How long to visit on first London holiday? What to see there, or elsewhere in the region?
March 14, 2012 10:55 AM   Subscribe

What should we do with our week in London/UK?

I have a work trip to London coming up the second week of September. As this will be my first visit to the UK, I am planning to extend my stay and have my girlfriend accompany me on a short holiday. We are planning the personal trip to be around 6-7 nights.

We aren't sure how to divide up our trip, as we would like to possibly visit other nearby destinations for a few days. We were considering other spots in the UK, or Bruges, for example. If you were visiting London for the first time, how many days would you dedicate to seeing the sights? I have heard some friends rave about London and say that it is wonderful. Other folks complain that it lacks the charm of other European travel destinations, being more workaday business oriented. If you were us planning our first trip, and fully expecting to visit again in the future if we like it, what would be your suggestions to us? Any must-do things on your itinerary?

(If it helps, we are both ~40 years old, with professional careers, so we have a decent travel budget to work with. Also, we like to see the sights, eat in nice places, and take in the scenery. No special dietary or mobility issues. Thanks.)
posted by bmosher to Travel & Transportation around London, England (33 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Other folks complain that it lacks the charm of other European travel destinations, being more workaday business oriented.

London's not Toytown, if that's what they mean. There are lots of previouslies on this, but Rick Steves' one-week itinerary is decently focused on tourist sites (and not tourist traps) for first-time visitors. The furthest afield I'd go is up to Hampton Court or Windsor, or perhaps a day trip on the train to one of Oxford or Cambridge -- or, at an even further stretch, Bath or Brighton.

Personally, I'd spend a day of Whistlestop Touristing for orientation, perhaps with the aid of a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. Then it's up to you to choose where to spend more time. London gives up more of itself the more you're prepared to wander and veer off the well-worn path, and you're more likely to come away with a negative impression if you don't give yourself enough time to do that.

Worth noting: the Paralympics end on September 9th -- and it's hard to predict whether the London will be nursing a collective post-Olympic hangover or snapping back to normal city life.
posted by holgate at 11:13 AM on March 14, 2012

Spent a week there in 2007 and here are a few things I really enjoyed: First got an Oyster Card so I could hop the buses and tube to where ever I wanted. Did Tower of London, Westminister Abby, Victoria and Albert, Churchill Museum and war bunkers, Imperial War Museum, and the National Art Museum. For me one of my favs was high tea at the National Art Museum. Mmmmmmm, clotted cream....... Also did the London Ghost Walk one evening. Oh, and Borough Market and the cheeses, mmmmm........
posted by PJMoore at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2012

I spent a summer in Oxford a few years ago, and I was VERY limited by time (only got into London for the weekends) and $$ (I am poor), so YMMV, but some of my favourite things in London, in no particular order, were:
- the Tate Modern. Just go. Twice.
- the British Library. Le sigh.
- the Sherlock Holmes museum. So kitschy, so awful, so worth it (if you're a Holmes fan)
- signing the wall at Abbey Road (and reconstructing your own crosswalk photo with random people you find on the street. Cliche, but a must-do)
- Camden market
- St. Paul's (for the too-awesome-for-words grave of John Donne, if nothing else)
- seeing R&J (but any play will do) at the Globe. Definitely get groundling tickets. Seats are for squares.
- book browsing in Cecil Court
- take the bus to Oxford for a day and wander around the colleges, and go for a pint at the Turf Tavern pub. Gorgeous.
- Hampton Court was fun/odd. Keep an eye out for Henry VIII wandering about...
- Windsor castle was a massive bore, and I love old boring shit. Avoid.
- a trip to Stratford-on-Avon might be worth it if you have an extra day. Lots of nerdy fun to be had there...

My tastes obviously skew towards the literary (and the cheap), so might not be up your alley (and I definitely can't help you out in the "eat in nice places" category), and I try to avoid the Big Tourist Things (didn't do Buckingham Palace, or the Eye, or much of Picadilly Circus, etc.)....but those are the things that I loved. I'm sure I'm missing many of the "highlights".
Enjoy your trip!
posted by Dorinda at 11:32 AM on March 14, 2012

I have heard some friends rave about London and say that it is wonderful. Other folks complain that it lacks the charm of other European travel destinations, being more workaday business oriented.


Dude, here is my week in London (never long enough!):

1. British Museum
2. Science Museum/Natural History Museum
3. V&A Museum
4. Tate Modern/wandering cheerfully along the Thames
5. National Portrait Gallery/Tate Britain (oooh Pre-Raphaelites exhibition!)
6. Chinatown, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Soho, all those areas
7. Oxford Street, Selfridges, Harrods, up and down all that

And that doesn't even get into how I still haven't managed to get to the Museum of Childhood. Or how awesome the London Zoo is, or the utterly delightful and ridiculous Sherlock Holmes Museum, the beauty of the Brunswick Centre and their world food stalls on Saturdays, just riding around the Tube and checking out the stations, or...or...

Yes. There are plenty of things to do in London. Have a wonderful time.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:34 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's hard to say without knowing what you're interested in.

London has great museums and art galleries if you're into them, one of the best theatre scenes in the world, a pretty good music scene. London is not scenic or picturesque, and has a pretty frenetic, busy atmosphere. It has a huge diversity of great restaurants, but the good ones are expensive by US standards.

Bruges is very picturesque, but doesn't have a lot going on, a few hours there and you've got most of the benefit. If you just want somewhere quieter and prettier than London; Bath or Cambridge or York are probably better bets as they're much closer to get to. Unless you're particularly interested in it for some reason, I can't see Bruges being worth the travel time.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:37 AM on March 14, 2012

I just returned from a first trip to London that was very similarly scheduled, though not for work. I arrived Sat morning on a red-eye, stayed a week, and departed about a week later on Sunday evening. I also took a two-day side trip to Paris and to Belgium to visit friends and family, so my total touring time in London was about 5 days, not counting the arrival/departure days since I spent most of that in transit.

London was amazing, amazing, amazing and if I had had any more time I would have absolutely stayed in town more. While I don't regret my side trip, that's because I was going to visit friends and family; if I hadn't been, I probably wouldn't have gone so far and might have substituted a daytrip to somewhere closer like Cambridge or Windsor instead.

Especially if you like wandering around neighborhoods and walking a lot, London can absolutely fill up a week's time. My last day there, I meandered St Pancras - Angel - Shoreditch High St - Bethnal Green - City of London - Southwark - Westminster all on foot and it was by far my favorite experience there. It's an eminently walkable city, though not on any sort of grid so I'd bring some sort of map, and is particularly enjoyable this way.

More specifically, some of the many things I enjoyed:
- Borough Market: it's trendy, but well worth a visit to sample foodstuffs, people-watch and enjoy scallops and mulled wine and game sandwiches and drunk cheeses all in one "meal." Ahhh, delicious.
- Walking across Millennium Bridge between St Paul's and the Tate Modern, particularly at night. There are very few pedestrian bridges like this in the US.
- Eating at the Regency Cafe in Westminster. Good, classic English fry-ups, with a woman whose voice alternates between a cordial softness and an inconceivably loud bellow. I like sampling local foods so this was definitely a highlight for me.
- the Museum of London, which I did not get enough time in but filled in a lot of the context of what I was seeing all around me
- If you're averse to bus tours, I thought London Walks ran some very good tours. I did their "The London Tour," which hit up Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Mall, Birdcage Walk, St James's Park, etc. in just over two hours' time with a knowledgeable guide.

But really, though, I think the "must-do" sites will depend a lot on your interests. I asked a specific question tailored to mine and found that very valuable. I think perhaps the best way to spend a first trip in London is to simultaneously tailor your itinerary to your particular interests and set aside some time just to wander around off the beaten track and get the sense of the city.

I group London as now one of my favorite cities in the world, aside from Los Angeles (which I like for very different reasons) and I would absolutely spend another week, or another month, there in a heartbeat. I'm jealous -- enjoy!
posted by andrewesque at 11:48 AM on March 14, 2012

If you have any interest in plants, gardening, botany, landscaping or anything like that, you won't regret an afternoon in Kew Gardens.
posted by zadcat at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2012

Go on the London Eye, buy "Time Out" and see what's on, avoid all US imports (McDs, Star$) there are plenty of local equivalents which are better in every way, visit Covent Garden. Get used to walking about, central tube stops are really close together if you do it on foot. Seconding a day in Cambridge, stay for the choral service at King's College chapel if possible.
posted by epo at 11:54 AM on March 14, 2012

You can probably find enough to fill a week in and around London. Maybe a day-trip to Bath or Stonehenge or something (there are tour companies that will take care of all that for you), but for the rest of it, just wing it and play it by ear. In addition to all the museums listed above, there's a host of walking tours you can take if the weather is amenable.

Make sure to plan a pub night and consider picking up some cheap matinee tickets to a West End show (we saw Lord of the Rings on a whim a few years back and still snicker about it).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:55 AM on March 14, 2012

I was just going to mention the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, but zatcat beat me to it. I think the Missouri Botanical Gardens ("Kew on the Mississippi") and the Jardin Botanique in Montreal are equal if not better, but Kew is impressive, much more so than the Jardin des Plantes in Paris or the botanical garden in Berlin.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:56 AM on March 14, 2012

If you are a book fiend, please make a trip to Charing Cross Road!
posted by New England Cultist at 12:11 PM on March 14, 2012

I've been living in London for 5 months. My parents are coming in May for their first visit to the UK. I am going to take them up to Edinburgh for a couple of days because London for all its wonders indeed does not quite have that fairy tale charm, and it is big and busy and loud. One can get tired of museums and culture and crave a quiet stroll with castles and cobblestones, especially if one is from North America where such things are scarce.

My mom keeps talking about The Cotswalds. Apparently they are a bunch of charming and quaint towns that North Americans like to visit. I don't think they will make the final itinerary though. Edinburgh is only a four hours train ride which is not that bad really -- traveling by train is pretty easy in the UK -- worth considering. I've heard it's amazing. I'll pop back in two months and let you know how it went.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:37 PM on March 14, 2012

PercussivePaul (and the OP): You should consider Bath too. Its an hour and a half train from Paddington. It has all the charm factors. Also, it is part of the Cotswolds.
posted by vacapinta at 12:54 PM on March 14, 2012

There are astonishingly beautiful and picturesque parts of London - they just don't tend to be in the touristy bits. I've answered a similar question before, so I'll just link to my response there. Enjoy your visit!
posted by freya_lamb at 1:23 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oops, the response I meant to link to was here.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:26 PM on March 14, 2012

Abbey Road.
posted by just sayin at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

London is not scenic or picturesque

Some of London is very beautiful. It lacks the cohesiveness of say Paris, but it's untrue to say that parts of it such as the Nash Terraces around Regent's Park, the Mall, Pall Mall or the Houses of Parliament aren't picturesque. It is also working city - and there are some unattractive bits.

Anyway, I'd stroll down the Southbank, check out the obvious tourist attractions, take a trip on the London eye, visit the Tates and take a boat down the Thames (just take one of the ordinary commuter clippers). I'd eat at St John, Tayabbs in the east for curry, and go for beer at a pub like the Jerusalem Tavern or the Yorkshire Grey in Clerkenwell. I'd also look at the inside of St Pancras Station, because it's really cool. And I'd climb the Monument which is my favourite second string tourist attraction. Really, there is tons of interesting stuff.
posted by rhymer at 3:11 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to London for a week on a whim a fews years back. I had no interest in London but wanted a vacation and tagged along with someone else who was going. I loved it. I was so surprised at how much I loved it.

I didn’t have enough time for anything, but enjoyed;

Tate Britain
British Library
Westminster Abbey (spent a while there, but loved it)
Jermyn St. (If you’re into that)
Harrods (go to the food section)
The freakin amazing tube which goes everywhere.
Those double decker tour busses that you can get on and off look like a terrible touristy thing to do, but are actually a great way to start, get an overview of the city.

I was with others who were way more into hitting every tourist spot, and the things I regret spending so much time on;

Tower of London. (It’s interesting, but not hours and hours interesting.)
London Eye. (It’s a big, slow, expensive, ferris wheel with a long wait.)

When I went it was ridiculously expensive. It was like I was bleeding money.
posted by bongo_x at 4:22 PM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Thank you, all. What a terrific collection of answers. I love the hive mind. It seems as though a week is just going to scratch the surface. We're very excited for our trip!!

Time to bust out my Anglo history books and do my homework before I go. I can't wait to see all the amazing museums. I didn't even know there was a Churchill museum. I remember how much I enjoyed my visit to Roosevelt's Hyde Park house in the Hudson Valley, and some of my favorite bits were the wartime Churchill items. Sounds awesome.

Thanks again, everyone. If there are more suggestions, please feel free to keep them coming. Cheers.
posted by bmosher at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2012

We spent some time in London when our kids were 17,14, 11, and 8. All of us agreed we found the "essence" of London by traveling everywhere on the tube, and taking the train to places like Cardiff in Wales. We found Londoners to be unfailingly cheerful and chatty.
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:50 PM on March 14, 2012

Westminster Abbey is amazing.
A friend of mine and I took one of the double decker bus tours which included a boat cruise on the Thames. Very touristy, but I loved it and thought it was a good introduction to the city.
Loved the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert.
We took the Tube everywhere. If possible, take it from the airport to your hotel. Saves all kinds of money!
posted by SisterHavana at 10:17 PM on March 14, 2012

All great advice here. I would do the week in London, and not try to dilute it with travel to the continent (save that for your next trip, because believe me, your appetite will be whetted for more european travel).

Mix in 1-2 day trips to Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, or Canterbury so that you can see a bit of Britain that is not London. Greenwich is a nice day out, and while it's hardly out of London and just a short train/lightrail ride, it feels like getting outside the city. The observatory, naval college and museum are a full afternoon, and you can wander over to the Cutty Sark tavern for a wonderful view of the Thames.
posted by amusebuche at 10:19 PM on March 14, 2012

I have heard some friends rave about London and say that it is wonderful. Other folks complain that it lacks the charm of other European travel destinations, being more workaday business oriented.

I wonder if that's because the history of the place makes visitors from the US think it's all old buildings and historical sights, and it's not - it can be as grimy and ugly and grumpy as any other city on the planet. Which isn't a bad thing - when I went to Paris I really enjoyed looking at the places where normal people lived, trying to work out what graffiti said and going to the supermarket, but that might make me a bit odd. You can get a good mix of things here to see and do. Time Out has a book called '1000 things to do in London' which is written for Londoners and might be useful if you want to deviate from the tourist path.

My mum came to visit me a couple of years ago here and I took her to The Wolseley for afternoon tea - just as nice as The Ritz and half the price (she would have killed me if she knew I'd spent £40 a head.) It's walking distance from The National Gallery and National Portrait gallery (excellent place for postcards and prints) so might be a nice thing to do one day. Fortnum and Mason's department store (for very very very expensive food) is on the way, and my mum and I treated it as shopping theatre, looking round without buying (she was astounded by the prices). I think there's also a small craft market in a churchyard on the same road.
posted by mippy at 4:20 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, should have italicised that first sentence there!)
posted by mippy at 4:21 AM on March 15, 2012

This doesn't quite answer the "one week" aspect of your question, but my favourite things to do/see in London are:

Camden Lock/Market(free)
Tate Modern (free except for certain exhibitions)
V&A Museum (free)
Natural History Museum (free)
Science Museum (free)
Go to a play/concert/musical - West End, Royal Albert Hall, St John's Smith Square, Royal Festival Hall etc
Visit one of the big books shops like Foyles (Charing Cross Road) (free)
Hyde Park (free)
Kew Gardens
Richmond Park (free)
St Paul's Cathedral

I find London pretty tiring so I would try and have a couple of relaxing days, going to parks and such, as you might end up rushing round trying to see everything and become a bit overwhelmed!

I'd advise mixing travelling by tube with walking around - you see a lot more and realise it's not worth taking the tube for shorter journeys

For day trips to other British cities I would suggest Bristol, Bath, Oxford or Cambridge. I don't think I would try and go anywhere outside of the UK as well. Memail me if you want advice about things to do in Bristol.
posted by lizabeth at 4:28 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless someone has their heart set on it, or you can't think of anything else to do for half a day, don't bother with Stonehenge. If you do end up going, take the earliest bus you can. You can nap on the way there and have the rest of the day to do something more interesting than stare at giant rocks in a field.

I know, I know, amazing prehistoric engineering and astronomical feat, but still: Giant rocks in a field in the middle of nowhere.
posted by clorox at 5:45 AM on March 15, 2012

Most people report Stonehenge to be a dissapointment. But I was enchanted by Avebury.
posted by vacapinta at 6:14 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also walking distance from the Avebury stones is the bizarre Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow, a neolithic tomb you can walk into. Really an amazing landscape.
posted by vacapinta at 6:24 AM on March 15, 2012

Not yet mentioned, but well worth it, and a better day out than another museum. Get the tube north to Highgate or Hampstead, then check out Highgate cemetery and Hampstead heath.
posted by greytape at 8:45 AM on March 15, 2012

(And if you still want to see museums in Hampstead, there's Freud's house -- and couch! -- and Kenwood, and some fantastic pubs, like the Holly Bush or The Spaniards.)
posted by holgate at 1:57 PM on March 15, 2012

Response by poster: I want to mark all these as faves. You're all too kind. Thank you for the excellent suggestions. I wish it September were here already. I can't wait.
posted by bmosher at 9:22 PM on March 15, 2012

My favourite things to do in London (having lived there for 2 years and lived a short hop away in Cambridge for 10 years before that) include:

Borough market, but *not* on a Saturday lunchtime
Kew Gardens, especially if you can get on one of the guided tours
London Eye at sunset - lots of people think it is overrated but I've been on it 4 times and taken various tour groups on
St Paul's, especially for evensong if you don't mind going to a service
British Library, especially the permanent exhibition including things like the magna carta
The Welcome Collection for quirky medical historical exhibits
British Museum for amazing stuff from all around the world
Highgate Cemetery
Lunch at St Pancras station
Walking along the Southbank on a Saturday to see what's on

I think a daytrip or two will help break your stay up, but there's certainly plenty in London to fill a week or more. I think Cambridge and Bath are lovely day trips. If you want a quieter more country feel you could go one stop further on the train and visit Ely with a gorgeous cathedral and some yummy teashops. I also really like Brighton.
posted by kadia_a at 12:18 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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