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Seeing London on a Long Heathrow Layover

Experiencing London on a long Heathrow Layover. Buckingham Palace is the first stop on this step-by-step itinerary.

Imagine you’ve booked a vacation and you end up with a connection through London’s Heathrow airport. And that layover is 13 hours. Welcome to the world of long-haul travel. You’ve decided not to spend those 13 hours wandering around Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and want to get out into the sunshine and see a little of England. So how much of London can you see on a Heathrow layover? It turns out, the answer is a lot.

I’ve never been to London. I know that sounds impossible with all of our travel, but it’s true. I’ve flown through Heathrow once or twice before, but never spent any time in the city. Laura has been here before twice – once during school and a few years ago on a quick London business trip.

The fountain in front of Buckingham Palace plays host to thousands of tourists every day.  Once you've taken in the Palace, turn and walk down The Mall behind you.

Buckingham Palace Fountain

This trip was different. We had just 13 hours in London during our long Heathrow layover. We enlisted the help of two travel friends for ideas and set out on our ultimate Heathrow layover itinerary!

First, when you get off the plane, you need to clear immigration and there can be a considerable wait here. U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter the UK. However, we were required to produce three documents: a valid passport (obviously), the boarding pass for the flight we just got off and proof of onward travel (both the boarding passes for our next as well as a printed itinerary). Once officially admitted to the UK, drop any access baggage off at the Excess Baggage counter on the ground level (cost to store a bag is £10 for 24 hours). Then, follow the signs to the Underground (this is just across the terminal lobby from the Excess Baggage storage counter). For this little adventure, you will need a one-day travelcard valid for zones 1-6. If you have a pin-and-chip credit card, you can buy directly from the machines, otherwise, you can purchase from a teller (there may be a long wait for a teller). The cost for us on a Saturday was £17 and was valid for the Tube and all buses.

The Gates on Buckingham Palace in London.

The Palace Gates

Now, your Heathrow layover adventure can begin. Follow the signs to the Underground, take the escalator down two levels and get on the Piccadilly Underground line. If you follow in our footsteps, you’ll be going to the Green Park station. This will take approximately 50 minutes and a large part of it will be above ground so you’ll get to see some of the London suburbs. Taking the Underground is slightly longer in time than the vastly more expensive Heathrow Express train, but it saves you from needing to change trains.

At Green Park, exit into the park and walk down the gently sloping pathway to the trees on the far side of the park. You might glimpse Buckingham Palace through the trees. If you are at the Palace around 11:00am, you’ll see the masses of people for the Changing of the Guard. As my friend Megan would say, be sure to “mill about smartly” in front of the Palace.

During your Heathrow Layover, you'll walk through St. James Park, glimpsing the Horse Guards across the pond.

The Pond in St. James Park

After taking a million pictures, continue down the street opposite the Palace (known as the The Mall). At your first available opportunity, turn right on a path and go into St. James Park. The path will head downhill and lead you to a beautiful pond. Head towards your left and walk along the ponds edge (be extremely careful not to step in the excessive amounts of bird droppings on the path) until you reach a footbridge over the pond. Be sure to stop for a few moments on the bridge and note the Princess Diana plaque. This is also a great photo vantage point of both Buckingham Palace (behind you) and the Central London skyline (in front of you).

From the footbridge over the pond in St. James Park, you'll see the Horse Guards at the far end of the park.  This will be the next stop on your London Heathrow Layover Itinerary.

The Horse Guards from the St. James Park Footbridge

Continue through St. James Park to the Horse Guards grounds on the far side (crossing the Horse Guards Road – be sure to look in both directions for speeding cars!). As you cross the gravel courtyard, you’ll see an archway. Pass through the archway and see masses of tourists behaving inappropriately with the guards – trying to get them to break character. On the far side of the Horse Guards, make a right on Whitehall Street and go one block to see 10 Downing Street.

Across from the Horse Guards in St. James Park is a quaint cottage.

The cottage in St. James Park

From here, you have several options:

    1. Continue two blocks past Downing Street and then make a left, crossing the Westminster Bridge. On the far bank, turn left and walk the entire South Bank of the Thames River, past the London Eye, the National Theatre, etc. Across the river, you’ll see St. Paul’s from a distance (you can cross back over the Millennium footbridge if you want to see St. Paul’s). Continue past the Globe Theatre, The Tate Modern, City Hall to the Tower Bridge. Admire the bridge and cross it to see the Tower of London. This is a total walk of approximately 2.5 miles.
    2. If the weather is poor, jump on the Underground. Continue two blocks past Downing Street and to the Westminster Underground stop. From here, you can take the District or Circle lines on the Underground from Westminster Station to Tower of London station. (Be sure to check if the trains are running – we experienced construction so we were not able to take the train. We tried to take a bus, which wasn’t running due to a bicycle race in the city and ended up wasting an hour our of Heathrow layover. Ultimately, we ended up in a pricey black cab). If you take the Tube, you’ll sacrifice the 2.5 mile walk, but end up with more time at the Tower of London.
    3. Londoners agree that one of the best ways to see the city is by boat. You can get the boat from Westminster pier (near the train station) and take it to Tower Pier, right at the foot of the Tower of London.
    4. If the weather is really bad, skip it all and go in search of the perfect Fish and Chips, followed by High Tea.
The Tower Bridge as viewed from the Tower of London - the final stop on your Heathrow Layover itinerary.

The Tower Bridge as viewed from the Tower of London

No matter how you get there, your ultimate objective should be the Tower of London. This was the original royal residence and the center of the city’s history for hundreds of years. Now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tower is a first-rate attraction. The tour given by the guards (called Beefeaters) is a fantastic overview to the Tower explaining its dual purpose as Royal residence and also prison. After the Beefeater Tour, spend some time wandering around the walled ramparts and visiting the Treasury to see the royal jewels. (We found the Treasury to be much more manageable and better organized than similar exhibits elsewhere, such as Vienna’s Hofburg Palace).

The Tower of London hosts a number of famous ravens.  Here, one poses for a picture in front of the Tower.  The Tower of London is the final stop on your Heathrow Layover.

The ravens of the Tower of London

By this time, you’re probably a little tired from your long, sleepless night on the overnight flight. You’re also probably a little hungry. There are numerous restaurants and street food in the Tower of London area. We oped for the perfect fish and chips at a nearby pub!

No Heathrow Layover would be complete without sampling the perfect fish and chips at a London pub!

When you finally tire of the fun, make your way back to the Underground and transfer to the Piccadilly line, taking it back to London’s Heathrow airport (last stop).

London is a world class city and there is so much to do! A person could spend weeks exploring this city. A 13-hour Heathrow layover is nothing more than a quick taste. I can’t believe I’ve never been to London before! This quick fix has made me want to come back.

The guards at the Tower of London (called Beefeaters) give a fantastic tour of the Tower.  This should not be missed on your Heathrow layover itinerary.

Beefeater Tour at the Tower of London

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Special thanks to our friends Megan and Indiana Jo for their help in putting together this ultimate long Heathrow layover itinerary.

*Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a few pennies to help with the web hosting, all at no additional cost to you.






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What do you think about Seeing London on a Long Heathrow Layover?

  1. Sandra June 8, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    I did this years ago on a 9 hour layover. I was traveling with someone who had never been. Thankfully security was easier then…got to spend a few hours! Great work to you for doing this!

  2. Megan June 9, 2014 at 5:52 am #

    Glad you had decent weather *and* made it to the Tower. It’s the one thing I never get tired of seeing…forgot to tell you to pop into the Hung, Drawn and Quartered pub near the Tower. Not sure about the fish and chips, but you can’t beat it for name cred and for the noose hanging from the ceiling (hello, instagram!). Now come back and spend more time…

    • Laura Longwell June 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

      Definitely on the list! Hope to get back to London soon.

  3. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) June 30, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    I love this little round up of some of the key places in my hometown! I used to live just a stone’s throw away from St James’ Park – it really is beautiful 🙂

  4. Maria July 21, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    I think you guys did a pretty job in the short space of time you had. Beautiful shot from St. James Park Footbridge, BTW! Because London is such a vast city, spread over a large area it’s easy to lose a lot of time trying to move from place to place. People who have only a few hours in London will find that time best spent by focusing on one main area.

  5. Leyla Giray Alyanak August 20, 2014 at 2:06 am #

    Excellent! I’m often in that situation, with hours to spend but a bit too lazy to plan it all out. As a result I have an intimate knowledge of more airports than I care to mention. So next time I’m in London I won’t need a plan – I have yours!

    • Laura Longwell August 28, 2014 at 1:34 am #

      We were lucky to have a little help from friends too 🙂

  6. Casey @ A Cruising Couple August 22, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Awesome guide! I love using long layovers to get out and see a snippet of the destination if at all possible. If I have a choice between five hours and twelve, I always choose the latter. This seriously made me want to get back to London!

    • Laura Longwell August 28, 2014 at 1:32 am #

      I’m glad 🙂 We also chose the long layover on purpose so we could explore a bit.

  7. Jennifer August 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    I too did this years ago on an 8 hour long layover. It was also my first visit to London and I got myself a hop-on hop-off ticket and popped around to as many sights as I could. Whenever I have a chance to get out an explore as opposed to sitting in the airport, I always take advantage to do that!
    Jennifer recently posted…Outdoor Adventures in Sweden’s DalslandMy Profile

    • Laura Longwell August 28, 2014 at 1:36 am #

      I’m not usually a huge fan of the hop-on-hop-off thing, but I actually did one in London once on a previous visit that was also under tight time constraints. It was an excellent way to see a lot in a short period of time.

  8. Cheryl Howard August 30, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    You guys really made the most of your layover. Great itinerary and photos. I’ve never been to London either, except for the airport so I really need to get myself there. 🙂

  9. Laura @Travelocafe September 1, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    Wow! You have managed to see and do a lot in such a limited time. Now you will just have to return and discover all the other great things London has to offer. Think about one month stay…
    Laura @Travelocafe recently posted…How To Make the Most of Your BritRail PassMy Profile

  10. Samantha September 8, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    These are great tips! We usually get stuck with long layovers like that since we try to get the cheapest ticket so it’s great to read some tips on what to do during that time. It actually works out pretty well, you get to go out and sightsee for a bit. Definitely using this when we go to London because knowing us we will probably have a long layover haha.

  11. Kristin Addis September 15, 2014 at 1:22 am #

    I just love London! Great tips about how to best spend it during a layover.

  12. Diana Edelman September 15, 2014 at 6:19 am #

    Great tips!! Can’t wait to get back there this fall!

  13. Abi September 15, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    Love this city

  14. Ayngelina September 15, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Wow you guys really crammed a lot into one layover. I’m impressed!
    Ayngelina recently posted…The Year I Walked Toward LoveMy Profile

  15. Leah September 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    Looks like you had the quintessential London experience in just 13 hours! Well done! That fish and chips at the end there looks especially delicious, if I ever make it to London (even just for 13 hours) I will absolutely be indulging in the same!

  16. Angie Away September 19, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    You saw quite a bit in just 13 hours! Well done! London is one of my favorite cities in the world.

  17. Camels & Chocolate September 23, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Honestly, as someone who has been to London a dozen times and isn’t a huge fan, 13 hours is the way to go 😉 Enough to get a taste for the city before you start experiencing all its annoyances!

  18. Sarah Simerson November 25, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    My friend and I only have 7 1/2 hr layover. Could we still see some of the sights? Say Westminster, palace,and Big Ben? What do you think?

    • Lance Longwell November 26, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

      Absolutely. In 7 1/2 hours, you can easily see Westminster and the St. James Park. Big Ben may be possible. We always worry about missing the next flight, so we tend to be conservative. But in 7 1/2 hours, you should be able to do something meaningful.

  19. MagdalenaJones May 6, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Haha…looks like a lot of us have done it the same way 😉 My layover was only 7 hour but I got to see the Palace. I had my little carry on suitcase and it started to pour 🙁 Both my bag and I got soaked. That was the extent of my 7 hour layover adventure.
    MagdalenaJones recently posted…Château de VersaillesMy Profile

  20. Alouise July 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

    Wow that’s quite a busy 17 hours. Glad you were able to go to London and see a few sights. It’s been a few years since my visit and I definitely want to go back.

    • Laura Longwell July 1, 2015 at 11:07 pm #

      It definitely was busy. Made us a little exhausted by the time we got to South Africa.

    • Lance Longwell July 4, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      We’re going back later this year Alouise to do London properly!

  21. Avik D August 1, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

    What an informative and awesome post Lance! Thanks a lot as it has helped a lot of travelers passing through London and having a long layover at LHR. To get a glimpse of London would be a treat to many tired eyes. I have couple of questions regarding this plan of yours: (I have a 9 hours layover at LHR next Saturday)

    1. If I get a travel card for a day (~ £17) as you have mentioned, which rides would be included? Piccadilly, Circle both of them? Because it seems from the Tower of London I don’t have the luxury of boarding Piccadilly underground. I have to take Circle train till Gloucester Road and then from there I can ride on Piccadilly till LHR 5. So trip using Circle would be included in the Travel Card too? Please confirm!

    2. If I take a boat from Westminster Pier to Tower Pier while reaching the Tower of London, will the same travel card be valid for this trip as well? Or do I need to pay extra for this? Kindly confirm!

    3. USDs are accepted for payments to restaurants in London? Or only GBPs? Please confirm!

    Would appreciate if you get sometime to answer to my questions really soon as my travel starts in the next few days.

    Regards,
    Avik.

    • Lance Longwell August 1, 2015 at 10:59 pm #

      Avik, It would be best to check on the website for the London Pass. However, if I recall correctly, all London trains are included, including the dockland railroad and also buses. I don’t believe the boats are included with the travel card.

      US Dollars are not accepted in the UK. All payment is in British pounds or credit cards (the credit card company will do the conversion for you).

      Have a great trip!

      • Avik D August 1, 2015 at 11:29 pm #

        Thanks Lance!

        You are absolutely correct. I saw it is mentioned here : http://www.londontravelpass.com/faqs.html that it can be used within Zones 1-6 on London’s local buses, London Underground, National Rail Trains, Docklands Light Rail, and the Tramlink. Also yes, the boats are NOT included in the travel card as you have mentioned.

        So I assume I can take a bus from London Eye to London Tower as well, right?

        Regards,
        Avik.

        • Lance Longwell August 2, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

          I assume the bus would be an option, although have not personally researched it. If it were me, I’d walk across the Jubilee Bridge and then take the Cirlce Line to the Tower Hill stop.

          • Avik D August 2, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

            Thanks a lot Lance! Your responses have helped me a lot in this case. Would get back to you if required.

            Thanks,
            Avik.

          • Avik D August 3, 2015 at 7:06 am #

            Hi Lance,

            one more question I had. I am travelling from India to the USA and hold a valid indian passport and US visa. So do I require transit visa for this plan (i.e. roaming around London for a few hours during the 9.5 hours layover) when leaving the airport and passing through UK customs/immigration?

            Please respond!

            Regards,
            Avik,
            India

          • Lance Longwell August 3, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

            Avik, sorry, I don’t know the answer to that. For us, U.S. citizens on a U.S. passport, we did not need a special visa. HOWEVER, we were required to show three documents: The passport (obviously), also the ticket from the flight we just deplaned and finally, we had to show proof of on-ward travel to Africa (both the tickets as well as our itinerary document). I should update this post with that information. Thanks for reminding me.

          • Avik D August 3, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

            Sure Lance, Thanks! Great help indeed!

  22. Stephanie March 4, 2016 at 4:12 am #

    Thank you for posting!!! This really helped!

    • Vandana April 12, 2016 at 1:40 am #

      Hi Avik,

      I have the same case as yours. Indian national, going to US, valid US visa. and with a possible layover of 15 hrs in London, I m planning to use this time to catch up with sm frnds n roam around. However, were you able to get out of airport only by showing boarding pass, passports n itinerary? or Do i need to arrange for any visa etc.

      Please let me know.

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