The ultimate guide to a day in London – see all the best bits!
By Helen Wright
If you are planning one day in London, it’s understandable that you’ll want to see as much as possible during your visit. London is an excellent city to explore and there is so much to do. You can even spend a day in London without spending any money – it’s THAT good. However, if it’s your first time in London or you’re only in London for one day, it’s possible to take in over 25 of the most famous London sights with this very simple one-day itinerary.
We recently spent a day in London putting this exact itinerary to the test. Using some of the city’s most fun transportation, including boats, cable car, the tube and a hop-on-hop-off open-top bus, we managed to see all the key sights of London in a day and spend some time exploring too.
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A day in London with kids
If you are planning a day in London with kids, you may have some big tourist attractions in mind for your visit, such as Madame Tussauds, the Tower of London or The Natural History Museum. If you want to explore these larger attractions, I recommend setting aside a separate day to enjoy them properly. Madame Tussauds, for example, will take 2-3 hours to get around and museums like the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum can take 4-5 hours – or more!
We followed this itinerary for a day in London with four kids aged between 2 and 10 and it was a huge success. If you have more time to explore the city, take a look at some of our other London posts to plan your adventure in the capital city.
Plan a day in London: where to start?
Where and when you start enjoying a day in London, really depends on where you are staying. As we live in east London, we started our day to the east of the city but, of course, you can change the itinerary around to suit your location and interests.
Wherever you are staying, it’s easy to get across London for a day on the tube. Children under 11 can travel free on London Buses and Trams, the Tube, the DLR, London Overground, Elizabeth line and some National Rail services. When you get to the gates, ask an attendant to let you through, or use the wider, accessible gates. If you have a wheelchair or buggy, many stations are step-free and you can plan a step-free route here.
The ultimate guide to a day in London – how to see all the best bits of London in one day
A fun way to start the day is on the Emirates Cable Car. This is a gondola that crosses the River Thames at North Greenwich, close to the O2 Stadium. The view is okay (they have been building something underneath it for what feels like 75 years, but my kids like diggers and mud, so that works). It’s more the novelty of floating over the river in little pods and it’s a fun and inexpensive thing to do during a day in London. Children 4 and under travel for FREE and kids 5-15 are £2.50 (adult fare £5).
Board the cable car at Royal Victoria Docks station, which is on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Riding the DLR is another fun way for kids to travel during a day in London as these driverless trains have windows at the front and my children love to pretend they are actually driving the train. Heaps of fun, and I can enjoy my coffee for a few stops! See my post on London with toddlers for more fun and cheap ideas in London for a day with little ones.
What is at the Greenwich Peninsula?
The Greenwich Peninsula has been given the most cheerful and colourful makeover in recent years and is now a super fun place for kids and adults to hang out. This summer there are extra events happening, including entertainment, outdoor movies and exhibitions. The emirates cable car will drop you down here and it’s a great place to stretch your legs, have a drink or breakfast and (especially with little ones) use the loo before your next adventure!
A day in London? Take the Uber Boat to the main tourist areas
If you have taken the Emirates Cable Car to North Greenwich, you have a choice of different routes to get back into the tourist epicentre of London, the fastest being the Jubilee Line Tube, getting off at Westminster. However, a way more fun way to travel into town is by Uber Boat, the Thames Clipper.
Zoom down the river ‘James Bond Style’ with stops at Greenwich Maritime Museum, Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge, before traveling down the river passing The Shard, Tate Modern, The London Eye and Westminster. Adult fares start from £3.50 with a Travelcard, children are half price and under-5s are free. There are toilets, a bar and a lots of seating on board.
TOP TIP: I use this time to give my kids some lunch, to save time stopping later on.
How to see as much as possible during a day in London
London may seem like a huge city, but in fact, many of London’s most beautiful buildings and landmarks are in the city of London and relatively close to one another. My favourite way to see as much as possible during a day in London is to book a Hop-On-Hop-Off sightseeing tour. That way, you can easily get around the main sights (taking in some great views as you go) and stop at the attractions or places you want to explore.
We used Tootbus.com and had a really positive experience with them. If you book online you can get a discount on the tour and they also do a family ticket which saves money as a group booking.
Why we liked Tootbus for our open-top bus tour
The tours in London vary, but TootBus has stops at all the major places, such as Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Marble Arch and Victoria Station. The tour bus comes with an audio guide that plugs into the back of the seat in front and different languages can be selected. Listening to the tour and managing the kids wasn’t the easiest task, so we delegated the listening to one of the adults and she was passing on some fun facts and place names (thanks Belinda!). During traffic jams and quiet moments, passengers are entertained with music. The commentary is jolly, with a few jokes thrown in too.
We found it easy to get a seat and buses were scheduled every 15-20 minutes. The kids absolutely loved the novelty of being on a bus with no roof! There are no seatbelts, but with London’s traffic the bus never really travelled very fast – that was a bonus in my eyes, as there was more opportunity to take photos from the top deck! You do have the option to sit downstairs if you want to.
Is the open-top bus suitable for toddlers? How to keep kids entertained on the bus.
I had never done an open-top bus tour with my kids (age 2 and 5) before, but we do travel frequently on public transport so I wasn’t too worried. My main priority was making sure we had lots of snacks and drinks so they didn’t start nagging me, because I was looking forward to enjoying the tour!
I packed water for everyone and lots of non-melting snacks, such as flapjacks and crisps, as well as some sandwiches in case anyone wanted something more substantial. (Bring a small rubbish bag to collect all the wrappers and crusts). The big thing to remember is also sun cream. Even on a cloudy day, being in the open air all day and moving around could easily lead to surprise sunburn! I packed jumpers and socks for the early evening, in case the unpredictable UK weather turned cold.
We have a compact buggy which is easy to fold. This made hopping on and off the bus really easy and we were able to carry it upstairs with us instead of keeping in down in the luggage hold. At some of the stops there was a small line, so we needed to get on and off fast and help the kids up the stairs. A bulky pram would have been a real pain. Just remember to keep the basket clear of loose items, you don’t want to miss the bus while unpacking everything on the pavement.
We didn’t need to worry about keeping the kids entertained on the Tootbus. They loved driving around, waving to people on the street and spotting the sights. We created some fun games such as ‘putting your hands in the air on bridges and in tunnels’ and ‘eye spy’ using classic London features such as red post boxes and phone boxes.
Tootbus also do a specific London bus tour for kids, but since we were a big group we opted for the London Discovery tour which covered most of the major sights we wanted to see.
Where to pick up the Tootbus hop-on-hop-off bus tour during a day in London
We disembarked the clipper at Embankment Pier and got a great view of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey before boarding the TootBus at the stop outside. TootBus is great because they have a dedicated London app, which tells you when the buses are due and helps you plan your trip to London for the day. If you don’t want to use the app, you can pick up paper maps on board the bus and from representatives on the street at the major stops.
Where to go during a day in London to see the best bits
Stop one: Big Ben and Westminster
There is a lot going on around here and it is busy! I recommend doing this area as early as possible as crowds really start to increase after 11am. Big Ben and Westminster are on the north side of the river, while the London Eye and the surrounding tourist hotspot is on the south side. I, personally, am not a fan of the London Eye. It’s horribly crowded, the kids got bored half way through and it’s pretty expensive when you are buying tickets for a whole family. (TOP TIP: Instead, book a free slot at the Sky Garden, which also has excellent views and the freedom to move around, eat and drink and use the loo!)
I think the London Eye looks cool, so is best viewed from the north side where you can get a great selfie with the wheel in the background and less people in the way! This side is also home to Westminster Abbey, place of many a Royal Wedding and setting for Princess Diana’s funeral. You can take a guided tour Monday-Saturday (£25 for one adult and one child, under-5s FREE). Or, simply view the beautiful exterior of both the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament from the green outside.
Stop two: Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s house
This more educational-than-attractive stop is a five-minute walk from the Houses of Parliament, and if you have time it’s always worth going for a little peek. For obvious reasons, you can’t enter Downing Street (home to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s office and home) and it is surrounded by a lot of security, gates and bollards. However, it is quite fun to peer down the street from the gate on Whitehall and see if you can spot any notable figures lurking about.
Stop three: Horse Guards, Whitehall and Changing of the Guard
We had a lot of fun at Horse Guards. The kids could not believe how still the soldiers and horses were standing. A royal guard has been positioned here since 1660 at the old Palace of Whitehall. Now known as Horse Guards Parade, the building was commissioned by Henry VIII and is now the guards exercise ground and venue for the annual ‘Trooping the Colour’ in June to celebrate Her Majesty’s birthday.
The soldiers and horses that stand at Horse Guards are highly trained, active military soldiers from The Queen’s Life Guard. They can also be seen on duty as the Sovereign’s Escort on state occasions and for ceremonial duties, such as the famous ‘Changing of the Guard’. Do NOT attempt to touch the horses or the saddle or tack and the soldiers aren’t typically allowed to converse with the public while on duty.
I was having my photo taken outside Horse Guards and the horse threw his head back and made me jump and run away! Obviously the children and everyone else found that hilarious…
TOP TIP: You can watch the Changing of the Guard here in a 40-minute long ceremony, which usually begins at 11am. Aim to arrive before 10:30am to get a good view, especially with young children.
Stop four: Buckingham Palace
One of the big stops during a day in London is the world-famous Buckingham Palace, home of the reigning monarch and scene of many a regal wave from the front balcony. The grounds of Buckingham Palace span 39 acres and contain the largest private garden in Europe. However, for most of us mere mortals, the best view Buckingham Palace is from the main gates at the front. Guards patrol the grounds, often marching up and down in front of the palace, which is fun to watch. Plus, you’ll get a glimpse at that famous balcony.
TOP TIP: Pay attention to the flags! If the Queen’s royal standard flag is flying above the palace, the Queen is currently in residence. However, when the Union Jack is displayed, Her Maj is not at home. (*In fact, Queen Elizabeth typically resides at Windsor Castle and uses Buckingham Palace as her office and event space).
We have put together this itinerary to see as many London attractions as possible in a day, but if you are not on a tight schedule, you can visit Buckingham Palace and tour the magnificent state rooms when the Queen is not in residence (usually from July to October).
Don’t miss: St James’ Park
If you have a little time to spare and you want to stretch your legs, the beautiful St James’ park stretches in front of the palace, containing a children’s playground, lush gardens and grassy areas with free deckchairs and a duck pond. For a little challenge, we followed the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk through the park, setting the kids a task to find the gold plaques on the floor. The walk actually spans Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens too, but we stuck to St James’ Park only before boarding the TootBus to our next big stop.
Stop Five: Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column
A short walk from here and we were at Trafalgar Square. Even as someone who lives in London, I always love the vibrancy and energy at Trafalgar Square. If there is not an event on in the square, you can take photos by the fountains or with the lions and, of course, see Admiral Nelson up on his column. Of course, in winter the square is very beautiful with a huge tree, pop up Christmas stalls and live entertainment.
If you are hungry, there is a decent choice of quick-food restaurants nearby (toward Charing Cross, behind St Martin in the Fields Church), including Pizza Hut, Zizzi, Five Guys and McDonalds.
From Trafalgar Square, we hopped back onto the Toot Bus open-top bus tour at Stop 2* (*correct at time of posting) and set off for a ride around the city and enjoyed a good sit-down. Passing back along Whitehall, you get a great view of Big Ben as you turn the corner. Then, crossing the river you’ll pass Lambeth Bridge, the London Eye and the Imax Cinema, before crossing back over the river on Waterloo Bridge for a great view of the Victoria Embankment, Fleet Street and the river as it curves around.
Stop Six: St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge (Tate Modern)
This is one of my favourite locations to visit during a day in London. St Paul’s is such a beautiful building and the lawns and gardens surrounding the cathedral are a nice place to sit or wander.
Across the road, you will see the Millennium Bridge, the only pedestrian-only bridge to cross the river, leading to the Tate Modern on the southern side. It’s fun to walk across and the Tate Modern (which is free to enter) often has excellent exhibitions and immersive pop-ups inside. This is always a good place to cool off in the sun or dry off if it starts to rain! Plus, again, toilet facilities are available – the mum in me feels I have to point out toilet stops! The gift shop at the Tate Modern is also one of my favourite places to buy stylish keepsakes or souvenirs.
Outside the Tate Modern, you will always find street performers, dancers, magicians and – my kids favourite – a man who makes giant bubbles!
TOP TIP: Keep some coins handy as if you watch a performer or have your photo taken with human statues or the like, they do request a small donation in the tin. I always try to support street artists where possible, especially musicians, as they play such a huge part in London’s eclectic personality.
Tootbus – a fun ride on the open top bus during a day in London
Of course, we wanted to see as much as possible, but the kids just wanted to get back on the Tootbus. They were having a great time.
Cross back over the Millennium Bridge to re-board the Open Top Bus Tour at stop 6* (*correct at time of posting). This will take you past The Monument – don’t forget to look up! Across London Bridge and past Borough Market and the Shard. We opted not to depart here, but it’s an option if you want to explore the market, see Bridget Jones’ house or take in the View from the Shard.
The Shard has 360’ views of London from the 72nd floor – which is the highest viewing platform in Western Europe. Tickets are required and you can save money on a trip to the top by booking admission in advance.
Stop Seven: The Tower of London and Tower Bridge
We all loved riding on the open top bus and even in the cooler months, if you had enough layers on, it would still be great. The best bit was travelling under Tower Bridge. It looked so impressive as we rolled under the arches and the views of London to the left are fantastic.
TOP TIP: Try to sit on the left-hand side of the bus if you can, as the best views generally tended to be on the left-hand side.
After crossing Tower Bridge, the open-top bus stops at the Tower of London. This is an attraction I would recommend setting aside a whole or half-day for, and again the best-priced tickets are purchased in advance. Even if you are not going inside the Tower of London, it’s a great spot to wander around and see the fortress from the outside and get fab photos with Tower Bridge in the background. Show the kids Traitor’s Gate (where they used to bring in the criminals to be hung) and tell them if they are naughty, you’ll drop them back off here later…
GOOD TO KNOW: The Uber Boat / Thames Clipper also stops here, so it is a good place to hop of the boat and onto the bus if you didn’t want to go all the way to Westminster to start the tour.
Stop eight: Covent Garden
I always tell people to end up here after a day in London seeing the sights. To me, Covent Garden is a really good allrounder; fully pedestrianised, fun shops, lots of bars and cafes, live entertainment and some excellent restaurants too. It goes without saying that Covent Garden is always busy, and sometimes a little overcrowded, but I always think it’s worth having a peek.
There is always something happening at Covent Garden. Street entertainers, pop-ups, special events and seasonal decorations. The Apple Market isn’t the only area where you will find fun things to do in Covent Garden. Wander to the surrounding areas, (Seven Dials, Neal Street, Mercer Walk and Longacre) for fun shops and a wider experience of Covent Garden. For somewhere fun to grab some food, check out the Seven Dials Food Market – a food hall with a range of food from friend chicken, to curry, Asian specialties and sushi.
If you are heading to Covent Garden at the pre-theatre time and you want to eat dinner there, I highly recommend you book a restaurant in advance. Everywhere gets completely full, with lines coming out of the door. For families, I highly recommend Bills at St Martins Court and Zizzi on Bow Street, who both offer three-course kid’s meals for £6 – booking almost always essential, especially between 5-7pm. Without kids, try FishWorks, which have great weekend deals, Temper, Flat Iron and Ivy Market Grill.
A day in London – what did we see?
That brings us to the end of London in a day. So, how many sights did we see? On the Tootbus Open Top Bus Tour and with a little wandering around on foot, we ticked off over 20 attractions in one day – that’s not bad with only a day in London to see everything!
Here is a list of everything we managed to see during one day in London:
Greenwich Maritime Museum
The Houses of Parliament
St James’ Park
The London Eye
The Tate Modern
St Pauls Cathedral
The Tower of London
Pretty decent for one day in London! Thanks Tootbus!
*Some tickets were gifted with thanks to tootbus.com
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