Do you have the world’s shortest layover in London- but cling to big travel dreams?
Have you ever dreamed of being transported to another country for even just a few hours? How amazing would it be to wake up to breakfast in Paris or close the day with a nightcap in Rio? I love long trips, but there’s also an intoxicating allure to the whirlwind visit, getting just a tantalizing taste of what a city has to offer. And lately, I’ve been thinking about the flavors of London. Specifically an ultra-short London layover.
I have a good friend who we’ll refer to as Graeme (because that is in fact his name!) who recently did just that. He had the briefest of layovers in London while on route to another European city. A layover so short that we even pondered if it was worth his time to leave the airport at all! In general, I rarely recommend layovers where you have less than 4 hours of leisure time but such sensible practicalities are lost on a wild soul like Graeme, who was determined to see London for the very first time.
And now Graeme isn’t the only traveler I know who’s embracing a lickety-split layover in London – my friend Valerie is considering it too! So if Graeme and Val sounds just like you and you have a devil-may-care approach to layovers – or if you simply have extremely limited free time to see the city on a business trip – here’s what you can do in London when you have just three hours, plus a few options to extend your day if you have five to six hours.
Is it really a good idea to try to see London on a super short layover? Can anyone see London in just three hours? Can you even see anything at all? YES! There are many overrated tourist sights in the world but the classics of London aren’t among them. And, happily, they are all within easy walking distance of one another, allowing you to see a lot in a short amount of time. I’ve never heard of anyone who hasn’t been thrilled with their first visit to London, no matter how short the layover is. We can make this work – here’s how.
(This itinerary assumes you’ll be traveling to and from London Heathrow airport. We’re talking 3 or more hours of leisure time, not just 3 hours between flights. You have to take into account your time getting to and from the airport, clearing customs, checking back in, and so on. Before diving into any layover make sure you have your logistical ducks in a row. Research your transportation options, double check your flight times, and come up with a solid plan for your luggage.
Take the subway (the “Tube”) from Heathrow airport directly to Green Park station. If you’re lucky and the timing works out, you might just be able to see the Changing of the Guard at nearby Buckingham Palace. The music begins at 11:15 and the event itself at 11:30.
If you’re going to miss it, take heart. This is still a great place to start a quick London layover tour. You’ll get a much better look at the palace when the Changing of the Guard is not taking place. Take some time to look around and take photos of the palace and the surrounding area.
(Got tons of time? Grab a hotel. One of our favourite places to stay is the The Rubens At The Palace, just steps from Buckingham Palace. It is very posh, very English, and the perfect place to splurge on a proper high tea or a full English breakfast. We loved staying here. If your budget is very limited, not all that far away is an “EasyHotel”, run by the same folks as the EasyJet discount airlines.
Walk to Trafalgar Square via Whitehall and Downing Street.
From Westminster and Big Ben, walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. On your left, you’ll see Downing Street (home to the British Prime Minister) and the Household Calvary Museum, as well as the grounds for the Horse Guard Parade and the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard.
In short, the Horse Guard Parade and the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard have all the spectacular pageantry of Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard, but with a fraction of the crowds. So take heart if you missed the fanfare at Buckingham Place! You can see this activity weekdays at 11:00, Sundays at 10:00 (learn more here).(A shout out to my battered copy of Lonely Planet London for this smart tip).
(Got lots of time – and politics isn’t your thing? Take this alternative route instead. Walk along the River Thames on Victoria Embankment and take a glimpse at the river’s traffic and the Whitehall Gardens. Turn left at the Embankment tube station, walk through the station’s foyer and out the other side, and take Villiers Street up to Charing Cross Station (peeking into the Victoria Embankment Gardens as you do) and emerge at Trafalgar Square – our next London Layover stop.)