Not only a Royal residence, London is a city where old meets new. Gawk at the crown jewels at the Tower of London, enter countless free museums and grab a pint at the local pub along the Thames.
Back in March, my Mom & I took a short trip to London after finding some great deals on flights with Norwegian. We had just 5 days to see as much as we could, and we certainly made the most of it! Unfortunately for us, we went to London the one week it decided to snow there. Coming from Boston, we were expecting it to be cold but we weren’t prepared for the freak storm that rolled through the British Isles. Luckily, a little snow couldn’t slow us down. Here are a few things you shouldn’t miss while in London town.
Big Ben & London Eye
One of the first things we did once settled in London was hop on the tube to see Big Ben! I had read online that the clock tower was under construction, so sadly the view was not what I remembered from my last trip there. Nonetheless, we crossed Westminster bridge and were throughly impressed by the London Eye. Due to our mutual fear of heights, we didn’t ride it, but you can buy tickets online ahead of time here.
While in the area of the London Eye & Big Ben, I recommend walking around Westminster Abbey (and if time permits, going inside!) Although we didn’t have any definite plans to go in the abbey, our last morning in London before our flight home we had some time and decided to visit. Westminster Abbey was famously the home of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and Prince William & Kate’s wedding. It is also the burial grounds for many royals, including Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. There are a few non-royals buried there as well, including Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Isaac Newton.
This is probably one of the most famous symbols of this city, thanks to the 2012 summer olympics. Many people confuse this landmark for London Bridge, however that is one bridge down from this one and far less impressive. You can visit the upper part of London bridge and walk above the traffic! (Again, our fear of heights & long list of things to do prevented us from doing this). You can purchase tickets online here.
Tower of London
Speaking of Tower Bridge, while you’re in the area you should visit the Tower of London. I recommend purchasing your tickets ahead of time online, since the line can be quite long in the peak season. Check out this link for more ticket information.
We didn’t really know what to expect but if you arrive around the half hour, you can catch a tour with a real Beefeater (aka Yeomen Warders, part of Her Majesty’s guards). If you’re familiar with the famous gin, it’s named after them!
We learned quite a bit of royal history with our Warder. The tour is about 30 minutes and doesn’t involve too much walking. After this, we spent quite a bit of time exploring the different rooms and parts of the castle. Our favorite part by far was the room with the Crown Jewels! There is a 500 carat diamond on one of the staffs held by Queen Elizabeth II during her coronation. (Yes, you read that correct–500 carat).
Another interesting fact about the Tower of London are the pet ravens that wander the grounds. There is an old legend that when the last raven leaves the Tower, the Kingdom will fall. You can even see the bird cages where some choose to hang out–they each have a different name and colored bracelet. For most of the day, you can find them wandering the grounds!
There are so many free museums in London, it’s a dream! We visited two during our time there but the possibilities are endless. On our first day, we visited the Tate Modern Art Museum. Although this was one of the stranger museums I had been too, we were able to see some of Andy Warhol’s famous pieces, which I really enjoyed.
There is also a great view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the top, so I recommend going all the way up! There is a small snack bar there as well, if you want to spend some time admiring the view.
The second museum we visited was the British Museum. We saw a lot of interesting pieces from all different time periods but our favorite was the Rosetta Stone! It’s incredible to me that this stone was the key to unlocking the mysterious ancient Egyptian language of Hieroglyphics.
There are also some ruins from Ancient Greece, Mummy’s from Egypt and an Easter Island statue! You could easily spend hours in this museum, and for us, it was a great escape from the cold!
Although you can’t actually visit Buckingham Palace (except for select dates throughout the year), it is certainly a must-see while in London. Sadly for us, since our flight arrived late, we missed the only time that worked for us to see the changing of the guards. (It happens every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00am. I recommend arriving early to get a good spot since the area usually gets crowded). The day we went to see Buckingham Palace it was a full-blown storm! We sort of had the whole area to ourselves since we were the only ones brave (crazy?) enough to make the trek!
Although you can’t visit Buckingham Palace, you can tour Kensington Palace! Similar to everything I’ve mentioned, you’ll want to purchase your tickets ahead of time for your visit. (Check out the link here). Kensington Palace is officially the royal residence of Prince William & Kate, as well as Prince Harry & Meghan. There are a few rooms to visit but our favorite part was the exhibit they had on Princess Diana’s fashion story. You could view about 20 of her most famous outfits and read about how her style developed throughout her life.
Sticking with the Royal theme, only 30 minutes outside of London by train, you can visit Windsor castle. This is where the Queen & other members of the Royal family will spend some weekends and holidays. During my winter trip with my Mom, we didn’t have time to make it to Windsor, but luckily I made it there during a work trip in 2019. I’ve wrote a separate post about my day in Windsor with more information about tickets here: Windsor Castle.
Technically Stonehenge is not in London, but it does make the perfect day trip. About 2 hours from the city center by train you can find this mysterious prehistoric sight. Check out our previous post for information on how to visit Stonehenge.
Harry Potter Studio Tour
One of our entire days in London was spent visiting the Warner Brother Studio outside the city. Since my Mom and I both read the Harry Potter books and loved the movies, this was a dream come true. Stay tuned for a separate blog post about our day spent here!
One of my colleagues had recommended Skygarden so we made our way to the top of this skyscraper! You have to reserve a visiting time slot online before going, which you can do here. It’s very competitive to get times during sunset, so keep that in mind and plan months in advance if you wish to go then! It’s free to make the reservation and to ride the elevator to the top. There are some bars and restaurants there too, but we mostly went to enjoy the views. There are 360 windows around the top of the skyscraper (and in the warmer weather a balcony you can go out on). It only takes about 30 minutes to visit if you aren’t getting food or a drink, but it’s worth the views!
One of my favorite parts of our entire trip to London was when we went for afternoon tea at the Ham Yard Hotel. In case you haven’t heard of this, afternoon tea is an English tradition where you enjoy some tea and small sandwiches, scones & deserts to hold you over until your evening meal. This traditionally happens mid to late afternoon. In all honesty, we made tea our lunch & left feeling completely full!
The average price of afternoon tea can range from 18-30 pounds per person, depending on the location (and if you include alcohol). We found the Ham Yard hotel to be very reasonable and served an amazing afternoon tea experience! We stayed there for a little under 3 hours, it was so warm and beautiful inside. You can make reservations online here.
Eat Fish & Chips
Although this is sort of a broad “must-do” while in London, it should definitely be on your list. This is one of the most traditional dishes of the city! A place that I went while studying abroad, and also took my Mom back to was called Poppies. It won a few awards in the past years for best fish & chips in the city! The environment is very casual and pub-like, and some nights they even have live music. It can get busy on the weekends, so I recommend making a reservation.
St. Paul’s Cathedral & Millennium Bridge
We didn’t have the time to visit the inside of St. Paul’s Cathedral, however we did walk around the area. (You can also purchase tickets in advance to visit the inside here). This is where Prince Charles & Princess Diana were married.
Across from St. Paul’s, there is Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian walkway across the Thames River. Due to the wind, we didn’t make it across Millennium bridge, but we did get some nice photos.
Use the Tube
I recommend purchasing an Oyster card for your trip, it’s definitely worth it for pubic transportation! It’s almost inevitable that you’ll find yourself on the underground since taxis are quite expensive and it’s one of the fastest ways to get around such a big and bustling city.
You can load the card with a certain amount of money (for example $30 to start) and the card maxes out each day after you spend about 8 pounds (depends on which zones you use). I did a lot of research on tube passes and this is one of the best values! You can read more about the benefits of this pass here. (You’re average single-fair tube pass is almost 3 pounds!)
Despite the snow, we had an amazing time in London! The second we left, I was already thinking about my next trip back. With such inexpensive flights available from the East Coast and so much to do in the city, London is one of those places you can return to again and again. I always say London is a place where new and old collide spectacularly to gice you the perfect mix of history and modern city life. Special shoutout to my amazing Mom, who trudged through snow, ice & cold to do all the things on my crazy itinerary!