If you’re Traveling to Europe, Africa or Asia from the U.S. with British Airways, there’s a good chance you’ll be landing in London first. But with a little planning you can turn that stop into a mini-cation.
I’ve always felt that there’s something magical about eating fish and chips and throwing back a pint while eyeing Big Ben from the banks of the Thames—even it is for just a day or two. London is a fantastic stopover.
Start with these attractions.
It looks like the perfect setting for a horror movie, which is perfect… since it is, and just a 10-minute walk from the Archway tube station at that. Walking around the moss-covered property is creepy enough, but finding the many famous graves here is like a scavenger hunt. There's The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams, and novelist George Elliot (whose real name was Mary Ann Evans). Karl Marx, the father of communism, has a giant memorial you can’t miss, and punk rock band manager, Malcolm McLaren, has an interesting headstone full of hidden meanings. There is a small entrance fee. Also, if you want to see the most famous grave, that of singer, George Michael, you need to make arrangements in advance.
If you’re a Beatles fan, Abbey Road is a must-stop photo-op. The intersection is way busier than you’d expect, and Fab Four purists will tell you that the zebra stripe has been moved from its original album spot. Regardless of the stripe's present location, the crosswalk is undoubtedly the most famous one in the world, as well as the cover photo for one of the world’s most iconic albums. To get there take the tube to St. John’s Wood and ask another tourist. It’s unlikely that any English people will be hanging out around there.
Piccadilly Circus | Ziggy Stardust
The ultimate “I’m in England and you’re not” photo is a double decker bus, a bright red phone box (booth) and Piccadilly Circus in the background. It’s not hard to line up all three the moment you step out of the Piccadilly tube stop. It's the Times Square of Britain with its neon signs, street musicians and people lounging around the fountain. It’s also the epicenter of every British souvenir shop after shop selling flags, teacups and Beefeater statues. David Bowie fans can walk a few minutes to 23 Heddon Street to see where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot. It’s now a trendy alley with restaurants and offices, but it’s not difficult to find the plaque that marks the spot where Bowie posed for his most famous photo.
Hard Rock Cafe
Love them or hate them, Hard Rock Cafe has its guitar strings wrapped around the most famous cities in the world and has become the one place you can get a decent hamburger or nachos almost anywhere. Before you dismiss the establishment as amateur tourist fare, know the Original London Hard Rock Cafe is special. It’s the first one in the world and it’s got humble beginnings. Ask someone to give you a tour of the basement vault, where clothing and guitars left by famous musicians who started the trend can be found, along with some great stories about how it all began. My Fuego sunglasses are also displayed there unless someone picked them up.
The Shard is one of London’s most famous and tallest buildings, but it’s quite expensive to get to the top. For a cheaper alternative (it's free, actually) visit the Sky Garden and enjoy views of the city in a lovely three-story atrium with a cafe and bar. The only catch is that you need to make reservations a day or two before you arrive and print out your ticket. On a clear day you can see the entire city. The building at 20 Fenchurch has a unique concave shape with mirrored glass planes that magnify sunlight and actually melted cars on the street until some …er… adjustments were made. You can get there from the nearby Monument station or take a 10-minute walk from the Tower of London.
Just around the corner from Big Ben is Westminster Abbey. This famous chapel has seen its share of royalty and famous Brits getting married or attending services. Tickets are required to visit it throughout the day and photography is not permitted. You can get in at 5 p.m. for the free Evensong service if you know about it (which you do now) and go to the main gate (not the side ticketed door) and tell the guard you’re attending. One of the most interesting parts of the church is the “poet’s corner” where Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and a host of other literary giants are buried. There are also “memorial plaques” in honor of plenty other famous writers as well. Westminster station is the closest metro station.
Tower Bridge | Tower of London
Built by William the Conqueror on the banks of the Thames in the 11th century, this palace was home to many of Britain’s monarchs and has also served as a prison, an armory, a menagerie, a treasury, and more during its 950-year history. The complex is a must-see tourist stop that gives you real insight into London's history. You can walk along the walls, visit the white tower, check out the dungeons, and admire the amazing Crown Jewels. There's an entrance fee, but you can walk across the 19th century tower bridge for free and view the outside of this UNESCO site, too. Or reserve a spot to be one of 50 to 60 visitors allowed in for free during the “Ceremony of the Keys.” Take the tube to Tower Hill to visit.
This museum is conveniently located in the heart of the city at Trafalgar Square. Not only is the building a fabulous venue for some of England’s most treasured art with a huge collection that includes the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and more renowned artists, but admission is free. Get there from Charing Criss station or enjoy a short walk from Piccadilly Circus.
Getting Around Town
To get an overview of the city, you can’t go wrong with Big Bus double decker tours. You can hop on or off wherever you like, and The London Pass includes a ticket for the bus and entry to almost all popular tourist sites, the easiest and most affordable way to see the city.
There for a shorter time or just a DIY traveler? Start by getting an all-day six zone travelcard that allows you to get to and from Heathrow Airport (or Gatwick with a supplement) to just about anywhere for around $20. Keep in mind, you’ll have to get a map, and learn where to change lines, and there can be lots of walking involved.
Stuck with heavy luggage? Bigger stations like Victoria have luggage offices where you can drop it off rather than try to cross Abbey Road with it.