London, England is a traveler’s dream and a bucket-list destination on most traveler’s wish list. However, many tourists, especially those flying in from the US with a connection in London, try (often unsuccessfully) to squeeze London in on a layover between the US and another destination. I have heard this story a lot: you get a great flight deal but have hours to kill at Heathrow Airport and you are considering going into London…is it doable? Well, yes and no, depending on time and travel style.
Before going any further, you should not even attempt to leave the Heathrow Airport unless you have at least a 6 hour layover. SIX HOURS. If you have less time, do not leave the airport; you will be cutting it too close and you may miss your connecting flight. That being said if you have a 6 hour layover or longer and are adventurous, the first thing you need to know about is the Heathrow Express – the easiest way to get into London from Heathrow!
Heathrow Express. You definitely want to take the Heathrow Express, London’s super easy and quick train between Paddington Station and London, into (and out of) London. The Heathrow Express leaves from Heathrow Terminals 2, 3, and 5 every 15 minutes and is, by far, the quickest way to get into London from Heathrow Airport. The train ride takes only 15 minutes and the cost of a ticket depends on when you buy it – the earlier the better! To save time and money, buy your Heathrow Express tickets online here before you leave. Just print them out and bring them with you. There are no assigned seats and a conductor will come by to scan your ticket at some point during the short trip.
The London Tube & the Oyster Card. After arriving at Paddington Station via the Heathrow Express, you are in London and you can really go anywhere you want in the city! If you are looking to hit the touristy highlights, I recommend taking the subway (aka the “Tube”) to Westminster and touring from there. To get to Westminster, follow the signs in Paddington Station for the Tube (you will momentarily leave the station). It takes about 5 minutes to get between the two. Once you get to the Tube Station, buy an Oyster Card (MUCH cheaper than buying individual tickets) from one of the automatic ticket vending machines, which take chip credit cards and British Pounds. You want to get the Zone 1 Oyster Card and put 10 – 15 Pounds on it (don’t worry, you can get a refund when you leave!). Tap your Oyster Card every time you enter and leave the Tube!
Now that you hav made it to London, these are my touring recommendations!
Westminster & Buckingham Palace. Westminster & Buckingham Palace are really the tourist heart of London, and the best place to start your tour, especially if you are on limited time! To reach Westminster & Buckingham Palace from Paddington Station, take the Circle (Yellow) or District (Green) Tube line 9 stops to Westminster Station or St. Jame’s Park (8 stops). I actually recommend the St. James’ Park stop because it is less crowded than Westminster Station and its right between Westminster and Buckingham Palace.
You should start with Westminster, home of the Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the British Parliament, and the London Eye (the giant Ferris wheel across Westminster Abbey). Depending on time, you will probably want to walk by Big Ben, the British Parliament, and over the Westminster Bridge for pictures and think about entering Westminster Abbey or the London Eye. For either Westminster Abbey or the London Eye, BUY YOUR TICKETS ONLINE BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME. No one wants to waste precious London layover time in a ticket line! Both attractions are worthwhile, but the London Eye will kill more time than Westminster Abbey and I would choose Westminster Abbey over the London Eye. However, if you do the London Eye, the champagne VIP experience is totally worth it!
After touring Westminster, walk back through Westminster (about a 7 minute walk) to Buckingham Palace, the home of the Queen (and all of her corgis!). You cannot enter Buckingham Palace, but you can watch the Changing of the Guard daily at 11:30 and check out the gorgeous surrounding parks for free.
On a side note, if you are hungry (or thirsty!) there are many stereotypical Birtish pubs in Westminster and close to Buckingham Palace. If bars are high on your list, take a 15 minute detour from Buckingham Palace to Kensington check out Churchill Arms – the most beautiful pub ever.
In any case, whether or not you detour to Churchill Arms, continue your tour from Buckingham Palace by walking 20 minutes down “The Mall” (i.e. a fancy tree-lined pedestrian walkway) to Trafalger Square! Trafalger Square is an historic and iconic London Square, which will most likely be filled with people when you visit! There are many traditional British pubs, red telephone booths and double decker buses in the close vicinity of the Trafalger Square (and souvenir shops!) so you can tick a lot of boxes here.
From Traflager Square, move on to the London Bridge! The London Bridge is a 45 minute walk along the Thames River from Traflager Square or a 20 minute Tube ride (with one change at Waterloo Station). From the London Bridge, you can see its more famous neighbor, the Tower Bridge! Very close to the London Bridge is Borough Market, a great market for a meal or food-related souvenirs, the Shard, London’s highest building and a good alternative to the London Eye, and the London Bridge Experience, which will probably have a long line. I would not plan to do the London Bridge Experience unless you have a long layover!
When it is sadly time to go back to the airport, (hopefully to another destination and not home!), you will need to make your way back to Paddington Station. All Heathrow Express trains depart from Paddington Station. To get to Paddington Station from the London Bridge area, take the Circle (Yellow) line from Monument Station (located one block up from the London Bridge on the opposite side of the bridge from the Shard) to Paddington Station. Its a 15 stop straight shot that should take about 40 minutes. Once at the station, be sure to get a refund for your Oyster card by going to any machine with the word “refund” at the top! The refund comes in coins but who cares. Dan and I each got 6.50 Pounds back! Pro tip – do not plan to take a taxi to save time, traffic is almost always horrible in London, and especially so during rush hour!
Upon arrival at Heathrow, get out at your proper terminal. If you already have your tickets, proceed through security to your gate. If you do not yet have your tickets, you can probably obtain them from one of the self-service kiosks at the airport (or you can wait to speak to a person). Be sure to review the most recent British Airport Security Rules regarding flights, which are often more strict that the US TSA rules. When I visited in May 2017, all passengers had to CLEAR security at least an hour prior to their scheduled departure or security would not let you through.
TIPS FOR VISITING LONDON ON A LAYOVER:
It may sound silly, but London, which is in the UK, uses the British Pound (and not US Dollars or EU Euros!). In addition to British Pounds, the UK also uses coins, some of which are worth like 5 Pounds. So don’t throw out your change!
When packing your carryon, ensure that you have something appropriate to wear in London. London is a lot cooler and wetter than Southern Europe, and even in the height of summer, shorts and a tank top may be too cold. Also rain. Bring an umbrella (or a poncho), or plan to buy one.
Make at least a loose sightseeing plan before you leave home. This will save you precious time and hopefully some stress! Pre-buy as many attraction tickets as you can before you leave home – lines can be crazy!
Most London museums are free, so you can pop in to one if you have extra time!
DO NOT LET TIME CREEP UP ON YOU. Set an alarm. Remind everyone in your group. Heathrow Airport does not joke around regarding flight security. You have to be at the airport and checked in and through security at least an hour before your flight.
Finally, Heathrow Airport has a lot of shops, so if you are pressed for time and want a London souvenir, you can definitely get it at the airport. Also, if you are not re-checking your luggage (i.e. the airline checked it all the way through – preferable), you cannot bring liquid over 3 ounces onto the plan cabin.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Heathrow Express: 15 minute train between Heathrow and Paddington Station. Book your Heathrow Express tickets here before leaving home to save money! Tickets run between 5.50 and 35 pounds, depending on class when you buy the ticket. There is really no reason to get Business Class (its not really different from the regular train).
London Tube: Useful information and maps concerning the Tube, including information about the Oyster Card. One ride is £4,90 but drops to £2,90 if you buy the Oyster Card. Also, don’t waste your time ordering the tourist Oyster Card in advance, you can just buy the standard one in London.
Westminster Abbey: 20 Dean’s Yard, London, SW1P 3PA. Open Monday – Saturday 9:30 – 15:30. Tickets can be purchased on the website for £20.
Churchill Arms: 119 Kensington Church Street, London, W8 7LN. T: 020 7727 4242. E: email@example.com. The most beautiful pub about 15 minutes from Buckingham Palace in Kensington. Got for the views, not the food.
London Eye: Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7PB. Open 10:00 – 20:30 in the Summer, 11:00 – 18:00 in the Winter. Tickets must be purchased in advance online.
Borough Market: 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL, UK. Large market from 1851 near the Tower Bridge. Open daily 10 – 5 except Sunday.
Heathrow Airport: Airport website. Good for the latest security information.
Aspire, The Lounge and Spa at LHR T5: Heathrow Terminal 5, post-security. Open 5:00 – 23:30 daily (spa 9:00 – 17:00).
ON A BUDGET
While the Pound has recently dropped, London, and the UK in general, remains an expensive travel destination. To save money, definitely buy your Heathrow Express tickets as far in advance as possible (90 days is the maximum) and use the Tube or walk to get around. In terms of sites, viewing the outside of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Traflager Square, and the London Bridge are all free, so that shouldn’t break the budget! If you have a lot of time and want to see some sites, check out London’s museums. Entrance is free, and London’s museums are great!