London: the one day tour guide

This is my “tour guide” of how to see the best touristy things in London in only one busy day. As this is my opinion, the list is not all-inclusive but represents what I think are the most fantastic tourist things to do and see in London.

I would recommend this for those who do not generally like cities (but wants to see some British history and is forced to be in London for a day), are passing through London (with a one night stay-over) on their way to the rest of Europe, or for those who recently arrived in England and now live within a short train ride from London. This is a jam-packed full day trip, requiring the following: at least 12 hours, a positive attitude (that you’re trying to see an amazing city in only one day), and a great pair of walking shoes. And maybe a nice weatherproof layering jacket.

We usually buy an “open return” train ticket from Cambridge that includes using the London Underground during off-peak times for the entire day. Off-peak is before 6:30 a.m. and after 9:30 a.m. The open return part of the ticket allows for the user to return to their origin of destination any time after 7 p.m. on the same day.

Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Train Station
Generally speaking, El and I take an express train into Kings Cross Station when going to London. Therefore, this area is a fun stopping point for us. There is a cart to take pictures with (including a scarf representing your favorite house) and a store for all of your needed Harry Potter accessories, including wands, tasty treats, and clothing.
Time: 5 minutes, unless you really do want your picture taken with the cart that is “going into” the Platform area. There’s always a queue for that. I honestly believe that the British do enjoy a good queue.

Platform 9 3:4

Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station

The British Museum
This Museum contains global antiquities, including Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts. On occasion, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is supposedly on display. We keep stopping by to see if it is being displayed – not only is it our favorite piece of artwork, it is never on display in museums when we are there. We missed it in Paris by a few days.
The other reason why the British Museum has become our normal first stop is because our commuting underground tickets don’t work until off peak hours, and we are usually aiming to get into London before 9 a.m. for a day trip. Therefore, El and I think it is an easy way for us to spend at least a half hour before being able to use the Underground. And after riding the train for 45 minutes, we think it is nice to walk about a mile from the train station to the museum. Bonus is that you get the luxury to walk through Russell Square (a lovely park) and the University College London campus on your journey from the station. The British Museum also has a nice selection of teas in their cafe area.
Cost: Donation suggestion of £5
Time: I could spend most of a day inside the museum. We generally only spend 30 minutes or 1 hour in this one because it is part of our normal London routine.
Closest Underground Stations: Russell Square, Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, and Godge Street

Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery Museum
This is a public space in central London that is used for many ceremonies (New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Silence in the Square (Remembrance Day),  St. Patrick’s Day Parade goes around it, etc) in addition to a place for protests and a general meeting or gathering point. Because I particularly like people watching (sorry, I know it sounds a little creepy), Trafalgar Square is a place for me to sit, relax, and watch the world go by. I particularly like watching how people interact with each other and their reaction to street performers.
There are four plinths within the square, which are home to three statues: General Sir Charles James Napier, Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, and an equestrian statue of King George IV. The fourth plinth is used to showcase commissioned artworks. At the time of posting this (and unveiled at the beginning of March 2015), the current piece of artwork is Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, is a skeletal and riderless horse. Tied to one of the horse’s front leg is an electronic ribbon that displays a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. It is said to link money, power, and history together in one piece. You can see and read more about this display and past displays here.
Next to Trafalgar Square is The National Gallery Museum, which contains many fantastic pieces of artwork. The website boasts 30 highlighted paintings that are a must-see. I personally believe that the two most popular works housed in this museum are The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci and Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh.
Cost: Donation suggestion of £5
Time: I could also spend a lot of time inside this museum as well. I try to limit my time to only an hour in this museum too.
Closest Underground Station: Charing Cross

The fourth plinth was the Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch from July 2013 until February 2015.

The fourth plinth was the Hahn/Cock (blue rooster shown at the far left side of the picture) by Katharina Fritsch and was on display in Trafalgar Square from July 2013 until February 2015.

Horse Guards Parade at Whitehall
From Trafalgar Square, the Horse Guards Parade is a large parade ground less than a 10 minutes walk. Many people (crowds!) take pictures of the two guardsmen on horses outside of the area. If you time it correctly, you can watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
Time: Ceremony occurs at 11 a.m. daily, except Sundays at 10 a.m.
Closest Underground Station: Charing Cross

St. James’s Park
Behind the Horse Guards Parade is this wonderful park. In addition to the pelicans (given by a Russian ambassador over 350 years ago), there are wonderful fauna and flora here. I recently learned that the pelicans are fed fish at 2:30-3 p.m. on Duck Island within the park. The walk through the park leads up to Buckingham Palace. There is also a Princess Diana Memorial in the park.
Time: Under an hour
Closest Underground Stations: Westminster and Charing Cross

St. James Park Lake with the London Eye in the background. Photo taken by Gloria Borgstahl.

St. James Park Lake with the London Eye in the background. Photo taken by Gloria Borgstahl.

Buckingham Palace
At the other end of St. James’s Park is the residence of HRM Queen Elizabeth II. Four foot guards indicated that Queen is in residence, two guards indicates she is not. The changing of the guards also occurs here at 11:30 a.m. and lasts approximately 45 minutes. During the spring and summer, this occurs daily. In autumn and winter, this occurs every other day. When it is wet or cold, the guards wear grey coats instead of red. From late July until late September, you can tour parts of Buckingham Palace.
Cost: Free if you stay outside of the palace. If touring the palace, prices vary from £20 up to £75, depending on what you see and if you get a private tour.
Closest Underground Station: Victoria, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner

E&J Buckingham Palace 2013 2

The Palace of Westminster – also known as the Houses of Parliament
This palace is the home to the Elizabeth Tower and is widely known for its iconic bell inside: Big Ben! This palace and its tower are well known to people outside of London. The parliament debates and hearings are open to all visitors to attend. Permanent UK residents can book tours of the Elizabeth Tower to see Big Ben up close and personal.
Cost: Free – for the tour, you must contact your MP
Closest Underground Station: Westminster

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The iconic Big Ben

Westminster Abbey
This is the church for weddings and coronations of the United Kingdom’s Royal Family. It has a lot of history within it and is the burial site for over 3,000 people – from monarchs to scientists to poets. No pictures can be taken inside the Abbey, but you can purchase a tour booklet with pictures of the abbey for £2 as you enter. There are also free audio guides in many languages available. On Sundays, Christmas, and Easter the abbey is only open for worship.
Cost: £20
Time: Expect to spend 2 hours touring with the audio guide.
Closest Underground Station: Westminster

Westminster Abbey

The London Eye
This attraction comes with a small disclaimer: I must admit that I love Ferris wheels! There is something that attracts me to them, almost like a magnet. I drag El into every single Ferris wheel that I possibly can. I’ve always found them to be fun even though I am slightly terrified of heights. The London Eye happens to be a giant Ferris wheel, so I’m a little biased on the importance of seeing and experiencing a ride on it. This gigantic wheel is located on the South Bank of the River Thames. It is also known as the Millennium Wheel, but I’ve never heard it called that.
When it was built in 1999, the structure (443 ft; 135 m) and wheel (diameter of 394 ft, 120 m) made it the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Since then, the Star of Nanchang, the Singapore Flyer, and the High Roller (Las Vegas, Nevada; currently the tallest) have surpassed the height of the London Eye. Technically speaking though, the Eye is the tallest European Ferris wheel and “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel” meaning it is supported by an A-frame from only one side (the non-river side). Until 2013, the Eye was the highest public viewpoint in London; the Shard opened in its observation decks on the 68th, 69th, and 72nd stories with the 72nd story to be much higher than the Eye.
In the London Eye, are 32 capsules; each one representing one of London’s boroughs, which can hold up to 25 people. Inside each air-conditioned passenger capsule is seating and room to walk around. When El and I went in spring 2013, there were tablets in 4 areas that provide the names and descriptions of buildings and landmarks that riders can see from inside the capsule.
Cost: ~£21, but discounted tickets of £19 can be purchased online. Additionally, private bookings, fast track tickets (skip the queue), and tour guides are available.
Time: One revolution in this Ferris wheel requires roughly 30 minutes. The rate of rotation is slow enough that it is easy to walk on and off of the moving capsules. However, the Ferris wheel is stopped when elderly or disabled passengers are embarking or disembarking the capsules for safety purposes.
Closest Underground Station: Waterloo

Jenny London Eye 2013

The Tower of London
History at its finest. This Tower was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror as both a palace and defense system. With its unique history (22 executions, prisoners galore, and many exotic animals), quirky superstitions (7 ravens are kept in the Tower of London and are fed a steady, daily diet of 170 g of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits), fantastic jewelry display (the Crown Jewels are stored and displayed on site) and excellent on-site free tour guides (the Beefeaters), the Tower has so much to offer and is literally a piece of history that you can walk through. Throughout the year, there are different events (performances, talks, activities) that are available at the Tower. For example, if you are great at making plans 5-6 months in advance, you can have the opportunity to see exactly how the Beefeaters lock up the Tower at night with the Ceremony of the Keys!
Cost: £24.50, £23.10 if purchased online; £1 for the Ceremony of the Keys
Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill
Time: I believe the Tower can be an all-day tour. However, it can also be done in under 2 hours.

Poppies surrounding the Tower of London. Poppies were installed from August until November 2014. After Remembrance Day, the poppies were removed and mailed to those who had purchased them.

Poppies surrounding the Tower of London. Poppies were installed from August until November 2014. After Remembrance Day, the poppies were removed and mailed to those who had purchased them.

The Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge was built in the 1880’s and is a combination of a bascule bridge and a suspension bridge. Like many other attractions on my list, the Tower Bridge is an iconic symbol of London. It consists of two bridge towers with two horizontal walkways connecting them. They were designed to allow people to walk from one side of the Thames to the other, even when a bridge is drawn for tall ships to sail through. Under the Tower Bridge Act (Corporation of London Act), the city is required to raise the Bridge to provide access to and egress from the Upper Pool of London for registered vessels with a structure of 30 ft or larger. This service is free, only requires 24 hours’ notice, and can happen any time during the year. You can find out the next time the bridge will be raised hereClosest Underground Stations: Tower Hill, London Bridge, Bermondsey
Cost: free, £10.50 if you go to the top walkway of the bridge and get a tour
Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill

Tower Bridge