All Articles The perfect three days in London

The perfect three days in London

Rachel Chang
By Rachel Chang22 Sept 2023 15 minutes read
A man looks at Big Ben and Westminster Bridge in London at sunrise
Image: Karl Hendon/Getty Images

From royal palaces and majestic landmarks to cozy pubs and intimate theaters, London’s charms fill every corner of the city, making even a quick three-day an unforgettable adventure. To make the most of a short trip, it’s all about balancing tourist essentials—like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey—with time to soak in the vibe of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods, including colorful Notting Hill (movie star sightings not guaranteed) and the artfully trendy Shoreditch (gritty vintage shops definitely guaranteed). Since London is a walkable city, this itinerary is designed for explorations on foot. However, don’t miss out on one of my favorite London activities: climbing onto the second level of a double-decker bus and watching the city unfold in front of me.

Here are some of my suggestions for a three-day itinerary to help you find the best of the city.


DAY ONE

Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, London
Buckingham Palace
Image: Mark Leishman/Unsplash

MORNING: Westminster pomp and circumstance

Rise, shine, and follow the chimes to one of London’s most famous (four-sided) faces, Big Ben, now officially called Elizabeth Tower after the late queen. Every time I stand in Ben’s presence, I’m mesmerized, but now more than ever since the bells are ringing once again after a five year refurbishment (you’ll hear the chime on the hour, and then the quarter bells strike every 15 minutes). Extra bonus: guided tours up the 334-step staircase to the belfry for non-British citizens just started in July 2023. Pro tip: Tickets go fast and are sold out months in advance, so snag yours as soon as the booking window opens at 10 am the second Wednesday of the month, three months ahead (so you’ll need to book in mid-September for a December tour). In other words, set an alarm now.

The clock tower rises out of the Gothic architecture masterpiece, the Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, which is home to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. A couple blocks to the north is 10 Downing Street, home to the British prime minister since 1735. While you can’t go in, I always make a point to peek through the fencing at the famous address.

Across Parliament Square Park is Westminster Abbey, the site of King Charles III’s coronation and Prince Wiliam and Duchess Kate Middleton’s storybook wedding. Being able to stand where these historic moments took place makes the city’s royal history truly feel alive to me.

Next, time your visit to catch the changing of the guards in front of Buckingham Palace, which starts at 10:45 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, there’s still that heart-pumping thrill to the 45-minute ceremony, a truly theatrical event with plenty of majestic music and regalia. Get here at least 30 minutes early for good sightlines (an hour if you want a prime position next to the fence). Depending on your royal interests, consider stopping in at Churchill War Rooms, Queen’s Gallery, or Royal Mews, where you can see all the ornate carriages.

Travelers say: “This was a great experience that we planned ourselves. I would recommend getting to Buckingham an hour early and taking your place against the fence, to the left or right of the main gates. Matter of fact, second window on palace to the left for great views of guards coming at you.” –@Ken V

WESTMINSTER TOUR OPTIONS

AFTERNOON: High Street shopping

To the north of Westminster are some of the city’s most famous (and hectic!) gathering spaces, each notable in its own way. Trafalgar Square, adjacent to Admiralty Arch and the pathway to Buckingham Palace, is the most regal of them all, sandwiched by two stately fountains. Meanwhile, Leicester Square feels more like a bustling neighborhood park, linking the West End theaters to Chinatown. Finally, Piccadilly Circus sits at the junction of five of the city’s busiest streets, giving you access to the city’s best shopping.

Follow Piccadilly Street for about two blocks from the junction to reach one of the city’s oldest shops. Fortnum & Mason dates back to 1707 and has been offering its trademark afternoon tea–complete with tiers of tiny sandwiches and warm scones— for more than 300 years—its colorful tea tins make great souvenirs. I’m also always charmed by the tudor style of Liberty London nearby, which first opened in 1875, with a homey feel inside, selling its famous bold prints on everything from umbrellas to dishes to dresses.

Regent Street, built specifically to be a shopping street 200 years ago, still serves the same purpose today with flagships of global brands (while my favorite Thomas’s Cafe inside Burberry is closed now, it’s still worth popping into this location for some browsing). Oxford Street bustles day and night with shops of every variety; even the Boots drug store here is worth a stop, filled with cosmetics and skin care packaged like pricey luxuries but here cost a fraction of the price. Also worth exploring: the colorful Carnaby Street area with eclectic boutiques and dining. Don’t miss the area’s Kingly Court, where I've taken yoga classes upstairs and enjoyed way too many of the meze dishes at Imad’s Syrian Kitchen.

If shopping isn’t up your alley, head to the National Gallery—in Trafalgar Square—where the walls are lined with paintings from masters such as Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and Van Gogh. And bonus: most of London’s biggest museums are free, including this one.

EVENING: West End theater night

You’ve ended your shopping spree right in the heart of the British theater district, the West End, often referred to as the Broadway of London, with 39 live performance spaces to choose from. While there are plenty of musicals on offer, plays tend to shine here, often starring world-famous celebrities.

Follow my lead for a bargain ticket by starting a visit to the neighborhood at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. Can’t decide what to see? My personal pick is the tale of Britain’s own boy wizard, the original production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre.

Before your show, go for dependable fish and chips, upgraded with premium ingredients, at Mayfair Chippy. After curtain call, enjoy a sweet treat as a nightcap, perhaps homemade ice cream at Udderlicious or in nearby Chinatown, which has an entire dessert alley. (I once used my entire break between Harry Potter performances to stand in line for a limited edition boba drink at Yifang Fruit Tea Chinatown).

Worthy detours along the way

DAY TWO

People relaxing on the lawn at Kensington Gardens, London
Kensington Gardens
Image: Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

MORNING: Notting Hill novelties

Synonymous with the 1999 Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant rom-com, Notting Hill lives up to its silver screen image with colorful homes lining streets and bohemian vintage shops mingling alongside chic eateries. The real reason to come to the neighborhood is Portobello Road Market, where vendors line the streets selling everything from antiques and clothes to fresh fruit and flowers to Swedish cinnamon buns. Saturday is when things here are truly bustling when 1,000 antique dealers elbowing for space makes it the biggest antiquities market in the world; Friday is a busy day, too, so be sure to get here early either of these days. Vendors rotate, but if you’re in the market for vintage jewelry, dishes and housewares, and clothing, you’ll be happy you made the trip.

During the week, I pop into storefront favorites including the antique shop Alice’s and the iconic The Notting Hill Bookshop, the inspirations for the Notting Hill movie. It’s not shops in Portobello, I’m a fan of the Museum of Brands, which presents the last 200 years of ads as art, including products you may remember from your childhood (warning, you may spend your afternoon humming classic commercial jingles, O-o-Ovaltine….).

If it’s a rainy day or you need a break, I recommend catching an early show at Electric Cinema, one of the nation’s oldest movie theaters, where seating includes velvet couches for two, leather armchairs with footstools, and cocktail service.

AFTERNOON: Chilling out Kensington and Hyde Park

Despite Kensington Palace being home to royals, including William and Kate when they’re in London, I always find a sense of calm in the 265-acre Kensington Gardens, almost like I’m spending time in an expansive (and ok, very elegant) neighborhood backyard. It’s the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll or people-watching, but don’t miss The Sunken Garden, home to the statue of Princess Diana commissioned by her sons.

Connected to the east is Hyde Park, another 350-acre space that earned the moniker “The People’s Park.” Go boating on Serpentine Lake, riding on Rotten Row from Hyde Park Stables, or, and this is my favorite part of the park, join the crowds at Speakers Corner where anyone can grab a stepstool and speak about their topic of interest while they’re cheered, jeered, or debated by onlookers. (Watch for a while to get the rhythm of this unique setup before jumping in to speak.)

Travelers say: “Feeding the ducks on the lake was a delightful experience that added to the park's charm. Whether you're seeking a relaxing stroll, a serene picnic spot, or a place to enjoy outdoor activities, Hyde Park is a must-visit destination that will leave you with beautiful memories.” –@Omar

To the south of the park, make an obligatory visit to luxury department store Harrods in Knightsbridge—while the designer clothing and housewares are quite expensive (this is not a spot for bargain shoppers), it’s easy to feel like a VIP at its massive food halls (yes, plural) with endless culinary and confectionery delights. (Note that there’s no seating, so you'll need to take your finds to go.) Also in the area, the Kensington branch of popular Indian eatery Dishoom (I’m so obsessed with their black daal, I went four times in three days on my last trip!) or opt for French fine dining British chef Marcus Wareing’s Marcus.

KENSINGTON TOUR OPTIONS

EVENING: Heights and sights

After night falls, London flips on a new personality—and there’s no better way to take it all in that with an aerial view. Step into one of London Eye’s 32 transparent capsules to be lifted up (slowly and gently!) nearly 443 feet into the air right on the shore of the River Thames, with Big Ben and Parliament in perfect view. Each rotation takes about half an hour on the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel.

For a different POV, score a hard-to-get, but free, ticket to the Sky Garden, London’s highest public garden with views of the city in every direction. Hint: I wasn’t able to snag a spot during my last visit, so instead I booked a reservation at one of its sky-high restaurants, Darwin Brasserie (you can also choose from Fenchurch or Larch) and was treated to a perfect corner table—and then was able to enjoy the gardens and views after my meal.

End the night at the riverside Lyaness inside Sea Containers London. Here at the flagship of famed bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr. Lyan), finding the right drink for your taste buds is an art that’s curated carefully and mindfully, for a bar experience like no other. After asking me about my preferences (I always say “fun and fruity”), I was served a delicious Marigold Gimlet with oyster honey and apple blossom.

Worthy detours along the way

DAY THREE

Dinner at The Wigmore, London
The Wigmore
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Bridge and market

London Bridge may have the song, but the Tower Bridge has all the impressive grandeur. The 1894 neo-gothic structure with two turreted towers offers self-guided tours with access to its towers, walkways, glass floors, and engine rooms.

To the northside of the Tower Bridge is the Tower of London, a palace, fortress, and prison—all open to visitors. The most gleaming attraction in the Crown Jewels, a priceless collection of the nation’s most valuable treasures, including the regalia used at coronations. While the glitz and glamor is awe-inspiring, I got more of a thrill going down a metallic slide into the Superbloom. Making its debut last year for the Platinum Jubilee, 20 million wildflower seeds were planted in the moat, turning it into a sea of colors every summer. I like to visit right before closing, when I can avoid the crowds and still get to see all the highlights of the entire grounds.

Travelers say: “This by far was one of the best tours we have done on a 10-day trip of Europe. The Tower of London is an amazing site to visit but the Beefeater guide was the best. Engaging, informative and entertaining - even for my teenager. Don’t miss the Crown Jewels. Bring your water and walking shoes because you can spend hours here. Highly, highly recommend.” –@Tex Hon

Cross the Thames and you’ll reach Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a recreation of the 1599 stage that once stood on this exact spot. In the summer, it’s the ideal place to watch a classic piece of theater on a beautiful night (note that “groundlings” have to stand, but you can get a ticket for less than 10 pounds). Off season, you can still take a guided tour. Any time of year, walk about five minutes more to the contemporary art museum Tate Modern; it’s free, and the space, a former power station, is worth a look even if it wasn’t filled with fabulous art. Some highlights here include Pablo Picasso’s Bust of a Woman to the current Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms.

Follow the river walk for another five minute walk and end your morning with lunch at Borough Market, as much a community center as it is a food market, established in 1756, with more than 100 traders selling a variety of food items, both prepared and ingredients. Just follow your nose to whatever speaks to you–Get in line for the crisp-edged, lenti-filled dosas at the “Horn OK Please” Indian street food stand, followed by a pint of crisp hard cider at The London Cider House. Then stock up on spices at Spice Mountain, where there's everything from powdered lemongrass to sweet curry, both to cook with at home and for gifts.

RIVERSIDE TOUR OPTIONS

AFTERNOON: A Tale of two Shoreditches

The neighborhood of Shoreditch is one of contrasts. There’s no doubt a grittiness to the area, as an enclave for creatives and artists. The epicenter is Brick Lane, a rather quirky mix of vintage shops, food markets, bagel shops, and Indian eateries. The vibrant street springs to life on Sundays for its market.

But there’s also a distinctly forward-through vibe, seen, felt, and tasted in the shops and booths at Old Spitalfields Market, Spitalfields Market, and Boxpark Shoreditch. It’s easy living here, just following your interests through the rows of friendly vendors, stopping for bites at food trucks for a light dinner and perhaps taking in some live music pop-up shows.

If you’re in the area on a Sunday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., wander up to Columbia Road Flower Market to browse the colorful plants and florals.

EVENING: Arts and a pint

As the largest multi-arts venue in Europe, the Barbican Centre, with a full lineup of movies, music (from classic to contemporary), theater, dance, talks, and events of every kind. The building itself is a standout for its brutalist architecture, recently made famous again in Harry Styles’ “As It Was” video.

Finally, wrap up your trio of days as the Brits would, in a local pub. The best way to pick one is to simply follow your instincts to one in the neighborhood. Some Tripadvisor favorites include The Royal Oak, Lord Clyde Southwark, The Prince of Greenwich Pub, The Wigmore, and The Ganton Arms. (One tip: you can order a “half pint,” which is a half-size pour instead of a full pint glass, to be able to try more styles of classic British ales, lagers, bitters, and ciders.)

Worthy detours along the way

Know Before You Go


London is bright and bustling June through August, with weather in the mid-70s (though heat waves are getting a bit more common). While May and September are a bit cooler, their budding flowers or falling leaves are a bonus, plus there are fewer crowds. November through February are cool, dark, and even rainier than usual, but travel and hotel rates can be at their cheapest. Dark days are a bit cheerier from mid-November through December, when the city is dotted with Christmas markets, ice skating rinks, and epic holiday lights.



As a global capital, London tends to keep open hours the whole week long. Most museums are open regular hours seven days a week, though church-related sights are often closed on Sundays. Shops tend to open a little later Sundays, around noon, and some restaurants are closed Sundays and/or Mondays.



Museums and shops in London open around 10 a.m., with museums typically closing at 5 or 6 p.m. and shops at 7 or 8 p.m. Restaurants tend to be open from noon to 9 p.m., though some close between 3 and 5 p.m. to make the transition from lunch to dinner. Despite the fact that most Londoners aim for afternoon tea between 2 to 4 p.m., high-end venues will take reservations for teatime anywhere from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to max out reservations. Pubs tend to open around noon. And don’t expect to do a pub crawl into the late hours—they actually close “early” compared to cocktail bars, usually around 11 p.m.



Covent Garden: Smack-dab in the middle of the action and featured at the end of our Day One itinerary, Covent Garden is one of the most central locations in London. The Claremont, Charing Cross is an elegant 1865 hotel with chandeliers, marble columns, and a chic cocktail bar, just a few minutes’ walk from tube stops and Trafalgar Square and a 15- to 20-minute walk from both The British Museum and Westminster Abbey.

Westminster: You might not realize how close you are to London hotspots when you’re lounging in St. James’ Court, A Taj Hotel’s classy courtyard with its own fountain, but it’s located right between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. With both the District Line and Circle Line a few minutes’ walk away at St. James Park, even the sights not right outside the front door will feel pretty close.

East End: OK, it’s not as central or scenic but hotels in the East End are cheaper and closer to Day Two attractions like The Tower of London. Travelodge London City Hotel isn’t fancy, but it gets high ratings for covering the basics for a cheap price. Plus, it’s just a four-minute walk to the Circle Line, which means most of London is easily within reach.



Public transportation: The tube, aka London’s underground transit system, is wide-reaching, relatively simple, and always running, with 24/7 service on major lines. That said, trips can add up. A Day Travelcard includes unlimited trips on the tube, trams, and buses within most of central London, and it’s worth it for travelers making three or more trips a day. If you like to linger over your hotel buffet breakfast, an Off-Peak Travel card, which can be used after 9:30 a.m., is an even better deal. The Oyster card is also an option, but requires a deposit fee so many not be worth it for shorter visits.

By bike: London is not as bike friendly as other European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, though there are designated bike lanes in some areas, like the three-mile cycle route running along the river from the Tower of London to Big Ben. If you’re looking to pedal your way around the city, guided bike tours are a good option, such as one that covers London’s Royal Parks or another to see major attractions with stops for art-making and beer.

By taxi: London’s iconic black cabs are super cute, but a word of warning: They tend to be pricey, with fluctuating rates that depend on traffic. And that traffic can also inch along. As of this writing, the ride-share app Uber was running in London, but Lyft was not. London taxis also have their own app: Gett.

Airport transfers: London has six international airports, including City, Luton, Stansted, Southend, and, the two largest, Heathrow and Gatwick.

From Heathrow, the Piccadilly Line on the tube runs directly to Piccadilly Circus in 50 minutes. The faster option is the Heathrow Express rail line, which runs to Paddington Station in just 20 minutes. It’s more expensive than the tube, but it still beats taking a taxi, the priciest option by far and—thanks to traffic—often the slowest. Some hotels also offer hotel bus service—the Heathrow Hotel Hoppa, for example, makes trips to 25 hotels around the city and is as cheap as public transit.

From Gatwick Airport, the 30-minute Gatwick Express is by far the fastest option, running direct to Victoria Station. The Thameslink train costs half as much but takes twice as long, though it runs to more stations, including Blackfriars, St. Pancras International, and London Bridge. Both depart every fifteen minutes during the day. Buses are the most time-consuming choice, departing hourly and taking at least 90 minutes depending on the stop and time of day. Through easyBus, the National Express runs a bus from Gatwick to Victoria Station for as little as two pounds, but be sure to book ahead online or it could cost as much the train.


Rachel Chang
Travel and pop culture journalist Rachel Chang started her editorial career nearly two decades ago chasing celebrities as a magazine editor (Us Weekly, J-14, CosmoGIRL!). Along the way, she also started chasing passport stamps and is now a freelance journalist and editor, contributing regularly to Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure and editing Most Amazing Places magazines for Centennial Media. She has also written for Lonely Planet, Washington Post, New York Times for Kids, Wall Street Journal, and Airbnb Magazine.