5 Day Itinerary For London England: Have a Big Time in the Big Smoke
Updated: Feb 25
"You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." -- Samuel Johnson
I first met London as a student at the London School of Economics. Since then, no large city has so transfixed my psyche, and demanded repeat visits, save for Paris. Here's my step-by-step guide to a perfect 5 days in London, England's exciting cultural capital.
Dubbed the Big Smoke, London is one of the world's best and most visited cities. It's an appealing blend of antiquity and modernity. London has everything -- classic English culture, a multi-cultural population, an amazing foodie scene, landmarks galore, royal goodies, and a rich history.
London can seem overwhelming at first. But it's effectively subdivided into separate areas and little villages, to make visiting more manageable. 5 days gives you ample time to see the well known sites, plus some hidden gems, without feeling too stressed.
Best Things To Do in London in 5 Days
In this guide, I focus on London's must see destinations, cultural and historic attractions, and neighborhoods, not where to stay or eat. If I added that, this article would be book length.
I've grouped destinations together based partially on their geographic location. If you want to travel at a more relaxed pace, just customize what you want to see in London from the day by day options.
I've also offered some evening activities. Personally, after a hectic day, sometimes I just want to relax over cocktails and dinner. But, other times, I've really enjoyed nighttime tours, so I've included some options for each day.
Day 1: Classic London, Westminster
1. Parliament Square: Gothic Grandeur on the Thames
Let's begin. Head to Parliament Square. The square is flanked with 12 statues of famous historical figures (sadly, only one is a woman). I particularly love the one of Winston Churchill, the UK's most famous and beloved citizen.
From the square, you'll have views of Westminster's iconic UNESCO landmarks -- Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, and Westminster Abbey. Big Ben is currently covered in scaffolding until 2021, so that will thwart your photo attempts.
The Palace of Westminster is the home of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. You can step inside British history and tour parliament any day but Sunday. Your tour starts in the cavernous Westminster Hall, one of the few bits left after the 1834 fire, and passes through the lavish House of Lords.
There are various ticket options. Be sure to book online in advance. The best place to photograph the palace is from across the Westminster Bridge.
2. Westminster Abbey: UNESCO Wonder
Westminster Abbey is a venerable landmark, rich in history, that's an absolute must see site in London. You'll need a pre-booked timed entry ticket. Founded by Edward the Confessor, the abbey is a shrine of the British nation and a UNESCO-listed site. The official name of the abbey is the Collegiate Church of Westminster.
Constructed between 1245-1517, it's an architectural masterpiece. The complex has been an abbey, a cathedral, a coronation church, and a royal mausoleum. It's not quite as lofty as some of the French churches on which it was modeled. But the abbey still awes with its long nave, cloisters, choir, and sanctuary.
The most beautiful part of Westminster Abbey is the stunning Henry VII Chapel in the eastern end. After its debut, the chapel was grandiosely nicknamed a "wonder of the world."
It's the work of England's first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, who vanquished the York king, Richard III, in the Battle of Bosworth and seized control of England. The chapel features a truly spectacular ceiling. For more information, read my guide to the Henry VII Chapel.
3. Horse Guards Parade
While in Westminster, head over to the the Horse Guards Parade along Whitehall. It's a nice alternative to the vastly more crowded changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. The dashing men on horseback are the queen's bodyguards. Beyond the arches lies the Horse Guards Museum, a site for military buffs.
4. Churchill War Rooms & Museum
If you love history, in the afternoon, pay a visit the labyrinthian underground bunker that is the Churchill War Rooms. It was made famous by the movie The Darkest Hour. The museum is on the Clive steps of King Charles Street in Westminster. It's one of London's best museums.
The exhibits are immersive and expansive. I would recommend no less than 2 hours. You can hear excerpts of rousing Churchill speeches and first hand accounts of life during WWII. A highlight is a huge 15 meter touchscreen table that chronicles Churchill's life and the timeline of the war.
Here's my complete guide to the fascinating museum.
Day 1 Evening
No visit to London is complete without taking in a show in the West End, which gives Broadway a run for its money. This area is affectionately referred to as "Theatreland." There are 40 playhouses clustered around Leicester and Picadilly Squares.
Recently, I've seen The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Book of Mormon there. You can buy tickets online in advance or take your chances at TKTS ticket booth in Leicester Square, which sells daily discounted tickets.
Day 2: South Thames
The South Thames Walk is also known as the "Queen's Walk." It stretches from Westminster Bridge to the Tower Bridge. Depending on where you're staying (I've been in Mayfair my last visits), start with a stroll through St. James Park.
Or, cross Westminster Bridge to access Southbank and the Jubilee Walkway. Cruise right by the rampant buskers and magicians. They're just there to fleece you or as a distraction for pickpockets.
If you'd like to do the South Thames walk in reverse order and start at the Tower of London, take a Thames cruise to the tower. You can hop on a City Cruise tour from the Westminster Pier and disembark at the Tower Millennium Pier. Or, you can take the tube to the Tower Hill station.
1. Tate Modern, London's Modern Art Museum
After you've strolled by and ogled the Royal Festival Hall and National Theater, you'll hit one of my favorite spots in London, the Tate Modern. The museum is home to room after room of world famous modern and contemporary art. Plus, aside from special exhibitions, it's absolutely free.
Among other modern art masterpieces, you can clap your eyes on Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, Amadeo Modigliani's Peasant Boy, Pablo Picasso's Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, and Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone.
Don't miss the room with Mark Rotho's luminous Seagram Murals. In the 1960s, Rothko gave nine murals to the Tate Modern, which the director called "a princely gesture." Rothko insisted on a permanent, exclusive room for the murals. They're displayed as Rothko intended -- in a dimly lit space where the viewer can absorb their meditative character.
2. The Globe Theater: The Bard in the Round
Shakespeare's Globe Theater is an epicenter of English history associated with the bard. The theater is a half-timbered reconstruction of the old theater, destroyed by fire in 1613. Originally built in 1599, it was an Elizabethan style theater in the round, hence the term "globe." Its debut play was Shakespeare's Henry V.
There are guided tours of the Globe complex. You can tour the open air theater, the box office, and a Jacobean theater. Or book tickets to see the current show. Right now, you can see one of my favorite plays, about Shakespeare's charismatic villain Richard III (who really wasn't such a baddie).
3. Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral is a little Gothic gem that dates back to 606 A.D. It's London's oldest Gothic structure. The original site was destroyed by fire in 1212. The older Norman influences can be seen in the rear facade. The Gothic influences are on the front. Inside, there's an airy vaulted ceiling made of a sandstone colored brick.
If you're hungry and craving some lunch at this point, head to Borough Market. It's London's ultimate foodie site dating back to the 12th century. It's 2 minutes from Southwark Cathedral. There's not much seating, but you can get delicious food to go from over 100 food stalls. Here's a comprehensive blog on what to nibble at the hip spot.
4. The Shard: Skyscraper Shangri-La
Standing 95 stories and over 1000 feet, the Shard is the tallest skyscraper in the UK. Designed by Renzo Piano, it houses executive offices, restaurants, and a 5 star hotel, the Shangri-La. There's a killer view of the Shard from the Tower of London.
The Shard has an amazing Skydeck on the 72nd floor, which is included in the London Pass and accessed by elevator. It's the highest vantage point in London for spectacular panoramic views. For an extra fee, you can also buy a ticket to the Shard's virtual reality experiences.
5. Tower Bridge: It's Not London Bridge
The Tower Bridge is one of London's most defining landmarks. Built between 1886-94 during the reign of Queen Victoria, it was designed to mimic the architectural style of the Tower of London. You can walk across the bridge or purchase tickets to climb the two Victorian towers.
On a self-guided tour you'll learn about the history of Tower Bridge and the Victorian engineering feats that made it possible (which I have since blithely forgotten). Some of the walkways are glass. You can see the rush of London traffic beneath you and the cloudy water of the Thames.
Some people misidentify the "London Bridge" as Tower Bridge. It's not. Despite its name, the London Bridge is an unremarkable modern edifice. But the nomenclature confusion is so ingrained that, in 1967, American Robert McCullough bought the "London Bridge," dismantled it, and moved it to Arizona. It became known as "McCullough's Folly" because he unknowingly bought the wrong bridge.
6. The Tower of London: London's Iconic UNESCO Site
Once you've crossed the Tower Bridge, you arrive at London's premiere destination and a UNESCO-listed site: the Tower of London. If you're a history buff, this is a must see site and the place in London to go. The Tower is history.
It has served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, a mint, a military storehouse, a treasury, home to the Crown Jewels, an armory, a public records office, a royal observatory and a royal zoo. You'll be blissfully immersed in the various successions of the Edwards, the Richards, and the Henrys.
If you loathe queues, pre-purchase tickets online in advance. It saves you several pounds to use this method. The Tower is also free with the London Pass.
There's a 45 minute free Yeoman Warden tour, which begins hourly and which most people rave about. These ceremonial guards are great storytellers and bring a touch of drama and theatrics to the place. With booming voices and bawdy jokes, they'll gleefully regale you with delicious sinister bits about torture, beheadings, and executions.
Most visitors are besotted with the Crown Jewels. To me, they're beautiful in their extravagance, but somewhat boring. Be prepared to wait in a long queue, if you're not at the tower during off season.
Instead, I prefer immersing myself in the Tower of London's medieval architecture and history. The infamous Norman castle is almost a 1000 years old, after all -- with 21 towers, battlements, an armory, and a palace. Here's my comprehensive guide to the Tower of London.
If medievalizing has stoked your hunger or you missed Borough Market on the south bank, you can pay a visit to Leadenhall Market. The Victorian covered market is just 10 minutes or so from the tower. You may recognize it from the Harry Potter movies, where it appeared in Diagon Alley scenes and as the Leaky Cauldron Pub.
Day 2 Evening
If you loved the Tower, a good post-dinner option is to attend the Ceremony of the Keys. It's an ancient ritual where the yeoman wardens lock up the Tower of London for the night. It begins promptly at 9:30 pm. Like most other things in London, you'll need to purchase tickets in advance. Only 40-50 people are permitted on the grounds for the ceremony.
Day 3: North Thames Walk
1. Trafalgar Square & the National Gallery
Trafalgar Square is London's heart and its central square. It's towering Nelson's Column commemorates the British naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. It's surrounded by a central fountain and bronze lions. As befitting its central spot, streets spoke out to the major tourist areas -- Soho, Covent Garden, Parliament Square, and Buckingham Palce.
On the north side of the Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery. The museum is incredibly diverse, featuring 2,000 European paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries. The most famous painting is Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks. But Van Gogh's Sunflowers also draws hordes of admirers.
Close to Trafalgar Square you can also visit Benjamin Franklin's House at 36 Craven Street. It's a Georgian house-museum that opened in 2006. It's the sole surviving residence of founding father Franklin. He lived there 16 years from 1757-75, serving as an ambassador and negotiator.
2. Covent Garden: Apple Market & Beyond
Covent Garden has been a popular London neighborhood since the 17th century. It's a mix of tony restaurants and cocktail lounges, boutique souvenir stalls, and indie market halls. If it's your first time in London, you should definitely pay a visit.
And Covent Garden isn't limited to just its main draw -- Apple Market. It also extends to the adjacent streets of Neal's Yard, Seven Dials, and Central Square (where you'll find street performers). Neal's Yard is particularly attractive, filled with quaint shops and cafes.
Covent Garden is also where you'll find London's Royal Opera House. If you passed on a West End show, you can take in a ballet here. Or take a guided tour of the posh place.
3. British Museum: World Artifact Haven
Then, take a 10-15 minute detour north to the artsy Bloomsbury area, where you'll find one of the world's foremost museums, the British Museum. It's a universal museum and an unmissable site in London, holding many of the world's most important artifacts. On top of that, it's utterly free (with donations suggested).
The British Museum is famously home to the Elgin Marbles, artifacts acquired by conquest from the Parthenon. The man responsible for their divorce from Athens was Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador. In the midst of Ottoman upheaval, he procured a dodgy and ambiguous permit to excavate and export Parthenon frieze relics to England. Greece has repeatedly asked for their return, but to no avail.
Another highlight is the rekowned Rosetta Stone. This artifact helped historians translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. There are loads of other Egyptian, Assyrian, and international exhibits.
If you're a literary buff, you can also opt to head 10-15 minutes northeast to Charles Dickens House at 48 Doughty Street. Grab an audio guide and inspect five floors of the fully restored Georgian townhouse, where Dickens wrote some of his best novels.
4. Royal Courts of Justice
After you're done museum-ing, walk 15 minutes back to the Strand. There, you can admire the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street, which runs parallel to the Thames north bank. The building is an underrated destination in London, and it shouldn't be.
Designed by George Edmund Street, the courts have an ornate rippling facade of gothic towers. The Victorian era structure is beautiful, cathedral like, and imposing -- no lawyer could resist visiting it. The courts are open most days and guided tours leave at 11:00 and 2:00 pm. (no photos allowed). You should at least walk by to admire it properly.
5. St. Paul's Cathedral
Next up is the world famous St. Paul's Cathedral. The church has a colorful history. It's been looted, burned, and destroyed. It was rebuilt for good in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren, and survived Nazi bombing. It's been the site of royal funerals and weddings, including that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
The cathedral has the scale and classicism of St. Peters in Rome. The exterior features Wren's magnificent Renaissance dome, 225 feet high. The interior is beautiful as well, especially the high altar in marble and gilded wood. Climb to the mezzanine balcony, dubbed the "whispering gallery" where sound travels.
There’s an admission fee to enter the cathedral, which includes access to climb to the top. I highly recommend this, if you’re able to ascend the 528 steps. You'll have stunning views of London and can inspect the iconic dome at closer range.
Day 3 Evening
If you omitted any of the museums listed above from your daytime itinerary due to time constraints, keep in mind they have evening hours on Friday and/or Saturday. Evening is also a good time to explore Soho or do some shopping on Oxford Street before having a late dinner. If you're visiting in the winter, Oxford Street has spectacular illuminations.
Since your Day 3 itinerary ends at St. Paul's, another option is to cross over the Millennium Bridge and make your way to the London Eye. The view from the Eye is most beautiful in the late afternoon or early evening at sunset. As a bonus, the usually massive queues for the Eye subside later in the day.
You could combine your sunset whirl on the Eye with dinner at one of the restaurants at The Shard. Alternatively, head to the Sky Gardens on the 43rd floor of London's "walkie talkie" building on Fenchurch Street. It's billed as London's "highest public garden."
Day 4: West London
1. Buckingham Palace
Staying in Mayfair, I seemed to stroll by the Queen's official residence, Buckingham Palace, on a daily basis. There's always a crush of tourists. The Victoria statue and the wrought iron gates are quite lovely. But otherwise it's just an overrated celebrity culture pit stop. There are many more impressive palaces in the world.
The palace's 11:00 am changing of the guards is likewise a bit of a yawn -- an elaborate, precisely-timed game of tag -- in one door and out the other. Your time is generally better spent elsewhere. Snap a photo and move on.
If you're an ardent royalist, you can only tour the royal state rooms during a 10 week period in the summer. It's a 2 hour tour and you'll need to pre-book tickets.
2. Mayfair: Green Elegance & Upscale Shopping
Mayfair is a lovely slice of west London bordered by Oxford Street, Regent Street, Picadilly, and Park Lane. Mayfair is quiet, immaculate, and synonymous with luxury.
You can find scads of high end shopping on Bond Street and Mount Street. But what I love most is Mayfair's parks, squares, and gardens. The Mount Street Gardens are the loveliest. There's a long line of benches for you to plop down and people watch.