London is one of the most incredible cities in the world. It would be easy to spend a week there and still not see everything. But sometimes you don’t even have a week. You may only have a day to drop in and see some of the highlights. And without question, even if you have time to spend only a day in London, with a good one day London itinerary, you can see plenty of the highlights. Here is our list of some of the most amazing sites you can see during a day in London:
1. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham palace has been the seat of the British Monarchy since the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid 19th century. A fact that is seen by the very large statue of Queen Victoria in the front of the palace. The palace has had additions since the days of Victoria and the front section with the famous balcony that we now associate with the palace was remodeled in the early 20th century.
The time of day that you visit the Palace really depends on the level of crowds that you are comfortable with. If you want to see the famous changing of the guard for example, you will most likely be watching it from a crowd of thousands. The trade off for going at a different time is missing this iconic ceremony, but seeing the palace with a lot fewer people.
The best time to visit the Palace is when the queen is away during the late summer months of August and September so that you can take a guided tour of the inside. If you are so fortunate as to be able to tour the inside of the palace (where photography is not allowed), you will be treated with a peak of some of the most famous state rooms, including the throne room. You can also add a tour of the stables where Queen Elizabeth II (an avid lover of horses) keeps many of her prize horses.
If you are an avid follower of all things Royal, it would be worth it to take a side trip to Windsor Castle. Though this would be outside of London, this is the royal residence that Queen Elizabeth II feels is her true home.
Buckingham Palace is so impressive that your first time in London would not be complete without catching at least a glimpse of the palace. Plan to spend a couple of hours here if you are going to watch the changing of the guard and tour the palace. An hour or less should suffice if you are just going just to see the outside.
2. Westminster Abbey
A short walk from Buckingham Palace will take you to Westminster Abbey. As the setting of the coronation of every English monarch since 1066, Westminster Abbey is where you need to visit if you are a lover of English history. This iconic sanctuary has been a central feature of the English royalty since the days of Edward the Confessor.
To follow the path of buried kings and queens in the Abbey is to follow the path of English history itself. And at the end of the tour, you will see the famous Coronation Chair itself. Most recently, Westminster has been the scene of the royal wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton in 2011.
If you visit, be sure to go all the way back to the lady chapel where you will not only see tombs of some of England’s most famous monarchs, but also the stunning architecture of the fan vaulted ceilings. It will take your breath away.
If you plan to take a tour inside the Abbey, make sure to plan at least an hour or two.
Just outside, you will see the houses of Parliament and Big Ben so make sure to leave the Abbey with enough daylight hours for good views of these impressive structures.
3. London Eye
Standing at 443 feet tall, the London Eye is one of the highest points for the best views of London. (the only place higher is the observation deck of the Shard) It is the most popular paid tourist attraction in London and is the tallest cantilevered (ferris wheel) observation wheel in Europe. It is beautiful to see at night on the River Thames.
A ride on this impressive wheel will only take 30 minutes with pre arranged tickets. If you take the London underground ( the tube ) the closest tube station to get off is Westminster. Make sure to get an Oyster card for riding the Tube since you will find that you will ride it a LOT…..even for a day in London.
4. Tower of London
At once a fortress, a prison, an armory, an execution site, a palace, and a house for some of the most valuable jewels in history. The Tower of London has been all these things. Deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site, the tower was built in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror himself.
It’s notoriety largely originated during the time that the famous “princes in the tower” disappeared from sight. Presumably murdered by their notorious uncle, King Richard III. During the Tudor period, it was the site of several famous beheadings including Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, the nine days Queen. Queen Elizabeth I was held captive in the tower by her own half sister, Mary I. She luckily got out alive and eventually ascended the throne herself.
With all there is to see, you could easily spend hours here touring the Tower. But when you only have a day in London, it is best to only take in the highlights.
The Crown Jewels
No tour of London would be complete without seeing the crown jewels. These jewels are magnificent to see. You will queue up before stepping on a conveyor belt that will take you pretty quickly by the jewels. No photography is allowed and it can be difficult to see details as the conveyor belt you will be moving pretty quickly. But never fear, you can rejoin the line and ride the conveyor belt as many times as you like….on both sides of the viewing cases for the most complete look at the jewels. It is worth several trips around to take in all the splendor.
The White Tower
Entering the White Tower will give you a spectacular look at the armory that houses some highly interesting armor used throughout British history. One of the most unique suits of armor that you will see was designed for Henry VIII himself. It is hard to miss the famous “cod piece” on his armor. Made extra large perhaps as his way of exclaiming that his lack of male heirs was not “his” fault….🤣
The other place I would recommend to check out at the Tower is Beauchamp Tower because inside there is graffiti on the walls from a variety of prisoners in the Tower during the 16th century. It is very humanizing to see these carvings in the wall by people hundreds of years ago who knew they were not likely to leave the tower alive.
Right outside this tower is the infamous “Tower Green” where several beheadings of notable figures took place including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey.
Just outside of The Tower of London is Tower Bridge (many often mistake it for the less impressive London Bridge). Make sure to spend a few minutes taking photos of the iconic bridge while you are there. It may be worth investing in a London Pass which will cover you for a day in London for several of the attractions seen on our list (Tower of London, the Shard, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, etc..)
With all the history and unique sites to see at the Tower of London, this is a site you cannot miss during your day in London! Plan to spend a couple hours touring the jewels, armory, and graffiti while you are there.
5. The Shard
Not too far across the river from the Tower of London is the Shard, the tallest building in the UK. Its unique architecture is instantly recognized and has become a symbol of London itself.
If you are pressed for time during your day in London, a view of the outside of the Shard may be sufficient for you. It is easily seen after you have finished your tour of the Tower of London. If however, the Shard is a priority for you then you will pre purchase a timed entry ticket and go up to the 68, 69, and 70th floors to have an unparalleled view of the city of London. On a clear day, you can enjoy impressive views for up to 40 miles.
Once you ascend the Shard you can view till your heart’s content but because you only have a day in London, you probably don’t want to spend much longer than a half hour to forty minutes so you can move on to other things.
6. Historic Pubs
At some point during your busy day in London, you are going to be hungry for lunch. In order to take in the full London experience, I recommend ducking into one of the many historic pubs that you will find in every corner of the city.
One of my favorites is “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese”. Located in the historic center of the city, known as “The City of London”, this pub is easy to get to from wherever you left off in your day in London. The sign in the entry says it all: “Rebuilt” in 1667, which was after the great fire of 1666 destroyed the older building.
In fact, this pub is known as the oldest pub in London. It has an interesting list of famous clientele through the ages including Charles Dickens himself. (There is a plaque on the wall commemorating the table he frequented). After you enter through the unassuming side entrance you will find a labyrinth of small interesting rooms from which to enjoy a pint and a plate of pub food like fish and chips.
When my husband and I visited, there was an historic heatwave and the coolness of the cellar was a comfortable place to sit and enjoy a reprieve from the heat outside.
Before you leave, make sure to sign the guestbook. I’m not sure how long it dates back to, but it is fun perusing the pages and seeing the list of patrons who have come before you! Plan to spend at least an hour enjoying the pub.
7. St. Paul’s Cathedral
Right down the street from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built by the master architect Christopher Wren himself after the great fire of 1666, St. Paul’s dominates the heart of London’s historic center, The City of London.
The site of many royal weddings including that of Charles and Diana, the cathedral is magnificent to see.
It may be tricky to include seeing the interior during a day in London. In fact, if you had to choose between touring the inside of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, I would recommend Westminster and simply taking pictures of the outside of St. Paul’s on your way to the tube station to see the next place on the tour. If you have more than one day then a tour of the inside would be well worth your time. Plan to spend about ten to twenty minutes to snap some photos of the outside or 45 minutes to an hour if you plan to go in.
8. The British Museum
Depending on the type of person you are, you can either spend the time getting to and touring the British Museum or skipping it entirely. If you, like me, are big into world history, especially ancient history, then spending some time at the British Museum is a must.
Some of the ancient world’s most important relics and artifacts are at the British Museum. (Not a surprising fact since the British Empire dominated the world in the 19th century).
This museum is huge and you could take several hours looking at its extensive collections. But if you only wanted to take in some of the highlights, it’s quite simple to duck in the museum for about 30 to forty minutes since most of the highlights are close together. Here are some I would suggest to see:
One of the most important ancient artifacts, the Rosetta Stone, is front and center in the museum for good reason. The Rosetta Stone was the key to translating the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and is a marvel so see. In the same room is the gigantic granite head of Rameses II.
Nearby are the enormous winged bulls of the Assyrian Empire, and the statues and large sections of marble frieze off of the Parthenon in Athens. The statue of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love is also quite impressive to see.
Because it is free admission to enter the museum, and the highlights are in such close proximity together, I do recommend darting in to see the highlights ( My husband and I were able to do this in about 30 minutes the day we went towards the end of the day.) It is best to book yourself a time slot in advance.
9. The National Gallery
Some of the world’s most celebrated art is housed at the National Gallery. Located at Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery is one of the top attractions in London and is especially important to visit during a day in London if you are an art fan.
One of the most well known paintings of the Northern Renaissance movement is the gallery’s Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck.
The National Gallery also has an impressive Da Vinci collection of which “The Virgin of the Rocks” is probably the most famous.
From the Renaissance through Modern art and everything in between, there is so much to see in the National Gallery that if you are a serious art fan, you will want to devote at least a couple hours here. In fact, if you are a bigger art fan than a “royal” fan, you may want to skip the tour inside Westminster and just take a peak at the outside of both Westminster and Buckingham Palace to spend more time here at the National Gallery.
And if you have any extra time by skipping some of the other focal points mentioned, you may also want to cross the river and spend some time at Tate Modern which has a far more extensive collection of modern art.
There is free admission to both general collections at the National Gallery and Tate Modern. In order to avoid disappointment, it’s important to get a pre booked time slot in advance. Plan to spend a couple hours in the National Gallery if you are really into art or 30 minutes if you just want to see the highlights from the Renaissance.
10. The National Portrait Gallery
Right next to the National Gallery is the smaller National Portrait Gallery. This gallery houses the largest collection of portraits in the world. It is unfortunately closed until 2023. Honestly, even if it wasn’t closed, I would only recommend spending time in this gallery during a day in London if you are very much into art, or, if you are a serious fan of British history (like myself).
This gallery literally has a portrait for almost every famous person from England since the Middle Ages. I love looking into the eyes of rulers from the past, knowing that they sat looking at the artist to have their portraits painted years ago. It offers a very real connection to those people of significance from the past.
If you are in London when it reopens, and if you have time for it, the National Portrait Gallery is worth spending at least a half hour of your time.
11. Extra time
For a perfect day in London, you will find that you won’t have time to see everything. But depending on your tastes and the time you start and end your day, and the location in which you find yourself, you may find that you have time to fit in a few of these other London mainstays:
If you are staying in or find yourself near this area, there are several points of interest including Kensington Palace, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Just behind this palace is London’s largest park, Hyde Park.
Nearby is the world famous Harrods which is great if you are an avid shopper. If you are in this area I would recommend a stop at the Kensington Hotel for afternoon tea. And finally, if you are a music lover, it is well worth the time to spend an evening at a concert in the Royal Albert Hall.
If you are in this area and have extra time, the Churchill War Rooms are an interesting historical site where the bunkers used during WWII are intact and provide an interesting look into that era. 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister is nearby as is St. James Park.
The West End
Piccadilly Circus is London’s equivalent to New York’s Time Square and is worth a trip over to see all the neon signs if you are in the area at night. Covent Garden is a historical shopping and dining area that is equally worth it to check out and duck into a pub for an hour if you have time here.
If you find yourself on the south bank of the River Thames, and if you have time, theater lovers should take some time to check out Shakespeare’s globe. You can even watch a full play here if you have the time during a day in London. This theater is located directly across the Millennium Bridge. (Harry Potter fans will remember this bridge being destroyed by Death Eaters in the 6th film)
London is one of the world’s most amazing cities. And if you only have a day in London to do all you can, it can certainly be overwhelming. But by prioritizing the sites you most want to see and creating a prepared itinerary for yourself based on our recommendations, you will be able to see many of the highlights. And whatever you can’t fit in will simply mean that you will have to come back for more! ☺️
Have you ever been to London? Which of our recommendations have you done? Which of our recommendations are you going to try? Do you disagree with any of our suggestions? What are we missing? Join the conversation and share any tips, questions or additional thoughts in the comments!
For more travel ideas be sure to check out our other posts!