3 Days in London: The Perfect London Itinerary

From royal palaces to hidden pubs, experience the best of British history and culture in just 72 hours. Follow this 3-day London itinerary for best results!

West Parker
By
West Parker
July 18, 2024

You've just touched down at Heathrow Airport, bleary-eyed from the flight but buzzing with excitement. As you step out into the crisp London air, you're hit with a sudden realization - you only have 3 days to explore one of the world's most iconic cities. How on earth are you going to fit it all in?

I know exactly how you feel. When my wife Sarah and I first visited London, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of attractions, historical sites, and cultural experiences the city had to offer. How could we possibly see it all in just three days?

Well, fear not, fellow travelers! After multiple visits and countless hours of exploration, I've crafted the perfect 3-day London itinerary that'll have you hitting all the must-see spots while still leaving room for those hidden gems that make London truly special. So grab your Oyster card, put on your comfiest walking shoes, and let's dive into the best way to spend 3 days in London!

Pre-Trip Planning: Making the Most of Your 3 Days in London

Before we jump into the day-by-day itinerary, let's cover some essential pre-trip planning to ensure your 3 days in London go off without a hitch.

Best Times to Visit London

London is a year-round destination, but each season offers a unique experience:

  • Spring (March to May): Mild temperatures and blooming parks make this a lovely time to visit. Just pack a light jacket and be prepared for the occasional shower.
  • Summer (June to August): Peak tourist season with warmer weather and longer days. Expect larger crowds and higher prices.
  • Fall (September to November): Cooler temperatures and beautiful autumn colors in the parks. A great time for fewer crowds and reasonable prices.
  • Winter (December to February): Chilly weather but festive atmosphere with Christmas markets and New Year celebrations. Pack warm clothes!

Transportation: Navigating the City

London's public transportation system is extensive and efficient. Here's what you need to know:

  • Oyster Card: This rechargeable smart card is your best friend for getting around London. You can use it on the Tube, buses, and most rail services within the city. Get one at any Tube station or order online before your trip.
  • The Tube (London Underground): The fastest way to get around the city. It's easy to navigate with color-coded lines and clear signage.
  • Buses: A great way to see the city while getting from A to B. The iconic red double-deckers offer great views from the top deck.
  • Walking: Many attractions in central London are within walking distance of each other. It's often quicker (and more scenic) to walk than to take the Tube for short distances.

Where to Stay: Accommodation for Every Budget

London offers a wide range of accommodation options. Here are some recommendations based on your budget:

  • Budget: YHA London Central offers clean, affordable dorm beds and private rooms in a central location.
  • Mid-range: The Hoxton, Holborn provides stylish rooms in a trendy area with easy access to major attractions.
  • Luxury: For a splurge, The Ritz offers the quintessential luxury London experience.

What to Pack: Essentials for Your London Adventure

London weather can be unpredictable, so here's what you should pack:

  • Comfortable walking shoes (you'll be doing a lot of walking!)
  • Umbrella or light rain jacket
  • Layers for variable temperatures
  • Universal power adapter (UK uses 3-pin plugs)
  • Oyster card or contactless payment card for public transport

Safety Guidelines: Staying Secure in the City

London is generally a safe city, but it's always good to keep these tips in mind:

  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially in crowded tourist areas.
  • Keep valuables secure and out of sight.
  • Stick to well-lit areas at night.
  • Use licensed black cabs or reputable ride-sharing services.
  • In case of emergency, dial 999 for police, fire, or ambulance.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's dive into our perfect 3-day London itinerary!

Day 1: Royal London

Morning: Buckingham Palace and St. James's Park

Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, showcasing the iconic British tradition
Watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace today. The precision and pageantry were incredible!

Start your London adventure with a taste of royalty at Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the British monarch. Time your visit to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony, a spectacular display of British pageantry that takes place at 11:00 AM on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

The sight of the red-coated guards with their bearskin hats marching to the sounds of a military band is truly unforgettable. I still remember Sarah's face lighting up as we watched the ceremony for the first time - it felt like we'd stepped right into a scene from a movie!

After the ceremony, take a stroll through the adjacent St. James's Park. This beautiful green space offers stunning views of the palace and is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Key Information:

  • Location: Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA
  • Hours: The Changing of the Guard usually starts at 11:00 AM
  • Admission: Free to watch from outside the palace gates

Why Visit: Witness a centuries-old tradition and get a glimpse of British royal life.

Insider Tip: Arrive at least 45 minutes early to secure a good viewing spot near the palace gates.

Afternoon: Westminster Abbey and Big Ben

Westminster Abbey exterior with Big Ben visible in the background, highlighting two of London's most famous landmarks
Visited Westminster Abbey today. The Gothic architecture is stunning, and Big Ben in the background makes for a perfect London scene.

Next, make your way to Westminster Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the coronation church of British monarchs since 1066. This Gothic masterpiece is not just a place of worship but a living pageant of British history.

As you walk through the abbey, you'll see the tombs of kings and queens, poets, scientists, and other notable figures. The Poets' Corner, where literary giants like Shakespeare and Dickens are commemorated, is a must-see for book lovers.

After exploring the abbey, head outside for a view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. While Big Ben (technically the name of the bell, not the clock tower) is undergoing renovations until 2023, it's still an iconic sight to behold.

Key Information:

  • Location: 20 Deans Yd, London SW1P 3PA
  • Hours: Monday to Saturday 9:30 AM - 3:30 PM (last admission 2:30 PM)
  • Admission: Adults £25, Children (6-17) £11

Why Visit: Experience over a thousand years of British history in one magnificent building.

Insider Tip: Join a verger-led tour for fascinating insights not covered in the audio guide.

Evening: Thames River Cruise

London skyline view from a Thames River cruise at sunset, showcasing the city's beautiful riverfront
Evening cruise on the Thames was magical. Seeing London's landmarks lit up at sunset is an unforgettable experience.

Cap off your first day with a relaxing cruise along the River Thames. As the sun sets, you'll get a different perspective on London's iconic skyline. Seeing the city lights reflect off the water while sipping on a glass of bubbly? Now that's what I call a perfect end to day one!

There are several companies offering evening cruises, but we enjoyed our experience with City Cruises. Their Sundowner cruise includes a welcome drink and canapés.

Key Information:

  • Location: Westminster Pier, Victoria Embankment, London SW1A 2JH
  • Hours: Cruises typically depart between 6:30 PM and 8:30 PM
  • Price: From £35 per person

Why Visit: See London's landmarks beautifully illuminated and enjoy a unique perspective of the city.

Insider Tip: Book an early cruise to catch the sunset, then head to a nearby pub for dinner after.

Day 2: Cultural Immersion

Morning: British Museum

Rosetta Stone exhibit at the British Museum, showcasing one of the museum's most famous artifacts
Finally saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum! It's smaller than I expected but so significant for understanding ancient languages.

Start your second day with a visit to the British Museum, home to a vast collection of world art and artifacts. From the Rosetta Stone to the Parthenon sculptures, the museum houses over 8 million works spanning human history and culture.

When Sarah and I visited, we were blown away by the sheer scale of the collection. Pro tip: don't try to see everything in one visit. Instead, pick a few galleries that interest you most and take your time exploring them.

The Egyptian mummies and the Enlightenment Gallery are personal favorites. And don't miss the stunning Great Court with its beautiful glass ceiling - it's the perfect spot for that Instagram-worthy shot!

Key Information:

  • Location: Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG
  • Hours: Daily 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM (Fridays until 8:30 PM)
  • Admission: Free (donations welcome)

Why Visit: Explore one of the world's oldest museums and see priceless artifacts from around the globe.

Insider Tip: Visit on a Friday evening when the museum is open late and less crowded.

Afternoon: Covent Garden and West End Show

Street performer entertaining a crowd in Covent Garden Market, capturing the lively atmosphere of the area
Stumbled upon this amazing street performer in Covent Garden. The talent here is world-class!
West End theatre marquee for The Lion King musical, showcasing London's famous theatre district
Saw The Lion King on West End tonight. The costumes and set designs were absolutely mind-blowing!

After lunch, head to Covent Garden, a vibrant neighborhood known for its shops, restaurants, and street performers. The covered market is a great place to pick up unique souvenirs or grab a quick bite.

Spend some time wandering the cobblestone streets, watching the talented buskers, and soaking in the lively atmosphere. If you're a theater fan like Sarah, you might want to check out the London Transport Museum nearby, which tells the fascinating story of London's public transport system.

As evening approaches, it's time for one of London's most beloved traditions - a West End show! The West End is London's equivalent of Broadway, offering a wide range of world-class theater productions.

We saw "The Lion King" at the Lyceum Theatre and were absolutely blown away by the costumes and set design. Whatever show you choose, you're in for a treat!

Key Information:

  • Location: Covent Garden, London WC2E 8RF
  • Hours: Most shops open 10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
  • Show times: Typically 7:30 PM, with matinees on certain days

Why Visit: Experience the best of London's shopping, street performance, and theater scene.

Insider Tip: Book your theater tickets in advance for better seats and prices. The TKTS booth in Leicester Square offers discounted same-day tickets if you're flexible.

Evening: Pub Crawl in Soho

People enjoying drinks outside a traditional London pub in Soho, capturing the neighborhood's vibrant nightlife
Ended our night with a pub crawl in Soho. The atmosphere here is electric, and the locals are so friendly!

After the show, immerse yourself in London's nightlife with a pub crawl in Soho. This eclectic neighborhood is home to some of the city's best bars and pubs, each with its own unique character.

Start at The French House, a historic pub known for its literary connections, then make your way to Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club for some live music. End the night at Experimental Cocktail Club for some innovative mixology.

Remember, pubs typically close around 11 PM, but many bars in Soho stay open later.

Key Information:

  • Location: Soho, London W1
  • Hours: Most pubs open until 11:00 PM, some bars until 1:00 AM or later

Why Visit: Experience London's vibrant nightlife and diverse drinking establishments.

Insider Tip: Try a pint of real ale, a traditional British beer served at cellar temperature.

Day 3: Modern Marvels and Hidden Gems

Morning: Tower of London and Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge with the Tower of London in the foreground, showcasing two of London's most historic landmarks
Explored the Tower of London today. The Crown Jewels are dazzling, and the views of Tower Bridge are picture-perfect.

Start your final day in London with a visit to the Tower of London, a historic castle and fortress on the north bank of the River Thames. This UNESCO World Heritage site has served as a royal residence, prison, and even a zoo over its 900-year history.

Join a tour led by a Yeoman Warder (also known as Beefeaters) for fascinating stories about the Tower's past. Don't miss the Crown Jewels exhibition - the dazzling display of royal regalia is truly breathtaking.

After exploring the Tower, walk across the adjacent Tower Bridge for fantastic views of the river and city skyline. If you're lucky, you might even see the bridge open to let tall ships pass through!

Key Information:

  • Location: St Katharine's & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB
  • Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 AM - 5:30 PM, Sunday-Monday 10:00 AM - 5:30 PM
  • Admission: Adults £29.90, Children £14.90

Why Visit: Explore nearly a millennium of British history and see the dazzling Crown Jewels.

Insider Tip: Book tickets online in advance to skip the queues, especially during peak season.

Afternoon: Borough Market and Tate Modern

Food stalls and shoppers in Borough Market, highlighting London's oldest food market
Lunch at Borough Market was a feast for the senses. So many delicious options, it was hard to choose!
Modern art installation inside Tate Modern museum, showcasing contemporary art in London
Spent the afternoon at Tate Modern. Some of the installations are mind-bending, but the views from the top floor are worth the visit alone.

For lunch, head to Borough Market, London's oldest food market. This foodie paradise offers a wide range of gourmet treats from local and international vendors. Sarah and I spent hours here sampling everything from artisanal cheeses to freshly shucked oysters.

After lunch, walk along the South Bank to the Tate Modern, Britain's national museum of modern and contemporary art. Housed in a former power station, the Tate Modern's industrial architecture is as impressive as the art it contains.

Even if you're not usually an art enthusiast, the viewing platform on the 10th floor offers stunning panoramic views of London - it's worth a visit for this alone!

Key Information:

  • Borough Market Location: 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL
  • Borough Market Hours: Monday-Saturday 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM (limited stalls on Mondays and Tuesdays)
  • Tate Modern Location: Bankside, London SE1 9TG
  • Tate Modern Hours: Sunday-Thursday 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM, Friday-Saturday 10:00 AM - 10:00 PM
  • Tate Modern Admission: Free (charges for special exhibitions)

Why Visit: Experience London's culinary scene and world-class modern art collection.

Insider Tip: Visit Borough Market on an empty stomach and try the grilled cheese sandwich from Kappacasein - it's to die for!

Evening: Sky Garden for Sunset Views

London skyline view from Sky Garden at sunset, offering a panoramic vista of the city
Watched the sunset from Sky Garden. It's amazing to see London from this height - and it's free!

End your London adventure on a high note - literally! Head to the Sky Garden, London's highest public garden, for breathtaking 360-degree views of the city.

Located at the top of the "Walkie-Talkie" building (so named for its distinctive shape), the Sky Garden offers a unique perspective on London's skyline. Time your visit for sunset to see the city transform as day turns to night.

There are several bars and restaurants in the Sky Garden, so you can enjoy a cocktail or dinner with a view. It's the perfect way to reflect on your whirlwind 3 days in London!

Key Information:

  • Location: 20 Fenchurch St, London EC3M 8AF
  • Hours: Monday-Friday 10:00 AM - 9:00 PM, Saturday-Sunday 11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
  • Admission: Free, but advance booking required

Why Visit: Enjoy panoramic views of London from a unique elevated garden setting.

Insider Tip: Book your free tickets online well in advance, especially for sunset slots which fill up quickly.

Alternative Itineraries

Family-Friendly Options

If you're traveling with kids, consider swapping some of our suggestions with these family-friendly alternatives:

  • Instead of the pub crawl, take an evening stroll through Hyde Park or enjoy a family-friendly show at the Unicorn Theatre.
  • Replace the Tate Modern with a visit to the Science Museum, which offers hands-on exhibits perfect for curious minds of all ages.
  • Budget-Conscious Suggestions

    London can be expensive, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy the city on a budget:

    • Take advantage of London's many free museums, including the British Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Modern.
    • Enjoy a picnic in one of London's beautiful parks instead of dining out.
    • Use a Visitor Oyster card for cheaper public transport.
    • Look for "meal deal" offers at supermarkets for cheap lunches.
    • Join free walking tours offered by companies like Sandeman's New Europe.

    Luxury Experiences

    If you're looking to splurge, London offers plenty of high-end experiences:

    Off-the-Beaten-Path Experiences

    If you're looking to explore beyond the typical tourist spots, consider these unique experiences:

    Lesser-Known Museums

    • Sir John Soane's Museum: This fascinating house-museum is packed with curiosities and architectural models collected by the eccentric architect Sir John Soane.
    • Dennis Severs' House: Step back in time in this "still-life drama" depicting the lives of a family of Huguenot silk weavers.
    • The Old Operating Theatre Museum: Europe's oldest surviving operating theatre, offering a glimpse into the gruesome world of Victorian surgery.

    Quirky Tours

    Local Markets

    • Columbia Road Flower Market: A Sunday market offering a wide variety of flowers and plants.
    • Maltby Street Market: A weekend market with gourmet food stalls and pop-up bars.
    • Portobello Road Market: The world's largest antiques market, perfect for treasure hunting.

    Culinary Experiences

    London's food scene has undergone a revolution in recent years. Here are some must-try culinary experiences:

    Traditional British Fare

    • Fish and Chips: Try it at The Golden Hind in Marylebone for a traditional experience.
    • Sunday Roast: The Hawksmoor Seven Dials offers a renowned version of this British institution.
    • Afternoon Tea: Enjoy at The Ritz for a luxurious experience or at Bea's of Bloomsbury for a more casual affair.

    International Cuisine

    London's diversity is reflected in its food scene. Don't miss:

    • Brick Lane for authentic Bangladeshi curry
    • Chinatown for dim sum and other Chinese delicacies
    • Borough Market for a global culinary tour

    Food Markets and Street Food

    • Camden Market: Diverse range of international street food options.
    • Mercato Metropolitano: An Italian-inspired sustainable community market.
    • KERB: Various locations around London offering some of the best street food in the city.

    Practical Tips and Tricks

    To make your 3 days in London as smooth as possible, keep these tips in mind:

    • Use contactless payment: Many places in London, including public transport, accept contactless credit/debit cards.
    • Download useful apps: Citymapper for navigating public transport, OpenTable for restaurant bookings.
    • Mind the gap: Always mind the gap between the train and the platform when using the Tube.
    • Stand on the right: On escalators, stand on the right and walk on the left.
    • Tipping: It's customary to tip 10-15% in restaurants if service isn't included.
    • Free museums: Many of London's top museums, including the British Museum and Tate Modern, are free to enter.

    Day Trip Options

    If you have an extra day, consider these popular day trips from London:

    Windsor Castle

    Windsor Castle exterior with Union Jack flag, showcasing the royal residence near London
    Day trip to Windsor Castle was like stepping into a fairy tale. The State Apartments are absolutely stunning!

    Just an hour from London, Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It's one of the official residences of the British monarch and is packed with royal history.

    Key Information:

    • Location: Windsor, Berkshire, SL4 1NJ
    • Hours: March-October 10:00 AM - 5:15 PM, November-February 10:00 AM - 4:15 PM
    • Admission: Adults £26.50, Children £14.50

    Why Visit: Experience over 900 years of royal history and see the magnificent State Apartments.

    Insider Tip: Time your visit to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which usually takes place at 11:00 AM on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

    Stonehenge and Bath

    Stonehenge monument at sunset, capturing the mysterious prehistoric site
    Seeing Stonehenge in person is a surreal experience. The scale and mystery of this ancient site is truly awe-inspiring.

    Combine two UNESCO World Heritage sites in one day trip. Start with the mysterious Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument that has puzzled historians for centuries. Then head to Bath, a beautiful city known for its Roman-built baths and stunning Georgian architecture.

    Key Information:

    • Stonehenge Location: Salisbury SP4 7DE
    • Stonehenge Hours: 9:30 AM - 5:00 PM (last admission 2:30 PM)
    • Stonehenge Admission: Adults £19.50, Children £11.70
    • Bath Roman Baths Location: Abbey Churchyard, Bath BA1 1LZ
    • Bath Roman Baths Hours: 9:30 AM - 5:00 PM (until 9:00 PM in July and August)
    • Bath Roman Baths Admission: Adults £25, Children £16.50

    Why Visit: Experience two of England's most famous historical sites in one day.

    Insider Tip: Book a guided tour that includes transportation from London for a stress-free day trip.

    Oxford

    Students cycling past historic Oxford University buildings, capturing the essence of the famous university town
    Spent the day exploring Oxford. The architecture is breathtaking, and you can feel the centuries of academic history in the air.

    Known as the "City of Dreaming Spires," Oxford is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Wander through the historic city center, visit one of the 38 colleges that make up the university, and follow in the footsteps of famous alumni like J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll.

    Key Information:

    • Location: Oxford OX1 2JD
    • Hours: Vary by college and attraction
    • Admission: Many colleges charge a small fee for entry

    Why Visit: Experience the academic atmosphere of one of the world's most prestigious universities and explore the charming city that surrounds it.

    Insider Tip: Take a punting tour along the River Cherwell for a unique perspective of the city.

    Conclusion

    Phew! We've covered a lot of ground in this 3-day London itinerary. From royal palaces to hidden pubs, world-class museums to quirky markets, we've touched on the many facets that make London such a captivating city.

    Remember, this itinerary is just a starting point. London is a city that rewards exploration, so don't be afraid to wander off the beaten path. Some of our best memories from London were made when we stumbled upon a cozy pub or a charming bookshop that wasn't in any guidebook.

    As you plan your trip, keep in mind that London has something for everyone. Whether you're a history buff, a foodie, an art lover, or just looking for a good time, you'll find plenty to keep you entertained. And with its excellent public transportation system, you can easily adapt this itinerary to suit your interests and pace.

    So pack your bags, grab your Oyster card, and get ready for an unforgettable 3 days in London. Who knows? Like Sarah and me, you might find yourself planning your next visit before you've even left!

    Happy travels, and enjoy your London adventure!

    West Parker
    West Parker
    Article updated:
    July 18, 2024 8:18 AM

    West Parker, a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration graduate, has spent two decades as the secret weapon of the jet-set elite, crafting bespoke adventures that redefine luxury travel. Now a resident writer for Town & Tourist, this 45-year-old "Architect of Extraordinary Journeys" combines razor-sharp insights with unparalleled industry connections to deliver experiences that even the most discerning globetrotters can't help but rave about. West's expertise spans from exclusive real estate to fine dining, making him the go-to strategist for those who demand nothing but the extraordinary in their travels.

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