Dare to disobey the Rick Steves guide with this itinerary for three days in London. This guide will show you some of the typical historical sites but also get you out into the streets to experience a modern side of the city.
Why Should You Disobey Rick Steves in London?
I like the Rick Steves’ travel guides. They offer very practical, budget friendly advice for how to navigate a city and prioritize its various sites. I often use them when in Europe.
But I’m also a well-traveled woman who has learned the hard way that confining yourself to seeing only the “must see” tourist sites is a sure-fire way to miss out on getting to know a place. I have visited and liked most of London’s top tourist sites, but they are heavily focused on British history and won’t give you much insight into modern London.
So the following itinerary for three days in London acknowledges the importance of these historical sites, but also suggest other nearby offerings that will get you wandering the streets of today’s London.
Rick Steves Top Sites in London
Any Rick Steves guidebook stack-ranks the tourist sites according to a prioritized system: three triangles represent a must do, two are kinda-do and so on. The Rick Steves London at a Glance guide offers a list of 20 sites that warrant 2-3 triangles. It includes:
▲▲▲ Westminster Abbey, Churchill War Rooms, National Gallery, British Museum, British Library, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and the Victoria & Albert Museum
▲▲ Houses of Parliament, Trafalger Square, National Portrait Gallery, Covent Garden, Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London Eye, Imperial War Museum, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Britain, Kensington Palace and the Natural History Museum
I hate to tell you, but there is no way that you can do all of that with a three day London itinerary.
Planning for Three Days in London
London is a huuuuuge city with far more to do than even the Rick Steves London list. You aren’t going to be able to see all of it with in three days. I’ve been seven times and every time I go, I uncover something new.
So how, do you figure out what to do in London in three days? You are going to have to prioritize what is important to you and do your best not to exhaust yourself. The following itinerary suggests doing 2-3 of the above Rick Steves’ pics per day, based upon your personal interests. But the itinerary then goes off script to suggest a nearby neighborhood that is worth exploring.
Doing London this way will get you out of the museums and into the streets to explore London’s on-the-ground culture.
Day 1: Westminster History and Chelsea Neighborhood Stroll
London was founded in 43 AD, so the city is absolutely stuffed with historical sites and more than half of Rick Steves’ London pics fall into this category. In addition, many of them are in (or near) the Westminster area of London. From Rick’s list the area features: Westminster Abbey, The Tate, National Gallery, Trafalger Square, Parliament Building, Buckingham Palace and the Churchill War Rooms.
Day 1: Morning in Westminster
For the morning of day one, think about your personal interests and then pick two of the historical sites listed below. The following will help you prioritize and give you suggested visitation times to allocate for each. This list has a lot of indoor activities so is particularly good to do in the winter.
If you have kids:
Buckingham Palace changing of the guard. This pure royal theater is free but crowded so get there early to get a good spot. The pageantry starts at 11am Time allotted: 1.5 hours.
If you like religious sites:
Westminster Abbey. Westminster has been the royal coronation church for 950 years and its architecture and treasures represent layers and layers of British history. Tickets cost £27. Abbey tours are 9:30am to 3:30pm Monday through Friday and Saturday 9am-1pm. Time allotted 2-3 hours.
If you like historical art:
The National Gallery. The Gallery features western European art from the 13th-19th centuries. It’s not strictly in Westminster but rather a bit north, on Trafalger Square. My favorite part of the National Gallery is the photography exhibit in the Portrait Gallery. The images go past your typical dead white guy paintings to show an interesting multi-ethnic side of England. Entrance is free and you can use the SmARTify app for a virtual tour while you are there. They are open 10a-6pm everyday and until 9pm on Fridays. Time allotted 1.5-2 hours.
The Tate Britain. The Tate carries historical British art (such as J. M. W. Turner) and contemporary British pieces. Entrance is free. Time allotted 1.5 hours.
If you are a government nerd:
Churchill War Rooms. This is my favorite of all of these historical sites. The WWII bunker was the nerve center of Britain’s war effort and the exhibits are designed in such as way that you can visualize Churchill down in the bunker, hunched over maps and trying to strategize a way out of the war. Cost: £27 for adults best booked in advance. They are open every day 9:30am-6pm. Time allotted: 1.5-2 hours.
Tour of Parliament. They offer guided tours for £26.50 on Saturdays and when Parliament isn’t in session. Time allotted 1.5 hours.
Read More: If you are really interested in London’s history, then also check out my tour of the East End and its immigrant history.
Day 1 Afternoon in Chelsea
Chelsea is just one quick tube stop west of Westminster from Victoria station to Sloan Square. There is a long shopping and dining street along King’s road. You can kill the afternoon strolling the bookshops, boutiques, photography galleries, tea shops and mini gardens that line the main drag.
If you are into modern art: Stop into the Saatchi Gallery. They feature contemporary art with innovative pieces made of found objects and paintings with modern and edgy themes. The gallery is free. The gallery is open everyday from 10a-6pm. Time allotted: 45 minutes.
If you are into gardens: Visit the Chelsea Physic Garden. The garden was founded three hundred years ago to grow medicinal plants and as a way to train apprentice apothecaries. The garden is located four blocks south of the shopping drag on the Thames. The garden is open Monday-Friday 11am-6pm. Adult tickets are £11.00 and it’s best to book in advance. Time allotted: 1 hour.
Day Two: The City, The Tower & The South Bank
For day two, of your three day London itinerary, focus on the City and South Bank.
Day Two: Morning
If you are a history buff: The Tower of London. The Tower shows you London’s medieval side with suits of armour and the crown jewels. The Tower is open Sunday-Monday 10a-5:30p, Tuesday-Saturday 9a-5:30p. Tickets are £30 (cheaper if booked in advance). Time allotted: 1.5-2 hours.
If you like religious sites: St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Cathedral offers a visual history of England’s reformation period. The £21 ticket includes a guided tour of the galleries and multimedia guides. Tours run Monday-Saturday 9:30-4p. Time allotted: 2 hours.
If you are into Shakespeare: The Globe Theater. The theater is a replica of the original theater that previewed Shakespeare’s works. You can attend performances or take a tour (£19 for adult tickets.) They are open daily 9:30a-5p. Time allotted: 45 minutes.
If you love modern art: Tate Modern. The Tate Modern features modern British art in a refurbished boiler building. This is my favorite museum in London and they always have something that makes me feel uncomfortable, which for me is the mark of a great museum. Their permanent collection is free but there is a charge for special exhibitions. They are open 10a-6pm everyday and until 10p on Friday and Saturday. Time allotted: 2 hours.
Day Two: Afternoon in Southwark
Work up your hunger doing two or three of the above options and then head over to Borough market to satiate it. The market has over 150 food stalls with everything that you can imagine. My personal favorite is Neal’s Dairy Yard because they age and sell the finest cheese in England. But there are fruit/veg stalls, curry stands, bakeries, pate, olives, sandwiches, coffee, wine, beer, smoothies and on and on. If you are a huge foodie, check out this post on more food halls. The market is open Monday-Saturday but has more stalls Wednesday-Saturday. Time allocated: 1-1/2 hours.
After you’re done eating everything, waddle over to The Shard. The Shard is a glass clad building that shoots 53 stories out of the ground and towers over London. Their three-story viewing rooms offer 360’ views of the city, great at any time of day but particularly awesome at sunset. Time allocated: 1-2 hours.
Read More: See more of London with this guide to all of the killer viewing spots.
Day Three: British Museum, British Library & Shoreditch
For your third day in London, combine some ancient history with something modern and edgy.
Day Three: Morning in Clerkenwell
For ancient history buffs: The British Museum. Colonial Britain looted the finest ancient artifacts from throughout the Empire and it’s all on display at the British Museum. Entrance is free and they also offer a variety of free and paid special tours. The museum is open everyday 10am-5:30pm. Time allotment: 2-3 hours.
For book nerds: The British Library. This is a proper, working library but they also exhibit a remarkable collection of works ranging from the Gutenberg Bible, works by Shakespeare, the Magna Carta and musical notes from the Beatles. When you are finished there, there are also some really cool London bookshops in nearby Russell Square. The exhibits are free and open from Monday-Thursday 9:30a-8p, Friday 9:30-6p, Saturday 9:30-5p, Sunday 11a-5p. Time allotted: 1-1/2 hours.
Read More: If you are also a Harry Potter nerd, check out this whole other tour of Potter sites in the UK that includes tips on touring the nearby Warner Brother studios, or check out this article on the most beautiful libraries in the world.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Day Three: Afternoon & Evening in Shoreditch
Look, you could (should!) spend several days just in Shoreditch. It’s a living, thriving neighborhood full of cool street art, street food, markets and weird museums. So, I urge you check out this full list of things to do there.
But, as your time is limited, I’ll give you a few suggestions here:
If you are a foodie: Go on a Sunday for the street market on Brick lane. The market has used goods, crafts and great street food- say YES to falafel! If you are visiting Mon-Sat, then go to BOXpark. It’s a street foodie haven made of old shipping containers. Time allocated: 2-3 hours.
If you like street art: Shoreditch has a world class street art scene. Check out my post on how to find it or think about taking either a quick 2 hour tour or a more immersive 4 hour private photography tour. Time allocated 2-4 hours (depending upon the tour).
If you are a history buff: Denis Severs House. It’s where 1750’s period living meets performance art. The house has period set pieces but designed as if the people are still living there. It’s weird and totally worth it. It costs £15 and you must book ahead. Time allocated: 1 hour.
If you love beer: Spend your evening crawling all of the great pubs around Brick Lane and Shoreditch High Street.
Tips for Getting Around London
Getting Into London from Heathrow
- Cheapest Way: You can take the Picadilly line all the way into central London. It takes 1-1-1/2 hours. Using the Oyster card to save money and for ease of on/off.
- Blazing Fast & Pricey: The Heathrow Express is a non-stop train that goes from Heathrow to Paddington station in a short 15 minutes. The tickets cost £25.00 for one way or £37.00 for a prepaid round trip. This is a good choice for a single person or couple who are anxious to get their trip started (as I was on my last visit) however you will need to transfer to the tube to get to your hotel.
- Point to Point for Groups: Taking a black cab from the airport can be as fast as 35 minutes and as slow as 1-1/2 hours during rush hour. The benefits are that if you have more than two people, it’s cheaper than the Heathrow Express and you can be taken directly to your hotel. The cab will cost $45-55.
Should you buy the London Pass?
If you wake up early and speed walk through at least five of the top historical sites over three days, then the £110 3-day pass may be worth it for you. It includes free entry to some of those sites + the Beefeater gin distillery tour. Because, you are going to need some gin if you exhaust yourself with that kind of itinerary. On the bright side, the pass does include the hop-on-hop-off bus.
But here’s the deal…it’s only a deal if you do that sort of speed itinerary and ignore the neighborhoods I’m suggesting that you explore. So check out the pass and make sure it covers what you want to see.
Otherwise, if you plan your itinerary in advance using the suggestions above AND you purchase entry tickets in advance for the more popular tourist sites AND you aren’t afraid of public transportation, you can get a better deal.
Getting Around on Public Transportation
You can pick up an Oyster Card at any ticket machine for the Tube. Using it, you will pay under £4 per tube ride which, even with transfers, is cheaper and more point-to-point than a HoHo bus. The buses in London also accept the Oyster card and their double decker design will give you great views of the city as you drive by. Just use Google maps to help you figure out the best bus route.
Don’t have data? Get some. Many US carriers have dreadful international plans, but if you own your phone outright, you can have it unlocked. Then, when you arrive in London, just purchase a local SIM card at the airport, which will allow you to map, Google and Yelp your way all over the city. SIM cards at the airport will cost roughly £25 and are the best money you will spend during your three days in London.
Where to Stay in London
The Westminster Area is very central for accessing all of London and the neighborhood has a lot of hotel space at a variety of price points. They have a number of budget hotels clustered near Victoria Station and standard tourist hotels throughout the neighborhood. Check reviews or book at Booking.com.
Chelsea has a cluster of well-appointed boutique hotels all within a block of the Sloan Square tube stop. Check reviews for Chelsea or book on Booking.com.
The South Bank has a mix of hip, hotels with cool interior designs and a selection of your standard business hotels (like the Marriott). Check reviews in the South Bank or book on Booking.com.
Russell Square is very near both the British Library and the British Museum. The neighborhood has a mix of cheap hostels and reasonably priced independent hotels with a few fancy boutique hotels thrown in for good measure. Check reviews for Russell Square or book at Booking.com.
Shoreditch has a few very cool high-end hotels that have been re-purposed from historical buildings (like The Brewery) and it also has budget chain hotels (like Point A) that are hipper and more comfortable than you might imagine. Check reviews for Shoreditch or book at Booking.com.
More Resources for London
Well, there’s your London three day itinerary. By grouping these sites by neighborhood and adding in some neighborhood strolls, you will be able to maximize your time in London and truly get to know the city. Have fun and report back to me here or on social media when you return, I’d love to hear about your trip.