The Rabbit Hole
We have all been down the rabbit hole of searching for the perfect flight.
A mere two months after our grueling month-long move from California to Spain (more on that later), I was sitting in front of my computer screen frantically searching for flights back stateside that would get me to Nebraska for a wedding without forcing the family to survive on ramen noodles while I was away. Cue the rabbit hole.
What started out as… this will be great! I can book a flight from the local airport and get to the United States and back with no problems! quickly turned into a WHAT KIND OF MONSTER EXPECTS ME TO PAY 3,000€ FOR A FLIGHT WITH THREE STOPOVERS?
Side Note: Yes, I use Euros now because I am fancy. #expatlife
What is a girl to do? I wanted to stand by my friend on her big day, but I couldn’t justify spending that much money for such a short trip back stateside. I turned to the airline equivalent of the cautionary be careful what you wish for expression: Low-cost airlines.
Stick with me, here.
Low-cost airlines are both a blessing and a curse. With patience, proper planning, flexibility, and a knack for packing light, booking a flight with a low-cost airline can save you hundreds of dollars. Any misstep in planning, however, can cost you! Packed a little too heavy? That’s an extra 50€. Forgot to check-in before your flight? That’s another 50€. Want a seat with extra legroom? Expect to pay 15€ or more. If you aren’t careful, the fees can end up being more than the flight itself!
This is where London comes into the picture. I thought, London is a huge international hub. Surely there are some decently priced flights from London to Denver. I cautiously resumed my search. HOLY SMOKES, BATMAN. There it was. A nonstop flight for a quarter of the price of flying out of Spain. Now how do I get from southern Spain to London? The budget travel gods must have been smiling down on me, because Ryanair had just the flight I was looking for… but there was a catch. A limited flight schedule meant an overnight layover in London on my way out of Europe and a 48 hour layover upon my return.
With a little coaxing, I convinced my husband that he would survive a few extra days solo with our toddler (who is the human equivalent of a caffeine fueled Tasmanian devil) and my quick trip turned into a vacation within a vacation. Once the flights were booked, I began my planning. This would be my first trip to London and I wanted to make the most of it!
The GWF 48 Hour Layover Guide to London
Let me preface this post by saying: it is impossible to enjoy all that London has to offer in 48 hours. I am convinced it would take 48 days, months, or even years to visit and absorb every bit of London culture. Samuel Johnson once said, “you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Boy, was he right!
Before I get to my list of stops, keep these three things in mind while planning your layover to London!
- Prioritize Your List. Everyone has different objectives when traveling. Start brainstorming your must-see items and build your list around those key stops, especially if they require reservations. My itinerary revolved entirely around theatre and afternoon tea. Some might have something more macabre in mind (I’m looking at you, Jack the Ripper fans) and others might want something a bit more outdoorsy. You name it, London (probably) has it. Once you have your big ticket items penciled in, start filling in the gaps with other lower priority attractions.
- All of London is Your Oyster! For ease of travel, make sure to buy an Oyster Card. The London Underground is a beautiful thing. No, really, how do they keep it so clean? All you need to do is purchase a card, top it up with some pounds, and tap in and out of each station. The card also works on busses, light rail, and the overground. Remember that children under the age of 11 travel free throughout London!
- Be Flexible. Shit happens. Quite literally when you are traveling with young children. Whether it is a delayed flight, a traffic jam, a missed train, cancelled events, or bad weather, be flexible! Did your outdoor picnic get rained out? Go hole up in the Tate Modern and explore some art. Always have a backup list of sites to see in case something goes wrong down the line!
Keep reading for a list of the stops I made in London.
The Queen’s Walk in South Bank
I like to wander (hence, Go Wandering Forth), but I prefer to wander with purpose! The Queen’s Walk is a promenade built along the south side of the River Thames in South Bank. It was built in 1977 to mark the 25th anniversary (or silver jubilee) of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. The walk officially begins at Lambeth Bridge in the east and ends at Tower Bridge to the west. However, the most popular stretch seems to begin at Westminster Bridge. The entire walk will take around an hour at a brisk pace. Plan on taking 2-3 hours total if you plan on stopping to take in the sites. Keep in mind that traveling east to west will spit you out closer towards Central London to continue your sightseeing.
This walk is a must for anyone short on time (hint, hint, those of you on a layover). It is a great way to walk along the River Thames and take in some of London’s most popular attractions. You can see it all in one go or, if you are like me, split the walk up between two days. I suggest beginning the walk at Westminster Abbey and making your way across Westminster Bridge to connect to the promenade. Along the walk you will see the following attractions, in order from east to west:
- Westminster Abbey
- Churchill War Rooms
- Ben Ben and Houses of Parliament
- Westminster Bridge
- South Bank Lion
- Florence Nightingale Museum
- County Hall
- London Aquarium
- London Dungeon
- London Eye
- Jubilee Bridges
- Southbank Centre
- Queen Elizabeth Hall
- Hayward Gallery
- National Theatre
- Tate Modern
- Millenium Bridge
- Shakespeare’s Globe
- Winchester Palace
- Golden Hinde
- Borough Market
- Southwark Cathedral
- Hay’s Galleria
- HMS Belfast
- City Hall
- Tower Bridge
- Tower of London
The promenade has a little bit of something for everyone. Whether you are traveling as a family, with friends, or solo, there is bound to be something you will enjoy. While you are walking along, make sure to visit one of the numerous pop-up coffee shops and restaurants along the walk.
I like to think of myself as a self-professed art history nerd. Those two art history courses back in college really went to my head. Consequentially, I find myself in a new art museum in nearly every city I travel to. #newcitynewmuseum, amirite? I asked around about the best art museums in London and, after resounding universal agreement, I found myself at Tate Modern. Color me impressed!
Bonus: You can stop off at the Tate about halfway through the Queen’s Walk.
Double Bonus: Entrance into the museum is completely FREE!
Currently, the Tate is hosting Christian Marclay’s installation of The Clock. When visiting modern art museums, I typically skip over video installations for the sake of time. I am not sure what drew me in, but I went in and sat down to watch The Clock for a few minutes. Y’all. It was so cool. Marclay created a 24 hour long looping montage of clips from film and television all having one thing in common. Clocks. It was all so seamless! Who knew that a clip of James Bond staring at his watch, then suddenly looking up to see the Queen of Genovia from Princess Diaries would work so well? Read more about his installation here.
Another artist who caught my eye was American artist Jenny Holzer. Her art focuses on textual messages through various media that make moving social and political statements. One piece that stuck with me was a condom with “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE” written across the wrapper. Let that sink in. Read more about Holzer’s exhibit here.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Prior to traveling to London, my top priority was to see a show. After failing to secure tickets at National Theatre and the Globe, a lightbulb appeared and I maniacally began my Google search… BEST OPEN AIR THEATRE IN LONDON. This is how I discovered the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Even better, they were showing Little Shop of Horrors (bob sh-bob, little shop of terrors). It was like I hit the jackpot! Tickets were available the night of my arrival to London. I dragged them to my online cart and prayed to all things holy that my flight to London would not be delayed!
If you are visiting London in the spring or summer, this is my number one recommendation. Be sure to arrive early and take advantage of all that the neighborhood, the park, and the venue have to offer. Just outside of the park, you can visit 221B Baker Street and the Sherlock Holmes Museum (where my nerds at?), go to the Daunt Books bookstore, see the Abbey Road Zebra Crossing, or go shopping at the Camden Market. Within the park, be sure to see Regent’s University, the Queen Mary’s Gardens, and (especially those traveling with children) the ZSL London Zoo. The theatre itself boasts a wonderful bar and grill, covered dining, and luxury picnic baskets for two. Just be sure and book your food when you make your ticket reservations. We chose to eat at the outdoor grill and it was beautiful.
Mark my words, I will be back!
The London Dungeon
Day two of my layover started with the corniest and most touristy thing we did the entire time I was in London. In a good way! If you are a fan of cheesy gallows humor and macabre London history, this is for you. Find yourself in the middle of London’s most famous events. Take a boat to traitor’s gate to face your execution for conspiring with Anne Boleyn. Hear how Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot was thwarted and the fate he met in the aftermath. Check into the Pest House and see if you can survive the plague. Escape the clutches of Jack the Ripper, hear the folklore surrounding Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, and more!
The London Dungeon is located over by the London Eye and other tourist attractions. Be sure to book tickets one after another to minimize wasted time from waiting or jumping around the city. Or make your stop into the Dungeon on your way down the Queen’s Walk.
While waiting for your time slot at the London Dungeon, grab a coffer (or tea!) and take in the views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. As you may or may not know, Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben are currently undergoing renovation and are almost entirely covered in scaffolding. Renovations are set to last through the fall of 2021. Renovations aside, the tower and the Houses of Parliament are still a wonderful sight to see.
We eventually made our way to the east side of the bridge. Walking around the Houses of Parliament will lead you to Westminster Abbey. This Gothic beauty has been the location of all English and British coronations since 1066. That’s nearly a thousand years, holy cow! You might know it as the church where William and Kate were married. #royalwedding
Continuing east through Westminster, we made our way towards St. James Park and Buckingham Palace. This is it! The (queen) mother of all London attractions. The residence of Queen Elizabeth herself! Or, at least the London residence. Imagine having thousands of photo-taking tourists outside your bedroom every day… *shutters* Buckingham Palace is a must-see, but not necessary somewhere you need to spend hours of your precious layover time!
On our way to the palace, we walked through St. James Park. Other parks nearby include Green Park, the Buckingham Palace Gardens, and the larger Hyde Park to the east. You could easily spend a day in the parks alone! Be sure to take a stroll through the park on your way to Buckingham Palace. You won’t be disappointed!
Covent Garden is the name of a public marketplace and the neighborhood that encompasses it. The area is just north of Buckingham Palace. It is a cultural hub in the city of London and is filled with wonderful shopping, restaurants, bars, and even theatre! Start at the Covent Garden Marketplace and work your way out from there. Aim to be there around lunch time and take advantage of the wonderful restaurants in the area. Hit up The Ivy for some modern British cuisine or head down to Lamb and Flag, once frequented by Charles Dickens.
Afternoon Tea at Sketch
My second priority traveling to London for the first time was to have a proper afternoon tea. I relinquished control on this one and left the planning in the hands of my friend from London, who kept me in the dark until we arrived. She brought me to afternoon tea at Sketch, a funky tearoom by day and cocktail lounge by night. Sketch is funky, modern, and a complete experience. If you are looking for a proper afternoon tea in an amazing venue, this will be your cup of tea (he he he). If you are searching for something more traditional, be sure to check out The Ritz. Either way, get your name on the books before your trip to ensure you will have a seat.
Shopping, Shopping, Shopping!
If you are looking to fill in some dead time, take a walk through some of Central London’s best shopping areas. I already covered Covent Garden, but there are endless shopping options in London! Head to the Oxford Circus tube station and pick a direction! There is shopping all along Oxford Street, or you can head south on Regent Street toward Piccadilly Circus for a good mix of budget and more traditional shops. This is where you will find Liberty, a luxury department store where you are sure to find a few goods with royal warrants. Wander east to Bond Street for luxury shopping (or window shopping) at places like Tiffany & Co. or Burberry. If you are looking for a mix of independent boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and bars, head to Carnaby Street – located right off Regent Street between Oxford and Piccadilly Circus. Shop til you drop! Errmm, or at least until the next item on your itinerary!
Not to be confused with London Bridge (is falling down), Tower Bridge is located off of the Tower of London, and is a sight to behold! Make your way down the Queen’s Walk and see the bridge both from afar and up close. Or, take the trip to the top of the Shard and see it from above!I even took the obligatory cheesy-smile-in-front-of-the-London-Tower photo. Corny, I know! When you are done taking it all in, make your way across the bridge and check out the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels and maybe even get a visit from the ghost of Anne Boleyn. OooOoOOOoooo spooooky!
King’s Cross Station
I did make a quick visit to the Kings Cross St. Pancras Station on my overnight layover en route to the United States. I didn’t spend too much there, but it was worth the visit! The architecture is beautiful, especially at sunset, and there is decent shopping inside the station. Let’s not forget about Platform 9 3/4 for all my Harry Potter fans out there!
My first visit to London was a whirlwind, but it was so much fun. I look forward to visiting again – next time, with the family in tow. Comment below with your favorite locations in London!