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Imagine you’ve booked a vacation and you end up with a connection through London’s Heathrow airport (LHR). And your long Heathrow layover is over 6 hours. Welcome to the world of long-haul travel. If you’re wondering what to do during a long layover in London, the answer is get out of the airport!
You could spend those hours wandering around Heathrow, but why not get out of the airport, get some sunshine (hopefully), and see a little of London, England? This London layover guide contains everything we learned and everything you need to know to make the most of your time in the city, including a breakdown of options by length of layover.
Make the Most of a Long Layover in London
Whether you have 5 hours or 20 hours in England, your layover will all start the same way–the arrivals area of the airport. When you get off the plane, you need to clear immigration and there can be a considerable wait here. U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter the UK, but residents of other countries may need a LHR transit visa. However, we were required to produce three documents: a valid passport, the boarding pass for the flight we just got off, and proof of onward travel (the boarding passes for our next flight and a printed itinerary).
Depending on how your flight was ticketed, it is likely your checked baggage will remain checked to your final destination. However, unless you want to take any hand luggage or carry-on bags with you, you’ll want to drop them off for the day (the British call this service “left luggage” but it is “baggage storage” for everyone else). Once officially admitted to the UK, drop any access baggage off at the Excess Baggage Company counter on the ground level. The cost to store a bag is £12.500 for 24 hours. From there, you will need to get into London.
Getting From Heathrow Airport to London
There are four options to travel from Heathrow to London:
Inside the arrivals hall, follow the signs to the Underground just across the terminal lobby from the Excess Baggage Company storage counter in Terminal 5. You will need a one-day travelcard valid for zones 1-6. If you have a pin-and-chip credit card, you can buy directly from the machines. Otherwise, you can purchase from a teller. The cost for us on a Saturday was £17 and was valid for the Tube and all buses.
Follow the signs to the Underground, take the escalator down two levels, and get on the Piccadilly Underground line. If you follow in our footsteps, you’ll be going to the Green Park station. This will take approximately 50 minutes and a large part of it will be above ground so you’ll get to see some of the suburbs.
Heathrow Express Train
There is another faster option than the Underground. The Heathrow Express is the most direct train option, but it is quite a bit more expensive than the Underground. The Heathrow Express drops you off at Paddington Station, which means you need to take a second metro to connect to the self-guided tour provided below. The Underground, despite being slower, saves you from needing to change trains at Paddington station.
We’ve taken the Heathrow Express at least 10 times and appreciate the wifi, in-seat power, and comfort compared to the metro. Ticket prices are discounted by how far in advance you purchase. So, if the idea of convenience is appealing to you, you can save up to 75% by pre-booking your ticket here.
Visitors who are flush with cash and have time to burn can take one of the famous black cabs into the city…for a price. Because of London’s famous traffic, the taxi is actually a slower option than either of the trains. The cab will cost a minimum of £50 (~$70) and will take over an hour. We’ve only done it once when we were traveling for business because it helps to have an expense account, and we didn’t know better at the time. Note: You can also pre-book a private car for about the same cost.
A number of companies offer professional, chauffeured guided tours from the airport. These tours tend to be more expensive than our suggested self-guided tour that we’ve outlined below, but they are an option. The real advantage of the tours is that you don’t need to handle any of the planning or logistics yourself. You can pre-book here.
Self-Guided London Walking Tour
Now, your adventure can begin! Assuming you’ve followed our instructions above for taking the Underground from the airport to the city, you’ll find yourself in Green Park. The Green Park tube station is the most direct route from Heathrow to Buckingham Palace.
Once inside Green Park, walk down the gently sloping pathway to the trees on the far side of the park. You might glimpse Buckingham Palace through the trees. If you are at the Palace around 11:00am, you’ll see the masses of people for the Changing of the Guard. As my friend Megan would say, be sure to “mill about smartly” in front of the Palace.
After taking a million pictures, continue down the street opposite Buckingham Palace known as the The Mall. At your first available opportunity, turn right on a path and go into St. James Park. The path will head downhill and lead you to a beautiful pond. Head towards your left and walk along the pond’s edge (be extremely careful not to step in the excessive amounts of bird droppings on the path) until you reach a footbridge over the pond.
Be sure to stop for a few moments on the bridge and note the Princess Diana plaque. This is also a great photo vantage point of both Buckingham Palace behind you and the skyline in front of you.
Continue through St. James Park to the Horse Guards grounds on the far side (crossing the Horse Guards Road, be sure to look in both directions for speeding cars). As you cross the gravel courtyard, you’ll see an archway. Pass through the archway and see masses of tourists behaving inappropriately with the guards – trying to get them to break character. On the far side of the Horse Guards, make a right on Whitehall Street and go one block to see 10 Downing Street.
From here, you have several options:
1. Continue two blocks past Downing Street and then make a left, crossing the Westminster Bridge. On the far bank, turn left and walk the entire South Bank of the Thames River, past the London Eye, the National Theatre, etc. Across the river, you’ll see St. Paul’s from a distance (you can cross back over the Millennium footbridge if you want to see St. Paul’s). Continue past the Globe Theatre, The Tate Modern, City Hall to the Tower Bridge. Admire the bridge and cross it to see the Tower of London. This is a total walk of approximately 2.5 miles.
2. If the weather is poor, jump on the Underground. Continue two blocks past Downing Street to the Westminster Underground stop. From here, you can take the District or Circle lines on the Underground from Westminster Station to Tower of London station. If you take the Tube, you’ll sacrifice the 2.5 mile walk, but end up with more time at the Tower.
3. One of the best ways to see the city is by boat. You can get the boat from Westminster pier (near the train station) and take it to Tower Pier, right at the foot of the Tower of London.
4. If the weather is really bad, skip it all and go in search of the perfect fish and chips, followed by high tea.
No matter how you get there, your ultimate objective should be the Tower of London. This was the original royal residence and the center of the city’s history for hundreds of years. Now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tower is a first-rate attraction. The tour given by the guards called Beefeaters is a fantastic overview to the Tower explaining its dual purpose as Royal residence and also prison.
After the Beefeater Tour, spend some time wandering around the walled ramparts and visiting the Treasury to see the royal jewels. We found the Treasury to be much more manageable and better organized than similar exhibits elsewhere, such as Vienna’s Hofburg Palace.
By this time, you’re probably a little tired from your long, sleepless night on the overnight flight. You’re also probably a little hungry. There are numerous restaurants and street food in the area. We opted for the perfect fish and chips at a nearby pub.
When you finally tire of the fun, make your way back to the Underground and transfer to the Piccadilly line, taking it back to the airport (last stop).
London is a world class city and there is so much to do! A person could spend weeks exploring. A 13-hour layover offers just a quick taste but is sure to make you want to come back.
London Layover Options Based on Time
Everyone’s definition of a long layover is different. If you’re asking yourself the question, ‘how long of a layover do I need to see London,’ the answer is at least six hours. Here are our recommendations on what to focus on, depending on how much time you have.
Be sure to keep in mind that it takes a minimum of one hour each way to get to and from Heathrow airport. Also, when going back to LHR, you will need to pick up any baggage you may have checked at the excess baggage left luggage counter and clear security and immigration. You should allow two hours plus transit time to ensure you’re on time for your flight.
Less Than 6 Hours
If you have less than 6 hours, you’re really not going to be able to leave the airport. With this amount of time, you’ll need to think about things to do at Heathrow. After an overnight flight, the first thing we try to do is get a shower. Check out our guide to Heathrow showers. Then, we usually visit the VIP lounge, get something to eat, and maybe do some duty free shopping. You probably won’t have time for much more than that.
Remember it takes one hour each way to and from the city center, so don’t spread yourself too thin. You won’t have much time and you’ll really need to keep moving. Using the itinerary above, focus on the one or two things you really care to see. Our recommendation is to focus on Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. You probably won’t have enough time to do both, so you’ll need to visit again to see it all!
Keep moving if you want to make your flight! You’ll need to make some choices:
Option A: Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, and Westminster Abbey. A quick lunch of fast food somewhere.
Option B: The Tower of London, plus a quick lunch near the Tower Bridge.
Time will fly by on this layover excursion. We would focus on either:
Option A: Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, and Westminster Abbey. Proper British lunch either near Westminster Abbey or Trafalgar Square.
Option B: The Tower of London, plus a lunch of proper British fish and chips along with a nice cold pint.
This may seem like a lot of time, but you’re going to have to make compromises. We recommend focusing on: Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, and then the Tower of London. If you have any extra time, see Westminster Abbey. Don’t waste time on lunch, instead grab a quick takeaway or fast food.
Our complete itinerary may be possible in this amount of time, but you might need to make compromises. Focus on: Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, and then the Tower of London. If you have any extra time, get a proper British fish & chips lunch.
Our complete itinerary should still be possible in this amount of time. Focus on: Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, a proper British lunch of fish & chips complete with a pint, and then the Tower of London. One of the shorter city tours from the airport would be possible in this amount of time.
You should easily be able to complete our self-guided itinerary above in this amount of time. Our recommendation is to focus on the itinerary above: Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, a proper British lunch of fish & chips complete with a pint, and then the Tower of London. You would also be able to complete one of the day tours from Heathrow in this amount of time.
This is a good, long, proper layover. Put differently, this is really the answer to what to do in London for a day. Our recommendation is to focus on the itinerary above: Green Park, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Horse Guards, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, a proper British lunch of fish & chips complete with a pint, and then the Tower of London. You’ll be able to do this at a fairly leisurely pace.
Special thanks to our friends Megan and Indiana Jo for their help in putting together this itinerary.