With thousands of years of history, world-class museums and attractions, every kind of food imaginable, and a never-ending list of things to do, it’s no wonder that London is one of the most popular cities to visit in the world.
I personally got hooked on London after my first visit in 2012, and in the last decade have spent cumulative months exploring what is easily my favorite European capital.
But London is a massive city, and there’s so *much* to do there that planning a trip can be overwhelming. I know this because I’ve been daunted myself by the knowledge that it’s impossible to see and do everything in one visit.
It’s also why, up until now, I haven’t tried to tackle a London itinerary at all on this blog!
But I know London well, and have now planned solo trips, couples trips, and trips with friends/family members to London. I feel like I’ve done all the must-dos (most of them multiple times), and can now help YOU plan a more stress-free first trip to London.
The following itinerary represents the perfect 5-days in London if you’ve never been before (in my opinion, at least). Feel free to use it to help you plan your own London trip!
First things first: let’s talk about where to stay in London! I’ve been to London many times (I’ve actually lost count) and have stayed in several different neighborhoods. Neighborhoods I personally enjoy staying in include Kensington, Paddington, and the South Bank, though I’ve stayed all over!
For a short-ish trip, it’s probably easiest to pick one hotel and stay there the whole time. The below list is (loosely) grouped based on where in London you’ll find each hotel.
Some things to consider when looking for accommodation in London include: how close hotels are to a Tube station, whether the rooms have air conditioning (a requirement for me, personally, in the summer), and what’s included in the room rate (such as wifi, breakfast, etc). Also note that some hotels are in old buildings, and not all have elevators that reach every floor.
Okay, on with the itinerary now!
Highlights of Day 1 include: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Parliament, London Eye, the South Bank, and St. Paul’s Cathedral
If you’re traveling to London from anywhere in North America, then chances are you’ll be arriving early in the morning after an overnight flight. I’m not going to suggest you pack in *too much* today, because chances are you’ll be quite tired. (But try to avoid napping/sleeping all day if you can, as it’ll help you adjust to the time change better!)
Getting from London Heathrow to the city can take some time. My biggest tip is to NOT take a taxi all the way from the airport. You can take the Piccadilly Line (Tube) right from Heathrow if you’re on a budget. Or you can opt for the new Elizabeth Line, which currently will take you as far as Paddington Station, where you can transfer to other Tube lines or grab a taxi outside. The Heathrow Express also goes from Heathrow to Paddington with no stops.
London has a good public transport system, with the most famous part being the Tube or Underground, which consists of 11 different underground train lines connecting all corners of London. London also has buses (those red double-deckers), overground trains, and taxis/rideshares.
In the past, the best way to use the Tube was to purchase a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card (either at a station in London, or in advance before your trip), which you could then top up as needed and use for all public transport. But now TFL has gone contactless, and accepts contactless card payments and even Apple Pay/Google Pay at most of its stations.
To help navigate, apps like Citymapper are great for public transit (and usually used more by locals than Google Maps), and I use my AllSubway app whenever I need to quickly consult the whole London Tube map. (Both of these apps can also be used offline.) TFL also has a special app for Oyster Cards/contactless payments.
After arriving, you’ll probably want to drop your bags off at your hotel. You likely won’t be able to check in yet, but almost all hotels will hold your luggage for you until your room is ready.
Then you can then head to the nearest Tube station and make your way to Westminster to start your first day of London sightseeing! (Westminster is a stop on the Circle, District, and Jubilee Tube lines.)
When you get to Westminster station, I always suggest exiting through Exit 4 (the Bridge Street exit). You’ll climb a flight of stairs and emerge at street level to come face-to-face with Elizabeth Tower (the famous tower that houses the bell known as Big Ben).
This view has the wow factor, but it’s not actually the best for getting photos of the tower. For that, head to your right towards Parliament Square Garden, which offers up better views of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
Pro tip: If you want the Insta-famous photo of you in front of a red phone booth with Big Ben in the background, those phone booths are along Great George Street across from Parliament Square Garden. You can’t miss them; there are usually people lined up for photos.
From here, it’s time to visit Westminster Abbey, the gothic cathedral where Britain’s kings and queens have been crowned (and sometimes buried) since 1066. If you’re only going to visit one famous church in London, it should probably be this one as it’s stunning and filled with history both inside and out.
Booking tickets for Westminster Abbey in advance is advised (book a ticket here), and going earlier in the morning is always a good idea (which is perfect since you probably arrived early today anyway!). You can either wander on your own, or get an audio guide. Either way, allow at least 1.5 hours to see everything inside.
From Westminster Abbey, head across the Thames via the Westminster Bridge on foot. Stay on the side of the road closest to Parliament when you cross, and then take the staircase down on your right when you get to the other side. Here there’s a pathway (The Queen’s Walk) alongside the Thames that offers up my personal favorite view of Big Ben and Parliament.
After snapping some photos, you can follow the tunnel under the bridge to the South Bank, which is one of my favorite parts of London.
Depending on what time it is, you may either want to grab a meal now, or you may want to squeeze in a ride on the London Eye. The London Eye is one of the world’s largest observation wheels, and you can’t miss it in the skyline in this part of London.
A ride on the London Eye takes place in large circular pods (each one can hold up to 25 people) and lasts half an hour. It’s not an absolute must-do in London for me, but if it’s on your London bucket list, then do it! I highly recommend booking Fast Track tickets in advance in order to avoid long lines.
Afterwards, you can have a stroll down the South Bank. If you haven’t had food yet, there are a variety of pubs and pop-up cafes to choose from, especially during the summer months. (I particularly like the area of Gabriel’s Wharf, which has a bunch of cute shops and some eateries.)
If you’re up for a bit of a walk, I recommend walking about a mile (20-25 minutes) along the Queen’s Walk to the Millennium Bridge. You’ll pass so much along the way, including a pebbly beach!
Once you get to the Millennium Bridge, you have a few options depending on how you’re feeling*.
*If you arrived in London before today, then you’ll probably have the energy to spend more time exploring the South Bank and maybe even visit one or two more attractions. If not, then I recommend crossing the bridge and hopping back on the Tube at either Blackfriars (Central/District lines) or St. Paul’s (Central Line) to head back to your hotel.
If you’re in a museum mood, the Tate Modern is nearby and free to visit (and has great London skyline views from its rooftop observation deck). Shakespeare’s Globe theater is also nearby, along with its attached restaurant/pub called The Swan. The Swan has a lovely afternoon tea that’s lightly Shakespeare-themed and affordable (though I’ll recommend another afternoon tea later in this itinerary).
Cross the Thames via the very cool Millennium Bridge when you’re ready, heading towards the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the other side.
If you’re going to visit a second famous church in London, then it should probably be St. Paul’s, the masterpiece with the giant dome that was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and finished in 1710. The church miraculously survived The Blitz during WWII.
St. Paul’s is impressive even just from the outside, but is also worth visiting inside if you’re so inclined. (Just note that it’s only open until 4:30 p.m., with the last entry at 4 p.m.) You can pre-book St. Paul’s tickets here.
By now you’ll have had a very full first day in London, so it’s time to head back towards your hotel, have some dinner, and get a good night’s sleep to gear up for the rest of your trip!
Highlights of Day 2 include: Hyde Park, Green Park, St. James’ Park, Buckingham Palace, Changing of the Guard, Trafalgar Square, Churchill War Rooms, British Museum, Covent Garden, and an optional West End show
There are four royal parks surrounding Buckingham Palace, with the largest one being Hyde Park. I love going for nice long strolls in Hyde Park, and that’s where I recommend you start your morning.
For a truly long and leisurely walk, take the Central Line to either Marble Arch (near Speakers’ Corner) or Lancaster Gate (near the Italian Gardens), and walk all the way through Hyde Park to Hyde Park Corner (it will probably take you about 30 minutes*). Then you can cross over into Green Park and eventually stop to see Buckingham Palace.
*If you’re not up for that long of a walk, you can take the Piccadilly Line to either the Hyde Park Corner or Green Park stop and start your walk in Green Park.
Green Park connects to St. James’s Park, which is also really lovely and offers up some cool views of Westminster.
Watching the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace is on a lot of peoples’ London bucket lists, but hear me out: it’s one London tourist attraction that I don’t really think is worth it!
The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place in front of Buckingham Palace at 11 a.m. every day in June and July, but only on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays from August-May (and those ceremonies are weather-dependent).
In the summer months, you usually only get a good view of the ceremony at Buckingham Palace if you arrive an hour+ in advance, meaning you’ll spend at least 2 hours of your day here, if not more.
Instead, I recommend taking your photos of Buckingham Palace, and then walking through St. James’s Park to Horse Guards Parade. Here, the Changing of the King’s Life Guard ceremony happens at at 11 a.m. during the week and 10 a.m. on Sundays, and is almost never as crowded as the one at Buckingham Palace. (Plus, this one has horses!)
From Horse Guards Parade, you can also pop by to see No. 10 Downing Street if you want, or visit one of the various war memorials between here and the Embankment.
Trafalgar Square is a must-see for most people visiting London, and it’s less than a 10-minute walk from Horse Guards Parade.
Along with admiring Nelson’s Column and the other things in this giant square, this is a good place to grab a quick lunch. (I personally would probably grab something from Pret A Manger because I love Pret, but there are a bunch of cafes and pubs to choose from – usually I just go by Google reviews to choose a spot!)
There are SO many great options when it comes to museums and historical places to visit in London, but I personally would choose between these options today, depending on your interests:
Your museum visit will take you into the late afternoon, and I recommend spending the rest of your day in and around Covent Garden. (It’s technically walkable, or you can take the Tube to Covent Garden station.)
Covent Garden has tons of restaurants and pubs, along with some popular markets like the Apple Market and the always-Instagrammable Neal’s Yard. If you want a unique drinks experience in Covent Garden, my husband Elliot and I both loved the inventive cocktails at The Alchemist on St Martin’s Lane.
For dinner, there are lots of options in Covent Garden (try the Seven Dials Market, which is a fun food hall), or you can head over into nearby Soho, which has even more restaurants. (Reservations recommended at most spots.)
Pro tip: The Covent Garden/Soho area is also London’s theater district, so if seeing a West End show (London’s equivalent to Broadway) is on your list, this would be a good night to book one! If you don’t book ahead, you can pop by the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to see if there are any cheap last-minute tickets the day-of.
Highlights of Day 3 include: Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The Shard, Borough Market, St. Dunstan-in-the-East, the Skygarden, and a walking tour in the East End
Start your day today with an opening time tour of the Tower of London, one of my favorite historical sites in the whole city. (Take the District or Circle line to Tower Hill.)
The Tower of London (or, more officially, His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) was first conceived in 1066, and the White Tower at the complex’s center was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror. The Tower was built as a royal residence, but is generally more infamous as a prison and place of torture – and today is known for being home to the Crown Jewels.
You don’t *have* to take a fully guided tour at the Tower of London (you could always just book your ticket and then join one of the free tours with one of the Yeomen Warders, i.e. the Beefeaters), but if you want to do something really unique, check out this Tower of London Early Access + Opening Ceremony and Crown Jewels tour.
The opening hours tour is really cool; you get to be first into the Tower, and get to watch the Opening Ceremony where the Chief Yeoman Warder unlocks the Tower gates for the day. Then you get to see the Crown Jewels before the lines form, and get a fully guided tour of the Tower of London. Book this tour here.
From the Tower of London, it’s a short walk over to Tower Bridge. This bascule + suspension bridge is iconic in London, and on average carries 40,000 people across the Thames every single day.
You could just walk across and snap some photos, but it’s also worth it to get a ticket for the The Tower Bridge Exhibition, which is a small museum located inside the Neo-Gothic towers and skywalks of the bridge. The museum covers how and why the bridge was originally built, and you can walk/sit/lay down on glass floors inside the skywalks and also visit the old Victorian-era engine rooms.
Pre-book timed tickets here – or you can actually combine the Tower of London tour I mentioned with a ticket for Tower Bridge in this combo ticket.
It will likely be around lunchtime by now, and you have two options depending on your budget. Both require you to continue over Tower Bridge back to the south bank of the Thames.
The first option is to book lunch (or perhaps even a themed afternoon tea) at Aqua Shard, a restaurant on the 31st floor of The Shard.
Other London itineraries would probably tell you to visit the View from the Shard observation deck today, but honestly I think the tickets are pricier than the experience is worth, and you can get the same views by booking a meal at one of the restaurants in The Shard.
Aqua Shard is a somewhat pricy restaurant, but it’s the most affordable spot inside The Shard that offers lunch. They have a set lunch menu that starts at £39 per person for a 3-course meal, and all tables have excellent views out of floor-to-ceiling windows. (They also offer a fun Peter Pan-themed afternoon tea; you can read more about that here.)
The other option for lunch is to continue on past The Shard to Borough Market, which is one of London’s most famous food markets. It’s located underneath the south end of London Bridge, and will be bustling at lunchtime.
There are various vendors to purchase food from inside the market, as well as several pubs and cafes just outside. This is a more affordable option!
After lunch, make your way across the Thames again via London Bridge. (Yes, you’re kind of just making a loop today! It doesn’t make sense to use the Tube for this portion of Day 3, so I recommend going on foot or getting a taxi/Uber.)
Once you’re across the river, stop to see St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a former church that’s now a beautiful public garden.
The church here has gone through many iterations and tragedies through the centuries, including sustaining damage in the Great Fire of London in 1666, being added onto and rebuilt in the 1700s and 1800s, and then being almost completely destroyed again during The Blitz in 1941.
Instead of rebuilding the church after WWII, the City of London decided to turn the ruins of St. Dunstan’s into a public park. They planted trees and a lawn, and today it’s a place that locals come to read or chat or enjoy a quiet lunch outdoors. It’s free to visit, and definitely worth seeing!
If you want to get some great London skyline views that don’t cost as much as the observation deck at The Shard, there are two to choose from very close to each other on this side of the Thames.
The first is the Sky Garden, which is a mostly-indoor garden and observation deck inside the “Walkie Talkie” building at 20 Fenchurch Street. Most people will tell you to go here, as it’s free to visit (though you do need to reserve a timeslot online in advance.)
I’ll be honest with you though: I’ve been to the Sky Garden twice, and while it does have a novelty factor to it, I don’t personally love it. The view from the small observation deck isn’t the best, and it can often get quite crowded.
If the weather is nice, I would actually opt to visit the Garden at 120 (located atop the building at 120 Fenchurch St.) instead. This outdoor rooftop garden is also free to visit, but you don’t need to make a reservation. This one is all open-air and offers up some unique views.
On the floor right below the Garden at 120, there’s a cool restaurant and bar called 14 Hills that has similarly nice views. If the weather is bad, you could always opt to grab a drink at the bar here instead, which feels like an indoor garden.
This is an optional extra stop, but if you have the time, Leadenhall Market isn’t far from Fenchurch Street (it’s literally a 3-minute walk).
Leadenhall Market is a beautiful Victorian-era indoor market, with little boutiques alongside restaurants and pubs. If you’re interested in Harry Potter filming locations in London, this was one! And even if you’re not, it’s still a really beautiful market to see.
Next we’re heading to London’s East End, which isn’t always an area people will tell you to visit on your first trip to London. But I actually think it’s a great place to grab dinner and then go on a walking tour.
The heart of the East End is about a 20-minute walk from Leadenhall Market if your feet aren’t already dead, or you can catch a taxi/Uber or take the Tube to either Liverpool Street or Aldgate East.
Once in the heart of the East End, you can pop into Old Spitalfields market for some browsing, and look for street art on Brick Lane. (Brick Lane is also known for its food, especially curries, so this is a good option for dinner.)
This evening, if you’re into true crime and not too squeamish, you can book a Jack the Ripper walking tour like this one.
Jack the Ripper was a (still as-yet unidentified) serial killer who terrorized the Whitechapel area in 1888. His murders have always been intriguing in a grisly sort of way, and most Jack the Ripper walking tours wind through the streets of Whitechapel after dark, telling the stories of the women he killed while you stand sometimes in the exact spots where their bodies were found.
If Jack the Ripper doesn’t really interest you (I’ve been on two tours and loved them, but I totally get that the true crime craze hasn’t ensnared everyone), another option for this evening would be to stay in central London and take an evening cruise on the Thames.
The Thames is, in my opinion, not the most beautiful of rivers to cruise on, but doing so does give you a different perspective of London. I don’t recommend a dinner cruise, but an evening cruise with a glass of bubbly like this one can be nice.
It IS cool to see London all lit up after sunset.
Pro tip: Don’t want to take a guided tour/cruise? You can always hop on any of the commuter boats that run up/down the Thames. The Uber Boats by Thames Clippers, for example, operate like water taxis, and a single ride within central London (for example, between Tower Bridge and Westminster) costs just £7.70 if you pay using an Oyster card or other contactless payment.
After three very full days in London, you’ll have had the chance to see most of the city’s highlights. So today I recommend taking advantage of the fact that London is close to a lot of other really cool things!
Whether you want to soak up more history, visit a castle, go out into the countryside, or immerse yourself in some movie magic, there’s a London day trip option for you.
I can’t tell you which day trip you should take, because your interests might be different from mine. But here are five great day trips to consider:
Greenwich is technically still a borough of London, located along the Thames to the southeast of the city center. You can take a boat to Greenwich, and then spend the day exploring all sorts of maritime history.
Top things to do here include visiting the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum, touring the Cutty Sark ship, going to the Royal Observatory to straddle the Prime Meridian, and relaxing in Greenwich Park. (Definitely get a Greenwich museum pass for this day!)
The majority of the Harry Potter films were shot in film studios in Leavesden just north of London, and the studios have now been transformed into a museum-like experience for fans.
You can see actual film sets, costumes, props, and concept art from the movies, and enjoy interactive experiences that capture the magic of the Harry Potter world. This is a must do for most Harry Potter fans and 100% worth it. (Book tickets with transport here.)
If you want to get a further taste of British royalty, then a day trip out to Windsor might be right for you. You can explore the cute town of Windsor, and tour the ornate State Apartments and gothic St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, which is the oldest continuously-occupied castle in Europe, dating back to the 11th century.
You can take the train to Windsor on your own and just get a castle entrance ticket, book a tour with bus transport, or pair up a visit to Windsor with some other locations on a full-day tour like this one.
Stonehenge is a must-visit for many people traveling to the UK, but I’ll be honest with you: it’s not worth making a trip to see it on its own. Instead, I would pair up a visit to Stonehenge with a day trip to another location like nearby Bath.
The whole city of Bath was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, and it’s known for its ancient Roman baths, the beautiful Bath Abbey, pretty parks and gardens, the symmetrical Georgian-style Royal Crescent, and Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon.
You can book this Stonehenge + Bath day trip, or opt for this one that also includes a stop in a picturesque Cotswolds town.
Lastly, the university town of Oxford also makes a great day trip from London. You can wander in and out of the shops in town, and also visit some of the university’s most famous colleges. (There’s even an Oxford Harry Potter walking tour, where you can see filming locations and the dining hall that’s said to have inspired the Great Hall in Hogwarts.)
You can easily take the train from London, or book a tour that pairs up Oxford with another location like Highclere Castle from Downtown Abbey, or perhaps the Cotswolds.
READ MORE: The Best Day Trips to Take From London
Highlights of Day 5 include: Neighborhoods like Notting Hill and Kensington, afternoon tea, Camden Town, and the Regent’s Canal
Since today is your last day in London, we’re going to take it easy. Today is going to be a more relaxing day spent exploring some of my favorite London neighborhoods, starting with arguably some of the prettiest ones, and then moving on to a slightly edgier one.
If you’re into the London Instagram aesthetic of pastel-painted row houses, charming mews, and antique shops, then I would recommend starting your day in Notting Hill. (Notting Hill Gate on the District, Circle, and Central lines, or Ladbroke Grove on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines make good starting points.)
In Notting Hill you can grab breakfast or brunch, shop for antiques and vintage clothing at the Portobello Road Market, and just soak up this charming neighborhood. (Just remember, though, that people live in the pretty pastel houses, so be respectful if you’re taking photos.)
From Notting Hill, it’s a lovely walk south through Kensington to South Kensington (or you could hop on the Tube to High Street Kensington or South Kensington).
If you walk, you can stop by the Instagram-famous Churchill Arms pub. And if you happen to be visiting in the spring (usually in late April/early May), then this is the part of London that experiences “wisteria hysteria,” when the wisteria vines burst into purple blooms in areas like Bedford Gardens and Kynance Mews.
If the weather isn’t great, South Kensington is home to several excellent (and free) museums, including the Natural History Museum (exhibits on dinosaurs, volcanoes, gemstones, and more) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (one of the largest applied art and design museums in the world).
I know I’ve already mentioned several afternoon tea options in this itinerary (like the one at The Swan, and the one at Aqua Shard), but today I suggest definitely setting aside time for a proper afternoon tea.
There are two in this part of London that you can never go wrong with:
Advanced bookings for both of these afternoon teas is highly recommended, and can be done online.
After your tea experience, hop on the Tube to Camden Town, a cool neighborhood north of central London known for its distinct alternative, punk-ish feel (they even have the first Wendy’s in the world where Wendy got a punk/emo makeover).
Explore the colorful Camden Market, and perhaps head up to the park on Primrose Hill for great London views. The Regent’s Canal also runs right through Camden. If you have the time, you can take a canal boat ride from Camden to an area called Little Venice, which is super lovely. (You can pre-book waterbus tickets here.)
If you’re hungry for dinner tonight (depending on when you had your afternoon tea, you may not be very hungry!), there are some nice spots in Little Venice, or you could head into nearby Paddington.
And that’s it! That’s how you pack as many London highlights as possible into just a 5-day visit. Could you do more or less in those 5 days? Of course! But after many trips to London myself, I really think this itinerary is a good starting point for first-time London visitors.
Now go forth and plan your own London trip!