What isn’t there to love about London? We've planned out the top sites, have a few suggestions on saving a little money, and have recommendations on where to find the best sandwiches (and other tips).
You can spend a lifetime in London and not see everything, I’m convinced of it. No matter how many times I go, I visit my favorite spots and still run into a new favorite or two…which is good news for ILP volunteers living in Europe! You can be living in ILP Europe countries and have London just be a short flight away from where you call home. If I were you, I'd think about spending at least one of my weekends or some vacation days exploring all there is to see in this impressive city.
Europe is full of amazing countries to visit (and volunteer in)!
Come spend a whole semester living in Europe on an ILP trip
Like I mentioned, there is a ton to see and do in London. Our ILP volunteers spending a semester in Europe are already living in a nearby country, which means it's a cinch to spend a weekend (or maybe 3-4 days) in London. That's plenty of time to see the highlights, but you'll want to plan your itinerary to make sure you don't miss anything. We've pulled together some tips and recommendations from ILP volunteers to help you know what to prioritize depending on how much time you have in the city. Get ready to fall in love with London and all it has to offer!
What You Need To Know About Visiting London
- Top Things To Do
- A Couple Of Nearby Spots
- A Bunch Of Things To Eat
- How To Get Around London
- Where To Stay
Top Things To Do
We're focusing on the must-see types of activities and sites in this section, but don't be surprised if you wander across something incredible on your way to and fro to all of these places or find something missing on this list — there's so much to see and do in London, it couldn't quite fit on this blog post mean to just start your off with the highlights. Depending on how long you have in the city, you should be able to whizz through most of the the activities on this list, even if you're here for just a day or two. Just take note of the activities that are a bit longer (like museums you'd spend several hours in) if you're short on time.
Oh and as a tip, it's often less expensive to book your tickets online rather than at the ticket office the day of your visit. Planning ahead can help you save a bit of money (which we love). It's usually 2-3 pounds off to prebook, but if you do that 5 times, that totally covers another experience or meal that you would have had to pay for.
Okay, this spot you have to see. Buckingham Palace is the King's official royal residence but mostly operates as an office to the Crown. There are a few ways to experience this impressive palace. First, know that the palace is always available to appreciate from the outside, without a ticket.
You can also experience the magnificent changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Generally, the start time is 11:00 AM in the Buckingham Palace Forecourt every Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday — just look up the exact day you'll be there to make sure you don't miss anything. Get there early to get a good standing place because the crowds that gather here can make it very hard to see what's going on.
Both of these activities are free (viewing the palace from the outside and viewing the changing of the guard ceremony).
You will be able to visit the inside of Buckingham Palace in the summer months when the Queen isn't there (usually between August and September). A tour inside guides you through stately rooms, the grand staircase, past famous works of art, and the Throne Room. In a word, it's impressive. There are also exclusive tours in the winter and spring if you have the pocket money for that. Get ticket info here.
- Address: Westminster, London SW1A 1AA, UK
Visit Westminster Abbey
Considered a royal church, Westminster Abbey is famous for a few reasons. One, it's the final resting place for several famous poets and other influential Brits. Though there are over 3,000 buried in the Abbey, you might recognize a few names, like Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Tennyson, and Henry Purcell.
The Abbey has also been the coronation site for 40 monarchs, stemming back to 1066. The coronations have been a lavish affair for centuries, with modern-day monarchs using the same coronation chair as their predecessors used (it's been in operation for over 700 years!). It's also a popular place to get married for the royal family, recently hosting the marriage of King Charle's oldest child (William to Kate Middleton).
- Tickets + Hours: You will need a ticket to enter. The Abbey is a working church and is sometimes closed for worship. (Get ticket info and opening hours here).
Address: 20 Deans Yd, Westminster, London SW1P 3PA, UK
See Big Ben + Parliament + The London Eye
No trip to London would be complete without the classic photo in front of Big Ben and Parliament! Big Ben is also known as the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell found inside the clock tower, but most of the world knows the famous clock by this name, too). While spectacularly famous, don't give all the attention to the clock!
The Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben are a part of the Houses of Parliament, which is the oldest palace in London. The country's most influential rulers once called this riverside palace home (it was the official residence for the Kings of England until the complex was destroyed by a fire in 1512). Today, it's the seat of the British government, where the House of Lords and the House of Commons meet.
There are tours you can take of Big Ben and of Parliament (they can book fast, so look around before your trip to see if they're sold out first before setting your heart on a tour), but most tourists visit from the outside. Oh, and pro tip? This landmark is beautiful at all times of the day and night, so you don’t have to worry about cramming it into your busy schedule before the sun sets.
- Find it here (you can get an amazing view of this part of London when crossing the Westminster Bridge).
For an extra cool view, take a ride up in the massive London Eye which is a whimsically huge Ferris wheel that lets you see Big Ben from above. It's a fun addition to your itinerary if you have the time and the budget for it. Tickets must be booked in advance.
All of these sites are grouped together, so it's easy to see all three before you head off to your next stop.
See A Masterpiece (Or Two)
London is a worldwide destination, boasting impressive and historic schools, churches, palaces, and museums (with artwork and pieces from all over the world). It's one of the best places in the world for theater and performance, meaning no visit to London is complete without seeing a museum or two or one of your favorite shows in the theater district.
A Couple of Museums
There are almost 200 museums in London, so not seeing some art would be a bit of a miss if you're trying to hit the highlights of what this city has to offer. While there are many to choose from, most visitors tend to gather around two of the city's most popular museums (maybe because they're free).
It would be a shame not to visit, even for a little bit. The National Galleries are completely free to visit and are filled with paintings from famous artists like van Eyck, Dürer, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, Vermeer, and Rembrandt.
Oh, and did I mention it's completely free to visit? So even if you're not up to seeing all 2,600+ pieces housed in the gallery, it's worth poking your head in to see a couple of pieces, right (check out the most famous works and their location, here).
Get a look at some of the most famous works of modern art at the Tate. Home to pieces by famous modern artists (like Picasso and Holzer), you can spend an afternoon admiring the paintings, sculptures, and other works housed in the well-known museum.
- Address: Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Tickets: Some exhibits are free, tickets to other exhibits have a fee. Learn more here.
Hours: 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, daily
See A Show Or Two
You can also go see a show in London! The city has an expansive theater district, known as the West End area of London (but you'll find it spreads into Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Regents Street, Oxford Street, and more — it's huge!). 40 theaters are spread out in this huge area and are playing quite a variety of shows including popular options like Les Miserables, Wicked, The Lion King, and others (see what's showing in London here).
Oh, and if you're wondering how to score cheap tickets, we have a few pointers:
- Don’t go on the weekend: It's more expensive than going on a weekday if you happen to be in London during the week.
- Buy tickets last minute: If a show isn’t sold out each night, theaters will drop the price so the theater is full for tonight’s performance. This strategy works well if there are a few shows you want to see; your number one pick might be sold out but your second or third pick might need to fill up a lot of empty seats, meaning you could get cheap tickets.
- Get half-off tickets: Go is the TKTS Half Price Theatre Ticket Booth — here’s their website. You can check out their “what’s on sale” option to get an idea about prices, or visit their official booth in person and explore your options. As a heads up, you’ll probably have better luck getting half-off tickets to lesser known shows or ones that have been around for a while, not the new show everyone wants to see.
- Sit (or stand) somewhere else: The most expensive tickets are going to be the best seats, but you can get very cheap tickets if you’re willing to sit (or stand) somewhere else. Lots of theaters have balcony sets that have a slightly obstructed view from a pillar or discount the front row because the stage overhangs, so the audience in that row won’t see the actor’s feet.
See Platform 9 3/4
King's Cross train station was pretty well known before the Harry Potter franchise, but now there's a whole new reason to visit — seeing the 9 3/4 platform from the popular book and movie series of course! If you need a refresher, this is the platform you have to pass through to take the Hogwarts Express to the well-known school of witchcraft and wizardry. To help you really get into character, there is a trolley embedded in the wall (open all hours) and you don't have to pay for your own photos — or you can pay a professional photographer hanging around to get pictures, which includes a scarf of your Hogwarts House: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. Professional photographs are usually there between 9:00 AM and 9:00 PM daily.
You may have to wait to get your photo: there's often a line.
Here's a bit more info about the stop in Kings Cross.
Tour The Tower Of London
Take some time to explore this historic castle (and fortress) on the banks of the Thames River. The entire structure has a fascinating history, starting from when it was first established in 1066. It stood as an imposing building and symbol of power and oppression (the space was used as a prison from 1100 to 1952), while also serving as a royal residence. The Tower of London gets its name from the White Tower which was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 though the entire structure is made up of several buildings surrounded by a wall and a moat — all of which underwent a series of expansions under the rule of King Richard I, Henry III, and Edward I.
Today, it's a chance to glimpse a fascinating chapter of British history as well as the opportunity to see the glittering crown jewels of the royal family. On your tour, you'll see the crown used on the monarch's head during the coronation ceremony (St Edward's Crown) as well as hundreds of precious gemstones and pieces of jewelry filled with thousands of jewels.
I'd highly recommend taking the tour instead of just stopping off to see what you can see from outside. The history and the jewels alone make a tour worth it.
Admire St. Paul's Cathedral
Built back in the 1700s, this cathedral is still one of the most stunning and impressive architectural points of the city. It now serves as the seat of the Bishop of London but is maybe more famous thanks to the impressive dome that crowns the Anglican church. At a towering 365 feet high, St Paul's was the tallest building in London until 1963 — it's still one of the highest domes in the world. Understandably so, this incredibly beautiful cathedral took a decade to design and 40 years to build.
St Paul's Cathedral is a working church open for services (check out service times and events here). Feel free to enter to attend a worship service and admire the stunning views inside. Understand that the dome and crypt are closed during the service.
If you'd like to visit as a tourist, ticket prices include the Cathedral Floor, Crypt, and the Dome Galleries (head up a rickety set of stairs to see the city spill out below you! It's an amazing view). Get prices here.
Relax In Hyde Park
If you are tired from all that running around, take a break in Hyde Park. There are usually some cool events happening (some are free) that are worth checking out. A few years ago, Hyde Park had local artists paint huge elephant statues that they lined up to celebrate the Queen. There is always something happening at this park.
This park is enormous, so plan your visit wisely — the Peter Pan statue is a popular visit, same with the Princess Diana Memorial Fountains. Others block out time to explore the Kensington Palace and Gardens (get more info here) which borders the massive park.
Visit Abbey Road
Where are my Beatles fans at? You likely need no introduction to this spot, but if you're new to the fan club, Abbey Road Studios is where the Beatles (and many other famous artists) recorded some majorly popular albums. It's a global icon. The Beatles recorded most of their albums here and took a classic picture crossing the road for their eleventh album, Abbey Road.
It's free to visit (and best if you're there with 5 people, so one can take the photo while the other 4 pose, and then switch). The cars driving the road are used to the photos, but please be careful and courteous with the traffic. You'll notice some fans leaving memorials like flowers, pictures, cards or quotes, CDs, and green apples (a nod to the Granny Smith apple found on the A-side of the standard Apple albums).
Think About Taking A Tour Of London
Okay, now that you've read about the highlights of London, think about how you're going to see all of these places. We'll get to how to get around London in a quick minute, but this section is all about tours. Walking tours in Europe are a popular way to get around and see all the major spots on your list and can be a great way to fit in a lot in a little bit of time (for just a few pounds).
Most of the tours in London know you're here to hit the highlights, so they include Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, Parliament, and lots of other places (like Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly) on their itinerary.
Here are a few we'd recommend looking into —
Take a free walking tour (this company is awesome). There are several categories to choose from, which we love. Focus on WWII history, focus on the food, or take a Harry Potter tour around London. Their website has tour options, where to meet your guide, and about how long each tour is. The tours are free, but a tip is encouraged.
Take a classic double-decker tour. Embrace the tourist thing and see the city on those famous red double-decker buses. The guides are hilarious and will let you check off all the locations on your London “to do” list in an afternoon.
There are a few companies you can go through for a double-decker bus tour (some have the classic red bus, others don't). There are also hop-on-hop-off buses which could be a good option if you want to do a little exploring on your own but still have an easy way to get around. Prices vary.
A Couple Of Nearby Spots
If you have any extra time, you can't miss this iconic monument! It's about a 2+ hour commute over to Stonehenge from London, so this is more like a full-day trip. Wake up early, and catch the first train to make sure you have enough time to do this in a day. Here are all our tips for getting to Stonehenge.
Circled in yellow, these villages are probably the cutest, most photogenic places you can find in the entire British Isles. In recent years, they've become more popular due to the many scenes from the popular TV drama, Downton Abbey, that have been filmed there. Castle Combe is especially known for its charming cottages.
It's pretty impossible to explore these different villages without a rented car or a tour group, so it'll have to be the tour group for our ILP volunteers. But don't let that discourage you from visiting the Cotswolds! Look for a tour that can get you out and back in a day and visit several locations in the quaint, adorable English countryside.
+ A Few More In England
We're hoping you're not just in England for a couple of days ... there's just so much more to see that spending a few days in London and having time to explore some of the nearby charming towns is how I'd prefer to schedule my trip. Take a peek at these easy day trips from London to squeeze into your itinerary.
Paris is just a train ride away thanks to the Chunnel! It'll take just two hours to get to the City of Lights from London if you're looking for a reason to hop over and experience France for the day (or longer ... there's a lot to see in Paris!). Get our guide to Paris here.
A Bunch Of Things To Eat
This city has ah-mazing food. I’d go back for it in a heartbeat! Don’t miss out on getting lunch or dinner at a pub, and snagging fish-n-chips off the street (the fried Mars bars are also top notch). Another perk of eating all the things in London is the range you can get. London's a huge melting pot and actually has Tikka Masala (an Indian dish) as their national dish — plus several acclaimed restaurants and yummy spots to taste all sorts of cuisines from around the world. If you ask me, certain dishes or foodie experiences are just as important to seeing Big Ben.
If you'd like a few recommendations for your trip, here are a few:
If you want a whole market of things to eat and purchase, you have to take a visit to Borough Market. You'll find everything here — groceries like fresh fish and flowers for sale, foraged mushrooms, teas from all over, loaves of bread, olives, fresh fruit, crackers, chocolates, fudge, and more. But we think you'll be here for the unbeatable food like melty chocolate poured over fresh strawberries.
The market also has a spread of casual eateries serving food from all over the world. Find plates of curry, handmade pasta served with pesto, warm meat pies fresh from the oven, and incredible sandwiches (you have to get a ciabatta sandwich at the Black Pig, it'll be the best of your life!). There is so much to see and eat in this market, I'd recommend coming back twice so you don't feel so overwhelmed on your first visit. Get a peek at what's waiting for you here.
- Find it here.
Hours: 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM Tuesday - Friday (Open at 9:00 on Saturdays, but 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Sundays). Closed Mondays.
For a good meat pie, this is your place! With pies full of chicken, bacon, veggies, fish, and more you will definitely find one you love. If meat pie isn't your thing, you can't go wrong with their fish-n-chips or steak ... but a classic meat pie is the thing to eat when in England.
- Address: They have a couple of locations.
Remember how we said the curry is more than good in London? Go here to experience it for yourself. Try the popular Tikka Misala, or honestly any curry and you can't go wrong at Tayyabs. Their curries and mango lassi are top notch!
If you're in the mood for something sweet, head to Ben's Cookies. I'm partial to their classic chocolate chip, but they have a bomb chocolate-chocolate flavor that I also can't get enough of. I may or may have purchased a whole tin of these cookies once ... or twice.
You'll find them all over London (and scattered abroad in places like Dubai and Singapore).
Have Afternoon Tea
This is a lunch date and a cultural experience, to have afternoon tea in London. Supposedly the tradition of having tea and a few snacks/treats before dinner is credited to the Duchess of Bedford who mentioned the ubiquitous trend in 1840. The duchess's secret is now a national tradition observed by almost everyone in England. The "level" of tea varies — casually, you might just enjoy tea with a scone or another biscuit, but more formal experiences have a whole spread of things to eat and etiquette rules.
There are dozens and dozens of places to book afternoon tea at, from luxury hotels to churches like the Cellarium at Westminster Abbey to more humble but still tasty locations. Prices range and be sure to book in advance. This article can give you an idea of what prices can be like as well as a few ideas of where to book for a more ritzy experience (though there are a few options on the list that aren't too pricey). Just know there are about a zillion options out there that can fit any budget.
It's hard to find "the best" fish-n-chips in London, but Poppies is a favorite for sure! The fish is battered to perfection and served with a side of thick cut french fries. It's something you gotta try (no trip to London is truly complete after you have a serving of fish and chips, with plenty of black vinegar).
- Address: There are a couple locations scattered throughout London, but here are more recommendations for fish-n-chips in the city if you're looking for other suggestions.
How To Get Around London
Use The Underground
You have to get around using the Underground: it's a huge metro system that helps you get around the city, affectionally known as "The Tube". There are nine zones, but central London is zone 1 (where you'll probably be spending most of your time). There are 11 individually colored lines that run pretty much from 5:00 AM to midnight (with some reduced hours on Sunday).
You'll want to get an Oyster card to help you get around. It's a multi-use pass that you can put pounds on depending on how long you're staying. There are all sorts of cards you can purchase, with different amounts of money on them. And, according to their official website:
- If you're visiting London for two days, start with £15 credit.
- If you're visiting London for four days, start with £30 credit.
Get these cards all over London: you can visit news kiosks but every underground tube station will have a ticket counter where you can get an oyster card.
Oh, and you can easily top off the cards with more if you run out during your visit. The money on your card doesn't expire so you can loan it out to friends and family, or plan on visiting London again. You can also get a refund on the amount on your card after your visit by talking with an employee at a ticket kiosk.
Double Decker Buses
Use your double-decker tour as your transportation! Just purchase a "hop on, hop off" ticket and get on and off wherever you want! You can find multiple companies that offer a hop-on and hop-off tour with a range of prices, but here's one that has several routes and good prices for the day.
You will do a lot of walking, even if you use the Underground for most of your trip. I love taking the time to walk when I can (you will find a lot of hidden gems if you go at it on foot, plus many of the sites are close together so you can see a few if you plan your route right). Google Maps is my go-to for helping me navigate a new city and see where all my favorite attractions are located — if you download the map beforehand, you can navigate the city without using data.
Where To Stay In London
You have a whole long list of places to stay in this massive city. We've pulled some examples of where past ILP groups have stayed along with a few suggestions to help you get a gauge of where to stay and what prices are like.
Airbnb / Hotels
One ILP group stayed at this hotel which is quite close to a tube station, so you're not far from all the things you want to see in the city.
If you're looking for an Airbnb ILP groups have stayed at, check out this spot.
Ready to spend time in Europe?
Don't just visit, come volunteer here and call a city in Europe home for a whole semester! International Language Programs sends college-aged volunteers abroad to do some traveling and to teach English or volunteer in an orphanage. You don't need to be a student or have any experience to volunteer with us just a desire to make a difference and do some traveling.
Come see which countries you can volunteer in below!