5 Days in London: An Ideal London Itinerary
January 12, 2019
5 Days in London: Plan Your Perfect Trip
How original of me…a London itinerary. If you hard core eye-rolled because no one needs to see another travel guide to London, I get it, completely. The truth is, I enjoy creating itineraries because I genuinely love putting in the effort into making them realistic in terms of suggested activities in the allotted time per day as well as location efficient. I do think that even though the standard tourist locales are included…Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, etc., this itinerary does provide further insight to the attractions in one comprehensive post that you may not find in other materials you have read online. 5 days in London is an ideal amount of time to spend exploring one of the world’s most preeminent cities, so please read, ask questions in the comments, and provide feedback as my goal here is not just to replicate what is out there, but to create something useful for everyone who happens upon this post. P.S. If you plan on heading to Paris too, click here to read my Paris Itinerary.
Getting to London
London is one of my favorite cities to fly in and out of because it’s a major airport hub. If you are flying internationally, you will probably land in Heathrow, but if you are already in Europe, then Gatwick, Stansted, or Luton are all reliable possibilities. There is also London City which I personally have never flown into for whatever reason, but I wish I had because the airport is directly connected to a Tube network as is London Heathrow. Gatwick, Stansted, and Heathrow all have dedicated express train services, or you can take the National Express coach or Easybus from Gatwick, Stansted or Luton. To find out exactly how to get from the airport to your accommodation, be sure to check the website of the specific airport you are flying into. The transport options are quite clear on all of the airport sites.
Once you arrive to central London, you can buy an Oyster card at any of the following locations. This is the best way to navigate around the city if you did not buy a London Pass with travel included.
Accommodation in London:
There are a multitude of great hotels in London ranging from mid-level to some of the most luxurious properties in the world. I tried to provide a variety of highly rated options at varying price points. *Please note that prices listed are for high season, so if you aren’t traveling to London during the summer, you may actually be paying close to $200 less!
Where to stay in London:
The Lanesborough hotel is one of the highest rated 5 star luxury hotels in London. The property overlooks Hyde Park and all guests are cared for by personal butlers. Prices are over $1000 during the summer, but the hotel boasts all of the amenities that you would expect at a premiere luxury property including a fitness and health club, restaurant, afternoon tea, etc.
Haymarket Hotel is a luxury rated 5 star hotel in the heart of London’s theatre district. Prices hover around $600-650 a night. The property only has 50 rooms, so it is more of a cozy atmosphere, and it it is walking distance to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The rooms are quite spacious for London standards and beautifully equipped.
Hotel Indigo Kensington is a boutique hotel and a more affordable option at around $225 a night. The property maintains stellar reviews. Hotel Indigo is situated in a more quiet, but very convenient part of the city and is about 100 meters away from Paddington Station.
Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel is located in Covent Garden conveniently situated close to restaurants, the theatre district, and with easy access to the tube. Prices are generally around $350 a night and the property has a modern boutique feel to it.
London Airbnbs: As a solo traveler, I chose to stay in a private room Airbnb the last time I was in London. They are definitely more economical than hotels, but I caution you to check the amenities of the apartment. Many of the private rooms, including the one that I stayed in, shared a bathroom with multiple guests and that was not explicitly stated in the description of the property. If that’s no problem for you, then definitely go with an Airbnb and if it is, I still think an Airbnb is a great option, it might just be a bit more difficult to find the perfect spot. I personally love Airbnbs because you have your own kitchen and your own space at a much lower cost. BONUS: if you’ve never used Airbnb, get a $40 credit by clicking here.
Hostels in London: I have all my specifics on London hostels in my “Best Hostels in Europe for Solo Travelers & Backpackers” post. Click here to read.
Day 1 of 5 Days in London:
Hop On Hop Off Bus
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Start the day off with a Hop On Hop Off bus tour of the city. Can you get more touristy than this? Probably not. But, there are endless sights to see in London and this is the most efficient way to see them. I say that loosely though because the reviews are poor, so I feel like I should address the issues with doing a bus tour before to set your expectations. 1) If it’s a cold day, you’ll freeze because there is no heat on the bus. 2) The traffic can be rough so you may move at a snails pace and it could take 4-5 hours to get all the way around (this is more common on the blue line 3) the wait time at different stops should only be between 10-20 minutes but many people have complained that those times can be up to 45 minutes if you get there right after a bus has departed. Phew, ok. There’s the bad..now the good. It’s the best way of getting the lay of the land of London. You will see so many more sights from the bus then you would if you attempted to try and take the London Underground aka the Tube everywhere. Also, you’re on a Double Decker bus which is basically a London right of passage. In terms of which bus company to use, they are all pretty equal so I would see if any of them are offering a deal 48 hours for a 24 hour price, so that you can include the free river cruise. If you go with the Big Bus Tours company, I recommend the Red Route because it is a live guide as opposed to strictly audio and suggest staying on the bus almost the entirety of the route. I would attempt to mitigate issue #3 by only getting off once at St. Paul’s Cathedral if you wish to visit inside, grabbing some lunch nearby, and then not getting off the bus again until your final stop in Westminster.
Your next stop is church! No, that wasn’t some lame attempt at a joke. You really are going to church. Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Aethiest, Buddhist…it doesn’t matter. Not only will you get to visit Westminster Abbey for free and skip the lines, but you will get to see the place in all it’s glory. There is no better time to visit; I am not sure why everyone doesn’t come for services. Check the schedule online for times, but Choral Evensong is 5:00PM on weekdays. If you have some time to kill before, make sure to check out Big Ben and Parliament or do so after should you be pressed for time. Afterward, head to the London Eye for a sunset ride. Make sure you coordinate with the sunset times for the day which will obviously vary throughout the year. The Champagne Experience is a nice added touch and includes a FastTrack pass to the front of the line and less people in your capsule for only 12 pounds more than the standard ticket price. It is a somewhat frivolous purchase, but if this is your vacation and you’ve got some money to spend, then I think it’s well worth it. Take the tube to Covent Garden for dinner. There are tons of great restaurants, so I would recommend using TripAdvisor to choose a spot depending on what kind of food you are in the mood for. Just maybe don’t choose the Shed at Dulwich 🙂
Day 2 of 5 Days in London:
Tower of London
River cruise on the Thames or Sky Garden
We are starting off the day with one of the major trip highlights, the Tower of London! Even you non-museum people will enjoy because the history of the nobility, especially King Henry VIII, is just fascinating (if you haven’t read The Other Boleyn Girl yet then you’re missing out), the Beefeaters are a trip, and the crown jewels are unbelievable to see up close and personal. You will read everywhere to get here early, and because of this everyone will get here early. It does make sense though to do the Tower of London first thing, so even if you’re a bit lazier on the other days, really commit to beating the crowds and arriving before the Tower opens. You should definitely skip the audio guide and plan on taking the one hour Beefeater tour because the guides are typically very personable and informative and it doesn’t cost any additional money on top of the ticket price. The Tower of London opens at 9, so I would head straight to the crown jewels first and then do the 10:00 Beefeater tour. After a couple of hours at the Tower, you could either head out to the Sky Garden, a glass dome with public gardens and observation decks, for lunch and a free view of London or take a river cruise on the Thames. The river cruise is free within the 24 hours that you purchased the Big Bus tour; however, you may be cutting it close here in terms of timing. I would suggest a roundtrip cruise as you ultimately want to end up back near the Tower of London and not in Westminster.
Whichever activity you choose, you will then want to walk across the Tower Bridge to the other side of the river. There is a glass floor exhibit and museum that you can visit too. While the exhibit is supposed to be good, how many viewpoints do you actually want to see? I think you get the idea after the first three. Make sure you wait to watch the drawbridge raised up to let a ship pass and then go back down again as it’s quite entertaining to watch. Also, the Tower Bridge is not the London Bridge. It’s a common tourist confusion because we are all so familiar with the song. However, the London Bridge is actually quite ugly…not falling down decrepit ugly, but just your standard industrial bridge.
From here, you need to visit Borough Market, a food lover’s heaven. Take a quick culinary journey around the world while perusing the market. Once you have sufficiently browsed the different stalls, choose from the plethora of cuisine options or perhaps buy one small item at multiple shops. Keep in mind that the full market is in operation 10-5 on Wednesday to Saturday with limited traders open Monday and Tuesday. At this point, you will want to make your way to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There are guided tours of the place, but if you come to London in the summer, I highly recommend buying tickets (in advance of course) to see a show in the open air reconstructed theatre! It’s an intimate setting where the focus is on the acting and a major throwback to high school Shakespeare. Try and get tickets for the front row of the middle gallery if you can as well as a seat cushion for you bum, as they would say in Britain.
As you head back to your accommodation for the evening, or maybe to a pub for a pint, be sure to check out the Millennium Bridge, built in 2000 and famous for it’s cameo in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. If the weather is nice, you could walk your stiff theatre legs across or simply admire the architecture and tube/uber your way back.
Day 3 of 5 Days in London:
Harry Potter Studio Tour or Other Day Trip
If you have any sort of affinity for Harry Potter whatsoever, then a trip to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour is necessary just for the butterbeer alone! Okay…I know it’s a polarizing beverage, you either love it or hate it, but I thought it was phenom. And, of course, the studio tour is fantastic. You get to walk into the actual Great Hall and admire Hermione’s Yule Ball dress and see the cupboard under the stairs and I don’t want to give too much away so just head my advice and visit. The studios are a little ways outside of London in Leavesden; you take the express train from London Euston in London to Watford Junction (about a 20 minute ride). You can use your Oyster Card to pay for the train. From there, you will hop on a shuttle bus which is 2.50 cash round trip and you’ll be taken directly to the studios. It is very easy to spend a solid 5-6 hours on the tour, especially if you get an audio guide which you definitely should do. I went around 10:30 and it was super packed, so I am thinking it makes sense to go first thing or a little later in the day if you don’t have to be back in the city by a certain time as it seemed to clear out in the afternoon. Once you’re back in Central London, head to Camden Town for its famed market with over 1000 shops and stalls selling a variety of goods and food. There’s a churreria, Dutch nutella pancakes, halloumi fries, truffle mac and cheese…basically anything you could ever want.
If a day trip to the Warner Brothers Studios doesn’t appeal to you, then there are a plethora of other options including a trip to Oxford, Greenwich, Windsor Castle, etc.
Day 4 of 5 Days in London:
Churchill War Rooms or Harrods
Afternoon Tea at Sketch
West End Show
The Buckingham Palace situation broken down: The State Rooms in the Palace are open for about 10 weeks in the summer, usually during August and September. If you’re in town then, make sure you go. If you aren’t visiting during that time frame, plan on seeing the changing of the guard instead. The schedule for this isn’t exactly cut and dry, so be sure to check the website to confirm which dates this will be taking place. Typically, the changing of the guards starts around 11, but I would get there much earlier than that to grab a spot and get a feel for the area and where you want to stand to watch. The ceremony starts with a procession at St. James Palace that slowly moves down the mall and toward Buckingham Palace so you can watch anywhere along this path.
If you want your trip to be more museum forward, I would recommend visiting the Churchill War Rooms at this point. This is the underground headquarters of British High Command during World War II and just a 10 minute walk from Buckingham Palace. However, if you max out on museums after one, maybe two, (no judgment I totally fall into this category), then I would recommend walking to Harrods Department Store and checking out the scene instead. My favorite parts were the perfume department and of course, the food hall. Grab a small bite to eat to tide you over for an English classic later in the day.
By now it will be early afternoon, and the perfect time to head toward central London, more specifically Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. You’ll want to spend some time just walking around the area, people watching, and popping into shops. The hustle and bustle of the area is a lot to take in but in the best way possible. After some time spent meandering, you will hopefully head to your previously-made reservation at one of London’s trendiest afternoon tea spots, Sketch, for the quintessential British tea time experience. If you haven’t seen this place on Instagram, you’re probably living under a rock, but we’ll forgive you; and, if for some reason, you are ardently against tea, the National Gallery, which houses the national collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the 13th to 19th centuries, is right behind Trafalgar Square. It’s also free!
Tonight would be an excellent night to see a show in the West End. If you’re a Broadway buff like me, you probably have a good idea of what you would like to see. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is on the top of my list and of course, Hamilton but I’ve seen it twice already because it’s so freakin incredible. Click here to read up on everything you need to know before you see the show. Otherwise, I would recommend visiting the TKTS store in Leicester Square for some great deals on tickets. You can also enter the lottery for any specific shows by visiting the musical’s homepage and reading directions on how to enter. Shows typically start around 7:30/7:45 PM. After the show, you may be hungry for some late night dinner before heading back for the evening.
Day 5 of 5 Days in London
Portobello Road market
British Museum or Up at the O2
Since the rest of the 5 days in London have been packed with endless sightseeing, it is nice to have the last day to be slightly more relaxed. Today begins with a walk through of Hyde Park. Here you can rent a boat, ride a bike, buy an ice cream treat while sitting in the gardens, and stop at the Princess Diana memorial fountain. You can cross Serpentine Lake to Kensington Palace which is directly behind the park. If you have an interest in seeing where the Royal Family resides, I would recommend booking a ticket to visit. Continue walking in that same direction to visit Portobello Road Market and have some lunch. On Saturdays especially, the market is filled with various antique shops which is what makes this place so authentic and unlike the other street markets. Continue on to Notting Hill for a stroll along the charming neighborhood roads and a requisite photography sesh.
The end of your 5 days in London is in sight, so at this point, it would make sense to visit the one London attraction you are FOMO-ing over, have a relaxed evening perhaps some souvenir shopping and dinner, or maybe even taking the Eurostar to Paris for the next leg of your trip! Some highlights that I did not include in this London itinerary, but would be more than worthwhile to visit are the British Museum or Up at the O2 where you trek across the roof of the world’s most popular entertainment venue. If you’re a Beatles fan, there is always the iconic “Abbey Road” photo to take or you could go to King’s Cross station to get your Platform 9 and 3/4 shot.
PSA: If you are in London on a Sunday, make time to hit the pub for a Sunday Roast. It was one of the highlights of my trip to London and every subsequent trip, I plan my schedule around making sure that I am there on a Sunday.
Mathematics & the London Pass
I am bad at math. This is not a strong suit of mine. So major disclaimer, if this is inaccurate, I apologize and I tried my best. Also, London’s attractions have this peak time thing where prices differ based on day of the week and time of day…confusing. Here are the APPROXIMATE online prices for the activities that were discuss in this itinerary. According to my calculations, the London Pass is no doubt a good deal, but is limiting in the sense that if you buy the 3 day pass (which is the only one I would even consider), you have to finagle your itinerary to fit all of the paid excursions into those 3 days, rain or shine, mosquito bites, or blisters…my usual trip ailments. I didn’t get the London sightseeing pass, and probably spent a similar amount of money with more limited sights, but I was able to see the attractions at my leisure. Personally, the attractions on this list that I would 100% pay to see (remember I am not a huge fan of museums) are the following: a bus tour, London Eye Champagne Experience, River Cruise (but only if it was included with the bus tour), Tower of London, Harry Potter Studio Tour, and Up at the O2. I would pay to see a show at the Globe as well as a show in the West End, and if I had more than 5 days in London, I think the Churchill War Rooms would actually be fascinating to see.
A Rough Idea of Pricing for 1 Adult at the following London Attractions:
Big Bus Tour: 30 pounds
St. Paul’s: 16 pounds
London Eye Champagne Experience: 36.90 pounds
Tower of London: 22.70 pounds
River Cruise: 15.25 pounds for roundtrip
Globe Theatre: 15 pounds for tour; but see a show for 25-50 pounds
Warner Bros. Studio Tour: 40 pounds (not included in London sightseeing pass)
Churchill War Rooms: 18.90 pounds
West End Show: varies greatly
Kensington Palace: 16-19.50 pounds
British Museum free but special exhibit cost $
Up at the O2: Sunset Climb is 36 pounds (not included in London sightseeing pass)
Have you spent 5 days in London? Please share your thoughts on this London itinerary below or help answer any comments that may arise!
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