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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 12 hour layover in London.

Back on my big Europe trip, 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!

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 One Day in London

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 one day in London, no matter which airport you fly into, making 

From Heathrow Airport

Heathrow is the largest airport in London, and the closest to the city center. If you are arriving for your one day in London 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 for your 12 hours in London layover, there is a left luggage counter in Terminal 2. You can find more information about rates and hours here

You can get to Central London in only 15 minutes via the Heathrow Express, which drops you off at Paddington Station. The Heathrow Express leaves every 15 minutes from Terminals 2 and 3 – simply follow the signs for Trains to reach Heathrow Central station. There is an escalator and lift to take you to the station from Terminal 5, and there is a shuttle from Terminal 4.

One-way fares are £22.00 during off-peak hours, or £25.00 during peak hours (between 6:30-9:30am and 4pm-7pm). You can pre-book your tickets here

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 might end up taking just as long, or even less time than taking the Heathrow Express, so 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 £19.90, but you can save 10% (so it becomes £17.80) if you purchase your fare online here. If you travel after 9:50am on weekdays, or on weekends and bank holidays, you can also purchase a discounted off-peak ticket – this is only available in the stations. 

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 Stanstead 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 a breeze to get to Central London via the Stansted Express, which gets you to the 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 £17.00, but you can save up to 50% off this 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 to make your way to the spots on this one day in London itinerary.

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

Getting Around on Your One Day in London

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.

Otherwise, to get to the other points on this one day in London itinerary, we took the underground to get around. It is found it fairly straightforward and easy to use, making it a convenient way to get around while spending one day in London. Fares are calculated by zones, and start at £4.90 – this can add up quickly and get complicated, so I’d suggest getting a one-day Travelcard to make it simple.

The cost for a one-day Travelcard starts at £12.70, depending on how many zones you need to travel through. For the purpose of this one day in London 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 £18.70.

To save time (time is of the essence to make the most out of your 1 day in London), you can purchase your Travelcard in advance here.

There are also many bus lines that serve the city (and you get to ride in one of those double decker buses!).

Another convenient way to get around during your 1 day in London is to book a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. This is a great option for when you are trying to see London in one day, because it takes you to all the highlights of the city without any hassle or worrying about getting lost!

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. 

What to Do and See on Your One Day in London

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 spent our 12 hours 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.

Address: 110 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AY
Hours: Open 24 hours

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 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 on your one day in London!

Address: St Katharine’s & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB
Admission: £24.70, buy tickets here
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9am-4:30pm, Sunday-Monday 10am-4:30pm (last admission at 4pm)

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 one day in London – it’s such a beautiful, impressive structure!

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 on your 12 hours in London, 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 tub and make your way towards the rest of the points on this one day in London itinerary.

Address: Tower Bridge Rd, London SE1 2UP
Admission: £9.80, Buy tickets here
Hours: 9:30am-5pm (last admission), daily

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 one day in London.

Address: Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DN
Hours (for National Gallery): 10am-6pm, daily

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. A definite must see on your one day in London!

The Elizabeth Tower stands 95 meters (105 yards) high over the city and is arguably the most iconic structures 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.

In 2017, renovation work began on Big Ben and will continue for three years. Scaffolding was added, and the chimes were stopped temporarily. Tours of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower are not currently offered due to refurbishment of the structure, but will resume in 2021 (soon enough)!

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 since you only have one day in London, and book your tickets in advance here

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 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 one day in London was not spent on one of those days. To see if the changing of the guards is happening on the day you’ll be there, you can see the schedule here.

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 on my 12 hours in London, as you also get to stroll through the beautifully maintained Hyde Park, Green Park, and the Kensington Gardens.

Address: Buckingham Palace, Westminster, London SW1A 1AA
Admission: £25.00, book tickets here (select months only!!)

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.

Address: 20 Deans Yd, Westminster, London SW1P 3PA
Admission: £23, buy tickets here (and save £2)
Hours: varies – see here for up-to-date hours.

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 12 hours 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 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.

 

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29 Comments

  • 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 🙂

    Reply

  • 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!

    Reply

  • 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!

    Reply

  • 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" 😉

    Reply

  • Unta

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

    Reply

  • 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!

    Reply

  • 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!

    Reply

  • 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! 😀

    Reply

  • Lisanne

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

    Reply

  • 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!!

    Reply

  • 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.

    Reply

  • 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! 😀

    Reply

  • 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.

    Reply

  • Lauren

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

    Reply

  • 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!

    Reply

  • 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….

    Reply

  • 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

    Reply

  • Come Fly With B

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

    Reply

  • Aga

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

    Reply

  • Agness of a Tuk Tuk

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

    Reply

  • 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

    http://mylovelierdays.com

    Reply

  • Céline

    London’s one of my favorite cities in the world! Such a beautiful city. The Tower Bridge never gets old. Have you been up the Shard?

    Reply

  • Nicola Lavin

    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.

    Reply

  • Erin

    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 🙂

    Reply

  • Patti

    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.

    Reply

  • Hannah

    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 | https://getlost.blog/

    Reply

  • Kay

    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!

    Reply

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