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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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