My flight from Madrid on easyJet arrived around 1:30 PM Saturday. My onward flight to Boston, though, wouldn’t depart until 4 PM Sunday. That left a little less than 24 hours to explore London, including transit to/from my hotel. Certainly, I don’t recommend leaving yourself just 24 hours in London on purpose. But if that’s all your schedule allows, here’s seven suggestions to make the most of your time.
First, Plan Your Overnight Wisely
If your time in London is limited, it’s critical to choose your hotel’s location wisely. Given the city’s notoriously horrible traffic, I highly recommend someplace accessible by mass transit. As much as I love exploring by road, the last thing you need when short on time is sitting in traffic. Plus, it’s important to plan ahead, and stay close to what you want to see and do. On this trip, my flight arrived at Gatwick Airport, and I chose a hotel in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The “Gatwick Express” train takes you from LGW to Victoria Station in 30 minutes. From there, a 15 minute ride on the Tube gets you to Hyde Park. The location worked well for me. It turned out to be an excellent base, a reasonably short walk or Tube ride to everything I wanted to see.
With that out of the way, on to my suggested itinerary for 24 hours in London. This post follows the same order as my trip.
24 Hours in London, Stop 1 – Visit a Park
Specifically, Kensington Gardens in this case. All told, it took roughly an hour to travel from Gatwick to my hotel (the Hilton London Hyde Park), arriving around 3. While I had reservations to be elsewhere by 4:30, there was still time for a little exploring first. Given the hotel’s location across the street from Kensington Park, a walk in the park seemed perfect. Especially since the day brought the rarest of treats, a sunny afternoon in November. After all, what beats the combo of fall foliage and a chance to stretch your legs to beat jet lag?
24 Hours in London, Stop 2 – Tea Time
Though I’ve visited England a few times, I’ve never enjoyed a proper high tea. At the suggestion of a coworker who hails from the UK, I planned a stop at South Kensington’s Ampersand Hotel for Saturday afternoon tea. Since I wasn’t sure how busy things would be, I made a reservation for 4:30. Thanks to an unexpectedly closed Tube station, I arrived a little late. Thankfully, though, the tea room wasn’t busy, so my table was ready and waiting.
The Drawing Rooms themselves present a hipster vibe to high tea. The tea service itself, however, remains traditionally British. Along with a large pot of tea, the service includes a heaping tower of sweets and savories. Since I dined only a few days past Halloween, the hotel still served the special Halloween version. The primary difference? A jack-o-lantern shaped pumpkin pie, along with smoke effects added to the tower, courtesy of dry ice.
I plan on discussing the tea in more detail, along with the rest of my London food experience, in a future post. However, I’d rate the giant scones on the second level as the most delicious part. Especially with clotted cream and strawberry jam. I’m a stickler for tradition, you know.
24 Hours in London, Stop 3 – Gifts for the Family at Harrod’s
My mom gave me instructions to bring home an English “romper” for the baby. Of course, I also needed to get something for Prita. Since it wasn’t far from The Ampersand, I thought, why not check out the famous Harrod’s? It takes about 10 minutes to walk from South Kensington to Knightsbridge. Once you arrive, the gorgeous building alone makes it worth the walk.
A word to the wise – Harrod’s is a massive store. As in 5 acres and 1 million square feet massive. If you’re claustrophobic, I suggest avoiding the ground floor. The luxury aisle attracts an insane number of gawkers. Moreover, chances are your credit limit won’t survive a shopping spree on this floor. It’s much quieter on the other floors. Incidentally, Harrod’s isn’t the budget buster you might imagine. No, it’s not Wal-Mart, but rompers ran about £20 each. A very nice perfume for the wife, meanwhile, set me back about £60. No worse than Macy’s or Nordstrom, really.
24 Hours in London, Stop 4 – See Big Ben & Westminster Abbey
It goes without saying, if you’re in London, you need to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. When time is short, you won’t have time for a full tour, but you can still take in their beauty from the outside. Especially at night, both buildings are a sight to behold. It helps to take a camera that takes passable photos in low light, though.
From the riverfront around Big Ben, you can also catch a glimpse of the eerily glowing London Eye. If you’re feeling up to it, the London Eye is open for rides until 8:30 each evening.
24 Hours in London, Stop 5 – See the Buckingham Palace Grounds
Following my visit to Big Ben, I returned to my hotel around 9:30, and went to sleep around 11. One trick I’ve learned to fight jet lag is to resist waking up, no matter the urge. I did just that a few times, burying my head back into the pillow. Finally, I awoke to sunshine outside my window – at 9:30 in the morning. Guess the 787 really helps with jet lag, after all.
Anyway, I’d made plans with a former co-worker to meet up for lunch (small world, she just happened to be in London on vacation at the same time), but had time to walk around a bit before then. Since it was a sunny morning, I decided to make a short stop at Buckingham Palace. I figured the chance to see the palace on a sunny day constituted a “can’t miss” opportunity. Indeed, the royal palace, and the Queen Victoria monument, are sights to behold in the sunshine.
As you can see, a sunny Sunday also attracts hordes of visitors. A small price to pay for the experience, if you ask me. In addition, on Sundays, “The Mall” between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square is closed to traffic. You can walk the stretch at your leisure, soaking in the city’s history along the way.
24 Hours in London, Stop 6 – Explore Chinatown
My lunch appointment brought me to Chinatown, a 25-minute walk from Buckingham Palace. Located roughly along Gerrard Avenue, the current Chinatown was established fairly recently, in the 1970s. The main attraction, as you might guess, is fantastic Chinese cuisine. More than 80 restaurants line the streets on and around Gerrard Avenue, with dim sum the meal du jour. But the area also makes for a fantastic place to walk around, with its variety of shops, markets, and faux Asian architecture. And, of course, great people watching.
24 Hours in London, Stop 7 – Take In the Chaos of Piccadilly Circus
If you stop by Chinatown, you’re right next door to the most vibrant, chaotic corner of London – Piccadilly Circus. In a nutshell, it’s London’s version of Times Square, full of shops, restaurants, and attractions like Ripley’s Believe it or Not. And, of course, people. Lots and lots of people. Combined with the lights and giant telescreens, prepare for sensory overload. I can only tolerate this kind of chaos in small doses, but you’d be remiss not to check it out.
From here, I hopped on the Tube to Victoria Station, to catch the 1:30 train back to Gatwick. Not bad for a shade under 24 hours, huh?
Note: this post is part of a multi-part trip report series covering my short trip to Europe in November, 2016. Click here for the introductory post and trip report index.