Greetings, Internet Stranger and welcome to what to do in London for a day! As you wake up in the morning and stare gloomily at your bran flakes, don’t you wish you were eating something a little more delicious. A little more decadent. Perhaps a glamorous English afternoon tea! Then this itinerary for what to do in London for a day is just right for you.
London is one of the greatest cities in the world. My gateway drug to Anglophilia was Basil Fawlty. Any people who could produce anything as funny as “The Germans” were worth my time. So you will not find a more enthusiastic guide to the United Kingdom’s capital than yours truly. Come with me, and we will see more fun on this itinerary for what to do in London for a day than most cities could provide in a lifetime.
What to Do in London for a Day
Where Do I Stay?
London’s a massive city, so there’s a gajillion choices available for hotels. I can recommend two different options for the budget-conscious traveler. (London’s gobstoppingly expensive, so we might all be a little budget conscious when we visit here, unless we are the Queen.) I’ve stayed at and enjoyed both The Crescent Hotel and the oddly named 72QT.
The Crescent Hotel is located in a classy Georgian building right near King’s Cross Station. So if you want to go catch a train to Hogwarts, it will be easy to do that from here. It is located in a serene crescent-shaped area that looks like something from an Agatha Christie novel. But you’ll find no Belgians solving crimes here! Just some cozy rooms and delicious fried eggs for breakfast. You can get a great rate by booking the hotel here.
72QT is right on Hyde Park, on the other side of the park from Buckingham Palace, near Paddington Station. So you can go say hello to Paddington Bear’s statue in Paddington Station if you stay here. You can even leave him a jar of marmalade. Click here if that sounds more appealing to you and you like saving money.
Both hotels do a nice free English breakfast, and 72QT will even toss in a couple of Latvian beers. (Not for breakfast, though.)
If you’d rather explore other hotel options in London, you can find about a billion and three excellent deals for every budget by clicking here. I always use Booking.com to book my hotels because they give me special deals–sometimes even secret ones–and they help me keep my travel plans organized.
What to Do in London for a Day
What Should I Pack?
London, as you may have heard, is on the rainy side. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of London. I hear they’re strong enough to carry a nanny up into the sky like a kite, but that could just be a rumor.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them to tea without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from the UK, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. UK electrical outlets don’t work with either American or European plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I recommend carrying two, just in case something happens to one, like you blow it out with a hairdryer. Not that this happened to me. Ahem.
What to Do in London for a Day
Morning: Tower of London
You wanted me to help you decide what to do in London for a day? Well, my first suggestion is to start with one of London’s oddest attractions: The Tower of London. The Tower of London, which prefers to be addressed by its full name of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, is famous for being the current location of the Crown Jewels, and the former prison of the Princes in the Tower. Elizabeth I, before she got a I after her name. was also emprisoned here by her half-sister. British royal history is really the world’s greatest soap opera.
You can either buy the regular admission on the Tower of London website here and get a tour with a large group, or you can pay a little more to skip the line and get a smaller group tour here. Whichever you prefer! There are about a million things to do in this fair tower, so as usual, I will merely suggest
Approximately Top 5: The Tower of London
1) See the Ravens
This is probably ignorant of me, but I had no idea that six ravens are supposed to be kept in the Tower at all times, for superstitious reasons. Supposedly if there are no ravens in the Tower of London, England will cease to exist. First of all, I want to know how this rumor got started. Did a raven tell someone? That would be so cool.
2) Take a Tour
The best way to see the Tower is to take one of the tours given by the Yeoman Warders, aka the dudes wearing fancy red coats and black hats who don’t like to be mistaken for beefeaters. The tours run every thirty minutes and are included with admission. I think my Yeoman Warder was the best because he told lots of funny stories and looked exactly like Kenneth Branagh.
Our guide also informed us with pride that it is very difficult to be appointed a Yeoman Warden. You need to have served in the British army for at least 22 years and you have to have earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. 22 years seems like a weirdly specific number. Where did it come from? (Probably it was an idea from one of the ravens.)
3) See the Crown Jewels
The Crown is getting rather full of itself nowadays because it’s the world’s only hat to have its own television show and Hans Zimmer theme song. Of course, no visit to the Tower of London is complete without paying the CJs a call, but be prepared for long lines and allow about an hour to peruse the Jewels.
The Crown Jewels were made in 1661 for Charles II, to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy. They are certainly fancy enough to proclaim, “Yes, I’ve got my head on my shoulders! And a fancy new hat with which to decorate that head!”
Also, don’t take a selfie with the Crown Jewels while pretending to be Queen Elizabeth. It’s not dignified. Please think of the ravens.
4) Lunch at the Cafe in the Crypt
At this point in our “What to do in London for a day” guide, it’s time for lunch. There are much better places to eat in London than can be found inside the Tower, and we’re heading over to Trafalgar Square anyway, so why not stop in for a wee bite?
I strongly recommend the atmospheric Cafe in the Crypt located at St. Martin in the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square. I mean, how often do you get to eat anything in a crypt? Unless you are a zombie reading this blog, in which case, BRAAAAAIIIIIINS!
For lunch, you can choose between a meat main dish and a vegetarian main dish for the low price of 9-10 pounds. The meat main dishes are generally British classics like meat pie, fish pie, or fish and chips. But don’t escape the crypt without checking out some of the apple crumble with lashings of hot custard. Everyone knows the British bake better than anything else. Why British baking, like the Crown, even has its own TV series!
What to Do in London for a Day
Afternoon: National Portrait Gallery
No guide to what to do in London for a day is complete without a trip to a free museum! London is crawling with free museums! And the National Portrait Gallery is a museum entirely dedicated to portraits of famous British men and women. Obviously, this was a nationalist project of the Victorian era. You can practically hear “Rule Brittania” play as you step through the doors.
Anyway, every Brit who’s any Brit, from Richard II to Kate Middleton, has a painted doppleganger in this collection. British History Nerds will plotz when they see all the beloved and familiar faces. But you know I wouldn’t leave you hanging without suggesting…
Approximately Top 5: National Portrait Gallery
1) Richard III By Anon
King Richard III is one of the most controversial British monarchs ever. Some people think that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, in order to solidify his power, and some people think he was framed…DUN DUN DUN! Similarly, when some people look at this portrait, they see evil, as in the very fruits of the devil. Others see a poor, misunderstood monarch. Which do you think is right?
I personally think he’s evil because where I come from, only mobsters have pinkie rings that fancy.
2) Henry IV by Anon
This Anon guy sure gets around, doesn’t he? You’d think he’d willing to tell us his last name by now. Before Richard III was going around deposing and maybe murdering his nephews, Henry IV was in the king-overthrowing business.
He took over the throne of England from the World’s First Emo King, Richard II, and then Shakespeare wrote a play about the whole thing. Henry IV’s son was the famous Henry V of the St. Crispian’s Day speech. (Second Kenneth Branagh reference of this post! Woot!)
I don’t want Henry IV to throw me in the tower or anything, but that red hat he’s wearing is a Glamour Don’t.
3) Billy Shakes by (Maybe) John Taylor
This is probably the most famous portrait in the National Portrait Gallery because it is the only portrait of William Shakespeare that might have actually been painted from life. The NPG says that it was probably painted by a guy named John Taylor, but I don’t really see how that’s possible because I’m pretty sure John Taylor is the bass guitarist from Duran Duran.
4) The Bronte Sisters By Their Crazy Brother Branwell
This is a portrait of all three Bronte sisters/writers: Charlotte, who wrote Jane Eyre, Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is actually really good, even though it’s not as famous as her sisters’ books. (But avoid people who tell you that Anne is the best just because she’s the least famous. These people are pretentious.)
Branwell Bronte was the only Bronte Brother and the only one of the siblings who didn’t end up being a famous writer. He apparently originally painted himself into this portrait and then painted over himself, probably in a sad drunken stupor. Life is very hard when you have the dramatic temperament of a great writer but you don’t actually write anything great.
5) Henry VIII and Henry VII By Hans Holbein the Younger
If you know only one name in Tudor portraiture, let it be Hans Holbein. If you know only two names in Tudor portraiture…I can’t even think of who the second would be.
Because so many of Holbein’s works have been lost to the ages, many of his portraits that we see today of his today are actually copies because the originals were lost in a fire or a plague or whatnot. This is one of the few that was actually created by HH himself.
24 Hour Tip
Don’t forget to take a moment to enjoy the view of Trafalgar Square after you leave the National Portrait Gallery. Pikachu is waiting there for you. He wants to tell you what to do in London for a day as well.
What to Do in London for a Day
Late Afternoon: Tea at Fortnum and Mason
Normally I recommend spending the hours between 5 and 7 maxing and chillaxing at your hotel. But no guide to what to do in London for a day is complete without afternoon tea. And surely having afternoon high tea at Fortnum and Mason will be just as relaxing as napping in a Latvian hotel, no?
After all, F and M has a Royal Warrant from the Queen, and if it’s good enough for the Queen of England, I think it’s good enough for you, Internet Stranger! Go ahead and make your reservation here. I’ll wait.
I suggest starting your tea with a helping of rose champagne. Highly civilized! Then it’s on to the proper tea!
At the bottom come the sandwiches, and you can have as many as you like. Mine were ham and mustard, cucumber, smoked salmon, egg salad, and my personal favorite: the curried chicken. Between the tea and the curry, Fortnum and Mason should just title this meal, “Things We Stole From India”.
Next come the scones: one fruit and one plain. We’re not animals; we don’t expect you to live on one scone. They are served with clotted cream, strawberry preserves, and lemon curd. The lemon curd is my favorite thing on the whole menu. It tastes like someone took the world’s happiest lemon, killed it very quickly and silently so the lemon would never know one moment of sadness, and then buried that happy lemon in a beautiful custard.
Finally, come the desserts. I got these all to myself and my eight-year-old self would have been so proud of me because I ate them all. They were a peach mousse, a chocolate hazelnut cream with a chocolate shell, elderflower mousse, a strawberry roll up, and a rose eclair. I challenge you to see if you can finish yours off all by yourself too.
The Brits enjoy their rose desserts more than we Yanks typically do. Fortnum and Mason even sells rose chocolates. I recommend the rose eclair because it wasn’t too heavy. It’s smart that so many of the desserts were fruity when it is such a heavy meal.
There is a separate cake table when you eat at Fortnum and Mason and you can take as many of the extra cakes as you want. You can even ask for one of the extra cakes to go! The waitress looked simply too shocked and disappointed with me when I said I didn’t want one, but as I spend so much of my life eating in restaurants, I have to say no sometime or none of my clothes would fit.
What to Do in London for a Day
Evening: The TheaTRE
You can’t end any guide to what to do in London for a day without mentioning the West End. As a native New Yorker, it pains me to say this, but I would rather go out to the theater in London than New York. The crowds aren’t as insane and the tickets are cheaper. But which show should we see?
Let’s not see Hamlet because the lead actor was a certain James Moriarty and he was just so mean to Sherlock Holmes that I don’t think I can support his acting career. Instead, let’s catch a comedy called The Play That Goes Wrong.
This play was so funny that milk snorted out of my nose when I was watching it, and I wasn’t even drinking any milk. I could tell you all about the plot, but you might not want to go see the play for yourself then. So instead, I will share…
Approximately Top 5: The Play That Goes Wrong Quotes
- “James, where’s your peach?”
- “A ledger?”
- “Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand” (2nd Duran Duran reference of the night! Woot!)
- “This isn’t a pantomime!”
- “Of course, Florence, that’s what brothers are for”
- “Not so fast, Inspector!”
There! I hope those hilarious jokes, taken completely out of context, have convinced you to see the play. You’re welcome!
Further Reading: What to Do in London For A Day!
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in London right now? Then here are some other resources to help you know what to do in London for a day! I always enjoy Lonely Planet’s guides to cities, including their guide to London. They break the book into chapters according to the neighborhood, which is very helpful.
If you’re looking for more of a history of London, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is excellent. You’ll learn so much about the city, you’ll be prepared to get elected Lord Mayor of London by the time you’re done reading it.
Finally, if you’re looking for something more fun, try Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which is a thrilling fantasy adventure set in London. It’s from the mind of the guy who brought us American Gods and The Graveyard Book, so you know it’s a great read. You’ll never look at the London Underground the same way again! (In a good way, not a bad way.)
Note: Keep in mind that while this article is about how to spend 24 hours in London, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in London. If you want to add an itinerary that includes the Museum of London, try this one. If you want an itinerary that includes the National Gallery, it’s all yours. And if you want to add on other destinations in the United Kingdom, I’ve got you covered too, right here.
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