Best of London in three hours – exploring London on Foot

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

Now that we finally have a little bit of freedom back and can start travelling again, maybe you have considered heading to London for the day? Or you live around London, but never really explored the city? Whichever reason, if you find yourself with a couple of hours spare, how about seeing the highlights of London in three hours? And best of all, you can explore all that London has to offer on foot. No need to get up close and personal with others on public transport. Sounds good? Well, how about you join me for a self-guided ‘London in three hours’ walking tour.

OK, a few words of wisdom before we start. It hopefully goes without saying that you should ensure you wear comfortable shoes if you intend to see the best of London in just three hours. And I would recommend bringing a bottle of water with you. You can bring a picnic, if you fancy. London has plenty of parks suitable for al fresco lunch. Or you buy yourself something, there are plenty of options along the route.

Good news, London is relatively flat. No need to climb up steep hills whilst exploring London on foot. Obviously, you can take as much time as you want or have. You don’t have to complete this tour of London in three hours flat. You don’t even have to complete it at all, up to you. But if you are in London for the first time or have very limited time to explore London, this walking tour gives you the best bits in a very condensed round.

Fine, I’ve waffled enough, let’s get started.

London in three hours: The Route

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Image Source: Google Maps

We’ll start at Trafalgar’s Square; however, the route is more or less a circuit. Start wherever is most convenient for you and just keep going for as long as you like.

Overall, the proposed route is approx. 12km (7.5 miles), which is doable in around 2 ½ hours at normal pace. Factor in a few photo stops and this brings you to three hours give or take.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

The best of London in three hours: Trafalgar’s Square, the Mall and Buckingham Palace

Why start at Trafalgar’s Square? Well, to be honest, it is as good a starting point as any. And it is easy to identify with Nelson’s Column towering over it.

From here we’ll head through the Admiralty Arch, a large Edwardian building at the South-West end of Trafalgar’s Square. The arch forms the entrance to The Mall, the road leading directly to Buckingham Palace. You will notice that the road is actually red, rather than usual tarmac. This gives the appearance of a giant red carpet leading to the palace. It might be tempting to walk the ‘red carpet’, but please be advised that The Mall is open to traffic. Don’t get run over by a cab, just because you didn’t pay any attention.

As we head down The Mall, you will see St. James’s Park to your left (ignore it for now, we’ll get back to that). To your right, you will come past the memorial of King George VI (the Queen’s father) and his wife Elizabeth (better known as Queen Mum). A little further down, we will pass St. James’s Palace and Clarence House, the residence of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. A lot of those buildings on the right are either used by the Royal Family or the Government. So, no surprise they are all fenced off and well protected.

At the end of The Mall, we arrive at Buckingham Palace with the Victoria Memorial in front of us. To the left, you can see the impressive Canada Gate entrance to Green Park. Unfortunately, if we intend to see London in three hours, we won’t have time to visit Green Park or Hyde Park. Save that for another day.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

Buckingham Palace is usually open for visitors a few weeks during the summer. In addition, the Changing of the Guards takes place every other day in the morning (every day in June and July). However, during the present times, the ceremony has been suspended. Any way, with a mere three hours to see the best of London on foot, we wouldn’t have time for that anyway.

As you stand in front of Buckingham Palace, check the flag on the roof. Whilst Buckingham Palace is the London residence of Queen Elizabeth II, she is not always here. The flag signals whether or not she is in. If the Royal Standard is up, this means the Queen is in. Should she be in one of her other residencies, the Union Jack will be up.

Exploring London on foot: Buckingham Palace to Westminster Bridge

Once you’ve taken a million photos of Buckingham Palace and have tried your best to spot the Queen (let’s be honest, we’ve all been there), let’s continue with our London in three hours walking tour.

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Heading through St. James’s Park, keep the lake to your left. St. James’s Park is actually a really nice spot to sit and enjoy your lunch or a coffee in the sun. But since we’ve only just started our London walking tour, let’s plough on, shall we?

As we get to the end of the park, we will cross the street and head up the stairs to King Charles Street. The big buildings either side of you are the Queen’s Treasury and the Foreign Office. Arriving at Whitehall, you can do a quick detour to the left for a quick glance into Downing Street. 10 Downing Street is the home of the Prime Minister. However, you can’t actually go into the street, a gate and guards block your way.

As we head down Whitehall, we will get to Parliament Square. Feel free to circle the garden and have a look at all the statues. Beyond Parliament Square you can see the impressive Westminster Abbey.

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

As we turn left towards the Thames, we have the Palace of Westminster (probably better known as the Houses of Parliament) on our right. If you ever get a chance, you should go and view the inside, as it is quite magnificent.

Big Ben (or Queen Elizabeth Tower if we are being very correct, as we all know Big Ben is only the bell, not the tower) is currently under construction and therefore covered in scaffolding. The bell is also silent for the foreseeable future (New Year’s Eve aside), so you will have to come back to hear the famous chime.

We cross the Thames via Westminster Bridge, starting out on the left side. Giving us a great view of the Southbank and the London Eye (perfect photo backdrop for a London selfie).

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

As we walk along the bridge it might be worth crossing to the other side of the road, to get an unobstructed view of the Houses of Parliament.

Self-guided London Walking Tour: Along the Thames

If you want to explore the best of London in three hours, there isn’t much time to hang about. Therefore, we won’t go up the London Eye. That being said, if you do get a chance to go up there, I would urge you to do so at least once in your life. You do get a great view all over London. But at £24.50 / person, that view doesn’t come cheap. There are other options, that will give you a great view of London for free.

Instead of going up the London Eye we will walk past it and continue along the Queen’s Walk on the south bank.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

This is actually one of my favourite walks around London. When we moved here many years ago, I would regularly come down to the Thames (we had a direct bus to London Bridge), go for a long walk between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge and head back home. Or bring a book, get myself a coffee and spend my afternoon here reading and people watching.

You will see, there is no shortage of bridges crossing the Thames. As we walk, we will pass no less than nine by the time we get to Tower Bridge.

As we walk past the Royal Festival Hall it is worth pointing out, that there is actually a nice food market hidden behind the Hall (open on weekends and bank holidays). Just in case you feel a little hungry by now.

If you are visiting London before Christmas, you might find a nice little Christmas market here. That being said, I can’t promise if there will be any of the markets around for Christmas season 2020. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

A bit further down, underneath Waterloo Bridge, you will find the Waterloo Book market. A few rows of tables and a few booths selling all kind of second-hand books. You never know what you will find, but it is usually worth a look. Well, that’s if we had time. Since we are trying to walk all of London in three hours, that’s not an option (just kidding, take all the time you need and once you are done, we can continue).

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Walking along the Thames, keep an eye out for any sand sculptures. At low tide (yes, the Thames has high tide and low tide, did you know?) there is a strip of sandy beach where you will often find some sculptors creating amazing scenes out of sand.

Don’t forget to look across the river every now and then, to take in the London skyline.

Once we get past Blackfriars’ Bridge, you will see the Tate Modern to your right. Again, if you want to complete London in three hours, there isn’t much time to head into the Tate. Should you have some spare time, go ahead and have a little wander around. Even if you are not that interested in art, the building itself is well worth a look. Housed inside the former Bankside Power Station, the building was opened as an art gallery in 2000. It then had an impressive ‘twisted cube’ extension added to its back in 2016.

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In front of the Tate Modern is the Millennium Bridge and beyond that you get a direct view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Come on, go up to the bridge and enjoy the view. Believe me, it is worth it.

You could cross over now and continue to St. Paul’s Cathedral. But sorry to say, we are not quite done yet with walking along the Thames.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

Shortly after the Tate Modern, you will see Shakespeare’s Globe to your right. A re-construction of the original circular theatre, that Shakespeare wrote his plays for. I’ve got to be honest with you. I still haven’t managed to visit and actually see a play. It has been on my bucket list for so long, I should really go and tick it off (well, once it re-opens obviously. Summer 2021 I hope?)

We continue walking along the Thames. As we meander through the streets have a look at the old houses. You will come past the Clink, a medieval prison. Long closed, it is now a museum and tourist attraction.

Just a few steps past the prison, you can see the ruins of Winchester Palace on your right, including the rose window high up on the end wall. 

Next we come past the Golden Hind. Sorry to disappoint, this is not the real thing. But it is a full-size replica of the galleon Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe with back in the 16th century.

I love this bit of the walk. There is so much going on and there is so much to see.

As we leave the Golden Hind, we can decide whether to walk left or right. Going left has the advantage that you can take the underpass and don’t have to cross at street level. But you miss out on Borough Market. Therefore, let’s walk right instead. The market is open Monday to Saturday, with Saturday being its busiest day (and also the only day they open as early as 8am). Depending on time of day, this might be the perfect spot for lunch or a coffee, before we continue with our London in three hours walking tour.

Beside the market, you can see Southwark Cathedral. If it open, take the chance to take a peek inside.

OK, let’s cross the street and get back to the Thames. Can you see the Shard towering above London Bridge Station? Impressive, isn’t it? At over 300m, it is the highest building in the UK (for half a year after its completion in 2012 it was also the highest in Europe but has since dropped to number 6).

As we head back to the Thames, can you see Tower Bridge in front of you? We are nearly done with our walk along the river (but not quite done with exploring London on foot, keep going). To your right, you will see Hay’s Galleria. Nowadays you can find shops and restaurants here, but it actually started life as a wharf for tea and dry goods arriving by ship. The impressive glass roof was added during the redevelopment in the 1980s, it wasn’t part of the original wharf.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

A little further down you can see the HMS Belfast, a British battleship used in the Second World War and now transformed into a museum.

As we reach Tower Bridge, you will see City Hall on your right. Designed by Norman Foster and shaped like a helmet, City Hall has been the base of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly since 2002 (there are currently talks that they might vacate the building by 2021 though).

As we aim to explore the best of London in three hours, we won’t wander beyond Tower Bridge. But if you have more time on your hand, keep walking and exploring. There are some beautiful secret gardens in the vicinity that are well worth a visit.

How to see London in three hours: The City of London

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Time to cross the Thames again. And where better than via the iconic Tower Bridge? Maybe you are lucky and see Tower Bridge open. It is rare, but it does happen, whenever taller ships want to pass (but since they then can’t get further than London Bridge, it doesn’t happen too often).

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Next on our London on foot tour is the Tower of London. A Royal Palace and former prison, the Tower of London has been around for a good thousand years. If you are in London for longer than a day, I would definitely recommend a visit. Or try and get tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys, that takes place every single night (well, once it is open to the public again, hopefully by November 2020).

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Have a little wander around the Tower of London. Usually I would recommend walking along the Thames here, but unfortunately the walkway had been closed to the public recently and was only accessible for ticket holders and residents. I don’t know if and when it will reopen to the public, so keep an eye out, otherwise you’ll have to walk the long way around the Tower.

Once you arrive on the other side of the Tower, we will continue our London in three hours walking tour.

As we walk away from the Tower, we come past ‘All Hollows by the Tower’, the oldest church in the City of London, founded in 675AD. The church and its crypt museum are open to the public. If you have a little time spare, go in and have a look around (even if it means we need more than three hours for our London on foot tour).

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

The next part of our London in three hours tour will take us through the City of London. As we head along Great Tower Street, take a little detour down St. Dunstan’s Hill and visit St. Dunstan in the East Church Garden. Maybe not a secret garden anymore, but for sure hidden and beautiful.

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Continuing on to Eastcheap, you can spot the ‘Walkie Talkie’ (20 Fenchurch Street) to your right. Both the Skygarden on top of the Walkie Talkie and the Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street offer great views of London for free.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

Continuing on to Eastcheap, you can spot the ‘Walkie Talkie’ (20 Fenchurch Street) to your right. Both the Skygarden on top of the Walkie Talkie and the Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street offer great views of London for free.

A little further down the street you will see Monument on your left. The 62m high column is a monument to the Great Fire of London, that started very close to this spot in 1666. It was designed by Christopher Wren, the man also responsible for the current design of St. Paul’s Cathedral and several of the City of London churches.

As we continue, you have two options. Either you walk down Cannon Street, which is the slightly shorter route, or along King William Street, leading to Bank Station and the Bank of England. If your feet don’t hurt too much yet, I would recommend going via Bank. As you get to the junction, have a look at the impressive buildings around you. The Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, Mansion House. And in contrast, No. 1 New Change, the stripy, postmodern building designed by Stirling. 

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Leave No. 1 New Change to your left and head down Cheapside. We are on our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral now.

Halfway down the street, have a quick glance at Bow Church and down Bow Lane. If you happen to visit around Christmas, this little shopping street is cuteness overload with its fairy lights spanning above.

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Before we arrive at St. Paul’s, there is One New Change (a shopping centre) to your left. If you head up to the roof terrace, you will be rewarded with more stunning views of London and particularly of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Continue to the front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Can you see the gate leading into Paternoster Square? This is Temple Bar Gate. Designed by Wren, it originally stood on Fleet Street (by Temple Bar, hence the name) and formed the Western Entrance to the City. We will come past its original location later.

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Let’s continue down Ludgate Hill, towards Fleet Street.

Fleet Street gets its name from the River Fleet, that runs below it (one of many lost rivers of London). It has been the epicentre of newspapers and journalism for a long time, with the first daily newspaper being printed here in the 18th century. Many newspapers had their offices here. As we head down the street, you will see the building of the Daily Express at 121-128 Fleet Street. The black glass façade is now a Grade II listed building and was the first curtain walling in London.

A few steps further, number 135-142 Fleet Street is another Grade II listed building, the former offices of the Daily Telegraph. Look at its beautiful Art Deco façade with Egyptian decorations and columns.

As we head further, try and spot the sign for Temple Church to your left. If you are lucky, the door is open, and you can head down to the 12th Century Knights Templar’s church (made famous in recent years by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code).

Can you see the Dragon in the middle of Fleet Street? This is the boundary marker for the City of London. And this is where the Temple Bar Gate was originally located.

To your right, you can now see the Royal Court of Justice, the High Court of the UK.

London in three hours: The West End

Head past St Clement Danes Church (another Wren church) and down Aldwych. To your left you might spot an old Tube station entrance. This is (or rather was) Aldwych Station. Long closed, it used to be an extension of the Piccadilly Line, running down from Holborn. And yes, don’t be confused that it says Strand Station above the entrance. This is just one of those little Secrets of the London Underground.

As we get closer to Covent Garden, you will come past several theatres. After all, this is what the West End is famous for. It is London’s Theatre District. Unfortunately, all of those are currently closed and probably won’t re-open until 2021. So, if you were thinking of seeing a show, it is worth checking upfront if / what is actually running (The Mousetrap is re-opening from October 2020, but it seems to be the only one so far).

We head down Strand, until we see the Savoy Hotel to our left. At that point we turn right and walk up to Covent Garden market.

Until the 1970s, Covent Garden market was a fruit and veg market in the heart of London’s West End. But with increasing traffic, deliveries to the market became a logistical nightmare and the fruit and veg market eventually moved out. In the years to come, the vacated market halls were re-developed into what you can see today: A pedestrianised piazza with shops, cafes and restaurants. And the Apple Market, an arts and crafts market within the old market hall.

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

In one corner of the piazza you can spot the entrance to the Royal Opera House, in another the London Transport Museum.

How to see London in three hours - Self guided London on foot tour - Travel for a Living

Usually Covent Garden is the perfect place to watch street performers and magicians. Not sure how many of those have returned to the streets yet (I didn’t spot any last time I visited Covent Garden), but I guess they will be back before long.

You could spend an entire day in Covent Garden and not get bored (I sure could, I just love it here). But since we are still on the mission to see London in three hours, we will have to plough on. Good news though. We are almost at the end.

Down Long Acre is our final stop. Leicester Square. Famous for its big cinemas and red-carpet movie premieres (although quite a few have actually moved elsewhere nowadays), the square even used to have its own version of a ‘Walk of Fame’ (which was eventually removed after the extensive refurbishment ahead of the London Olympics in 2012).

The garden in the middle of Leicester Square has a statue of William Shakespeare in the centre. And it is home to a lovely little Christmas market in December (probably not in 2020 though).

From Leicester Square it is only a few steps back to Trafalgar’s Square. So, if you want to go full circle (or if you have started your London in three hours walking tour somewhere in the middle), just head back there.

Otherwise, you could go on exploring Chinatown (just behind Leicester Square) or continue to Piccadilly, Regent Street and Oxford Street for some shopping.

I hope you enjoyed my London in three hours walking tour. As I said in the beginning, this is by no means covering everything there is to see in London. Far from it. But if you are in London for a limited time and want to see the highlights, this gives you are rather good idea. It is easy to explore London on foot and no one is stopping you from doing another walking tour next time you are in town (or tomorrow, if your feet approve).

Tell me, what was your personal highlight of this London on foot walking tour?

Best of London in three hours - Travel for a Living

Leave a Reply

12 Comments

  1. Savannah

    Wow, I was skeptical about this list but I can’t believe there’s things on here that I pretty much was a block away from without even realizing! Saving this for the next time I’m in London!

    Reply
  2. Nichole the Nomad

    I love this itinerary! I visited London a few years ago and absolutely fell in love with its beauty and architecture. I am saving this for when we can visit again because we always say we want to do a day trip to London when traveling back to the UK!

    Reply
  3. travellingtam1

    As an ex-Londoner I can say that this is a great route taking in all the iconic sites of London – very impressive! I think there are quite a few streets and views I havent seen before either! Great post and a useful guide for anyone who wants to really get a feel for central London!

    Reply
    • Travel for a living

      Thank you. I still have loads of places in London that I haven’t seen. But I love this round course as an easy overview of London. Since I travel for work a lot and often have limited time in the cities I stay, I am all for condensed routes that allow me to see as much as possible in as little time as possible. Hope this helps some others in the same situation.

      Reply
  4. sarah de gheselle

    This is the perfect London Itinerary! I’ll save this post for later.

    Reply
  5. SecretMoona

    Great small itineraries. London is an absolutely amazing city with so much things to do and see.
    St. Dunstan is my favourite place in London. I love how quiet and serene it is despite being in busy City of London.

    Reply
  6. Cirrena

    Moving to London next month. I’ll have to do this..once my quarantine is over lol

    Reply
    • Travel for a living

      Best of luck for your move to London. For me, exploring London on foot is the best way to get to know the city.

      Reply
  7. Pia - Dream and Wanderland

    Awesome itinerary! I love to explore cities by feet, that´s why I love the walking tours the most!

    Reply
  8. E-HEALTHONLINE

    Wonderful site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that
    cover the same topics talked about in this article?

    I’d really like to be a part of community where I
    can get suggestions from other experienced people that share the same interest.

    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    Reply
    • Travel for a living

      Glad to hear you enjoyed my itinerary. Sorry I don’t really use forums, so can’t help you there. But I would expect there to be loads of London themed forums around.

      Reply
  9. Visiting London on a budget - even if you are broke - Travel for a Living

    […] to see it all in little time? You can see the best of London in just three hours and all on […]

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