Weekend Guide to London
We typically visit large cities in sprints. We cram a lot of exploring, sightseeing, eating and drinking into a short amount of time, usually a long weekend, and then are ready to get away from the crowds to a quieter place. It is impossible to see all of London in one trip. Don't even try, it will leave you stressed. Instead, focus on a few must-see sights, and then leave time to wander in-between. We've found it is the in-between times that are the most magical. Sip afternoon tea. Stop in to your local pub. Stroll through Hyde Park. Some cities pull you in to their style and pace whether you're ready or not. London follows the the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you keep it at a distance, it will stay there. If you dive in, it will swallow you whole. If you take it slow, it will respond in kind with warmth and friendliness.
All roads lead to Rome, but they go through Heathrow first. One of the busiest airports in the world, Heathrow may very well be your best, or only, option. The good news is that it is quite close to central London. London's subway, affectionately know as the Tube, runs straight into central London from Heathrow, and can be an easy way to haul your bags to wherever you're staying, assuming it isn't rush hour of course.
While Heathrow is the star, don't shy away from flying in to Gatwick. It is typically cheaper, less crowded, and with an express train into London, just as easy and more comfortable than taking the Tube to the city center. For all of those reasons, it is our preferred airport into London, but because it is smaller it isn't always a viable option.
Public transportation is king. The Tube makes traveling longer distances a breeze, but do check online to make sure your route isn't down for maintenance. It can also be a good idea to avoid taking the Tube during business rush hour. If you aren't used to tight spaces and giving up on your concept of personal space, you will be uncomfortable. Good news for you, though, is that nothing beats sitting up top on a double-decker bus. This can be an experience all its own, and is a great way to get a cheap tour of the city.
WHERE TO STAY
For our long weekends in London, we typically try to stay in or near the city center, as it is simply more convenient. By city center, we generally mean near the tube's Circle line. Anywhere from South Kensington to St. Pancras. There are so many great neighborhoods to stay in, so do some research and find one that fits your style and appetite. The Tube makes it easy to get around, so feel free to venture further out. Pick a good home base, and then start exploring.
WHAT TO DO
To best plan your time, I recommend finding the few things that interest you that may require reservations and book those for early in the day. Visiting the Tower of London and viewing the Crown Jewels is typically a crowded affair, so make reservations and start early. The wonderful thing about London is that all of its museums and galleries are free to enter. This is not only great for your budget, but means little or no lines to wait to enter.
A must see, even if museums aren't your cup of tea, is the British Library. A relatively small, unassuming room houses some of the greatest literary treasures in the world. Pieces such as the original Magna Carta, Handel's Messiah, The Beatles handwritten lyrics, and even the oldest copies of the complete New Testament are all on display. If you love exploring ancient art and artifacts, London will make you swoon. The British Museum houses treasures that the English pillaged from lands far and wide, and still see no reason to return to their country of origin. The National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, is also highly recommended for world class art. With so many museums, it is best to select a few key pieces you want to see, otherwise museum-fatigue sets in pretty quickly.
Being that you're in London, a trip to Big Ben, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace are likely in the offing. These places are the most touristed of the bunch, so beware of pickpockets or try to visit early or late in the day. Nearby you can also ride the London Eye. A massive wheel which will treat you to sweeping views of the city, we've found the line to be very long, the prices very high, and the whole experience completely overrated.
If cathedral's are your thing, St. Paul's is beautiful. Climb to the top of the dome for a view of London that, in our humble opinion, is better, and cheaper, than the London Eye. If you can only choose between St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey, choose the Abbey. For a truly unforgettable experience, and to save the cost of admission, wait to visit Westminster Abbey until its evensong service. There is no cost to enter for the service, and the sound of the choir echoing through the church is unforgettable. Simply look up the times of the service online, it typically starts at 5 o'clock in the evening every weekday except Wednesday, and get in line at the main entrance 30-45 minutes prior. You won't be able to take pictures or wander around the inside of the church before or after, but the experience more than makes up for it.
To summarize, for our tastes, a must-see list looks something like this:
Evensong at Westminster Abbey
Parliament & Big Ben
Tower of London & Crown Jewels
That list will fill up a long weekend in no time, and it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all there is to do and see in this amazing city.