Two Nights In: How to Tackle a Short Stop in London
Rich with history and a hot, modern nightlife, what’s a traveler to do with just two nights in London?
Thanks to the rise of low-cost airlines, more and more Americans are choosing Europe as the location for their next vacation. And for many of those travelers, London serves as the entry and exit point, offering convenient access to the U.K., along with cheap flights to the rest of Europe’s major attractions.
With so much to see in Europe, it’s easy to zip in and out of bustling London town, but while your next European vacation may not focus around the city, that’s no excuse to skip Europe’s most American-friendly capital. If your next flight sends you through Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted — and you’ve got two nights to spare — you can leave London with both a taste for its authentic side and a laundry list of iconic buildings checked off your list.
Here’s how to make the most of a short stop in London:
Day One: Take the Night Tour
London’s night tour has no official routes, no official rules and no official start time for late-arriving travelers. Done properly, there are no crowds and no tour guides here. However, what you lose in prepared speeches, you gain back in valuable time.
Most of the city’s famous sites are located in Central London. The London Eye, National Gallery, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace are all within walking distance of one another. (Photogenic red phone booths abound near each.) Your cell phone might not be the best bet for taking like-worthy photos here, but if you’re equipped with a newer phone or a camera with long exposure settings, you’ll be in good shape. As a bonus, you’ll be snapping more unique photos than anyone taking to the crowded streets during the day.
The Underground is your best mode of transportation into and out of Central London, so load up 20 pounds on an Oyster card, available at kiosks in front of most tube stations, and get to it. Westminster Station will put you topside in the midst of it all, just steps from all but Buckingham Palace, which lies several blocks away; but beware, the Westminster Station gets extremely crowded during the day. St. James Park is a relatively close alternate to Westminster that places you nearer Buckingham Palace. Waterloo Station places you across the Thames from Big Ben.
Once you’ve soaked up Central London, stroll over to a local pub like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has been serving patrons since the 1500s. It sits on the ruins of a 13th-century monastery, and is happy to serve you on an oak table that Charles Dickens once, allegedly, dined at. (Pro tip: Try the steak and kidney pudding.)
Wine lovers will fall over themselves at Gordon’s Wine Bar, where the real party lies in the cellar, which is, well, actually a cellar. Ambience is unmatched at Gordon’s; it’s the kind of place that doubles as more than a few local’s secret spot.
Either of these establishments will put you within a 10-minute walk of Temple Station, where you can board the tube for vistas of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge via Tower Hill Station.
If you’ve still got some adventure left in you there, your Oyster card will work for one of London’s water taxis, which dock below the Tower of London and give you a close-up view of the River Thames.
Be sure to check the tube schedule for the last train of the night. Late night trains are more frequent on the weekends, but last call during the week is usually around midnight depending on which line you’re riding. Once you’re home, get ready for…
Day Two: Get Your Learn On
London is a different world in the daytime. The stress-free streets of its evenings give way to a hive of locals and tourists zipping from meeting to meeting and attraction to attraction during the day.
Most of the tourists will be headed where you were last night, but don’t pity them on your way through the coffee shop. There’s no way to avoid the masses during daylight, even for a travel pro like you. Today, you will be among them. However, you’re going to a quiet place that’s impressive enough to slow almost all of them down: The British Museum.
Opinions vary on the British Museum. Is it right to have most of the world’s national treasures under one roof? Do the British have rightful claim to relics from the Parthenon or the Valley of the Kings? Ask a hundred people, and you’ll get a hundred opinions on the British Museum. The one they’ll all have in common is this: It’s surreal.
Your task for Day Two is to grab your coffee and stroll the corridors. Hop off the tube at Holborn Station and follow the signs for the British Museum. Entrance is free, but you will be subject to a bag check. Note: Large luggage is not allowed inside the museum. If you’re in dire straits, you can check your big bags at King’s Cross Station, which conveniently connects to Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
For those less inclined to spend most of a day in a single museum, swing by the much smaller Sir John Soane’s Museum, where you can see a macabre collection of artwork, artifacts and sculpture from around the world. Sir Soane was a renowned neoclassical architect who left his home and collection to the people.
Sir Soane’s Museum has been untouched since 1837 and is often free of crowds during the daytime. Trust us when we say the place is a magnet for the bizarre.
Both the British Museum and Sir Soane’s pair well with an afternoon trip to the up-and-coming Shoreditch area in East London. Shoreditch is home to at least three breweries and an innumerable amount of ethnic restaurants. BrewDog’s Punk IPA is the most popular craft beer in the U.K., while Black Eagle Brewery on Brick Street puts you in a Wonka-like factory setting close to exceptional Indian food. (Pro tip: If you find yourself in an eatery with sticky toffee pudding, do yourself a favor and indulge for a shot at a ‘food moment.’)
While our two-day guide surely won’t cover everything you can do in London — we haven’t even touched football games or a mountain of hip neighborhoods — it can give you a taste of both the modern and the historical city. Each of London’s three major airports is accessible via the Underground, meaning a two-night stopover in London won’t set you back much in the way of transportation expenses. It might; however, add some priceless memories to your trip.