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One Day in London: Things to Do on a 12 Hours in London Layover

Only have one day in London and want to know everything you need to do and see? Follow this itinerary to see the best of London in one day!

Ok, ok, I know what you’re going to say – one day in London is NOT enough time!! No, 12 hours in London really is not enough, because there is definitely more to do and see. But, with some good planning, you can definitely do and see a lot of this amazing city on a layover in London.

Back on my big Europe trip, I intended for my last stop to be Rome. However, my outbound flight left from Dublin, and in researching flights, I discovered that it was cheaper to  have a layover in London, than it was to fly directly to Dublin.

Since I never turn down an opportunity to discover a new city, and am always up for the challenge of cramming in a bunch of things to do in a short period of time (and hellooooo…can’t argue with CHEAPER), I was sold.

Trying to see such a big city in such a short amount of time was quite a challenge, but heck, I was up for it! I created this perfectly crafted itinerary and was able to see many of the city’s highlights – from Big Ben, the Tower of London (and Tower Bridge), Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, and more. I even had time for afternoon tea!

I definitely fell in love with London – I love the being in the middle of a big, bustling metropolis, not unlike NYC, combined with being surrounded by so much history. It was my first time in London (if it’s your first time too, check out this First Timer’s Travel Guide to London), and I am definitely going to be back for a much longer trip in the future!

Want to know the best way to see London in a day? Be sure to follow the itinerary below to see it all!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase or booking, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Getting to City Center on Your London Layover

London is served by three major airports, with varying distances from Central London. Luckily, it is fairly easy to get into city center for your day in London, no matter which airport you fly into.

From Heathrow Airport

Heathrow is the largest airport in London, and the closest to the city center. If you are arriving via a transatlantic flight on a major international airline, chances are this is where you will fly into. 

If you need to store your luggage, there is a left luggage counter in Terminal 2. You can find more information about rates and hours here

Heathrow Express: You can get to Central London in only 15 minutes via the Heathrow Express, which drops you off at Paddington Station. One-way fares are £25.00 (£38.50 return), or can cost as little as £15.00 if you book far in advance. I highly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance.

The Tube: If you are looking to save some cash, another option is to take the tube. A one-way fare is £6.00, which is significantly cheaper than the Heathrow Express (you can also purchase a day pass)! The trip takes about 40-60 minutes, depending on your destination in Central London.

Depending on where you want your first stop in the city to be, taking the tube may or may not be more efficient than taking the Heathrow Express. Be sure to plan your route in advance to find the best option.

From Gatwick Airport

Gatwick is located about 30 minutes from Central London, and mostly serves smaller budget airlines, or European flights. You can easily get into the city center via the Gatwick Express.

An anytime ticket is £20.60, but is £18.50 if you purchase your fare online here. You can also purchase a discounted off-peak ticket if you purchase a return ticket online.

Trains depart every 15 minutes from the South Terminal at Garwick Airport, and drops you off at Victoria Station in Central London. There is a shuttle from the North Terminal that will get you to the station.

Need to store luggage? Gatwick has left luggage services in the arrivals hall at both terminals. More information about rates and hours is here

From Stansted Airport

We flew into London via Stansted, mostly used as a hub for Ryanair flights, and serving a handful of other budget airlines. Of course, this was the most out-of-the-way airport because I mean, Ryanair. (aaaaand that’s why it was cheaper to have a layover in London, but I mean…a $15 flight? sure). 

It is still pretty easy to get to Central London via the Stansted Express, which gets you to Liverpool Street station in about 45 minutes. Trains depart every 15 minutes (every 30 minutes during the early morning and late night hours). The station is just outside the arrivals hall in the airport.

A one-way fare is £23.00, but can be as low as £9.90 depending on how early you book your ticket (up to 6 months in advance). For ticket information and to buy in advance, see here

Stansted also has a luggage storage service (open 24 hours) at Luggage Point, in the international arrivals area. More information about rates is available here

Via rail

London is also connected to many European cities by train. If you arrive via Eurostar, you will arrive at St. Pancras station, which is in the heart of London and right next to King’s Cross station. From here, you can easily connect to the underground.

Getting Around on Your One Day in London

Walking: We found that many of the main sights in Central London are within walking distance of each other (specifically, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace), making them easy to explore even when you are trying to see London in a day.

The Tube: Otherwise, to get to the other points of interest, we took the underground to get around. I found it fairly straightforward and easy to use, making it a convenient way to get around while spending a day in London. Fares are calculated by zones, and start at £6.70 (£3.20 if you use an Oyster Card)- this can add up quickly and get complicated, so I suggest getting a one-day Travelcard to make it simple.

The cost for a one-day Travelcard starts at £8.50, depending on how many zones you need to travel through. For the purpose of this itinerary, you will only need to travel between zones 1 and 2. If you are taking the tube from Heathrow, you will need to purchase the option for travel between zones 1-6, which costs £22.60.

Hop-on, Hop-off Bus: Another convenient way to get around is to book a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. This is a great option for when you are trying to see London in a day, because it takes you to all the highlights of the city without any hassle or worrying about getting lost!

Is Uber in London? As of January 2020, Uber is no longer available in London, as it lost its license to operate due to safety concerns. Another option is to use Bolt, which is a similar European ride-sharing service (and much cheaper than Uber). 

You can also take one of those iconic black cabs to explore the city, but this is a very expensive way to get around. 

The Perfect One Day in London Itinerary

Coffee + breakfast with a view at Duck & Waffle

By the time we arrived into Liverpool Station from Stanstead, we were starving and in the mood for some breakfast. We found Duck & Waffle by doing a quick Google search of what was in the area, not knowing that it was one of the most popular restaurants in London.

Duck & Waffle sits on the 40th floor of the 110 Bishopgate building, which means that you get incredible views of Central London and beyond, which is one of the reasons for its popularity. 

Unfortunately, we were in London on Valentine’s Day, so the main restaurant was all booked up. Moral of the story, make reservations!

However, the lounge was open and they were serving coffee and pastries, so we decided to settle in, and take in the view that way. Duck & Waffle is open 24/7, so you can also stop by and admire the view over lunch or dinner as well.

Tower of London 

Just over a mile away and easily walkable from Liverpool Street is the famous Tower of London, which sits on the River Thames. It dates back to 1066 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The Tower of London is a fortress, armory, and royal palace that protected London from the 11th to 16th centuries. It is one of the most iconic sites in London’s heritage, and dates back to the times of William the Conqueror. It is also a famous prison, and many notable executions have taken place here.

It also housed a collection of wild and exotic animals, making it London’s first zoo. It is also the home of the Crown Jewels, which are stored at the Tower of London, under the watchful eye of the Yeoman Warders, some of the most powerful soldiers in British history. The collection boasts an impressive 23,578 gems!

Your admission ticket will allow you to see the Royal Beasts, Crown Jewels, the Royal Mint, and the White Tower, made famous by Shakespeare’s plays. You can even take a tour led by the Yeoman Warders. Such a cool insight into the history of London and Britain and definitely worth seeing even if you’re trying to see London in one day (it’s also one of the best spots to check out when visiting London with kids)!

Tower Bridge

Just adjacent to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge, one of the most iconic structures in London and one of the most famous bridges in the world. This was one of my favorite stops during my London layover!

Often mistaken for the London Bridge (which actually sits a half mile upstream and is far less impressive, in my opinion), the Tower Bridge is a combined bascule and suspension bridge and was built in the late 1800s. It was designed to ease road traffic, but still allow tall ships to pass through on the River Thames (which would not be possible with a traditional fixed bridge design).

If you are pressed for time, you can admire it from the river walk, and snap a bunch of photos (it is definitely one of the most Instagrammable places in London), or walk across the bridge. 

For a unique experience, go up on the glass-floor walkways, 42 meters above the River Thames. This gives you an up-close perspective of the bridge and allows you to see the passer-bys and cars on the bridge – so cool! From here, you can enjoy epic panoramic views of London. You can also see the unique steam engine room, which one powered the raising of the bridge.

Afterwards, hop on the tube and make your way towards the rest of the points on this one day London itinerary.

Trafalgar Square 

Tourist trap? Yeah, probably. But you can’t help but admire this historic square on your 12 hours in London, as well as admire that view of Big Ben from here. It’s also a great spot for people watching! 

Trafalgar Square, originally named Charing Cross, is the largest public square in London, and is often considered the heart of the city. Public gatherings have been taking place here ever since the Middle Ages!

There are many statues, monuments, and fountains on display here. Perhaps the most iconic is the Nelson’s Column, which commemorates the victory of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson over the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, which is also how the square gets its name.

Trafalgar Square is also surrounded by a number of museums, galleries, and cultural spaces. Spanning the entire north side of the square is the neoclassical National Gallery. The museum houses an impressive collection of over 2300 paintings, which span over six centuries. The works are from some of the most famous artists in the world, including van Gogh, Monet, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renoir, and more.

The best part of the National Gallery? The admission is absolutely free, as it is at many other museums in London! Because of the free admission, we popped in for a quick visit…because at that price tag, it’s totally worth stopping into some museums, even when you only have a day in London.

Walk the Westminster Bridge and admire Big Ben

Is there anything that screams London quite like Big Ben? I was completely in awe seeing it up close – the details in the architecture are just incredible. Most people use the name “Big Ben” to refer to the clock tower, the clock, and the bell, but originally, the name was given to the Great Bell. The tower is officially named Elizabeth Tower.

Take a stroll across the Westminster Bridge; you can see Big Ben up close and in all its glory, as well as find the best view of it and the Westminster Palace on the other side.

The Elizabeth Tower stands 95 meters (105 yards) high over the city and is arguably the most iconic structure in the city. Its chimes have rang since 1859, and have rarely stopped, surviving even through bombings in World War II. Its timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins on its giant pendulum.

Renovation work began on Big Ben 2017 and was recently completed. The chimes were stopped during construction, but have finally resumed. Tours of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower have also resumed as well.

Want to go on the London Eye? This is the perfect time to take a ride on it, as it is just next to the Westminster Bridge. This is one of the tallest observation wheels in the world, and you can take in some epic views of the city and River Thames below. Save some time and be sure to book your tickets in advance

Buckingham Palace

I came to Buckingham Palace hoping to see a glimpse of Will and Kate, but they weren’t home…ok, j/k, but it is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen. It is perhaps the most iconic royal building in Great Britain, and is one of only a few working royal palaces remaining in the world.

The palace is open to the public during the summer months, usually between August and September, when the queen is not in residence. The palace tour takes you through the 19 grand State Rooms, the Throne Room, and the Grand Staircase.

Otherwise, you can visit the Royal Mews and Queen’s Gallery, which are open most of the year.

When the palace is not open, the best times to visit is when the Changing of the Guard occurs; this only happens on certain days. Unfortunately, my London layover was not on one of those days. To see if the changing of the guards is happening on the day you’ll be there, you can check the schedule.

You can even experience the Changing of the Guard with an experienced local guide, who will take you to watch the preparations for the ceremony, ensure that you watch the ceremony from the optimal viewing spot, and give you an insight into the history and significance of the ceremony and palace.

Even without seeing the Changing of the Guard, I still found it worth stopping by as you also get to stroll through the beautifully maintained Hyde Park, Green Park, and the Kensington Gardens.

Westminster Abbey

Speaking of Will and Kate, am I the only one who thinks of their wedding when I think of Westminster Abbey? I couldn’t get over that dress. ANYWAYS. Westminster Abbey is one of the most famous churches in the world, and has played an important role in the political, cultural, and cultural affairs of Britain for over 1000 years.

The church was originally founded as a Benedictine monastery over 1000 years ago, and has since been rebuilt several times. It was rebuilt to its present form in 1272 by Henry III, and is considered a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

Westminster Abbey has played host to coronations of all English and British Monarchs since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066. It has also hosted 16 royal weddings since 1100. It was known as the “House of Kings” and 17 monarchs are buried on the grounds here, as well as Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.

Over one million people visit the church every year. The UNESCO World Heritage site is adorned with impressive stained glass windows, paintings, and religious artifacts.

The inside of the church is only accessible via guided tour, which will give you an insight into Westminster Abbey’s impressive history, which is not only made up of kings, queens, and priests; even heroes and villains, as well as poets and scientists are part of its impressive history!

Keep in mind that since it is a working church, it is closed on Sundays and all religious holidays.

Have afternoon tea 

Pinkies up…is there anything more quintessentially British than having high tea? And besides, can you really go wrong with being fancy and eating lots of sweet treats and finger sandwiches? 

This was one of the things I was most excited about on my London layover. Like I mentioned earlier, I happened to end up in London on Valentine’s Day, which meant that reservations were hard to come by.

There are tons of places in the city that offer an afternoon tea service, in all budget ranges. I had originally wanted to go to Sketch, which is a super popular spot. However, since there were no reservations available, we headed over to the Wolseley, which had a tasty, classy, and affordable afternoon tea service.

Looking to spend more time in London? Check out this 2 days in London itinerary.

You might also like:
The Perfect One Day in Dublin Itinerary
2 Days in Florence
2 Days in Paris

Have you ever been to London? What are your must-dos there?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase or booking, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.



Tuesday 7th of January 2020

I have a feeling I'm going to have a long layover in London sometime this year, so I am definitely saving this one for later! Thanks!


Sunday 5th of January 2020

You've done a fantastic job of cramming so much of London into 12 hours! London is a city that, no matter how many times I visit, I still find more to do!

If I'm visiting in summer I love a stroll down the Southbank from the London Eye to the Globe Theatre. It feel much more chilled on that side of the Thames and you can have a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle!

Hannah |


Sunday 5th of January 2020

Wow! You did so much in such a short time. I have never been to London before. I hope I get to visit but spend a few days there.


Sunday 5th of January 2020

A friend of mine is living in London right now so I might be heading there this spring! Thanks for this inspo, will definitely try to fit all these things in - but will probably take a slower pace since I'll be there a couple days :)

Nicola Lavin

Sunday 5th of January 2020

Wow I am so impressed by how much you fit it. I had only one day in London recently and I didn’t get to see half of the things that you did. Goes to show what you can achieve with planning.