Every person that knows me knows about my undying love for London. When I was a little girl I saw Peter Pan 2: Return to Neverland and since then my love for the city grew stronger as time went on. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to visit the magical city once in May for the first time, and again in September that same year. Now that I live in Oxford while on exchange, I’m less than two hours away from my favorite place in the world; I can visit the city for the day and bask in its never-ending beauty. This past weekend, my family came to visit me in London, so I took on the role of the unofficial tour guide and made sure we stopped by all of the best locations in London during their short visit. Of course, you can’t see all that London has to offer in one weekend, but I thought I would share our trip and give you some suggestions if you ever find yourself in London for a weekend.
*For the sake of this article, I will be using the word “weekend” to mean a four day period between Saturday and Tuesday. I realize that that doesn’t technically classify as a weekend but that was the time my family spent in London, so I’m going to refer to a “weekend” as such!*
Some Things to Know Before you Arrive
My first suggestion for a successful weekend trip to London is to plan to travel overnight. The flight from Toronto to London is just over seven hours long, the perfect amount of time to catch some z’s while on the way to your destination. If you can easily sleep on planes, this is perfect for you but sadly, not everyone is as fortunate. When I flew to England in September for my exchange, I struggled to get a good amount of sleep during the flight; I was lucky that I got four hours total. When I arrived early Saturday morning, I was awake enough to get to my accommodation but I had to take an hour long nap before I was ready to go shopping for supplies. Don’t be hesitant to take a nap once you arrive at the place you’re staying but set an alarm and make sure you wake up when it goes off! Jetlag isn’t fun so try not to make it any worse than it has to be.
When you arrive at your accommodation, drop your things off and (if you don’t need a nap) get into the city ASAP! You don’t have a lot of time in London so why would you want to spend your time sitting around a hotel when you could be out exploring? I strongly suggest choosing your accommodation based on how close it is to public transit. The London Underground is fantastic and I would highly recommend using it (it’s MUCH better than Toronto’s TTC subway system). Download Google Maps on your phone and if you have it in your budget, invest in a cheap SIM card with data so that you can plan out your day trips easily. The Google Maps app has been an absolute lifesaver throughout my travels in Europe!
Day One in London
After my family arrived in London, I didn’t want to do too much with them and completely tire them out so I just took them to a few sites in the evening that are relatively close to one another and only require a short tube (subway) ride. Our first stop was St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we stepped inside during a service to see the historical spot. This cathedral is particularly special for my mum as this is where Princess Diana married Prince Charles in 1981. My mum has always loved Princess Diana, who she believes was an inspirational woman with a kind and loving heart. She was devastated when she passed, so visiting the cathedral where she got married was a truly magical moment for her.
After a quick bite at Nando’s, we walked around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge before heading back to the hotel and calling it a night.
Day Two in London
Our second day in London was a busy one. Looking back on it, I loved it but I was very drained by the end of the day as I think we crammed a little too much into it. We started the day off in downtown London by hopping on the London Eye and enjoying the beautiful view of the city. I would highly recommend going on the London Eye as it provides you with a stunning scenic view of the city as a whole. Although Big Ben (officially the Elizabeth Tower but no one really calls it that) has been receiving repairs for the last few years, the view is stunning nonetheless.
From the London Eye, we walked across Westminster Bridge towards the Parliament buildings, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, which are all within a five minute walk from one another. We wanted to return here on our last day as we had a tour of Westminster Abbey planned. We then walked towards Buckingham Palace which is just a fifteen minute walk through (or around) the beautiful St. James Park.
My favorite place to grab a quick lunch was Tesco Express. It’s a smaller chain of their Tesco grocery stores that sells sandwiches, salads and snacks for on-the-go. What’s particularly great about Tesco Express is that they have a meal deal so you can grab a quick lunch and enjoy it outside on a bench! This is what I did in Trafalgar Square when I was in London last year! We spent the rest of the day at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter. This is a fantastic experience for Harry Potter fans of all ages. We walked through the sets and saw many of the props and costumes used during the ten years of filming the popular movie franchise.
Day Three in London
On our third day in London, we took the tube over to Hyde Park where we walked over to Kensington Palace. This is where many members of the Royal Family live, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their three children. This is also where the Prince of Wales lived upon marrying Princess Diana and she spent the rest of her life living in the palace. Kensington Palace overlooks the stunning Hyde Park which includes many walking and biking paths, ponds and historic statues.
We then headed over to Oxford Street and Regent Street which are widely known as shopping districts. My personal favorite shopping area is Carnaby Street which can be located near the main intersection of Oxford and Regent Street. It is a pedestrianized shopping street in the neighborhood of Soho with many independent shops that sell quirky knick knacks, and it’s also home to adorable pubs and bars. Every time I’m in London, I stop by We Built This City which is a shop that sells creative London souvenirs, gifts and art prints by local artists.
After Carnaby Street, we took the tube to Trafalgar Square. Here, you can find the Canadian Embassy and the National Gallery. There’s also a few tourist shops that I like and have visited a few times in the area for little bits and bobs that you can bring back home to remember your time in London.
Day Four in London
On our fourth and final day in the city (it was also travel day later in the afternoon), we headed back to downtown London to go on a tour of Westminster Abbey. This has got to be one of my favorite things to do in London. This past summer, I took a British history course where we covered 500 years’ worth of history (1500-2000) and I fell in love with the history that shaped the nation. In particular, the Tudor period and Stuart period fascinated me, so going into Westminster Abbey where many of the notorious members of the British Monarchy have been laid to rest got me excited. The Abbey also houses many statues of well-known figures such as William Wilberforce and William Shakespeare, as well as people who have shaped various parts of history including Steven Hawking, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. This is also the place where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge got married in 2011, where Princess Diana’s funeral was held in 1997, and where all coronations have been held — the last one being for Queen Elizabeth II back in 1953.
Following our tour we headed back to our hotel to pack up. My parents and brother headed to the airport and I took the bus back to Oxford to get ready for class the following Wednesday.
Notable Mentions of Places to Visit
Unfortunately, I was not able to show my family absolutely everything London has to offer in just four short days. However, I thought it was worth mentioning some of my other favorite places in case you’re not interested in some places I spoke about. Notting Hill is my favorite neighborhood to visit in London. The pastel colored quaint houses have a certain charm to them that you can’t help but love. Notting Hill is also well known for serving as the location for the film Notting Hill with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. For instance, The Notting Hill Bookstore exterior was used as inspiration for the main character William (Hugh Grant) and the exterior of William’s house can be easily found through Google (just search up “Blue Door from Notting Hill”). This neighborhood has many charming bookstores, restaurants and shops to spend the day exploring.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of my favorite museums in London. It’s free to enter and is known as the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts, designs and sculptures. Named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, visiting this museum is the perfect way to spend an afternoon if you’re a history buff (like I am) or just enjoy appreciating the beauty in old pieces that were used throughout history. Other museums worth mentioning include The British Museum, Natural History Museum, The National Gallery and the Science Museum. You can also stop by high end stores such as Harrods or Liberty London to bask in the stunning architecture of the shops.
I am so incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with my family in London. Not only did I miss them dearly, but this trip as a whole meant a lot to me. Since I was a young girl, I had always hoped my family would go on a family vacation together to London and I am so blessed to finally say that we did. I hope this article aids you if you are planning a trip to London. Once you get here, I hope you fall in love with the city just as I have.
All photos are courtesy of Alexa Burban.