London is a big metropolis. The New York City of England and maybe of whole Europe. Is a city with a melting pot of cultures that invites you to visit over and over again. Not sure if there’s ever a slow season here. I have visited London twice, once in November and once in May and both times it has been crowded with tourists from all over the world.
This time we went to London to take my niece who came to visit us from Pennsylvania. First time in Europe for her, we wanted to make sure she had an amazing time and wanted to return one day. She was really excited about seeing London (I won’t mention she is a secret fan of One Direction because she will vehemently deny it and then will kill me). We planned to spend 3 days exploring the city before heading to other places around Europe.
One can easily spend 2 full weeks in London, but we only had 3 days so I planned our itinerary to hit some of the major attractions but also leaving free time to simply savor the city, without breaking the bank. We were successful and had a great time. Here’s my list of favorite things to do on a 3-day itinerary, along with some tips regarding transportation, accommodations and free attractions/experiences.
Transportation in London
The first thing you need to know is how to navigate in the city. London is huge and impossible to walk everywhere. Driving there is madness. Luckily, London has a very reliable public transportation system. If you are in London for 2 or more days, then it makes sense to buy an Oyster Card. This is the cheapest way to buy for a single journey on bus, tram and the Tube. Locals call the underground rapid train “Tube” not the “subway”, which is used to describe an underground pedestrian crossing. The card costs about 5£, which are refundable, but need to claim your refund in any of the stations in London. If you realize you still have your card when reaching the airport, it’s too late. You can also get any balance left on the card back, but again, need to do this while in London.
Cabs are everywhere and can sometimes be a faster way to reach point B from point A. If you are a group of 3 or more and in a hurry, then maybe splitting the cost of a cab may make sense. We took a cab in London twice, the first night when we arrived at 11pm, were lost and our data plan decided to stop working. 6£ saved us from walking 25 minutes and probably a fight. The second time was we intended to go to the London Eye but instead went to Tower of London. Since we had reservations for a specific time, we didn’t have time to walk 44 minutes or 28 with the bus.
Again, London is huge and it’s impossible to find a location that is walking distance from everywhere. You need to choose what is most important to you and try to find an accommodation in that area.Another thing to keep in mind is that accommodation in London is freaking expensive. Because transportation in London is fantastic, my advice is to find a place next to one of the Tube stations. We found a studio on Airbnb only a 10 minute walk from King Cross’ station. It also had a bus stop right in front of it that took us straight to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Top 5 FREE experiences
London is an expensive city, but I’m surprised of how many people ignore the many free attractions that London offers. We can still have a pinch me-I’m in London experience without breaking the bank if we take advantage of these free activities.
Time travel is possible at the British Museum.With free entrance, there’s no excuse to not pay a visit to this fantastic museum which houses one of the largest collections of art in Europe, offering its visitors the unique opportunity to see 2 million years of human history under the same roof. Its remarkable collection includes treasures like the Rosetta Stone (not to be confused with the online language learning system), Parthenon sculptures and Egyptian mummies.
Tips: the museum is specially crowded on Sundays. Go early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds. Get the audio guide or invest in a good travel guide that explains this museum. There’s lot of information and it can be a little bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you are looking at.
We did not tour the Abbey, but arrived just in time for the Evensong at 3pm on Sunday. This was definitely a unique (free) experience to sit in this church, where prayer has been offered for over a thousand years. The service always includes one or more psalms and is sung by the church’s choir.
Tips: if you plan to attend the Evensong concert make sure to arrive early as space is limited. Photography, filming and sound recording are not allowed in the Abbey at any time during the service. Also is not allowed to tour the church. Entrance is free of charge.
Another freebie . The changing of the Guard is a ceremony that must be experienced at least one time in your life when visiting London. We had to wake up very early in order to arrive by 10am. We wanted to have the best view possible. The guards don’t arrive at the palace until 11:30 so we were standing by the gates for 1.5 hours and it was cold. I had 2 cups of coffee and had to pee but couldn’t go anywhere. By 10:15 it was really crowded and by 10:30 people were standing really behind us, so arriving at 10am secured us a spot right behind the fence.Would I do it again? Probably not.
Here’s a video:
Harrod’s is a luxury department store, with over 330 departments it is the biggest in all Europe. Window shopping costs nothing here and it’s a great place to go if the weather is poor outside. We went on a Monday, when it was raining and cold. The prices are outrageous, but it is possible to find some good deals.
5. Take cheesy but must-have pictures
Of course you have to take at least one picture inside the red telephone booth, otherwise how can you proof you were in London?
Top paid-for experiences
One of England’s most iconic symbols, the Tower of London was built more than a millennium ago. It has served as a palace and royal residence, a fortress and as a fearsome prison. The first structured built was the White Tower by orders of William the Conqueror in 1066.
One of the most famous residents and prisoners of the tower was Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. She first lived here as a queen and then as a condemned prisoner. She was accused and found guilty of adultery, treason and even for having an incestuous relationship with her brother. She was beheaded at the tower on May 19, 1536.
We arrived at 10:45am and decided to wait for the next (highly recommended) Beefeater guided tour at 11:00am (English only). Our guide was hilarious, sharing anecdotes and history about the tower. The story that struck me was the one about 2 princes held prisoners in the Bloody Tower by their uncle, Richard. They were never seen alive again. then years latee construction workers found a chest with the skeleton remains of 2 children. It is believed their uncle killed both boys so that he could be king. Sad story.
Do not forget to see the Crown Jewels exhibition. Opened in 2012 to celebrate the Queen’s jubileum, it is now a permanent exhibition where people can appreciate closely the beautiful crowns worn by monarchs during the history of the monarchy in GB.
Tips: buy tickets online or at the Tourist Information office located in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This saved us from standing in line for over 45 minutes to buy the tickets at the Tower of London ticket office. There’s no extra charge to buy the tickets there, is just simply convenient.
2. London Eye
No visit to London is complete without riding the London Eye, now known as the Coca-Cola London Eye. This giant Ferris wheel is located at the South Bank of the Thames River and is definitely another icon of the city. On a clear day you can enjoy amazing 360˚ views of the city up to 40km.
Tips: buy your tickets online and reserve a time. Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your reservation.
There are several places for all kind of budgets where we can enjoy traditional afternoon tea, served with biscuits, finger sandwiches and cakes on a 3 layer tray. Some may require reservation several days in advance. We had our London tea fix at The Tea Room inside of Harrod’s. The tea was fantastic, even my niece who was a self-proclaimed tea hater changed her mind after trying one of the server’s recommendations. The cakes and sandwiches were delicious and fancifully arranged.
4. Indulge in fish and chips and other British classics.
One of the things I love about London is the immense variety of restaurants and eateries it has. In London you can find all kind of cuisines, from Thai to Indian curry to Peruvian. But because we were in London, we had to have fish and chips, at least once. The fish and chips from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese were particularly good. Bangers and mashed and meat pies are other classic dishes worth to try.
5. Ride a classic double-decker bus
Most public buses come in the form of the classic double decker, so if you are taking advantage of London’s fantastic public transportation, I’m sure you will have plenty of opportunities to take a ride in one of these. With a good travel guide and map of the city, you can make your own “hop on-hop off tour” without paying to one of the biggest companies.