Is it possible? Yes. This guide gives you the low-down on how to see all the major landmarks and places of interest of Western Europe’s largest cosmopolitan city in only 48 hours.
It is possible to get acquainted with London relatively quickly. Arm yourself with an A-Z map book, the pocket version is perfectly adequate, a travel card, a good pair of walking shoes and London is yours to discover.
Start from somewhere central such as St James’s Park station and you can get around some of the major city sights as they are within easy walking distance of each other. You are already in the heart of Westminster. Straight ahead lies St James’s Park, the lake in the centre casts a viewpoint left up towards Buckingham Palace and right towards Whitehall.
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Every morning at 11am the Queen’s regiments perform the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Wellington Barracks. They begin by warming up the band and marching the troops around the parade ground before heading over to the palace. They are joined by the Horse Guard coming up the Mall from St James’s Palace.
The centre piece in front of Buckingham Palace is the Victoria Memorial. To see if the current Queen is at home look to the roof. From the flag pole you will see either the Royal Standard, a white flag with the 4 crests of the Kingdom, which means she is at home. Or you will see the Union flag, the blue one marked with the red cross of St George (England), the red cross of St Patrick (Ireland) and the white cross of St Andrew (Scotland).
Green Park lies to the right of the palace. So named as the story tells that Charles I’s wife, on seeing her husband picking flowers for his mistress, stage actress Nell Gwyn, she ordered all the flowers beds to be ripped up. If Charles was not going to give her flowers he certainly wasn’t going to give them to anyone else.
Head down the Mall to the gates of St James’s Palace, just next door to Clarence House. Prince Charles resides in the Palace when he is in London, whereas the nation’s late favourite great grandmother, the Queen Mother, used to reside in Clarence House.
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Westminster Abbey was begun by Edward the Confessor in 1055AD.Edward, obviously having something to confess, began constructing the Abbey but died before it’s completion. William the Conqueror continued the project in 1066 and had himself crowned inside. Every monarch has since been crowned in the Abbey.
The abbey was spared the hammer by Henry VIII because of this fact. Angered by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry broke with the Catholic church and imposed an impossible annual £200 tax on all of them. Forfeit resulted in their buildings and land being handed over to the crown.
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St Margaret’s church stands next to the North Transept entrance on the way to the Houses of Parliament. This was the church for the MPs of the house of Commons and where Winston Churchill married his Clementine in 1908.
The Houses of Parliament were originally named Westminster Palace. A quick identity parade begins with the obvious bell tower on the left. This houses Big Ben, the bell named after Sir Benjamin Hall and is the one that sound the hours. The tower is called St Stephen’s.
Next to the tower is St Stephen’s Hall, the House of Commons. The Great hall to front was built by William the Conqueror in 1087, the walls are distinctly less ornate than the rest of the Palace indicating its older age.
Following on is the House of Lords, the seats held by nobles and members of the church. Finally stands the Victoria Tower, the House of Lords Record Office where all legislature is kept.
Several famous trials have been held inside including that of William Wallace, the Scotsman who took on Edward I and lost his life at execution. Thomas More, religious advisor to Henry VIII was also tried for treason against the King after refusing to accept Henry’s role as supreme head of the church.
Perhaps the most flagrant attempt to upset the seat of power came with the gunpowder plot in 1605. A group of Catholic businessmen plotted to dispose of the protestant king at the opening of parliament on the 5th November, including a gentleman by the name of Guy Fawkes.
They rented rooms in the basement of the palace and filled these with barrels of gunpowder. However, whether a note informing catholic MPs to remain at home that evening created suspicion or someone gave the plot away, the opening was delayed as the Yeomen of the Guard searched the building.
Fawkes was discovered, the plot exposed and later he was tried and convicted of treason. His fate is re-enacted every year around the UK on the 5th November with bonfire night.
The most famous trial was that of a King. King Charles I believed in a style of leadership that did not sit well with parliament. His constant over spending was creating many problems for the state. Parliament devised its Parliamentary privilege and soon members were voicing their distaste of the monarch.
Charles heard of this and tried to arrest 5 MPs. He was stopped by Oliver Cromwell, a supporter of the English Civil War. Charles found himself facing charges of treason against the state and was beheaded at Banqueting House on 30th January 1649.
Looking left up Whitehall you will notice a very easily recognisable figure. The irritable looking bronze statue on the corner of Parliament Square facing Big Ben is that of non other than Winston Churchill. Where Big Ben became the symbol of the free world during WWII with the BBC World service radio broadcasts, Churchill was certainly the man of the hour. His belief was that his whole life between 1933 and 1946 had been predestined for that time.
The grey buildings on the left of Whitehall were his home for much of the war and the Churchill War Cabinet Rooms Museum has many of his rooms on display as they were used then.
Keep going ahead up Whitehall and you will reach one of the most filmed front doors in the UK. Number 10 Downing Street has been the official home of the Prime Minister since Robert Walpole in 1732 when it was given to him by George II. “The house out the back” was officially number 10 but Walpole had the houses either side joined to it to enlarge the living area.
The road used to be open to the public but was closed off for security reasons during the tenure of Margaret Thatcher. The house has been occupied more or less continually apart from the odd period of repair, especially after an IRA mortar attack in the 1990’s.
Continuing on past Downing street, on the right side is Banqueting House , the sole survivor of Whitehall Palace, one of the original royal residences but which was destroyed by fire, purportedly started by a Dutch washerwoman.
You will reach Henry VIII’s tilting yard on the left and where another changing of the Guards Ceremony takes place at Horse Guards. This is a shorter version of the more complex ceremony at 11am where the horses are brought out to change places with the ones standing in the gate boxes.
Beneath the archway stands a lone guard where once it was only allowed by royal permission to pass. No bicycles can be ridden through here. Beyond is the tilting yard where Henry VIII enjoyed this for entertainment. Here also is held the Trooping of the Colour, a traditional ceremony that began with King Richard. Before going into battle the troops were brought in to display their fighting colours to aide the King and the rest of the army to know who was on their side.
Starting from Admiralty Arch at the top of the Mall the buildings around the edge of the square include many Embassies, Canada, USA, New Zealand up towards Haymarket, then comes the National Gallery at the top of the square. The building annexed off to the left is the modern gallery, much maligned by Prince Charles as a ‘carbuncle on the face of an old friend’. The walkway between the two leads up to Leicester Square and the beginning of Soho.
On the eastern side stands St Martins in the Field church which also began one of the first soup kitchens for the homeless in the crypt. A flea market and summer musical performances are also held there regularly. Next door is the South African embassy where Nelson Mandela gave his first public address from the balcony.
The focal point in the centre of the square is of course Nelson’s Column. The statue on top of the plinth was erected in honour of Nelson’s victory over Napoleon’s fleet in the battle of Trafalgar, where the commander ultimately lost his life.
The bronze plaques are made from melted down French canons and depict scenes from the battle. The four lions around the base were sculpture by Edward Landseer. One legend tells that Edward’s lion died before he finished the initial work was complete causing him to use the family dog to finish the rear quarters.
The rest of the square is popular during the summer with crowds gathering to sit by the fountains, feed the pigeons and watch public demonstrations. It is also a popular location for protesters to gather and voice their concerns as well as being the finishing point for many parades.
Now the main history lesson is over it’s time to see where Londoners let their hair down and hang out in the West End. Leicester Square has been for many centuries the playground for those living in the west. It had a seedier reputation in the 18th Century which has been replace over time as the place to go to eat, drink and be entertained, either at the movies or with stage shows.
Spend a few hours wandering around Soho, Piccadilly Circus and Chinatown and you will get a real sense of the vibrant life in the city centre. There are so many restaurants, pubs and cafes to choose from you can eat from a different culture for every meal.
Carnaby Street, the Brewer Street Markets, Regent Street and of course Oxford Street can fill an entire day or afternoon very easily, and empty the wallet just as efficiently. For a slightly less budget denting shopping experience try some of the other markets around.
Camden High Street and Camden Lock Markets have a huge variety of alternative clothes, books, records, food, crafts and antiques. Open every day until 8pm. Brick Lane has been a favourite for many for decades, also with a huge variety of ethnic foods, crafts and clothes. Portobello Road attracts a wide range of visitors. The items are usually a bit pricier but the further you walk down the road the cheaper they get.
Locally attended markets include Shepherd’s Bush, where literally anything from socks, plug adapters, clothes to household products can be found. Borough Markets at Tower Bridge offer a tasty selection of freshly made goods, as well as meat, fish and vegetables.
There is literally a restaurant for every taste imaginable in every post code. The ethnic diversity in London is truly reflected in the food on offer. Traditional English pub food has undergone a renaissance recently with the advent of gastro pubs, and the latest arrival of eastern bloc countries to the EU has seen an increase in bohemian style cuisine.
Starting from the South Bank the galleries worth visiting include the Saatchi Collection and the Dali Universe. Should the weather be clear and bright even a trip around in the BA London Eye is worth it to get a fantastic view over the city.
Perhaps the most outstanding and free one to visit is the Tate Modern Gallery. This deserves at least a couple of hours devoted to it to get around the many floors of what used to be a power station. This is also just along from the recreated Shakespeare Globe Theatre.
The walk alongside the Thames gives a great panoramic look back at the city centre. The Millennium Bridge sadly no longer wobbles but is conveniently placed outside the gallery to take you across to see St Paul’s Cathedral. If the queue was too long for the Eye the view from the top of the cathedral is also excellent.
The Tower of London can be visited in a few hours, including viewing the Crown jewels and weaponry. The Tower has been a fortified palace, prison and now a museum. The last monarch to live there was Henry VII and the last prisoners held there were the notorious Kray Twins.
The museums to choose from for the afternoon require at least a couple of hours to get around, so it relies purely on self interest. They include the exceptional British Museum for artefacts from around the world. Another option is the Natural History Museum for nature buffs. For more hands on and the chance to get back to being a kid again is the Science Museum.
If looking at specimens and items from the past don’t appeal there are the royal parks to go and ramble around in. Hyde Park is the largest central green space with paths criss-crossing through it past landscaped gardens and lakes. Kensington Gardens provides a natural green link between Bayswater and Kensington High Street.
There is plenty in the way of entertainment, whether it be restaurants, theatre, pubs, bars and clubs. Whatever you choose for your final evening will not doubt leave a lasting impression. Wandering lost around Covent Garden can be an evening in itself with many bars and street performances to keep you from getting bored.
London can be done in 48 hours with some determination and clear idea of where you want to go. This guide is designed to get you around the main sights as they are located centrally or easily reached by short tube or bus journeys.
You may only have 48 hours to get around but you will definitely be left wanting more.