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12 Hours in London: What to Do + See on a London Layover

what to do on a london layover big ben

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

what to do on a london layover british red phone booth

Back on my big Europe trip earlier this year, I had 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.

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! Here is what you must do and see on a 12-hour layover in London:

what to do on a london layover westminster station street

Getting to City Center:
London is served by 3 major airports. The closest to city center in Heathrow, and it only takes 15 minutes to central London via the Heathrow Express, which drops you off at Paddington Station. You can also take the tube from Heathrow, but this takes almost an hour. Gatwick Airport is about 30 minutes from London city center, via the Gatwick Express.

We flew into London via Stansted. 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). However, you can easily get to city center via the Stansted Express, which gets you to Liverpool  Street in about 45 minutes. There is also an add-on for a day pass for the underground and buses, which I highly recommend purchasing.

Stansted also had a luggage storage service (open 24 hours) that allowed us to drop off our bags for the day so that we were not dragging them around the city all day. Both Heathrow and Gatwick have similar services as well.

For more information about transportation and saving money in London, check out Backpacking in London.

what to do on a london layover  saint pancras station

London is also connected to many European cities by train. If you arrive via Eurostar, you will arrive at St. Pancras, which is in the heart of London.

what to do on a london layover view from trafalgar square

Getting Around:
We found that many of the main sights in London are within walking distance of each other (specifically, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace).

Otherwise, we took the underground to get around, and found it fairly straightforward and easy to use. We bought an add-on with our Stansted Express ticket for a day pass, which also made this a cost-effective option (especially as we were able to purchase this before peak hour pricing kicked in).  There are also many bus lines that serve the city (and you get to ride in one of those double decker buses!).

You can also take Ubers around the city, or one of those iconic black cabs, although this is a fairly expensive way to get around the city.

1. Coffee + breakfast with a view at Duck & Waffle

what to do on a london layover duck and waffle coffee
what to do on a london layover view of central london

I will admit that we totally picked Duck & Waffle for its proximity to Liverpool Street, but we didn’t know what we were in for. Duck & Waffle sits on the 40th floor of the 110 Bishopgate building, which means that you get incredible views of Central London and beyond.

Unfortunately, my layover in London also happened to be 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.

2. Tower of London 

what to do on a london layover tower of london
what to do on a london layover tower of london
what to do on a london layover tower of london

Just over a mile away and easily walkable from Liverpool Street is the famous Tower of London, which sits on River Thames, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in 1066, the Tower of London is a fortress, armory, and royal palace that protected London from the 11th to 16th centuries. It also housed a collection of wild and exotic animals, making it London’s first zoo, and also houses the Crown Jewels, which are still on display today.

3. Tower Bridge

what to do on a london layover tower bridge
what to do on a london layover tower bridge

Just next to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge. Often mistaken for the London Bridge, it is one most iconic landmarks in London, and is one of the most famous bridges in the world. This was one of my favorite stops on my layover in London. You can admire it from the river walk, or you can sign up for a guided tour, which will take you up on the walkways, which also has a glass floor. From here, you can enjoy panoramic view of London.

4. Trafalgar Square

what to do on a london layover trafalgar square view of big ben
what to do on a london layover trafalgar square
what to do on a london layover trafalgar square fountain

Tourist trap? Yeah, probably. But you can’t help but admire this historic square, as well as admire that view of Big Ben from here. Trafalgar Square is also surrounded by a number of museums, galleries, and cultural spaces. One great thing about London is that many of the museums are free, and the National Gallery is right outside of Trafalgar Square. 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 on a short layover in London.

5. Walk the Westminster Bridge and admire Big Ben

what to do on a london layover big ben and westminster bridge

what to do on a london layover 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.

what to do on a london layover big ben close up
what to do on a london layover big ben

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. A must see on your layover in London. Tours of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower are not currently offered due to refurbishment of the structure, and will resume in 2021.

6. Buckingham Palace

what to do on a london layover buckingham palace
what to do on a london layover buckingham palace guards

I came to Buckingham Palace hoping to see a glimpse of Will and Kate, but they weren’t home…just kidding! It would be best to go to Buckingham Palace on a day when the Changing of the Guard occurs; this only happens on certain days unless you are there in the summer, and unfortunately, I was not there on one of those days (you can see the schedule here). I still found it worth stopping by on my layover in London, as you also get to stroll through Kensington Park, which is beautiful.

7. Westminster Abbey

what to do on a london layover westminster abbey
what to do on a london layover 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 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. Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin as also buried on the grounds here. Keep in mind that since it is a church, it is closed on Sundays and all religious holidays.

8. Have afternoon tea

what to do on a london layover afternoon tea at the wolesly

Pinkies up…is there anything more British than going to 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 layover in London. 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 the 2 days in London itinerary.

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

what to do on a london layover
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  • Sheree

    I am truly impressed that you managed to cram so much in to just 12 hours! I visited London about a decade ago, and I'm pretty sure I took twelve days to do it all 😉 I loved the hot tips about luggage storage and day passes for the underground, so thank you for those – the public transport in London is so great, it's definitely the best way to get around there! (Of course, one can't help but splurge on a black cab at least once, they're iconic!) Thank you so much for sharing 🙂


  • Kristine

    Wait what, you did so much in 12 hours? Wow! I was there many years ago and certainly didn't do much more than view Big Ben, view London Eye, view Trafalgar Square and just walking around lol! You certainly made good use of your time, good inspiration here!


  • Omnivagant

    Oh I remember back in 2013 I had 8 hours in London and we just tried to see as much as we could!! Such a beautiful city, would love to go back!


  • Nicola

    I love the tones of your photos! I've been to London several times but always for business in my previous jobs. I never had the chance to walk through the city, see some sights and take photos. What a shame! Ok, London goes on "the list" 😉


  • Unta

    You actually managed to see a lot in such a short time! 🙂 Good job.


  • Brooke

    Sigh, I haven't been to London yet but at least now you've shown me that planning a layover here is worthwhile. Thanks for sharing!


  • Sherri

    What a great way to spend a layover in London! You saw so many fantastic places, I love it! I hope to be there in a few months and am bookmarking your post so I don't miss anything!


  • Deea

    Wow! How did you manage to do all this so quickly?! I'm not really a fan of cramming a lot of stuff in a short while when visiting a new place, but I have to agree with you that when occasion arises, better take advantage of it! 😀


  • Lisanne

    Love this post and the photos! You've really used your time there wisely!!


  • Girl with the Passport

    What a lovely guide!! I agree, 12 hours isn’t enough but you got most of the mjor stuff in. I lived afternoon tea and the tower of london because I am a total history nerd. But i also kind of went giddy when I was in Westminsiter Abby and saw where Elizabeth was buried. Can’t wait to go back!!


  • Erin

    I lived in London for many years… the Wolesely was my favourite place to have afternoon tea. They do a great breakfast as well.


  • Faith Roswell

    Wow, this is the perfect guide for must-have London experiences, and I love your photos! I'm glad you managed to see so much of my city and am so impressed you crammed all that into so short a time. If you come back, let me know and I'll show you some of my favourite places! 😀


  • Sierra

    I'm SO excited to get back to London this February, and your post just made me even more excited! So many of my faves on this list. You and I have similar priorities, haha. My fave tea spot is Fortnum & Mason, by far. I've been twice and it's life-changing (and also makes you a little broke). But totally, 100% worth it. It's incredible.


  • Lauren

    You managed to see so many great sights in London! Tower Bridge is one of my favourites too!


  • Meg

    Excellent post, I know several people who have been in the 'long layover in London' situation. The biggest catch is getting past the fear of hopping on the bus and setting out see the city. I love that you give bus details! Your photos brought back wonderful memories of taking my daughters to London, and just maybe I'll have to arrange to have a long layover in the near future!


  • Victoria Alicia

    You did so much in 12 hours! I am always afraid of missing flights so I don't think I could do exactly what you did. But I would love to check this out sloooowly….


  • Anna

    I used to live in London about 10 years ago. Miss it constantly. So many things to see. And yes, I agree. The free museums are one of the best things. And the best of the best is Tate Gallery <3


  • Come Fly With B

    You definitely made the most out of your transit! It's nice to see London from a tourists perspective!


  • Aga

    Great post! I didn't know about this Waffle place, got to check it out when I'm next in London 🙂


  • Agness of a Tuk Tuk

    London is simply astonishing and it has lots to offer. Did you find it expensive?


  • Diana Maria

    London is so gorgeous, I've been there 3 or 4 times and that still doesn't feel like enough! All of your photos are beautiful, I think Buckingham Palace will always be one of my favorite spots xx


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