What To Do On A Layover In London

London jumped into our travel plans quite out of blue.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge

Why [enter any well-known landmark here] is missing from your What To Do On A Layover In London itinerary?

Update: I received a number of comments and suggestions about this itinerary. The common theme was along these lines: “Hey, why wouldn’t you include [enter any well-known landmark here] in your plan?” My answer is simple. London is full of exciting and worthy places – budget or no budget. A month-long visit still wouldn’t be enough to explore everything it offers. I had no intention to cover as many attractions as possible in one day. I wanted to create an enjoyable walking experience that would leave a lasting memory and tempt you to come back for more.

By the way, there is an interactive online guide called 101 Things to do in London. This nifty web app helps you find the best way to spend time in the UK capital according to your interests. The list can be easily filtered by category and all of the entries can be viewed on a map. Citymapper buttons on each entry let you get door-to-door directions. I genuinely liked this tool, and my opinion was not influenced in any way by its creators. Do not hesitate to try it.

How a layover in London came into play

There are two geographies: the one that we all studied at school and the one for the airlines. Thanks to the latter, one day we found out that the cheapest way to fly between Sofia, Bulgaria and Chicago, USA was via Doha, Qatar’s capital. All-in-all it was not the worst experience since we got a chance to browse one of the world-class airports.

This time, we were going from San Francisco to Lisbon. Without direct flights, we ended up with a list of choices for layover: Oslo, London, Frankfurt… Ok, if it’s not possible to fly directly, why not spend a day or two exploring one of these cities. Sounds good, but there is a catch. Americans are allowed to stay in Schengen zone without a visa for 90 days. Since we were going to spend all this time in Portugal, we had to find a layover destination outside of Schengen. The only city from the list that matched this criteria was London.

The London Eye
The London Eye

How to get the most from a London layover

With firm decision on-hand, the next question was about well… budget. London is not known to be a destination for frugal travelers. Heck, during summer months only the nouveau riche from China or Silicon Valley can enjoy it without careful planning. Online travel research that is my “favorite” pastime since we began our journey around the world came handy this time too.

London Railway
London Railway

Where to stay? After a long day of walking, we would need a good uninterrupted sleep at night. It would be great to find a private room priced between under $60. Right away, hotels and hostels with private rooms were out of the picture. Not a big loss since I do not like staying there anyway. Some people like dogs, others prefer cats. Here is the same thing: I just prefer private accommodation. Almost half a year before the trip proved to be helpful with Airbnb. I found the room with good reviews just 5 minutes from the tube station.

So… What to do on a layover in London?

What to do and where to eat? If you read our blog, you know that we walk everywhere. Our day in London should be no exception. Easier said than done. There are so many choices that it looks like a mammoth task to figure out logistics and timing. I followed advice from cheapflights and adjusted it to fit into our very tight schedule.

Here is our tentative itinerary:

  1. Take the tube to Primrose Hill to enjoy one of the best views of London.
  2. London Zoo. The zoo opens at 10:00. Adult online ticket costs £24.30 per person, but we have a tradition of going to zoos in every city we visit.
  3. Walking through Regent’s Park and stop by Queen Mary’s Gardens which features more than 12,000 roses of 400 varieties.
  4. Late lunch at Arbutus. Three courses lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant for £23? It’s a must. Sadly, Arbutus is a distant memory. Let’s forget about Michelin exclusivity and go for variety instead. Our lunch place of choice is Kingly Court, a vibrant culinary hub in Soho. This food haven houses a multitude of  international restaurants, so even the most inquisitive foodie would be able to find a satisfiable meal.
  5. Through Soho to Hyde Park.
  6. Ending the day in the Mall Tavern. The gastropub is what you expect it to be, but the main attraction of this place – it is on the way to the tube. I feel that by this time making an extra step could be too much.

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Published: April 2015. Last update: March 2019

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43 thoughts on “What To Do On A Layover In London”

    • Thank you, Claire. Totally agree ;). Now, I have a reason to say “Let’s go there again, we have to continue our London discovery”

  1. Love it when those day or two layovers get tacked onto a ticket! It’s so nice to have a bonus destination to explore. London is a great spot for a layover too–we had a long layover a few years back and had a great time exploring for a day. Will have to check out Queen Mary’s Gardens next time we visit–would love to see all those roses! Sounds like you had a great visit!

  2. Excellent suggestions – I love wandering through London’s parks rain or shine. Plus it is easy to get around the city on The Tube. Thanks for this list and the helpful links.

  3. I’ve not been to London (except on a long layover which I wasn’t daring in my travels yet, so I sat in the airport for 8 hours! WHAT A WASTE!). I will definitely keep this in mind for a quick visit. I’m going for a month in May and I think I’ll spend a day in Hyde Park and go to Primrose Hill, maybe just go through the whole itinerary for a day! 😉

    • Thank you for your comment, Paige. I hate long mindless layovers at airports. It seems such a waste of time. Have a great trip to London next spring 🙂

  4. There is definitely so many things you can do in London. My short trip took me on a different route but your stops sound perfect for a short layover. I should have made it to Primrose Hill though, ah well there is always next time.

  5. Thanks for finding the affordable things to do on a layover in London. If I ever have this happen to me,I’m remembering this and making note. It’s always nice to have information like this for airport layovers as it is often possible to venture out where you layover is.

  6. I lived in London before and I can’t agree more with you that London is a bit on the expensive side. As a student I needed to get a part time job and moved from my accommodation in zone 1 to zone 3 to survive, lol. How do you like Hyde Park? I loved spending my afternoon there when I was free 🙂

  7. The quick trip to the zoo sounds fun Elena. I dig seeing zoos in developed nations. Always a fun way to enjoy a day out, enjoying the fascinating wildlife, and seeing nature too. I also have to figure out where my town namesake is when visiting England. Yep; the UK is where Biddulph began 🙂

    • Hey Ryan, great to hear from you. Ok, I couldn’t resist and looked up Biddulph. Yay! Here it is – a town in Staffordshire, England, 8.5 miles north of Stoke-on-Trent and 4.5 miles south-east of Congleton, Cheshire (according to Wikipedia). Congratulations! The origin of the name sounds impressive: “It may stem from a corruption of the Saxon/Old English Bidulfe, meaning wolf slayer” How many wolves have you conquered lately, Ryan?

  8. You are lucky because of your citizenship, no need to apply for visa. We in the third world countries, Philippines for example, have to apply every time! I wish one day visa will no longer be needed! But anyway, this sounds like a good advice. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • You are welcome :). I hear you. Visa policies are so outdated (for the lack of better word). We are living in the 21st century, but it seems that they just stuck somewhere in the past.

  9. interesting itinerary you have there. We did London on a budget last year and although it’s harder than some places it’s totally doable. Walking down the river is free and you get to see so much, tower bridge, the eye, houses of parliament, big ben! You can also get the thames clipper instead of a tour boat and sometimes you can get combi tickets for the eye alongside the dungeons and other attractions. Camden town is awesome too and cheap. Have a great time!

  10. You’re very organised! I think it’s great that you’re managing to get cheaper flights AND squeeze in a visit to somewhere on the way. I lived in London for 4 years so don’t want to be the person who says ‘oh how can you miss this, you need more than a day’ etc etc! This sounds like a very nice plan for the day – my suggestion would have been to skip the zoo for other stuff, but as it’s your tradition, I understand why you want to visit.

    • Thanks! One day in London is laughable, isn’t it? I hope that sometime soon we will be able to visit London properly (perhaps, to stay for a week or couple weeks).

  11. Plenty of free stuff to do in London as well! You can visit the National Gallery, British Museum and Tate Modern all for free! I live next to Primrose Hill and it’s walking distance to Chalk Farm and Camden Lock Market isn’t too far if you guys are walkers and has a ton of great street food vendors.

    • Hi Jeremy, great to hear from you. Thanks for the tips about free stuff to do in London. That’s fantastic. Street food vendors sound so tempting :). I’ll look up Chalk Farm and Camden Lock Market too. I hope that we would be able to find a week or two later this year to come and explore London without any time constraints. We would definitely follow your advice about museums and galleries then.

  12. I’m sorry – but London does not deserve just a layover! Definitely the highlight are important, but to really do the city justice, you need at least a week, and even then you’re rushing from location to location. I’ve spent a total of 3 weeks in Westminster/London, and still have not seen some of the more important sites.

    • Milosz, you are absolutely right and I could not agree more. I would love spending more time in London. I hope that at some point we would visit and explore it without been in a hurry. Unfortunately for us on this particular occasion, we had very tight time constraints between leaving SF and arriving to Lisbon.

  13. That sounds like a wonderful day! If your visit is rainy, keep in mind many of London’s wonderful museums have free admission. We love the Borough Market, too, although it is only open certain days of the week. London is one of our favorite cities.

    • Thanks, Lori! I was hoping for a nice sunny day when wrote this. Interesting, that you mentioned Borough Market. I was thinking about visiting it, but sadly it is closing too early (I think around 5pm), so it did not fit into 1-day trip.

  14. In interested to see how it goes! I was thinking about doing London this summer (but staying at my brother-in-law’s). But I also want pay a million dollars either.

    • I am curious myself ;). Unfortunately, what seems fairly frugal in London equals to a week of luxury in Greece. Depending on how it goes, we might skip some steps (dinners are so over-rated).

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