Planning Your Time in London

Even under gray skies, London sightseeing offers nonstop thrills.
By Rick Steves

So much to see, so little time. To help you plan your sightseeing, I've listed my ideal one-week itinerary for a first-time London visit.

London is a super one-week getaway. Its sights can keep even the most fidgety traveler well entertained for seven days. You won't be able to see all of London's worthwhile tourist destinations in one visit, so don't try. With any luck, you'll be back in London. After dozens of visits myself, I still enjoy a healthy list of excuses to return.

London in Seven Days

Day 1

9:00  Tower of London (crown jewels first, then Beefeater tour and White Tower; note that on Sundays and Mondays, the Tower opens at 10:00).

13:00  Grab a picnic, catch a boat at Tower Pier, and relax with lunch on the Thames while cruising to Westminster Pier.

14:30  Tour Westminster Abbey, and consider their evensong service (usually at 17:00, at 15:00 on Sundays and off-season Saturdays, never on Wednesdays).

17:00 (or after evensong)  Follow my self-guided Westminster Walk. When you're finished, you could return to the Houses of Parliament and possibly pop into see the House of Commons in action (but check their schedule first).

Day 2

8:30  Take a double-decker hop-on, hop-off London sightseeing bus tour (from Victoria Station or Green Park), and hop off for the Changing of the Guard.

11:00  Buckingham Palace (guards change most days May–July at 11:30, alternate days Aug–April — confirm online).

12:00  Walk through St. James's Park to enjoy London's delightful park scene.

13:00  After lunch, tour the Churchill War Rooms.

16:00  Tour the National Gallery.

Evening  Have dinner — maybe at a pub? — before a play, concert, or evening walking tour.

Day 3

9:00  Follow the first two-thirds of my self-guided walk through The City (as far as St. Paul's), then follow my St. Paul's Cathedral Tour.

15:00  Cross London Bridge and follow my London guidebook's self-guided Bankside Walk along the South Bank of the Thames. Tour Shakespeare's Globe or the Tate Modern if you're interested (or, if it's a day that the Tate Modern is open late, circle back here later). Then walk the Jubilee Walkway from the Millennium Bridge to the London Eye.

Evening  Cap your day with South Bank sights and experiences that are open late (a ride on the London Eye — last ascent 20:30–21:30 depending on season; a Shakespeare play at the Globe — usually at 19:30 in summer; or Tate Modern — open Fridays and Saturdays until 22:00).

Day 4

10:00  Tour the British Museum, then have lunch.

14:00  Tube to Leicester Square to take my London guidebook's self-guided West End Walk to see Covent Garden and Soho, then browse through Regent Street with my book's Regent Street Shopping Walk.

17:00  Enjoy afternoon tea (at Fortnum & Mason, The Wolseley, or the Orangery at Kensington Palace).

Day 5

Spend the morning exploring a street market (try to make today coincide with the day that your market of choice is busiest; my guidebook has details).

Spend the rest of your day at your choice of major sights. Depending on your interests, choose from the British Library, Tate Britain, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum, or Kew Gardens (consider a cruise to Kew, return to London by Tube).

Day 6

10:00  Cruise from Westminster Pier to Greenwich.

11:15  Tour the salty sights of Greenwich.

16:00  Ride the Docklands Light Railroad (DLR) to the Docklands for my London guidebook's self-guided Docklands Walk and a look at London's emerging "Manhattan."

18:30  Take the DLR or Tube back to London.

Day 7

10:00  Tour the Victoria and Albert Museum.

After lunch (or a picnic in the park), stroll through Hyde Park and visit Kensington Palace.

Spend the afternoon at Harrods or other shopping venues.

With More Time

To get a break from big-city London, you can easily spend a day or two side-tripping. Windsor, Cambridge, and Stonehenge each make a satisfying one-day visit.

When to Go

July and August are peak season — my favorite time — with long days, the best weather, and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. Prices and crowds don't go up in summer as dramatically in Britain as they do in much of Europe, except for holidays and festivals. Still, travel during "shoulder season" (May, early June, September, and early October) is easier and can be a bit less expensive. Shoulder-season travelers usually enjoy smaller crowds, decent weather, and the full range of sights and tourist fun spots.

Winter travelers find fewer crowds and soft room prices, but shorter sightseeing hours. The weather can be cold and dreary, and nightfall draws the shades on sightseeing well before dinnertime. While England's rural charm falls with the leaves, London sightseeing is fine in the winter, and is especially popular during the Christmas season.

Plan for rain no matter when you go. Just keep traveling and take full advantage of "bright spells." The weather can change several times a day, but rarely is it extreme. As the locals say, "There's no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." Bring a jacket, and dress in layers. Temperatures below 32°F make headlines, and days that break 80°F — while more common in recent years — are still infrequent in London. Weatherwise, July and August are not much better than shoulder months. May and June can be lovely. While sunshine may be rare, summer days are very long. The midsummer sun is up from 6:30 to 22:30. It's not uncommon to have a gray day, eat dinner, and enjoy hours of sunshine afterward.