Planning a comprehensive itinerary for just 2 days in London can become quite challenging and it is not difficult to understand why. The British capital is literally brimming with attractions, which makes it all the more overwhelming, especially if you are a first time visitor.
As one of the most visited cities in the world, London has something for someone, and that too in all shapes and sizes. From gothic grandeur to vibrant culture, rich history and fine food, this innovative city draws over nineteen million tourists each year, for a feel of the good times.
So how do you cram everything the Big Smoke has to offer in only 2 days, when even those who are staying there are discovering new spots every day? Simply by coming to terms with the fact that you can’t. So just make a list of the landmarks you wish to see, tick them off, and leave the rest for the future. Keeping this in mind, here is how to make the most of your two days in Big Smoke.
2 days in London itinerary: Spend a weekend in London
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As you prepare for your trip to London, you will need to plan well. Since you are visiting for the first time, and that also with little time at your disposal, you must stay in an area which is centrally located, if you want things to work with clockwork precision.
While cheaper accommodation will be available outside the city centre, bear in mind that you will waste precious hours commuting back and forth from your place of stay. Look for a neighbourhood that is well-connected with public transportation, including the tube and proximity to the airport.
Fortunately, most of the attractions for first timers to London are located quite close to each other, which will make choosing accommodation even easier. Keeping all this in mind, the two ideal districts to choose from should be either Covent Garden or Mayfair, as they enjoy a prime location and offer a wide range of accommodation. Some good hotel options are:
- Marriott Grosvenor Square – Mid range. The hotel enjoys a peaceful location and is at a walking distance from multiple tube stations and near to the shopping and business hub of Mayfair.
- The Chesterfield – Budget This is a slightly cheaper option in Mayfair which is quite close to the tube and a stroll away from Hyde Park, Green Park and 800m away from Oxford Street.
- The Savoy – Luxury If your budget permits, this is one of the finest hotels, not only in Covent Garden, but in London. Close to the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square, not to mention loads of dining and shopping options.
- Z Hotel Piccadilly- A reasonably priced hotel in the heart of West End and near major city landmarks within five minutes walking distance. Rooms are a bit small but it is the most affordable hotel in the area.
- Nox Hotel: If you are in backpack mode and still want to stay near the heart of the city take a look at Nox Hotel near the Waterloo station. It is one of the few centrally located hotels which offers rooms on a budget.
A cheap and convenient way of using public transportation to get around the city is by buying the Oyster Card London. It is valid for travel on the overground and underground network in Docklands, on the tube, buses and trams, the Emirates cable car, the Thames River Ferry and on many National Rail Trains.
For your two day visit, a 48 hr London Pass is an absolute must. Not only do you get to see the top sights for a fixed one time fee, you save hours of time standing in lines to get admission to the important landmarks.
Whether you are arriving at Heathrow (international), Gatwick, Luton or Stansted airports, don’t bother taking an overpriced taxi and you run the risk of getting caught in traffic. All airports have trains which will take you to Central London quickly. Since you have only two days, you would not like to waste even a minute to get into the city.
Assuming you have checked in near the city centre fairly early, the time is perfect to start with a visit to the famous Oxford Street, which tends to get busy as hell as time goes by. From here you can stroll down Regent Street to the popular Piccadilly Circus, with its bright billboards and crowds.
A short walk from Piccadilly is Leicester Square, the area noted for movie premiers in London. You will find lots of tempting takeaway food joints here, but I found them overpriced and not that great. Instead head to the Apple Market in Covent Garden, a short five minutes walk away, and have a drink at any of the cool bars and restaurants there.
Next walk down to Trafalgar Square to visit the National Gallery. Here you will come across masterpiece after masterpiece and experience the history of art instantly. If, however, are not a museum fan, skip this institution and head straight to Trafalgar Square, a nice spot to admire the surroundings. Next walk down the south bank of the River Thames to see three of the most iconic landmarks of the city notably Big Ben, Houses of Parliament and the gothic building of the Westminster Abbey, the site of the country’s coronation church since 1066.
Across the river you will see the London Eye, the perfect place to enjoy a 360° view of London. I would recommend going up the London Eye as it takes just thirty minutes, but book your ticket in advance to jump the queues and save time.(£29.50 online, else £36).
After visiting the London Eye, take a walk along the banks of the Thames, instead of the tube, to see the skyline of London at its best which include the Millennium Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe. This gentle stroll will bring you to Borough Market, famous for street food stalls from all over the world. Sit down at any of the restaurants for a perfect lunch. I preferred to eat at Gourmet Goat and found its Mediterranean fare excellent.
If you are a fan of Asian food, do have a meal at the Cinnamon Club, located in the historic Westminster Library. The restaurant has a long standing reputation of serving fine Asian dishes, especially Indian, in a majestic setting.
Day one – afternoon
From Borough it is another short walk along the river which takes you right up to the Tower Bridge, probably the most recognised in the world. You must walk across the bridge for getting nice pictures and views of HMS Belfast, once a WWII ship now converted into a museum. Don’t forget to gain admission to the Tower Bridge Exhibition to get an insight on the fascinating history of this impressive structure.(Adults £11.40, Seniors £8.60) Opening hours 0930-1800.
Near the bridge is the Tower of London, the place where many infamous prisoners were publicly executed. Also home to the Crown Jewels and a vast variety of other gemstones, this is a must visit fortress on any day London itinerary. Remember to book tickets in advance, (included in the London Pass) and keep at least two hours to see all the main sights. So get there latest by 4pm as the museum shuts down at 6pm. If you can’t make it on the first day, get there early on the second morning, preferably at 9am, when the tower opens.
Another fast and cheap alternative to get to the Tower of London is by taking a Thames River Cruise from the Waterloo pier or the Westminster area, on the opposite side of the London Eye. Take advantage of the hop-on hop-off services to see more places along the river on your way to the Tower.(£11 adults one way, return £16.40).
A ten minutes walk from the Tower will bring you to Sky Garden, which offers epic views of the city similar to the London Eye, but from the opposite side of the Thames. Entry is free but you have to book a slot beforehand. I found the drinks fairly costly here, but considering the ambience, it was probably worth it. Try and get here by sunset to watch the skyline turning into gold.
London never sleeps and there are many exciting things to explore in the city after dark. Consider visiting the 350 acres Hyde Park, a popular spot for joggers and crammed with monuments and statues. My favourite was the Animals in War Memorial, erected in 2004 to mark the 90th anniversary of WWI and the animals who served with the Allies.
No London visit can be deemed complete without visiting the pubs in the Mayfair neighbourhood. The Grazing Goat in Marylebone is a restored eatery offering an extensive drinks menu.For dinner I preferred the tiny Boxcar restaurant just across the street for signature burgers and premium steaks.
Day two – morning
Start your second morning by visiting a good breakfast spot to enjoy food like a true Central Londener. The quintessentially British 26 Grains has made a name for itself in Covent Garden, where it serves wholesome porridges and almond soaked oats and other exotic dishes to charge you for the day ahead.
After breakfast, head West to take in the sights around Kensington Palace, a Royal residence since the 17th century. Have this first on your day London itinerary as you will find lengthy waiting times later in the day.The state rooms are open to the public and the four themed routes cover all the aspects of the palace’s rich history. Entry is £20 for adults and free for London Pass holders. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm.
A walk across the palace gardens will bring you to the Royal Albert Hall, inaugurated by Queen Victoria in 1871 in memory of her husband Albert.From film screenings and the annual Proms to tennis matches, there is always something going on here. Entry is free for London Pass holders.
Day two – afternoon
Move forward from the Royal Albert Hall to Buckingham Palace. I would advise you to visit the place in late afternoon, to finish off the day. First you get to experience the 45 minutes Changing of the Guard ceremony after which the crowds disperse, leaving you with ample time to visit the palace for a pleasant experience. Additionally, night tours take place in the summers, so this is another reason you should visit the palace at the end of the day. Note that the Changing of the Guard takes place daily in summer but only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday in winter. It gets called off on occasions so check timings before you go
Day two – night
Your trip to London would not be successful without experiencing a performance in the West End.On your last evening catch a show at any of the theatres here, some of which have been running for many years. From The Lion King to The Phantom of the Opera there is a musical or show for every taste. Make sure you book your tickets early to avoid disappointment as they sell out fast.
Day trip suggestions
We assume that London has already stolen your heart and you would hate to leave without experiencing all its magical attractions. However, if you could squeeze in some time, there are some fantastic day trips which can make your visit all the more memorable:
- Harry Potter Studio Tour(20miles, 7-8 hrs): Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, you should find time to take this studio, especially if you are travelling with kids. It is not far from London and you will gain an insight on Harry Potter filming.If movies are your interest the special visual effects section will reveal the incredible Potter film location of the Forbidden Forest among others. The best way to get to the studio is by taking a bus tour from either Victoria Station or King’s Cross.
- Stonehenge (90 miles, 6 hrs): Built over 5000 year ago, the architectural marvel of Stonehenge is considered to be an absolute yes on a trip to London. While the Mystical Circle is the main draw at this UNESCO World Heritage site, there are five other Neolithic houses which are worth a look. Car or tour is the best way to visit Stonehenge, but remember to count at least two hours one-way due to the traffic.
- Windsor Castle(20 miles, 4hrs): The official residence of the Queen and home of the royals for over 900 years, Windsor Castle is an excellent example of mediaeval architecture. From exploring the lavish staterooms and the expansive castle grounds, the castle is a mega tourist draw. Take the train from Waterloo station, which takes around one hour to reach Windsor station. Admission tickets should be booked online, for those who do not have the London Pass
- White Cliffs of Dover:(76 miles, 6hrs) The best spot to see some of the impressive white Cliffs of the Southern Coast of England are from Dover. I would suggest going on an organised trip from London, rather than by car or train. You get a guided tour of the top places like Dover Castle and War Tunnels and a visit to the National Trust visitor centre for all the information about the area.
To soak up the full vibe of London, here are some additional travel tips that will make you hop around the city like a local:
- Walk as much as possible: Despite the excellent public transport system, London is actually a comfortable walking city. Exploring the city on two feet is the best way to experience London at its charming best.
- Visit some off-beat places: While it is understood why the big landmarks are mostly on the tourist radar, you must try to visit some places which are off the beaten path. For example, right under the Bloomberg Building are the ruins of a Roman Temple. Then you can spend time at the British Film Institute Southbank’s Mediatheque to explore highlights of some of the world’s best film and TV archives in your own free digital viewing space.
- Skip the airport express trains: The Gatwick Express costs £20 and takes 31 minutes to Central London, whereas the normal trains take about five minutes more( as they have two stoppages) and cost £16 or even less if you have the Oyster Card. In other words, there is barely much difference in the time taken, and you save money. Same applies to the trains from Heathrow.
- Download some of these apps: You can convert your mobile phone into a personal travel guide by downloading some of these apps. For example,The London Pass App will inform you about the sights covered. You can even buy your pass and store it on the app instead of buying a physical one. The Google Maps app and Citymapper are both indispensable for navigating the complex transport system.
- Take insurance: If you want your London trip to be perfect, be sure to take travel insurance to protect you from any untoward incident or any potential risk associated with it, including medical emergencies.
London is one of the most expensive cities in the world but it is very much possible to spend less on your two day London itinerary. For those on a budget it will cost between £50-£90 per day depending upon the neighbourhood you choose to stay. If you want a room upgrade, add another £40-£100 to your budget.
A rough breakdown of costs is given below:
- Attractions: £15(one paid+all others free)
- Food: Breakfast £4
Drinks. £4( a beer or a glass
- Transport: £7
- Accommodation: Hostel £30
Some local budget restaurants you can try are Fishcotheque, Gigs Fish and Chips, Regency Cafe or Dishoom.
London is relatively a safe city, but the thing to note here is that since it is a very popular tourist destination, it gives an opportunity for scamsters and those involved in petty crimes to flourish, especially in the vicinity of the landmarks.
The overall risk is low and simple common sense will keep you safe and allow your trip to go through smoothly. Pickpocketing, as in any metro city worldwide, is prevalent in some locations, but basic precautions will minimise any risk.
Having said that, London is on the target of some terrorist groups and the government has warned that the threat level, not only in London, but in the whole of the UK is severe.
The one thing to watch out for is that the British drive on the left side of the road, which can become quite confusing with tourists from other parts of the world where the rule is the opposite.The risk of traffic accidents is there and caution should be the key while crossing the roads or driving.
Were two days enough?
To be honest-no! It is just not possible to see all the top attractions of London in two days. In fact,the city is packed with so many unmissable sights, even a week may not be enough to scratch the surface. So explore the iconic landmarks first and if you get the chance come back to see the lesser known gems on your next visit.
In other words, no two-day itinerary will do any justice. At the most it can only be a viable option available for the first time visitor to get a fair introduction of the city in the limited time in hand.
Ideally, spend as long as you can in London to really give yourself an opportunity to experience the city in-depth and spend time in some of the non touristy areas that are also well worth a visit.
An ideal first time trip to London should be 5-7 days, leaving 3-4 days for the city and 2-3 days for some good day trips out of London. Even then, there is little doubt that you would want to come back again.