Updated: 12/3/19 —
London had never been on my radar. It was as much a stranger to me as everything else I couldn’t care less about: Star Trek, pho, pacifiers, what sorority you were in. I basically ended up going just to say I’d been and because hearing “OMG of all the places you‘ve traveled, you’ve never been to London?” had gotten stale faster than forgotten focaccia. What was London–some kind of gateway travel destination?
I had initially set aside just 2 or 3 days in London—as per usual—but the list of things I needed to see kept growing and growing, much to my shock. I’d never realized there was so much to do and, like, was I actually going to enjoy London? Were all your sorority sisters right after all? I already live in New England… was there a chance regular ol’ England was going to be even better?
I took a chance and came up with an entire 5-day London itinerary which is more than I typically allot for a new place I care so little about. Maybe I’d enjoy the hell out of it; maybe 5 days in London was too long; regardless, how could I get bored in a place with so many pubs?
To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell outta my trip and feel 5 days in London is perfect for a first-time visitor. This London itinerary includes so much to see and do, you’ll never feel bored—but you also won’t feel rushed or exhausted or like Dobby with a desk lamp (“Dobby had to punish himself, sir”). The one thing you will feel is astonishment at how good the food is (the exact opposite of everything you’ve been led to believe your whole life, no?). Regular ol’ England, here I come!
⇣⇣⇣ Click on this little square thing to see the key and layers.
5- DAY LONDON ITINERARY | DAY 01
WHERE TO STAY IN LONDON
Deciding where to stay in London was a job in itself. London is absolutely massive and the only place I knew to stay was already booked up. I mean, c’mon Buckingham Palace; I know you’ve got a crapload of rooms in there. Why the snub? Hit me back.
I eventually settled on the Trafalgar Square area because of its central location and I can’t recommend this area enough for first-time visitors. I could walk almost everywhere, catching public transportation was a breeze, and pubs pubs pubs pubs pubs.
I stayed in a studio apartment room at the Citadines Trafalgar Square and it was perfect. There wasn’t anything I needed they didn’t already provide and that list includes free coffee in the lobby, an Italian male concierge, and a purple wall in my room. I can be pretty persnickety when I wanna be. Read more reviews on Tripadvisor | Book your room here!
After dropping off my bags at the hotel, I walked to the end of my street and over the river to the London Eye because I can only get my bearings at 443 feet up and no less.
Why visit the London Eye?
Though I’m not usually one for kitschy Ferris wheels, the views from the London Eye are the best in the city. And isn’t that why we all came to London anyway? To point out as many filming locations from Harry Potter as we could spot?
Since I had to go back and actually check in to my room, I followed that up with a trip around Trafalgar Square, my new ‘hood.
Why visit Trafalgar Square?
For me, it was to get acquainted with my new digs. For everyone else, there’s Nelson’s Column in the center and the surrounding lion statues people come from far and wide to see; there’s a fountain, some other weird art I don’t get, some beautiful architecture, and like the most confusing street patterns I’ve ever seen. THANK GOD the streets tell you from which way the cars are coming.
My first stop was the National Gallery which takes up the entire north side of Trafalgar Square. I had a little over an hour to explore before closing time when I imagine all those crazy paintings come to life. My personal favorite was this guy, illustrating what all my readers must look like when they read my blog posts ⇣
Why visit the National Gallery?
London’s National Gallery displays paintings by such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and everyone else you learned about in high school art class. The National Gallery has one of the largest collections of fine art in the world and the place is totally FREE. Seriously, just walk right in off the street, ain’t no thang.
Because I like to keep my life as balanced as possible, I went straight from the pretentious world of fine art and even finer tailoring and into the loudest, most testosterone-heavy pub I could find, Lord Moon of the Mall.
Why visit Lord Moon of the Mall?
Well, even the sign outside said “Welcome to a traditional English pub.” And that it was—an eye-opening first London pub experience that left me with so many questions. First and foremost, where are all the women? This is a trend I noted in every pub I went into—heavy male presence, almost zero women.
Regardless, the atmosphere was jovial, the place was super cozy despite its large size, and the beers were delicious. What more do you want from a pub? Purple walls and an Italian male hostess? Damn. Get your priorities in check.
5- DAY LONDON ITINERARY | DAY 02
One thing I love about British culture more than anything probably (yes, even more than their funny words, even more than scones), is their penchant for decent, nay, phenomenally filling breakfasts. The French ways of café and croissant do absolutely nothing for me—I need meat, vegetables, eggs, beans, and, whatever bubble & squeak is, I need it more than I need oxygen. So what did I do on my first official morning in the of bountiful British breakfasts?
BREAKFAST AT CAFÉ CONCERTO
I hit up the French café across the street because… lazy. I mean, it was right there. I should only be required to walk so far first thing in the morning.
Why visit Café Concerto?
I actually had breakfast at Café Concerto twice during my 5 days in London and though it’s not brilliantly British, I still include it in this London itinerary because the food was fantastic, the service was excellent and super friendly, and the atmosphere was cozy and chill. Plus they had framed photos of He Who Must Not Be Named but like, in regular clothes. So… Ralph Fiennes, I guess. There, I named him.
DOUBLE-DECKER BUS TOUR
After filling up on ham, cheese, and caffeine, I headed into Trafalgar Square to grab a seat on a big red bus. I chose The Original Tour because I read they were the best and, well, they were right there. How many of my life choices are made for me because of proximity alone? Hmm. Regardless, I highly recommend them!
Why take an Original double-decker bus tour?
- These busses are hop on/hop off so you can even use them as your primary mode of transportation if you wish. Get off when you hit an attraction you want to visit; get back on and head to the next one when you’re done.
- Score a guided tour of the city just by staying planted (laziness + proximity win!). Plug in your earbuds (or they’ll give you a set) and listen to a pre-recorded guided tour of the city’s highlights as you drive past them. (They point out all the HP filming locations too! Nerd win!)
- Riding on the open-air top level of the bus is a kickass and unique way to see London. (Yes, riding on top of the bus in February is really, really cold. But if you’ve read my post on What to Pack for London and Paris in the Winter, you’ll be fully prepared!)
- Our double-decker bus tour even came with a Thames river cruise which I’m sure would’ve been awesome had I remembered to take it.
Believe me, I was totally against these uber-touristy red bus tours at first but quickly learned that the awesomeness of them outweighed how ridiculous I looked to strangers whose opinions I give no shits about. These tours can be booked online (it is 2018 after all) but I simply walked into the Original London Visitor Centre and got my ticket there.
ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
After a bit of a tour around the city, I got off the bus (ahem, hopped off) at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Now, I’m a big fan of cathedral hopping in Europe—Italy, France, Spain, etc.—but St. Paul’s was unlike anything I’d ever seen, being not Catholic and all. When I look up pictures of it now, it just looks ornate and beautiful. But walking around inside I remember thinking, “What in the world is going on here?” and it wasn’t just because of the questionable modern art installations (let’s just say I saw more than one 21st century boobie). I can’t remember exactly what weirded me out (no photography allowed inside), I just remember it felt a little… off. Like Princess Leia in the last scene of The Force Awakens or Governor Tarkin the whole entire time. I see what you’re doing there… but no. Kickass floor though…
Why visit St. Paul’s Cathedral?
St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world (#22 by Wikipedia’s estimate) and was consecrated a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or 1697). That’s cool and all but… there’s also a whispering gallery here and a badass dome.
In the whispering gallery you’re supposed to be able to communicate with someone else clear on the other side of the church just by whispering. I failed at this sorcery so if you succeed, share your secrets! St. Paul’s also has two levels of dome you can climb for 360° views of London (at no additional cost) from the 2nd largest cathedral dome in the world (364 feet up, 528 steps to get there).
TOWER OF LONDON
After leaving St. Paul’s I caught another Original bus and rode the loopty-loop around to the Tower of London. I joined the very next Yeoman Warder tour and afterwards explored the place on my own. I made friends with ravens, plotted out who I’d behead if this were still medieval times, and bought a set of old rusty castle keys that are so comically large my husband knocks them off the wall every time he walks by.
Why visit the Tower of London?
Because Medieval times, yo! The Tower of London is a fortress founded in 1066 and is straight out of your every medieval nightmare. Guillotines and dungeons and tales of beheading and torture, yup, it’s all here. The Tower of London is also home to the crown jewels—Queen Elizabeth II’s crown and a hundred other crowns with jewels the size of your morning scone; ermine capes and staffs and dishes worth more than, well, you. They’ve got a team of ravens jacked enough to kick your ass if need be and the most fascinating, hilarious, worthwhile tour I’ve ever been on.
The Yeoman Warder tours take place every 30 minutes, last one hour, and are included in your (and worth the entire) admission cost. Yeoman Warders have been the Royal Bodyguard since 1509 and to become one is to almost become royalty themselves. Also, they are HI-LAR-I-OUS. I had the pleasure of being led by Moira who was, at the time, the first and only female Yeoman Warder in history.
Just outside the Tower of London is (proximity win!) the Tower Bridge. There’s also the Tower Bridge Exhibition that takes you up inside the bridge for great views, a lesson on “the magic of a bridge lift”, and a glass floor over the traffic because if you’re at no point afraid you might die a horrible death, where’s the fun? We learned that crossing the street in Trafalgar Square, now didn’t we?
I opted out of the exhibition in favour of (well look at that, my computer automatically spelled that in British) getting to the fish and chips a half hour sooner and chose simply to walk across the beautiful blue bridge.
Why walk across the Tower Bridge?
Because look how beautiful it is! It’s famous and blue and it’s a London icon. It’s meant to just be walked all over. Plus, ya gotta get over the river anyway.
LUNCH AT BOROUGH MARKET
Once over the Tower Bridge it was just a short walk down to the Borough Market where I would devour some freshhh fish and chips and it’s about damn time, right? I’d been in London like 24 hours by this point.
Why visit the Borough Market?
The Borough Market is London’s most renowned food market and you can get just about anything you want there. I opted for fish and chips, duh, but they have cheese shops and prosciutto shops and bakeries, pasta-eries, chocolate stands, seafood joints, paella, and even a pig roasting on a spit if that’s what tickles your fancy. Everything is phenomenal (I TRIED ALL THE CHEESE AND PROSCIUTTO SAMPLES SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO) and the seating is communal. Regardless of what you order, you’re going to have a delicious meal next to the nicest people.
After lunch I hauled my beer-battered ass back up to street level and towards the Globe Theater on my way back over the river.
Why stop by the Globe Theater on your way back across the river?
The Globe is a theater built back in 1599 by William’s Shakespeare’s Playing Company and for over a decade put on some of his most famous plays. This one is a reconstruction. It was built in 1997.
However! As any ol’ play actor would tell you, pretending is super fun so when you pretend this is the original, fun times for all! It’s located right next to the spot of the original and you can still see plays here in the original style (and by that I mean yo’ ass is standing).
I turned left outside the Globe Theater entrance and found myself face-to-face with the Millennium Bridge and thought, “This will be a fine bridge to cross the river on.” JK, I had that planned out all along. ⚡
Why cross the river via the Millennium Bridge?
For those of you in the know: Death Eaters, son!
For those of you not: Something to do with Harry Potter.
BACK ON THE BUS
After crossing the Millennium Bridge (that was harrowing for a while there, phew), I walked along the river until the sun set and caught another Original bus. The tour continued up to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, past some other sites I’ll get to, and back to Trafalgar Square.
Why get back on the bus?
They’s my ride.
BEERS AT SHERLOCK HOLMES
After decompressing back at the hotel for a hot minute, I headed just around the corner to the Sherlock Holmes—a London pub so cute it just couldn’t have been real—for a flagon of ale. They say stuff like ‘flagon of ale’, right? They better ‘cause I’ve got all the hobbit drinking songs in my back pocket should the occasion arise.
Why stop for beers at the Sherlock Holmes?
Proximity. But also because LOOK HOW CUTE. The Sherlock Holmes is a—no shit, Sherlock—Sherlock Holmes themed bar. That sentence was too much I think. I don’t know jack about Sherlock Holmes but if you do, this is your spot. I do know a thing or two about consuming beer in a jolly environment and making new Japanese friends though. It was a Tuesday night when I went and the place was completely packed. I drank beers I had no clue about and ate chips (fries) until standing at the bar became leaning on the bar then headed back to the Citadines for a long winter’s nap.
5- DAY LONDON ITINERARY | DAY 03
BREAKFAST AT CAFÉ IN THE CRYPT
While searching for places to have a good, English breakfast near Trafalgar Square, I came across something weird and truly questionable—so naturally I jumped on it like a wizard to a broom. Yer dining with dead people, Harry!
Why Café in the Crypt?
Say what you want about starting your day with tea on a tombstone but this place was awesome. Café in the Crypt is exactly what the name implies, a café located—why? Beats me.—inside the crypt of the Anglican church St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
They serve full English breakfasts and a host of other items, amazing pastries, and porridge. How cute is this place? Well, except for all the surrounding reminders that one day your eternal resting place may be located under a restroom. The food was delicious and I followed up my meal with a look around the crypt, then a look around the church upstairs. Is it weird eating your breakfast on top of countless graves? Hell no, it rocks! 🤘🏼
BUCKINGHAM PALACE | CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Thinking it would take me, like, forever (it didn’t), I decided to walk to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard ceremony from Trafalgar Square. I ended up getting there super early which 1) sucked because it was freezing out and 2) rocked because I was able to get a great spot along the barrier, front and center. When it’s all said and done, you’re left with great pictures and probably all your digits so, my advice is to get there EARLY. Even in February when it’s colder than a house elf on Hoth, the crowds are still ludicrous.
Why see the Changing of the Guard ceremony?
The Changing of the Guard is a quintessential London experience, that’s why. It’s really cold and the ceremony is not all that long but wouldn’t you feel stupid if you spent 5 days in London and didn’t include this on your London itinerary? Besides, THIS IS WHERE THE QUEEN LIVES.
The outfits are fancy, there are ponies, and the whole experience is worth it to hear that one guy who is so bad on his trumpet you just know he snuck in off the street. Off with his head!
After the brief ceremony, I opted to grab a cab back to Trafalgar Square due mostly to the fact that I wasn’t even sure if my legs were still attached but also because it’s really fun riding on the left side of the street. #What?Shutup. I stopped into Café Concerto again for a cappuccino to raise my body temperature from the inside out.
HARRY POTTER STUDIO TOUR
From there I walked the two blocks to the Embankment Underground station to catch a train to Leavesden which was, by the grace of the nerd gods, on the tracks between platforms 9 and 10. A short train ride, then a longer train ride, then a shuttle bus later I was at the Warner Brothers lot for my Harry Potter studio tour.
Why take the Harry Potter studio tour?
The HP studio tour takes place at the Warner Brothers studios where all the Harry Potter films were made. You can see the sets, props, wardrobes, and behind the scenes technology; you can fly on a broomstick or in an enchanted car; you can drink butterbeer; you can go inside the Knight Bus, the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Dumbledore’s Office, the Hogwarts Express, and 4 Privet Drive; you can get up-close to the scale model of Hogwarts; you can all around geek the f*ck out and nobody will make fun of you! It’s nerd Mecca and you’ll never want to leave, that’s why.
I had such an amazing time on the Harry Potter studio tour that I wrote an entire post about it. Read that here ⇣
DINNER AT BRONTE
After what felt like an entire day in Leavesden, I finally made it back to Trafalgar Square where I opted for dinner at Bronte because I passed it on my way back to the hotel from the train station (yeah, I took the looong way home) and there were flames on their porch to which I was inexplicably drawn.
Why have dinner at Bronte?
Great food, fancy-pants service. The tuna tartare was delicious and, had I the energy to consume anything more, I’m sure it would’ve been great. The place is trendy and aesthetically pleasing and I’m sure I looked like an absolute fool in there with my Slytherin scarf and bag of souvenir cat plates from Professor Umbridge’s office. Totally going back to Bronte for a proper fancy-pants do-over.
5- DAY LONDON ITINERARY | DAY 04
On Day 4 of my 5 days in London I had a phenomenal breakfast! At a place that is now closed forever so… awkward…. I guess just eat wherever you want today.
After the best avocado toast I’ve ever had in my life (sorry), I caught a cab for Westminster Abbey. I spent a good couple hours there so I think that clears me for a while with the Man Upstairs, right?
Westminster Abbey was incredible and proved way more entertaining than I expected. I grabbed an audio guide upon entering and took my time weaving throughout the entire place. The audio guide, which you can also download ahead of time, takes about one hour and is narrated by Uncle Scar from The Lion King so… Hello, emotional roller coaster! Your voice is like a warm blanket. Murderer! But tell me more about this beautiful church. I hate you!
(UPDATE: Their link to the audio guide is gone but you can still download it via your friendly app store. Just look for the official Westminster Abbey app.)
Why visit Westminster Abbey?
Personally, I was most interested in seeing the graves of a bunch of famous people because I’m creepy like that sometimes. Among the thousands of people buried at Westminster Abbey you’ll find: Charles Darwin (whose claim to fame is basically the opposite of ‘church’ so this one is particularly interesting), Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens. You can also visit the tombs of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and a ton of other historic figures you’d totally know if you read about them.
Westminster Abbey is also where all the royal coronations and a host of royal weddings have taken place since 1066 AD. Prince William and Kate Middleton were married here, Queen Elizabeth was crowned here, and you can check out the Coronation Chair that’s been used for every coronation since 1300. Shut up, it’s cool!
Note: There is no photography allowed inside Westminster Abbey. Worldwide broadcasts of intimate wedding ceremonies are apparently okay though.
BIG BEN | PARLIAMENT
After leaving Westminster Abbey I walked across the street to check out Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Something Brexit-related was happening so I couldn’t get inside but here are some pictures from the sidewalk. Being able to enter or not, seeing the clock tower and building up close is still a London itinerary must.
CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS
Just a few minutes walk down the street from Parliament, down an alley, then down a staircase, are the Churchill War Rooms. The Churchill War Rooms are the secret, underground bunker that served at Winston Churchill’s and the British government’s command center during World War 2 that also includes the Churchill Museum. They even have one of his cigar butts here. Do you ever wonder how much of your cruddy old garbage could be worth millions someday? Something to think about.
Why visit the Churchill War Rooms?
Down here you’ll walk through the labyrinth of offices, bedrooms, conference rooms, and a bunch of other rooms where Winston Churchill & Co. lived and worked during the war. Everything is set up just as it was during the war when they all lived and worked in total isolation and secrecy. It’s also really cool how they play footsteps and a person whistling like it’s still operational. (That is a total lie – it’s absolutely terrifying when you’re lost in the maze by yourself surrounded by lifelike mannequins.)
After exploring the entirety of the War Rooms and the Churchill Museum I caught a cab back over by Westminster Abbey because it was TEA TIME!
Afternoon tea is a London itinerary MUST. Your options are endless so let me make it easy for you—the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-themed afternoon tea at the Chesterfield Mayfair has to be the best.
Why have afternoon tea at the Chesterfield Mayfair?
Well, I wrote an entire post on that too which you can (and should) read here.
I chose the Charlie and the Chesterfield afternoon tea for the fun and unique theme (I freakin’ love Willy Wonka), everything they offer sounded amazing, I read a lot of great reviews, and they had chocolate tea which is pretty much Heaven in a dainty little cup.
The whole experience was so fun, the food was UH-MAZING and UN-LIMITED, and my afternoon tea turned out to be one of the top highlights of the trip. Seriously, read more about it here ⇣
SEE A SHOW!
I stepped out of the Mayfair Hotel where a top-hatted gentleman opened a cab door for me. I rolled my overstuffed Violet Beauregard belly into the back seat and said, “Take me back to Trafalgar Square, kind sir!” You see, I’d just had afternoon tea at the Mayfair, I was fancy now.
I walked back into the Original London Visitor Center where I’d purchased my double-decker bus tour a couple days before and demanded a ticket to a Broadway show. Whatever’s cheap to whatever’s good (that I hadn’t seen). Question: Is it still called a Broadway show if it’s in London? Please advise. I left there with a ticket to Kinky Boots and time for a nap beforehand.
Why see a show?
If New York City is the #1 city for live theater (which it is) then London is #2. I mean, hello?, does the name ‘William Shakespeare’ mean anything to you? The caliber of talent in these two cities is unlike anything you ever thought possible from human beings that aren’t LeBron James. London has all the best shows you need to see and you can get tickets to almost all of them the night of and at a huge discount. London’s West End (the theater district) is just a few blocks from Trafalgar Square and, besides, it’s an iconic London activity that requires nothing more than sitting in an upright position with your eyes open. (I’m looking at the brochure for Kinky Boots as I write this and almost literally wrote “…with your legs open.” That would’ve been hilarious. I shoulda left it.)
Kinky Boots, by the way, was UNBELIEVABLEEEEEE.
5- DAY LONDON ITINERARY | DAY 05
Day 5 of the 5-day London itinerary could be a bonus if you wanted it to be since it doesn’t technically take place in London. There were a couple of day trips I had been considering: Stonehenge (but a whole day dedicated to seeing one thing didn’t appeal to me all that much) and Stratford-upon-Avon for all the Shakespeare history and goodness (but the weather was terrible and this town looks solely like a cute, good-weather town). I settled on a day trip (it’s really just like 20 minutes away) to Greenwich basically because I wanted to check out the Eastern hemisphere while I was in town. It’s all about efficiency.
BRUNCH AT THE ADMIRALTY
I started my day by sleeping in (🙌🏽) then having brunch at the Admiralty in Trafalgar Square. This Brunch. OMG. This was my favorite meal in all of London.
Why have brunch at the Admiralty?
Besides the fact that the restaurant is boat-themed (I LOVE ANYTHING WITH A THEME AHHH), they serve beer + meat pie samplers. Three pies, three beers. Every bit of it was amazing.
ROYAL OBSERVATORY | PRIME MERIDIAN
I left the Admiralty and caught a train to Greenwich—which ones, I can’t remember but here’s the page on how to get there. I went straight from the train station to the Royal Observatory, an observatory and museum that played a huge part in navigation and astronomy. That sounds super nerdy but it was cool. It was maybe a half hour walk from the train station, and uphill, so make sure to charge your FitBit so you get credit for this madness.
Why visit the Royal Observatory?
There’s a planetarium, an entire museum dedicated to clocks, navigation, and telling time, and some historic buildings, but I went to stand on the Prime Meridian—the up & down equator, if you will.
The Prime Meridian divides the East and West hemispheres giving Greenwich the coordinates of 00° 00’. It’s also where time starts. For instance, I live in the Eastern time zone which is also written as “GMT -5”. This means Boston’s time is 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, get it?
I found the clock and time museum seriously fascinating and only partly because it also felt like the workshop lair of every creepy scientist in a time-travel flick.
DINNER AT THE MITRE
After coming back down the hill from the Observatory and spending 20 minutes trying to find one particular chippy with no luck, I settled for dinner and beers at the Mitre. I say “settled” because that wasn’t my intended destination but this place was exactly what I didn’t know I needed.
Why have dinner at the Mitre?
Chippy or not, I still got my desired fish and chips and they were more fabulous that I thought food could be from a place named after the Pope’s hat. The place was dark and relaxing and straight up filled with clocks of all kinds. Take it easy here and chill on your last night in London because you have a busy 3 days in Paris coming up tomorrow.
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