For many who are traveling to and from Europe, London is a great starting point. With a central location and cheap flights, London made the perfect home base for my backpacking trip.
The main problem I faced: How would I see and appreciate London in all its beauty from just a few layovers?
Bite-sized pieces, of course! You see, this backpacking trip was ALL about time-efficiency (something I really pride myself on for the most part) and I wasn't about to let a few hours go to waste in one of the world's most renowned cities.
My biggest tip is this: Make a list of things you'd like to see before you go and break it into manageable chunks for each short stay. Don't forget that there's always next time!
I'm no paid expert on travel, but I can definitely tell you what worked for me, a twenty-something with a low budget and a thirst for adventure. Are you ready?
Tip #1: You can save a TON of money by packing everything into a carry-on sized bag. It's totally doable, I promise! I used the Osprey Farpoint and it fit the restrictions perfectly while keeping all of my belongings in their place.
8 hours in London -
Westminster Station - Trafalgar Square - Buckingham Palace
We arrived at Gatwick (via Norwegian Airlines) and made our way by express train to the heart of the city. I chose Westminster Station as our starting point. As luck would have it, we emerged from Westminster Station onto the bustling street just as Big Ben struck 2 o'clock. I mean, seriously, my very first minute on the streets of London and I've already checked a major item off my bucket list!
Tip #2: Save time and money by purchasing an Oyster card. It's a reloadable card used on all public transportation and it doesn't expire, meaning I could use it all throughout the trip.
To be quite honest, on this first day of the trip I had NO time allotted for going inside buildings. I just planned on seeing them all from a distance. Parliament Square was GORGEOUS, and someday I'll enjoy it in more detail, but for now a few pictures would do before we scurried away to escape the rain.
Our first meal was at The Red Lion Ale & Pie in a tiny upstairs dining room of the pub. This was the perfect introductory pub experience, including guinea fowl, chestnut mushroom, and smoked bacon pie. We couldn't sit for too long though, there were only a few hours until sunset and a LOT left to see.
We head up Parliament Street toward Trafalgar Square, on our way passing a few notable sights like the changing of the horse guards, which drew quite the crowd.
I also happened to stumble upon a few (hundred) telephone booths and couldn't resist taking this very cliché picture...look how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I was on Day 1...eager to take on the world.
Tip #3: I totally suggest you go all out and be 100% tourist while you're backpacking. Take the silly pictures, you won't regret it! Life is too short to play it cool :)
So, if you keep walking up Parliament Street, eventually you'll run into Trafalgar Square. This super busy (really hard for me to pronounce) and beautiful square is guarded by majestic giant lion statues. It was absolutely breathtaking, and as I would come to find out later in the trip, not nearly as terrifying as the traffic nightmare at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!
There was some kind of protest going on in front of the National Gallery, so we decided to walk past it to St. Martin in the Fields, where they were preparing for a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons that evening. I couldn't resist buying tickets just at the thought of sitting in that incredible venue and hearing live musicians by candlelight. This church was really interesting and I loved seeing their crypt which doubled as a museum, cafe, and gift shop!
Tip #4: If you're looking to buy cheap tickets to a classical music performance, check the gallery prices! Sitting in a cheap seat/student seating is a great way to enjoy professional performances on a budget (only £9)!
Check out that view from our cheap-o seats!! Who's complaining? Not me!
After we bought our tickets we had just enough time to FaceTime the family back home from Cafe Nero and guzzle some more caffeine before a nice sunset stroll down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace. Dusk was an absolutely magical time to walk the Mall and see St. James' Park and the golden ornamented gates of Buckingham Palace glowing in the distance. I have never seen gold shine so brightly as when the last light of day lit up the gates. All day we had walked through drizzling rain and gray, cloudy skies, but at the moment the sun set the sky was nothing but deep blue and the earth was golden.
After the concert, we took the Stansted Express from London to Stansted Airport. From there we took a taxi to Church Hall Farm Bed and Breakfast. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. It was off in a neighboring town, Broxted, and felt like worlds away from the busy London we just left. I felt like I had entered a storybook village and my biggest regret is that we had no real time to enjoy it. We had to leave for the airport around 6 AM to catch our flight to Budapest.
Tip #5: Don't forget to plan ample travel time to and from your hotels and the airport. Some modes of travel may fall through and having to scramble for a backup plan is no fun.
So, 8 hours to get a bite-sized taste of London at the outset of a backpacking trip and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I was able to experience. Like I mentioned earlier, if you break your list into manageable pieces, you'll be able to accomplish more and you'll feel less guilty when you don't get to everything on your list the first time.
Next stop on my epic backpacking adventure was 48 hours in Budapest...
...then 48 hours in Paris...
...and then 48 hours in Barcelona...
...and FINALLY back to London for the halfway point of my journey.
Day 8 (Halfway Point):
3 hours in London -
Museums and Camera Repair Stores
While I knew I wouldn't have much time in London at this halfway point of the trip, I'm super glad that I had my handy-dandy notebook with a list of things I'd like to see. Even checking one item off this list would be fantastic before I headed off to Oxford to meet up with my old college roommates for the rest of the journey.
Life threw me a major curveball in Barcelona, however, when I began to notice MAJOR dust spots on my camera sensor, ruining all of my beloved travel photos! I nearly had a meltdown, especially when I couldn't find a camera shop in Barcelona that would clean the sensor before I had to fly out at 3 am. SO, I used my Google Map skills and found a nice-looking camera shop in London that advertised a same-day turn around and welcomed walk-ins and travelers. Win-win, am I right?
I flew into Stansted Airport, took an express bus to Baker Street. Ate a quick lunch at Pret a Manger (one of my favorite quick service cafés at this point of the trip) and walked only a block to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Mostly just for the picture in front of 221B Baker Street and to get some souvenirs for my dad, who is a huge sherlock fan too.
The guys at Camera City on 16 Little Russell St. were super helpful and took great care of my camera while I took a quick stroll down Regent Street to visit the Handel and Hendrix House.
Tip #6: If you don't know about this house, I suggest you add it to your list!
It's a bit random, but SO cool that two incredible musicians lived in the same complex so many years apart! I was totally freaking out and really enjoyed my time there. Every single room had a volunteer to tell you about all of the details of the musicians' lives and the building itself. I got to see the very spot where Handel's Messiah was composed, where he used to host parties and rehearsals, and even where he died! (A little creepy, but still pretty awesome!)
I hustled back up Regent Street, admiring all of the pricey and elegant storefronts and grabbed myself a cookie from Ben's Cookies to eat on the way to Oxford. The Oxford Express left around 2 from the Marble Arch, which took me a while to find, but allowed me to see a bit of Hyde Park while I was wondering around pretending not to be lost.
The next week consisted of a few days in Oxford...
...48 hours in Prague...
...and then 48 hours in Venice...
...and finally back to London for the end of the journey...
12 Hours in London
Tower of London - Shakespeare's Globe - St. Paul's Cathedral
(and then Westminster Station - Trafalgar Square - Buckingham Palace again)
This amount of time was a bit tough to plan because it wasn't a typical two day period. We arrived in London in the middle of Day 15, exhausted from our early flight from Venice. We said our goodbyes to Olivia who went directly back to Oxford and then it was up to me to give Kayla the grande tour of London, "expert" that I was. (I had a total of 12 hours more experience!)
Thanks to a time-efficient route suggested by a friend of mine, Kayla and I set off from the airport directly to the Tower of London and arrived there with a few hours before they closed.
Tip #7: We were able to save money (and time) by purchasing our tickets online using the airport wifi right before we boarded! Score!
Isn't it so interesting to see such modern and historic buildings opposing each other on opposite sides of the Thames? It gave the visit such a surreal feeling.
I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about the Tower of London before the trip, mainly that it is crowded and tourist-y. I can say as a Florida girl, used to the Orlando/Disney tourist swarms, this was not that bad. Of course, that was another perk of traveling in the lower season of March, and although London never feels sparse, at least I wasn't crowded and sweating too.
I honestly really enjoyed all of the history given by the free tours led by beefeaters, but we didn't exactly have time to explore every building on the property. The line to see the crown jewels was long, but it moved quickly. (Did you know they keep the line moving using a moving sidewalk like at the airport!? Smart!)
From the tower, we crossed the Tower Bridge, which is the true "London bridge," and I sang the nursery rhyme as we walked across like a true tourist. On the other side of the Thames we walked along the water, passing the Borough Market as it was closing up, grabbing a cup of coffee at Starbucks (for the wifi) and made our way to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Fun Fact: As you walk toward Shakespeare's Globe you can find quotes from his works under the Southwark Bridge! It was a total surprise to me, but really made history come to life.
After passing by the Globe, we walked to Millennium Bridge, a beautiful newer bridge that conveniently led us right to the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. On the way I grabbed some roasted nuts as a snack from one of the street vendors. St. Paul's was massive and beautiful, a work by Sir Christopher Wren, who is also famous for the Sheldonian Theatre which we saw in Oxford.
Checking off a few more major items off of our to-do list, I decided to take Kayla on my route from Day 1, from Westminster Station to Buckingham Palace. It was even more enjoyable for me a second time as I wasn't constantly glued to my map and jet lagged. We then caught our metro out to Stratford where we walked a mile to our sketchy, but cheap hotel.
Tip #8: Save yourself the hassle and don't stay in hotels a mile from the nearest metro stop. The buses don't always run and you won't want to walk that far at midnight, I promise.
Needless to say, we arrived safely and got settled in. Early the next morning Kayla left on an epic metro adventure from Stratford to the airport to begin her journey home, leaving me 36 hours alone in London.
Days 15 & 16 (End of Journey):
36 Hours in London (Alone!)
It really wasn't too difficult to fill the time. The largest difficulty was that the many lines of the metro were not running, due to "maintenance," but thanks to my handy Oyster card, I was able to easily transition to using the bus system to get around quickly.
Shakespeare's Globe - St. James' Park - National Gallery - West End
On my first day alone I decided to begin with a guided tour of Shakespeare's Globe. Passing the Globe the previous day just didn't seem to do it justice, plus I was able to get a discounted price!
Tip #9: Shakespeare's Globe had an early-bird special! I saved a few pounds by going first thing in the morning, YAY!
After visiting the Globe for a second time, I decided to take a stroll and enjoy the first beautiful blue sky I had seen in a while. As much as I applaud time efficiency, I think a nice walk can provide a great experience too, and plus, it's good for the soul. Eventually, I got tired of walking and hopped on a bus to Trafalgar Square. My goal was to walk down Parliament Street and visit the Churchill War Rooms, however, I ran into a bit of a luggage issue.
Tip #10: Due to narrow hallways, Churchill War Rooms do not permit backpacks.
This was a big disappointment for me, as I had nowhere to leave my backpack, but I understood and decided to use this setback to my advantage. I walked over to St. James' Park, which I hadn't yet seen in the daylight, and it was truly beautiful. As it happened to be the first day of Spring, many people were out enjoying the beautiful park, feeding the birds and exercising with family and friends. I made a few duck friends who let me take their portrait and then decided head toward the National Gallery.
Once I arrived to the National Gallery, overlooking the ever-busy Trafalgar Square, I realized something truly beautiful:
Tip #12: The National Gallery is FREE! Hallelujah!
This was a very pleasant discovery, especially at the end of my trip. They had many very beautiful collections, room after room, and I definitely got turned around in there a few times. Art galleries and museums definitely aren't everyone's cup of tea, but this was no ordinary art gallery. I highly suggest taking a peak around, even an hour in there will give you enough culture to last a decade.
From the National Gallery I walked to the Covent Garden Market to find something to eat before seeing the musical, Matilda, at the Cambridge Theatre.
Tip #13: Covent Garden Market has some really fun street performers, live statues, and magicians.
While I was there, floating statue-people were the big thing, especially floating yoda. Who knows what will be the big street act when you go, but rest assured it'll be entertaining!
After visiting the Covent Garden Market, I caught a matinee performance of Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre for a relatively cheap price.
Tip #14: There's a handy app called "Today Tix" that is perfect for finding last minute deals on shows! Check it out and see what's playing while you're in town!
After Matilda, I decided to find my hotel before dark (see, I learned my lesson!) so I headed down to Pimlico where I stayed in the smallest hotel room I've ever seen. At least it was really inexpensive!
Tip #15: Try to have one "local" experience in each place you visit.
For me, the local experience was this amazing Indian restaurant just a few blocks from my hotel. I have heard many people say London's Indian cuisine is fantastic and now I can say that I agree wholeheartedly.
Last 6 hours in London:
Pimlico - Chelsea - Victoria and Albert Museum - Airport
At this point it's crunch time. Anything I have left on my list, I've got to try to fit into the 6 hours before I have to be at Gatwick Airport to catch my flight home. My biggest regret is that I was incredibly exhausted and just wanted to sleep until noon. My curiously won over, however, and I managed to leave the hotel at about 8 am after a lovely English Breakfast and caught a bus to Chelsea to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I was very early and had over an hour until the museum opened. Instead of sitting at a café and risk falling asleep in public, I decided to take a stroll around the area. I discovered a beautiful local church conducting a Holy Week service as well as some nice pastel colored apartments. I think I might have accidentally stumbled onto the campus of the Imperial College as well... all in the spirit of a good stroll.
Finally, the Victoria and Albert Museum opens and once again to my delight, it's FREE!
Tip #16: If you're pressed for time at the Victoria and Albert Museum, ask for a guide to "The Hidden Treasures." It's basically a scavenger hunt for adults and lets you see every main exhibit of the museum efficiently! Win!
I honestly don't know how to explain this museum, but I can say that it was 100% worth spending the entirety of my last day there, and I wish I had even more time to enjoy each room instead of rushing through. Yes, I am a museum person, but this place had something for EVERYONE. From theatre memorabilia to precious jewels to fashion and ironwork, it was basically room after room of the coolest stuff on earth. I would definitely move it to the top of my list next time I come to London.
Getting home seemed to take forever after two and a half weeks of rushing around, but I am so thankful for the bits and pieces of time I had to enjoy London. From the tourist traps to the quaint local dives, London has a lot to offer everyone and I can't wait to go back.
So, what's on the top of your London list? Comment below so I can add it to my next visit!