One place people ask me for recommendations for over and over again is London. They know I’ve been several times and they know I LOVE sharing all the neat things there are to see and do. Since most people that ask are visiting for their first time I like to start them off visiting the things I think will whet their appetite for more. A little mix of everything to give them a taste of London that includes the major attractions so if, heaven forbid, they never make it back they won’t regret not seeing the things London is most famous for.
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After their initial question of “What should I do in London?”, the very next thing I usually hear is “It’s really expensive though isn’t it?”. Well I’m not going to lie, London isn’t the cheapest city to visit but it IS possible to keep costs down with a little research, planning, and a good itinerary to keep everything on track. And that’s what I’m here to help you with.
With these questions from friends and colleagues in mind I’ve created this ‘3 Day Itinerary for First-Time Visitors to London‘ that I’m excited to share with you. I’ve visited each of the attractions or areas on the itinerary so I can personally recommend them and will also share time and money saving tips I’ve learned to help keep the costs down.
In this series of three posts I hope to give you a little mix of everything – great architecture, royal fun and tradition, iconic landmarks, beautiful places of worship, great views, parks just made for strolling, and all that history that London is known for.
Shall we get started with day one? Let’s go!
Day 1: The City & East End
9:00 AM | Start at Trafalgar Square and walk to Charing Cross bus station (stop F)
Start your morning taking in all the sights and sounds around Trafalgar Square and there are a lot!
Likely to already be buzzing with activity, even early in the morning, Trafalgar Square is London’s favourite public space used for rallies, celebrations and is full of public art. The two best known pieces are undoubtedly the four giant bronze lions that are covered with people as they take their essential London selfies, and Nelson’s Column. Dedicated to Lord Admiral Nelson for defeating the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, this 52 m column is hard to miss as it stands over the square and the traffic zipping around it.
If you have a little extra time a walk around the square will get you closer to the National Gallery, St. Martins-in-the-Fields Church, the 4th Plinth with its ever changing art pieces, and even a statue of George Washington. Story has it his plinth stands on earth imported from Virginia in honour of his pledge never to set foot on British soil. Oh George, how much you’ve missed!
After your look around the square, walk to the Charing Cross bus station (stop F) where you’ll catch one of the few remaining Heritage Routemaster buses for your scenic drive to Tower Hill (Route 15). From Trafalgar Square you’ll make your way along the Strand and Covent Garden District. This part of the route will take you past theatres, pubs, and great boutique shops. Soon you’ll be at St. Paul’s Cathedral where you can catch a view of its stunning dome, and then on to Tower Hill to get off to visit your next next stop of the day- the Tower of London.
10:30 AM | Tower of London
The Tower of London is, in my opinion, THE sight to see in London. If someone can only do one thing and really wants to learn about its history I would say go here. It’s a little bit museum, some royal life, world famous castle, and a whole lot of history wrapped up in one brilliant UNESCO World Heritage Site. I still wonder how in the world I missed visiting it on my first trip to London, but I did and have wished I hadn’t ever since (which is another reason I keep recommending it to everyone!).
Not to be Missed:
- Every morning the military guard bring the keys to the Tower to open it; and every evening there is the Ceremony of the Keys where the Tower is locked up for the evening. How cool would that be to be part of this 700 year old tradition?
- The Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) tour that leaves every 30 minutes from the portocullis in the Middle Tower. It’s engaging, packed with history, and entertaining with gory tales of beheadings and torture.
- The Crown Jewels exhibit which includes more than just jewels. There are crowns, orbs, sceptres, goblets, and the largest punch bowl you’ll likely ever see.
- The White Tower which is the oldest medieval building in the Tower dating back to about 1078. Set over four floors it includes a pretty little stone chapel, the Line of Kings armoury collection, and an axe and execution block!
- The not-so-crowded Beauchamp Tower where important political prisoners were held, the Bloody Tower which was a place of torture, and the Scaffold Site which is a memorial to the unlucky few that lost their heads at the Tower.
Save Time and Money:
- If you arrive when the Tower opens head straight for the Crown Jewels to beat the lines and then circle back for the Yeoman Warder’s tour. Both will be less crowded if done this way.
- Three ways to save money on the (pretty pricey) Tower of London tickets: Buy in advance online for a small discount; visit the Tower as one of your attractions if using the London Pass (includes Fast Track entry); or if traveling by National Rail check out London 2FOR1 tickets for a free ticket for a companion (check for availability as these are not always on offer).
1:30 PM | Lunch
After a morning spent at the Tower of London you’ll definitely be ready for some lunch but don’t go too far; your next stop is right next door at the Tower Bridge.
There are many options for lunch in close vicinity, from quick and easy favourites like Subway, to authentic pub grub and a pint at the Hung, Drawn and Quartered (that name alone makes me want to go).
2:30 PM | Tower Bridge
After the Tower of London my very next favourite sight (that the approximately 100 photos I have can attest to) is Tower Bridge. It is just SO London. And it is so much more than just a beautiful bridge.
Built in the 19th century, the design was in response to a competition the city ran to provide the best solution to the city’s need for a new bridge, without compromising the passage of ships to get further up the river. The winning designer, Sir Horace Jones, unfortunately didn’t live to see the completion of his bridge so his assistant oversaw the remaining eight years of construction.
Over the years the Tower Bridge has seen several changes such as closing the upper walkways in 1910 to pedestrians because they weren’t being used, to the conversion to oil and electricity to power the raising and lowering of the bridge to allow the ships through. This information, and so much more, can be learned at the Tower Bridge Exhibition which I highly recommend (I’ve done it twice and would still go back).
Not to be Missed:
- The amazing panoramic views of London from the walkways! Although they are enclosed there are lots of little windows that can be opened that are big enough to get your camera through so you don’t have smudged fingerprints on glass in your photos.
- Glass floors in the walkways! This is fairly new (and a good reason I need to go back eh?) and you can get a great view looking straight down.
- The Victorian Engine Rooms which show the original pumping engines and boilers along with information about how the whole process worked.
- Catching the bridge when it opens to let ships pass through. Check out bridge lift times to see if your visit will coincide with one.
Save Time and Money:
- Four ways to save money on Tower Bridge tickets: Buy in advance online for a small discount; visit the Tower Bridge in combination with the Monument to the Great Fire for a discount off the two if bought separately; visit the Tower Bridge as one of your attractions if using the London Pass (includes Fast Track entry); or if traveling by National Rail check out London 2FOR1 tickets for a free ticket for a companion (check for availability as these are not always on offer).
4:00 PM | Take the Tube to Brick Lane for Shopping and Dinner
Brick Lane is vibrant, quirky, chic, has one of the city’s best markets and is the place to go if you want a curry. Walking the streets you’ll catch the fragrant aromas of herbs and spices coming from inside the restaurants; you’ll be spoiled for choice when picking a place for dinner. If you’re looking to dig a little deeper into the food scene why not join a guided food tour and learn about the area from a local all while trying new foods and drinks.
Before or after dinner, there are lots of vintage and retro clothing shops to browse, or bring your camera to catch some great photos of the colourful street art that adorns the walls. If you’re looking for nightlife this is an option to return to after your last activity of the day, as some of the city’s most fashionable night clubs and bars are located in this neighborhood. I can’t really recommend any in particular, but can definitely say this is a great area to come for lively streets and lots of bustling activity.
Nearest Tube Station: Aldgate East
7:00 PM | Jack the Ripper Walking Tour
More than just a ‘corny, touristy’ tour, a Jack the Ripper Walking Tour is full of history of the East End and the notorious killer that terrorized its streets. The guides are experts on the subject, having written books on the case, and the limited numbers of participants ensures you can hear all the gruesome details the guides will regale you with. Along with this the tour takes you through the old, narrow alleyways of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, two areas you aren’t likely to see otherwise on a visit to London, but so very interesting to learn about and a wee bit eerie when the sun sets. It was really good fun and would be a great way to end your first day in London.
Well that’s a pretty full day, but not so much that it’s not doable. Be sure to wear your most comfortable walking shoes, travel light, and bring your camera fully charged with lots of room for photos.
I think you’ll have a great day. Are you ready for more? Great! Check out these posts and the map for two more days of fun in London.
This post is part of my London Love series.
For more information on common (and some not so common) sights in London, as well as itineraries to help you plan your time, please visit my collection of posts in London Love.
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