The cityscape of London at sunset

3 days in London - an itinerary for first-time visitors

Planning a trip to London? Here are our top picks...

Stay: citizenM London Victoria Station

Walking tour: Palaces and Parliament Tour

Discount pass: London Pass

Food tour: London food walking tour

Day trip: Lunch in the Cotswolds

London has seen many changes in its long history as England's capital, from the Roman city of Londinium in AD 43, to the devastation of the Great Fire, to its height as the centre of the British Empire.

Today it’s a bustling metropolis filled with towering skyscrapers, international cuisine, and a multitude of cultural attractions.

Even if you’ve never visited, you probably know a few things about the city already. There's a lot more to London than red phone boxes, black cabs and Harry Potter filming locations.

London is home to some of the world's best free museums, vast royal parks, and delicious street food - you don’t need to spend a fortune to enjoy three days in London.

In this guide, we will take a look at some of the best things to do in London for first time visitors, as well as some trendy spots and places to eat that only locals know about.

A London bus on Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in the background.

How many days do you really need in London?

While there are enough things to do in London to keep you busy for a lifetime, three days is enough to get a really good overview of the city. Focus on specific areas to avoid spending too long getting around, and make use of pre-booking and skip-the-line tickets to maximise your time.

Grab a London Pass to get free entry into over 80 of London’s top attractions, including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Shard.

Getting around Central London is relatively easy and affordable; much of the city is walkable, but there’s a lot of it! Taking public transport will help to ease the strain.

Unless you want to keep it as a souvenir, you don't really need an Oyster Card anymore. The underground ‘Tube’ or bus networks will take any contactless bank card, just tap and go.

Black cabs are another affordable option for getting around and, if it’s a short distance, are often easier than taking the Tube as cabbies will drop you off to the exact place you want to go.

Buckingham Palace and gardens in London, UK

Day one - Parks and palaces

First things first, grab a hearty full English breakfast at Regency Cafe in Westminster. This no frills greasy spoon is a stalwart of the city's food scene and, unlike many places to eat in London, it won't break the bank either.

Then it’s time to hit the big leagues; you can’t really come to London and not visit Buckingham Palace. The whole area is a treasure trove of sights, make sure not to miss the beautiful and unusual black swans at St James's Park.

Nearby, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey are all famous landmarks that come high on the list of things to see in London. It’s not really possible to visit the seat of the UK government, at 10 Downing Street, as the road is blocked off to visitors. Instead, head to the Churchill War Rooms to discover how one of the most charismatic leaders of Britain got us through the “Darkest Hour” of WW2.

For a further delve into the history of the British Empire, the Victoria and Albert Museum is arguably one of the best in London, only overshadowed by the eclectic and fascinating British Museum in Bloomsbury.

If the animal world is more your thing, the Natural History Museum next door has just about everything from Darwin's discoveries on evolution to a giant Blue Whale skeleton that dominates the main hall.

Serpentine Lake and Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park, London

Spend what's left of the afternoon wandering around in nature at Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

For dinner head to one of the best pubs in England, The Churchill Arms. You can’t miss this flower-bedecked real ale boozer, especially during the holidays when the elaborate exterior is sparkling with festive lights. Inside is quite a sight too. The pub is jam-packed with Churchill memorabilia and photographs, hence the name, and serves up delicious Thai food like noodles and curry.

In the evening, head south to the upmarket area of Chelsea for a drink at The Bletchley. Dress up in WW2 era uniforms, crack the ‘Enigma’ code, and create totally unique cocktails with the help of a trained mixologist. Conde Nast called it the “Best bar in West London”, and it has been one of the top 20 bars in London on Tripadvisor for five years running!

If you prefer a quieter evening, visit the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, the Edwardian picture house has homely sofas to watch mainstream and art-house films from.

London Eye and County Hall in London, UK

Day two - Traversing the Thames

If you’ve managed to book ahead and skip the queue, the London Eye is a great way to tick off a few sights from above. But don’t worry if you miss it as there’s also a free option (see below) for getting the best views over London's skyline. From here, you can also visit the London Dungeon or hop on a cruise of the Thames.

From the riverbank, head underneath Waterloo Station to The Graffiti Tunnel for some of the best street art in the area. Also known as Leake Street Arches, the tunnel is constantly evolving with new additions of legal street art.

For a fascinating look into life in the trenches of WW1 and the Blitz, the Imperial War Museum is one of those places you could get lost in for hours. Nearby you can also explore the navy ship-turned-museum HMS Belfast.

For another strand of London's intertwined history, explore the Elizabethan era by visiting Shakespeare's Globe - an oak-and-thatch replica of the original theatre that showed the bard's best open-air plays.

From here you can see the Millennium Bridge, famous for nearly wobbling itself to destruction when it first opened (don’t worry it’s been fixed), and the Tate Modern art gallery. If you're interested in Shakespeare, you can also do a walking tour to discover his London haunts.

An entrance to the historic Borough Market in London

After you’ve worked up an appetite, Borough Market is the place to go for an afternoon snack. This vast market under the railway lines is best known for artisanal bakes, patisseries and international sweet treats.

Next, head over to the iconic Tower Bridge and tick off the Tower of London. If you have the time, you can get up close to the Crown Jewels, meet the ravens and the legendary Yeoman Warders, or ‘Beefeaters’ as they’re more commonly known.

There are plenty of food options in the area but for a meal with a view, or after dinner drinks, there’s no better spot than the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building. Prebook a free ticket to the Sky Garden, one of the most scenic pockets of nature in the city.

The glass-topped skyscraper is filled with tropical plants and casual seating areas, making it a great place to get a sunset drink or two. Enjoy views over notable London landmarks like the Gherkin, the Shard, and St. Paul's Cathedral.

People walking between stalls selling clothes and juice inside Spitalfields Market, London

Day three - East End markets and West End shows

Shoreditch is one of the hippest neighbourhoods in London, with vintage shops, food vans, and coffee bars around every corner. The Breakfast Club Hoxton is one of the coolest spots to start the day, with huge American breakfasts, Yorkshire-born hospitality and a ‘locally world famous’ mantra.

Spend the morning rummaging amongst the vast array of clothes, jewellery, homeware, and art at Spitalfields Market, then wander along ‘Curry Mile’ in Brick Lane, taking in some spectacular building-size street art murals along the way.

Time to brave ‘The Tube’ as you head west to foodies paradise Camden Town. Bypass the street level clothes vendors and head underground to find creamy Pastel de Nata, crispy churros and Pad Thai galore.

Next, hop over to Regents Park via the upmarket area of Primrose Hill, with its grand Victorian terraces and pastel-coloured townhouses. The royal park has plenty of sights and attractions on offer, but it’s also just a great place to explore on its own.

A busy street in London's Chinatown at night

From here, you can visit ZSL London Zoo for a fun day out with the kids, explore the stunning London Central Mosque, or see lifelike wax statues of celebrities at Madame Tussauds.

South of the park, Baker Street is a great stop for literature fans with the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Daunt Books Marylebone - one of the best bookshops in London.

For music fans, a detour to Abbey Road Studios is a must. Re-enact the eponymous Beatles' album cover on the pedestrian crossing across the street from the famous recording studio.

In the evening, head to London's West End to catch a show at one of the many grand theatres. For dinner, Covent Garden is a fantastic place to grab a bite to eat and listen to some live music. You could alternatively head over to Chinatown for the best Asian cuisine in London.

People gathering at Brixton Village and Brixton  Market..

If you have more time in London

  • Brixton is one of the best up-and-coming districts around London. It’s multiculturalism at its best, with vivid street art, cheap places to stay, and food from all over the world.

    Brixton has been a popular place for foreigners to live in London since the Windrush days of the 1940s. Settlers from all backgrounds have opened many small independent restaurants, bringing the unique flavours of their homeland with them.

    Pop Brixton is a great place to spend an evening. It’s a community space, filled with shipping containers, housing trendy bars and global eateries, and live music. Events are also common during the summer months.

  • Due to the sheer number of things to do in London, many visitors won’t get to explore that far out of the centre. If you do have more time, or want to explore a different side of the city, head out to one of the many beautiful parks surrounding London.

    To the north, is Hampstead Heath with Parliament Hill’s dramatic views over London, and Highgate Cemetery - home to Karl Marx's Tomb. While to the west are the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the deer-studded Richmond Park.

  • Taking a day trip or overnight stay from the capital is a great way to see a little more of England. You can easily travel by car or rail to the modern seaside town of Brighton, the historic university cities of Cambridge and Oxford, Stonehenge - an archaeological site dating back to 2,500 BC, or the thermal Roman town of Bath with the green rolling hills of the Cotswolds.

Looking for accommodation in London? Read our neighbourhood guide. Or, need more info about the UK? Read our UK travel guide.

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Jo Williams

Author - Jo Williams

Jo Williams is a freelance writer with 10 years' experience working in travel and tourism. A Brit who got fed up with the 9 to 5 corporate life, she sold everything to become a full-time wanderer.

Jo has travelled to over 70 countries and worked throughout Europe for a major tour operator. She hopes to inspire you to work less and travel more.

Last Updated 21 July 2023

Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, UK

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