Despite my multiple blog posts about other places, it is the UK, and London in particular, which truly has my heart. It offers this unbeatable blend of comfort with a big slice of adventure and the right sprinkle of cultural differences, without having to learn a foreign language (Bonus!). If you are one who is a bit skeptical of embarking on a European excursion, then my recommendation is the U.K., and London, in particular. The following abbreviated list will definitely reward this decision with some unforgettable yet enriching cultural feasts when you have only 1-2 days to spend in England’s capital city.
Now, certainly, everyone's opinions differ, but to maximize on what makes London so unique for the first-time visitor and history-lover, include the following in your plans.
But first, you should be acquainted with some important transportation options:
Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tours:
***One of the best ways to gain an overview of London on your first day is via one of the double-decker *tour* buses (I am not talking about the public transit bus).
There are two companies, The Big Bus Tour or the Original London Sightseeing Tour. With your paid day rate, you get to hop on and hop off of the bus all day long, and it drives past all of the important sights with commentary. It is well worth it for many reasons, but also because it outlines the city, thereby aiding your 'mental map' or orientation.
However, do remember it is not to be used for everyday transportation while you are there, as it costs more than public transport.
Look at both company's websites, and view their map--these Hop On/Hop Off (Ho/Ho) Buses take you to the big sites: Piccadilly Circus, over Tower Bridge, past Buckingham Palace, the Shard, Parliament and Big Ben, etc.
Compare both to see which included 'extras' you and/or your group would enjoy. For example, your ticket may include: A free boat ride on the Thames (usually from the Tower of London to Westminster), and your choice of a free, walking tour--these are typically very informative and fun. Always check the company's website for details.
For even more general information about city sightseeing and Ho/Ho Buses click here.
More about London Transportation:
Since London cabs are expensive, consider buying a London Tube pass, depending on how many days or rides you will need. (For longer stays, look into an Oyster Card) Remember, you won't need an all-day pass for the day you have the Big Bus Tour.
Use the following link to the Official Transport for London website page for information about purchasing a 'Visitor Oyster Card' versus the more expensive Day Travelcard here.
This webpage is very informative and will give you all of the details about reloading money/credits on your Oyster card and also refunds if you have extra credit/money on the card when departing. The page will also inform about how the card works for National Rail and/or the public bus system.
~~CST Tip: Experience riding in a traditional black London cab at least once in your life—(evening time may be your best choice to return to your accommodations quickly after a long day).
1) The Tower of London
If you could only do one thing in London--this is the one.
It's not just a tower, it is a large amalgamation of the original fortified White Tower, the Crown Jewels, prisons, and more, with so much history, I couldn't begin.
But that is what the Yeomen of the Tower are for--they give an overview tour speech in their fabulous British accents, therefore it is highly recommended to start off your time inside those walls with them.
The Tower is a treasure trove of history--even the original outer walls were built by the ancient Romans, and then there are compelling stories about Traitor's Gate and the condemned prisoners, etc. In addition, the tower is also haunted...but I digress.
Reserve the larger part of your day for it.
**CST Tip: After a long day touring, refresh yourself by visiting the quintessential British pub. Go to Trafalgar Square to throw back a pint at the Sherlock Holmes Pub (be sure to go up to the 2nd floor).
2) Westminster Abbey
It's not only a church... there are so many amazing architectural, artistic and historical things to see inside here---take your time and check the Abbey’s map to be sure you see everything.
**CST Tip: Most of the churches in England have an evensong service that may still be a free event around 5 or 6pm. Click here to find these services throughout the U.K.
3) St. Paul's Cathedral
If you plan it so you place these two churches on different days on your itinerary, you won't be "weary" of viewing another church. However, they are both so different & exquisite in their architecture and interiors.
St. Paul's boasts the magnificent Whispering Gallery at the base of its large dome and the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome, which I highly recommend if you are able to climb all of the steps--the views of London are simply fabulous!
**CST Tip: (If you have to choose between the London Eye and the views from St. Paul's --choose St. Paul's. You get so much more for the price of your ticket.)
The eastern part of the cathedral (the Apse) is dedicated as a special chapel for Americans who lost their lives in the Second World War. The large, gold-edged book lists the name of over 28,000 American servicemen who were stationed in the U.K. during World War 2. It is a very touching tribute.
Find an additional display depicting brave citizens who stood ready to save this magnificent cathedral during German Luftwaffe bombing raids on the city. Be sure to also visit the basement in St. Paul's which houses the Crypt to see Horatio Nelson's tomb.
**CST Tip: Stave off your hunger in the basement cafe, which has some of the best and freshest scones and clotted cream (somewhat similar to whipping cream), to pair with a perfect cup of British tea.
4) Churchill War Rooms
Read my blog post here about this World War 2-era underground time capsule you can experience for yourself, in the heart of London.
While there is an overwhelming amount of wonders to see in London, this is a small compilation of what I consider the must-sees to begin with, but I bet you’ll want to visit this capital city for more of what lovely London has to offer.