London is a bustling, vibrant city that slows its pace for nobody, so expect this four-day itinerary to follow its lead and pack in the sights and scenes thick and fast. The city’s neighborhoods are a melting pot of styles, combining historic sights, contemporary design, luxury shops, and urban street style all within the span of a few blocks. In other words, there’s always something to discover around the corner. Of course, any trip to London must include visits to the famous landmarks, museums, and galleries, but there are also street markets, hip foodie destinations, street art, and independent boutiques to explore. We did the legwork for you and pulled together the ultimate four-day itinerary for London.
Day 1: Classic Sightseeing Tour
It’s going to be a long day, so start with a hearty English breakfast and mug of builder’s tea. Your first day is the perfect time to tackle the classic London sights. If you arrive on a Thursday, the queues will be shorter than if you visit on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Start at Buckingham Palace, where you can see the changing of the guard (every 30 minutes during summer) and explore the interior during a tour. (The palace is only open to guests between July 21 and September 30, 2018). Then, enjoy a serene stroll around the Royal Gardens and neighboring Green Park before taking walking to St. James’s Park Station to catch the Tube to Westminster. Here, you’ll find the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey.
By now, you’re likely getting hungry for lunch, so go full-on tourist and step into the famous Tattershall Castle, a floating pub moored beside Hungerford Bridge. After fueling up, cross the bridge for a spin on the London Eye. The towering wheel offers amazing views of the London skyline and beyond. Plus, the 30-minute trip is just enough time to let your lunch digest before boarding a river boat at Westminster Pier and cruising down the Thames to Tower Bridge for the last admission to the Tower of London.
After spending some time in the infamous prison-turned-royal palace, it’ll be time for dinner. Choose between dining at a generic chain restaurant at the beautiful St. Katharine Docks, where the waterways provide a home for moored yachts and boats, or take a short taxi ride to Aldgate East and visit the famous Tayyabs, a Pakistani grill with lamb chops and a pumpkin curry to die for.
Day 2: West End Retail Therapy, Dim Sum, and Gallery Hopping
Sticking to the West End, today is about landmarks, galleries, and two of London’s most iconic department stores. Stop by Trafalgar Square to pose with the lions or check out Nelson’s Column. Then, hit up the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, both located on the square. The former is free of charge and hosts an array of paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries, focusing mainly on European masters. If you’re interested in British history, head next door to the National Portrait Gallery (also free) and visit the Tudor and Elizabethan rooms for a glimpse at some of the earliest works in the collection. Also, drop by Room 16 to witness the only portrait of William Shakespeare believed to have been painted from life.
At this point, it’s time for a dim sum lunch in Chinatown. Though it’s traditionally a Sunday event, most restaurants on Gerrard Street serve dim sum all day, every day. Our two picks are the Golden Pagoda or Golden Dragon. Following lunch, have your credit card handy because next on the agenda is a visit to two of London’s finest department stores. Located behind a faux Tudor facade, Liberty is the perfect place for gifts (think luxury fashion items, designer stationery, dreamy homeware, and its own range of textiles). Next up: Fortnum & Mason, which is the place to stock up on extravagant English teas, chutneys, and jams. If you have room for an afternoon snack, head to The Parlour and take on the department store’s famous Knickerbocker Glory. If in need of more retail therapy, stroll through Soho and browse the independent boutiques and little bars. Stores like Supreme, Footpatrol, Gerry’s Wines & Spirits, and Lina Stores (an Italian deli) are all worth stopping by, as is The French House for a Meteor lager.
Cap off the day with a show. For a classy -- and expensive -- option, head to Covent Garden and enjoy drinks in the beautiful Champagne Bar at the Royal Opera House followed by an opera or ballet. Alternatively, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. One of London’s most creative institutions, the art, fashion, and design museum is just a quick taxi ride or Tube trip from the West End.
Day 3: South Bank and London’s Best Doughnuts
Start the day with a trip to Borough Market, London’s premier food market (the market is best visited on Saturdays). If you’re peckish, grab a bacon roll from Maria’s Market Café, but leave room for all the cheese, oysters, mortadella, paella, bread, and fresh coffee you’re going to sample as you explore the market. Importantly, don’t leave without visiting the Bread Ahead stand for London’s best donuts (our favorite is a honeycomb donut with creme patisserie filling). Work off some of those calories with a walk up the South Bank to Shakespeare’s Globe. A faithful reconstruction of the original 1599 playhouse, the Globe hosts daily performances of Shakespeare’s plays. If you don’t fancy watching a whole play, take a tour of the impressive complex and get schooled on the world of the Bard.
The Tate Modern, with its flashy new extension, is up next. Housed within an old power station, the industrial brick shell and its towering chimney is a work of art itself. Admission is free to see the permanent collection in the main rooms and the new Switch House, while the temporary exhibitions cost a fee. You’ll find everything from pop art to Surrealist masterpieces here, with works from Picasso, Warhol, and Duchamp on permanent display. You could easily spend a whole day in the Tate Modern -- partially thanks to its Terrace Bar. Stop in for a refreshing beer or cocktail and enjoy the stunning views that include St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge.
Complete your South Bank walk by strolling from Tate Modern up to the promenade outside the Royal Festival Hall. The afternoon atmosphere here is lively. The outdoor book stalls, skateboarders, and busking musicians add to the creative vibe that’s best enjoyed with a beer from one of the pop-up stalls in the area. If you prefer your arts and entertainment to be a little more formal, head inside the Royal Festival Hall for free music events, exhibits, and performances.
Now, it’s dinner time. Enjoy a simple meal at one of the many South Bank restaurants, followed by an arthouse movie at the excellent British Film Institute. Or, head to The Cut to enjoy the sublime food at The Anchor & Hope pub, followed by a show at either the Old Vic (one of London’s premier theaters) or the New Vic (its sister venue for up-and-coming fringe theatre).
Day 4: East London Markets, Street Art, and a Hip Hotel Dinner
Rise bright and early to get to Columbia Road Flower Market in Hackney before the crowds. Take a taxi from Shoreditch High Street for convenience. Closed to traffic, the street market is filled with vendors selling all kinds of flowers. Don’t be alarmed by the Cockney-twanged screams of traders advertising the prices of their flowers. Blooms in hand, take the 10-minute walk to Brick Lane for more Sunday markets.
Every Sunday, traffic on Brick Lane is brought to a halt as locals and tourists descend on the array of markets and food stalls that fill the street. A microcosm of London society, the street is home to a diverse blend of Bangladeshi curry houses, vintage stores, hip coffee shops, and fashion boutiques who trade alongside the Sunday market. Though open all day, it’s best to arrive early to catch Brick Lane Market and the indoor Sunday Upmarket at prime time. In addition to traders selling various secondhand goods, you’ll find plenty of vintage clothing, homeware, textiles, vinyl, and art. Eat lunch at one of the many street food vendors offering everything from Caribbean to Lithuanian specials (we’re partial to Planet Falafel), or stop at Beigel Bake for East London’s best hangover cure -- the salt beef and English mustard bagel.
After experiencing Brick Lane, you’ll want some quiet time, which you can find at Whitechapel Gallery. Close to the end of Brick Lane, the gallery exhibits a mix of new and contemporary artists, along with established masters. It also has a cute shop with art prints and art-influenced ephemera. After perusing this gallery, it’s time for more art -- this time on the street. The journey from Whitechapel Gallery to Shoreditch via Brick Lane is London’s street art epicenter. You can sign up for a pre-arranged organized tour (try Shoreditch Street Art Tours) or save money and follow a map for a self-guided walk of the best walls and buildings with street art.
Finish the day in Shoreditch with a meal and drinks at the Ace Hotel. After an art-filled day, you’ll find the hotel’s Hoi Polloi restaurant to be suitably stylish, with its geometric tiled floor and Scandinavian-style wood-paneled walls.
What to Know Before You Go
Upon arrival, take the Gatwick or Heathrow Express trains from the airport to London. (Both offer a direct route into the city.) Unless you’re on a budget, avoid the temptation to take the Tube from Heathrow, as lugging your bags onto a cramped carriage will be a hassle. Most importantly, get an Oyster card. It’s by far the easiest way to travel on all public transportation systems around London (buses no longer take cash payments). Plus, it makes for a cool souvenir.
Also, while most stores, restaurants, and bars are open on Sundays, business hours are shorter. And some museums and galleries are closed completely. Almost all of the biggest museums and galleries are free in London -- though they’re happy to accept donations. Finally, remember to stand to the right of the escalator or expect plenty of side-eyed glances.
Where to Stay
Unsurprisingly, London has a wealth of hotel options, from budget boutique stays to luxury properties. While peak season rates can be high, plenty of smaller independent hotels keep prices competitive. For a stay in the heart of the West End, within walking distance of many major sights, try The Hoxton Holborn. Its prices are reasonable given the classy rooms and hip bar and restaurant. Other central picks include the beautiful Sanderson London Hotel, The Piccadilly London West End, and the Arosfa (one of the many family-run townhouse hotels in Bloomsbury that offer great value). For hotels near the South Bank and Shoreditch, check out citizenM London Bankside or the Ace Hotel London Shoreditch, respectively.
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