First, it should be mentioned that I was in London six years ago—in the dead of winter—with my high school marching band. We spent 10 luxurious days in and around London sight seeing, performing and shopping. Since the group I went with was so large, we had discounted tickets for the “not-free” attractions (the London Eye, the Tower of London, etc.) and reserved times to visit the main sites (meaning no 2 hour wait).
That being said my goals this time around were probably a little different than those of someone stepping foot in London for the first time.
1. Exchange dollars for pounds before you leave the U.S.
This is crucial. You don’t want to spend the afternoon searching for a place to swap your dollars or figuring out where to find and how to use an ATM (often just called cash machines). This means less sight seeing and the potential to miss out on some cool purchases. I recommend going to Camden Lock Marketplace if you have the pleasure of being in London on a Saturday. It has tourist shops and local shops, which gives you a more complete view of city life.
2. Push through the remainder of the day and get a good first night’s sleep.
No matter how tired you are do not take a nap right when you get to your room. Put your baggage down and go grab a coffee, grab a friend and stroll around the block, but don’t lay down. If you do, a 30-minute cat nap turns into waking up 6 hours later. Not only does this mess with your internal clock, but it takes away vital time you could be touring the city.
3. Travel the city in groups no bigger than four people.
Obviously do not go it alone, especially if it is your first time there. I found that three or four is the perfect number to make conversation, chow down, and chill with. That way there aren’t too many people with varying interest all trying to get to their personal must-see-sites. With 2-4 people it is easy to make it to everyone’s spots and hit up some popular attractions in between.
4. Use the map!
After you have found your small group, take the time to circle everyone’s spots of interests on the physical map provided to you at orientation. I also found it helpful to draw a box around the nearest tube stations for each site. From there you can figure out a logical path designed for minimal backtracking. By doing so you will be able to see more of the city because you have more time. An example of this was my group walked to the Leicester Square tube station and found a break dancing crew performing near the center of the square.
5. Don’t wait for anything for more than 30 minutes.
I know it can be tempting to wait in the line to enter the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221 B Baker Street. The 2-hour wait, however, is not worth it when you have less than 48 hours to see the entire city. Settle for taking pictures outside major attractions, and not going in, or visiting just the gift shop; this is especially true if the attraction costs more than a pretty pound to visit. In the end, you still saw it and know to plan ahead the next time you’re in London.
If and when things get rough, as usually happens at least once when you’re in an unfamiliar city, just go with the flow. If you miss one attraction there
are thousands more waiting to be discovered right beyond the corner of your street. If you let the bad stuff get you down, it puts a damper on the rest of your time in London. You don’t have very much time to begin with so keep calm and carry on my friends.
Most importantly go with the mindset that you will not be able to see everything. And it isn’t a bad thing to have some down time where you’re just sipping tea in the park, either.
Can you see some of the most popular sites and visit your personal must-sees in London all in a day and a half? Absolutely.
The guided bus tour provided by AIFS does a wonderful job highlighting the former and advising you on how to best accomplish the latter. If you take the time to use these tips and the resources available to you, you can definitely make the most of your time in London!