A day in London isn’t enough to see the capital of the UK – and we should know, between us we’ve lived there for eleven years.
However, if one day in London is all you have, the good news is that you’ll have enough time to enjoy many of the best things to do in London, and create some amazing memories.
We’ve designed a 1 day London itinerary to help you make the most of your time there. You’ll get to see the most iconic buildings in London, exploring Westminster and the main royal London sights, as well as stunning St Paul’s Cathedral and a choice of one of the best art galleries in London.
We’ve also suggested the best places to stay in London if you’re there for one day, so that you don’t lose much time getting around the city.
- 1 Your 1 Day London Itinerary – Our Must-Sees
- 2 Where to Stay in London
- 3 YOUR ONE DAY IN LONDON ITINERARY – MORNING
- 4 Westminster Abbey
- 5 Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard
- 6 Tours of Buckingham Palace
- 7 St James’s Park
- 8 Churchill War Rooms
- 9 Lunch
- 10 London One Day Itinerary – Afternoon
- 11 Option 1: London Eye
- 12 Option 1: South Bank Walk
- 13 Option 1: St Paul’s Cathedral
- 14 Option 1: One New Change
- 15 A Ride on a London Routemaster Bus
- 16 Option 2: Whitehall
- 17 Option 2: Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery
- 18 Option 2: Routemaster bus to St Paul’s
- 19 Evening in the West End of London
Your 1 Day London Itinerary – Our Must-Sees
Buckingham Palace – the Queen’s London residence is open for ten weeks of the year between July and September
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace – see the world-famous ceremony, bearskins and all
St James’s Park – one of the best parks in London, with some of the best views
Westminster Abbey – delve into British history at this magnificent church
Big Ben – see the most famous clock tower in the world
Trafalgar Square – the busy hub of the city, home to Nelson’s Column, the famous bronze lions and National Gallery
Catch a traditional red Routemaster bus on the heritage route between Trafalgar Square and St Paul’s Cathedral
Take a walk in the West End to Piccadilly Circus
Where to Stay in London
As you’re on a one day London itinerary, we suggest staying somewhere in central London so that you don’t lose time on what can be a slow ‘commute’ from the suburbs.
Our guide to the best areas to stay in London goes into a lot more detail about the pros and cons of each area. However, for a one night stay in London it makes sense to stay as close as possible to central London.
Victoria is one of the main gateways to London, and you’ll find plenty of budget London hotels here, especially around Victoria coach station.
Westminster has the largest concentration of tourist sights, and a great selection of some of the best luxury London hotels.
Just beyond Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden is within walking distance of most of the sights you’ll see, and the many London West End theatres. Soho, across the road from Covent Garden, is another great area to stay, and has the West End and Piccadilly Circus right on the doorstep.
We also recommend looking at hotels near Hyde Park, including in Mayfair and nearby Paddington, which is ideal if you need to make an onward journey to one of the airports the following day.
YOUR ONE DAY IN LONDON ITINERARY – MORNING
Many of the best things to see in London are clustered around the Westminster and Whitehall area, and it’s here that you’ll spend a substantial part of your day in London.
Parliament Square, the heart of British political life, is the place to begin. You can arrive on foot, by bus or by Tube, emerging from Westminster Abbey to be greeted by the sight of the Elizabeth Tower, the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. It’s better known as Big Ben, after the famous bell that chimes every hour. It is possible to visit the Houses of Parliament on a guided tour, and it’s a fascinating experience.
Westminster Abbey is the place to start for anyone with an interest in British history, and an essential stop on any London itinerary. It’s a magnificent Gothic building, one of the best churches to visit in Europe.
Entry to Westminster Abbey is ticketed, and for £20 you can walk around independently with an audio guide or join a guided tour. It’s also possible to book Westminster Abbey tours together with Houses of Parliament tours.
Westminster Abbey is the venue for royal coronations, weddings and funerals. It’s also the burial place of many kings and queens of England, and the final resting place of many great British writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth. Other significant British national figures buried at Westminster include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and, most recently, Stephen Hawking.
Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard
The guards at Buckingham Palace are another of the great icons of London, dressed in their smart red jackets and wearing their unmistakable big black bearskin hats. One of the best things to do for free in London is to watch the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. It’s a fascinating glimpse into history – it dates back to 1660, when Charles II was restored to the English throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell.
The Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace ceremony starts at 11.00 am daily in June and July, and four days a week through the rest of the year. In all it runs for around half an hour. Crowds usually build up before the ceremony, especially outside the Buckingham Palace gates, so it’s best to arrive around 15 minutes early if you can.
There’s no single place from where you can view the entire ceremony: you have to decide on what you want to see, and find a spot. The Guards march from St James’s Palace, and along The Mall to Buckingham Palace. You can watch them pass by from the Victoria Memorial outside the Palace, or join the crowds at the gates. At the end of the ceremony, the outgoing Guardsmen march off along Spur Road towards Wellington Barracks, and we’ve found this to be a good spot for photographs.
Bear in mind that the ceremony is cancelled in wet weather. The most reliable website we’ve found for information on the ceremony is the Household Division site, which tells you which guard unit is on duty, and whether or not they will be joined by a marching band for the occasion.
Tours of Buckingham Palace
The State Rooms and Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace are one of the top things to see in London. You can visit them on pre-booked Buckingham Palace tours for ten weeks each year, normally between mid-July and late September. Free multimedia tours run in nine languages.
St James’s Park
St James’s Park is one of eight Royal Parks in London, in a magnificent setting between Buckingham Palace and Whitehall. It’s one of the best walks in London, passing alongside the lake with views to Buckingham Palace in one direction and Whitehall and the London Eye in the other.
It also has some wonderful flower beds through the seasons, especially at either end of the Park. Several cafes serve food and drink, and you can rent a deckchair and sit back for a while.
The area around St James’s Park, including The Mall, Horse Guards Parade and Birdcage Walk, is off limits to buses, so you have to walk.
Churchill War Rooms
The next stop on our suggested London itinerary is the Churchill War Rooms, a branch of the Imperial War Museum. If you have any interest in 20th century history, especially the Second World War, then it’s somewhere you must see in London.
The Museum is in an underground complex, including the Cabinet War Rooms, where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and colleagues ran the war effort against Nazi Germany. After the Luftwaffe (German air force) began bombing London, a thick layer of concrete was added to give the War Rooms extra protection. There is also a museum dedicated to Churchill himself on site.
It’s time for a well-deserved break and something to eat.
One option is to pick up a sandwich from one of the cafes and kiosks around St James’s Park, which is a great place to stop and relax for a while.
Otherwise it’s well worth making a short detour past the Houses of Parliament and the adjacent Victoria Tower Gardens to Sapori on Horseferry Road, close to Lambeth Bridge. Some of our favourite places to eat in London are the traditional Italian cafes, which have often been in the same family for generations.
Sapori is a wonderful London hidden gem, a fantastic cheap Italian café no more than five minutes’ walk from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Chain eateries have proliferated over London in the last decade or so, and there aren’t too many of these places left. They serve great pasta and salads, and are open Mondays to Saturdays, closed Sundays.
London One Day Itinerary – Afternoon
You have a choice.
Option 1: Cross the Thames to the London Eye, followed by a walk along the South Bank, crossing the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, then catching a traditional Routemaster bus to Trafalgar Square;
Option 2: Walk (or catch a bus) past Parliament, up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, then exploring the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, before catching a Routemaster along the Strand and Fleet Street to St Paul’s.
Option 1: London Eye
The Coca-Cola London Eye is a giant ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames which, in good weather, has outstanding views of the capital. It’s just across the river from the Houses of Parliament, but you get to see right across the metropolis if the weather’s clear. If bad weather is closing in, it’s best left for another time. Online tickets cost from £24, and you can also buy sightseeing packages with a hop-on-hop-off open-top bus tour.
Option 1: South Bank Walk
The South Bank is one of the cultural hubs of London, with several concert venues and art galleries, much of it built in the 1950s and 1960s in Brutalist concrete style. The Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall are two of the best concert venues in the UK.
There are always plenty of street food stalls and entertainers along the way, from mime artists to skateboarders showing off their moves in the concrete underpasses. After passing beneath Waterloo Bridge and passing the National Theatre, the view of St Paul’s Cathedral across the river improves by the minute. The Oxo Tower Bar and Brasserie has a terrace which is one of the best vantage points in London, looking across to the great cathedral.
Continue beyond Blackfriars Bridge to the Millennium Bridge, a footbridge across the Thames with the behemoth Tate Modern art gallery, housed in a former power station, behind you, and St Paul’s at the other end of the bridge. The Tate Modern is unquestionably one of the best places to see in London, but with our time limited to 24 hours in London, we’re crossing the river to St Paul’s.
As you cross the river, look to your right for a great view of the ever-changing London skyline. As you near the St Paul’s side of the river, you can just see Tower Bridge, one of the best-known London landmarks, own the river. The scene is dominated by The Shard, the tallest skyscraper in the UK and, indeed, Europe.
Option 1: St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s is one of the very best sights to see in London, the capital’s cathedral and one of the best churches in the UK to visit.
You may not have time to see everything, including climbing the dome for one of the best views in London, but you should have time to at least see the main body of the church.
St Paul’s was built on the site of the old cathedral which was burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its architect was Sir Christopher Wren, who also built many other churches around the City of London in the aftermath of the Great Fire. It was a radical departure from what had gone before – it has a Neoclassical west front and the finest Baroque interior in the UK, a glorious gilded masterpiece.
The highlight of the interior is the view from the crossing up to the dome, an awe-inspiring vision skyward, achieving what all the great medieval cathedrals were meant to do – blow you right away.
The last entry for sightseeing is usually at 4pm, but even if you’ve only got half an hour, go inside and see it. You can also attend Evening Prayer, which when we went was held beneath the dome – it’s very atmospheric, one of the best experiences in London.
Option 1: One New Change
The view from the dome of St Paul’s is memorable, but the view of it is even better. The shopping centre at the east end of St Paul’s has one of the best rooftop bars in London, six floors above street level, with an unrivalled view of the dome of St Paul’s. The bar is set back away from the viewing area, which gives some of the best views of London, including one in the opposite direction towards the Shard.
A Ride on a London Routemaster Bus
One of the best London bus routes is from St Paul’s Cathedral to Trafalgar Square. Several buses run this route, but by far the best one to take is the number 15, the last heritage Routemaster route.
It’s a very different experience to riding on any of the modern London buses. On the #15, you board at the back (rather than the front) and are greeted by a conductor who has an Oyster card machine which you can swipe. Then you can stay downstairs or head to the upper deck for some great views.
We love the nostalgia of this trip to Trafalgar Square – for us, it’s one of the most romantic things to do in London. After leaving St Paul’s you head down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street, once the centre of the UK newspaper industry. You then pass some historic pubs including Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese before passing the Royal Courts of Justice.
Next you join the Strand, passing the iconic Savoy Hotel down a side street on your left, before approaching Trafalgar Square.
Option 2: Whitehall
Whitehall is where many of the UK government ministries are located, and there are also several London sights to see on the way.
The first of these is the forbidding gateway to Downing Street, where the official residences of the UK Prime Minister and Chancellor are located. You can only pass through these by invitation, and you can’t see a great deal from Whitehall. But I think I may have once met a Prime Minister’s cat, who seemed to be exempt from the stringent security.
Halfway along Whitehall, on the right you’ll find Banqueting House, the only surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall built by Henry VIII.
Soon afterwards, you’ll come to a throng of visitors with camera phones and selfie sticks taking photos of the impassive mounted Guardsmen. They’re stationed outside the entrance to Horseguards Parade ground, which is through the archway on the left.
The Changing of the Lifeguard is another famous traditional ceremony, conducted at the same time as at Buckingham Palace. The Guards are members of the Household Cavalry, so ride horses, and wear polished plumed helmets and breastplate armour. It’s worth bearing in mind that the ceremony at Horseguards attracts smaller crowds than those at Buckingham Palace, so if you want to watch an entire ceremony at close quarters, this is worth considering.
Option 2: Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery
Trafalgar Square is the centre of London, and a tiny plaque in a traffic island marks the spot from which all distances to and from the city are measured. It’s often busy, whether with tourists or events such as political rallies or concerts.
The crowds tend to gather around the bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column, which is topped by a statue of the famous Admiral Horatio. Off to the right of the square, the lovely white tapering spire belongs to St Martin in the Fields church, which also hosts regular classical music concerts.
However, the main thing to do in Trafalgar Square is visiting the National Gallery, one of the best art museums in the world and best free things to do in London.
It has a quite staggering collection of over 2,000 paintings, from medieval Masters to an amazing Impressionist gallery. Entry to the permanent collections is free, but some special exhibitions are ticketed, such as the excellent recent Monet and Architecture event.
Option 2: Routemaster bus to St Paul’s
You could easily spend the whole day in the National Gallery, and its sister gallery, the National Portrait Gallery. However, the Routemaster journey and St Paul’s are both unmissable, so aim to be at Trafalgar Square stand F on the Strand, opposite Charing Cross Station, to catch the #15 by around 3.30-3.45. Allow half an hour for the journey, though it can take considerably less if you’re lucky with the traffic. The bus stops right outside St Paul’s.
Evening in the West End of London
By now you’ve had a pretty good workout, but there are so many exciting things to do in London that you somehow keep going. After visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, return to Trafalgar Square, and walk up Charing Cross Road, past Leicester Square towards Cambridge Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue. This is the heart of the West End, the theatre, cinema and entertainment district of London.
Cambridge Circus is the best place to get your bearings. On your left is the Palace Theatre and Shaftesbury Avenue, with Chinatown off to the left of the latter and Soho to the right. This is one part of London where you don’t have to go far to find somewhere great to eat. One of our favourite things to do at night in London is to wander the side streets – we’d always find somewhere different each time. There are so many restaurants in the West End to choose from.
Many places have pre-theatre menu special deals. If you’re going to a West End show you should have booked your ticket beforehand (you can get some great offers on the day). There is always a great variety of shows to see in London – check out the website prior to your visit.
After dining, continue down past the glittering lights of Shaftesbury Avenue to the bright billboards of Piccadilly Circus. This popular square is essentially a busy traffic hub around a misnamed statue (he’s called Eros, but is actually Anteros) with a giant billboard bombarding you with images and adverts every few seconds. One of the cool things to do in London seems to be to hang out there for a while, shoot some selfies with Eros and the billboard, and move on into the night.
And that’s what it’s time for you to do. We hope you’ve enjoyed your London trip itinerary. Enjoy the rest of your journey!