London: the best things to see and do in 24 hours
Changing flights in London? Few destinations are better for a stopover. With easy public transport links between Heathrow and the city, you can be making the most of the capital in no time. Check out our round-the-clock guide to the best things to do in London in 24 hours, no matter what time you land…
If you’ve just crawled off a red-eye, head straight to Hampstead Heath and watch the city come to life from Parliament Hill. It’s arguably the best spot in the capital for watching the sunrise. If you’re still not awake, then join the locals and hit the ground running with an early morning dip in one of London’s best outdoor swimming spots. Parliament Hill Lido opens at 7am in summer, as do the neighbouring Hampstead swimming ponds if an open-water experience is more your style. Other famous London lidos include Tooting Bec – the largest outdoor freshwater pool in the UK – and the art deco Grade II-listed Brockwell Lido in Brockwell Park, both in the south of the city
For something less energetic, start your day with a walk across Hyde Park. Catch a tube to Hyde Park Corner and take a diagonal route via the Serpentine lake to the Bayswater Road exit in the north west corner of Kensington Gardens. From here it’s about a 15-20 minute stroll into lovely Notting Hill where you can reward yourself with a well-deserved breakfast. Mingle with smart west Londoners at Bumpkin, Daylesford Organic or Granger & Co or opt for something more value-led and casual at Mike’s Cafe on Blenheim Crescent.
If you want more landmarks, take a train to Waterloo and walk along the south bank of the River Thames in an easterly direction. This is a great chance to view some of London’s best-known architectural icons before the tourist hordes arrive. Start at Westminster Bridge, where you can snap some classic shots of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben on the other side of the river, then head east past the London Eye, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. You could also take a detour over the Millennium Bridge to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral which opens for sightseeing at 8.30am. If you’re still too early, grab a bargain coffee and bacon sandwich from Grace St. Paul’s on Creed Lane (weekdays only) and find a bench in the well-tended churchyard.
London’s major museums house some of the finest historical, cultural and artistic collections in the world. Even more impressively, they are all free to enter. It goes without saying there’s a vast amount to discover, and on a 24 hour layover you can’t hope to see more than a fraction of it – but even the briefest of visits will be a rewarding use of your time.
Head to South Kensington for three of the best: the Science Museum, the Natural History Musuem and the Victoria and Albert Museum for decorative arts and design, all located within minutes of each other. Central London is home to the British Museum in Bloomsbury and the Museum of London at London Wall, with the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich slightly further afield. Not free, but equally popular – especially for those travelling with children – are the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, and the museum ships HMS Belfast and the Golden Hinde.
Alternatively, spend your morning learning about the United Kingdom’s most famous family with a visit to one of London’s royal attractions. The Tower of London houses the Crown Jewels, the Royal Amouries and the famous tower ravens; Kensington Palace is the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Margaret and Queen Victoria, and the Queen’s official residence Buckingham Palace opens its State Rooms between August and September each year.
Late morning is when you’ll catch one of London’s longest-standing royal traditions, when the Changing of the Guard takes place behind the railings of the forecourt to Buckingham Palace. The daily spectacle (between April-July, alternate days during the rest of the year) begins at 11.30am and finishes around midday. A separate 25-minute ceremony occurs daily at Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall at 11am (Mon-Sat, 10am on Sundays). Both are free to watch.
With just one day to pack in all the sights, opt for a quick and easy lunch that won’t take up too much of your time. Check out the healthy fast food on offer at Leon which has branches all over the capital, or the Scandinavian-style rye bread sandwiches at Nordic Bakery (four central locations). Or head to any number of stalls at foodie’s favourite Borough Market near London Bridge for a wider selection of global fare.
Aching feet? The afternoon is an ideal time to sit back and relax on a sightseeing tour. It might sound touristy but for those with limited time this really is the best way to see as much of London as possible. The Original London Sightseeing Tour takes place on an open-top double decker bus, and the hop-on hop-off ticket also includes a free Thames river cruise between Westminster and Tower piers. With three different routes and more than 80 bus stops across the capital, this is probably the most stress-free way to enjoy the city.
You could also take a river cruise in the opposite direction, which is a good option for those who’ve been to London before and already seen the major sights. Westminster Passenger Service Association (WSPA) are the only company to operate a scheduled westerly service (daily, between April and October) with their 90-minute Westminster to Kew cruise offering views of Lambeth Palace, the Tate Gallery, Battersea Power Station and the sought-after riverfront properties of Putney, Barnes and Strand on the Green.
Early evening is the best time to get up high and watch the city turn from day into night. There are plenty of ways to see London from above, and they don’t all have to cost a fortune. The best value is to climb the 311 steps to the top of the Monument (last entry 5pm, tickets £4), a Doric column in the City of London built to commemorate the Great Fire of London.
Later evening options include giant 135-metre ferris wheel the London Eye for amazing river and skyline views, which were the highest in London until superseded by relative newcomer The Shard (last entry 6pm Sun-Wed, 9pm Thurs-Sat) in February 2013. Known officially as The View from the Shard, the highest observation deck is on Level 72 which is partially outdoors at a height of 244 metres.
The newest viewing platform in London is Sky Garden which occupies the 34th to 37th floors of the controversial “Walkie Talkie” building; a skyscraper more correctly known as 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London financial district. Access is free if you book online in advance, though only until 6pm weekdays or 9pm weekends. However, the three restaurants and bars are open until late, so if you book a table for dinner you can linger for longer.
Once your feet are back on the ground, round off your night with a trip to a traditional London pub. So many of the capital’s watering holes are soaked in centuries-old history and local legend, and most will serve you a decent meal in addition to a pint. In the heart of the city you’ll find storied establishments like the Dog & Duck in Soho, the river-fronting Anchor Inn at Bankside, the galleried 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street, and notorious highwaymen’s favourite the White Hart on Drury Lane – though every neighbourhood has its gems.
If you fancy heading out to the Docklands in the east to see a show at the O2, drop into the new bar celebrating Virgin Atlantic’s partnership with Delta Air Lines called NY-LON. Sip a cocktail or grab a bite to eat in our exciting themed space which will make you feel like you’re in our famous Clubhouse – be sure to visit the bathrooms while you’re there!
Still awake? Maybe you have an early flight connection and you don’t want to spend the money on a hotel, or perhaps your body clock is telling you it’s still lunchtime. Either way, if you’re going to stay up all night in London, you might as well make the most of it.
Aside from venues like nightclubs and casinos, London is not really a 24-hour city in the manner of Las Vegas, New York or Berlin. But this looks set to change with the arrival of all-night weekend tube services in 2016 – and outside of that you can still find ways to squeeze the maximum fun out of your time. If you’re with friends, start with a spot of ten-pin bowling at All Star Lanes: the Holborn branch is open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays and the Brick Lane branch until 1am. Follow up with a vocal chord workout at Karaoke Box in Soho, open until 2.30am at weekends. Looking for something less raucous? Plenty of cinemas show late night films. Check the cult Prince Charles Cinema on Leicester Place for all-night events, or Curzon Soho and Odeon Leicester Square for regular post-midnight screenings.
Finish your night in one of the capital’s legendary all-night dining establishments. For a simple cup of coffee head to Soho’s Bar Italia in Frith Street: they’ve been serving the finest Italian espresso here since 1949 and it remains one of the best people-watching spots in town.
Further east, Brick Lane Beigel Bake serves traditional Jewish-style bagels 24 hours a day, stuffed with fillings like cream cheese or its best-selling hot salt beef and mustard. Vingt Quatre – better known as VQ – is a popular 24-hour diner with a round-the-clock alcohol licence and sites in both Chelsea and Bloomsbury. Want to go out with a bang? Whizz up to the 40th floor of the Heron Tower in Bishopsgate for a final splurge on Champagne cocktails and smoked salmon at upmarket restaurant Duck & Waffle.
Written by Maxine Sheppard