Has a trip to London been on your bucket list for years? Well then, let’s get going. If not now, when? London is a large and complex city. You may have felt daunted by the idea of tackling London on your own. Maybe you’ve even investigated group trips to avoid the task and challenge of figuring it all out for yourself.
But what if you don’t want to rush through London in a noisy flock, racing past what you came here to see to get back to the bus on time? What if you would prefer to take your own good time, follow your own priorities, rest when you wish, eat where you like and otherwise thoroughly immerse yourself in this amazing city? What if you want to catch a show every single evening?
Here are two vital tips and five peak experiences that will make your journey truly exceptional. And, yes, you most certainly can make this trip on your own. Let’s start with the two tips.
Stay at a Hotel Overlooking Leicester Square: Wake Up in the Heart of It All
One such hotel is the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hampshire. Booking a hotel in this optimal location will make for an easy trip. Each morning you will walk out your hotel door and “be there.” Leicester Square itself is lovely, with ample places to perch while you people watch and sip a cup of coffee.
Outdoor tables abound at the many restaurants around the square, providing you with plentiful dining options just an easy (and well lit) walk away. And you will be right in the middle of the celebrated London West End theater district, making it easy to enjoy multiple top shows while you’re here.
Around the corner from your hotel is Trafalgar Square, with its iconic fountain guarded by languorous lions. The National Gallery (housing paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, and others) overlooks Trafalgar Square. Covent Gardens is a short walk away.
Make Moving Around Easy: Get Oriented, then Use Drivers, Uber boats & Taxis
Ease your arrival by pre-arranging a driver to meet you, holding up a sign with your name on it. After you settle into your Leicester Square hotel, take a stroll down to the river by way of Trafalgar Square to start getting oriented. Pass through Whitehall Gardens to the north bank of the river, then step aboard Tattershall Castle, a unique boat bar converted from a paddle steamer, moored across from the famous London Eye Ferris wheel. Pick a table with a view up and down the river and order something refreshing. You have arrived! And now your task is to learn to use the river as your pain-free transport system.
Look to your right towards Big Ben and Westminster. Traveling the river in this direction will take you to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace Cardinal Wolsey built for himself on the bank of the Thames. But be careful who you invite for dinner! When Henry VIII visited Wolsey here, he fell in love with the place and “requested” that Wolsey “gift it” to him. Visiting Hampton Court makes for a fascinating day trip, especially if you arrive by river, as Henry did all those centuries ago.
Now look to your left. Along the river in this direction stands the notorious Tower of London. If you continue along in this direction, you will end up in Greenwich, the “home of time,” where the Prime Meridian divides the Eastern and Western hemispheres. This is another day trip option, with its fascinating Maritime Museum. Also in this direction is the exquisite St. Paul’s Cathedral, with Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (a replica) and its tranquil Swan Restaurant across the river (via pedestrian bridge) on the Southbank side.
As you continue to sit here getting your bearings, watch for Uber boats as they drift by. Traveling by river whenever possible will be your fastest and most enjoyable way to get around London. With a fleet of 21 vessels, Uber Boats connect 20+ central piers along the river, departing every 10-20 minutes.
When the river won’t work for where you’re going, hail a black cab. If the light is on, it’s available. Make it a rule not to overtire yourself getting to and from the spots you are visiting. Save your energy and time for after you arrive.
Now for Your First Five Peak Experiences
These five peak experiences represent only a fraction of what London has to offer. But they are absolute musts and a good starting point. One market. One theater. One cathedral. One museum. One palace.
A Market: Covent Gardens
Covent Gardens is a captivating market in the heart of London, with a delightful blend of street performers, boutiques, and food. Beyond its jumble of shops and cafés lies Jubilee Market. Split up to browse, then meet up on the garden terraceof Chez Antoinette for tea and homemade cakes, or soup and “tartines.” A heavenly little slice of Lyon, France in the middle of London…
A Theater: Palace Theatre
Any of the West End Theatres will do. Palace, Lyceum, Prince of Wales, Her Majesty’s. Pick a show, any show, and purchase tickets online or at the discount booth directly in front of your hotel in Leicester Square. You really can’t go wrong. Performances will be extraordinary, and ticket prices surprisingly reasonable. Go a bit wild and book as many shows as you can fit in.
A Cathedral: St. Paul’s
If you are visiting just one cathedral, visit St. Paul’s, Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. Select a seat, take a deep breath, and look up. Myriads of seekers and worshippers across the centuries have sat where you now sit, experiencing, like you, the profound sense of awe at this ethereal beauty, golden glow, and inspiring grandeur.
A Museum: The British Museum
The British Museum is massive and stuffed with treasures from around the world. Dedicated to two million years of human history, art and culture, eight million items have been collected and displayed here. To experience this onslaught of objects without feeling completely overwhelmed, approach it all with a strategy.
Start on the ground floor, moving room to room, from Enlightenment through Egyptian sculpture to Greece. Split up to explore, and each select your top 5-7 treasures. Meet up at one of the Court Cafés on the ground floor for refreshments, then show each other your favorite finds.
A Palace: The Tower of London
Palaces abound in London, but a good place to start is the Tower of London—palace, fortress and prison combined. You likely have heard that the lines here are misery, so purchase “early access” tickets and arrive before the crowds. This will allow you to “skip the line” to the dazzling Crown Jewels, then stay ahead of the hordes to explore the gloomy tower and take in its stories.
A trip to London is a journey of discovery. Each day will offer memorable experiences as you make London your own and vow to return.
Carolee Duckworth is an avid traveler, an expert trip designer, and co-author (with son, Brian Lane) of Your Great Trip to France, Your Great 5-Day Trip to Paris, and others, available on Amazon.com.