48 Hours in London: The perfect two-day itinerary

For first-time visitors to London, it’s easy to imagine the city as a whirlwind of big red buses, royal palaces, and historic pubs. But scratch beneath the postcard-perfect surface, and you’ll find yourself at the heart of one of the most dynamic destinations on Earth. Home to a diverse and creative population, this two-day itinerary will help you explore everything from its must-see museums to its most energetic neighborhoods, via several foodie moments.

  1. Day 1

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    1. Morning

      Explore Westminster and Buckingham Palace (3 hours)

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      To understand modern-day London, you’ll want to get a sense of its past. Start at Westminster Abbey, the imposing Gothic church that’s hosted centuries of coronations and iconic royal weddings — William and Kate’s included. Go past the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, then follow Whitehall to see the gates of Downing Street — home to Britain’s prime ministers since 1735 — and go under the arch of Horse Guards. From there, stroll through regal St James’ Park over to Buckingham Palace. Make sure to pass just before 11:00 AM to see the traditional Changing of the Guard ceremony, which takes place most days. Want to find out more about the historic Westminster area? Book a walking tour with an in-the-know guide and find out the secrets and stories lurking behind many doors.
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    2. Visit lively Covent Garden and charming Neal's Yard (1 hour)

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      Walk down Pall Mall, via Trafalgar Square, stopping to admire The National Gallery in all its glory, before you reach the cobbled streets and piazza of Covent Garden. It’s usually humming with tourists and street performers (a tradition since the 1600s), and although it’s a must-see, you’ll soon be glad to seek out the relative tranquility of nearby Neal’s Yard. A hidden alleyway with a courtyard and colorful townhouses, it’s a quiet and cozy enclave in the middle of one of London’s busiest spots. It’s the place to fill your bags with local cheeses, wines, teas, coffee, and beauty products, as well as make time to sit down at one of its many lovely cafes and restaurants. Pick 26 Grains for the best brownies and cake and a cup of tea — make it Earl Grey to feel extra British.

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    3. Afternoon

      Immerse yourself in vibrant Soho (1.5 hours)

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      Next, head to the mischievous Soho neighborhood, a favorite playground of Londoners. Soak up the atmosphere on a walking tour of the vibrant and historical area or simply get lost on your own in its maze of one-off boutiques, sneaker shops, theaters, and adult stores, before stopping for lunch at one of its buzzing restaurants and bars. Feeling peckish but want to keep exploring? Make a pit stop at Berwick Street Market for lunch to go, and don’t be put off by the line at Jerusalem Falafel, there’s a reason it’s the most popular.
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    4. Visit the world’s oldest public museum (1.5 Hours)

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      After you’ve refueled, continue on foot to the British Museum, where spending a few hours is an absolute must while in London. Although it contains 2 million years of history inside, the Great Court injects the wow factor before you’ve even started. Designed by Foster + Partners, its magnificent glass and steel roof spreads across the two acre space, making it the largest covered square in Europe. The permanent collection of the museum is astonishing (not to mention free) and features the ancient Rosetta Stone, Parthenon Sculptures, and a statue of Ramses the Great, among others. If you want to leave knowing every detail of that history, spend time with an expert on a guided tour to understand more about the incredible treasures from various ancient cultures on display.
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    5. Embrace London’s alternative spirit in Camden (1 hour)

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      From nearby Tottenham Court Road, ride double decker bus no. 29 to Camden Town. Home to the late Amy Winehouse, the neighborhood is known for its live music — indie and rock lovers might want to return later — and alternative fashion, art, and culture scene. Camden’s famous market was once a treasure trove of independent designers selling one-of-a-kind creations, but these days, you need to beware of over-priced tourist tat. Instead, see a more authentic side of the area by riding on the Canal Waterbus, which travels along the Regent’s Canal between Camden Town and Little Venice, passing by London Zoo.
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    6. Evening

      Dinner and a show in the West End (3 hours)

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      On a par with Broadway, London’s West End is home to some of the hottest shows on the planet. Whether you’re into classic musicals like Les Mis, or want to hunt down real British humor at the Comedy Store, be sure to book well in advance to avoid disappointment. The area’s many pre-theater menus are an affordable dinner option, but they can attract a touristy crowd, so try to keep hunger at bay and grab a post-show bite in nearby Chinatown. Or pick one of the West End’s buzzing bars and join the throng of Londoners and showgoers.

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  2. Day 2

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    1. Morning

      Go bridge-hopping along the Thames (40 minutes)

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      One of the best ways to see London is from the River Thames, where you’ll get a panoramic view of the city’s skyline and glide under the most famous out of its 35 bridges. Starting at Westminster Pier, this cruise takes you from the London Eye, Europe's tallest Ferris wheel, and Big Ben, past St Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and The Shard, among others. As the hop-on-hop-off ticket lasts 24 hours, you can abandon ship at any point if any of the landmarks on view beg further exploration. As you approach Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, you’d be wise to do just that.

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    2. Get a grisly history lesson at the Tower of London (1.5 hours)

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      Jumping off at Tower Pier, it’s time to visit the notorious Tower of London, which has served as everything from zoo to royal palace to prison throughout the years. For the full experience, book your ticket in advance to go inside the Tower and see the Crown Jewels — you’ll be glad to skip past the inevitable line, too. Explore the iconic castle and World Heritage Site at your own pace or join one of the free Beefeater tours that take place daily (every 30 minutes from 10:00 AM until 2:30 PM) — and learn even more about its, often grisly, 1,000-year history.
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    3. Afternoon

      Luxuriate in green space in Greenwich (2.5 hours)

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      Like a slice of the countryside in the city, Greenwich is sweepingly beautiful — get here by hopping back on the river boat and getting off at Greenwich Pier. Known for its maritime history and 19th century ship The Cutty Sark, it’s also home to the Royal Observatory, the Prime Meridian Line, and — more recently — The O2 Arena, aka the Millenium Dome. Want to delve deeper into its fascinating history? The Royal Museums Greenwich Day Pass grants you entry into both the Royal Observatory and aboard the Cutty Sark. Or if you’re more of a thrill seeker, don your harness and climb across the Millennium Dome’s rooftop.

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    4. Have lunch on Brick Lane and explore Spitalfields Market (2 hours)

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      A bus ride away, the energetic Brick Lane is packed with street art, vintage shops, markets, and its famed bagel shops and curry houses. Swing by for a bite to eat, before making the five-minute stroll to Spitalfields Market, the traditional heart of London’s East End. Trading since its humble beginnings in the 17th century, it’s now home to a stellar line-up of independent designers, artists, jewelers, and makers.

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    5. Find the next big thing at the Whitechapel Gallery (1 hour)

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      This gallery is set in a historic building in the multicultural Whitechapel neighborhood, just a short walk from Spitalfields Market. It might not be one of London’s heavyweight galleries, but this off-the-beaten-track gem punches well above its weight. It has attracted the likes of Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, as well as more current artists including William Kentridge and Cindy Sherman, who all premiered their work at the Whitechapel Gallery. It has a brilliant bookshop and restaurant (if you need another coffee stop) that are worth a visit, and often has free temporary exhibitions and screenings.

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    6. Evening

      Have dinner and drinks in trendy Shoreditch (2 hours)

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      You’re now perfectly positioned for an evening exploring one of London’s hippest areas: Shoreditch. Have dinner at one of its many brilliant restaurants — the flavors at Dishoom and Smoking Goat are some of the most memorable in town — before heading for a few clandestine cocktails in a speakeasy. One of the best is, by design, a little hard to find, so most tourists don’t know about it. First, you need to locate a cafe called Breakfast Club and tell the waiter you have come to “see the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town”. They’ll lead you through a fridge door that’s in fact a secret passageway to a bar filled with inventive cocktails and a fun-filled atmosphere. Make sure you book ahead on weekends, if you can find the phone number.

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