On the way back to the US from Nepal, I scheduled a stopover in London, UK. I was so excited to visit Europe again, and to have my very first hostel experience.
I timed my stay so that I would arrive in the evening, have a whole day to explore London, then leave the following morning. Two nights and one full day.
If you have only one day in London and want to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible, stick around and I will show you how.
I decided the best way to see as much of London as possible was to purchase a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. I bought my ticket through The Original Tour company and was all set. It was really nice not to have to worry about arranging transportation throughout London for the day and not to have to take out a map every five minutes.
Using this tour company made it really easy to cram as many London must-sees into one day, and I highly recommend looking into this option if you only have one day in London.
Here’s how it went:
I took the train from the Hammersmith station right outside my hostel, into Trafalgar Square where the tour company’s office and London Visitor’s Centre was. I picked up my bus tickets at about 9:00AM, along with a couple of maps, and headed on my way.
The first bus station was just outside the office (how convenient!). It was only a short wait until the bus came my way. Of course I elected to sit in the open-air, top level to get my first glimpse of London.
We were off, driving into the heart of the city. My ipad swung from right to left as I tried to take photographs of everything around me. The auditory commentary playing on the bus gave short descriptions of all the noteworthy places we were driving past, which was incredibly helpful.
I got off the bus at the stop for St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’m a sucker for a good cathedral. I always love to look at the ceilings. After taking a few pictures outside, I walked up the steps into the cathedral. You couldn’t get very far inside before you joined a “queue” to pay for entry. I love a good cathedral, but not enough to pay for it. Does that make me awful and stingy? Maybe. Somehow I live.
I took in the cathedral from where I stood, and made my way back outside. Before leaving, I caught a small sign printed on simple white computer paper advertising for a choir performance at the Cathedral later that night. I made a mental note and headed back to the bus stop.
Back on the bus, I was all too excited to discover that we would now be driving over the London Bridge. I sang the little children’s song in my head before deciding that the song is maybe a little dark for a children’s song…
Anyway, thanks to the commentary I learned that the song derived from a point in London’s history where each time they would get a new Prime Minister, he would tear down the bridge and build a new one. So for a while there, it seemed like London Bridge was just always falling down. There are also some other…darker…theories on what the song is about, but I’m sticking with the one I heard on the bus.
As far as the look of London Bridge- Not so noteworthy. Just kind of…a bridge. Especially when you compare it to the beautiful Tower Bridge!
Tower Bridge usually gets confused for the London Bridge. Since more people have heard of the London Bridge, they assume its the pretty one. Nope.
London Bridge: Boring and standard.
Tower Bridge: Magnificent and pretty.
I decided that I wanted to be able to walk over the Tower Bridge instead of taking the bus over, so I got off two stops before the bridge. This gave me some time to take pictures from the riverside and to stop into a cafe for a quick warm-up. I was not ready for the cool, rainy weather in London after being in the warm humidity of Nepal’s jungles…
During my walk to the Tower Bridge, I walked past The Shard. This is a fairly new, fairly well known skyscraper that looms over the city of London. Known mostly for its modern glass structure, this building literally looks like a shard of glass sticking up over the London skyline. If I remember correctly, it’s mostly offices.
I also found this really nifty statue-map-thing. And since I love maps more than life itself, I stopped to study it and snap some pictures. This was also where the “Would you mind taking a picture for me” parade started. I must look like a trustworthy and talented photographer, because I ended up being asked to take pictures for about 7 different people within one day.
Then it was time. Crossing the tower bridge. I just loved how pretty it was with the two towers adorned with small bits of robins-egg blue. I decided I would come back to the bridge later on in the day.
Coming off the bridge, I decided to forego the bus for a bit. The sun was at least trying to peak through and the morning mist was clearing up. I took a left off the bridge towards an old prison-looking building. Turns out that’s just what it was! The Tower of London.
The Tower of London holds TONS of history. It was incredible to walk past it and imagine all that occurred within its walls. Throughout its time, this building has served many purposes and has seen a lot of death. I mean…a lot of death. And bears.
I didn’t have the budget for an entry ticket, nor did I want to eat up a lot of my one day visiting the museum, but I did wander through some of the gift shops and browsed photo books to get an idea of the history behind the Tower.
From there, I hopped back on the bus. I didn’t stay on long as we crossed back over the Thames, headed for my next must-see destination: The Globe Theatre. Rebuilt in the likeness of the original theater, the Globe still puts on a series of Shakespeare’s great works throughout the year. I considered purchasing a ticket to see a play that evening. I wanted to be able to see the actual theater, as the doors were not open to regular tourists. But then I remembered I don’t like Shakespeare all that much to warrant the extra expense.
There was a gift shop inside the lobby area, and I took some time to explore. As I was leaving the gift shop, I noticed a group of high-schoolish looking kids being led into the theater by a guide. I casually slipped into the group, quickly making conversation with a kid next to me, and entered the theater.
The colors just blew me away. All the exposed wood transported me back to the 1600s. I could imagine the audience within their seats listening intently about Hamlet’s being and not being. I imagined the actor, artfully reciting his soliloquy among the red and gold stage.
I stuck around with the group and strained to listen to the tour guide’s commentary. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear him over the sounds of all the students and other tour guides within the theater. I’d had my fill and decided to move on. When I got back to the door to exit, the doorman gave me a puzzled look. “Are you allowed to leave your group alone?” he asked. “Oh, I’m not with a group” I confessed and flashed my most innocent smile. He gave a small chuckle and an approving smile back before opening the door for me.
I was grateful to jump back on the bus and be able to sit for a bit. The bus took us over another bridge and followed the the bend of the River Thames. I took more photos of the city as we drove, and decided to get off again just before we got to the Houses of Parliament. I got a few pictures of the London Eye and internally saluted the kitschy tourist attraction before walking onward.
Ahead of me, I noticed Big Ben. I really wasn’t expecting much from just another clock tower. I’d seen it in several movies and knew what it looked like. I planned to get a photo and move on. But I was just about knocked off my feet.
It was gorgeous. I didn’t anticipate to see this ornate golden structure jutting out among the drab stone architecture that lined the most of London I’d seen.
Another London bit that people often get confused is that Big Ben is actually the name of the giant bell inside the clock tower. The tower itself is not Big Ben.
I took many more pictures than I thought I would. I just couldn’t get over how gorgeous it was.
Once I got my fill of the tower, I crossed the street and headed over to Westminster Abbey. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go inside without having to pay an entrance fee, so I stuck to taking photos of the outside. There were a lot of people there and it was difficult to get good pictures, so I moved on. I decided to forego the bus again and walked through St. James’ Park on the way to Buckingham Palace.
It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city atmosphere. I liked observing people enjoying their lunches on park benches, and seeing the swans swim through the pond. I emerged from the greenery and found my way up to Buckingham Palace.
Okay, now when I imagine a palace, I imagine beautiful colors and gold. I imagine tall, skyscraping towers, marble courtyards, beautiful water fountains and lush gardens.
It’s got a water fountain?
I was really disappointed in the lack of Disney-esque elements. It’s another grey stone building in London. One long rectangle with not much height to revel in. Even the palace guards weren’t as cool as I was hoping for.
I stuck around the palace for a long time, trying oh so hard to appreciate it. I walked around to get different angles. I climbed up the steps of the fountain to try and see it from a higher perspective. I went up to the fence, as close as I could get. It just wouldn’t do it for me. It was crowded. You couldn’t get very good pictures with the tall black fencing around it. And it was just kind of…[dare I say it]…ugly.
I do feel bad saying it. But as consolation for Buckingham Palace enthusiasts out there…I also wasn’t impressed by the White House either. I guess I just expect our world leaders to live at the Ritz?
Feeling disappointed, I headed to the nearest bus stop. There awaited a bus attendant for another one of London’s tour companies. We struck up a conversation and I learned that he was originally from Australia and that he studied history and geology. I also learned that he was not all that satisfied with his job in London and was hoping to get more involved with archaeology. I told him that he should move to Egypt and follow his dreams. He laughed at me and called me out for being young and full of hope.
Perhaps I am guilty.
I got back on the bus and rode it around until we got to Baker Street. I just had to get off here and put my feet on Baker Street- the home of Sir Basil of Baker Street, from Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. It was there that I learned Baker Street was also supposed to house Sherlock Holmes. It makes sense, since the animated mouse character solved mysteries and had a striking resemblance to Arthur Doyle’s famous character. I’m not ashamed that I know more about Disney than about famous literary works. Deal.
While on Baker Street I just couldn’t ignore the rumbling in my stomach anymore. It was probably 4 or 5 o’clock in the evening and I was hungry. So far I’d only dined on the free breakfast provided by my hostel. I popped into a very small restaurant, determined to dine on a traditional English delicacy: Fish & Chips. I ordered and sat down on my own in the restaurant. Yes, it is awkward to eat in a restaurant alone. Yes, I managed the awkwardness by playing on my ipad. Yes, I did use vast amounts of tomato sauce on my chips.
Finishing my meal, I realized that the dark clouds were getting darker. I decided I had seen pretty much every major thing I had wanted to see. My feet were practically falling off. I was exhausted from the time change. I got back on the bus and just relaxed as we drove through the whole loop of London again. I took the time to just look around and try to notice everything I hadn’t earlier. As we looped back towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, I remembered the concert advertised earlier and decided to stop and check it out. You should still be able to hear a concert from the entryway, right?
Turns out I was able to walk right in without having to pay any fee. Saved about $23, got to see the pretty ceilings, and got a free concert! I’d call that a solid travel win.
I stuck around probably a half an hour. The sky was getting darker and I needed to decide my plan of action for the evening. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of wandering around London at nighttime by myself, but I wasn’t ready to head back to my hostel either. I ended up at Her Majesty’s Theatre buying a ticket to see Phantom of the Opera.
I was in the literal back row.
It felt incredibly strange to enter a beautiful theater in capris, hiking boots, semi-full backpack, and a bright salmon-colored rainjacket.
After the show, I found my way back to the tube station. I stopped in a few tourist shops on the way, drawn in by the bright lights and union jacks. Making my way back to my hostel and hiking up all the stairs, I happily untied my shoes and settled into bed, feeling satisfied with my full day in London.
There’s a lot to see in London in just one day! But what did I miss?