The first time I visited London was on a stop-over from Australia to Rome and I had a measly 24 hours to explore the city. My quick stay consisted of frantically moving from one tourist attraction to the next in an attempt to jam as much into my one day in London as I possibly could. I left feeling overwhelmed and deflated, crushed by the hectic pulse of the city, the relentless crowds and the stifling August heat. Five years on, I was ready for a rematch and my itchy feet lured me back to London again. However, this time was not going to be a whirlwind trip – I was moving indefinitely. I was sceptical and uneasy, remembering my first experience of the city and wondering how I could possibly cope with its unremitting pace. But over time, I adjusted and as the years passed I fell deeply in love with the chaos of London. Looking back, I can’t help but think that maybe if I had planned my first 24 hour trip better, I would have had a much more enjoyable experience. So, here’s my practical, 5 years in the making, guide to how to best spend 24 hours in the capital.
Start early to get ahead of the crowds and check out the big tourist’s attractions first before the masses have even had a chance to have breakfast. As the soft morning light dapples the pavement, head to Buckingham Palace and marvel in the incredible architecture and grandeur of one of the most famous royal residences in the world. Even the gates are impressive – concealing the 775 rooms (yes, you read that right!) and 39 acres of private gardens.
Once you’ve taken the obligatory selfies and given the Queen a wave, walk the 15 minutes through St James Park to Big Ben. The impressive clock tower, to which all Londoners set their time against, is best seen from Westminster Bridge where you can also take in the view of the Houses of Parliament. In the early morning light, the view is truly surreal.
Cross the bridge and head over in the direction of the London Eye (that all-imposing Ferris Wheel). But do not join the line, as with only a day to see the city, the last thing you want to be doing is waiting for your turn to go round a giant wheel a few times. Instead, there are much better (and less busy) places to get a birds-eye view of the city (more to come on that later!) This side of the Thames River is called the Southbank and there are often markets, book stalls, street performers and food trucks lined up along the path which are well-worth a peak.
Eventually, you will come across an eyesore of a building and you will have reached the Tate Modern. It’s a former power station, which explains its imposing presence on the banks of the Thames, but it’s what’s inside that is truly remarkable. Have a quick wonder through and you will see one of the biggest collections of modern and contemporary art in the world. With limited time, make a beeline for the permanent collection and then head to the tenth floor to check out the sweeping view of London across the Thames River. (It’s free to access and much better than the view from the London eye!)
By this time, your stomach is probably starting to rumble and you are ready for lunch. There’s no better place in London to grab a tasty meal than Borough Markets. From the Tate Modern, Borough Markets is about a 10 minute walk as you follow the path along the river. Borough Markets is one of my favourite places in London and it’s a place I keep coming back to for my fill of gourmet goodies and cuisines from all over the world. Sitting snugly under re-purposed railway arches, it has a whole world of food on offer as well as plenty of vegetarian and vegan options as well. There are also a bunch of great coffee shops, cafes and bars on the edges of the markets if you want to put your feet up and take a well-deserved break. (I highly recommend London Grind and Monmouth Coffee Shop.)
After you have sufficiently refilled, take the underground over to Covent Garden for a bit of window shopping and to stock up on any souvenirs. The area is full of British brands such as Ted Baker (for clothing), Jo Malone (for perfumes), Kurt Geiger (for shoes) and Charlotte Tilbury (for make-up). Housed in the enclosed Jubilee Market, is a row of stalls selling handmade and locally made products such as art, candles, clothing and jewellery. If you come on a Monday, however, the market is dedicated to antiques. Now, during my lunch breaks, I wonder through Covent Garden and stop off to watch the street performers and musicians – they are unbelievably entertaining.
If you are keen to shop for the rest of the afternoon, head up to Oxford Street which is a ridiculously long road full of high-street shops. Otherwise, walk the five minutes over to Leicester Square and check out what is playing in the West End Theatres.
One of my favourite things about London is that on any given night, there is a huge selection of phenomenal musicals and plays which grace the stages of London’s many theatres. The musicals in the West End – all of which are about a 10 minute walk from Leicester Square – are easy to grab tickets to on the same day from the box offices. Each year there are over 18,000 theatre productions to choose from in London, but for me, the old classics such as Wicked, Les Miserable and the Phantom of the Opera – are always worth seeing.
You’ll emerge from the theatre totally uplifted and probably feeling a little excited and a little hungry. Luckily, there are a few eating areas on your doorstep. Chinatown sits right behind Leicester Square and is the place to go to fill up on a big bowl of noodles, all-you-can eat dumplings or delicious sushi. All the restaurants in Chinatown serve incredibly tasty food and you really can’t go wrong when choosing where you want to feast. Alternatively, head into Soho, which has more restaurants than I could ever visit during the five years I have lived in the city.
After dinner, the glowing neon lights of Soho will lure you into its lively clandestine bars. And much like its restaurant choices, the nightlife in Soho has something for everyone. If, like me, you prefer cocktails and jazz – then head to Cahoots, Ronnie Scott’s, the Piano Bar or Bar Termini. There’s also some phenomenal LGBT+ friendly bars and nightclubs if you want to kick on to the early hours of the morning.
When it’s finally time to collapse into a comfortable bed, check yourself into the
The hotel caters for intrepid travellers who really only need a room to sleep in and plan on spending most of their time out and about exploring the city. However, the massive downstairs open-plan living and dining area is perfect for kicking back, catching up on emails using their free iMacs or having some downtime in front of the TV’s. There’s also a canteen-style café/bar which is stocked with yummy snacks and phenomenal coffee. I love the quirky British themed art and furnishings which give the hotel a cool, contemporary and modern vibe.
However, the hotel’s highlight is on the 8th floor. Sitting high above the rooftops of London and with an incredible view of the Tower of London, the CloudM bar is one of the city’s best kept secrets. Ultra suave and impeccably designed, the bar oozes coolness and is a great spot to watch the sun descend over the city.
There really is a million things to keep you occupied in London, but if you only had a day, I hope this guide helps you to make the most of your 24 hours. Have you spent 24 hours in London and can share some of your own tips on what to see in a day?
*Disclaimer: I was gifted one night stay at the CitizenM Hotel but all opinions are my own.