park on the south, leads directly to buckingham palace. buckingham palace! so, what are you waiting for? walk forth! take a detour into st. james’s park if you’d like, enjoy the larger-than-life flora, sit in a green and white striped lounger, and take in the (hopefully, but probably not) beautiful day. walk around buckingham palace, snap a selfie with a guard, and then head west on constitution hill, bordered by green park to the north and buckingham palace gardens on the east.
ok, i’m not going to lie: at this point, i became extremely exhausted and maybe a little crabby. this is a long walk. we’d covered a lot of ground. i hadn’t slept soundly in a while. i’d been wearing the same clothes for many hours. this is where you need to give yoruself a pep talk and fight through it. because just a few blocks away, further to the west, lies harrods.
what is harrods, you ask? oh, harrods. the ultimate department store with seven floors, food markets with oysters, caviar, macarons, tea, etc. a l’aduree downstairs and a cute restaurant lining the meat market where we enjoyed a glass of wine. just go.
find the floor that interests you, and for sure stop for a completely and almost sickingly expensive glass of wine/beer. if shopping isn’t your thing, instead head into hyde park (the central park of london) and enjoy an hour or so of rest and relaxation among the bustling city.
at this point, you should probably be concerned about your flight, so hop in a classic london black cab and treat yourself to a ride to paddington station, where you can catch the express train (approximately $50 per person at the station, or $40 if purchased in advance) back to the airport. this trip is a mere 15 minutes. on our cab ride, we listened to the usa/germany world cup match (yes!) and the cabbie cheered with us as the US scored.