With three days in London, you can fit in a diverse mix of classic sights and local experiences. My plan will show you how to see the major attractions on your list while leaving plenty of time to explore the tucked-away neighborhoods that give the city its charm. Take in a magnificent literary exhibit that displays early Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll manuscripts next to Beatles lyrics scrawled on scrap paper.
Enjoy a decadent high tea amongst an urban oasis of manicured, palace gardens. Visit a 1,000-year-old food market where all of the city’s international flavors blend together to create a colorful and mouthwatering display. See why London’s bad culinary reputation is utter nonsense and why it’s one of the world’s great cocktail capitals. After a few days of city excitement, I’ll show you around England’s famous countryside. Absorb fascinating history in towns like Canterbury and Bath. For a unique coastal experience, take a stroll along the towering white cliffs of Dover. Explore the stately cathedrals, castles, and mystical monuments that dot pastoral landscapes. And after days of wanderings, enjoy a few pints at the coziest pubs in England’s most charming towns, like picture-perfect Rye. If you need destination ideas for the second half of your trip, I can provide suggestions for locations that provide even more travel variety and are natural additions, in both location and accessibility, to week one.
Time on the Thames
What better way to start your trip through England than by taking in its most iconic view? Travel to the Waterloo tube station, and take a walk over the Westminster Bridge. The scene over the Thames with Big Ben towering in the background really gives you that “wow, I’m in London” feel.
Though touristy, a visit to Westminster Abbey is truly a must. If there’s one place in England that captures the country’s history, it’s inside this nearly 800-year-old cathedral where kings have been coroneted, royals have been married, and great thinkers have been laid to rest.
Escape the throngs of tourists by heading back over the bridge to the South Bank and doing its scenic riverside walk. You should arrive at Borough Market just in time for lunch. This 1,000-year-old, indoor-outdoor food pavilion hosts a diverse group of traders working to create an international world of flavors. Pick whatever dishes make your mouth water the most.
If you’re into modern art, make a stop at the Tate Modern before heading back to the North Bank. Crossing the Thames via the stately Tower Bridge will take you to the entrance of the Tower of London, the city’s infamous prison that now houses the impressive crowned jewel collection as well as a number of other interesting exhibits. If this sounds too touristy for you, start heading west towards the blue dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. On the way, peek inside the bombed-out ruins of Saint Dunstan in the East Church; here lies a charming and romantic secret garden
Continue along the Victoria Embankment to the city’s Covent Garden neighborhood. This modern and bustling district is where local and tourists alike go to shop, eat, and play. But to escape the masses and see one of the city’s great hidden gems, pop into Neal’s Yard, an urban oasis only accessible by alleyways off of Shorts Gardens and Monmouth streets. This concealed courtyard of rainbow-painted boutique shops and eateries arose from an urban-squatting movement from the 1970’s.
The Mexican street food at nearby Wahaca has been hailed the best cheap eat in all of the United Kingdom. Go here for inexpensive sharing dishes and tequila-based cocktails in an expensive-feeling environment.
With street food and cheap eats, you’re able to save today’s food budget for a once-in-a-lifetime night cap. Make your way to the Langham Hotel via Piccadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square. Inside the hotel is the Artesian, which was recently named the “World’s Best Cocktail Bar.” Spend a classy evening sipping on artfully prepared drinks from some of the world’s best mixologists.
We Could Be Royals
Start your day appreciating the statues and the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, one of the city’s main gathering points. Walk by 10 Downing Street, and give the Prime Minister a wave before making your way to Buckingham Palace via St. James Park; be sure to arrive at the palace gates for the 11:30 a.m. Changing of the Guards ceremony. Though you’ll feel like every other tourist in London is at this same spot at the exact same time, this classic display of royal pageantry is a classic travel experience that is not to be missed!
After the ceremony, get a feel for how the other half shops by ducking into Harrods. This famous department store is quite outrageous –pillows priced at 8,000 pounds per pop will make your eyes jump out of your skull. But culinary geeks of all budgets will marvel at the store’s famous food halls.
A fun, London lunch alternative is high tea – the finger sandwiches, scones, and teacakes offer are substantial enough to serve as a meal stand-in. One of the most atmospheric tearooms in the city is in the Orangery. This grand dining hall overlooks Kensington Gardens, a green oasis just down the path from Princess Diana’s former palace.
Take a tube trip to the British Library, where you can ogle the works of British intellectual royalty. The exhibit hall in this impressive building displays early Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll manuscripts next to Beatles lyrics scrawled on scrap paper. Oh, and they also have the Magna Carta. From here, you can also pop over to the British Museum to see its famous Rosetta Stone, as well as all of the ancient antiquities that the English pilfered from around the world.
A couple blocks away is the Princess Louise, one of London’s best pubs and a great place for pre-dinner drinks. Foodies know that dinner at Fergus Henderson’s St. John restaurant is a meal fit for kings and queens. This destination restaurant celebrates nose-to-tail cuisine, a culinary practice that makes use of all parts of the animal. Chef Henderson revived this historic, local practice… and he revolutionized it to make it taste amazing.
London Like a Local
Today you’ll explore London like a local would, in its eclectic neighborhoods. Spend your morning exploring Portobello Road, a colorful street in the Notting Hill area that is home to a large number of bric-a-brac and antique stores.
Stop in Marylebone to sample some of the city’s best fish and chips at The Golden Hind. You’ll also want to stop at Daunts Books, a beautiful bookstore that specializes in travel.
Spend the rest of your day in East London, which is unquestionably the city’s trendiest neighborhood. The area between the Shoreditch High Street and Hoxton tube stations is also home to the lion’s share of London’s best street art. Keep your eyes peeled as you wander, making sure to wander the side streets in the name of hunting for wall murals.
While in this neighborhood, consider stopping at White Cube a gallery that showcases well-known works from British contemporary artists. Or, go straight to the Queen of Hoxton, a combination bar and art gallery where you can check out the exhibits before enjoying cocktails in the game room or on the rooftop terrace.
Before dinner, wander Cheshire Street, an avenue of eclectic and funky vintage shops. Then hop over to nearby Brick Lane, a famous immigrant street is packed with no less than 50 Indian restaurants; among the tastiest are Tayyabs and Chor Bizarre.
You’ve already tried the world’s best cocktail bar; why not try out number two and see for yourself if the critics got it right! Shoreditch’s Nightjar often hosts live jazz music and has 1920s details that create an old-school glamour.
A Dynamite Day Trip
Within about an hour-and-a-half train ride of London are one of England’s most important historical sites and one of its most stunning visual sites… and you can see them both on one easy day trip from the city!
Start your day in Canterbury, site of the famous Canterbury Cathedral and one of the most important religious pilgrimage destinations in the world. The Cathedral is the town’s main attraction, but its charming old town makes for a good lunch stop.
Continue on to Dover, which is just a 15-minute ride away. Here, you’ll find the imposing Dover Castle perched on top of the coast’s towering, chalky-white cliffs. Take some time to explore this medieval structure before going for a relaxing stroll along this unique coastline and taking in its beautiful seascape; on a clear day, you can even see France off in the distance. Head back to London for dinner to avoid a dearth of good dining options in Dover.
You’ll start your tour of the English countryside with a visit to Stonehenge, an enigmatic place that needs no introduction. After immersing yourself in the mysticism of the famous stone circle, explore Salisbury and its stunning cathedral, which boasts the highest spire in England. Stoby’s, a fish and chips shop in the center of town, is a local institution; go here for a delicious, no-frills lunch.
Your next stop is Bath, a Georgian beauty that deserves at least a two-night stay. Get acquainted with the city by wandering the city center. In addition to intriguing architecture, Bath is a cosmopolitan town with great shopping, restaurants, and bars. Consider eating at Same-Same but Different, a bohemian cafe dishing up pan-European tapas.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy for a Day
With more historic buildings than any other city in England, you won’t find it hard to transport yourself to the Bath of Jane Austen’s day. The iconic Roman Baths, Royal Crescent, and Pulteney Bridge are must-sees. And though a touristy ritual, you can’t visit the city without tasting the curative spa water from the Pump Room. This is also an elegant place for a real meal or a traditional high tea.
Spend the afternoon doing the Bath Skyline Walk, a six-mile loop through the city’s surrounding hills. Even if you don’t want to do the full circuit, make sure to go as far as the Prior Park Landscape Garden; its beautiful Palladian Bridge makes for a fun photo op.
For dinner and drinks, check out the Old Green Tree, a cozy spot that is widely regarded as the most traditional pub in Bath and has a great selection of Belgian beers to boot.
“England’s Prettiest Village”
Your vision of England likely includes picture-perfect, country villages where time seems to have stood still. While these towns are scattered throughout the country, in no region are they more prolific than the Cotswolds. Here, clusters of honeycomb cottages dot miles upon miles of rolling, green pasture.
While the lack of rail lines running through this area certainly adds to its authentic feeling, it makes exploration difficult for visitors without cars. There are a couple of Cotwolds touring options for travelers visiting without a vehicle. You could take one of the daylong, guided mini bus tours that leaves out of Bath – Madmax is a good option. Or, for a more immersive experience, you could stay overnight in one of the nearby villages.
Castle Combe has been dubbed “England’s Prettiest Village” and is just a ten-minute taxi ride from Bath. This cozy town, with its manor house, quaint streets, and pastoral surroundings, is quintessential Cotswolds.
If you choose to stay the night in this village, spend the morning wrapping up your time in Bath and then head over to Castle Combe in time for an afternoon stroll through the countryside. This map guides you along the surrounding scenic walking paths and points out notable sights along your journey. After your walkabouts, settle into dinner and drinks at one of the town’s two pubs and enjoy your peaceful surroundings.
Rugged Beauties and Tamed Scholars
From Castle Combe, I recommend continuing west to Cornwall, a rocky and rugged seaside resort area with a strong Celtic vibe. Spend a couple of nights in artsy St. Ives or accessible Penzance. See the ruins of Tintagel Castle, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, enjoy a performance at the cliffside Minack Theater, or wander the Lost Gardens of Heligan and those within the futuristic bio domes of the Eden Project. On your way in or out of the region, consider stopping at Dartmoor National Park and taking a stroll through England’s famous and mysterious moors.
Use Oxford as a base for your last three days in England. Though one of the country’s most historically important towns, the youthful exuberance of the university population gives it a fresh and vibrant feel.
Spend a day exploring the various academic buildings and colleges. Notable ones, like Christ Church, have recognizable landmarks and important historical associations. But also be sure to pay the euro or two entry fee and duck into some of the smaller and more unassuming colleges. Oftentimes, once you pass from the bustling city streets through their ancient gates, you’ll find hidden surprises in the form of secret gardens and incredible architecture. You’ll also want to take some time emulating the life of an Oxford student. Visit some pubs and bookshops, and consider going punting down the river.
Recommended day trips from Oxford include visits to Highclere Castle, famous for being the filming location for the popular TV show Downton Abbey, Stratford-upon-Avon, hometown of Shakespeare, or Bleinheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and one of England’s best palaces.
Most of London’s Museums… don’t charge admission! Take advantage of these rare freebies!
You can reach Stonehenge… from the Salisbury train station. A round-trip taxi ride is about 35 pounds.
Tickets to tour Highclere Castle… are sold out through September. But you can always roam the gardens and eat in the tearoom.
Buckingham Palace… only gives tours in August.