Planning to spend one day in London and not sure where to start? Don’t worry – it’s a tough task but I have you covered with this step by step itinerary – everything you need to know to tackle London in a day.
I’m going to start this guide by being brutally honest with you here – seeing London in a day is no easy feat.
This crazy city that I am proud to call my hometown has can be overwhelming – 8 million people call it their home and 20 million people visit annually. It’s busy, large and can be a bit confusing if you’re visiting for the first time. My London bucket list alone is enough to keep you entertained for about a year.
That all sounds like a lot to deal with – and it would be… if it were not for a little secret.
You can tackle a day in London, seeing many of the city’s biggest sights without breaking a sweat… if you just know how.
Editor’s Note: London, like much of the rest of the world is currently subject to changing lockdown measures. I am still publishing guides to help you discover the best of my hometown but please follow current advice and guidelines and check ahead to ensure that venues are open. Stay safe and stay alert.
Sure, you could run around in a blind panic, trying to see everything in different parts of the city, visiting all the museums, stuffing in as much as possible.
But (there’s always a but).
I can guarantee that you would come away from the whole experience a) exhausted b) with only the vaguest idea about any of the places that you’d encountered in your whirlwind tour of the city. That’s the silly way.
The smart way is to focus on a relatively small area of central London with the biggest concentration of sights, all in walkable distance of each other and taking the time to enjoy them all. That’s what this one day in London guide does.
What’s more? If you want to take things at an even slower pace, simply cut out a thing or two. Simple.
One Day in London Itinerary
Wondering what you can do in London if you only have one day? This cool itinerary takes you to the city’s highlights.
Alright, alright – I know you want to feast your eyes on Buckingham Palace and who am I to deny you? The monarchy’s official London residence is a pretty good place to start your London one day trip.
The imposing Georgian palace isn’t the fanciest building in London, but even I’ll admit that it is pretty impressive – in no small part thanks to its gargantuan size.
The palace is monstrously large: it contains no fewer than 775 rooms, counting 52 bedrooms (and an additional 188 bedrooms for staff… because the Royal Family are so extra about everything).
You can’t actually go inside for most of the year, but they do open the State Rooms for 10 weeks in the summer and a couple of other dates throughout the year to enable you to witness the truly OTT (dare I say it… garish) decor – including the thrones – up, close and personal.
Buckingham Palace is also one of the main locations for seeing the rather cool Changing of the Guard – a formal procession marking the changing of the Royal Guard.
It’s brilliant – the guards are accompanied by a full brass band and it’s rather cool watching a tradition that has been going for centuries. The Changing of the Guard takes place daily at 10.45am during the summer months, and on alternate days for the rest of the year.
St James’s Park
St James’s Park is a hop, skip and a jump away from Buckingham Palace and my favourite of the Royal Parks.
St James’s Park is the prettiest park in central London – with a large lake, willow-lined banks and gorgeous flower beds that somehow always seem to be in bloom all year round. It’s the kind of park that is just made for leisurely picnics and chitchats, all in the shadow of the royal palace across the road.
You can take some time out here if the weather is nice, otherwise I’d say just stroll through – towards Westminster, the political heart of the city.
PS. If you stand at the top of the park with your back to Buckingham Palace (the cheek!), you can see the whole of the park, framed by a few landmarks in Westminster and the South Bank (including the London Eye) – one of my favourite views in central London.
World Heritage Site Westminster Abbey is one of the most striking churches in London (the other is St Paul’s Cathedral, which unfortunately we’re not going to have time to visit today).
What do you get when you combine Gothic architecture with centuries of history? Answer = one hell of an impressive building.
Interestingly, Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral as is often thought. It’s a “Royal Peculiar” meaning that it’s directly responsible to the monarchy – that explains why it’s so closely connected with royal events.
You know all the Royal weddings you watch on TV (if you bother to watch, I don’t) – most of them happen here. Same for all coronations and many state funerals.
Westminster Abbey isn’t all about the royals though. It doubles up as the burial site of some of the UK’s most important historical and literary figures, including Charles Dickens, Stephen Hawking, and William Wilberforce.
There’s even a section called Poet’s Corner that… kind of does exactly what it says on the tin, except quite a few novelists are buried there too
The Houses of Parliament + Big Ben
You barely have to stretch your legs to get to the next spot on our 1 day London sightseeing itinerary – none other than The Houses of Parliament (to which the clock tower Big Ben is attached).
Now I think it’s only fair to give you due warning here – both the Palace of Westminster (in which the Houses of Parliament are located) and Big Ben are undergoing significant renovation works at the moment.
That means that various parts of the palace and most of Big Ben (apart from one clock face) is covered in scaffolding and cladding. Pretty it is not, but necessary it is… so you will have to deal with the blight to what I’m sure would have been completely unique and mind-blowing series of Insta photos.
If you had more time in London, I’d suggest visiting inside Parliament – either on a guided tour, or just to the public galleries to watch a debate in process (one of my favourite free things to do in London) but time is, sadly, of the essence, so I’ll have to move you along for a little stroll over Westminster Bridge to our next destination.
The London Eye
I have a real soft spot for The London Eye for many reasons. First of all, I remember the pomp and circumstance surrounding its opening in the year 2000 (cue Busted song) – back in those long lost days when it was called the Millennium Wheel.
Secondly, I worked there for several of my college and uni holidays, meaning I’ve ridden, stared at, talked about and directed people to the damned thing enough times to have it ingrained in my mind.
Do I recommend that you go on it? Yes! It should go straight (and I mean straight) to the top of your list of best things to do in London for a day. Don’t even think about skipping it.
The London Eye is not the cheapest London sightseeing spot but on a clear day, the views that you get from it are beautiful – you can even see as far as Windsor Castle 25 miles away.
The wheel rotates super-slowly, so you have plenty of time to take in the ever-changing views (and a lot of photos I’m sure) during your 25 minute ride.
Time to cross back over the River Thames via Golden Jubilee Bridge to head to another of London’s biggest landmarks – Trafalgar Square. Every city has its main square and Trafalgar Square just so happens to be London’s.
Personally, I think the square itself is a bit overrated – the hodgepodge of architectural styles and random statues dotted all over the place are charming enough but not crazy beautiful. Do I still think it’s worth visiting? Totally.
Swing by the famous lion statues (here’s a fun fact – the sculptor Edward Landseer had never seen a lion when he was commissioned to make the statues so he had to wait for a lion at London Zoo to pass away so he could use it as a model for the statues) and take a peek at the famous statues -not forgetting Nelson’s Column in the middle of the square.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll even see an old Tardis-style building that used to double up as a police watchpoint and holding station – leading it to be dubbed as Britain’s smallest police station.
Now it’s crunch time people.
Trafalgar Square is flanked by the National Gallery and, next to that, The National Portrait Gallery.
If you’re into art my suggestion would be that you spend the rest of the afternoon exploring at least one of them and then pick up at the West End Show / Theatre Point .
The National Gallery contains over 2,300 works dating from the 13th century to 1900 – with a broad range pieces of leading artists including Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin on the Rocks.
The National Portrait Gallery is smaller but no less mighty – with a collection of 215,000 works to discover. Entrance to both museums is free.
If you have decided to skip the museums (there’s always a next time right?) then it’s time to march on with the London one day tour.
Read More: Insider’s London: Trafalgar Square
Spend Some Time in Covent Garden
Covent Garden Market tops many a list of what to do in London for a day. Sitting at the heart of theatreland, it’s a lively part of the city, with lots of cool bars, pubs and restaurants and things to do.
You should visit the famous Apple Market. It’s a beautiful covered market – but I wouldn’t bother to go shopping here: most of the independent shops are long gone, replaced with many of the same brands you’ll find all over the world. Yawn.
Much more charming is the pretty little Cecil Court – a 17th century alley lined with bookshops that’s rumoured to have inspired Diagon Alley in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
See if you can find quirky Neal’s Yard – accessed via two small passages that open up into a cool courtyard filled with brightly coloured buildings that bring some sunshine to even the greyest London day. It’s a refreshing haven of independent businesses – shops, restaurants and bars, in an area that’s increasingly dominated by large brands.
After that, if you still have time, walk over to Somerset House – a former Thameside royal palace that is now one of London’s leading cultural and arts venues. It’s free to enter and the striking courtyard is one of my favourite places to chill with a nice coffee in central London.
Read More: The Covent Garden Area Guide
West End Show (Or a Play at the National Theatre)
I maaaay be prejudiced, but I’ll come out and say it. London has one of the most exciting theatrical scenes in the world and you absolutely should book a ticket to see a play or a West End show while you are in town.
Personally I favour plays over musicals but go and see whatever catches your eye – this is your one day in London and you want to make it count.
There’s a whole other post to be written about London’s numerous theatres and what they’re showing but I haven’t done it yet (whoops, the list gets ever longer).
In the meantime, you can always have a browse on Ticketmaster for tickets to most of the big shows (including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II – still one of the hottest shows in town) at the West End Theatres.
Your other option is to pick an “Off West End” play – basically a play or show taking place at a venue that isn’t in the tiny London area defined as the West End. That covers a hell of a lot of brilliant venues including The National Theatre and The Young Vic, two of my favourite theatres in London.
The National Theatre is probably the easiest to fit into this London one day trip as it’s only a short walk away from Covent Garden (albeit on the other side of the river), though the Young Vic is only about another 15 minutes further). The National also stands out for having not one but three theatres inside – meaning you can take your pick of which play to see.
Whichever way you swing it, a trip to the theatre has the benefit of a) making you cultured AF b) immersing you into the full London experience during your 1 day in London.
Drinks and Dinner in Soho
That’s it! Your hard work is done (I wouldn’t blame you if you took the time right now to give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back, I certainly am) – all that’s left for you to do is to have a few drinks and dinner in buzzy Soho. Let’s face it, drinks and dinner are a breeze compared to the rest of your epic day in London.
Soho is bursting with options when it comes to places to drink and places to eat (don’t believe me? I suggest you check out my Soho bar guide, where I painstakingly rated and reviewed all of the best bars in the area – the things I do for this blog).
Ultimately where you end up depends on what you are looking for. If you’re up for a blow-out night, I would recommend drinks at Disrepute or Swift Bar followed by a meal at Bob Bob Ricard – you know, the one with the press for champagne booths and to die for food.
Alternatively, Yauatcha is the hottest place in town for delicious dim sum (yeah, I know you traditionally eat it for lunch but we are renegades and we don’t play by those kinda rules).
Read More: Cool Things to do in Soho
If you want something a little more budget friendly, then Bodega Negra serves banging Mexican food (and some killer cocktails), Flat Iron dishes up perfectly-cooked steaks and Pizza Pilgrims hawt and freshly-made pizzas – all at reasonable prices (well, by London standards anyway).
After that, if you still have a little life in you, Soho is also home to one of London’s best jazz clubs – Ronnie Scotts (oh and endless clubs if you really want to go large or go home – these days I personally go home).
Just like that, you’re done – I hope you’ve enjoyed your day in London. Time to retire to bed to get some beauty sleep.
If You Have More Time… A Few Other Places You May Want to Consider Adding to your London Trip
- The Tower of London
- Tower Bridge
- Museum Mile in South Kensington with the Science Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum and Natural History Museum (you can check out my Kensington guide here)
- Borough Market
- The Tate Modern and / or the Tate Britain
- The British Museum
One Day in London: Where to Stay
If you only have one day in London and you want to know where to stay – my advice is to stay centrally. That means Covent Garden, Westminster or Soho if possible.
Yes, the prices are high but it means that you are able to walk to all of the places on the itinerary and base yourself in the heart of the action so no time is wasted during your short trip.
My favourite hotel in Covent Garden is the absolutely gorgeous The Henrietta, mere metres from the Apple Market. The decor is beautiful, service is slick and you’re located right in the centre of London.
Gone are the days when Soho used to be the seedy heart of central London. These days its all chic bars and stylish restaurants – with a few chic hotels thrown into the ring for good measure.
If you love boutique hotels with personality and bags of style, plump for Ham Yard Hotel – which offers arty rooms, its own bowling alley, spa and rooftop terrace in the midst of Soho.
Westminster has the bonus of being a bit quieter than the West End locations, though, as a rule, the prices are just as high (and sometimes higher).
You have a real pick of hotels to choose from here – The Conrad London St James is a great high-end option favoured by many a politician, while The Nadler is a stylish but reasonably priced option nearer to Victoria.
Read More: The Best Areas to Stay in London
How to Visit London in One Day: Practical Tips to Help You Plan a Day in London
Best Way to See London in a Day
The best way to see London in a day is to put on some comfortable walking shoes and follow this one day itinerary. If you’re unable to walk long distances, you may want to consider the hop on hop off Big Bus Tour.
What to Pack
Pack comfortable walking shoes and an umbrella.
You cover a lot of ground on this itinerary and the last thing you need is to be wearing shoes that look great but cut your feet to ribbons the moment you move. Repeat the mantra. Comfort is king. Comfort is king.
As for the umbrella… well I’m sure London’s reputation for rainy weather precedes me so we don’t need to say anymore on that.
Best Ways to Get to Central London from The Major Airports
Gatwick is super-easy to get to central London from. Simply make your way to the train station and get a train to central London (destinations covered include London Victoria, London Bridge, Blackfriars and Kings Cross / St Pancras).
Top Tip: Do not bother with the Gatwick Express – it’s way more expensive and the trains to central London from Gatwick are pretty fast anyway.
You have a few options for getting to central London from Heathrow. The fastest is probably to take the Heathrow Express, which unlike its Gatwick counterpart, saves enough time to make it worth the expense – it terminates at London Paddington. You can also get a normal (non-express) train to Paddington too.
Heathrow is also connected to London via the Underground (a.k.a. the tube), so you can hop on and make your rather slow way to central London this way.
Using the tube does have the added benefit that the Piccadilly Line (which is the line that Heathrow is on) takes you to much more central locations – including Covent Garden, so you can get into the heart of the city without having to change.
As Stansted is basically the arse end of nowhere, they have you pretty firmly in their grip when it comes to ways to get into central London.
You can get the so-called Stansted Express (which takes 45 minutes to get to Liverpool Street – I struggle to see how there’s anything express-like about it) or you can get a coach.
Both are a bit of a drag but take around 45-50 mins in total.
Again, another “London” airport that’s about as close to London as Paris (yes, I’m exaggerating a bit). Catch the airport bus to the train station and hop on a train to central London or get the coach. Again, your options are fairly limited here.
How to See London in One Day – Recommended London One Day Tours
I have outlined all the things that you need to know to cover off what to see in London in one day but I know that sometimes it’s still nice to take a tour. If you do want to take a one day London tour, here are a couple of options that you should look at.
- London – Top 20 Sights Walking Tour (Includes Entrance to the London Eye)
- Sights and Tastes of London Walking Tour
What to do in London in a Day: Map
Looking for more London tips and guides? Check these out…
- 2 Days in London – What to Do and What to Skip
- London Visitor Map: Interactive Map of London
- The Ultimate London Bucket List
- Unusual Places to Visit in London
- Sightseeing in London – London’s Biggest Landmarks and Attractions
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