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How to make the most out of 36 hours in London

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Here's what you absolutely must do if you're making a short visit to London for the first time. Source: Tolga Akmen / AFP

Are you planning to visit London? That’s great — it’s undoubtedly one of the most vibrant, dynamic cities in the world, and you’ll find yourself with plenty of things to do. (Spoiler alert: many of them are free.)

However, as much as London is a popular holiday spot, it also frequently acts as a mid-way point for travellers who are transiting between cities. This might be the case if you’re an international student in the US who is Asia-bound during the summer break. Or perhaps you’re an international student in Europe looking to spend a short weekend exploring one of the most famous cities in the world. 

Either way, you’re probably hoping to cover as much of London as possible in the short time you have. Most guides out there tend to recommend London’s hidden gems, but forfeit the main attractions that define the city for what it is. 

With that, we’ve created a walking guide that combines both, giving you all the unmissable things to do when you visit London on a time limit with advice from bloggers and more!

Visit London: Day One

1. Breakfast and sightseeing in South Kensington

 

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Known for its classic British streets, pristine, clean lines of architecture and calming street buskers, South Kensington is a great place to go if you’re visiting London for the first time. It’s exactly what you’d see in movies, complete with cobbled streets and old London townhouses — and it’s a great place to start your day. 

Beware of the tourist traps, however. South Kensington is notoriously busy because of its many attractions: the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the V&A ( Victoria and Albert Museum); its proximity to Hyde Park; concert halls (the Royal Albert Hall is a 10-minute walk away); and universities (both Imperial College London and the Royal Academy of Music). 

Still, it’s definitely worth a go when you visit London. Try to grab a bite to eat at PAUL bakery if it’s not too busy, and pop into one of the two museums around the area. 

The Natural History Museum is always highly recommended, but it’s often filled to the brim with families and young children. If you’d rather somewhere calmer, the V&A is a beautiful spot to get lost in.

2. Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London. Source: Kirsty O’Connor /AFP

Don’t spend too long in South Kensington because Buckingham Palace is next on your list. Luckily, you can kill two birds with one stone by going through another famous London landmark to get there: Hyde Park. 

When it comes to city parks, Hyde Park ranks as one of the most beautiful. Expect memorials and fountains, the swan-filled Serpentine Lake, plenty of recreational spaces, and a lovingly cared-for rose garden. 

However, you’re on a time limit — which is why we recommend experiencing it via a bicycle. You can rent a Santander Cycle, which is stationed all around Hyde Park’s many exit and entrance points, for as low as two British pounds. This way, you can enjoy the magnificent views the park has to offer without sacrificing too much of your time. 

Follow the route that takes you to Buckingham Palace — you’ll be able to chart one out on Google Maps. Alternatively, keep an eye out for the many maps around the park. There, you’ll be able to peek into the Queen’s official residence and snap a picture.

If you’re lucky, you could make it in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which usually starts at 11 a.m. However, you should know that it’s often difficult to get a good view because of how crowded it usually is, so if this isn’t a priority for you, there’s no harm in giving it a miss. 

3. Continue east to Westminster: Houses of Parliament, Big Ben

Catch sight of the newly renovated Big Ben. Source: Daniel Leal/AFP

Once you’ve gotten your fill of Buckingham Palace, make your way to Westminster — London’s political hub. Here, you’ll be surrounded by some of the most important landmarks in British history while getting your fill of grand, sweeping architectural structures, statues and memorials. 

Some significant landmarks include Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and Kate Middleton were married; the Houses of Parliament, where much of British policies are shaped; and Big Ben, London’s famed, and recently renovated clock tower.

4. Lunch at South Bank

If you’ve followed this list, you’re probably starving by now — and there’s no better way to enjoy a well-deserved lunch than to visit London’s South Bank. Venture south and you’ll find a stretch of restaurants, buskers, and pop-up stores along the River Thames. 

Pick a restaurant and settle down, or grab something to go if you’re not keen on paying tourist prices for food. Either way, try to land a spot by the river, which will give you amazing views of London’s landscape. If you’re lucky, you might find some pop-up stalls that sell drinks that you can enjoy by the riverside. 

If you have time, you could take a short walk to the London Eye, but we don’t recommend purchasing a ticket for the ride. Love and London explains it best: 

4. Walk back up north to Trafalgar Square

There’s still lots to do down south, but if you want to do London in a day and a half, you’re going to have to give it a miss. Travel back up north via one of London’s many bridges — the closest to you will probably be the Golden Jubilee Bridge, which isn’t as well-known, but offers great views of the Millennium and Tower Bridges. 

Then, make your way to Trafalgar Square. You’ll probably recognise it from films and TV shows, and for good reason: it represents the heart of London, hosting many of its famous events, celebrations, and festivals. It’s also full of energy, what with all the buskers, street performers, and more always entertaining the crowds. Don’t forget to take a picture with the lion statues adorning the square!

A recent overgrown garden installation in Trafalgar Square, London. Source: Daniel Leal/AFP

5. Get some shopping done at Oxford Street

Oxford Street is famous for being THE place to go in London to shop. Here, you can expect to see high street brands such as Zara, Topshop, and more, sprinkled in with a few of London’s homegrown shops, such as Hamleys toy store.

The real beauty of Oxford Street, though, is its surrounding areas. Just off the central hub is Kingly Court, a beautiful little space tucked in a little corner with some quirky restaurants and cafes. It’s a great place to grab a drink, but be warned: it can be difficult to find. Use Google Maps to navigate your way there.

While you’re there, visit Carnaby Street, a vibrant shopping street in the heart of Soho. The shops themselves can be a little pricey, but you’ll be taken in by the colourful signs and modern decorations amidst the classic London architecture. 

6. Wind down at Covent Garden

Don’t linger too long at Oxford Street, because your next stop is Covent Garden. This is a gorgeous little space in the heart of the city with quaint little stores, restaurants, and cafes. 

It’s a wonderful place to have a cup of tea in the evenings, made even better by frequent performances from musicians playing at the Royal Opera House — just a stone’s throw away from Covent Garden itself. 

7. Get a last-minute theatre ticket in Leicester Square

You can’t visit London without catching a show. London is well-known for being an epicentre for the arts and culture, bringing in performers from far and wide to its many acclaimed theatres and production companies. Because of this, it’s home to some of the best musicals, plays, and comedy shows the world has to offer. 

What if you don’t have a ticket? Not to worry — just make your way to the TKTS Booth in the heart of Leicester Square. Here, you’ll be able to find last-minute tickets for all your favourite shows, many of which go off at a discounted price. If you’re not aiming to watch a particular show, just grab the cheapest tickets you can find — any experience is better than nothing.

Take note that most shows in London start at 7:30 p.m. and the TKTS Booth closes at 6 p.m.. Be sure to get there on time to avoid disappointment!

Not keen on watching some theatre? That’s alright — you can always drop into one of London’s many comedy clubs around Leicester Square.

8. Have dinner in Chinatown

Visit Chinatown for a sit-down dinner after your show. Source: Tolga Akmen/AFP

After your show, go ahead and walk towards Chinatown, situated right behind Leicester Square, for a delicious dinner. You’ll find a street filled with some of London’s best Chinese restaurants, Asian dessert shops, and bakeries. 

Not hungry? Try out one of the cocktail bars nearby. Opium Chinatown is a great bet. If you’re looking for something a little different, take a short walk to Flight Club — the home of social darts.

Visit London: Day Two

1. Breakfast in Shoreditch

Now that you’ve got London’s main attractions out of the way, you can begin to explore its more quirky and hidden gems. Shoreditch is a great place to visit: it’s home to many hipster cafes, thrift shops, street art, and more. 

It’s also home to a thriving restaurant scene. TOPJAW have highlighted a few amazing burger joints and bars in the area, seen in the video above. You could visit Beigel Bake, known fondly as the oldest and best bagel shop in London. 

2. King’s Cross and Camden Market

 

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Are you a Harry Potter fan? Then King’s Cross station is a must-visit. Take the tube or a bus a short way to the famous station, which is as grand as it seems in the media. To complete your visit, be sure to drop by the Platform 9¾ store to purchase official Hogwarts merchandise. 

We recommend visiting Camden Market. Overseeing Camden Lock is a vibrant market area with over 1,000 shops and stalls selling fashion, music, art, and food. It’s a great place to get lost — and to grab some last-minute souvenirs before you leave. 

3. Tower of London

Have some extra time? Try squeezing in a visit to the Tower of London, the former home of the British Royals. The full tour gives you access to the grounds where you’ll be able to explore the bloody history of the royal family: Henry VI was murdered here, and the children of Edward IV disappeared after being locked in a tower in 1483. 

If you don’t have the time to explore it in full, just visit the Crown Jewels in all their glory.

We hope this guide helps you make the most of your time in London!